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.
Lets explore the best things to do in Lyon:
1. Vieux Lyon
You can set foot in one of the largest renaissance old quarters in Europe.
In the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries Lyon’s silk industry was thriving, and rich merchant families from across France, Flanders, Germany and Italy settled in the city.
They built sumptuous homes, in the gothic, Italian renaissance and French renaissance styles, and there are still 300 of these remaining in the districts of Saint-Jean, Saint-Georges and Saint-Paules.
During the 16th century it was estimated that there were 180,000 looms in the city, and you can see the resourceful ways this industry combined with the fabric of the city in Vieux Lyon’s characteristic traboules.
In Vieux Lyon and La Croix-Rousse Saône are an architectural feature unique to this city: Traboules are delightful renaissance passageways, some 40 of which are open to the public, running beneath buildings in the direction of the Saône River.
They gave the city’s silk workers direct access to riverbank, making it quick and easy to transport textiles, while also offering shelter from the elements.
Nearly all of these passageways are part of residential properties, so it’s a good idea to go quietly.
The best place to start your adventure is around Quai Fulchiron Rolland and Rue des Trois Maries.
3. Fourvière Basilica
This magnificent church, ever visible on the Fourvière hill to west of the city is one of a series of iconic hill-top churches built in major French cities in the late-19th century.
The basilica is in the oldest part of the city, Lyon’s pilgrimage site and where several Roman sites have been discovered.
Go inside to see the extravagant interiors and the Museum of Sacred Art, and to ascend the north tower for one of Lyon’s best photo ops.
The church is the focus for the famous Fête des Lumières, which takes place at the start of December every year.
This is in praise of the Virgin Mary, to whom Fourvière is dedicated, for protecting the city from the bubonic plague in the 17th century.
4. Parc de la Tête d’Or
A little way north of the centre is one of the largest urban parks in the country, with a zoo and France’s foremost botanical garden within its boundaries.
If you’re around in spring then the international rose garden should be one of your first ports of call in the city.
The botanical attractions are spectacular too, with more than 20,000 plant varieties and the most graceful 19th-century greenhouses you could hope to see, thick with the scent of chlorophyll.
For families with kids the park is a must-do, thank to the African Plain, with zebras, lions and giraffes, and the expansive lake for epic pedal-boating voyages in summer!
A finger of land between the Rhône and Saône, Presqu’île was man-made by a humungous 18th-century urban engineering project, draining marshes and connecting what was once an island with dry land.
It’s where most things “happen” in the city, a district of glorious 19th-century architecture, wide plazas, shops, cultural institutions, restaurants, cafes, bars and nightclubs.
Lyon’s opera house and city hall are located here, while if you’re peckish Rue Mercière is basically one long line of superb restaurants.
If you’re here for the shopping, start at the pedestrianised Rue de la République where all the high-street brands await.
6. Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon
Housed in a former abbey from the 1600s, the Musée des Beaux-Arts is France’s largest fine art museum after the Louvre in Paris.
There are 70 rooms here, with paintings from the 1300s to the 1900s, sculpture and displays of both Egyptian and Oriental art.
You don’t need more than a passing knowledge to be impressed by the wealth of famous French and European artists on show: Degas, van Gogh, Renoir, Cézanne, El Greco, Canaletto, Picasso, Max Ernst and Francis Bacon, and that’s just an overview.
The Antiquities department is a trove of some 600 Ancient Egyptian artefacts, including reliefs, busts, statuettes and sarcophagi, as well as monumental gates recovered from the Medamud temple.
7. Ancient Theatre of Fourvière
This monument is also high on the left bank of the Saône River.
And 2,000 years after it was built it is still a performance venue during the Nuits de Fourvière drama festival every June and July.
At its peak it would have held 10,000 spectators, but only the middle and lower terraces of the cavea remain.
Where the seating has been lost though, you can see the fascinating substructure of the cavea, which continues far up the hillside.
The theatre was rediscovered in the late-19th century and restored over the next 40 years.
Artefacts found here and at the neighbouring Odeon are displayed at the Gallo-Roman museum, listed below.
8. Gallo-Roman Museum of Lyon-Fourvière
If Fourvière’s extensive Roman ruins leave you thirsty for more ancient history, this modern museum is on site to give you some background.
The building deserves a mention, as it’s partly underground and has been dug from the hillside next to the roman theatre.
Futuristic, bunker-like galleries are arranged around a spiralling concrete ramp.
There’s a lot to get through at the museum, but one piece that you need to see is the Circus Games Mosaic, dating to the 2nd century and depicting a chariot race with staggering technical skill.
There’s also the Gauilish Coligny Calendar, and the Lyon Tablet, transcribing a speech made by the Roman Emperor Claudius in the 1st century.
9. Lyon Cathedral
The city’s fabulous cathedral is a mostly gothic construction built between the 12th and 15th centuries.
The majority of the original stained-glass windows are still here and date to the 1300s.
They had been dismantled and packed away during the Second World War to save them from bomb damage.
The most captivating are the north, south and west roses, as well as the apse’s lancet.
The astronomical clock inside is nine metres tall and was installed in the 1300s.
Under the main clock-face is an astrolabe, added in the 1600s, that can show the position of the earth, sun and moon.
Above it are automated figures that put on a little show when the chimes are rung on the hour.
10. Institut Lumière
Anybody who goes to the cinema should be excited to pay homage to the Lumière brothers, who are held as the fathers of the movie-making art.
The museum was set up by a descendant of Louis Lumière, who, working with August, helped invent the cinematograph, the first motion picture camera and projector.
They also made more than a thousand films together, shown at the world’s first cinemas.
The attraction is in Villa Lumière, a lovely art nouveau mansion built by the brothers’ father in 1899. In these elegant surrounds you can view many of their movies and check out the ingenious creations, like the cinematograph, that helped change entertainment forever.
11. Musée Gadagne
Essentially Lyon’s city museum, this attraction is named after the sublime 16th-century renaissance palace that houses it, built by two Florentine brothers.
In 30 rooms and across four floors there are some 80,000 items, dating between medieval times and the mid-19th century.
Antique maps and sketches indicate how Lyon has changed and show some of the city’s landmarks being built.
You’ll find out about the instrumental role the silk industry played in the city’s evolution in the 1500s and 1600s with the help of artefacts and documents, and can see the lavish lifestyles afforded by those who made their fortune here.
Also part of the attraction is the Musée des Marionnettes, with 2,000 antique puppets.
12. Musée Miniature et Cinéma
Also In Vieux-Lyon, this museum is in the “Maison des Avocats”, a beautiful 17th-century World Heritage building five storeys in height and with a loggia.
The collection is split in two: The main attraction is some 100 “hyper-realistic” miniature scenes.
These have been made by the world’s best miniaturists, including the museum curator Dan Ohlmann, and possess such painstaking detail and craftsmanship that you’ll need minutes to see everything happening in each one.
They recreate famous locations like Maxim’s Restaurant in Paris or everyday French scenes from days gone by.
There’s also a cinema exhibition with more than 300 authentic props, artefacts and models relating to movies from the last 50 years.
13. Lyon’s Murals
Another reason Lyon demands to be explored is for its murals.
There are around 100 large paintings on walls around the city, often in working-class neighbour and on social housing, so they can draw you to places you might not otherwise venture.
There are some vital ones to see though: In États-Unis there’s an outdoor museum with 25 murals painted mostly in the 80s recounting the career of the architect Tony Garnier, who planned this district in the 20s.
To get acquainted with Lyon’s main personalities there’s Fresque des Lyonnais, 24 historical figures and six contemporary people (two of whom have since passed) relevant to the city.
Then there’s Lyon’s original fresco: The Canuts Mural, telling the history of the Croix-Rousse neighbourhood, and updated every ten years.
14. Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse
This food market is named after one of France’s culinary giants, in France’s capital of cuisine, so you can be sure of the quality of what’s inside.
It’s a food-lover’s dream, a hand-picked assembly of the region’s best food merchants, selling charcuterie, cheese, meat, fruit and vegetables.
There are also several proper restaurants in the complex, full of locals at lunch.
So it’s a place to do your food shopping if you’re self-catered, get a delicious Lyonnaise meal and also buy regional specialities to take home.
As with most French food markets, Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse is best visited in the morning, long before the stalls close down for lunch.
15. Lyonnaise Cuisine
Lyon has more restaurants per capita than any other city in the country and for centuries has been lauded for the high-quality of its produce and the prestige of its cuisine.
You can dig into traditional Lyonnaise cuisine at “bouchons”, typical restaurants , and the best of these (awarded the label, Authentique Bouchon Lyonnais) tend to be around Presqu’île.
They prepare meals that would usually have been eaten by workers in times gone by, so are filling, rich and make use of parts of the body you might not usually consider: There’s marinated deep-fried tripe, usually served with a garlic and herb sauce. Andouilette, a sausage made from tripe, or gras double, tripe cooked with onions.
Don’t worry; it’s not all tripe! Coq au vin is also a tradition here, as is Lyonnaise potatoes, which are sliced and pan-fried with onions and parsley.