France’s third-largest city, Lyon, straddles the Rhône and Saône rivers. After Paris, it is considered the country’s most significant cultural center. The city offers a generous cityscape of red-roofed buildings, tree-lined boulevards and riverside promenades. There is nothing like losing yourself among the cobblestone streets of Old Lyon, a rich collection of Renaissance architecture and intimate traboules, unique passageways through buildings that connect adjacent streets, all of it overlooked by the grand basilica atop Fourvière Hill. (That view!) French cuisine is sublime here, with chefs like Paul Bocuse enjoying celebrity status. A salade lyonnaise with a glass of Beaujolais makes the perfect lunch.
My sister and I recently had the good fortune to travel to Lyon. Here are some of my favorite things.
Recognized the world over as France’s gastronomic capital, Lyon boasts a culinary heritage long cherished by locals and visitors alike. Here the very essence of food is celebrated. And because the ingredients you use can make all the difference, Lyon offers a wonderful selection of indoor and outdoor markets selling fresh local produce, cheeses, meats, bread and other delicacies. Among its most noteworthy is the historic Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse, consistently listed among the city’s top markets.
Les Halles’ original building, completed in 1859, served as the city’s first indoor market and it proved highly popular. However, little more than a century later, it reached its capacity and was torn down to make way for a larger space. In the new structure, the market reached new heights of success, emboldening the city to renovate once again in the early 2000s. The result is the current three-story building bearing the name of the late Michelin-starred chef Paul Bocuse, widely regarded as the “Pope of Gastronomy.”
Today, Les Halles is home to more than fifty vendors, restaurants and bars dedicated to providing only the best, whether it is truffles, nuts, fish or cheese. This is paradise for any food lover.
Before I left the states, I did my homework and watched Anthony Bourdain’s episode on Lyon. I made notes to try the local specialty – quenelles de brochet Nantua (poached fish cakes in lobster sauce.) They looked so delicious on TV. Gross! They were nasty. I also had notes to try the Saint-Marcellin soft French cheese made from cow’s milk. (I don’t like goat cheese.) It was almost liquid by the time we walked back to our hotel from Les Halles in the heat. But, oh so delicious with a freshly baked baguette.
The Parc de la Tête d’Or
Similar to New York’s Central Park, it is so huge (290 acres!) that you can’t possibly walk through all of it in a day. If you ever visit Lyon in the spring or fall, when the park is at its peak beauty, be sure to rent a paddle-bike-for-two or a boat to enjoy all the vistas the park has to offer. There is a large botanical garden, a lake, as well as a zoo that houses animals from around the world.
The Painted Walls
While painting on walls is as old as time, Lyon has taken the art of modern urban wall painting to new heights with nearly 60 outdoor murals. Some are breathtaking flights of fancy; others are marvelous examples of trompe l’oeil, depictions of everyday life so realistic you could almost walk into them.
According to France Today, in the early 1970s, a group of local students got to discussing the closed nature of the art world, concluding that art was a form or expression largely confined to galleries and museums. Murals, they decided, would bring art to ordinary people. A group of ten students went to study modern wall painting in Mexico, where Diego Rivera had launched a new artistic tradition in the 1920s with a series of powerful, storytelling techniques to convey modern political messages. CitéCréation, their student cooperative movement, was born.
The murals are spread out throughout the city and are a bit tricky to find. We only managed to find three. If I ever visit Lyon when it is cooler (August is hot!), I will book a Painted Walls bike tour, because the ones we saw were fantastic.
Off the beaten path, my sister obligingly agreed to this long walk to the southern tip of Lyon. If, like me, you are a fan of modern architecture, this area is not to be missed.
“Once a landscape of empty warehouses and urban blight, the newly dubbed Confluence is a district of cutting-edge architecture and innovative redesign. After years of construction and investment, the urban-renewal project has brought new shops, restaurants, high-end lodging and one groundbreaking new museum (reminiscent of the Bilbao Guggenheim) to a formerly abandoned part of the city,” as per lonelyplanet.com.
We marveled at the futuristic buildings and wished we had time to experience the fantastic Musée des Confluences, which resembles a floating crystal cloud of stainless steel and glass.
Vineyard Tours and Wine Tastings
Although Lyon is a wonderful city with plenty to do, one of my favorite things is its proximity to the important Beaujolais and Côtes du Rhône wine regions. We booked two tours in advance and thoroughly enjoyed both. Plan about an hour-long winding drive up into the mountains to get to the vineyards. Lucky for us, our visit was just before harvest, so the grapes were plump and ready to be picked. We learned that all grapes must be picked by hand and no irrigation is allowed. So many rules – no wonder French wines are so good! Cooking classes are very popular in Lyon too. We wanted to book one at Plum Lyon Teaching Kitchen but ran out of time.
If you ever get the chance to visit Lyon, you should go! There are so many things to see and do. It is only a two-hour train ride from Paris – definitely worth the trip.