Nestled in France's lush Rhône Valley, Lyon is one of the country's most populous and interesting cities. The former Gallo-Roman capital is around two thousand years old, boasts world-acclaimed local cuisine and wines, and offers curious visitors a wealth of interesting attractions like museums and hidden passageways. Keep reading for the best things to see and do in the city once known as "Lugdunum."
Discover Vieux Lyon (Old Town)
Any first visit should ideally begin in Vieux Lyon, or Old Town. Dating to the early medieval period, it is today mostly remarkable for its well-preserved buildings from the Renaissance.
Old Town runs north to south along cobbled streets parallel to the Saône River. It is nestled against Fourvière hill, which boasts some of the city's most beautiful 15th- and 16th-century buildings, famous for their rose- and orange-hued façades built in Italian Renaissance style.
To explore the area, get off at the Vieux Lyon-St Jean metro stop and slowly wind through the narrow streets, quaint shops, traditional restaurants, and secretive courtyards. Rue Saint-Jean is the main street for shopping and dining in the area.
Admire the Architecture at Saint-Jean Cathedral
Completed around 1480, the Saint-Jean Cathedral is a genuine masterpiece. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it dominates the Place Saint-Jean, at the southern edge of Vieux Lyon.
The Cathedral's mixed architectural style reflects the different phases of its construction over hundreds of years. Saint-Jean features an apse and choir designed in the Romanesque style, while the Gothic-style nave and façade came later.
Other outstanding features include a prominent rose stained-glass window dating to the 12th century, an astronomical clock added during the 14th, and sculptures decorating the façade that illustrate Biblical stories. Also make sure to visit the Bourbon chapel, built by the Duke of Bourbon during the 15th century and widely considered a masterpiece for its elaborate sculptures.
Get Lost in Lyon's Traboules (Old Passageways)
For a fascinating look at Lyonnais history, make sure to explore the city's distinctive traboules. These are networks of ramped, covered, or partly covered passageways that connect many of the Renaissance-era buildings that stand on Fourvière hill. It is thought that some date to as early as the 4th century, while others were added in subsequent centuries.
While many traboules were likely built to allow residents to quickly descend from their homes to the old town below, some gained a new purpose during the 19th century. They connected the silk workshops of the Croix Rousse district to the commercial center of Vieux Lyon, allowing silk weavers to transport textiles down the steep hill to reach merchants. Later, during World War II, French Resistance fighters famously hid from Gestapo officers and planned meetings in the passageways, which many outsiders were unaware of.
We recommend taking a guided tour of the traboules to access some of the most impressive among them, and appreciate architectural details from ornate galleries to dizzying spiral staircases.
As if Lyon's layers of medieval and Renaissance heritage weren't impressive enough, this museum and archaeological site peels back further layers to reveal the city's importance during the Roman Empire.
Perched on the steep slopes of Fourvière, the UNESCO World Heritage site comprises a museum filled with Gallo-Roman artifacts and objects from daily life, built into the hillside next to two well-preserved Roman amphitheaters. The main amphitheater is France's largest, and at its height it was able to seat 10,000 people for plays and other spectacles. The smaller "Odeon" arena was probably used for concerts and political meetings, and could seat around 3,000. The arenas host open-air summer concerts and other events to this day.
Visitors can also explore onsite Roman baths and churches, roam through fragrant rose gardens, and enjoy panoramic views over the city.
Often compared to Sacré Coeur in Paris, the Fourvière Basilica (Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière in French) dramatically crowns the hill of the same name, offering fantastic vantages over the rooftops and monuments of Lyon.
Inaugurated in 1884, the gleaming white Basilica blends Byzantine and Roman architectural elements. It's dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and was built as a symbol of protection following a bubonic plague that swept through Europe in the 17th century.
Many see Fourvière as a symbol of Lyon itself, while others dislike its design and compare it to an "upside-down elephant." Whatever your opinion of its architectural merits, visit the exterior and gilded interiors before taking in sweeping views over the city.
Lyon is prized for its food and gastronomy. To get an authentic taste of some of the best for reasonable prices, head to one of its bouchons: intimate, traditional eateries where you can taste regional specialties such as pike quenelles and Charolais beef, in addition to inventive dishes from local chefs.
The dual collection at Musées Gadagne offers further insight into the long history of Lyon, as well as an exploration of the city's puppeteering and marionette-making traditions.
Visit the history museum to learn more about Lyon during the Renaissance. You can explore daily life during the period, artistic and cultural achievements, architecture, and more.
The Puppet Museum, meanwhile, is an old-fashioned but fun collection that all ages will enjoy. Learn more about the traditional crafting of wooden marionettes (also called guignols in French) and the quirky, endearing local custom of staging elaborate puppet shows that even adults flock to.
If you can only make time for one market in Lyon, it should be this one, opened in 1859. Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse bears the name of one of France's most legendary chefs, and offers food lovers a maze of delights across some five dozen stalls.
Here you'll find a huge variety of authentic French cheeses, baked goods, herbs, sauces, chocolate, colorful produce from nearby farms, and more. If you want to browse or buy regional specialties, shops like Maison Malartre sell everything from Lyonnais quenelles (pike dumplings) to escargot and rich sauces.
Come to stock up on goodies for a picnic on the banks of the Saône or Rhône, weather permitting.
Travel tip: The market makes a good first stop in Lyon if you're arriving at the nearby Part-Dieu train station.
Offering picturesque views over Vieux Lyon and a 9-mile path (or "promenade" that takes you from the city center to the edge of the Rhône Valley countryside, the banks of the Saône River are sublime.
Before or after visiting Vieux Lyon, explore the riverbank paths, promenade and elegant footbridges (passerelles in French). Take in the warm, elegant façades of Old Town and enjoy light playing on the water, especially near dusk or early in the morning. This is one of the most photo-worthy spots in the city, so make sure your camera or phone has sufficient batteries.
Stop by City Hall (Hôtel de Ville) and Place des Terreaux
Dominated by Lyon's Hôtel de Ville (City Hall), the Place des Terreaux forms the central artery of the Presqu'île area.
Built in a grandiose neoclassical style and replacing an earlier layout destroyed during the French Revolution of 1789, the sweeping, open central square is often used for city events and official processions. To one side, admire the dramatic Bartholdi Fountain, whose enormous sculpture depicts a woman commanding a chariot over four French rivers. It was completed in 1889.
Lyon's City Hall looms at the east side of the square, while the Lyon Fine Arts Museum stands at the south end, next to the lavish Saint-Pierre Palace.
This central area between the Rhône and the Saône is the bustling heart of contemporary Lyon, home to busy shopping streets, museums, grand squares, restaurants, and theatres.
Its layout and architecture meld styles from the Renaissance period through to the 19th century, and many of the elegant faćades in the area resemble the Haussmannian architecture of Paris.
The Presqu'île stretches from the Place Bellecour—one of the largest pedestrian squares in Europe—to the Place des Terreaux. The Rue Mercière boasts some fine Renaissance-era buildings; closer to the banks of the Rhône you'll find the Lyon Opera House, which features a contemorary domed rooftop from French architect Jean Nouvel.
For anyone interested in fine art, this municipal museum on the Place des Terreaux is an essential destination. Its permanent collection—one of Europe's largest and most important—features paintings, sculpture, ceramics, and antiquities stretching from ancient Egypt to the modern period.
You can see masterpieces from the likes of Véronèse, Rubens, Géricault, Delacroix, Manet, Monet, Gauguin, Picasso, and Matisse, while also admiring urns, sarcophaguses, and objects of daily life from ancient Egypt.
The museum is housed in a distinctive 17th-century building that once served as a Benedictine convent. It was restored in the late 1990s.
Unwind in Parc de la Tête d'Or
For a bit of fresh air or to stage a French-style picnic on the grass, head to one of Lyon's loveliest and largest municipal parks. Opened in 1857, the romantic-style Parc de la Tête d'Or welcomes visitors through its gilded gates, beckoning them to explore verdant paths, man-made lakes, footbridges, cycling routes, and even a small zoo.
Visit the park after taking a stroll along the banks of the Rhône river. If you're traveling with children, they'll appreciate attractions like mini-golfing, horse and pony rides, puppet theaters, and riding the park's dedicated miniature train.
Lyon lies within the fertile and beautiful Rhône Valley, endowed with some of France's finest vineyards and winemaking estates. If you have more than a couple of days to explore the city, we recommend embarking on a day trip that involves wine tasting and guided tours of one or more local vineyards.
On one of these guided wine tours, you'll learn about the Rhône Valley's different terroirs—specific geographical areas thought to produce very different sorts of wines due to soil quality, sunlight, etc. You'll also learn how to appreciate and recognize specific notes and flavors in reds and whites, and tour local wine production facilities to gain more insight into the magic of winemaking.
Fan of cinema history? How about miniatures? This intriguing double collection focuses on both.
The quirky museum boasts more than 100 painstakingly created miniature scenes depicting movie theaters, restaurants, an apothecary, an old-world medical office, and more.
Meanwhile, the cinema collection includes costumes, replicas of film sets, photos, memorabilia, and a special effects gallery. It also hosts special temporary exhibits on particular directors, film genres, and other themes.
The site in Old Lyon is also worth visiting for the building in which it's housed: a 16th-century Renaissance masterpiece known as the Maison des Avocats, now a UNESCO site.
Many tourists overlook the Croix-Rousse neighborhood, but they shouldn't. Situated in the steep heights of Lyon's second major hill (alongside Fourvière), the Croix-Rousse is full of hip boutiques and restaurants, meandering paths, and mysterious courtyards.
The historic home of the canuts, Lyon's large community of 19th-century silk workers and weavers, Croix-Rousse still bears the traces of that interesting legacy. Like Vieux Lyon, it also counts numerous traboules, or passageways, worth exploring. These were widely used to transport silk by workers in the area.
Make sure to see the Mur des Canuts, an enormous, "trompe l'oeil" mural that minutely depicts daily life in the district during the 19th century. It's one of the largest pieces of public art in Europe.
If you want to dig even deeper into the history of Lyon's canuts (silk workers), paying a visit to the Maison des Canuts (Silk Workers' Museum) in the heart of the Croix-Rousse area is in order.
In addition to learning about the daily life, social conditions, and famous revolts of the canuts, you'll also get insight into the process of silk weaving itself. From the lifecycles of silkworms, to the intricate and painstaking process of weaving silk, to the invention of the Jacquard loom, there's a wealth of interesting information to absorb during a visit to the workshop here.
Lyon's darker history comes alive in this important collection of artifacts and documents related to the city during World War II, when France's collaborationist government in Vichy, France participated in Nazi atrocities.
The documentation center is symbolically housed in Lyon's former Gestapo headquarters, where numerous resistance fighters were tortured. This is also where Klaus Barbie, an SS officer and chief of the Gestapo in Lyon, had his offices. He orchestrated the deportation of some 7,500 local French Jews to European concentration and death camps. He was also personally responsible for the death of 4,000 individuals, mostly political dissidents.
A visit to the multimedia exhibit is both educational and insightful, allowing visitors to keep alive the memory of the thousands who perished under the command of both the Nazis and Vichy France.
The Textile & Decorative Arts Museum takes visitors on a journey through 2,000 years of textile history, offering insight into the social and economic developments that surround it.
The collection tells the story of how Lyon became a world powerhouse in the silk trade during the Renaissance, and features objects such as rare Persian rugs, ornate tapestries, and silks from around Europe.
It also includes a significant collection of medieval and Renaissance-era tapestries as well as an impressive set of antique clocks. There's even a modern collection of decorative items that show how tastes and materials evolved following the Industrial Revolution and through to the contemporary period.
If you're surprised to learn that Lyon boasts two museums dedicated to cinema history, you shouldn't be. The famous Lumière brothers—Lyon natives—were pioneers in filmmaking techniques and technology, and were credited with producing the very first (short) moving pictures. As such, the city is proud of its contributions to the history of the "seventh art".
Lumière villa is certainly off the beaten path, but it's worth a detour for its striking 19th-century building and surrounding gardens alone. Inside, you'll find an intriguing collection of artifacts related to the Lumière brothers' filmmaking breakthroughs, as well to the history of movies in general.
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. "Cathedral Sint Jean Baptiste in Sint Jean District (Vieux Lyon); Part of the UNESCO World Heritage."
"Traboule 'Maison (House) des Avocats,' Rue de la Bombarde in Sint Jean District (Vieux Lyon)." United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.