Lyon is France’s second-most important city after Paris and surprisingly undiscovered. Although Lyon doesn’t often make it onto tourist itineraries, many cultural treasures await those who take the time to explore the city. With a history dating back to ancient Roman times, Lyon has earned a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The city boasts France’s oldest ancient ruins, medieval quarters, and fine Renaissance houses.
Best Time to Visit
The best time to visit Lyon is in the month of July as you will be able to tour Lyon without being interrupted by the rain. However, the temperature in July is around 27 degrees Celsius. You could also visit Lyon in November to April, but these months are accompanied by the rain.
Top Places to Visit in Lyon
1. Quartier Saint-Jean and Quartier Saint-Georges (Old Town)
Get lost in Lyon’s atmospheric Quartier Saint-Jean to discover the city’s Old World charm. This medieval quarter north of the cathedral is filled with narrow cobblestone lanes and quiet little courtyards. Begin exploring around Rue du Boeuf and the Place Neuve Saint-Jean, a picturesque square filled with traditional restaurants. Then wander around the pedestrian streets of Rue Saint-Jean and Rue des Trois Maries. There are many inviting shops and cafés along the way. For those interested in watching a traditional marionette show, head towards the Quartier Saint-Georges to the Théâtre Guignol puppet theater (performances are in French; check the schedule in advance).
2. Museum of Archaeology
Lyon stands on the site of the ancient Roman city called Lugdunum, founded in 43 BC, which was the capital of Gaul. This superb archaeology museum displays Gallo-Roman-era objects including vases, gravestones, mosaics, statues, coins, and ceramics. The antiquities displayed are from onsite digs (from the city of Lugdunum) as well as nearby Roman archaeological sites of Saint-Romain-en-Gal and Vienne. The collection is renowned for its breadth and variety. The museum also extends to the archaeology site that is nearby, about 300 meters from the museum. This site boasts the oldest ancient ruins in France, including two Roman theaters. The Grand Théâtre dating back to 15 BC was where tragedies and comedies were performed. The Odéon was the theater for musical performances. There are also the foundations of a temple that was devoted to the Goddess Cybele.
3. Presqu’ile District
Lyon’s Presqu’ile District is a piece of land, sort of like an island, within the river. This neighborhood is distinguished by its beautiful architecture and monumental town squares. The Place des Terreaux is worth visiting just to see the fountain by F.A. Bartholdi. This grandiose work of art depicts the triumphal chariot of the Garonne River. Notice the four marvelously sculpted horses that look very hardworking, they represent the four different rivers that flow into the ocean. Lyons’s finest square in the Presqu’ile district is Place Bellecour, between the Rhône and Saône Rivers.
4. Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourviere
In a majestic location on the Fourviere Hill, the Basilique Notre-Dame rises to a height of 130 meters above the Saone River. The Basilica is accessible by funiculars running up the hill. This stunning church was built after the Franco-Prussian War when the people of Lyon had vowed to create a Marian sanctuary if their city was spared. The construction took place from 1872 to 1884. The Basilica is a blend of Gothic and Byzantine styles with a richly decorated interior. Spend time in the sanctuary to admire the sumptuous mosaics and paintings. After touring the interior, climb the northeast tower to take in the sensational views of Lyon’s cityscape and surrounding areas.
5. Primatiale Cathédrale Saint-Jean Baptiste
Built in the 12th-century, the magnificent Cathedral of Saint-John is renowned for its 13th- to 14th-century stained-glass windows. The large rose window dating from 1392 allows in a kaleidoscope of colorful light. The cathedral is mainly Romanesque with a Late Gothic facade. One of the most interesting features is the astronomical clock created by Nicolas Lippius in 1598. The cathedral also has a remarkable bell (cast in 1622) named “Anne-Marie de la Primatiale” that is one of the largest ever made and is only rung on Catholic feast days. For a good view of the cathedral from a distance, go to the embankment near the Pont Bonaparte.
6. Opéra de Lyon
On the Place de la Comédie, the Opéra de Lyon is a beautiful 19th-century opera house with a majestic dome. The original theater was renovated by Jean Nouvel who tripled the size of the building using modern architectural techniques. The Opéra de Lyon presents a wide variety of opera, from Romeo and Juliet to Carmen as well as dance performances and classical music concerts. he theater offers a wide variety of dramatic performances (in French), ranging from classical repertory to contemporary plays.