Some cities take you completely by surprise and this is exactly what happened visiting Lyon, France. I knew that Lyon is known as a gastronomic destination in France, so I wanted to experience some of the best French cuisine while explore some of the medieval charm and Unesco sites around the city. Outside of that, I didn’t know much about the Lyon except from recommendations from friends to visit and check out the scene and some fun things to do in Lyon. I was pleasantly surprised with my first impression of Lyon and that there were so many things to do in Lyon. I could have stayed a few more days to explore the many arrondissemonts (districts) of the city.
It’s wonderful that the historic central district of Lyon is relatively easy to walk around or take public transportation through the main attractions around the historic center. Typically, I enjoy walking everywhere so I can see everything along the way and take my time photographing some interesting detail or an unusual scene that catches my eye. And there is plenty to see walking around Lyon on a lovely summer day.
A little history about Lyon, France
Lyon, often referred to as the “Capital of Gastronomy” and “Silk Capital of the World,” is a historic city located in east-central France. Its history is rich and diverse, dating back over two millennia. Here’s a brief overview of Lyon’s history:
Roman Origins: Lyon was founded by the Romans in the 1st century BC, originally known as Lugdunum. It was established as a strategic military and economic hub at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers. Lugdunum quickly grew into a significant Roman city.
Roman Emperors: Lyon gained importance during the Roman Empire and was the capital of the province of Gallia Lugdunensis. It was also the birthplace of the Roman Emperor Claudius in 10 BC.
Christianity: Lyon played a pivotal role in early Christianity. It was the site of the first Christian communities in Gaul (ancient France). Notably, Saint Irenaeus, the influential early Christian theologian, served as the bishop of Lyon in the 2nd century.
Middle Ages: In the Middle Ages, Lyon became a prominent center for trade and commerce, particularly in the silk industry. The city’s silk production and trade with the East made it a prosperous and influential European city.
Renaissance: Lyon thrived during the Renaissance, with a flourishing printing industry. The city played a significant role in disseminating knowledge and culture throughout Europe.
Revolutionary Era: Like many French cities, Lyon experienced significant turmoil during the French Revolution. It was a stronghold of counter-revolutionary forces and faced severe reprisals from the revolutionary government.
Industrialization: In the 19th century, Lyon underwent industrialization and urbanization, fueled by the growth of the textile industry. The city’s historic traboules (hidden passageways) were constructed during this period.
World War II: Lyon was an important center of the French Resistance during World War II. It played a crucial role in intelligence and sabotage operations against the Nazi occupation.
Post-War Reconstruction: After the war, Lyon underwent extensive reconstruction and modernization. It became known for its innovative urban planning, including the creation of the Part-Dieu district and the Cité Internationale.
Culinary Capital: Today, Lyon is celebrated as a culinary mecca, with a rich tradition of gastronomy. The city’s bouchons (traditional restaurants) serve classic Lyonnaise cuisine, making it a UNESCO-recognized “City of Gastronomy.”
UNESCO Heritage: Lyon’s historic center, with its well-preserved Renaissance architecture and traboules, is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city’s silk industry heritage is also recognized.
Lyon’s history is a tapestry of Roman heritage, religious significance, economic prosperity, and cultural contributions. It continues to be a vibrant, dynamic city, blending its rich past with modern innovation and creativity. Today, Lyon stands as a captivating destination for travelers seeking history, culture, and culinary delights.
Lyon, France FAQ
What is Lyon, France known for?
The city of Lyon is recognised for its amazing food markets, cuisine and gastronomy. A smaller version of Paris with a Unesco Heritage site of Old Lyon and the Fourviere Hill along with the scenic Perqu’ile area
Best things to do in Lyon, France
Lyon’s Place Bellecour
In the center of Lyon is Place Bellecour, a magnificent square surrounded with stately buildings and looming above on a hill, is a very unusual building called the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In the middle of the square is an bronze equestrian statue of king Louis XIV. Along with some other bronze statues in this grand square, the area around the historic central district and medieval district is all part of a Unesco World Heritage Site.
I visited the main tourist center in the square to get a map and understand the layout and some of the main attractions worth visiting. I’m in luck this weekend because the place to be is along the Saone river, exploring the old town and enjoying a nice meal. I also find out there are a variety of activities along the riverfront areas to explore including the large outdoor weekend market and an art show.
River crossings at Lyon
Two rivers run through the central district of Lyon, the Saone divides the medieval section to the historic center. And the Rhone river separates the central district to the newer arrondissements (districts) of the city. On weekends one of my favorite places to go in Lyon is to walk along the Saone river, a lively outdoor farmers market takes place with fresh produce and locally made products from region.
There are pop up restaurants selling local delicacies like fresh seafood, sausages and even Paella which for some reason did not seem local to me. It’s fantastic to see what is in season and sample some local fruit or hand made specialty from the area like the cheeses and cured meats which seemed to draw in everyone to sample and purchase something to take home.
Oysters and seafood along the Saone river, mais qui!
Weekend markets along the Saone are where the locals go
On the other side of the Saone river is another weekend market with local artists selling their artwork along the waterfront. It’s lively and a very colorful scene with different types of art work on display for everyone to appreciate the creativity of local artists from the area.
Exploring the medieval district called Vieux Lyon
On other side of the Saone river is one of the most popular tourist places in Lyon to see called the medieval quarter or Vieux Lyon (old Lyon). The main imposing landmark is the cathedral of St. Jean, located in the Saint-Jean quarter.
Along the main promenade called the Rue Saint-Jean, many of the buildings are built in a Romanesque style, lining the main street all the way to the medieval center. The cobbled streets are filled with pastry and coffee shops, souvenir stands and galleries including a large selection of restaurants specializing in regional Lyonnaise cuisine.
Window shopping along the Rue de Gadagne
Fresh crepes made to order with savory or sweet choices
Looming above the Saint-Jean quarter is the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière with its imposing façade and two twin towers. Fourvière is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who saved the city of Lyon from the bubonic plague that decimated Europe in the 1643, along with many other serious plagues happening afterward. I learn that the basilica derived its name Fourviere from the ancient Roman forum, or forum vetus, where the current church it is built directly on top of the forum. There are a few other roman ruins just outside of the basilica, including the outdoor Roman theater with stone seats running down the side of the hill above Vieux Lyon.
To get to the top where the basilica is located, I take this pleasant ride on a relatively new funicular (cable car). It’s a quick ride to the top and close by is the entrance to the basilica. If you go to the back end, there is a look out point with fantastic views of the entire city. The basilica is quite impressive considering that it was built entirely from private funds.
Surprisingly, there is another large church located below in the basement and it is just as magnificent as the one above it. It is almost excessive in the overall design and decoration with all the gilt and elaborate details crafted from local artists, every inch was filled with intricate craftsmanship, statuary and artwork.
Stunning interior details of the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière
Center altar of Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière
The Roman theater close to Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière
Instead of taking the funicular back, I decide to walk downhill back to the Vieux Lyon and explore the area around the Roman theater. It’s a relaxed area with nice grassy areas to have a picnic or just take a break which is exactly what I did for a few minutes to absorb the space. The place is not crowded and corded off like many roman ruins, so it’s wonderful to just sit out in the sun and soak in all these wonderful views.
Continuing the walk down from the Roman theater, there are some more places to stop and enjoy the scenic views to the entire city. Here’s another look down to medieval town and the central district of Lyon from a lower vantage point.
Eating around Vieux Lyon
After a quick downhill walk, I finally make it to the medieval section and check out some of the marvelous restaurants many featuring local specialties from the region. There are so many restaurants tucked into the many small alleyways and clustered food . It’s almost difficult to choose the best spot and dish, so I rely on my intuition and choose something very traditional from a French menu.
I’m ready for a nice meal and indulge in a delicious cassoulet dish, it’s filled with haricot beans, small potatoes, tomatoes, duck confit and local sausages. The dish is delightful and in French they say, c’est magnifique (delicious).
I capped off the meal with a simple praline cake, a local specialty from the area and it’s also a winner. Today was quite successful explore the main attractions of Lyon and ending the day with an excellent meal tasting a traditional dish from Lyon. I’m so ready to go to bed and discover more of this wonderful city in my upcoming posts, so please stay tuned for more of my Lyon discoveries.
Weather and best time to visit Lyon, France
Lyon, France, experiences a range of weather throughout the year, and the best time to visit depends on your preferences and the type of activities you have in mind. Here’s a breakdown of Lyon’s weather and the best times to visit:
- Spring (March to May):
- Spring in Lyon is a lovely time to visit as the city starts to bloom.
- Temperatures gradually rise during this period, ranging from around 50°F (10°C) in March to the mid-60s°F (16-20°C) in May.
- The city’s parks and gardens come to life with colorful flowers, making it a great time for outdoor activities and sightseeing.
- Summer (June to August):
- Summer is the peak tourist season in Lyon due to warm and sunny weather.
- Daytime temperatures typically range from the mid-70s°F (24-26°C) to the low 80s°F (27-30°C).
- This is an ideal time for outdoor dining, exploring the city’s festivals, and enjoying the Rhône and Saône riverside areas.
- Fall (September to November):
- Early fall is a pleasant time to visit Lyon, with warm temperatures and fewer crowds.
- September offers comfortable weather, with temperatures ranging from the mid-70s°F (24-26°C).
- October starts to cool down, with temperatures in the mid-60s°F (16-20°C).
- November is cooler, with temperatures dropping into the 50s°F (10-15°C).
- Fall foliage in parks and along the rivers provides a picturesque backdrop for your visit.
- Winter (December to February):
- Lyon experiences a mild winter compared to many other European cities, but it can be chilly and damp.
- December temperatures hover around the 40s and 50s°F (4-10°C).
- January and February are the coldest months, with temperatures ranging from 35 to 45°F (2-7°C).
- While Lyon doesn’t typically receive heavy snowfall, occasional light snow and rain can occur.
- Winter is an excellent time for exploring museums, enjoying indoor attractions, and savoring cozy, warm meals in traditional Lyonnaise restaurants.
Best Times to Visit Lyon:
- Late Spring (May and June): Late spring offers pleasant weather with fewer crowds than the peak summer season. You can enjoy outdoor activities and explore the city comfortably.
- Early Fall (September): September is a fantastic time to visit Lyon as the weather is still warm, and the city is less crowded than in the summer months.
- Special Events: Consider visiting during special events like the Festival of Lights (Fête des Lumières) in early December or the Lyon International Dance Biennial, which takes place in odd-numbered years.
Ultimately, the best time to visit Lyon depends on your preferences for weather and crowd levels. Lyon offers something unique and enjoyable in each season, so plan your trip based on your interests and desired experiences.
Check out these other topics on Lyon
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Conclusion to a first impression of Lyon, France
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