Lyon rightly deserves its reputation as one of the gastronomic cities of France, but it is also a fabulous place to visit. It ticks all the right boxes – an historic city, outstanding museums, excellent shopping opportunities, culture and last but not least two magnificent rivers.
The Romans were quick to realise the potential of what was originally a Celtic settlement at the confluence of the two rivers, the Rhône and Saône. Within a short time Lugdunum, as they named it, had developed into a thriving trading centre. But it was several centuries later before Lyon was to realise its financial potential: great trading fairs held since the early 15th century led to the introduction of banks, silk weaving was also introduced and with the arrival of moveable type Lyon became one of Europe’s leading publishing centres. The 18th and 19th centuries saw Lyon playing a major role in scientific research thanks to the likes of André-Marie Ampère (electric current) and the Lumière brothers (photography and creators of the world’s first motion picture).
Lyon can be divided into three segments. On the west bank of the Saône is Vieux (Old) Lyon lying between the river and basilica-resplendent Fourvière hill; the area east of the Rhône is known as Lyon-Rive Gauche (Lyon-Left Bank) whilst the city centre lies on the Presqu’ile, the peninsular between the two rivers.
Vieux Lyon is a delightful blend of Roman remains and beautifully restored medieval and renaissance buildings. The Fourvière hill is topped by an Eiffel Tower look-a-like, the Tour Métallique, and the gloriously over-ornate Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière. Both are easily reached by a funicular railway (nicknamed the fecille). Next to the excellent Musée Gallo-Romain are two rebuilt Roman theatres, still in use today for concerts. Visitors can also explore some of Lyon’s famous passageways (traboules) that run through buildings originally lived and worked in by silk workers. They were designed to protect the silk from the weather as it was transported to and from the weavers.
In the Lyon-Rive Gauche area visitors can tour the grim WWII headquarters of the notorious Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie, now the Centre for the History of the Resistance and Deportation, the dazzling white Grand Mosque, built in the 1990s, the Institut Lumière dedicated to the two cinematic brothers and the enchanting Parc de la Tête d’Or with its lake, gardens, zoo and Guignol puppet shows.
The Presqu’ile is a mecca for shopaholics. But visitors should not ignore the splendid public squares with their imposing fountains and statues or the outstanding collections in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, including one of the largest collections of impressionist works in France, the magnificent collections of silks and textiles in the Musée Historique des Tissus or the Maison des Canuts telling the story of the silk workers and weaving, whilst anybody interested in the history of printing should make for the Musée de l’Imprimerie.
Charming by day Lyon becomes magical at night when the city’s 325 sites and monuments are illuminated. As an added bonus every year in early December when the city’s Festival of Light takes place Lyon looks even more romantic. Not only is the city lit up, but candles are placed in windows in honour of the Virgin Mary, as they have been since 1852.
And it is at night that the two rivers really come into their own: for a superb view of the twinkling city take to their waters on one of the pleasure craft, go down to the bar, buy a glass of champagne, go back on deck and drink a toast to Lyon, the fabulous City of Light.