It may not enjoy the global superstar status of Paris—but Lyon, one of France's largest cities, is a major hub for art and culture in its own right. With a history stretching to the Gallo-Roman period, the former capital of Roman Gaul has been an epicenter of artistic achievement over the centuries, playing major roles in the global silk trade and the birth of cinema. Especially if you have limited time to visit, you may be unsure which collections are worth devoting a morning or afternoon to; take the guesswork out of it by reading up on our selection of the 10 best museums in Lyon. The Lyon City Card includes admission to most of these collections, so it's worth considering purchasing one if you intend to visit more than two or three during your stay.
Lyon, called "Lugdunum" when it was the capital of Roman Gaul, bears numerous, vibrant traces of its ancient past. One of the city's best museums shares that rich history through thousands of artifacts, from paintings and stone carvings to jewelry, ceramics, and objects of daily life.
The permanent collections at the Gallo-Roman museum are set within an impressive archeological site in the heights of Lyon's Fourvière hill; together with two well-preserved (and renovated) amphitheaters that date to the early 1st century, they make up a UNESCO World Heritage site. Before or after visiting the absorbing collections, make sure to take in and explore the theatres, one of which can seat up to 10,000 people and is France's largest colosseum-style structure dating to the Roman period. In the summer, concerts and plays are staged here during long evenings. Meanwhile, the smaller "Odéon" arena could seat up to 3,000 people, and most likely served as a space for musical performances and political meetings in ancient Lugdunum.
The enormous site also includes well-preserved Roman baths and temples, nicely curated rose gardens, and panoramic viewpoints. Make sure to reserve several hours to enjoy both the indoor exhibit and the outdoor features at the site.
Situated in a 17th-century building that originally served as a convent, the Musée des Beaux Arts holds some of Europe's largest and most important collections of fine art. It's an essential destination when visiting the Place des Terreaux, a pretty square in the city center that also houses Lyon's City Hall (Hôtel de Ville).
Inside the permanent collections, thousands of works of art—including paintings, ceramics, sculptures, and antiquities—can easily take a whole morning or afternoon to explore. Focus on masterpieces from artists such as Rubens, Géricault, Véronèse, Manet, Delacroix, Picasso, Gaugin, and Matisse, and check out the museum's impressive collection of ancient Egyptian art and artifacts. Meanwhile, the cloisters of the former Benedictine convent now house an elegant assembly of sculptures.
Did you know that Lyon is one of the birthplaces of cinema? Most people don't—but this fascinating museum and film institute named after two pioneers of the "seventh art" is determined to correct perceptions.
French brothers and Lyon natives Auguste and Louis Lumière are credited both with inventing the world's first film cameras in 1895, and with later producing some of the first moving pictures. The Lumière Villa and Institute pays tribute to their accomplishments with a permanent collection tracing their technological breakthroughs and early cinema techniques. There's also a collection of artifacts and early equipment that tells the story of cinema more generally. The museum is a bit outside of the city center, but well worth the detour if you're interested in the history of movie making.
Textiles don't always inspire curiosity or excitement the way that paintings or sculptures do, but in Lyon, they're a major part of the city's artistic and economic heritage. Lyon served as a major center in the global silk trade during the Renaissance, becoming renowned for its fine tapestries, rugs, clothing, and other items made with the natural fiber.
At the Textile and Decorative Arts Museum, you can explore 2,000 years of textile history and learn about the important social and economic developments that surrounded the industry. The permanent collection comprises objects such as ornate tapestries, rugs, colorful silk clothing originating in different European countries, and other items dating to as far back as the medieval period. It also boasts a distinctive collection of antique clocks, as well as a section dedicated to contemporary decorative items and trends.
The Resistance and Deportation History Centre documents some of the darkest years in the city's history, during World War II. It was during this period that Lyon become a center for both Nazi collaboration and fierce resistance to collaboration with Hitler's fascist regime. Located on the grounds where the Nazi Gestapo had its Lyon headquarters for a time, the Center remains a precious, and crucial, memorial site; it was here where the infamous Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie, also known as "the Butcher of Lyon," tortured prisoners and members of the French Resistance.
The permanent collection at the Center traces the central events of World War II and how the conflict affected Lyon. They also place particular emphasis on the city's network of Resistance fighters, some of whom met clandestinely in the traboules (passageways) of buildings in Old Lyon and elsewhere in the city, publishing underground newspapers and participating in other acts of resistance against Nazi collaboration.
Audio guides allow you to really delve into the realities of the Occupation years, and the exhibition trail is full of absorbing documents to explore: letters, photos, videos, propaganda posters, and more. You can also watch video testimonials and oral histories from some 700 members of the French Resistance.
If you're interested in movies, miniatures, or both, this "double-feature" museum should sate your curiosity. The Museum of Miniatures' collection brings together some 100 elaborate miniature scenes under a single roof, to magical and curious effect. Come to admire a tiny library complete with adorable little books, shelves, and book cart, or scaled-down banquet halls filled with tiny, lavishly set tables. There's also an apothecary, a butcher, and old-school medical office complete with minuscule objects fitting for each—glass bottles, meat on hooks, medical equipment, etc.
Meanwhile, the cinema collection at the same site features film set replicas, photos, costumes, a special effects gallery, and a variety of memorabilia related to movies and movie history. The temporary shows focus on single film directors or genres, making it another major destination for cinephiles in Lyon.
Both museums are housed within the Maison des Avocat, an impressive 16th-century building that was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
One of two interesting collections within the Musées Gadagnes building in Vieux Lyon (alongside the Puppetry Museum—see below), this space dedicated to the history of Lyon provides an intriguing glimpse into the development of the city over several centuries, from Antiquity and the Gallo-Roman period to the present day.
Opened in 1921, the permanent exhibits at the Lyon History Museum hold some 80,000 works of art and artifacts related to Lyon, from paintings and sculptures to photographs, manuscripts, drawings, and objects of daily life. The museum was recently modernized and renovated, and the permanent exhibit is now focused around interactive multimedia exhibits designed to be more accessible for kids and non French-speakers. Meanwhile, the garden and café are ideal for a coffee or tea break, and afford some memorable perspectives of Old Lyon and its warm, elegant architecture.
Since at least the 19th century, Lyon has been a center for both puppet making and puppetry. The theatrical shows revolving around the painted wooden creations aren't just for kids, either; while some performances, especially those that are still staged in city parks here and elsewhere in France, are tailored for younger audiences, Lyon has traditionally held more adult-themed puppet plays and performances.
The Puppetry Museum (part of the Musées Gadagne and located in the same building as the Lyon History Museum) offers an in-depth look at the art and history of this tradition. Its interactive permanent exhibit features more than 300 puppets, including Lyon's iconic hand puppet, guignol. (Reputedly fashioned after a Canut, or Lyonnais silk worker, the guignol—with his characteristic red cheeks, grin, and black cap—is often depicted on all sorts of objects and toys in souvenir shops, and can be seen on restaurant awnings and storefronts.) Learn more about the centuries-old art of puppetry in the workshop-like space, and explore the conventions—often creepy, unsettling, and even politically controversial—of traditional French guignol shows.
Anyone interested in modern creation should beeline to the MAC, Lyon's Museum of Contemporary Art. Situated within the Cité Internationale (International House) complex at the edge of the Parc de la Tête d'Or, the MAC is less a traditional collection than a constantly-evolving museum dedicated to contemporary innovation.
Every two years, a new major exhibition is staged here as part of the Biennial Contemporary Art Festival, when established and up-and-coming contemporary artists highlight their work (paintings, sculptures, multimedia installations, performance art) as part of each thematic show. Meanwhile, a number of galleries at the MAC stage other temporary shows, and film screenings, workshops, and talks on contemporary art are part of the annual program. The sprawling café with its outdoor terrace offer ideal views over the park beyond the walls; have lunch or coffee here after visiting the exhibits.
To explore how natural and human sciences connect with one another, head to the Musée des Confluences. Set in a futuristic glass-and-steel exhibition hall located in close reach of the Perrache train station, the museum offers an eclectic, tactile, and fascinating look at everything from anthropology to paleontology and entomology.
Unlike most museums, which separate natural sciences from those relating to the development of human societies and traditions, the Musée des Confluences explores both in a single, fascinating permanent exhibition. The in-depth trail through human (and non-human) time is designed for visitors of all ages, and includes plenty of fun and interactive features. From wooly mammoth and dinosaur fossils to Egyptian sarcophagi, brightly colored butterfly specimens, and early modern machines, there's a whole universe of history and science to explore here.