We are currently spending two weeks in Lyon, the third-largest city in France, and what a splendid city it is. It is situated in eastern France on two major rivers (the Rhône and the Saône) and two large hills, close to Switzerland but just a two-hour train trip from Paris. The top of one hill is dominated by a magnificent basilica, a wedding cake of a cathedral which is equally ornate inside. There is a warren of traboules, or hidden passageways, that link streets in the Old Town, vestiges of its ancient silk trade. Much of old Lyon has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its Roman, medieval and Renaissance history, all of which demands exploration. Lyon is absolutely worth visiting, and still under the radar, it’s not too crowded.
What Makes Lyon Unique?
- Founded in 43 BC, Lyon (Lugdunum) was the capital of Roman Gaul two thousand years ago and a key city in the empire.
- In 1420 the French king established tax-free markets in Lyon that drew wealthy merchants from Italy and other parts of Europe.
- Subsequent building and renovation made Lyon the largest city in Europe with Italian Renaissance architecture (after Florence).
- The modern concept of banking was first developed in Lyon when paper money was issued in exchange for gold.
- The city flourished during the Renaissance as a crossroads of trade and hub of silk production.
- Inns that served cheap rustic food and local wine to the many thousands of silk workers evolved into the bouchon, the cornerstone of traditional gastronomy and the birth of the restaurant industry.
- Thanks to legendary chef Paul Bocuse, Lyon has also become a capital of modern gastronomy.
- In 2023 Lyon ranked 13th on Global Destination Sustainability Movement‘s sustainability index due to its continued initiatives for the environment, accessibility and sustainable tourism.
Sights of Lyon Worth Visiting
Here are the top sights of Lyon that you don’t want to miss. Lyon is very walkable but be aware that the cobblestones in Vieux Lyon can be challenging if you have mobility issues. Also, there are multiple long staircases leading up to the tops of the two hills. The easy way around this is public transit, the funicular, or Uber.
Basilica of Notre Dame of Fourvière
Completed in 1884, this basilica is perched atop Fourvière hill overlooking the city. It can be accessed by stairs or the funicular. The exterior is stunning, but the inside with inlaid floors and mosaic walls is gorgeous.
Begun in 1180 and completed in 1476, this Gothic cathedral in the Old Town also has an interesting astronomical clock from the Middle Ages. A UNESCO World Heritage site.
Exploration of Lyon’s Old Town area is a great way to learn about the city’s history, see some fabulous Renaissance architecture, dine at traditional bouchons and explore the traboules.
Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse
This stylish and lavish food hall features dozens of markets as well as several elegant restaurants. Shopping the produce, cheeses, meats, seafood, and prepared dishes is a must for any foodie.
Known locally as “the hill that works,” it was traditionally the blue-collar base of silk production and weaving. Now it’s the vibrant bohemian domain of cute shops, wine bars and cafés.
Ancient Roman Theaters
Located on the hill of Fourvière, this theater opened in 15 BC. UNESCO-protected, it still hosts events. A smaller odeon is found just beyond, and a third Amphitheater is located at the top of Croix-Rousse.
Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon
One of the largest art museums in France, located on the central Place des Terreaux. It is free to enter the elegant inner courtyard, which has a fountain and some statues.
Parc de la Tete d’Or
One of the largest city parks in France, this relaxing 19th-century greenbelt features a lake with boats, a small zoo, and a botanical garden, all free to the public.
Museum of Cinema and Miniatures
The miniatures are interesting, but the real attraction is the massive collection of 450 props from films like Star Wars, Alien, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, X-Files, Back to the Future, and more! It’s astounding!
Capital of Gastronomy
Our first visit here, Lyon drew us with its reputation as a foodie capital, which in France is saying a lot! Indeed, the food here is rich and delicious. Bouchons are unique to Lyon and they serve Lyonnais specialties and regional wine. One of France’s most famous chefs, Paul Bocuse, made his home here and was the inspiration for the chef in Disney’s Ratatouille. He leaves a legacy of restaurants, the famous Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse food hall, and Institut Paul Bocuse (cooking school, now called Institut Lyfe). Naturally, we started with a couple of food tours which introduced us to local specialties and gave us tips on where to eat. Let’s dig in.
Typical Lyonnais Dishes
- Quenelle – a dumpling made with pike and baked in a rich sauce
- Salade Lyonnaise – typical salad made with frisée, bacon and poached egg
- Saucisson – pork sausage of different varieties, including ‘Rosette Lyonnaisse’, ‘Jesus’
- Saucisson brioché – a pork sausage baked in a brioche bun like a kolache
- Andouillette – a sausage made of tripe
- Cervelle de Canuts – a loose cheese made of onions, garlic and herbs
- Tarte Praline – a tarte of pink pralines, almonds cooked in pink caramelized sugar
Other traditional dishes include groins d’âne salad (salad of donkey snout); gateau de volaille (cake of chicken liver); blood sausage; dishes made with bone marrow, etc. A fundamental tenet of the bouchon is to not waste any part of the animal.
🚩 Two Fabulous Food Tours to Get You Started
We started our stay in Lyon with a couple of food tours chosen based on their ratings and reviews. They were very different in scope, with surprisingly little overlap, but both were very enjoyable.
Our guide was Chloë and we started at the top of Croix-Rousse. We went to six different places, and sampled a surprisingly delicious brioche baked with local pink pralines; a dessert made with vanilla coco cassis; a lavish spread of fresh oysters, charcuterie and white wine (extra charge); two different Neapolitan pizzas; a French twist on empanadas; and artisanal ice cream. As we learned about the local food culture, we enjoyed chatting with our fellow participants. We always meet the nicest people on food tours!
Our guide was Jérémie and the tour took place in the heart of Vieux Lyon. We started at a fromagerie – a cheese shop – where we sampled four different local cheeses with white wine and learned about raw vs. pasteurized cheeses. Our next stop was a charcuterie – a shop selling meats like sausages and salami – and here we sampled some pink praline syrup, then sat down in the cellar to try all the charcuterie! This was also our first – but not last! – encounter with saucisson brioché, the sausage baked in brioche. Mwaaah!
Our third stop was a table at an authentic local bouchon, where we tried local specialties like cervelle de canuts, lentil salad, charcuterie and cheese. Our final stop took us to the hidden back room of a tea house, where we sampled their praline tarte with a choice of tea or coffee. Overall, delicious and a great intro to local purveyors in the Old Town.
Le Bistro Têtedoie
We had lunch on the sunny terrace here, perched high on the hill of Fourvière with a panoramic view of Lyon. The bistro is the more casual sibling of the Michelin-starred Têtedoie. The service was friendly and the food was delicious.
This restaurant in Vieux Lyon specializes in oysters and seafood. The oysters are flown in fresh from Oléron Island off France’s Atlantic coast, and there were several varieties to choose from. We also ordered steamed prawns and a salmon rillette, also from Oléron Island, a paté that was delicious on the fresh bread. Paired with a chilled Mâcon-Villages, it was the perfect meal on a balmy evening.
Madamann Crêperie Comptoir
A casual café serving sweet crêpes and savory buckwheat galettes from Breton. We got one with ham, Comté cheese, mushrooms and an egg, and it came with a simple but really tasty side salad. The cappuccinos were creamy and delicious.
Unique to Lyon, a bouchon is a traditional bistrot that offers hearty (and heavy) local specialties served with regional wines like Beaujolais and Côtes du Rhône. While you will find many bouchons in Lyon, only 23 are certified to be authentic. (Look for the sign with Gnafron, a Lyonnais puppet, on the outside of the restaurant.) They are affordable but they can be hard to get into so plan ahead.
A few of the bouchons we dined at:
🍷 Bouchon Les Lyonnais
We were introduced to this restaurant on a food tour, and we really enjoyed the food they served. We had their lentil salad (“silk workers’ caviar”), the cervelle de camuts cheese, and an assortment of charcuterie, so we we made arrangements to go back for dinner. I had the Artisanal Pike Quenelle and Mark had the Ravioles du Dauphiné, a French regional pasta specialty.
🍷 Le Musée
This restaurant came highly recommended by a personal friend and it did not disappoint. We started with the mushroom salad, which was warm, creamy and delicious, as well as the saucisson brioché, pork sausage enrobed in a golden brioche. Both were really good. Our entrées of tender savory pork cheeks and quenelle in lobster sauce were divine.
This is a new restaurant which has been receiving great reviews. Owned by a talented young couple, they are producing creative and elevated traditional dishes, all showcased in a tasting menu costing 39 euros. Three starters, three entrées, a couple of side dishes, plus two desserts to share. The service was attentive and the portions generous. It was a beautiful culinary journey!
Other Great Restaurants – Different Cuisines
🍜 Nishiki Ramen
We happened by this place, looked it up online and saw that it rated a 4.9 on 500+ Google reviews so we popped in as they opened. Service was friendly and the Kirin on draft was served ice cold. We started with pork gyozas and they were sautéed, tender and delicious. They tasted homemade and not frozen which was a nice surprise. We each got tonkotsu ramen and it was among the best we’ve had. The chashu pork was tender and flavorful and the broth was creamy and savory.
This is a cute little brunch place which turned out to be great. The cappuccino was delicious, as was the Turkish Egg – extra-creamy Greek yogurt with garlic and fresh herbs, a poached egg, grilled vegetables and chili oil. Mark had a sort of bacon and eggs burger with sweet potato fries and liked it a lot.
🍗 Food Traboule
This cool place in the heart of Vieux Lyon kept popping up on lists, so we gave it a go. It’s essentially a food hall in a historical building with eight or nine restaurants, serving pizza, pasta, burgers, chicken, Middle Eastern, Korean, even traditional Lyonnais. You sit, order from a QR code, then pick it up when it’s ready. The waitress will take your drink order. Fast and easy!
Trained in Naples and ensconced in an intimate cave in Croix-Rousse, Maria offers authentic Neapolitan pizzas made in their Sorrentino brick oven. We started with the olives and large capers, as well as the burrata, which was served with a crispy pizza-sized flatbread. I had the Capodimante, with olives and artichokes, and Mark had the Sanita, similar to a margherita. Delicious!
Cooking at Home?
While we were visiting a local cheese shop, the owner told us a cold front was coming in. He suggested we make raclette and offered to loan us a raclette machine! A simple traditional dish of Switzerland and eastern France, it consists of melting alpine cheese and pouring it over cooked potatoes. He helped us select raclette cheese – one mild and one smoked – and suggested we accompany it with charcuterie, cornichons (little pickles) and a white wine. It was a fun, easy, tasty meal!
We stumbled upon this place when we passed a line and saw cookies in the window. Intrigued, Mark quickly looked it up and found a solid 4.5 on over 500 reviews. We were in. Only open Tuesday through Saturday from 2 to 7, they have quite a cult following. We tried the Classique – a fat chocolate chip – and the Speculoos – a spicy flavor sort of like gingerbread. I was impressed that it tasted great without any fake flavor. These were the perfect evening snack. Interestingly, the guy at the window was French but raised in Salem, Oregon!
Glacier Lyon Terre Adélice
Wildly popular, Terre Adélice opened in Vieux Lyon in 2010 and offers over 100 flavors of artisanal ice cream and sorbet. Too many? Not at all. It is 100% organic and incorporates fresh ingredients from the surrounding Ardèche region of France. Elderflower, hibiscus, pink praline, lavender, truffle, and Valrhôna dark chocolate are just a few of the sophisticated flavors you will encounter. Get in line already!
PAVLOVAS by Joël Maier
When you get tired of ice cream, cookies and pastries, these are something different but equally delicious and absolutely gorgeous. A pavlova is a light dessert consisting of a meringue shell, filled with flavored cream and topped with fresh fruit. A pick-up shop and a nearby tasting room offers two ways to enjoy this treat. PAVLOVAS by Joël Maier has it down.
Where to Stay in Lyon
There are lots of great accommodations here… if you stay on Fourvière, you’ll be close to Old Lyon as well as amazing panoramic views. Staying within Vieux Lyon puts you close to all this quarter has to offer, but if you do an airbnb, be aware that many old buildings lack a lift. Presqu’île, the area between the two rivers, is very central to all of Lyon’s most popular sights. The Confluence area is modern but not as central to Lyon’s attractions, but there is a metro for fast transit around town.
Villa Florentine | Vieux Lyon
Situated on Fourvière in Old Lyon with a panoramic view of the city, this elegant hotel by Relais & Châteaux offers comfort and Old Europe charm.
InterContinental Lyon – Hotel Dieu, an IHG Hotel
Large, elegant and highly-rated hotel facing the Rhône River. Centrally located on Presqu’île, close to Place Bellecour.
Boutique hotel offering #2 Best Value of 342 places to stay in Lyon, according to Trip Advisor. Located on Presqu’île, close to Place Bellecour in the heart of Lyon.
Short-term Rental | Maison DEBOURG | Vieux Lyon
Since we were staying a few weeks and needed a washing machine, we went with a rental apartment – and what a cool one it was! Located in the heart of Vieux Lyon, it was on the fourth floor of a historic Gothic building erected in 1420! When do you ever get to stay in a place that old? Fortunately, it has been updated since then.
➡️ Check rates and availability
A 3-Day Itinerary in Lyon
Day 1: Lyon’s History and Culinary Delights
- Start your day with a delightful French breakfast at Le Saint Romain, a charming café in Vieux Lyon.
- Take a leisurely walk through Vieux Lyon, exploring traboules (hidden passageways) and the historic architecture.
- Enjoy a traditional Lyonnais bouchon experience at Café Comptoir Abel, known for its authentic cuisine.
- Visit the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière for panoramic views.
- Explore the hidden gem, the Maison des Canuts, to learn about Lyon’s silk industry.
- Dine at the elegant Le Mère Brazier, a Michelin-starred restaurant offering gourmet Lyonnais cuisine.
- After dinner, enjoy a romantic stroll along the Saône River.
Day 2: Outdoor Adventure and Scenic Views
- Have a sumptuous French breakfast at Le Pain Quotidien near Parc de la Tête d’Or.
- Spend your morning at Parc de la Tête d’Or, with the option to take a rowboat ride on the lake or enjoy a leisurely walk.
- Have a picnic in Parc de la Tête d’Or or try L’Esprit Bistrot for a casual, outdoor lunch.
- Visit the Confluence Museum to explore Lyon’s modern architecture and design.
- Dine at the beautiful Le Bistrot du Potager, offering a scenic view of the Rhône River.
- Take a romantic evening walk along the Rhône River’s banks to admire the illuminated cityscape.
Day 3: Hidden Gems and Culinary Discoveries
- Enjoy a final French breakfast at Le Petit Glouton, a cozy café in Croix-Rousse.
- Explore Croix-Rousse, known for its traboules, street art, and silk history.
- Savor gourmet Mediterranean-inspired cuisine at Café Sillon, a hidden culinary gem.
- Take a guided tour of Les Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse, a renowned food market.
- Enjoy a farewell dinner at the Michelin-starred restaurant, Les Loges, located in a historic building.
- Take a leisurely after-dinner walk along the Presqu’île district.
This 3-day itinerary provides a well-rounded experience in Lyon, with an extra day for exploring hidden gems and dining at remarkable restaurants. You’ll have the opportunity to immerse yourselves in Lyon’s history, enjoy delicious food, and explore the great outdoors, all while staying within an average budget.
Conclusion: Yes, Lyon is SO Worth Visiting!
A beautifully scenic city, two thousand years of history, stunning Renaissance architecture and world-class food make Lyon absolutely worth visiting. While Lyon is gaining popularity as a destination amongst travelers, including the French, it’s still not overrun like other popular European cities. Three days is a perfect amount of time to get the lay of the land, learn about the history and sample the best foods Lyon has to offer.