Being the second largest city in France, Lyon is surprisingly often overlooked by visitors to the Hexagon. However, it is overflowing with wonderful secrets for travelers looking for something a little different – distant from the crowds who opt for the standard Paris excursions to Versailles or Giverny. Located between Paris and the South of France and shadowed by the Alps, this UNESCO World Heritage and gastronomic city is a mere two hour journey from Paris by high-speed train, feasible as a day trip, such as our Context Lyon Excursion. Or if you’re exploring on your own, you can follow the insider tips of Paris intern Julian Elam, former resident of Lyon, who shared his favorite offbeat things to do in this vibrant cultural capital.
1. Stop in at la Place Sathonay
If you’re looking to experience a day in the life of the Lyonnais, make sure to visit the Place Sathonay, one of the most pleasant squares in the city. Shaded by chestnut trees and surrounded by inviting cafés, Place Sathonay is an ideal spot to get in on a game of pétanque, especially popular game in the South of France. In the spring and summer, wedding parties often sprawl out over the steps leading from the town hall of the 1st arrondissement to the Jardin des Plantes above. The surrounding neighborhood also merits exploring, as several small vintage boutiques, independent designers, and interesting restaurants have sprung up in recent years. If you’re thirsty, head to Soda Bar, where the retro decor, comfy leather couches, wall projections of old black and white films (a nod to Lyon’s rich movie history), and well-made, reasonably priced cocktails will be sure to immerse you in the laid-back ambiance of the Ville des Lumières.
2. Admire the Alps from the Jardin des Curiosités
Most tourists in search of a view are pointed in the direction of the Fourvière basilica, which, to be fair, does boast one of the best vistas in the city. Few are aware that the seldom-frequented neighborhood of Saint-Just – a short walk to the south from Fourvière – harbors a much less crowded and more tranquil panorama. Concealed behind a stainless steel door at the far eastern end of a glorified parking lot known as Place Abbé Larue, the Jardin des Curiosités is a pocket-sized park that offers an interesting perspective of the Capital of the Gauls. A gently winding pathway leads from the entrance to a grassy lawn hemmed by a neat line of trees, framing a sudden and completely unobstructed view of Lyon that gives the impression of floating directly above the city. A red sand terrace echoes the distinctive roof tiles of the buildings below, which fan out in all directions until the cityscape gives way to the imposing, snow-capped ruggedness of Mont Blanc and the Alps. Take in the tableau from one of Michel Goulet’s chair sculptures, which face many different directions and feature inscriptions encouraging deeper contemplation of the city and its environment.
3. Have a Sunset Drink on a Péniche along the Quays of the Rhône
For many years, the banks of the Rhône river in downtown Lyon were dominated by asphalt parking lots that turned the river into a hostile, bleak space. In 2007, however, the city finished a massive renovation that replaced the desolate blacktop with manicured lawns, wildflowers, trees and water features. On weekends, bikes, rollerbladers, families and a cosmopolitan student population now throng the riverside walkways, making people watching a prominent pastime. When the weather permits, locals and tourists alike take to the decks of the péniches (long riverboats converted into bars, restaurants and even private homes) moored along the quay to observe the crowd and the river flow by while nursing a cold cocktail. The best time to board is early evening, when the sun begins to dip below the Fourvière basilica in the West, bathing the Rhône in warm, purple light. If you’re lucky, you may even glimpse old Jean-Pierre – a grandfather known as the “coureur des berges” (the riverbank runner) – cantering past on his nightly rounds to the applause of an admiring audience.
4. Trabouler “Vous traboulez?” (“Are you trabouling?”)
This question is not uncommon in the narrow streets of Vieux Lyon, where exploring the secret (and not so secret) passageways – known as traboules – of the neighborhood’s Renaissance buildings has become such a well-loved pastime that it has spawned a new verb. Lyon is crisscrossed by over 315 traboules, the earliest of which were constructed in Vieux Lyon in order to facilitate quick access to the Saône River. Later, traboules were built on the maze-like slopes of the Croix-Rousse to provide inhabitants with a straighter path to the center of the Presqu’île. During World War II, many of these passageways helped members of the Resistance evade the Gestapo. While quite a few traboules are now inaccessible to the general public, some of the most extraordinary examples remain open for discovery. Among the prettiest is the traboule running between 6 rue des Trois-Maries and 27 rue Saint-Jean in Vieux Lyon. A thin, arched red ochre hallway leads to a beautiful courtyard featuring a 16th-17th century spiral staircase, a rectangular tower and vaulted galleries. Less beautiful, but equally fascinating, is the steep alleyway known as ruelle Punaise (at 8 rue Juiverie) that served as an open-air sewer hundreds of years ago.
5. Pick up Supplies at the Croix-Rousse market for a Sunday Picnic
On Sundays Lyon can feel like a ghost city to the uninitiated, with empty streets and shuttered shops discouraging visitors from venturing out. For signs of life, climb the shady slopes of the Hill that Works (the Croix-Rousse) and wander down the Boulevard de la Croix-Rousse, home to the best weekend food market in the city. Locals pack the narrow space between the stalls as vendors cry out their wares and invite passersby to taste freshly picked oranges, steaming samosas, charcuterie and countless other delicacies. Pick up a boar sausage, a warm baguette and some Saint-Marcellin cheese (a favorite of the lyonnais) before heading to one of Lyon’s many picturesque parks for a picnic.