Lyon: French city du jour

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With enviable history and rapidly developing cultural institutions, Lyon is fast becoming the new must-see destination in France. Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore discovers the best of France's lion city.

Gateway to the Alps, tourists visiting Lyon often use the city as a way station prior to making a beeline for further afield ski resorts and golf courses. But France’s third largest city, built on Roman ruins, is now determined to make its mark and become a destination in its own right. Last December the local government opened the multi-million dollar Musée des Confluences (86 Quai Perrache, +33 4 2838 1190; museedesconfluences.fr) in the city’s revitalised docklands area, Les Confluences, where the Rhône and Saône rivers meet. The museum is a symbol of Lyon’s growing cultural importance – one bolstered by a set of internationally renowned arts festivals.

Visit in December to see the magical Fête des Lumières (fetedeslumieres.lyon.fr) festival of lights, when the city is illuminated with Christmas cheer. During the celebration, residents put candles in their windows and light installations are projected on to city monuments. For those who prefer balmy summer nights, don’t miss the two-month-long Les Nuits de Fourvière festival (+33 4 7232 0000; nuitsdefourviere.com) held in June and July. 70 years old, the festival takes its name from the dramatic hill at Fourvière, where pop concerts and plays are held in Roman amphitheatres with sweeping views over the city.


Escape the crowds
The old Renaissance part of the city, Vieux Lyon, which sits at the base of the Fourvière hill, has winding streets that hide numerous traboules – historic secret passageways and shortcuts that pass through buildings, linking streets. A hallmark of the city, these were used to escape German raids and by the French resistance during World War II. Some today are still discreetly marked for visitors to use.

After wandering around Vieux Lyon, take the funicular up Fourvière, often referred to as the ‘hill that prays’. This is home to both Roman amphitheatres and the ornate Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière (8 Place de Fourvière; + 33 4 7825 1201. Open 7am-7pm daily) built in the late 19th century. All have stunning views over the city.

For a less touristy but equally charming neighbourhood, head to the old silk district of La Croix-Rousse. Its dramatically sloping streets are now home to vintage shops, cool cafés and bars frequented by the Lyonnaise young. Look out for the mural of Canuts (the silk weavers) on the Boulevard des Canuts and Rue Denfert Rochereau; it is the first of a hundred murals to be painted around the city by the CitéCréation cooperative (cite-creation.com) and was originally erected some 30 years ago (and is updated every 10 years). 

If you have time, leave Lyon’s historic centre and head to the former industrial enclave of Les Confluences, now home to a billion-dollar city investment project. Much of what is on offer is for locals (including a large mall) but it’s worth popping into the Musée des Confluences (closed Mondays). With its futuristic steel and glass structure, the museum is not only pushing architectural frontiers but it’s small enough not to be overwhelming. Kids in particular will love the chance to be able to touch a real fossilised dinosaur skull and a piece of moon rock. 

Finally, relax at the Parc de la Tête d’Or (the park of the golden head) which was modelled on an English garden and is set around a vast 16-hectre lake. Not only does it contain a free zoo, but the outskirts are also home to the Musée d’Art Contemporain (81 Quai Charles de Gaulle, +33 4 7269 1717; mac-lyon.com). It’s small but contains impressively edgy and increasingly ambitious exhibitions.

Sip in style
For an Aperol spritz served riverside, try Diplomatico (1 Quai des Célestins, +33 4 7837 4180; diplomatico.fr), a short walk from the foodie strip Rue Mercière. Another favourite location with water views are the lines of buzzing barges-turned-bars that line the Saône river – the local favourite is Sonic (4 Quai des Étroits, +33 4 7838 2740; sonic-lyon.blogspot.com).Meanwhile, for something a bit more edgy, venture to Le Sucre (50 Quai Rambaud; le-sucre.eu) back at Les Confluences. This industrial-chic club and bar is perched on the roof of the former sugar factory La Sucrière. Make sure to check out who is playing as it hosts some of the hottest international DJs around.

The full dining experience
Lyon pitches itself as the gastronomic capital of France and it is not hard to see why. Not only are there numerous Michelin-starred restaurants here, but this is home to the bouchon – traditional Lyonnaise restaurants that serve nose to tail dining, offal included.

In the old town avoid the bouchons touted in guidebooks and head straight to Daniel et Denise (36 Rue Tramassac; +33 4 7842 2462; daniel-et-denise.fr) where delicacies such as whole veal head, pike quenelle and pig trotter salad are dished out. For another favourite in the area, book a table on the terrace at Le Café-Épicerie (2 Rue du Boeuf; +33 4 7277 4444; courdesloges.com), the restaurant attached to the five-star Cour des Loges hotel (see ‘Where to Stay’). This is where you’ll bump into smart business types and French ladies who lunch here for the divine pâtés and aged steak.

For an abundant choice of eateries frequented by local foodies, head straight to the humming Rue Mercière. The popular Pléthore et Balthazar (72 Rue Mercière; +33 4 7216 0921; plethoreetbalthazar.com) does a more modern take on French food (don’t miss its innovative tapas), and its covered courtyard is perfect for watching the world go by. Nearby, few restaurants beat Chez Moss (2 Rue Ferrandière, +33 4 7842 0409; restaurant-chezmoss.fr). This is a fish-lover’s paradise; opt for the different variations of succulent seafood platters, served on a terrace or indoors amid quintessential French décor (think lots of brass and leather-lined booths). 

No trip to Lyon is complete without spending a morning in Les Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse (102 Cours Lafayette, +33 4 7862 3933; halles-de-lyon-paulbocuse.com), the famous covered market. Once inside, have lunch at Chez les Gones (102 Cours Lafayette; +33 4 7860 9161; chezlesgones.fr) or gather together a picnic of cold meats, freshly-shucked oysters and sweet macarons from the dozens of beautifully presented stalls.

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