Lyon is generally considered France's culinary capital, home to some of the world's best chefs and restaurants. But even if (like most of us) you're not on a Michelin-star restaurant budget, sampling some of the city's best traditional dishes and specialties is always in order, and it doesn't have to be expensive, either. From fish to cheeses, pastries, and desserts, these are the 10 best traditional foods to try in Lyon—and a few tips on where to taste them.
Cervelle de Canut Cheese
Anyone with basic high school or college French might raise eyebrows at the name of this dish, which can lead you to think it involves "brains." Your French lessons didn't fail you—the dish's name literally means "silk-workers' brains," referring to the canuts who manufactured and distributed silks in Lyon during the 19th century.
But not to worry: cervelle de canut is a soft curd cheese that's typically enjoyed as a spread or dip alongside crusty baguette. Native to Lyon, the aromatic dip is composed of fromage blanc (a light cheese similar to sour cream), shallots, chive, parsley (and/or other herbs), olive oil, salt, pepper, and a touch of lemon juice or vinegar.
Where to taste: You can enjoy cervelle de canut at most typical, family-owned restaurants (bouchons) around Lyon. It's also widely available in cheese shops and markets.
Quenelles de Brochet (Pike Dumplings)
This emblematic Lyonnais dish is simple but hard to perfectly achieve. Delicate filets of pike fish are combined with flour, eggs, milk, cream, butter, and spices to form dumplings; the dumplings (or quenelles) are then poached and served with a rich sauce, typically "sauce Nantua," composed of béchamel flavored with crayfish butter.
If fish isn't to your taste, you can find numerous other varieties of quenelles, from nature (plain), to quenelles de veau (veal dumplings), to chicken.
Where to taste: Any typical bouchon in Lyon is certain to have their own version of the city's signature dish, but they're known to be especially delicious at Le Bouchon des Cordeliers and Chez Chabert.
Pink Praline Tart
One dessert not to miss in Lyon is the pink praline tart, a specialty that's as bright and cheerful as it is delicious. Anyone who loves the nutty, crunchy satisfaction of praline candy will enjoy this simple tart. It starts with pink pralines (which are themselves a Lyon specialty): almonds or hazelnuts dipped in sugar and tinted with food coloring to resemble raspberries. These are gently boiled in heavy cream, then heaped atop a rich, buttery crust infused with almonds. It's sometimes accompanied by crème anglaise or cream.
Where to taste: Most bakeries in Lyon will have their own versions of this local treat.
Sausages are a deep-seated tradition in Lyon, so the carnivores among you should find plenty of delicious varieties to taste. Rosette de Lyon is especially popular and widely available in boucheries (butcher shops) throughout the city; it's a cured pork sausage or salami that's typically flavored with garlic, wine, sea salt, and sometimes other herbs. The exterior is generally encrusted with crushed black pepper.
Rosette is often sliced into thick slices, served on charcuterie platters along with regional cheeses, and accompanied by a full-bodied glass of red wine. For those who don't eat pork, beef-based varieties are also popular.
Where to taste: Try the Halles Paul Bocuse market to sample some excellent Lyonnais sausages, including rosette.
Hailing from the nearby town of Saint-Marcellin, this creamy, flavorful cheese is a local staple, and enjoyed in both formal and informal settings. Made from slightly salted, raw cow's milk and formed into rounds, the semi-soft cheese typically features a golden crust and creamy, semi-liquid center.
Depending on your preferences, buy the cheese in one of three stages of ripening or affinage: sec (dry, the youngest and firmest stage), crémeux, and bleu (at this stage the cheese has a runnier center and a slightly blue tinge to the crust).
You may also want to try Arômes de Lyon (flavors of Lyon), Saint-Marcellin cheese cured in white wine. It's also sometimes cured in brandy.
Where to taste: Fromageries (cheese shops) around the city carry good versions of this regional cheese. The Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse market is always a good option.
Pâté en Croute
If you love pastries and charcuterie, the pâté-en-croute (literally, crusted paté) will hit the spot. Dating to the Middle Ages, this traditional dish used to be considered rather old-fashioned and unexciting, but in recent years it's regained popularity. Lyon even hosts an annual championship that sees chefs from around the world compete to create innovative versions of the dish.
The traditional Lyonnais pâté-en-croute is made by combining pork with duck foie gras, veal, egg, parsley, garlic, salt and pepper, and sometimes slivers of pistachio. The pâte is then gently encased in a buttery shortcrust. The dish is frequently served with salad, usually as a starter.
During the Middle Ages, the pastry itself was not generally eaten, and was instead designed to preserve the meat. That's no longer the case, of course—the best versions of this dish feature delicious, perfectly baked crusts.
Where to taste: The renowned Lyonnais bouchon Daniel & Denise reputedly has some of the best pâté-en-croute in town. There are several locations in Lyon.
Coussin de Lyon (Chocolate)
Here's another not-to-miss Lyonnais treat for those of you with a sweet tooth. Coussins de Lyon (which translates to Lyon cushions) are small, pale-green marzipan candies filled with chocolate ganache, itself delicately flavored with curaçao liqueur.
Created in 1897 by Voisin, a Lyonnais pastry and sweets specialist, the coussins allude to silk cushions used in 17th-century religious ceremonies dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The candies are often presented in velvet boxes that resemble the cushions, but you can also buy them individually or in small bags.
Where to taste: Specialty sweet and chocolate shops around Lyon sell coussins, but head straight to the source and try them at Voisin.
Salade Lyonnaise (Lyonnais salad) is composed of endives and/or strongly flavored greens, smoked lardons (French-style bacon bits), poached or soft-boiled egg, and bread croutons. The simple dish is a popular bistro main or side that's served year-round, but it can be an especially satisfying option in the winter when you're not hungry enough for some of the city's heavier dishes. Many restaurants vary the salad with seasonal vegetables, red onion, herbs, or cheese. It's generally served with a tangy Dijon-mustard vinaigrette.
Where to taste: This popular dish is widely available in bouchons and casual café-brasseries around Lyon.
Tablier de Sapeur (Breaded Beef Tripes)
This is another dish that only adventurous carnivores will likely find appealing—but as a staple of Lyonnais cuisine, it's worth trying. Tablier de sapeur (sapper's apron) is a dish composed of beef tripes that have been boiled in an herbed bouillon, marinated in white wine, then tossed in breadcrumbs and pan-fried. Often garnished with sauce gribiche, a mayonnaise-style sauce flavored with chives, the dish is typically served with potatoes or other seasonal vegetables.
Where to taste: Traditional bouchons around Lyon will generally serve their own versions of this popular dish. Au Petit Bouchon Chez Georges is especially reputed for it.
Bugnes (Lyon-style doughnuts)
People don't generally associate French pastry-making with doughnuts, but this Lyon specialty proves that assumption wrong. Bugnes (pronounced boughn-YUH) are pastries delicately flavored with lemon, deep-fried, then tossed in powdered sugar. Popular during Mardi Gras, bugnes are sometimes infused with orange blossom essence and/or rum.
Where to taste: You can taste them in many Lyonnais bakeries around Mardi Gras, and they often are easy to find from late January through March. À la Marquise bakery in Old Town is reputed for its delicious version, while vegans can try a special dairy-free version at Colibri in the 6th arrondissement of Lyon.