Nestled at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers and surrounded by picturesque vineyards, Lyon is France at its quintessential finest. Considered the country’s second city, after Paris, it also boasts a bustling urban centre, including a business district, quaint residential neighbourhoods, vibrant nightlife and some of the finest restaurants in Europe.
Famous for the Vieux Lyon district, with its Renaissance-era passageways, the city’s historic industrial power has given birth to a vibrant cultural landscape, with top class music, cinema, theatre, opera and dance all to be found.
Reflecting 2,000 years of history and with picture-postcard views everywhere you look, it is little surprise that so many visitors are drawn here. And when they arrive, they find a rich and diverse choice of things to see and do. Here are 12 of the best.
1. Galerie Le Réverbère
Art lovers who have done their research before visiting Lyon tend to make a bee-line for rue Burdeau. Nestled at the bottom of the slopes of La Croix-Rousse, the narrow street is positively littered with art galleries – and among the most popular is Galerie Le Réverbère. A cutting-edge contemporary photography gallery, Galerie Le Réverbère is a cosy and well distributed space that revels in its position at the heart of Lyon’s cultural life, succeeding in attracting visitors from far and wide. But be sure to leave time to explore the rest of the area’s array of exceptional art spaces.
2. Parc de la Tête d’Or
Legend has it that during the Crusades, a golden head of Christ was buried in the grounds of the Parc de la Tête d’Or; a green wedge on the banks of The Rhone. While searches have never been able to confirm this, the park still attracts locals, even though it’s now for the open spaces and range of kid-friendly activities, including mini golf, a zoo, boat rides, pony rides and go-karts. If visitors aren’t looking to entertain the kids, the Parc de la Tête d’Or has long stretches of green grass and internationally recognised rose gardens that are perfect for relaxed roaming.
3. Musée des Confluences
With over 2 million objects, the Musée des Confluences is one of France’s richest archives of historically significant items. The museum, which looks a bit like a spaceship sitting on Lyon’s former docks, has split its exhibitions into three categories – natural sciences, humanities and science and technology – and aims to tell the story of man, from beginning to present day. Along with a series of visiting exhibitions – currently there is an interactive Antarctica experience, allowing visitors to explore the island that is only accessible for scientific research – the Musée des Confluences houses fascinating pieces such a thousand-year-old Mummy from the Pachacamac temple in Peru.
4. Café de la Cloche
The Café de la Cloche prides itself as being a “true witness of the history of Lyon” and is a place for conversation and debate. The central bench seating and inward facing seats that line the room, make it perfect for public debates, which have been an integral part of French political history. Visitors can check the debate schedule via the website, or simply start an informal conversation over a coffee, aperitif or beer. However, there will be little conversation if you happen to arrive when an Olympique Lyonnais soccer game is on the television.
5.Lyon Opera House
Lyon is one of France’s many artistic hubs, and a great place to experience its culture is the Opera Nouvel. Throughout the year, it hosts full book of French and international operas, as well as touring dance and classical music acts. Built over eight years from 1985 to 1993, within the shell of the 1831 Lyon theatre, the opera is a mix of old and new, much like the city of Lyon. The imposing stature of the building has polarised locals for as long as it has existed, but might just grow on you the longer you look at it. Inside, it is arranged in the style of an Italian theatre, with tiered boxes arranged in a horseshoe shape.
6. Acquarium de Lyone
A visit to the aquarium is always a great day out with the kids and the boutique aquarium in Lyon is no different. With a great collection of exotic fish, octopus’ and sharks, it is sure to get the little ones thinking about the mysteries of the deep. While it is small, it does have 50 different pools, with 300 different species of marine life. The displays vary, with the largest tank being the “Fosse Aux Requins”, or shark pit, which houses a series of resident sharks and rays, that swim around an eerie shipwreck display.
7. Institute Lumiere
The brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumière, are best known for their 1895 film, “Sortie de l’usine Lumière de Lyon”, which is often referred to as the first motion picture. So it is fitting that their former house has been made into the Lumière Institute, a foundation to promote French film. The institute contains a collection of historic film-making equipment and biographical information about the two men who brought moving pictures to the masses. However, dedicated fans of the Lumière brothers’ work will notice that the streets surrounding the institute were also used as the setting of their historic first film.
8. Museum of Textiles & Museum of Decorative Art
In 1466, King Louis XI established the national silk industry in Lyon. Since then, textiles and decorative art have remained an important facet of the city. From antiquity to modern day, the Museum of Textiles & Museum of Decorative Art holds a large collection of fabric artefacts spanning a variety of different styles. For €10, visitors will get an understanding of the story of Lyon, told through the history of textiles. Contained within the same building is the Museum of Decorative Art, which shows how these fabrics were applied to create antique and modern furniture.
9. Tony Garnier Museum of Architecture
Tony Garnier was at the forefront of urban architecture in the twentieth century, with a lot of his work being done in his hometown of Lyon. One of his most famous designs was for low cost housing in the Etats-Unis district, which was seen as a revolutionary solution for those with only a modest income. To celebrate Garnier, and this period in modern development, a group of artists painted murals on the walls of the original 24 buildings in 1988. To give them a bit of extra magic, at night, the wall-length murals are illuminated. Open-air tours are run by the museum and cost €6.
10. Centre D’Histoire
Lyon was a key rallying point for the French Resistance during World War Two and this is celebrated in the Centre d’histoire de la résistance et de la déportation. Deliberately located in the building that was taken over by the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation of Lyon, the museum now serves as a reminder of a darker time in France’s history. As well as documenting the struggle of a small band of French citizens to reclaim their country, the museum features exhibits that tell the wider story of the expulsion of Jews from the area by the Nazis.
11. Observatoire de la basilique
Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière is one of Lyon’s most recognisable sights, with its central location making it look as if it is towering over the city. However, in the left wing of the Basilica there is a hidden gem, the Observatoire de la basilique, created in 1882 in an attempt to combine science and faith. While it will take roughly 280 steps to get up to the viewing area, once there, visitors will be able to see out onto Mount Pilat and Mont-d’Or and – if the weather is clear – it’s also possible to see the Swiss Alps to the East.
12. Dangerhouse Records
There’s a vibrant music scene in Lyon, with many live gig venues featuring up-and-coming bands, but a live music scene is only as good as its record shop. Dangerhouse Records is Lyon’s oldest existing record shop, and houses over 10,000 records on-site, making it a treasure trove of new music and old classics. With a strong focus on 1960s and garage music, the shop is constantly getting in obscure stock, which is why many touring artists come to rummage through the overflowing bins of Dangerhouse Records when they play in Lyon.