Lyon is the third largest city in France and the second most important city in the country after Paris. Those who take the time to explore the city always expect to see many cultural treasures and many Lyon attractions.
Lyon, whose history dates back to Roman times, was included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The city has the oldest ancient ruins in France, medieval quarters and beautiful Renaissance houses.
The atmospheric neighborhoods along the Rhône and Saône rivers reflect the city’s rich heritage. The Quartier Saint-Jean and Colline Croix-Rousse neighborhoods have a charming Old World character, while the Presqu’ile represents 19th century elegance.
The happiest visitors are those who travel here to sample the famous cuisine. France’s most famous chef, Paul Bocuse, is from Lyon.
Tip 1: Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière
Visible from afar, the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière towers over Lyon on the summit of Mount Fourvière. It is easily recognizable by its four towers and the golden statue of the Virgin Mary.
It stands on the exact site of the ancient Forum Trajan, where Lyon’s first archbishop, named Saint Pothin, suffered his martyrdom. Just like the historic center, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As early as the 11th century, the first chapel of St. Mary was built on the hill. However, the history of the white basilica began in 1643, when a plague epidemic ravaged the entire Lyon area. A group of women prayed to the Virgin Mary to spare their city of Lyon. And indeed, Lyon was not struck by the plague. In honor of the Virgin Mary and in commemoration of the miracle, a church was built on the summit of Mount Fourvière.
The interior of the magnificent basilica is definitely worth a visit: the high ceiling. The columns and walls are richly painted or decorated with lots of gold, mosaics and statues. Light enters the room through large stained glass windows with biblical motifs. So the effect is impressive, especially on sunny days, when you look up in the nave and the colored light hits the gold of the decorations.
Right next to the basilica behind the parking lot is a viewing platform open to the public, from which you have a truly wonderful view over the old town and all of Lyon. In good clear weather, the view reaches as far as the snow-capped peaks of the Alps. But it is also worth coming here in the evening, when the city is illuminated.
Tip 2: Vieux Lyon
Vieux Lyon is the neighborhood developed during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance between the foot of Mount Fourvière and the Saône River. Actually, the old town of Lyon consists of three quarters: Saint-Paul, Saint-Jean and Saint Georges.
Vieux Lyon has been a UNESCO Heritage Site since 1998, it is one of the largest preserved Renaissance quarters in Europe. You can stroll leisurely through the old winding streets, store in small stores or eat a multi-course meal in one of Lyon’s many restaurants. For Lyon has the reputation of being the gastronomic capital of France and especially in the old town, this is confirmed at almost every step in the area around Saint-Jean: Restaurants are lined up close together, and where there is some space (for example, at Place de la Baleine or in Rue du Boeuf), restaurateurs have set up outdoor tables so that on warm days you can dine in front of the backdrop of the old alleys.
Another famous feature is the traboules. The entire old town is crisscrossed with these long corridors that connect the courtyards. In the past, silk weavers dried their cloth here. One of Lyon’s landmarks is also found in such a traboules: the Tour Rose (today it belongs to a hotel and restaurant).
Vieux Lyon consists of three parts. Today they have grown together, but have their own history, the traces of which are still visible:
Saint Georges in the south is the old neighborhood of silk weavers, before they moved to the Croix Rousse, and of craftsmen. This is where the first traboules were created.
Saint Jean was the quarter of the clergy and center of political and religious power in the Middle Ages. Saint Paul in the north was the economic and financial center, bankers (especially from Italy) and the bourgeoisie lived here in their residences.
Tip 3: Lyon Cathedral
St. Jean is the short name given to the cathedral by the people of Lyon. Its full name is “La primatiale Saint-Jean-Baptiste-et-Saint-Étienne.” At the foot of the Fourvière hill, it can be found in the middle of the old city of Lyon: Easily visible both from the hill and from the river side of the Saône.
Its patrons are St. John the Baptist and St. Stephen. The cathedral is the seat of the Archbishop of Lyon and, along with the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, the most important church in Lyon.
A special highlight inside is the astronomical clock: it dates back to the 14th century and has been revised several times since then. The “Horloge Astronomique” shows not only the current date, but also the positions of the moon, the sun, the earth and the time of starrise over Lyon. Remarkable is its exactness, it was accurate until the year 2019. Even more remarkable is this clock, considering that it was constructed at a time when people still firmly believed that the sun revolved around the earth.
Above the movement is a superstructure, the cock attachment. Several times a day a chime plays and figures depict the biblical scene in which the Virgin Mary receives the message of the Lord from the Archangel Gabriel.
Saint Jean Cathedral was built between 1180 and 1480, in Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles (both styles were mixed). In the following centuries, additions and extensions were made again and again.
Tip 4: Place Bellecour
It is one of the largest squares in France, it is the central point of Lyon and it is reserved for pedestrians. In the center of Place Bellecour stands the great equestrian statue of Louis XIV on its pedestal.
What makes it special is the open space in the middle of the very densely built-up Lyon center. Here you simply have space, to stroll, dawdle and perhaps just let your thoughts run free. After the Place de la Concorde in Paris and the Place des Quinconces in Bordeaux, the Place Bellecour is the third largest square in France.
On special occasions, the square hosts events such as concerts or exhibitions, and in winter, an ice skating rink is often set up. The square is also popular for demonstrations and their rallies.
Those who go shopping in Lyon will probably also pass by here. Place Bellecour is the starting point for Lyon’s two main shopping streets: Rue de la République leading north to the Hôtel de Ville, and Rue Victor Hugo leading south towards Perrache.
By the way, Place Bellecour is Lyon’s “zero kilometer point”: all distances to and from Lyon are measured up to here. And it is a popular meeting place: Lyonians like to arrange meetings at the equestrian statue under the tail of the horse.
In the center of Place Bellecour is the bronze equestrian statue of Louis XIV. A first statue was destroyed in the course of the French Revolution, the present one was erected in 1825 by the sculptor Francois-Frédéric Lemot.
In the very southeast of the square, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and the Little Prince sit on a white marble column. Quotes from the book can be read on the column.
Tip 5: Ancient Roman Amphitheaters
Since Roman times, when Lyon was still called Lugdunum, the two amphitheaters have been built high up in the Fourvière Mountain. The fact that they are right next to each other is a real peculiarity. The ancient theaters in Lyon can be visited. In the summer, the Gallo-Roman theaters host concerts and theatrical performances every year.
The two impressive theaters, the smaller Odeon and the larger ancient theater, form a remarkable Gallo-Roman double. A visit is a real highlight: standing amidst the ancient ruins on top of the Fourvière hill, you can enjoy not only the ancient walls but also the impressive view over the rooftops of Lyon.
The Lugdunum Museum is also located on the site, where you can marvel at finds from the time of the Romans in Lyon. This is because the city center was located here at that time.
The large ancient Roman theater is impressive: its diameter is 108 meters, after extensions it is said that it could have accommodated a total of about 10,000 spectators.
Mostly plays were performed: Mostly comedies, which were accompanied by dances.
The Odeon (Odéon antique de Lyon) is the smaller theater, with its diameter of 73 meters it offered space for about 3000 people. Here, among other things, concerts or declamations (ancient exercise speeches) took place.