Lyon is a large World Heritage site with a large Renaissance old town, Roman ruins, historic industrial areas and the palatial 19th century Presqu’île district. The city was founded 2000 years ago at the confluence of the Rhone and Saône rivers and was based on the silk trade. This industry provides it with beautiful Renaissance architecture in Old Lyon, where semi-hidden passages called Traboules connect the courtyard to the Saône.
Tip – Get the Lyon City Card for free entry to many museums, discounts and unlimited use of public transport
When it comes to Lyon, it is impossible not to mention the food, as foodies agree that Lyon is the gastronomic capital of the world. This is the city of chef Paul Bocuse, revered as the god of French gastronomy.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Lyon:
1. Old Lyon
You can set foot on one of the largest Renaissance old towns in Europe.
The silk industry in Lyon flourished in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, and wealthy merchant families from France, Flanders, Germany and Italy settled in the city.
They built luxury residences in the Gothic, Italian Renaissance and French Renaissance styles, of which 300 still remain in the Saint-Jean, Saint-Georges and Saint-Paul areas.
It is estimated that in the 16th century there were 180,000 looms in the city, and you can see the ingenious combination of this industry and the fabric of the city in the characteristic traboules of Old Lyon.
Old Lyon and La Croix-Roussesonne are unique architectural features of the city: Traboules are delightful Renaissance passages, about 40 of which are open to the public, extending below the buildings in the direction of the Saône .
They gave the city’s silk workers direct access to the river banks, making the transportation of textiles quick and easy, while also providing a safe haven.
Almost all of these passages are part of a residential property, so it’s a good idea to walk quietly.
The best places to start your adventure are Quai Fulchiron Rolland and Rue des Trois Maries.
3. Fourviere Cathedral
Located on the Fourviere hill in the west of the city, this magnificent church is one of a series of iconic hilltop churches built in major French cities in the late 19th century.
Located in the oldest part of the city, the cathedral is a place of pilgrimage for Lyon and where several Roman ruins were discovered.
Go inside to see the lavish interiors and the Museum of Sacred Art, then climb the North Tower for one of the best pictures of Lyon.
The church is the focal point of the famous Fête des Lumières, held every year in early December.
It is a tribute to Fourvière’s devotion to the Virgin Mary, who protected the city from the Black Death in the 17th century.
4. Parc de la Tête d’Or
Not far north of the center is one of the largest urban parks in the country, with a zoo and France’s most important botanical garden within its boundaries.
If you’re in spring, the International Rose Garden should be your first stop in the city.
The botanical attractions are also spectacular, with over 20,000 plant species and the most elegant 19th century greenhouse you could hope to see, with a strong chlorophyll smell.
For families with children, the park is a must-see thanks to the African plains, home to zebras, lions, and giraffes, and vast lakes for epic pedal boat sailings in the summer.
Related Tours: Lyon: 3-Hour Guided Electric Bike Tour with Tasting Break
Presqu’île is a small plot of land between the Rhône and Saône rivers, artificially constructed by a huge urban engineering project in the 18th century, draining the marshes and connecting the once islands with dry land.
This is where most things “happen” in the city, with its splendid 19th century buildings, wide squares, shops, cultural institutions, restaurants, cafés, bars and nightclubs.
Lyon’s Opera House and City Hall are located here, and if you’re hungry, Rue Mercière is basically a row of great restaurants.
If you’re here to shop, start at République on the pedestrian street, where all the high street brands are waiting for you.
6. Lyon Museum of Fine Arts
Housed in a former abbey from the 1600s, the Musée des Beaux-Arts is the largest fine arts museum in France after the Louvre in Paris.
There are 70 rooms here with paintings, sculptures and exhibitions of Egyptian and Oriental art from the 1300s to the 1900s.
You only need a passing knowledge to be impressed by the wealth of famous French and European artists on display: Degas, Van Gogh, Renoir, Cezanne, El Greco, Canaletto, Picasso, Max Enn Sterling and Francis Bacon, this is just an overview.
The Antiquities Department houses some 600 ancient Egyptian artifacts, including reliefs, busts, figurines and sarcophagi, as well as a monumental gate restored from the Medamud Temple.
7. Fourviere Ancient Theatre
This monument is also located high on the left bank of the Saône.
2000 years after it was built, it is still the venue for performances during the Nuits de Fourvière festival in June and July each year.
In its heyday, it could hold 10,000 spectators, but only the middle and lower terraces of the cave remain.
However, where the seat is lost, you can see the fascinating substructure of the cave, which extends all the way up the hillside.
The theatre was rediscovered in the late 19th century and restored over the next 40 years.
Artifacts found here and in neighbouring Odeon are displayed in the Gallo-Roman museums listed below.
8. Fourviere Gallo-Roman Museum in Lyon
If Fourviere’s sprawling Roman ruins have left you yearning for more ancient history, this modern museum is on-site to give you some background.
The building is worth mentioning because it is partly underground and dug out of the hillside next to the Roman theatre.
Futuristic, bunker-like galleries are arranged around a spiraling concrete ramp.
There’s a lot to do in the museum, but one thing you need to see is the Circus Game Mosaic, which dates back to the 2nd century and depicts a chariot race with amazing technical skills.
There is also the Goyle Coligny calendar and the Lyon stele, which transcribes the speech of the Roman emperor Claudius in the 1st century.
9. Lyon Cathedral
The city’s fabulous cathedral is a Gothic building built between the 12th and 15th centuries.
Most of the original stained glass windows are still here, dating back to the 1300s.
They were dismantled and packed during World War II to protect them from bomb damage.
The most fascinating are the roses of the north, south and west, and the lancet of the apse.
The astronomical clock inside is nine meters high and was installed in the 1300s.
Below the main clock face is an astrolabe added in the 1600s that shows the positions of the Earth, Sun and Moon.
Above are automatic numbers that perform little shows when the bell rings on time.
10. Lumiere Institute
Anyone going to the movies should be excited to pay tribute to the Lumiere brothers who are considered the fathers of the art of filmmaking.
The museum was founded by descendants of Louis Lumière, who, together with August, helped invent the cinema camera, the first cinema camera and projector.
Together they also produced over a thousand films, which were shown in the world’s first cinema.
The attraction is at Villa Lumière, a lovely Art Nouveau mansion built in 1899 by the brothers’ father. In these elegant environments you can watch their many films and check out ingenious creations like the movie camera that helped change entertainment forever.
11. Gadagne Museum
This attraction is essentially Lyon’s city museum, named after the magnificent 16th-century Renaissance palace that houses it, built by two brothers in Florence.
Across 30 rooms and four floors, there are approximately 80,000 objects dating back to the Middle Ages and the mid-19th century.
Antique maps and sketches show Lyon’s changes and show some of the city’s landmarks under construction.
With handicrafts and documents, you’ll learn about the important role the silk industry played in the city’s development in the 1500s and 1600s, and see the luxurious lifestyle offered by those who made their fortunes here.
Another attraction is the Musée des Marionnettes, which houses 2,000 antique puppets.
12. Musée Miniature et Cinema
Also in Old Lyon, this museum is located in the “Maison des Avocats”, a beautiful 17th century World Heritage building with five floors and loggias.
The series is divided into two parts: the main attraction is about 100 “surreal” miniature scenes.
These are made by some of the best miniaturists in the world, including museum director Dan Allman, and feature such painstaking detailing and craftsmanship that you’ll need minutes to see everything happening with each one.
They recreate well-known locations such as the restaurant Maxime in Paris or everyday French scenes from the past.
There is also a cinema exhibit featuring more than 300 real props, artifacts and models related to films from the past 50 years.
13. The frescoes in Lyon
Another reason Lyon needs to be explored is its frescoes.
There are about 100 large paintings on the walls around the city, usually in working-class neighbours and social housing, so they can lure you to places you might not venture.
But there are some important things to see: there is an outdoor museum at États-Unis with 25 frescoes, mostly painted in the 80s, about the career of the architect Tony Garnier , he planned the area in the 1920s.
To learn about Lyon’s main figures, here are the Lyon frescoes, 24 historical figures and 6 contemporary figures associated with the city (two of whom are deceased).
Then there’s Lyon’s original mural: The Canuts Mural, which tells the history of the Croix-Rousse neighborhood, updated every ten years.
14. Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse
Named after one of the French culinary giants, this food market is located in the gastronomic capital of France, so you can be sure of the quality inside.
It’s a food lover’s dream, handpicked by the region’s best food vendors, selling charcuterie, cheese, meat, fruit and vegetables.
There are also a couple of proper restaurants in the building, full of locals at lunch.
So if you’re in a buffet, buy food here, enjoy a delicious Lyon meal, and buy local specialties to take home.
As with most French food markets, Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse is best visited in the morning, long before the stalls close for lunch.
15. Lyon Food
Lyon has more restaurants per capita than any other city in the country, and has been lauded over the centuries for its reputation for high-quality products and cuisine.
You can taste traditional Lyonian cuisine in typical restaurants “bouchons”, the best of which (get the label, Authentique Bouchon Lyonnais) tend to be near Presqu’île.
The meals they prepare are usually eaten by workers. Andouilette, a sausage made from tripe, or double tripe, tripe cooked with onions.
Don’t worry; it’s not all tripe! Coq au vin is also a tradition here, as are Lyon potatoes, sliced and fried with onions and parsley.
Where to Stay: The best hotels in Lyon, France
Lowest Price Guarantee