Oh Lyon, the city that…
was founded by the Roman Empire in 43 B.C.,
became the center of French Resistance in World War II,
saw the birth of The Little Prince‘s author,
possesses a World UNESCO Heritage Site,
is considered France’s food capital…and that
most people haven’t heard of.
As someone who called Lyon home for nearly 6 months, I feel compelled to advertise—with no commission and only bias—6 reasons why you should drop by this southern city on your next trip to France!
1. Rich Gallo-Roman History // L’histoire gallo-romaine
Inhabited since prehistoric times, the area that is Lyon today was once part of Gaul, a vast region of Western Europe inhabited by Celtic people. In 58 BC, some guy named Julius Caesar swung by to conquer it, thereby beginning the 8-year-long Gallic Wars. This resulted in a Roman victory and the absorption of Gaul into the Roman Empire. A few years later, the Romans founded a city named Lugdunum situated at the confluence of two rivers, the Saône and the Rhône. With its strategic location the city naturally bloomed into a prosperous commercial and communication hub, and later became the capital of Roman Gaul. Some 2000+ years later, it is the 3rd most populated French city known as Lyon!
Today you can see the vestiges of Lugdunum by visiting its two Roman Amphitheaters and the Gallo-Roman museum, which houses ancient statues, tombstones, ceramics and relics. While there, you should walk over to visit the beautiful Basilica of Notre-Dame on Fourvière Hill, and enjoy an amazing view of Lyon.
2. Festival of Lights // Fête des Lumières
When the plague swept across France in 1643, the Lyonnais councillors thought that if anyone could help, it’d be Virgin Mary. Asking that their city be spared, they promised to honor her every year if Lyon was protected—and their wish was granted. When Mary’s statue was erected 209 years later, the Lyonnais took part in the celebration by placing candles along their windows. Today, it is a full-blown spectacle that illuminates the city’s major landmarks with light shows, captivating locals and international tourists alike. Take part in the 3 or 4-day annual event by visiting Lyon around Dec 8 (the dates change every year)!
One of my regrets was that I could not witness Lyon’s famed Festival of Lights. Oh well, it just gives me another excuse to go back!
3. Unique Museums – Demeure du Chaos et Musée Miniature et Cinéma
Technically the Abode of Chaos is not in Lyon—the outdoor art museum is in a small town nearby called Saint-Romain-au-Mont-d’Or. If the outdoor part does not engage you enough, perhaps free admission will! Full of personality and symbolisms, Abode of Chaos truly lives up to its name: it’s a mess, albeit in a good way. With artwork scattering all over the place, the museum features small to big sculptures (eg. a plane) as well as political graffiti screaming social commentary. From obvious irony to oblique thoughts on life, Abode of Chaos offers a unique art experience you can’t get anywhere else!
I went to the Miniature and Cinema Museum for the miniatures, but ended up being enchanted by movie magic instead!
The museum is split into 2 themes (surprise surprise!). The cinema part displays various movie props and unravels how special effects work. From the Gremlin model, to Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique costume from X Men, fake severed body parts and scars, and a robot alien, prepare to spend a long time examining their amazing details and reading about how they were made and what purposes they served. If you’ve watched the erotic French thriller Parfum, you will be excited to see realistic recreations of its scenes in front of your eyes! As for the museum’s stunning miniature collection, it will make you feel like a curious giant peeping into humans’ tiny little bathroom, kitchen, classroom, streets, etc.
Other museums worth visiting:
♥ Confluence Museum for natural history
♥ Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon
♥ Lumière Institute, which commemorates the Lumière Brothers who arguably created the first film in the world
4. Old Lyon quarter // Vieux Lyon quartier
Lyon was an important manufacturer of silk in Medieval times. In Vieux Lyon, you can find more than 200 of the city’s 400 traboules, or secret passageways connecting buildings that allow you to enter from one street and exit to another. Back in the days it was mainly used by silk workers to transport their goods quickly and also to protect them from rain. During World War II, they served a brilliant function: providing hiding places and escape routes for the Resistance Force dodging the German Gestapo!
Most of the traboules lead to private residence now, but some are still open to the public. Hop in to see where they lead you to!
Gems in the quarter:
♥ Saint Jean Baptiste Cathedral, a gothic church that started construction in 1180 and took 300 years to finish!
♥ Rose Tower
♥ Every building, essentially
5. The Rhône and Saône riverbanks
The Rhône and Saône riverbank walkways are what urban renovation projects done right look like. As if the rivers themselves aren’t scenic enough, the 2 quays provide abundant space for people to drink beers, jog, bike, play cards, eat lunch, or simply hang out. The 5-km long Rhône stretch has a playground for kids—with reclining chairs for adults!
The Rhône riverbank walkway accommodates everyone—and even has a skatepark for youngsters to show off their skills! I came out of my studio many days to just enjoy this free entertainment. The Saône river, on the other hand, sends a very different, lazier vibe. Strolling along it, one can’t help being mesmerised by the view of Vieux Lyon and Fourvière Hill, and be lost in Lyon’s distant past.
6. Hôtel de Ville, Croix-Rousse and Bellecour
TheIse 3 distinct places are all worth visiting—for different reasons!
Hôtel de Ville
Who is Bartholdi? You might not recognize his name but you must have seen his work before, for this Frenchman designed America’s world-famous Statue of Liberty! In the Place des Terreaux in the Hôtel de Ville area, you will find his grand statue, the city’s city hall and the Fine Arts Museum. While you’re there, take some time to sit lazily on the terrace of a café for me, and idle a sunny afternoon away.
Aside from having its share of traboules, this hilly part of Lyon boasts of interesting architecture, cafés, restaurants and lively food markets. It has a secluded and somewhat residential feeling that sets it apart from the rest of Lyon. Climb up there to get a good view of the city and see one of the Roman amphitheaters!
Even if you’re not in the mood for shopping, you should still head to Bellecour for its architecture and to get a sense of Lyonnais daily life! Here you will find everything from global brands like H&M and Sephora to the French departmental store Printemps, high-end design and jewellery stores, small local shops, McDonald’s, etc. Bellecour is wedged between the Rhône and the Saône, so when you get tired of shopping—just walk off in either direction for a break!
♥ Take advantage of Lyon’s convenient bike sharing system
♥ Visit all its churches