The best food in the world? Maybe. Gastronomic capital of France? You bet. Move over Paris, it’s time to hear Lyon roar.
Both the birthplace of nouvelle cuisine and home of the celebrated bouchon, Lyon is a definite do-before-you-die for any self-respecting foodie. But there’s more to France’s third city than food. Its old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with streets and sights to rival a certain celebrated capital, so you’ll have no problems building up an appetite. Recent resident and Lyon University student Rudi Paton shares her top tips of what to see, do, eat and drink in Lyon. And they’re not all calorific.
1. Do a Boris
Forget Boris Bikes, Lyon was the first city in Europe to have a bike rental service – and it shows. Wide, safe cycle paths criss-cross the city and the absence of hills make jumping on a Velib the best way to explore. Some of the most picturesque routes run along the city’s two rivers, the Rhone and the Saone. Renting the bikes is simple, even for a short-term visitor; just make sure you check the tyres before you set off.
2. Chill in Le Parc de la Tête d’Or
Appropriately golden gates welcome visitors to this most heavenly of parks which encompasses a huge boating lake and plenty of space to munch on a baguette and cheese. Just don’t feed the animals at the zoo which, considering it’s free to enter, is home to an impressive collection including zebras, red pandas, and the Instagram-friendly sand cat. Best way to get to the park? By bike, obviously.
3. Enjoy the Vieux
Pass a couple of hours contentedly ambling through the winding alleys of Vieux Lyon (the old town). Hunt down a hidden ‘traboule’ behind a crumbling door. These passageways are native to Lyon and its medieval silk industry but were more recently used by resistance fighters during the Second World War. Munch on a hot Nutella crepe or an ice cream from Glacier Terre adélice as you walk to make the trip all the sweeter.
4. Head up to La Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière
This Sacre-Couer-alike 19th century white basilica dominates the Lyon skyline and is the best way to navigate the city; it’s hard to get lost if you keep what locals call ‘the upside-down elephant’ in sight. Its ornate insides are worthy of admiration but it is the views of the city below that reward the many stairs climbed to reach it. If your legs are sore from all that cycling, a funicular runs up and down the hill.
5. Take centre stage in a Roman amphitheatre
Next door to Fourvière, go further back in time while visiting the remarkably well preserved Roman amphitheatre. Exploring is encouraged, so sit like an emperor and judge those below, then wander to centre stage and feel the faces of the 10,000 people who once sat here stare back. To see the arena in contemporary use, visit Lyon while Les Nuits de Fourvière is on. A music, dance and theatre festival, it takes place in the amphitheatre and this year’s line-up features Bjork and Iggy Pop.
6. Go to foodie heaven at a bouchon
Lyon’s reputation as a foodie paradise has to be tested by trying out Lyonnais cuisine at a traditional bouchon. The menus can be intimidatingly meat-heavy, although quenelles (pike dumplings) are a star of the city’s culinary show. However, it is the cheese that comes with a warning: look out for homemade ‘fromage dangereux’, two years in the maturing, it will more than tingle your tastebuds. Our bouchon recommendation: Café des Federations. You’ll need to book.
7. Hang out in Croix Rousse
If you are getting flat white or bike shop withdrawals, head to Croix Rousse, the hippest area in Lyon. Ponder some street art, browse the second hand shops and head to Crock N Roll for a croque monsieur with edge. If you’re lucky you may stumble across one of Croix Rousse’s seemingly impromptu flea markets so get ready to haggle in French.
8. Get your groceries at Paul Bocuse Les Halles
Chef Paul Bocuse is Lyon’s grand fromage but if your budget doesn’t stretch to one of his five restaurants, stock up on supplies at this food market like no other. All of Lyon’s top chefs buy their ingredients here and you can too: from patisseries to poissons. Try as many free samples as you can and buy your cheese at Mons, from a former London city accountant-turned-cheesemonger, living the Lyon dream.
9. Have a glass on the riverbank
The joke goes that Lyon was built on three rivers: the Rhone, the Saone and the Beaujolais. All year round the Lyonnais enjoy combining the three and lounge on the riverbanks with a bottle. Bring your own and soak up the atmosphere or enjoy the high life aboard by posing on the deck of one of the many docked peniches – barges with bars.
10. Fly out of the city
For a memorable day out, take the short train trip to Villars les Dombes to immerse yourself in the world of birds at Parc des Oiseaux. Even those who arrive as a less-than-enthusiastic ornithologist will be won over by close encounters with a huge variety of birds, some housed in walk-through avaries (some get so close, they land on your head!). End your visit with the mesmerising flying display and guaranteed you’ll leave wanting to purchase the bargainous annual pass to see your new-found feathered friends again and again.
Fête des Lumières? An Olympique Lyonnais game? Got a good Lyon tip? Let us know in the comments below.
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