Picture a crate of ripening peaches with all its variety of hues and you’ll have a notion of Lyon’s waterside colours. Traditionally, the Saône has been portrayed as the feminine, graceful half of Lyon’s river partnership, with the Rhône as the masculine, muscular one, as numerous symbolic statues around town recall. The two splendid rivers (historically both major working waterways) unite at the end of the long, smart central peninsula, the Presqu’île, the heart of the city with all its grand Ancien Régime squares, its great arts museums and its superb shops, hotels and restaurants.
Lyon’s older historic quarters rise west of the Saône, the churches and mansions of Vieux Lyon below the steep Fourvière hill in which the city’s major Roman remains lie semi-hidden. From the 15th century, the city became one of Europe’s main silk producers, the makers rattling off pieces in ear-splitting numbers in the St-Georges quarter south of the Saône-side cathedral. But in the 19th century, the workers crossed on to the Croix Rousse hill above the Presqu’île, only stopping their manic work to revolt in desperation.
A large swathe of central Lyon going from the Roman hill across the Presqu’île to the high-rise silk-weavers’ houses on Croix Rousse was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998 in recognition of its remarkable urban history going back 2000 years. On top of that, in its posh eastern suburbs, Lyon boasts the site of the first cinema film of all time, shot in 1895, by the Lumière brothers outside their home. Brash new quarters are racing up now beside the Rhône. Lyon is a vibrant modern city as well as a great historic one. Bursting with interest, Lyon turns out to be a giant, juicy peach to be savoured.
The bright white Notre-Dame de Fourvière church shining on top of the Fourvière hill labours under the strong illusion that it’s a fairytale castle. It is the major landmark in Lyon, visible from many points in the centre. To get your bearings in town, head up to it first. Best take the cable car (funiculaire or ficelle) from beside the cathedral to avoid the cramp-inducing climb. On clear days, you can see as far as Mont Blanc from beside the church. Notre-Dame de Fourvière probably occupies the site of the Gallo-Roman forum of Lugdunum. South along the hillside, admire the remnants of two major Roman theatres built side by side in a spectacular location facing east. Roman Lugdunum was substantially excavated through the 20th century, many finds ending up in the Musée de la Civilisation Gallo-Romaine (t 04 72 38 49 30) overlooking the two theatres. Squeezed in between the Fourvière hillside and the Saône, the cramped streets of Vieux Lyon are lined with tall mansions, their ground floors often given over to touristy restaurants and boutiques. Gorgeous small squares allow for a little breathing space. This area was also home to the archbishops of Lyon and their noble aides, the canon-counts. The most venerable building in Vieux Lyon, the medieval Primatiale St-Jean, or cathedral of St John, turns its muscular, rounded back on the Saône. Not far off, the huge rambling Renaissance Hôtel de Gadagne (t 04 78 42 03 61, www.museegadagne.com) contains two museums. The renovated Musée Historique de Lyon offers a major trawl through the city’s history. The Musée International de la Marionnette is devoted to puppets from around the world but focuses mostly on local heroes Guignol, Madelon, and Gnafron.
An exhilarating string of bridges connects the two banks of the Saône, rivalling the Seine in central Paris for charm. Stroll south along the plane-lined banks of the Saône for one of Lyon’s most uplifting walks. Place des Terreaux is the big lively hub of the Presqu'île, its splashing fountains overseen on one side by the massive town hall decorated with lions, on another by the Musée des Beaux-Arts, one of France's most important fine arts museum, on a very grand scale. Beyond Place des Terreaux rises the brazen opera house, famed for its performances. Further down the Presqu'île you arrive at the best shopping quarters in the city, around Rue Chenavard, Rue Herriot and Rue de la République. Continuing down beyond the enormous Place Bellecour, you'll also find the sumptuous Musée des Tissus and Musée des Arts Décoratifs standing next door to each other in this area, the first dedicated to beautiful textiles, the second to the decorative arts more generally. Over the grand Rhône, best appreciated from the east side, further important museums are devoted to the invention of cinema, and to the Second World War when Lyon became capital of the southern French Resistance movements. For the most spacious park in central Lyon, head up to the Parc de la Tête d'Or, with its lakes, zoo and botanical greenhouses.
Lyon is renowned for its culinary traditions. It boasts an exceptional number of restaurants from the refined ones run by superchef Paul Bocuse to the simple bouchons, lively family-run small bistrots serving very earthy food – for these, start by trying Rue des Marronniers, hiding just east of the enormous Place Bellecour. For markets, Saône-side Quai St-Antoine puts on a daily show, and a huge market stretches most days along Boulevard de la Croix Rousse. Foodies head east of the Rhône for the modern Halles (or covered market). From springtime, you can go on delightful river cruises, run by Naviginter. There are loads of festivals throughout the year but the most spectacular is perhaps the Festival des Lumières when the Lyonnais join together to illuminate the whole city centre early in December. Mind you, the major monuments are beautifully lit up throughout the year, making it a great city to explore at night.
For much more information on Lyon and its surrounds, read the Cadogan guide to the Rhône-Alpes region.
Copyright text : Philippe Barbour 2011