48 Hours in Lyon: The Ultimate Itinerary

Place Bellecour, Lyon

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Nestled between the French Alps to the east and Burgundy wine country to the north, Lyon is one of France's grandest and most exciting cities. Boasting thousands of years of history—reflected in impressive Roman ruins and architecture dating to the medieval and Renaissance periods—Lyon is also resolutely modern. Its food and dining scene is legendary, and as a city with several universities, museums, markets, opera, and cinemas, it's an exciting place to discover contemporary French culture.

Follow this suggested two-day itinerary to experience the best of Lyon, tweaking it as you wish to fit your budget and interests.

01 of 06

Day 1: Morning

Bartholdi fountain and Lyon City Hall on Place des Terreaux, Lyon, France

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9 a.m.: After arriving at Lyon International Airport or at one of the two main train/TGV stations (Part-Dieu and Perrache), head straight for your hotel to drop off your bags. It's best to choose accommodation in or within close reach of the city center, to save time on traveling from one point to the next.

Your first stop is the Presqu'île, the traditional center of Lyon. It occupies a stretch of land between the banks of the Rhône and Saône Rivers. Head straight for the majestic Place des Terreaux; this neoclassical square houses Lyon's Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) and the Bartholdi fountain, built in 1889 and featuring a dramatic equine sculpture.

After admiring the square and its handsome café terraces, take a quick look at the collections of the Musée des Beaux-Arts (Fine Arts Museum). The museum was built on the former premises of a 17th-century convent.

Next, roam through the bustling shopping streets in the area known as Cordeliers, slowly heading south to the enormous Place Bellecour. One of Europe's largest public squares, it's known for its equestrian statue of King Louis XIV and a giant Ferris wheel.

12:30 p.m.: It's time to get a first taste of Lyon's famous culinary culture over lunch. Settle in at one of the traditional bouchons (family-owned restaurants) in the Presqu'île to taste typical Lyonnais dishes such as pike dumplings (quenelles de brochet), fresh herbed cheese on bread (cervelle de canut), and pink praline tart for dessert. You might also enjoy a glass of local red or white wine.

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02 of 06

Day 1: Afternoon

Architecture in Lyon
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2 p.m.: After lunch, take the Passerelle Saint-Georges bridge across the Saône River to explore Vieux Lyon (Old Lyon). After admiring views from the graceful footbridge, visit the Cathédrale Saint-Jean, a Roman and Gothic-style cathedral built between the 12th and 15th centuries. Entry is free.

Next, wander up Rue Saint-Jean and explore its numerous attractions, from a traditional puppetry museum to quaint shops and bakeries. Admire the rose and ochre façades of Renaissance-era buildings as you wend through the area, and consider taking a guided tour of the intricate passageways and courtyards connecting many of them. Known locally as traboules, these were partly built to allow merchants to transport goods from the heights of the city to its then-center; during World War II, members of the French Resistance staged secret meetings in some of them.

4 p.m.: After exploring Vieux Lyon, take one of two funicular trains up Fourvière Hill (you can use a metro ticket or Lyon City Card if you have one). One of Lyon's Unesco World Heritage sites, Fourvière Hill houses the main vestiges of the Gallo-Roman city that once stood in present-day Lyon, then called Lugdunum.

Fouvrière Hill also features Notre Dame de Fourvière Basilica, an important Lyon landmark dating to the late 19th century. Start here to admire sweeping panoramic views over the entire city and its red rooftops from the terraces.

5 p.m.: Next, head to the Gallo-Roman Museum. Carved into the hillside and boasting underground exhibition spaces, the museum holds impressive collections of artifacts from antiquity, including statues and sculptures, ceremonial objects, jewelry, coins, and other objects of daily life.

Some will find the two open-air Roman arenas even more impressive. France's largest, the main amphitheater once accommodated up to 10,000 spectators, while the smaller theater (called the Odéon) seated around 3,000. To this day, the well-preserved arenas are used to stage concerts and open-air theater performances, especially in the summer.

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03 of 06

Day 1: Evening

Lyon, People dining along cobbled street at night
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6:30 p.m.: Head back down the hill (by foot or Funicular) into Old Town and settle in for dinner. If you're looking for something traditional, reserve a table at Bouchon Les Lyonnais; set in a vaulted stone cellar, it's one of the city's most popular bouchons. For a romantic dinner or special occasion, try Les Loges, a Michelin-starred table set in a breathtaking 14th-century courtyard. The menu here offers creative twists on traditional Lyonnais cuisine.

9 p.m.: After dinner, take a stroll through the softly lit streets of Vieux Lyon and the Presqu'île, and see some of the city's iconic buildings and landmarks illuminated after dark. Sites that are especially photogenic in the evening include the Lyon Opera, whose modern-day, domed glass roof was designed by architect Jean Nouvel; Hôtel de Ville and the entire Place des Terreaux; and the riverside quays and bridges along both the Saône and Rhône.

10 p.m.: Grab a cocktail or glass of wine at a bar on or near Place des Terreaux. We recommend L'Antiquaire, a speakeasy-style bar known for its unique cocktails and cool vibe.

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04 of 06

Day 2: Morning

Giant flagpoles over a public swimming pool on riverside of Rhone river in Lyon, France
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8:30 a.m.: Begin with breakfast on the right bank of the Rhône river. Head to Le Kitchen Café for fresh pastries, fruit and juices, omelettes, smoked trout, excellent coffee and tea, and other breakfast fare.

Afterwards, explore the city's vibrant University district, particularly the streets around Rue de Chevreul and Place Jean-Macé. As you peruse the cafés, boutiques, and international food markets here, you'll be able to take in everyday scenes of student and local life; this is one of Lyon's less touristy and more contemporary neighborhoods.

To learn more about Lyon's darker history, visit the Resistance and Deportation History Centre, which traces the events of World War II, Nazi persecution in the city, and the heroism of Resistance leaders such as Jean Moulin.

11:30 a.m: Head west to the riverbank area and take a stroll northward along the quayside path known as the Berges du Rhône. Lined with greenery and grassy areas, you'll come across picturesque boats and boat cafés, bike paths, and recreation spaces as you explore.

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05 of 06

Day 2: Afternoon

Park of the Golden Head, Lyon, France
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12:30 p.m.: If all the walking this morning has made you hungry, you're in luck. The next stop, the Halles de Lyon Paul-Bocuse market, offers plenty of choices for sampling some of the city's best food items. Pick something up for a light lunch on the go, or opt to sit in at one of the casual restaurants in and around the market. Whatever you decide, make sure to eke out some time to explore the market's dozens of stalls, which sell everything from pastries and sausages to fresh produce, wines, and chocolates. This is also an excellent place to find gifts or nonperishable food items to bring home on the plane.

2:30 p.m.: Next, walk about 15 minutes north up Rue Garibaldi until you reach the gates of the enormous Parc de la Tête d'Or, Lyon's largest park. The Romantic-style park is a green haven, with hundreds of trees and plants, artificial lakes, walking paths, grassy lawns, and playground areas. Settle in for a picnic if you chose to bring items from the market to enjoy outdoors.

4:30 p.m.: From the park, head south and cross the Rhône river at the Pont de Lattre-de-Tassigny, walking until you reach the Croix-Paquet metro station. Hop on Metro line C and take it to the Hénon station. You've now arrived in the neighborhood known as the Croix-Rousse. Once a hub in Lyon's textile and silk trade industry, today it is an arty, bohemian district with a distinctly village-like vibe.

Start at the "Mur des Canuts," an enormous mural painted on the façade of a building. Functioning as a trompe l'oeil (visual illusion), it depicts steep staircases and scenes from daily and historical life in the district.

Next, explore the Place de la Croix-Rousse (the main square), Boulevard de la Croix-Rousse, and surrounding streets. Enjoy a pre-dinner drink on a terrace at a bar of your choice.

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06 of 06

Day 2: Evening

A square in the Croix-Rousse district, Lyon

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6:30 p.m.: As the sun starts to set (or dusky light settles on the horizon, depending on the time of year), take in panoramic views of the city by heading to the Place Colbert, a perched square lined with benches. At #9, you'll find the Cour des Voraces, one of Lyon's most impressive traboules; it features a dizzying external staircase rising six stories high. The history of silk workers (canuts) and their activities in the city are evidenced in this building and many others in the area.

7:30 pm: It's time for dinner, and there are plenty of options in the vibrant Croix-Rousse area. We recommend booking a table at a creative eatery such as Bistrot des Voraces, a wine bar where you can choose among dozens of bottles to accompany seasonal small plates and dishes. Daniel et Denise, meanwhile, is an updated spin on the traditional Lyonnais bouchon—and is considered one of the best in the city.

Have energy to spare? The area is brimming with possibilities for a nightcap, from bars to clubs. The Monkey Club is a popular cocktail bar staffed by top mixologists, while Le Chantecler is a favorite spot for summertime drinks out on the large terrace.