Despite being the third-largest city in France, Lyon doesn’t usually feature on the majority of France travel itineraries. It is often overlooked in favour of the idyllic towns in the Alsace region, such as Strasbourg and Colmar, or the expensive, glitzy resorts of Cannes and St. Tropéz along the Côte d’Azur.
In fact, when I was accepted to study at Jean Moulin Université III in Lyon, I didn’t know a single thing about the city that would be my new home other than its name. At first, I worried whether Lyon would suit me, whether I would enjoy living there and whether there would be enough things to do in Lyon to keep me happy for a whole year.
Now, I’m proud to say that Lyon is my favourite city in the world. There’s absolutely no question about it. (Of course, London is a very close second.)
With a long, fascinating history, world-famous cuisine, spectacular architecture, spacious parks, great transport links and a Medieval old town that quite literally takes my breath away with its intricate, romantic beauty, I can’t imagine a more perfect city to host me for my year studying abroad.
Planning a trip to Lyon
As with any trip, it’s important to consider some vital points before you go. This guide to Lyon will hopefully give you an insight into everything you need to know for an amazing trip.
When is the best time to visit Lyon?
Of course, the best time to visit Lyon will depend largely on what kind of trip you’re after.
Visiting Lyon in winter
If you’re visiting Lyon in winter, you will be greeted with cold and windy weather as with most places in Western Europe during this time. However, there are also various advantages of a winter trip to Lyon. Firstly, Lyon is at close proximity to a number of ski resort areas, such as the infamous Chamonix-Mont-Blanc.
So, if you’re a keen skier, you can always have a two-part trip by spending part of your stay up in the snowy Alps. Day trips to the Chamonix-Mont-Blanc resort from Lyon are also quite popular amongst tourists and locals alike. During winter on the Lyon metro, you will regularly come across a group of skiers with all their gear in tow!
Secondly, visiting Lyon in December means you could catch the incomparable Fête des Lumières, the annual celebration of light that takes place across the whole city of Lyon.
During this festival, you can witness stunning visual and moving art projected on various landmarks throughout the city. Although the centre of town does get especially busy during the Fête des Lumieres, it is an absolute must-see.
(Note: in 2019, the Fête des Lumières is taking place from the 5th to the 8th December.)
Visiting Lyon in summer
On the other hand, visiting Lyon in summer, you will almost be guaranteed sunny and warm weather. During the summer I lived in Lyon, I experienced only a few overcast days.
There are also plenty of festivals going on in Lyon during summer, including the Fête Renaissance in May, where you will be transported into the past to find massive crowds of Lyonnaises locals dressed in their best Renaissance outfits as well as street performers, circus acts, live music and food markets.
Getting around Lyon
Getting around Lyon is fairly straightforward due to its magnificent metro and tram system. You must remember to buy a ticket (€1.90 for a single ticket or €3.10) before you travel at the station and validate it before you get on.
Ticket inspectors are rife in Lyon both on the transport and on the platforms waiting to catch commuters alighting unaware. Even if you have your ticket, don’t forget to validate it or you could face a nasty fine. I’ve been there, done that…
Another option for getting around Lyon during your stay is to get a Lyon City Card, which gives you unlimited access to public transport for 1, 2, 3 or 4 days, as well as:
- Free access to 23 museums and their exhibitions.
- Free entrance to Guignol puppet shows.
- A boat cruise over the River Saone
- A guided city walking tour
- Special offers on many leisure activities
- Discounts in department stores and theatres
Where to stay in Lyon
Budget Hotels in Lyon
My first recommendation is the Ho36 Hostel, located in Part-Dieu. It’s close by to one of Lyon’s largest shopping centres as well as the biggest train station and Rhonexpress station, meaning its easy to access the airport. With a 24 hour reception, on-site restaurant, luggage storage and a communal kitchen, it’s perfect for a stress-free, cheap trip to Lyon.
If you want a cheap option but aren’t interested in the hostel life consider Ibis Budget, located again in Part-Dieu. The bedrooms are modern and bright, with private bathrooms, complimentary toiletries, free wifi and flat-screen televisions. You can also take advantage of the hotel’s airport shuttle.
If you are very low on funds, consider Couchsurfing to save money on accommodation. Although it can be intimidating at first, you’re bound to have a unique and memorable experience. Some of my best travel experiences have come through Couchsurfing!
Luxury Hotels in Lyon
If you’re looking to upgrade your stay with something a little fancier, consider Hotel Carlton, an excellent hotel located right in the slap-bang centre of Lyon, where you’ll find amazing, luxury facilities such as 24-hour room service, valet parking, as well as a spa and wellness centre.
You could also stay at Hotel Fourviere, located on Fourviere Hill with stunning views over the city. With beautiful architecture, an outdoor pool, a jacuzzi and a sauna, this is the perfect hotel for a truly special occasion. The hotel is minutes away from the Roman-Gallo Amphitheatre and Museum, as well as the striking Basilique Fourviere.
Things to do in Lyon
Place Bellecour is a large pedestrian square (in fact, at 15 acres, it is the largest pedestrian square in Europe) which acts as the central point of the city, located in the centre of the Presque’Ile between the River Rhone and the River Saone. It’s a great place to begin your Lyon sightseeing.
If you’ve bought a Lyon City Card, you’ll want to visit the tourist centre in Place Bellecour to transfer your receipt for the physical pass.
At Place Bellecour, you’ll find several statues. One of King Louis XIV and another of Le Petit Prince and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (the writer of infamous Le Petit Prince). It’s also a great spot for panoramic views of the surrounding architecture and Basilica de Notre-Dame de Fourviere, perching on Fourviere Hill.
Events and concerts are often taking place in the square, so keep an eye out. In Winter, an ice rink and Ferris wheel are also installed.
Musée des Beaux-Arts
In a stunning 17th century building, boasting collections in over 70 rooms of art from antiquity to modern art, the Musée des Beaux-Arts is definitely must-see for anyone with an interest in art and history.
You can also find a stunning courtyard garden, which acts as a slice of lush green paradise in the middle of the bustling city. I would often visit the museum’s garden even when not visiting the museum itself to enjoy its peace and quiet.
Are you English speaking? A 1 hour guided tour in English is available every Saturday at 2.30 pm for a small fee of €3. Or free audioguides are available at the reception desk.
Musée des Confluences
If you’re not an art museum fan, you may be more interested in Musée des Confluences, Lyon’s museum of science and anthropology. As its name suggests, the museum is located right at the tip of the confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers.
It is also an exquisite example of deconstructionist architecture. It is supposed to resemble a floating cloud of glass. However, in my opinion, it looks more like something from the Transformers…
Parc de la Tête d’Or
Translating literally to ‘Golden Head Park’, Parc de la Tête d’Or is Lyon’s largest park and one of the best places to spend the day during summer.
There is so much to do and see within the park itself. Not only can you visit giraffes, crocodiles, turtles and flamingos in the zoo but you can peruse the botanical garden, take a boat out on the lake during summer or watch the deer roam about while you relax on the grass.
This was my absolute favourite place to spend a free day in summer with some friends, a picnic and a bottle of wine.
The first historical site to be protected under the French Malraux law, Vieux Lyon (‘old Lyon’) is the medieval and renaissance district of Lyon.
This is where the magic really happens for me. I’m a massive Medieval architecture enthusiast. I’ve travelled far and wide to find some of Europe’s best-preserved Medieval cities, towns and villages. I may be biased, but Vieux Lyon definitely remains a strong favourite.
Wander between tall buildings of burnt orange and dusty pink that jostle for space along narrow, cobbled lanes. Get lost and peruse the stone archways and tiny wooden shop fronts with pastries, books and art nestled inside behind the glass. Take a petit pause for authentic Italian gelato at Glacier Amorino on a warm day.
Located in the heart of Vieux Lyon, in the pedestrian square of Place Saint-Jean, you’ll find the exquisite Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste. Construction of the cathedral began in 1180 and was finally completed in 1476. It is currently the seat of the Archbishop of Lyon.
A perfect example of gothic and romanesque architecture, the cathedral is definitely worth a visit. If you’re in Lyon during the Fête des Lumières, a choreographed light display is projected onto the facade of the Cathédral Saint-Jean-Baptiste. This was my favourite display of the festival; it was so mesmerising, I stood for almost an hour watching it again and again.
Lyon is known as the culinary capital of France and there is no better way to explore the cuisine than in a Lyonnais Bouchon. Generally, the Lyonnais Bouchon has a cosy and friendly atmosphere, focusing on fatty, traditional meals, rather than offering Haute cuisine. The bouchons are typically quite small and the tables are situated closely together in a homely setting.
Beware: you may struggle to find completely vegetarian options in many Lyonnais bouchons and the prices can also be quite high due to the popularity with tourists!
Traboules of Lyon
The traboules of Lyon add an unexpected uniqueness to the city’s Medieval quarter. Originating from the Latin word ‘transambulare,’ meaning to pass through, the Lyonnais traboules are essentially passageways through buildings, allowing pedestrians to access parallel streets without walking around.
They are thought to originate from the 4th century when silk weavers that inhabited Vieux Lyon needed fast access to the river, which was initially difficult due to the layout of the town.
The traboules were also significant during the French resistance in the Second World War, as the resistance could use the traboules as meeting places or a way to transport arms without being detected by the Nazis.
You can locate the traboules of Vieux Lyon by spotting the lion symbols dotted around town with arrows to guide you. Find out more about the traboules of Lyon.
Musée Miniature et Cinéma
This is a museum that can interest everyone in the family, even those who aren’t really into museums- trust me! Based in the 17th century UNESCO heritage site Maison des Avocats, Musée Miniature et Cinéma is split into two main sections.
The first section displays 100 realistic tiny scenes designed by Dan Ohlmann. Take a peek into the shoebox-size displays to find miniature supermarkets, barbers, bathrooms, bedrooms and even a replica of a Lyonnais Bouchon, all in spectacular, startling detail.
As you climb the floors of the museum, you’ll enter the cinema section, where you’ll find costumes and props of superheroes, villains, monsters and robots from all across the cinematic universe. This is also the home of the alien queen from the film Alien.
Find out more information on the official museum website.
Basilique Notre Dame de Fourviere
Basilique Notre Dame de Fourviere overlooks central Lyon from Fourviere Hill. It was completed in 1884 and the design was based on Romanesque and Byzantines architecture, making it distinct from the Cathèdrale de Saint-Jean. The interior of the Basilique is equally as impressive as the outside with 6 exquisite stained-glass windows, 6 mural mosaics, 8 chapels, and a staircase carved from red marble.
If you take the funicular up to Fourviere Hill, try and walk on your way back down if you have the option. Not only can you walk through the beautiful Jardin du Rosaire, but the views over the Vieux Lyon rooftops are also breath-taking.
To wake up to these stunning views over Lyon each morning, stay at Hotel Fourviere.
Gallo-Roman Amphitheatre and Museum
Lyon, known at the time as Lugdunum, was originally founded in 43BC by Lucius Munatius Plancus. Bearing this in mind, there’s a lot of interesting history to discover in Lyon about civilisation in the Gallo-Roman empire.
Mere minutes from the Basilique de Fourviere, you can find the ruins of a Gallo-Roman amphitheatre, the oldest of its kind in Gaul and with a seating capacity of up to 10,000 spectators. Try and visit during the Nuits de Fourvière, an annual festival during the month of June where you can see dance, musical and circus performances.
Croix Rousse is the second of the two hills in Lyon- the first, of course, being Fourvière Hill. It’s known as ‘the hill that works,’ due to its history as the main hub for textile workers during the 18th century.
Croix Rousse maintains a distinct neighbourhood vibe that sets it apart from the rest of the city. This is where you can find some awesome independent boutiques and cafés, such as La Boîte and Café Nuages. Both these cafés can be found in the heart of Croix Rousse and have amazing food and cool decor. Croix Rousse is also the place to be to find incredible street art and wonderful views over the centre of town.
Day trips from Lyon
While I was living in Lyon I spent many a weekend exploring the region, visiting nearby cities, towns and natural escapes.
My top recommendation for a day trip from Lyon is without a doubt Annecy, an unbelievably idyllic lakeside town surrounded by mountain views. I visited in late summer and the weather was absolutely perfect to lounge by the lake and even take a little swim- even though the water was a little cold.
Read more about my top destinations in France.
Thanks for reading this guide to my favourite cities in the world, including my top 12 things to do. Let me know if you’re a Lyon local and think I’ve forgotten something important. I’m always looking for new places to visit and recommend to my readers. Much love!
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