“Paris is not France, and France is not Paris” is something you often hear from French people outside the country’s capital. Lyon, another City of Lights around 400 km South, offers an alternative to the prestigious metropolis. Find out what the city’s local, E&M author Iris Williatte, has to say about the historical Roman capital, which today has turned into a vibrant international hub worthwhile a visit.
If you’re planning a trip to France, Lyon is certainly a city worth seeing. Growing up there, I’ve seen how Lyon has modernised itself in just a few years and established itself as one of the most exciting European cities to discover whilst still keeping its historic charm. The city has also opened itself up to international tourists, residents, and thousands of students who have made it their cherished home. Lyon is located in the South of France, just a few hours from the Mediterranean sea but also from the Alps, which enables Lyonnais, inhabitants of the town, to easily get away for a seaside or ski weekend. Moreover, the city offers a wide variety of cultural and artistic activities, with the possibility to discover new music in various lively clubs and bars in its different neighbourhoods. There are 9 “arrondissements” or districts in Lyon, my personal favourites are the 4th, 2nd and 5th.
Lyon’s must-see sights
Historically, Lyon has always been a meeting point for Europe as it is located where two major rivers, the Rhône and Saone, meet, forming one river leading to the Mediterranean sea. It was the capital of France or Gaul during its Roman era and thus is home to many archaeological sites and impressive Gallic-Roman theatres, notably one right next to the Fourvière cathedral, which offers a great view over the city. A must-see for tourists visiting Lyon is the old town located in the 5th district. A nice way to get to the Fourvière cathedral is to take the picturesque funicular from the Saint-Jean square to the church and thus avoid the unpleasant walk up the hill. It is good to know that Lyon is built on different hills, so wearing comfortable shoes when walking around the city is, beyond any doubt, a wise idea.
In more recent years, Lyon’s most popular spots for locals relate to two of the French’s favourite hobbies: Food & Film. Lyon is known as the capital of gastronomy, where Paul Bocuse, a world-renowned chef and inspiration, opened up his three-star Michelin restaurants offering traditional French cuisine. Moreover, his legacy has sparked a growth in culinary innovation by French and international chefs in the city. If you are brave enough, you can enjoy typical Lyonnais food as it centers around snails and frogs. To experience classic French cuisine, there is no better place than Lyon’s bouchons which serve typical and tasty food. They have existed for centuries and are usually found in the Old Town and Croix-Rousse.
Film was invented in Lyon by the Lumières brothers, there is an excellent museum in the 8th district about their journey to recording the first ever film, it is a spot known by true cinema fans, and many movie directors come to present their new films during the annual Lumières festival held in October. This cannot be confused with the biggest local yet most touristic event in Lyon, the Light festival held on the 8th of December called “fête des Lumières”. During that time, the entire city turns into a light exhibition, where multiple artists, sculptors and creators join efforts to turn the city into a radiant multicoloured artwork. If you have the opportunity to see the city during that time, I would definitely not miss out on this as it is undoubtedly one of the most important holidays for Lyonnais and something you will never see anywhere else. There is a certain magic in seeing ancient historical monuments and places of worship from different religions create a perfect three-dimensional canvas for modern art.
Photo: Stan Madoré
Where art and history meet
Lyon is the perfect place to be if you appreciate ancient art and history but also like discovering new creations. If I had to pick one neighbourhood to stroll in, I would definitely choose Les Pentes, which translates to the slopes. Those are the streets that connect the 4th district called “La Croix-Rousse” and the city center. The best day to walk around would be Sunday, as you can get some fresh vegetables from one the biggest markets in France on the Croix-Rousse hill and then proceed to walk down to The Terreaux Square, through Les Pentes, stopping at one of the many record stores, independent galleries, and cosy cafés. Some of my favorite cafés are Placid, Diploid and Kafé Stockholm.
These steep streets are protected by UNESCO as Lyon, previously called Lugdunum was the real meeting point between The French Gaul and the Roman Empire. Roman Emperor Claude, who came from Lyon, had Roman tables made in the year 48 that acknowledged the very rights of the Gallic population. Those tables are located in the Pentes as well. The hills down to the center are usually reserved for pedestrians and are a great way to observe some funky new street art, some colourful stairs and sustainable clothing stores. Thus, these slopes are very interesting to visit, offering the ability to listen to rare techno records, or grab a latte, right next to Roman and Gallic relics. It captures an essential and attractive blend of tradition and modernity as well as a combination of French and international influence.
Photo: Mike Benna
Nightlife in one of the most musically innovative cities
After a day spent exploring the city, there is nothing more thrilling than to catch the sunset in the gardens of la Grande-Côte or from the Fourvière hill. To blend in with the locals, order a glass of Beaujolais wine from a nearby bar and if the season is right, sunbathe on the terraces. After this, you can start dancing at one of the bars, La Grooverie. This place is one of my personal favourites and offers free live music. Finish the night in one of the exciting nightclubs to dance to some of France’s best DJs at Le Sucre or Le Petit Salon. There are more clubs in the area of town called La Confluence, where the two rivers meet, which is quite of a modern area. Some excellent DJs from Lyon are LB, aka Labat or the Boiler Room DJ trio Palma. Everyone’s music taste can be satisfied in regards to the nightlife, but quite particularly for electronic, house and techno fanatics.
Ultimately, Lyon offers a wide range of activities depending on what you enjoy without being as overwhelming as Paris. However, with the city’s rise in tourism, now would be the perfect time to go. This guide helps see the town through the lens of a local Lyonnaise, unveiling its true potential. Nevertheless, the city’s typical tourist spots’ are also quite interesting to see, particularly if you are interested in Catholic, Gallic-Roman history. Lastly, if the city gets too much, it is quite easy to leave the busy urban areas for surrounding breath-taking natural sites, whether you like hiking in the Ardèche region, exploring vineyards, cruising down the river to the sea or up the Rhône to Lake As a local Lyonnaise, I would highly urge you to visit my hometown. When my family first moved there, it was quite calm and residential, many new museums, like the Confluence museum, had not been built, and the number of internationals living or coming to the city was limited. In contrast, just two years ago, the Condé Nast group even considered it the second-best city in the world, and it seems to keep expanding. Although I’ve lived in different big cities, nothing beats a good night out in Lyon or a casual picnic in a Gallic-Roman theatre.