The city of Lyon and surrounds
Lyon is the city where a cosmopolitan European lifestyle is only a stones throw away from exceptional wine regions, historical sites and the French Alps. It’s easy to loose yourself in old alleyways full of boutique shops; strolling along the banks of the two rivers that flow through Lyon; or hiking up to the Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière, where you can see the whole city laid out before you.
Getting to Lyon:
We decided to take the train from Barcelona Sants Train Station to Gare de Lyon Part Dieu. The journey is a five and a half hour trip, filled with picturesque vistas of rural Spanish manors and cypress trees before giving way to the Provence countryside. Our trip to Lyon required a change of train at Nîmes, and the scenery from here onwards was not as picturesque. The view is dominated by run down suburban vistas and industrial factories.
The slightly disorientating thing about train travel between Spain and France is that as soon as the train crosses the French border all the PA system announcements change from English to French! Luckily we knew exactly which train station we needed to get off at to change our train for Lyon! We also had a European SIM in our phones which meant it was easy to google our surroundings and itinerary.
Where to stay in Lyon:
Staying in the Presqu’ile area between Terreaux and Bellecour squares is a good starting point. There are many bars, restaurants and hotels around this area. This area is also really close to the old town: Vieux-Lyon, which has plenty of historic buildings.
We actually stayed in Vieux-Lyon and rented a beautifully furnished AirBnB apartment. This was probably my favourite AirBnB of our Europe trip, the rooms were open and airy with high ceilings. The owners had done a fantastic job of keeping its old world authenticity with minimalist but antique-style decor. As like most places in the older parts of Europe there were only stairs to get to our apartment. There was no lift access! Be sure to pack light if staying in these areas.
Côtes Du Rhône:
Whilst researching Lyon, one of the must see and do things that kept appearing was exploring the wine growing regions surrounding Lyon. To the north of Lyon is the Beaujolais wine region and to the south lies the Côtes du Rhône. We didn’t want to drive through the countryside on our own, so ended up booking a tour with Kanpai Tourisme, who specialised in half day and full day tours of the surrounding wine regions. We emailed them whilst we were in Lyon and were able to book a half day tour of the Côtes du Rhône region for that week.
The tour group consisted of 8 other people and was led by an incredibly knowledgeable local guide who gave us personalised recommendations on things to eat and places to visit whilst in Lyon. She also educated us on the intricacies of the French wine concept of ‘terrior’ and how it contributes to the quality of wine across different wine growing regions. Simply put, the French believe that the location, soil and sun position have just as important a role as the grape varietal used. The French when ordering wine won’t order a Syrah (shiraz), they will pick the region they want the Syrah wine from (Côtes du Rhône). To make matters a little more complicated most grape varieties are confined to specific growing regions in France, that is the Syrah grape is predominantly grown in the Côtes du Rhône.
During the tour we were first taken to Mont Pipet in Vienne, to view the old Roman ruins. Vienne is a small town located, 30 minute drive from Lyon. Here we were able to see an old Roman amphitheatre and a small church known as the Notre Dame de la Salette, which towers up above the city of Vienne. The Roman amphitheatre is well preserved and provides a fantastic view down into the Rhône valley. The church is utilitarian in its simplicity, however the statue of Mary is the drawcard here, it is made out of basalt giving it a much darker, gothic appearance. The town of Vienne is an interesting place to visit as well with plenty of gothic churches, however we didn’t have time to stop here.
The historical significance of this region was the most surprising thing about our trip to Lyon. The Rhône valley, nowadays is eminently known for its fantastic wines however the Roman’s had turned the Gallic town into a colony by 47BC and had been producing wine here since that time!
The view from the lookout point in Vienne is stunning with the striking turquoise blue Rhône River snaking its way through the Rhône Valley. You could spend hours gazing down at this beautiful vista, unfortunately we only had a few minutes as we had to move along to our next stop!
We were taken to two wineries and had the opportunity to do a guided wine tasting at both. The first vineyard is owned by the Famille Daubrée, and is known as the Corps de Loup winery. This vineyard is famous for their Côte Rôtie, which is made using 20% Viognier grape and a Syrah grape varietal specific to the Northern Rhône Valley region. This Syrah grape variety, develops specific characteristics by being gently roasted by the sun on the steep valley slopes of the Northern Rhône Valley. This blended wine is known a a Côte Rôtie, and is only produced in the Northern Rhône Valley. We were also able to taste the traditional Côtes du Rhône (Syrah) and Viognier wines here as well.
The second winery we visited was the Sarl les Vins de Vienne, here we were taken down into their wine cellar and were surrounded by hundred year old French oak barrels full of Côtes du Rhône! This particular winery had also been experimenting in creating wine the way the Romans would have made it 2000 years ago! They had been able to source an amphora (a terracotta pot that was used in the same way as oak barrels by the Romans) and had recreated a batch of ancient wine. B tried a sample of this wine, although did not enjoy it all that much! He said it tasted like something akin to piss…
Fourvière Hill in Lyon, is the ancient site of the old Roman city of Lugdunam (modern day Lyon). The whole area is ranked as a world heritage site by UNESCO. As such there are many historical sites that can be visited on the hill. There are several churches, aqueduct remains, an ancient amphitheatre and a cemetery all situated on the top of this hill. There is also a small metallic tower which resembles that famous one in Paris!
There are a couple of ways you can get to the top of Fourvière Hill. First of all you need to get to Vieux-Lyon. At the Vieux-Lyon underground station, there are two funicular railway lines that will take you to either the main part of the hill or to the southern area. The alternative to the funicular railway though is to hike to the top of this hill. When I say hike, I do mean hike! Be prepared for the famous Fourvière Hill montées (slopes).
There are two access points to the Fourvière Hill in Vieux-Lyon. You can take the steeper slope with 798 steps from the northern part of town (Montée des Carmes-Déchaussées) to get to the Basilica Notre Dame. Or you can take the less steeper hill from the Saint-Paul area called the Montée des Chazeaux, which only has 228 steps! This will lead you to the central part of Fourvière Hill. The Montèes are all well maintained and the route is easy to follow. Happy hiking!
We decided to hike to the top and arrived at the Basilica Notre Dame de Fourvière, just before sunset. The grand cathedral sits on the top of the hill overlooking Lyon. The cathedral itself is quite magnificent and is actually one church on top of another. The cathedral has stunning mosaics, stained glasses and intricate ironwork on the doors.
The view of Lyon city from the lookout near the basilica is incredible, we were fortunate enough to be there during sunset and had some stunning views overlooking Lyon city. There are also a handful of shops in the village near the basilica including some eateries and souvenir shops. A cemetery and garden are also located nearby, with quite a few notable French figures interned there.
The southern part of the Fourvière Hill on the other hand is dedicated to old Roman ruins, you can visit the ancient theatre of Fourvière Hill which is well preserved. This amphitheatre is 2000 years old and is still fully functional, it is used once a year for the Nuits de Fourviére festival in June/July. Right next to the theatre is the Museum of Gallo-Roman Civilisation. The site of this museum used to be the heart of the Roman city of Lugdunam. We arrived to the museum just as it was closing for the day so didn’t get a chance to go inside. However there are meant to be many artefacts from the ancient roman civilisation. The hill is also home to an old Roman Bath site, the remains were only recently unearthed in the 1970s.
Les Halles de Lyon
Visiting Les Halles de Lyon, was an epic experience! This is an indoor food market that has been endorsed by the legendary Lyonnaise chef Paul Bocuse. It is located close to the main railway station in Lyon, La Part-Dieu. This means that it’s quite a hike to get to from Presqu’île/Vieux-Lyon area. We ended up hailing a taxi to take us there.
The market is beautifully laid out with open aisles and plenty of space for all its vendors and their produce. The different choices of French deli meats and cheeses on offer is dizzying. Most of this produce is sourced regionally, the majority of cheeses had the A.O.C. label for the local region and were relatively cheap. It really is worth either having a meal at the market or buying produce to take home. We ended up loading up on deli goods to have for dinner back in our apartment.
The old town of Lyon, which is known as Vieux Lyon, is situated across from the Soane River. The two rivers of Lyon: the Rhône and the Soane, actually join just pass the Presque’île region to become the Rhône River! This area is known as the Confluence. You will notice that the Rhône River is the more vibrant turquoise of the two and during the summer months its possible to sip on drinks on the floating river barges.
The houses in Vieux-Lyon were built in the 16th century and the area is regarded as one of the largest well preserved Renaissance neighbourhoods in Europe. The Saint Jean Quartier is in the heart of Vieux-Lyon, and the Cathedral of Saint Jean is an exemplar of gothic architecture. The Saint-Jean Quartier is also famous for its traboules (secret passageways) that were used by the silk manufacturers to transport goods in the 16th century. Many of these are on private property but one can be found at the Rose tower.
I ventured out to the Presque-île for a little bit of shopping during our trip. The Presque-île is the long slice of land between the two rivers of Lyon essentially forming an island. In the Presque-île between the Rue Victor Hugo and the Rue de la Republique is one of Europe’s biggest pedestrian shopping areas. Luxury and international designer brands are centred around Rue Edouard Herriot and are housed in the beautiful 19th century buildings lining the street. Brands like Maje, Cos and Zara all have a presence here as well, whilst smaller boutiques are scattered around the side streets of the shopping precinct. You’ll be able to find something in the shops in this district. My personal favourite shops to visit were the different French Pharmacies, the shelves full of skincare were a mind boggling array of organic and boutique French brands. Everything was written in French and Google translate was my best friend as I perused the shelves to find the specific products I was after.
The Croix-Rousse area of Lyon, used to be the hub of the silk trade in the 19th century and the Hermès fashion house still produces its silk scarves in its Lyon factory. In the Croix-Rousse district an outdoor market operates throughout the week and is famous for its local food produce including crusty breads, cheeses and meats. If you are interested in purchasing silk crafts and fabrics then the best day to visit this market is on a Tuesday.
Within Vieux-Lyon, there are also a range of boutique leather goods and gourmet food stores. The products available for purchase in this area are expensive although can be great as souvenirs.
Tips to remember
- The number one thing you need to do prepare for a trip to Lyon is to learn some rudimentary French! The French accent spoken in Lyon is the truest exemplar of the spoken French language. As such tourists are expected to communicate in French to a small degree
- Whilst travelling anywhere in France by train, it’s worth making sure you have access to the internet or have a good grasp of the French language otherwise it can be very difficult to know where to get off as all announcements are in French
- Houses in the Vieux-Lyon region are beautiful however were also built in the 16 th century hence only have stair access. If staying in an older district be prepared to carry your luggage upstairs or find out if lift access is available if you have mobility restrictions
- Lyon has so much to offer visitors, it is worth planning out your trip before you get there so that you can get around to visiting all the different areas of Lyon. We ran out of time to visit the new museum at the Confluence and would have loved to visit the Tuesday market at the Croix Rousse
- If you want to explore the French countryside on your own, you can look into hiring a car to drive through the Côtes du Rhône or Beaujolais regions. Our AirBnB host actually recommended this to us as a good way of seeing the area, we decided to go for the easy option of joining a tour company.