Lyon is one large World Heritage Site, with a big renaissance old town, Roman ruins, historic industrial districts and the regal 19th-century Presqu’île quarter. The city was founded 2,000 years ago at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône Rivers, and built its fortune on the silk trade. This industry furnished it with beautiful renaissance architecture in Vieux Lyon, where semi-hidden passageways called Traboules connect courtyards with the Saône. You can’t talk about Lyon without mentioning the food, as the gourmets agree that Lyon is the world’s culinary capital. It’s the city of the chef, Paul Bocuse, revered as a god of French cuisine. Let’s explore the most amazing things to do in Lyon.
Amazing Things to Do in Lyon
Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière
Lyon’s answer to Sacré-Coeur occupies a commanding position on the Fourvière hill, offering impressive views over the city. Built between 1872 and 1884 on the site of the old Roman forum, the bright white basilica celebrates the role the Virgin Mary is supposed to have played in saving the city from the advancing Prussian army during the Franco-Prussian war of 1871. Nicknamed “the upside-down elephant” by locals, the cathedral’s architecture is unusual in drawing primarily on Romanesque and Byzantine influences, rather than the neogothic style that was fashionable at the time. Look out for the mosaics depicting scenes from the life of Joan of Arc inside, and make sure you leave enough time to walk around the grounds and take in the view.
Stroll Around Vieux Lyon
In a city as studded with architectural gems, it can be easy to rush from sight to sight and miss the interesting bits in between. So leave yourself a decent chunk of time to wander slowly through the narrow, winding streets, of Vieux Lyon ducking into the little boulangeries, boutiques and cafés, and getting pleasantly lost in the process. Made up of three distinct districts, Saint Jean, Saint Georges, and Saint Paul, the entire area has now been declared a Unesco World Heritage site. It’s also one of the best places in town to sample the delights of the bouchons – traditional restaurants that specialise in the tripe and offal-heavy dishes that the Lyonnais love.
Quick quiz: what’s the birthplace of cinema? Nope, it’s not Hollywood, or anywhere in the US for that matter. It’s Lyon, where the Lumière brothers lived and worked while they were developing their cinématographe, the combination movie camera and projector that was the first such device to enter widespread use. Indeed, the first film shown during the 1895 soirée that’s generally recognised as the world’s first cinema screening was a 46-second clip called Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon (there were no prizes for clever titles). The brothers’ world-changing legacy is celebrated in the Musée Lumière. Founded by Louis Lumière’s grandson in 1982, its well-organised, informative displays occupy the family’s old villa, and one hangar of what used to be their factory. If you’re even remotely interested in the history of cinema, this is a must-visit.
La Place des Terreaux
One of the many striking squares dotted throughout Lyon is the breath-taking Place des Terreaux, which comprises the beautiful façades of the Hôtel de Ville (the town hall) and the Musée des Beaux-Arts. The museum itself, a fascinating former Benedictine convent, is certainly worth a visit, with its vast collection of art and artifacts, ranging from Egyptian sarcophagi and 19th-century sculpture works to creations from the master Picasso. The square is also a number one spot to visit during the famous Fête des Lumières that takes place every December. This spectacular, annual four-day event, which sees projections and light-shows happening across the city, transforms this area into a unique celebration of light and artistic creativity.
La Place des Jacobins
While perhaps not as overwhelmingly impressive as the Place des Terreaux, the Place des Jacobins is a charming, central square that dates back to the 16th century, boasting an iconic fountain depicting celebrated French artists. It is also a very useful landmark, since 12 different streets lead off from it, including the buzzing Rue Mercière, which is full of acclaimed restaurants and eateries. Among these are several bouchons, restaurants that are unique to Lyon and specialise in Lyonnaise cuisine, from the unusual fish soufflé quenelle to the meaty andouillette: a mix of animal’s intestines that is not for the faint-hearted!
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