Lyon is an absolute must-see destination for everyone who admits that their favourite part of a holiday is the edible part. Renowned as the heartland of French gastronomy the leafy, hilly city straddles the Saône and the Rhône (of Rhône wines fame) rivers. Lyon vies for position as France’s second-biggest city with Marseille and due to the historical landmarks of this urban settlement, many neighbourhoods, including the famous silk workers’ quarter are UNESCO heritage listed locations. All this and just over two hours from Paris by TGV (and now Ouigo) !
Many of the names that have entered the culinary pantheon hail from this pretty southern metropolis, and one that is inescapable is Paul Bocuse. The legendary chef’s name lives on in a fitting tribute at the city’s finest market, Les Halles de Lyon, located near one of the two major train stations that service the city, Lyon Part-Dieu.
The providers in this market are absolutely top notch – wine, cheese, charcuterie, bread and pastries and fresh produce – sourced from the fertile agricultural mecca that surrounds the city: Savoie, the Rhône Valley, Beaujolais and beyond. Like Paris, Lyon also has several open air markets in different quartiers, spread across the week including the city’s biggest in the Croix-Rousse neighbourhood in the 4th arrondissement (daily except Monday) and the Marché Saint Antoine Celestins (daily except Monday), by the river on the Quai Saint-Antoine in the 2nd arrondissement. Pick up some of the famous Lyonnaise sausage and pair it with a simple side dish of lentils, or try to recreate local specialty cervelle de canut (silk worker’s brain), a blend of fromage blanc, shallots, olive oil and vinegar, it’s name supposedly a pejorative jab at those who worked in the city’s main industry. To delve into the history of silkwork in the region and beyond, the textiles museum (Musée des tissus et arts décoratifs) is well worth a visit, with excellent temporary exhibitions, as is the smaller Maison des Canuts, dedicated to the life and art of the silkworkers themselves.
You might be surprised to discover that the likes of Paul Bocuse trained under one of the mères (mothers) of Lyon, a group of enterprising women who from the mid 19th century until the Great Depression seized the increasing women’s liberation and changing labour market as an opportunity to move from being cooks in domestic kitchens to chefs and restauranteurs. This generation of women ran some of Lyon’s most celebrated bouchons (traditional Lyonnaise bistro) and restaurants, some of which are still in operation today, with new chefs living up to the fêted mere’s name. The Mère Brazier, the first women to obtain three Michelin stars, was colloquially known as the ‘second mayor’ of Lyon during her reign and you can still sample some of her signature dishes from the kitchen now presided over by Mathieu Viannay. Some other restaurants worth checking out are Abel, a bouchon turning out Lyonnaise classics since 1928 and La Voûte Chez Léa, a good address if you want to try another local specialty – quenelles (baked seafood dumplings served smothered in sauce). Georges Brasserie is a stunning 19th century dining hall with original interiors.
On top of the classics, many up and coming restaurants and bars are following in the city’s tradition – La Poule au Pot, a restaurant cum bar, and L’Antiquaire, a speakeasy style cocktail lounge, in the 1st arrondissement are two good places to sample the nouvelle generation of Lyonnaise talent.
To work off all the food, make sure you take time to explore the cultural heritage embedded in Lyon’s distinct quartiers. ‘Confluence’, to the south of the 2nd arrondissement at the junction of the two rivers, is an interesting blend of old and new. The site of a new urban regeneration scheme, there are several new buildings by notable architects and boutiques and restaurants with an ecological agenda, and is also home to La Sucrière, a fabulous contemporary art space in an old factory. In the central, old city of Vieux Lyon, wind your way through the labyrinthine traboules – secret passage ways that inter-connect buildings and courtyards. Consult some maps to make sure you don’t get too lost! Croix Rousse is a former industrial area (on your way up the hill look out for the amphitheatre where christians were thrown to the lions). Now mostly residential, the working class history lives on through the amazing street art that lines its streets. For more public art the murals down by the river are also a sight to behold.
EAT AND DRINK
Les Halles de Lyon
102 Cours Lafayette, 3rd arrondissement
12 rue Royale, 1st arrondissement
04 78 23 17 20
25 rue Guynemer, 2nd arrondissement
La Poule au Pot
5 rue de l’Arbre Sec, 1st arrondissement
20 rue Hippolyte Flandrin, 1st arrondissement
Musée des tissus et des arts décoratifs Lyon
34 rue de la Charité, 2nd arrondissement
Excellent Renzo Piano-designed contemporary art museum – Lyon’s answer to the Pompidou.
Centre d’histoire de la Resistance et Deportation
14 Avenue Berthelot, 7th arrondissement
04 78 72 23 11
Interesting permanent and temporary exhibitions on the resistance movement and Jewish deportations during WWII.
A collection of France’s favourite puppet characters (equivalent of the British Punch and Judy).
Musée de l’imprimerie et de la communication graphique
13 rue de la Poulaillerie, 2nd arrondissement
04 78 37 65 98
A must for any fan of typography and graphic design.
Lyon has some excellent antique shops and brocants – Ali Baba’s caves full of the city’s rich history, with gems including antique absinthe funnels and more! Some of the best are clustered near the river in the 2nd arrondissement.
Brilliant brocante with treasure troves of antiques – closed Sunday.
Call before to make sure this incredible collection of vintage fabrics, textiles and ceramics from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries is open!
Cour des Loges Hotel
6 rue du Bœuf, 5th arrondissement
04 72 77 44 44
5 star luxury near the river in the UNESCO-listed old town and close to the fine arts museum.
Lyon Collège Hotel
5 Place Saint Paul, 5th arrondissement
This quirky but well-appointed hotel has a ‘back to school’ theme, decorated with vintage furniture from desks and chairs and including spaces such as a library and classroom. A garden terrace stops you from feeling too scholarly.