When you think of travelling to France, I'm sure you picture Paris, or maybe the French Riviera. But a city that is often overlooked is also my favourite city in France—Lyon. I spent a semester abroad in Lyon a couple of years ago, so I got to know the city really well, and it felt like a second home to me. Even though Lyon is the second biggest city in France, compared to Paris it feels small. It doesn't have as many famous landmarks, but there are a lot of things that make Lyon such a special place.
First of all, the people are all so friendly. French people tend to get a reputation as being rude, and to be fair, that is pretty true when it comes to Parisians. But in Lyon, it couldn't be further from the truth! Lyon's location in France is also pretty perfect. It is in the Rhône-Alpes region, a short train ride away from Paris, Geneva, Marseille, Milan, the Alps, the Mediterranean, and lots of vineyards. Both the Rhône River and Saône River run through Lyon, which makes for really pretty views from many different parts of the city. And you know how France is known to have some of the best food in the world? That's all thanks to Lyon, which is home to some of the finest French chefs and is often considered to be the gastronomical capital of the world! Here is my list of the top places to visit while you're in Lyon, and hopefully I can convince you of why you need to add Lyon to your travel bucket list!
In case you don't speak French, Vieux Lyon means "Old Lyon" and makes up the historical (and in my opinion, the most beautiful) section of the city. All of the streets are narrow and most of the roads are cobble stone. The architecture in Vieux Lyon is very historical and classic-looking, but also so colourful and unique. Lyon's history was influenced by the Romans, and that is pretty evident in Vieux Lyon. Of course the main example of this is the Roman ruins that are on top of a big hill! The ruins are so pretty and reminded me a lot of the ancient ruins in Rome and Pompeii, Italy. I've always been fascinated by ancient history, so I found it so cool walking through the ruins and seeing what the city was like thousands of years ago! Next to the ruins is another Lyon highlight, La Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière. Fourvière is a beautiful basilica that looks a lot like a palace, so my friends and I always referred to it as "the castle." And probably the best part of venturing up to the Roman ruins and Fourvière... the amazing view of the city! Another reason to explore Vieux Lyon: it has the best restaurants in the entire city! The most popular restaurants are traditional French "bouchons" that often have prix-fixe menus and have delicious traditional French food! When I studied in Lyon, I lived right next to Vieux Lyon, so I got to explore it a lot, and it became my favourite section of the city!
Place Bellecour and Rue Victor Hugo
Next up is the biggest square in Lyon and the biggest pedestrian square in all of Europe, Place Bellecour. Place Bellecour is right in the center of Lyon and is a common meeting place for people. The square is a huge open area and features a statue of Louis XIV right in the middle. Also in Place Bellecour is a ferris wheel, and the views from the top are really stunning. I rode the ferris wheel during Fête des Lumières (which I will tell you about later in the post), so the views I got were especially incredible! Bellecour is perfectly situated between the rivers Rhône and Saône, is walking distance to Vieux Lyon, and is surrounded by some of the best shopping streets in the city. My favourite of those streets is Rue Victor Hugo. Rue Victor Hugo is a long street lined with shops and restaurants that was right between my university and Place Bellecour, so I became very familiar with the street over the course of the semester! There are lots of amazing shops, both chain stores and small boutiques, and some great little restaurants. Rue Victor Hugo and Place Bellecour are always so lively, so they are great spots to people watch and soak up the atmosphere of Lyon!
Parc de la Tête d'Or
Like all major cities, the people of Lyon need a quiet place to relax and enjoy nature. In Lyon, that place is Parc de la Tête d'Or, which literally translates to "Park of the Gold Head." While there aren't actually any golden heads there, the huge park is so beautiful and the perfect place to go on a nice Spring, Summer, or Fall day. There is a big lake, a botanical garden, lots of trees, and ice cream stands. And if you are in Lyon during the warmer months, you can visit the zoo, which is my favourite part of the park! There are lots of different animals, including giraffes, lions, monkeys, and flamingos. Spending a few hours in the Parc de la Tête d'Or is the perfect way to take a break from the hustle and bustle of the city and enjoy some quiet time.
Wine Tasting in the Beaujolais
No trip to France is complete without a nice wine tasting, and Lyon has one of the most famous vineyards in France close by: the Beaujolais. I went on a wine tasting with my program to a vineyard in the medieval town Charnay. We got a tour of the vineyard, learned how the wine was made, and of course got to sample lots of wine and cheese! The region has great red and white wine, but the wine that the Beaujolais is especially known for is rosé wine. It is so delicious, and the myth that wine is cheaper than water in France is actually true, because you can get a great bottle of Beaujolais wine in Lyon for 3€! Wine tastings are such a fun experience, and definitely something you need to do during your visit to France.
Fête des Lumières
If you get the opportunity to visit Lyon during the Fête des Lumières weekend in December, you can not pass it up! The Fête des Lumières is a light festival that attracts millions of tourists from other parts of France and Europe. The festival began in the 1600s when Europe was suffering from the plague. The people of Lyon decided to put candles in their windows in honour of the Virgin Mary hoping it would help spare the city from too many deaths. Ever since, it has become a tradition for the people of Lyon to put a candle in their window on December 8 every year. Since the start of the tradition, the Fête des Lumières has expanded to include an entire weekend of festivities. There are so many impressive light shows and the city really feels magical with all of the decorations! I know just explaining the light shows won't do them justice, but hopefully the pictures above will give you an idea of just how beautiful the festival is!
Every city needs an artsy, eclectic neighbourhood, and in Lyon, that neighbourhood is La Croix-Rousse. This section of the city was full of silk workshops a couple centuries ago and for a while was considered a working-class area. But now, La Croix-Rousse is becoming more popular and is emerging as one of the trendiest parts of Lyon. La Croix-Rousse is full of little shops, restaurants, cafés, street markets, and has a great view of the city. Walking around in La Croix-Rousse, you can really pick up on the artistic feel of the area with lots of galleries and bright colours. Since the neighbourhood has so much history, it really blends the old with the new and has a great atmosphere. I only ventured into La Croix-Rousse a couple of times during my semester in Lyon, and I really wish I explored the area some more because it has such a cool feel to it.
Let me tell you about the food in Lyon...
And now for the part of the post you are probably most excited about—the amazing food in Lyon! Lyon has a lot of diverse restaurants (Italian, Chinese, Turkish, Japanese...), but by far the most popular type of cuisine in Lyon is traditional French food. Everywhere in the city is full of tiny little French restaurants that have some of the most amazing food ever! In France, the cultural norm is to spend several hours eating a meal and talking to the people you are with. so if you go out to eat in a French restaurant, it's completely normal (and encouraged!) to sit for several hours, eating lots of food and drinking lots of wine. Most of the restaurants in Lyon are independently owned rather than chain restaurants, so you get a really authentic dining experience most of the time, especially in the bouchons of Vieux Lyon. A ton of restaurants also have prix fixe menus, so you can get an appetizer, entrée, dessert, and glass of wine for a fixed price. (This is what I usually did!) Some of the most amazing dishes I had in the French bouchons were quenelle (similar to manicotti with chicken or fish and a cream sauce), salade chèvre (goat cheese salad), and salade lyonnaise (salad with bacon, croutons, and a poached egg). And of course I can't leave out dessert! Chocolate mousse is a delicious and common dessert to order in France, but my favourite dessert experiences were the crêpe stands in Vieux Lyon! At these stands, you can watch your crêpe get cooked, and then you can add whatever toppings you would like—strawberries, bananas, nutella, whipped cream, powdered sugar, and endless other options. Crêpes are so delicious and are definitely something you need to try while you're in France. Just writing this has really made me miss the food in Lyon and has made me hungry :)
Next up is a part of the city that has really developed over the past few years, the Confluence which is the spot where Lyon's two rivers meet. Lots of businesses and apartment buildings have been built in the Confluence, and it has become a major economic hub in Lyon. When I lived in Lyon in 2012, there was lots of construction being done in the area, and by the end of my semester abroad, the area had transformed so much! A big mall was built with lots of great shops and a movie theatre, and being right between the rivers Rhône and Saône, there are some really beautiful views in La Confluence. La Confluence is probably the most "up and coming" section of the city, and definitely somewhere worth visiting!
The Lumière Brothers Museum
Something really interesting about Lyon is that movies were actually invented there! The Lumière Brothers who lived in Lyon invented the cinematograph in 1894 and became the first filmmakers in history. A lot of their short films were shot in Lyon too! Lyon has a museum called the Institut Lumière where you can learn about the history of les Frères Lumières and filmmaking, tour the Lumière house, and see some of the Lumière Brothers' films. I have always had an interest in movies and filmmaking, so I loved this museum. I learned so much while I was there and enjoyed it even more than I expected. It is definitely something worth checking out if you are in Lyon!
If you like to go out and party, Lyon is a great place to do that! During my semester in Lyon, I became very familiar with the city's party scene, so I can definitely recommend some great places to go. First of all, Lyon has a huge student population, including a lot of international students. If you have never heard the word "Erasmus," that is what studying abroad is called in Europe, and there are student groups that organise Erasmus parties for the young people of the city several times a week. I went to so many Erasmus parties while I was in Lyon, and they were so much fun! They usually took place in a nightclub, and sometimes even in a different venue, like big indoor hot tubs or a castle! If you are looking for a fun bar to go to, the regular spot for everyone in my program was a New York-inspired bar called Cosmo. Monday nights are especially awesome because beer is 1€ and the bar is always packed! The French really know how to party, and people always end up dancing on the bar and tables! If you're looking for somewhere low-key to go, there are steps next to the Rhône River that are always crowded at night. There is a great view of the city, so it can be so fun to go to the steps with some friends and a bottle of French wine. Vieux Lyon is also full of some cool, relaxed pubs where you can get a beer or glass of wine and spend time with friends. Other great spots to check out are a bar called Boston and an Australian bar called Ayers Rock (which has two locations—one standard bar and one on a boat!) I have never experienced a city with a better nightlife than Lyon, so it really is the perfect city for students and young people!
And some bonus places to check out:
I hope this post has taught you a little about Lyon and gave you a good feel for the city. If you are a student considering a semester abroad in France, I would highly recommend going to Lyon! I had such a great experience there, and it really felt like home to me during the semester. I made some of my best friends and had some of the best experiences of my life there. Writing this post has made me feel really nostalgic and has made me remember all the great times I had in Lyon!
Thanks for reading! If you made it to the end of this post, leave a comment saying what part of Lyon you'd most want to visit or some cities you'd like me to feature in future posts!