France’s second most important city after Paris is surprisingly undiscovered. Although Lyon does not often appear on tourist routes, many cultural treasures await those who take the time to explore the city. With a history dating back to ancient Roman times, Lyon has earned a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The city has the oldest ancient ruins in France, medieval quarters and beautiful Renaissance houses. The attractive neighborhoods along the Rhône and Saône reflect the city’s rich heritage. The Quartier Saint-Jean and Colline Croix-Rousse neighborhoods have an enchanting Old World character, while the Presqu’il exemplifies 19th-century elegance.
The happiest of all visitors are those who travel here to sample its famous cuisine. France’s most famous chef, Paul Bocuse, is from Lyon. Its celebrated three-star Michelin restaurant is a top destination for foodies. The legendary Lyonnais gastronomy can also be enjoyed all over Lyon in “bouchons”, small brasseries that capture the imagination.
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1 Museum of Fine Arts
Lyon’s impressive cultural heritage is reflected in this Musée des Beaux-Arts, considered the second best art museum in France after the Louvre. On the Place des Terreaux, near the Town Hall, the museum occupies the 17th-century Palais Saint-Pierre, a former Benedictine monastery. This museum has one of Europe’s largest collections of works of art, including antiquities, paintings, sculptures and decorative arts – from ancient Egypt to the present. The museum also has an excellent collection of impressionist paintings and modern art.
The quality of the collection is exceptional. There are many renowned works by European masters such as Delacroix, Géricault, Rembrandt, Rubens, Poussin and Véronèse. Highlights of the painting collection include the medieval altarpiece. Be sure to admire the Baroque statues in the refectory and grand staircase. The museum’s café-restaurant, Les Terrasses Saint-Pierre, has a pleasant atmosphere. In summer, guests can dine outside on the garden terrace.
Address: Palais Saint-Pierre, 20 Place des Terreaux, Lyon
Official site: https://www.mba-lyon.fr/mba/sections/languages/welcome
2 Saint-Jean district in Saint-Georges district (oude stad)
Lyon’s atmospheric Quartier Saint-Jean is the place to discover the atmosphere of the Old World in the city. It is a wonderful place for a relaxing walk. This medieval district north of the cathedral is filled with narrow cobbled alleys and quiet courtyards. Start exploring around Rue du Boeuf and Place Neuve Saint-Jean , a picturesque square filled with traditional restaurants. Then stroll around the pedestrian streets of Rue Saint-Jean and Rue des Trois Maries . There are many inviting shops and cafes along the way. Continue until you reach the Hôtel de Gadagne on the Place du Petit Collège. This beautiful 15th-century mansion is home to two excellent museums. TheMusée d’Histoire de Lyon (History Museum) illustrates the history of the city – from antiquity to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to the 20th century. The Musée des Arts de La Marionnette (Puppet Museum) displays puppets from all over the world. A short walk from the Gadagne Museums is Le Guignol de Lyon (2 Rue Louis Carrand), where the Compagnie MA puppet company performs. Attending a traditional puppet show is one of the best things to do in Lyon.
Another place to watch a marionette performance is in the Quartier Saint-Georges , at the Théâtre la Maison de Guignol puppet theater (performances are in French, check the schedule in advance). The theater is located in a quiet square a 10-minute walk from Saint-Jean-Baptiste Cathedral , and a few steps further is the Café du Soleil (2 Rue Saint-Georges), a great place to enjoy an authentic Lyonnais meal.
3 Museum of Gallo-Roman Civilization (Museum van Archeologie)
Lyon stands on the site of the ancient Roman city of Lugdunum, founded in 43 BC, the capital of Gaul. This fantastic archeology museum displays objects from the Gallo-Roman era, including vases, tombstones, mosaics, statues, coins and ceramics. The antiquities on display are from the excavations (of the town of Lugdunum) and the nearby Roman archaeological sites of Saint-Romain-en-Gal and Vienne. The collection is known for its breadth and variety. Highlights of the collection include a monumental sculpture of Hercules, decorative marble work from ancient baths and a beautiful 100-square-metre floor mosaic depicting the God of Oceans.
The museum also extends to the nearby archaeological site, approximately 300 meters from the museum. This site has the oldest ancient ruins in France, including two Roman theaters. The Grand Théâtre dating back to 15 BC was where tragedies and comedies were performed. The Odéon was the theater for musical performances. There are also the foundations of a temple dedicated to the goddess Cybele.
Address: Museum, 17 Rue Cléberg, Lyon; Archaeological site, 6 Rue de l’Antiquaille, Lyon
Official site: https://www.musees-gallo-romains.com/en
4 Gourmet restaurants, culinary boutiques and cooking classes
While visiting Lyon you can enjoy the famous regional cuisine. The hearty local cuisine offers meat dishes and salads. The most unique culinary specialty is something known as “quenelles”, a type of dumpling (made with fish) in a rich cream sauce. The most authentic places are the ” Bouchons Lyonnais ,” brasseries that can be found all over Lyon. Bouchons are friendly little restaurants that offer a classic French dining experience. Le Grand Café Lyonnais(4 Rue de la Barre) is one of the fancier brasseries “bouchon”, serving traditional dishes in an elegant dining room. When it comes to more upscale gourmet cuisine, Lyon has a wide selection of offerings. The city has many Michelin-starred restaurants, including the famous three-star Paul Bocuse Restaurant (40 Quai de la Plage), widely considered the best restaurant in France. Paul Bocuse is one of France’s most renowned chefs and has held on to his three Michelin stars since 1965. Paul Bocuse also created the Brasserie le Sud (11 Place Antonin Poncet, near Place Bellecour) a more informal restaurant that focuses on Mediterranean cuisine.
Tourists will also have fun shopping for gourmet foods in Lyon. Chocoholics should aim for Palomas boutique (2 Rue du Colonel Chambonnet), a renowned chocolatier in Lyon since 1917, and Boutique Voisin (Rue de la République 28 and other locations in Lyon), a prestigious chocolate shop founded in 1897. A highly recommended food store is Giraudet (Rue du Colonel Chambonnet and 102 Cours Lafayette), which sells exclusive culinary products; the store also offers cooking classes. The boutique A L’Olivier (33 Cours Franklin Roosevelt) is a supplier of the finest olive oil made in France.
Also make sure to visit Les Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse (102 Cours Lafayette). This famous covered marketplace has 48 different shops and restaurants offering regional products including charcuterie, local cheeses, fresh bread, quenelles, truffles, fruit, vegetables and pastries and chocolate. For hands-on cooking lessons, take a French cooking class at L’atelier des Chefs that will teach you how to prepare an amazing three-course meal.
5 Croix-Rousse Hill
Built on the slopes of the Croix-Rousse hill, this historic district was an important center of weaving in the early 19th century. Due to the high gradient of the streets, there are many charming turns and stairs. The most unique aspect of the neighborhood is the collection of ” traboules ” covered passageways that act as public corridors through the neighborhoods of private homes. These special alleys were used by silk workers to transport their fabrics. Wander around the neighborhood to discover the architectural curiosities of the winding streets and hidden traboules.
There are passageways from 9 Place Colbert and onwards to 14 Bis Montée Saint Sébastien; from 20 Rue Imbert Colomès to 55 Rue des Tables Claudiennes; and from 30 Rue Burdeau to 19 Rue René Leynaud (Passage Thiaffait). The traboules are open to the public, but visitors must be quiet, out of respect for the residents. Another tourist attraction in this area is the Maison des Canuts (House of Silk Workers) at 10/12 Rue d’Ivry. This small museum is dedicated to the art of silk creation. During a visit, tourists can discover the invention of the jacquard loom and watch hand-weaving demonstrations on traditional looms.
6 Presqu’ile District
Presqu’ile District of Lyon is a piece of land, kind of an island, in the river. This district is distinguished by its beautiful architecture and monumental squares. The Place des Terreaux is worth a visit to see the FA Bartholdi fountain. This grandiose work of art depicts the triumphal chariot of the Garonne River. Notice the four beautifully sculpted horses that look very hardworking, they represent the four different rivers that flow into the ocean. Lyon Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) is located on the east side of the square. Originally built between 1646 and 1672, the Town Hall was rebuilt (after a fire) by Jules Hardouin-Mansartin his characteristic baroque style. Another monumental building in this area is the Palais de la Bourse et du Commerce , on Rue de la République. Although the building has a Renaissance architectural style, it was built in the 19th century. Continuing south from the Palais de la Bourse, tourists will encounter the Eglise Saint-Bonaventure , a former Franciscan church built in the 14th-15th centuries.
The most beautiful square in Lyon in the Presqu’ile district is Place Bellecour , between the Rhône and Saône rivers. The centerpiece of the square is an equestrian statue of Louis XIV, created by the Lyon sculptor F. Lemot. Elegant 19th-century buildings line the east and west sides of the square. From the north side of the square there is a view of the Fourvière hill. A few steps away from Place Bellecour is the Hôtel-Dieu de Lyon , a beautiful 17th-century building that once served as a hospital. Another beautiful square, the Place Carnot , is found through Rue Victor-Hugo. This square has an immense monument to the Republic, created in 1890.
7 Museum of Fabrics in Museum of Decorative Arts
Housed in an 18th-century mansion in Lyonnais are two beautiful museums: the Fabric Museum and the Museum of Decorative Arts. The Musée des Tissus (Fabric Museum) is a unique museum that allows visitors to discover the fascinating history of Lyon’s silk trade, which dates back to the Renaissance period. The collection includes rare fragments of clothing from the 13th and 14th centuries, beautiful tapestries from the 18th century, and more modern pieces from the 19th and 20th centuries. Also on display is a beautiful silk dress from Empress Josephine. One of the most valuable items in the collection is a pleated tunic from the Egyptian period of the 5th Dynasty, dating to about 2500 BC.
The Musée des Arts Decoratifs (Museum of Decorative Arts) offers a rich collection of decorative works of art painted on faience, paper, wood and other materials; small religious sculptures; Japanese figurines; Italian majolica pieces; vintage tableware; antique furniture; and bells. The items are presented in practice to provide cultural context. Some of the museum rooms have lavish furnishings. Visitors feel as if they are peeking into the wealthy home of a bygone era.
Address: 34 Rue de la Charité, Lyon
8 Center for the History of Resistance and Deportation
During World War II, Lyon was known as the “Capital of the Resistance” because of the strength of its fight against the Nazi regime. The Center for Resistance History and Deportation is housed in the building used by the head of the Gestapo in Lyon. This building is now dedicated to the commemoration of the victims who were held in the cellars of the building. The History Center tells the story of the deportees, the hidden children of deportees, members of the resistance and others who experienced the Second World War. The center has a permanent exhibition that outlines the most important events of the Second World War and focuses on years of occupied France. There is an audio guide to help visitors understand the historical information, which is presented in videos, photos and written documents. The center wants to honor the citizens in the resistance and pay tribute to the memories of the victims of deportation. It continually updates its content and continually seeks out eyewitnesses of World War II to share their stories.
Address: Espace Berthelot, Avenue Berthelot 14, Lyon
Official site: https://www.chrd.lyon.fr/chrd/sections/fr/pied/english_1
9 Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourviere
In a majestic location on Fourvière Hill, the Basilique Notre-Dame rises to a height of 130 meters above the Saône River. The basilica is accessible by funiculars that run up the hill. This beautiful church was built after the Franco-Prussian War when the people of Lyon vowed to create a Marian shrine if their city was spared. Construction took place from 1872 to 1884. The basilica is a mix of Gothic and Byzantine styles with a richly decorated interior. Spend time in the sanctuary admiring the lavish mosaics and paintings. After touring the interior, climb the northeast tower to admire sensational views over Lyon’s cityscape and surrounding areas. Also the Esplanade de Fourvière, to the left of the basilica, offers a sensational panoramic view of the city of Lyon. The view extends to the Croix-Rousse and Terreaux districts, the Quartier Saint-Jean further up the hill and Place Bellecour on the right.
Address: Place de Fourvière, Lyon
10 Primatial Saint-Jean Baptiste Cathedral
The beautiful Cathedral of Saint-John was built in the 12th century and is known for its stained glass windows from the 13th to 14th centuries. The large rose window dating from 1392 allows in a kaleidoscope of colorful light. The cathedral is mainly Romanesque with a late Gothic facade. One of the most interesting features is the astronomical clock made by Nicolas Lippius in 1598. The cathedral also has a remarkable bell (cast in 1622) called “Anne-Marie de la Primatiale” which is one of the largest ever made and only is rung on Catholic holidays. For a good view of the cathedral from a distance, go to the embankment near the Pont Bonaparte.
Address: Place Saint-Jean, Lyon
11 Saint-Martin d’Ainay Abbey
The oldest church in Lyon, the Abbaye Saint-Martin d’Ainay was built in the 11th century on the site of a 4th century Roman temple. The abbey church originally belonged to a Benedictine abbey founded in the 6th century. A beautiful example of Romanesque architecture, the church contains four classical columns, a 12th-century mosaic pavement in the choir and 19th-century gilded paintings by Hippolyte Flandrin, the Lyon artist.
Address: Place d’Ainay Cure of 11 Rue Bourgelat, Lyon
12 Cultural performances
On the Place de la Comédie, the Opéra de Lyon is an opulent 19th-century opera house with a majestic dome. The original theater was renovated by Jean Nouvel, who tripled the size of the building using modern architectural techniques. The Opéra de Lyon presents a wide range of operas, as well as dance performances and classical music concerts.
The Théâtre des Celestins (4 Rue Charles Dullin) is an impressive neoclassical theater built on the remains of a Celestine monastery. The ornate Italian-style auditorium features a sensational ceiling painting, gilded balconies and plush velvet seats. The theater offers dramatic performances (in French) ranging from classical repertoire to contemporary plays.
13 Tête d’Or Park
Named after a golden statue of Christ that, according to legend, was buried here by crusaders, the Parc de la Tête d’Or is located in the center of Lyon, on the left bank of the Rhône River. This lush and green park has a zoo, botanical garden and rose garden, as well as a lake where families can rent boats to cruise around the tranquil waters. Other highlights for children include the Grand Carrousel, pony rides, paddle boating on the “Petit Lac” (“Little Lake”) and an old-fashioned choo-choo train.
Address: Place du Général Leclerc, Lyon
Official site: https://www.loisirs-parcdelatetedor.com/en/
14 Museum of Printing (Museum van de Drukpers)
The printing press was a revolutionary technology that changed the world, and Lyon was an important center for bookmaking in the 15th to 16th centuries. This museum provides an insightful overview of history. Exhibits explain graphic printing techniques as well as the cultural impact of printed books.
Address: 13 Rue de la Poulaillerie 69002 Lyon
15 Mural of famous people from Lyon
In the Quai Saint Vincent, this 800 square meter mural features 31 famous people from Lyon, with 25 historical figures and six contemporary figures. The mural was created by the Cité de la Création in 1994-1995. Look for Paul Bocuse in front of the restaurant “Le Pot Beaujolais”.
Address: 49 Quai Saint Vincent in Rue de la Martinière 2
Where to Stay in Lyon for Sightseeing
Lyon’s compact center is easy to navigate, with the Presqu’île district neatly sandwiched between the converging Rhône and Saône. The large Place Bellecour, with the tourist office, is central. Behind Presqu’île, streets and stairs run steeply up to the Croix Rousse hilltop. On the Right Bank, the atmospheric Vieux Lyon became a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its narrow Renaissance passages, called traboules. The highly rated hotels below are convenient to the main tourist attractions in these areas:
- Luxury hotels Hotel Mercure Lyon Center Beaux Arts is located in the center of Presqu’île, near Place Bellecour and the cathedral. It is convenient to shopping and restaurants. The rooms at Hotel Le Royal Lyon – MGallery Collection overlook a quiet courtyard or Place Bellecour in the heart of Presqu’île, just across the bridge from Vieux Lyon. The Grand Hotel des Terreaux is located between the Saône River and the Beaux-Arts Museum, a stone’s throw from Vieux Lyon. It has elegantly decorated rooms.
- Mid-Range Hotels: Hotel des Celestins is located near the colorful cafes along the Quai Saint-Antoine River, in a charming neighborhood of restaurants and shops. Also across the bridge from the cathedral and Vieux Lyon, Hotel des Artistes is opposite the Théâtre des Célestins. Hotel Bayard Bellecour is located in a vintage building with a courtyard and an attractive retro interior, right on Place Bellecour.
- Budget Hotels: The welcoming Hotel Vaubecour is located near the river, halfway between Place Bellecour and Perrache train station, in an area of antique shops and craft studios. In the same area, but closer to Perrache station and the Museum of Textiles and Decorative Arts, is Hotel du Simplon. In a prime location just around the corner from the Hôtel de Ville and next to the Beaux-Arts museum, Hotel Saint-Pierre des Terreaux has small, well-appointed rooms, but no elevator.
Tips and tours: how to make the most of your visit to Lyon
Lyon is a city big enough to organize a guided tour. This allows you to visit the main tourist attractions in a fun and easy way. You don’t have to worry about driving or public transportation when you are led by an experienced local guide. Easily absorb the historic atmosphere of the city and admire its cultural highlights while learning interesting stories and historical details. Below are several tours that include visits to the Old Town and other unmissable sights:
- See the city highlights:To ensure you see all the major tourist attractions, take a guided tour that provides an overview of the city’s main attractions. There are several options for visitors with different interests. A good way to see it all is to take a Hop-On Hop-Off bus tour that stops at 13 different attractions, including museums, parks and historical monuments. For a more tailor-made experience, take the Lyon Guided City Tour by Electric Tuk-Tuk for a one or two-hour private tour (with a maximum of six participants) that will take you to Lyon’s highlights: Place Bellecour, the Old Town and the Cathedral, among other places. To experience the charming Croix-Rousse district, take the Lyon City Tram. You will discover the quaint village atmosphere of this beautiful area,
- Explore the Old Town: Wander the narrow, winding streets and ancient alleys of the atmospheric Old Town and feel like you’re stepping back in time on a 75-minute story walking tour of Old Lyon. Your guide will tell stories about the people who lived here in the distant past and about the power struggles of the notable Lyonnais families. You’ll learn fascinating historical details, such as the story of a secret Protestant printing press during the Renaissance and other stories that bring the city’s intriguing past to life.
More must-see places to visit near Lyon
Lyon is easily accessible to many of France’s top tourist attractions, thanks to the country’s TGV high-speed train system. By TGV train, it takes less than two hours to arrive in Paris, while Avignon, in Provence , with the 14th-century Palais de Papes, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, just over an hour away. Less than 90 minutes away by car, Grenoble is another must-see destination with a charming historic center, top-notch cultural sights and beautiful alpine landscapes. The picturesque mountain village of Chamonix and the mythical mountain Mont-Blanc in the French Alps are a 2.5-hour drive away. Other picturesque towns of the French Alps, such as Chambery and Aix-les-Bains, are just over an hour away by car.