Lyonnais Love Affair (Part 2/2)

If you stumbled across this blog in search of some quick suggestions for your upcoming Lyon trip and you can’t be bothered with all the waffle in between, click here to head straight to the recommendations at the end. (Although in my totally unbiased opinion, it is worthwhile waffle.)

Missed Part 1? You can read it here. If you want. Up to you.

I’ve wondered on and off over the years whether the simple fact of Lyon being the first stop of my first solo adventure was responsible for the way I fell totally and irrevocably head-over-heels for the place. Weeks, months, years later, I would find it impossible to articulate why I loved it so ardently; the best I’ve ever been able to do is “it’s the feeling”.

The cobbled streets of Vieux Lyon

And that’s true. Above all else, Lyon feels wonderful. There’s some inexplicable “vibe”, and talking to others, it seems it’s not only me who thinks so. That first day, I roamed Vieux Lyon, the ‘old town’, with an ineffaceable grin plastered all over my face — and the same fanatical delighted expression could be seen again a couple of weekends back when I returned to my first favourite French city for the fourth time, nine years after that original visit. 

Part of the “feeling” that I love so much is the sense of peace. Lyon is the third-largest city in France, but at least from the perspective of an anglaise, French cities mostly resemble large towns, and this one feels remarkably relaxed. It’s always been spring or summer during my visits, and certainly at these times of year, it seems nobody moves faster than a stroll. The light is improbably lovely too; gentle, somehow. It bathes the hilly cityscape in a buttery warmth, sparkling off the surface of the twin rivers through the afternoon and soaking the stone buildings in a mellow golden glow as the sun rises and sinks in the sky. 

Of course the appeal isn’t only a feeling, or something as insubstantial as the light. There’s plenty of tangible beauty in Lyon too — the city’s a hotchpotch of different architectural styles and periods, rife with history and character. There are areas where the uniformly pretty buildings lining broad, tidy streets recall the Haussmannian boulevards of Paris; elsewhere, you’ll find warrens of twisting cobbled lanes, connected with hidden traboules (secret passageways specifically associated with Lyon) and busy with quirky boutiques and bouchons — tiny restaurants serving traditional lyonnais fare. Their wooden chairs and tables spill across the cobblestones, charmingly bedecked with checked tablecloths and candlesticks dripping wax down wine bottles, epitomising every romantic’s most delicious dream. Night and day, there’s music in the streets when the weather’s warm, as well as all along the banks of the river Rhône, where guitarists strum lazy tunes for the amusement of their friends and permanently-moored péniches (river barges) offer evenings of good food, good drinks, and general revelry. 

A sneak peek of the basilica…

In Vieux Lyon and the Croix-Rousse neighbourhood, the tall, terracotta-topped buildings are painted in a spectrum of earthy colours — yellows, oranges, pinks, browns — with the effect that the undeniable warmth of the city seems to be emanating from the very bricks themselves. I could very happily while away a week there without seeking out a single activity… But there are also plenty of “points of interest” to hit between losing yourself down winding alleys, ambling along the leafy riverbanks and discovering the delights of the various vibrant markets (my favourites are the food markets by the river Saône and on Boulevard de la Croix Rousse). Perhaps the most famous of these sights, the Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière, looms spectacularly over Lyon, a magnificent basilica, impressive from every angle (outside and in), with a panoramic view of the city. It can be accessed by funicular, but if you’re able, I’d strongly recommend ascending via the Jardin du Rosaire (Rosary Garden); the prettiness of the walk more than compensates for the uphill effort. 

The view from the Jardin de la Grande-Côte

Meanwhile, the aforementioned Croix-Rousse is a charming hillside bohemian quarter, steeped in the rich history of Lyon’s centuries-old silk industry. Climb the picturesque Montée de la Grande-Côte to the Jardin de la Grande-Côte for another (different!) breathtaking view of the city — this one featuring the basilique — and be sure to check out the Mur des Canuts, a fascinating fresco painted in the trompe l’oeil (“trick the eye”) style. I (purposefully) won’t tell you much more about it, and I suggest you refrain from asking Google — just trust me, it’s worth a visit. Don’t miss the accompanying panels explaining the history and evolution of the mural, the context is almost as interesting as the art itself. And keep an eye out for other, smaller murals scattered throughout the city too…

Indeed, there’s plenty of note to see in Lyon; this list is far from comprehensive. But I maintain that it’s the elusive charm of the city itself which has claimed the place a permanent position in my heart. So if you are to pay a visit (and I very much hope you one day will), whatever else you do or see, make sure you leave plenty of time to just be. Stroll, sit, sip cold drinks and enjoy hearty lyonnais meals on sunny terrasses or candlelit squares. Let yourself get a little lost. Soak it in.

You’re going to love it.

For a quick recap of the main spots to stop by when (and not “if”) you visit Lyon:

* The Croix-Rousse and Vieux Lyon neighbourhoods generally
* La Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière
* Jardin du Rosaire
(pass through on the way to the basilica)
* Jardin de la Grande-Côte
(possibly my favourite viewpoint in Lyon)
* Montée de la Grande-Côte (follow this uphill street to reach the above viewpoint)
* Mur des Canuts
* Marché alimentaire de Croix-Rousse
(food market)
* Marché alimentaire Saint Antoine Célestins
(…another food market)

As well as…
* Cathédrale Saint Jean
* Rue-Saint Jean for traditional lyonnais restaurants
(as well as quirky boutiques and ice cream well into the night)
* Place des Terreaux
(early morning or when it’s dark)
* The banks of the Saône during the day, and the Rhone in the evening – find a moored peniche
(riverboat) for drinks or dinner

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