As I said in my last post, Lyon is my favorite French city by far, and seriously underrated. A few years ago, an important world leader was visiting the city, and I remember hearing people express their delight and surprise at the honor. I wasn’t surprised at all, but I was impressed by the Lyonnais pride without arrogance.
If you get an opportunity to visit this extraordinary place, here are a few recommendations you can mix and match to satisfy your inner…
Let’s get right down to business– we are talking about France, after all. Several world-famous wine-growing regions surround Lyon: Beaujolais, Burgundy, Côte du Rhône, and Savoie. Wine is reasonably priced to buy at a cave à vins or in any old grocery store, but the best way to stimulate your wine taste buds is by visiting a bar à vin. My favorites are Cave d’à Côté, a beautifully decorated and cozy spot hidden down a side street near Place des Terreaux (order rich reds with a mixed charcuterie/veggie/cheese platter to share with friends), Autour d’un Verre, right around the corner, which has a wine dispenser that encourages sampling, a list of tasty tapas (including escargot, pan con tomate, and a solid cheese/charcuterie plate), and helpful service to advise you on your wine selection, and Le Vin des Vivants on Place Ferdinand Rey, which features organic producers and has a lovely outdoor seating area for warm days.
If you’re not a wine person, Lyon’s still got you covered. A cocktail renaissance has spread through the city, with sleek little bars popping up in every neighborhood. I recommend Black Forest Society, a funny little German-themed bar with truly artistic, strong-but-subtle cocktails, Soda Bar, which has a huge menu and a fun mood, and the low-key Moonshine, which has never disappointed me with its delicious concoctions, even though it has yet to draw the attention that Lyon’s other, flashier cocktail bars enjoy.
For those who favor foamier brews, two solid bets for beer variety and quality are Les Fleurs du Malt, where the menu is longer than some books, and Les Berthom, with two locations in Lyon that have a warm ambiance and a diverse but unified beer list. You’ll want to eat before or after you visit either one, because the focus is entirely on beer and there’s not much to munch.
Lyon has a colossal gastronomic reputation, being the home base for a number of legendary chefs and host of its own particular cuisine. Vegetarians beware, because this cuisine doesn’t just involve meat, it revolves around it so fully it might intimidate even the most devoted meat eater, with such casual offerings as calf brains, course-grained and blood sausages, and tripe. Brains and intestines aside, heavy use of heavy cream rounds out the digestive assault– does any other city present such a threat to the arteries?
Bouchons, restaurants serving traditional Lyon cuisine, are worth going to for their atmosphere alone. They are quaintly, warmly decorated and equally quaintly, warmly staffed– there always seems to be a jolly older gentleman manager wandering the floor of the restaurant and bantering with diners like long-lost friends. Many (but not all) of the bouchons in Vieux Lyon and along rue Mercière are tourist magnets, and it’s worth doing the research to find one that locals favor (so long as you’re not the type of tourist who’s going to ruin the local ambiance, OK?) My pick for a solid introductory bouchon: Café des Fédérations on rue Major Martin. Each three-course meal comes with an array of traditional Lyonnais appetizers, followed by a choice of traditional dish (there is a roast chicken in vinegar cream sauce on there for those who are less inclined to adventure dining) and dessert. Lunch is a steal at about 19 euros, especially because the more-expensive dinner menu only adds a cheese course and a slight variation in the appetizers.
To keep exploring the local cuisine, check out Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse (named for the famous chef of Lyon), a covered market with over fifty stalls selling otherworldly ingredients and ready-to-eat dishes. It’s a dazzling place, but a bit pricy, so as you gawk at the food treasures here keep in mind that there are several other food markets in Lyon for your picnic-making needs (two of the biggest are along the east bank of the Saône and along the Boulevard de la Croix Rousse).
Lyon is not just about French cuisine, even though the French palette tends to be limited by an aversion to spices and this is reflected in the food of its non-French restaurants. Recently I’ve been thrilled to discover establishments doing the fusion thing with skill and style (and even some real spice). Lyon is an international city, increasingly so, and its newcomers and traveling natives are integrating what they’ve learned abroad into the city’s restaurant scene in some fun ways. I love Two Amigos, which serves “California-inspired” Mexican food that is fresh and flavorful, as well as strong, sour margaritas in mason jars, Mumbai Café, an “Asian-fusion restaurant/pub” that offers tasting platters so delicious and copious as to be an emotional experience, and Tomo, a Japanese-French fusion restaurant that serves affordable, authentic Japanese menus at lunchtime, tidily arranged in little boxes and bowls on neat and adorable trays in a soothingly minimalist dining room.
Every European city looks like a school textbook vomited all over it, a visual cross-section of history. You can get a taste of the historical events that took place in Lyon through the centuries but there’s no way you’ll manage to uncover all of their vestiges because, simply put, they are everywhere. On the way to a dinner party one night I climbed a staircase over an old fortifying wall because it was the most direct route; at a museum later I noticed what was clearly the same wall on maps from the 1500s.
For Roman Lyon, check out the two partially-reconstructed amphitheaters and other ruins on the Fourvière hill. There’s a third, more authentic-looking amphitheater sitting in the middle of the Pentes de la Croix Rousse and various pieces of Roman structures scattered throughout the city, but on the Fourvière hill you can also visit the Musée Gallo-Roman to learn more about Lyon’s place in the Roman empire. Back then it was known as Lugdunum– wise name change, I’d say.
For Medieval and Renaissance Lyon, check out the Cathédrale Saint-Jean, built between the 12th and 15th centuries and gleaming from a recent cleaning, then wander around Vieux Lyon. As you stroll the cobble-stoned streets, keep an eye out for little plaques and signs with brightly colored symbols next to the heavy wooden doors. Push these doors open and you might find a traboule, a hidden passageway connecting streets and buildings. Some of these four hundred or so tunnels originated in the fourth century, and they are a passage through history as much as they are a passage through the Old Town and parts of the Croix Rousse and Pentes de la Croix Rousse neighborhoods. It’s said that during the Middle Ages, they were used to more quickly access boats on the Saône, during the 19th century, they were used to transport silk and hide protesters, and during World War II they were used by the Resistance to evade the Gestapo. Today, some are open to the public, as long as the public promises not to make too much noise while exploring what are essentially residential lobbies and entryways.
If my mention of Gestapo-evading intrigued you, there’s more to be learned about Lyon as “Capital of the Resistance” at the Centre d’Histoire de la Résistance et de a Déportation. A word of advice: make sure to be fully fed and caffeinated before embarking on this exhibit, because it’s very dense and a lot of reading and listening is required to fully benefit. The video and audio footage of witnesses to this time period is moving, as are the photographs of the Nazi flag flying over familiar Lyon locations.
Collect your pince-nez and sketchbook and prepare for some intellectual artiness, because Lyon has plenty of museums and performance venues, too. Shamefully, I still haven’t explored most of them, but I can confidently vouch for a few.
The Musée des Beaux-Arts houses a solid collection of manageable size in a grand building on the Place des Terreaux. Its courtyard is open to the public and displays a number of statues and some really lovely architecture. Directly across the square from the museum is the famous Bartholdi fountain (eponymous artist of Statue of Liberty fame). Someone once told me that this impressive piece had been meant for Paris, who turned its nose up at it, and then Lyon was like, “um, can we have that?” Typical. (Note: I really have no idea if this is even half true, but I like it.)
The Institut Lumière is a little pompous, but its film series and events are a dream for any cinephile geek like myself. It has a museum devoted to the Lumière brothers (filmmaking pioneers and inventors of the cinématographe), a giant, comfortable cinema that screens all kinds of classics, and an annual film festival and cinema market.
Just walking around the city may be enough to give you an art fix. There are gorgeous fountains, art and photography galleries, and hundreds of years worth of architecture to discover.
Not much for shopping myself (I’m currently wearing a shirt I bought about five years ago and have no plans to replace it), my recommendations here are a little bit limited. Those looking for straight-up brand names should check out the two malls: Part-Dieu, which is larger but also a claustrophobic, teenager-thronged, overheated hellhole, and Confluence, which is smaller but open-air and actually kind of pretty and relaxing to stroll (and I say that as someone with a total distaste for malls). Fancier threads can be found on Rue du Président Edouard Herriot, which is parallel to two other busy shopping streets, Rue de la République and Rue de Brest. Those looking for vintage and independent clothing and accessories should wander the Pentes de la Croix Rousse neighborhood, including the entire Montée de la Grande Côté, occupied (while the rent allows) by artisans hand-making everything from jewelry to dresses, as well as a number of hole-in-the-wall vintage stores.
It seems there is always a new shop to discover, and if you’ve got some French you should definitely check out the online newsletters My Little Lyon and Lyon City Crunch for fresh suggestions. My current fancy in Lyon is Mathûvû, which sells adorable accessories, stationary, and gifty games and decorations.
Perusing the art and book markets along the Saône is also one of my favorite activities in Lyon, and a must-do if you’re in the city on a Sunday.
Want to get off the beaten tourist path? Lyon has charmingly unselfconscious oddball and outdoorsy veins.
First of all, there are plenty of uncommon events to attend, including the Fête des Lumières, the Beaujolais Nouveau, the Quais du Polar, the Nuits Sonores, and various other festivals, athletic events, scavenger hunts, and concerts (some presented in a Roman amphitheater), so check the calendar(s). To meet local people, try going to a Couchsurfing or Polyglot Club event, as both organizations have large, enthusiastic followings in Lyon.
To soak up some true Lyonnais spirit, search for the city’s trompe l’oeil murals, of which there are many, check out the bizarre free-admission entry hall of the Musée Miniature et Cinéma, and bring your best French-speaking friend on a tour of Croix Rousse and its Pentes, led by two very strange comedians. The comedy culture shock is priceless, and the tour is pay-as-you-wish.
Finally, restless legs will find relief walking the Saône paths up to Île Barbe (and the very tasty bakery right next to it) and beyond, in the Monts d’Or, Parc de la Tête d’Or, Parc Lacroix-Laval, or on any of the other numerous trails in the region.
This post is obviously nowhere near exhaustive– I still have so much of Lyon to explore. But I’ve seen enough to know that there is something for everybody here, and that Lyon isn’t done surprising us.