I didn’t really know what to expect from Lyon. Though I’ve been to Paris a few times, and to Versailles, I’d never been anywhere else in France. I didn’t even know anything about the history of Lyon, or where it is in the country. Ah, the life of an opportunistic traveller. But with the opportunity to spend two days in Lyon, I thought I would make the most of my time in France.
Luckily, a friend had told us about a fabulous mobile application – Visit a City – which I will write about in a separate post. Basically, you state how long you intend to stay in a place, and whether you want a relaxed or busy visit, and it spits out an itinerary for you. Easy! Tweaking the recommendations slightly, we had our plan for the next few days all set.
Arriving in Lyon in the evening, we head to bed after having dinner at the hotel. We left the hotel at about 9.30am the next morning after a hearty breakfast and wandered across to the Parc de la Tête d’Or. Covering 105 hectares, it is one of the largest urban parks in France. Though we didn’t visit, it also hosts the Lyon Zoo and botanical gardens. I did see an array of delightful red squirrels though. Very cute!
After this, we walked – uphill – to the La Croix-Rousse neighbourhood. This is an old neighbourhood, which developed as a result of Lyon’s historic silk industry. Apparently, there is a funicular up the hill, but we missed that entirely. Ah well, at least we got some exercise. We wandered past Canut’s Wall – a very large outdoor mural – and then head down the hill, passing the Amphithéâtre des Trois Gaules. Completed in 19BC, it was the centerpiece of Condate, a Gallic village that predated the arrival of the Romans. In its original state, it would hold 20,000 people. We walked through the narrow cobbled streets to the Place Des Terreaux, with the Bartholdi Fountain all boarded up (under repair!) and admired the Hôtel de Ville.
The thing about visiting anywhere in Europe, is that so many of the buildings are beautiful, and have an amazing history. You don’t get that in Dubai – or in New Zealand, in fact. Even America lacks that depth of history. It is one of the many things I love about Europe. The temperature in Lyon was about 28 degrees, so perfect for wandering around and exploring interesting alleyways. For example, I saw some people open a door in Vieux Lyon to a long, dark hallway, and peered in. I later discovered this was one of the Traboules Secret Passages, created to allow silk workers a safe route to the markets.
Our walk then took us through the Place des Jacobins and to the Place Bellecour. One of the largest open squares in Europe, it had a checkered history during the French Revolution (housing a guillotine) and during the Napoleonic Era. Unfortunately, the square was so big that I managed to totally miss the Monument à Saint-Exupéry, in honour of the famous aviator and author of Le Petit Prince. Darn.
We wandered across the Pont Bonaparte over the Saône, entering the Vieux Lyon – the old town of Lyon. At the bottom of the hill stood the Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste. Built between the 12th and 15th centuries, it features beautiful stained glass windows and a huge Astronomical Clock (built in 1598!). Next, we bought a funicular ticket up to the top of Fourvière hill, to visit the La Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière. While I felt like I’d seen enough churches recently to last a lifetime… and Russian Orthodox Cathedrals are much more impressive…. I still thought we better take a look inside. Similar to the earlier cathedral we visited, it had large stained glass windows overlooking the city. You can get an impressive view of the town out the back of the church complex.
Our ‘Visit a City’ app told us to head down the hill again, just to catch a different funicular up, so we decided we would walk instead. It only took us about eight minutes to reach our next site, the Théâtre gallo-romain. There isn’t a heck of a lot to see…. lots of rocks… which is precisely the reason I decided to pass on Matt’s latest flight to Rome. However, it’s always interesting to see something so ancient – the amphitheatre was built in 15BC, and is still used today for concerts and events.
After wasting about half an hour figuring out how to get the funicular down the hill, we grabbed a delicious lunch at Cafe de le Ficelle, right next to Vieux Lyon metro station. It wasn’t a five-star affair, but I enjoyed my hearty Croque Madame and Salad, and I think it cost us about 25 euros for both of us. Next, we visited the Lyon History Museum – fine, if a little repetitive – and a terrifying puppet museum. Oh my word. Those puppets were creepy. We sped through that place very quickly. I’d received a recommendation to visit the Cinema Museum, but since it was extremely busy that day, we passed. After Matt grabbed himself a nice bottle of French red, and we wandered the 4kms back to the hotel and settled in for the night. Our UberEats driver even managed to deliver dumplings to our door.
The next morning, we caught an Uber into the city and took a one-hour boat trip with City Boat Lyon. If you don’t have a long time to spend in the city, this is a great way to see it. Given how hot it was – we sat up the top – one hour was definitely enough. However, at 12 euros, it’s still a cost-effective way to see the sights. Our guide – Clothide – spoke perfect English. Even when she conducted the tour bilingually, she was very good at holding your attention.
After this, we visited the Musee de la Resistance. It is housed in the very same building used by the Gestapo during WW2, with its infamous local chief Klaus Barbie, as its operational centre from 1942 until September 1944. During that time Barbie deported thousands of French people. Though this was really interesting, not much was in English, which meant we had to use our audio-guides. Man, the commentary on those things was intense. It was quite tiring to sit through hours of dialogue. We skipped a lot of it, but it was still very cool.
I particularly liked the little dark French town square set up to look like it would during WW2. If you speak French, I would definitely recommend a visit.We were pretty much totally exhausted by this stage, having walked 28kms over two days. We took a meandering walk along the river back to the hotel and napped for a few hours until Matt got ready for work. A thunderstorm rolled in just as we got back to our room, so we were grateful that we cut our visit short!
I know Lyon is touted as a wonderful weekend getaway, and it certainly lives up to its reputation. Whilst food and drink is expensive, transportation and attractions are relatively cheap. Best of all, it’s the kind of city where you can spend very little money at all… you can just wander the streets and admire the scenery. If you want to spend a weekend in Europe, two days in Lyon is one fantastic way to do so!
Hotel: Lyon Marriott Hotel Cité Internationale, 70 Quai Charles de Gaulle, Lyon. From €90 per night.
Transport: Lyon has an excellent tram, metro and funicular system. If you are taking more than one trip, you are best to buy a day pass for €5.60 (26 AED)
Eat: Cafe de la Ficelle. From €10 per person. 2 Avenue du Doyenné, Lyon.
Visit: Parc de la Tête d’Or (free). Amphithéâtre des Trois Gaules (free, although you can’t actually enter). Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste (free). La Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière (free). Lyon History Museum (€6 per person). City Boat Lyon (€12 per person). Musee de la Resistance (€9 per person, including audioguide). Oh, and if you have a death wish, the cost of puppet museum entry is included in your Lyon History Museum ticket. You have been warned.
Tips: You can rent bikes from many places in Lyon. The bikes are free for a half hour, although you will be charged if you take longer than that. Just return to any other bike rental station, and pick up another, to avoid being charged. There are clean, free public toilets next to the Vieux Lyon metro.