Often overlooked by the glitz and glam of Paris, or the sunny shores of Nice, Lyon is a must-visit. Not only is it the third largest city (after Paris and Marseille), but it is also hailed as the gastronomic capital of France. The Rhône and Saône Rivers flow through Lyon, creating an island of sorts right in the middle of the city called the Presqu’île district. We recently spent some time here so check out eleven things to tick off in Lyon.
1. Try a praline brioche
If there is one thing you eat in Lyon, make it a praluline (praline brioche). It will immediately catch your eye from any bakery window with pink pralines dotted throughout the yellow dough. Invented in 1955 by Lyonnais pastry chef, Auguste Pralus, it is said that he was so inspired by a rose garden in the Rhône region that he decided to make his pralines pink…and as they say, the rest is history. The praline brioche is crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside, and chewy and sweet from the caramelised pralines. We recommend buying one from Patisserie Chocolaterie Pralus which has several locations in Lyon.
2. Explore some traboules
The word ‘traboule’ is derived from the Latin ‘trans-ambulare’ meaning ‘to pass through’. These hidden alleyways connect street to street, winding through residential buildings. Traboules were historically used primarily by the Canuts (silk workers) as shortcuts for them while carrying their heavy loads. Then during WWII, traboules became the secret meeting places for the resistance.
One of the best parts about exploring traboules is that you can easily do it on your own! There are plenty found in Vieux Lyon and the Croix Rousse neighbourhoods. Once you find one, you’ll be able to spot them all with their subtle identifying seal. They are fascinating – taking you through tunnel-like entrances, tiny courtyards, and beautiful staircases.
3. Take the funicular to Fourvière Hill
We adore a funicular, and Lyon’s red tram to the top of Fourvière Hill is no exception. Running a quick trip between the Vieux Lyon – Cathédrale Saint-Jean and Fourvière stations, the funicular pops you out right in front of the grand Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière. There’s plenty to do in the Fourvière district. You can enter the basilica for free to marvel at its intricate interior, check out the Ancient Theatre, and – our favourite – make pit stops at all the incredible viewpoints looking across the muted red rooftops of Lyon.
4. Pick up a gourmet meal at Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse
Paul Bocuse was an icon and chef in the French cuisine world, basing himself in Lyon. It makes sense that Lyon’s most famous indoor food market is named after him – Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse! With a history dating back to 1859, allow yourself some time to wander through and check out the wide range of fresh produce, cured meats, bakery treats, seafood and more! While you can dine at one of the restaurants here, we preferred to buy a selection of delicious items to take away for a cosy meal at our accommodation.
5. See giraffes for free
Head for the middle of Lyon’s lush Parc de la Tête d’Or and you’ll come across the Lyon Zoo. While not huge, it is free and home to various animals including giraffes, zebras, lemurs and more. You can then continue on to stroll through the rest of the park’s beautiful grounds.
6. Eat at a bouchon
Bouchon culture is deeply ingrained in Lyon’s history. Begun by the Mères Lyonnaises (Mothers of Lyon), the goal was to create hearty meals with affordable cuts of meat and a whole new world of Lyonnais cooking. The word ‘bouchon’ describes the branches that were hung on the doors as a form of old-school advertising. Nowadays, you’ll find a bouchon full of red and white checked tablecloths on small tables with a bustling kitchen. One of our favourite quintessential bouchon dishes to order is saucisson chaud – a cured pork sausage dotted with pistachios, served with the classic cervelle de canut (a Lyonnais cheese dip), potatoes, green salad and crusty bread.
7. Walk everywhere
Most of Lyon is fairly flat and easy to walk around, particularly if you’re by the Rhône and Saône river areas. If the weather turns or you need to give your legs a break, the public transport system is affordable and quick with buses, metro lines and trams all over the city.
8. Book yourself in at a Michelin Guide restaurant
As of January 2023, there are 91 Michelin Guide restaurants in Lyon. This just furthers its stronghold as the gastronomic capital of France! The Michelin Guide includes not just Michelin-starred, but also Bib Gourmand restaurants. For those who are on more of a budget, Bib Gourmand establishments offer more affordable options. Menus must not exceed €32 in Lyon (and €36 in Paris) and the food is still exceptional. We dined at Le Tiroir in the Ninth Arrondissement – fit out with a modern, casual atmosphere and seasonal fixed-price set menus starting from just €20.90 for a 2-course lunch or €36 for a 3-course dinner.
9. Keep an eye out for the Lyon Banksy
We’ve all heard of London’s Banksy, and Lyon has its own answer to the anonymous artist – Ememem. Over the past six years, Ememem began by turning pavement potholes and divots into mosaic artwork. He has truly earned himself the nickname of ‘pavement surgeon’! Keep an eye out for any colourful additions to your explorations through Lyon.
10. Do a food tour
It goes without saying, a food tour is a non-negotiable in a city like Lyon. We chose to go with Secret Food Tours which featured four stops over almost 3 hours. Not only did we feast on Lyonnaise specialties, but we also got to discover Lyon with our informative tour guide. We even made a return visit to Chez M’man later on during our stay, a bouchon that we had lunch at on our tour.
11. Treat yourself to a drink at an old hospital
Hôtel-Dieu de Lyon stands proudly along the Rhône, its off-white walls and spectacular dome housing what used to be a hospital until 2010. Hôtel-Dieu has since been transformed into a beautiful space with restaurants, shopping, the Intercontinental Hotel and a gorgeous rooftop bar. Le Grand Réfectoire-L’Officine is found in the old refectory of the Hôtel-Dieu sisters and has a terrace which is the perfect spot for a drink.