A gastronomic delight with real cultural clout
That Lyon is a sterling choice for bon vivants becomes evident within seconds of tucking into coq au vin in a jam-packed bistro, admiring fine art in a Renaissance abbey, or getting deliciously lost in a traboule (secret passageway) used by 19th-century silk weavers. It's a enthralling, richly storied city.
Street-smart Romans first spotted the city’s extraordinary topography, founding Lugdunum (Lyon's predecessor) in 43BC on the sunny slopes of Fourvière. And to this day, this basilica-crowned hill above Lyon’s quaint Unesco-listed Old Town (Vieux Lyon) is the perfect perch for clocking the mighty Rhône and Saône Rivers that wend their way so gracefully though the centre.
The city's quays, landscaped with peaceful water gardens and floating bars, buzz night and day – while culture lovers can explore a bounty of museums. Then there’s the gastronomy: among France’s finest, thanks to the unfaltering creativity of Lyonnais chefs, both past and present.
Hot right now . . .
Nicola Williams, our resident expert, offers her top tips on the hottest places to drink, and things to do, this season.
Book a hotel well in advance for a memorable weekend at Lyon’s iconic Fête de Lumières. The four-day Festival of Lights promises 40-odd spell-binding light installations and shows all over the city centre, recasting the city’s Unesco-treasured architecture in a spectacular new light. From 5 to 8 December.
The much-anticipated Cité Internationale de la Gastronomie (1 place de l’Hôpital, 69001) opens on October 21 inside the dazzling Hôtel Grand Dieu. Exhibitions, hands-on workshops and film screenings – all relating to gastronomy – will be among its tasty pickings alongside new cafés, restaurants and gourmet boutiques.
Join locals in discovering the clutch of elegant new bars inside the recently opened Hôtel Grand Dieu (1 Place de l’Hôpital). Summertime terraces spilling across the medieval hospital’s impeccably restored courtyards promise hours of atmospheric drinks al fresco. It's open daily, until 1am.
48 hours in . . . Lyon
Start with coffee and croissants at any of the pavement cafés on 19th-century Place des Terreaux. Admire the writhing horses of Frédéric Bartholdi’s fountain (constructed in 1889), the 17th-century Hôtel de Ville (00 33 472 10 30 30; 1 Place de la Comédie), and 15 playful fountains by conceptual artist Daniel Buren – all gleaming again after a £5.4 million restoration job that should finally be completed this summer.
At the Musée des Beaux-Arts(20 Place des Terreaux; 00 33 471 10 17 40), you can get hands-on with reproduction masterpiece sculptures at the L’Art et la Matière: Prière de Toucher exhibition (Art and Matter: Please Touch; until 22 September). Cool down afterwards with an artisan lemonade or juice in the museum’s cloister garden. Back outside, hit the fashion boutiques on shopping streets Rue Édouard Herriot and Rue de Brest. End with lunch (and more chic shopping, should you wish) at Le Grand Réfectoire (00 33 472 41 84 96) inside the new Grand Hôtel Dieu (1 Place de l’Hôpital) complex.
Walk five minutes to the 16th-century Place des Jacobins, and beyond to the River Saône. Cross the Passerelle du Palais de Justice footbridge to the riverfront Palais de Justice, one of France’s finest neoclassical monuments with its 24 Corinthian columns.
Explore Cathédrale Saint-Jean (Place Saint-Jean; 00 339 81 15 74 01) – the heart and soul of Unesco-protected Vieux Lyon – and amble the surrounding terracotta-hued maze of Medieval and Renaissance streets. End the afternoon with a funicular ride uphill to Fourvière and its wedding-cake Basilique de Fourvière (8 Place de Fourvière; 00 33 478 25 86 19). The city panorama that unfolds from the basilica terrace is magical, but the view from the statue-crowned rooftop is even finer: to see it, book an afternoon tour at 2.30pm or 4pm in advance.
As the sky turns pink, return to the Presqu’île and zip across the Passerelle du Collège footbridge to join locals promenading along the river-hugging Berges du Rhône. Its landscaped quays buzz with summertime lovers lounging on pristine lawns, and students hanging out in hammocks.
Linger over drinks on La Barge (15 Quai du Général Serrail; 00 33 478 52 49 91), followed by dinner at French-Japenese restaurant Takao Takano (33 Rue Malesherbes; 00 33 482 31 43 39) or La Mère Brazier (12 Rue Royale; 00 33 478 23 17 20) for traditional Lyonnaise cuisine. Here, Michelin-starred chef Mathieu Viannay puts a modern spin on classics such as poularde demi-deuil (poached chicken from Bourg-en-Bresse with black truffle), and a dangerously lavish cheese trolley.
Later, night owls can sip a sparkling French CanCan – with champagne, lemon and cassis – and other artisan cocktails at The Monkey Club (19 Place Tolozan).
Ride the metro from Hôtel de Ville up to Croix-Rousse, to drive your taste buds wild at the Marché de la Croix-Rousse (Boulevard de la Croix-Rousse), Lyon's best open-air food market. Meander its plane tree-shaded length, stopping to taste and buy: dégustation (tasting) is very much au rigueur in this foodie city. If it is Saturday, consider a guided tour (in English) of the 'hood's unique traboules (secret passageways) and silk-weaving workshops, run by the Lyon tourist office (Place Bellecour; 00 33 472 77 69 69).
Complete your Croix-Rousse foray with a Communard (glass of red Côtes du Rhône wine with blackcurrant liqueur) and a charcuterie or cheese platter to share at Café du Gros Caillou (180 Boulevard de la Croix-Rousse; 00 33 478 27 22 37) – or hitLes Desjeuner (3 Rue des Pierres Plantées) for a decadent brunch. Afterwards, stroll downhill along pedestrian Rue des Pierres Plantées, with its tiny boutiques and artist workshops. On clear and sunny days, linger at the top of hillside garden Jardin de l’Esplanade de la Grand-Côte, and see if you can spot Mont Blanc.
Take the metro two stops from Hôtel de Ville to Place Bellecour, said to be Europe’s largest car-free square. Sail downstream along the River Saône in a Vaporetto riverboat to La Confluence, Lyon’s most modern district constructed on wasteland where the city’s two mighty rivers meet (see 'Neighbourhood watch', above).
At the Musée des Confluences (86 Quai Perrache; 00 33 428 38 12 12) you'll find fascinating anthropological and science exhibits – and dramatic city views from the dazzling glass atrium and rooftop. Later, mooch past the former docklands on the Saône quayside to clock more eye-popping contemporary architecture. End at 1930s sugar warehouse-turned-rooftop bar Le Sucre (50 Quai Rambaud) for drinks with Lyonnais cool cats.
Back in Bellecour, sunset cocktails beckon at designer Le Rooftop (11 Rue du Bât d’Argent; 00 33 481 13 21 90), followed by revisited French classics at recently reworked old-timer Léon de Lyon (1 Rue Pleny; 00 33 472 10 11 12). Stand-out dishes include the veal sweetbreads with aromatic truffle-laced mashed potato, and sweet Grand Marnier-flambéed crêpes suzette.
Or, for cutting-edge vegetarian cuisine, book a table at Culina Hortus (38 Rue de l’Arbre Sec; 00 33 469 84 71 08): a feast of flavoursome and seasonal fruit, vegetables, grains, herbs and edible flowers from France’s finest small producers.
Where to stay . . .
The swish Villa Maïa sits high on Lyon's 'Hill of Prayer' and is the embodiment of French art de vivre craftsmanship. The 37 sublime designer rooms have sensational 180-degree city views, and the spa (complete with 20-metre indoor pool) overlooks a wild flower garden. The Michelin-starred dining is gastronomic, wine-bar casual, or irresistibly à la rooftop.
Doubles from €410 (£361). 8 Rue du Professeur Pierre Marion; 00 33 4 78 16 01 01
Mob Hotel Lyon
Lyon's dazzling ‘hotel of the people’ ticks every box with its sharp design, contagious creativity, and packed agenda of events. Mob Hotel’s modish rooms have a terrace, and some offer river views too. Larger Master Mobs include a sofa, Smeg fridge, coffee machine and projector screen for movies. Contemporary dining is organic and locally sourced. Thanks to its lively weekend DJ sets, Mob is a local favourite too.
Doubles from €99 (£87). 56 Quai Rambaud; 00 33 4 58 55 55 88
Slo Living Hostel
This Scandinavian-styled, new-generation hostel sits on Lyon's Rive Gauche (Left Bank). Slo Living's attractive rooms are a mix of bespoke doubles and dorms, and its courtyard garden and lounge bar are decorated with stencil art by a Lyonnais street artist.
Doubles from €75 (£66). 5 rue Bonnefoi; 00 33 4 78 59 06 90
What to bring home . . .
Pick up something silky from Maison Brochier (1 Place de l’Hôpital; 00 33 478 29 59 73), a family-run silk business dating to 1890 that has worked with Picasso, Miro, Chagall and other modern artists. Its new showroom inside Hôtel Grand Dieu is the epitome of timeless elegance.
Foodies should stuff their suitcases with saucisson (cured sausage) studded with Comté cheese, or a sweet bag of pralines roses (hazelnuts or almonds enrobed in flamingo-pink sugar) from Les Halles de Lyon (102 Cours Lafayette; 00 33 478 62 39 33) – the city’s legendary indoor food market on the Rive Gauche.
When to go . . .
Spring is predictably one of the most delightful times to visit. Temperatures can be positively tropical compared to the UK, and China-blue skies are a given as urban life spills outside. Summer raises the curtain on fantastic arts festivals, including Les Nuits de Fourvière at Lyon’s Roman amphitheatre. Lyon’s signature sunny days might be shorter in Autumn, but visitors are well-compensated with the surrounding Rhône Valley’s seasonal grape harvest. December in Lyon translates as the city’s spectacular Fête des Lumières (Festival of Lights; 5–8 December 2019) and brilliant boutique shopping and bistro dining before hitting the ski slopes, two hours’ drive away.
Know before you go . . .
Tourist board information:00 33 472 77 69 69/ https://en.lyon-france.com/
Emergency ambulance: 15
Emergency police: 17
British Embassy: 35 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, 75008 Paris, 00 33 144 51 31 00, www.gov.uk/world/organisations/british-embassy-paris/office/british-embassy
Flight time: (from UK) 1¾ hours
Currency: Euro (€)
International dialling code: +33
Local laws and etiquette
Tipping culture: Service is actually always included in restaurant bills in France, rendering tipping an appreciative gesture rather than obligation. Consider rounding the bill up by a few euros or leaving between 5% and 10% of the bill to compensate good service.
Public transport: Being fairly compact and undeniably handsome, Lyon is an ideal city for navigating on foot. The small but efficient, four-line metro run by TCL makes light work of longer distances and/or the hill up to Croix-Rousse; ditto for the vintage funicular line linking Vieux Lyon with the hilltop Fourvière neighbourhood. Single metro tickets cost €1.90/£1.70 and are valid for one hour on Lyon’s 130 bus lines and five tram routes too; a handy 24hour ticket (€6/£5.35) is also available. Metro trains run from 5am to midnight, and are generally safe to use.
Taxis: There are taxi ranks in front of Lyon’s two central train stations (Gare de Perrache and Gare de Part-Dieu), or order a city taxi online or by telephone with Taxi Radio de Lyon (00 33 472 10 86 86). Daytime rates are €0.80 to €1.62 (£0.70 to £1.44) per kilometre plus an immediate €2.50/£2.20 picking-up fee.
Driving Etiquette:On the right side of the road. Lyon is notorious for traffic congestion however and anyone in their right mind will either leave their voiture at home or dump it in a covered car park such as Parking Bellecour (€2.60/£2.30 per hour) on central Place Bellecour upon arrival and explore the city on foot or by public transport.
Greetings: Two skimming kisses – one on each cheek – is the norm among the Lyonnais, among both women and men.
Local dining: When eating in a bouchon (Lyonnais bistro) don’t be surprised if the waiter asks you to keep the same knife and fork for the duration of your meal – lick it clean discretely with the final bite of your entrée (starter) and place it back down on the table either side of your plate waiting to be cleared. Equally standard is for the final addition (bill) to be totted up with a pen on the paper red-and-white-checked tablecloth.
Nicola Williams is The Telegraph’s France travel expert. At home across the Channel for 20 years, it was in Lyon that she became an insatiable foodie and mastered the finer subtleties of the French language while renovating a 19th-century canut (silk-weaving workshop) in Croix-Rousse.
Experience Lyon with The Telegraph
Telegraph Travel's best hotels and holidays in Lyon, tried, tested and recommended by our Lyon experts.