You've probably heard plenty of friends announce, "I'm spending a week in Paris!" But have you ever heard anyone exclaim, "I'm going on vacation to Lyon!"?
I know I haven't, and were it not for the fact that this past fall we boarded a boat there for a river cruise of southeastern France, we too might never
have thought to check it out. As it turns out, that would have been our loss!
I love Paris, and on this trip, just a few weeks before the now-infamous ISIS-inspired attack, we happily spent a few days there. However, I found it much
changed since my last visit some ten years ago. I used to feel that, unlike London, which has become much less British and something of an international
melting pot, Paris had always maintained its native Franco feel. Not so much anymore, at least not in my opinion. Paris seems to be traveling down the same
road as London, with a mélange of other ethnic influences, and was absolutely overrun with tourists, which made it impossible to enjoy iconic places
like The Louvre or Notre Dame Cathedral.
Since the attacks, tourism has slackened somewhat in Paris, with at least some people concerned about the safety of traveling there. But we can suggest
other urban alternatives for getting your Francophile "fix"--some that may be safer and are certainly less touristy--and one of them is Lyon.
Paris' Little Sister
Depending on how you measure, by population or metropolitan area, Lyon is either France's second- or third-largest city. Its citizenry, at just under a
half-million, is only about one-quarter the population of Paris, making this a most manageable city to visit. From a tourism perspective, it has a lot to
offer and compares favorably with Paris. I also think it's fair to say that Lyon exudes a more typically French ambiance. When we visited in early October,
it was bustling with mostly natives and certainly was not what I would characterize as "overrun."
Like Paris, a river runs through it--in fact, two rivers, as this vintage and very atmospheric city sits at the confluence of the Saône and
Rhône. Its strategic site made it a key spot on ancient trade routes. And partly because of that, it is an architectural marvel. Vieux Lyon, built on
high ground to the west of and overlooking the Saône River, sports architecture dating back to Roman, medieval, and Renaissance times. Tucked into the
Fourvière Hill district overlooking Lyon are the remains of Roman habitation where you'll find a museum devoted to the city's Roman heritage and a
well-preserved amphitheater where, on a warm summer evening, you can take in a concert or ballet.
Lyon also has its own Notre Dame, in this case a magnificent basilica that watches over the city from the peak of Fourvière, and even a mini Eiffel
Tower that was built a few years after the Paris original. Around the base of Fourvière Hill, Vieux Lyon is a maze of streets and alleys lined by
medieval buildings dating back to when the city was an important center of silk production. Connecting its ancient streets and alleys are Vieux Lyon's
famous traboules, unique covered passageways once used to protect silk from the elements while it was being transported around town.
Presqu'ile, the peninsular city center set between the two rivers, is a showplace of grand Belle Epoch architecture, open parks and plazas, and the
so-called Confluence at its southern tip, an ambitious redevelopment project of ultra-modern commercial buildings. Of course, since the city straddles two
rivers, Lyon features many elegant bridges connecting its various arrondissements--again, like Paris!
Getting Our Lyon Legs
If you discount our arrival day, we spent two full days in Lyon--not nearly enough! We stayed at the Villa Florentine, a boutique hotel
clinging to the slopes of Fourvière Hill, with a magnificent perspective on the old city and Presqu'ile below. Fashioned from an old convent and
girls' school, this Relais & Châteaux hotel maintains the building's authentic charm--the original lofted chapel with its delicate frescoes now
serves as a grand reception area and lounge--while adding many luxurious and modern touches.
We especially enjoyed the deck that the hotel buildings embrace. It features a heated pool, large whirlpool tub, and sauna, all with gorgeous views of the
city below. In fact, we were so taken by the hotel's setting and the spa features that, rather than rush out to explore the city on our arrival day--our
usual modus operandi--we simply relaxed and decompressed at the hotel after our long flight.
Those already familiar with Lyon probably connect it with gastronomy, and rightly so. In a country famous for its cuisine, Lyon is considered France's
culinary capital--no small jewel in its crown! Perhaps that goes back to its being on major trade routes, influenced by many cultures and providing
hospitality to passing travelers.
But Lyon also has a "Patron Saint of Gastronomy," Paul Bocuse, its native son who introduced the concept of lighter nouvelle cuisine to the French palate
back in the 1950s. Beyond his namesake restaurant, which has garnered three Michelin stars for a record 50 years, he offers six other restaurants in Lyon,
each featuring a different decor, theme, and cuisine. We enjoyed lunch at Brasserie Le Sud, his Mediterranean-themed restaurant. Was it great? No, but it
was good, with excellent service and reasonable prices.
Perhaps as important as his restaurants is the chef's Institut Paul Bocuse, a modern school for aspiring chefs, adjacent to the boutique Le Hotel Royal, which he also owns. We took a tour of both, located at the corner of the grand Place Bellecour, and were quite impressed.
You can enjoy lunch or dinner prepared by the up-and-coming chefs at Bocuse's culinary school, and the price is quite affordable. But make sure you make
reservations well in advance. If you have three weeks to spare, you might even sign up to attend his Cuisine & Passion course, a hands-on exploration
of contemporary cooking techniques.
Bocuse has turned out many a protégé from his restaurants and school, and many of them have started their own restaurants in Lyon. Fully 15
restaurants in the city have earned one Michelin star, and another three have garnered two stars--but only Bocuse himself has three coveted stars.
Fortunately, Lyon's reputation for great food extends beyond relatively expensive Michelin-starred establishments. Long before Bocuse entered the scene,
Lyon was famous for its bouchons, simple bistros welcoming trade-route travelers and featuring heavier, earthier cuisine, especially meats and
offals. Menu items tend toward patés, terrines, blood sausage, tripe, quenelles, and such. For €30 to €50, you can enjoy a three- or
four-course dining experience at these eateries that, to the American palate, may seem exotic but will give you a true taste of France. The atmosphere is
invariably warm, casual, and convivial. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner with very attentive service at the lively and well-regarded Daniel et Denise, located
a short walk from our hotel.
Burning Off Calories
Another aspect of Lyon that appealed to us was how walkable the city is. We tromped all around the elegant shopping streets of Presqu'ile, along the river,
and through the quaint alleys and streets of Vieux Lyon. I have to say, nothing quite beats shopping in France, even window-shopping. Whether selling
pastries, candy, kitchenwares, or fashion, the stores are all so colorful and the wares creatively presented. For a visit to the Roman ruins and
amphitheater of Lugdunum (Lyon's ancient name) and Lyon's Basilica of Notre-Dame, we took the convenient and very modern funicular, strolling back downhill
to our hotel through the lovely gardens surrounding Fourvière Hill.
Paris may have earned the nickname "City of Lights," but at night, Lyon truly is something to behold. All its public buildings are dramatically lit,
including the basilica on the hill, the mini Eiffel Tower, the elegant Belle Epoch edifices along the river, its lacy bridges, and the modern Opera House
and Confluence Museum--essentially anything that has architectural merit. From April to October, you can take a cruise along the Saône and Rhône
to enjoy this scene from the water. For its pièce de résistence, Lyon holds a spectacular, four-day Festival of Lights in mid-December, when
designers from all over the world splash the city with video, music, and sound effects to accompany Lyon's many vibrant light shows.
I wish I could say we explored some of the wonderful museums Lyon has to offer, but time did not permit. We did do a walk-by of Lyon's Musée des Beaux
Arts, housed in what used to be an old convent and considered one of the best museums in Europe. I doubt we'd have found it to be the crowded and
unpleasant experience we encountered at The Louvre, which was packed with rude, selfie-snapping tourists. We only had a few minutes to pop our heads into
the intriguing Musée Miniature et Cinéma, which exhibits miniature sets used in filming many a blockbuster, prior to the everything-digital era.
And we at least sailed by the new Musée des Confluences, the ultra-modern Frank-Gehry-like science and anthropology museum at the very tip of
Presqu'ile. But that was it. I guess we have to leave something for a future visit.
I also neglected to mention that Lyon sits in the middle of some of France's finest wine districts. Beaujolais is just to its north, and Chateauneuf du
Pape and the Rhône wine districts are to its south. So Lyon makes a good base for visiting vineyards in both directions, even on day trips. And that
in itself is enough to bring us back to this intriguing, very French city that has so much to offer.