Lyon is France’s third largest city and second largest metro area. Sitting at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers in the shadow of the Alps, it is a perfect base to explore eastern France. More than that, it is an incredible destination in its own right, and is easily my favorite city in the country.
Don’t miss the rest of our content on Lyon and its surroundings, linked to within this article.
Lyon is incredibly beautiful!
If you are flying into Lyon, you’ll arrive at Lyon-Saint Exupery Airport to the east of the city. The airport is fairly small and easily navigable, but, like many airports, sits a ways outside Lyon itself. The airport express train leaves from the attached train station and connects to various metro lines on its way toward Lyon. It costs about €15 each way, and metro tickets are just under €2. An Uber from the airport into the city will run between €40-60.
From the US, there are no direct flights to Lyon (although there is one from Montreal). However, with a single connection at any European hub you can get in fairly easily.
If you are arriving in Lyon by bus or train from elsewhere in France, you will come in to one of two train stations – most likely. Perrache is located on the southern portion of the Presqu’ile (the part between the rivers) while Part-Dieu is east of the Rhône. Both are on metro/tram lines to get you around, but for the sake of your sanity, make sure you are aware of which station you arrive at.
Architecture and the amazing colors of spring are reasons to visit Lyon.
Ok, first let’s discuss the physical layout of Lyon. Picture a clock. At the center of the clock is the Presqu’ile, the main part of the city between the Rhône and Saône. This is where you’ll probably want to stay. To your west, across the Saône, at 9 o’clock on our imaginary timepiece, is vieux Lyon, the old city, and Fourvière, the hill overlooking it. To your south at 6 o’clock is Perrache and then the confluence, a modern zone where the two rivers come together. To your north at 12 o’clock is the Croix Rousse, a hippy district in what used to be home to the silk industry. The Parc de la Tete d’Or, Lyon’s largest green space, is across the Rhône at 1 o’clock, and Part Dieu sits at 3 o’clock.
Walking from the Presqu’ile to any of these other spots is about 45 minutes at the outside, so feet will be your primary mode of transport. With walking you can also take in what is to me the best part of Lyon: the incredible architecture – and don’t miss looking at the doors! However, if one desires, Lyon also has a fairly extensive Metro and tram system.
When it comes to the two hills – Fourvière and Croix Rousse – it gets a bit more challenging. Climbing to Notre Dame de Fourvière, for instance, requires 250 steps and then a fairly short and steep walk. Both hills have public transit options if this isn’t something you feel comfortable with.
Uber is also an easy option within the city in cases where the public routes don’t make as much sense.
The Fourvière hill with Notre Dame at the top. A steep walk but worth it!
Where to Stay
Stay in the Presqu’ile. I can’t say this strongly enough. Yes it is more expensive than the larger hotels out near Part Dieu (like the lovely Radisson Blu), but being central will make your visit much easier, and the beautiful buildings and squares of the area will make you never want to leave.
American chains are rare here. There is a Best Western, and the new Intercontinental will be opening sometime in 2019 in theory, but you may be better off with a small boutique property or an Airbnb.
The Intercontinentel Hotel Dieu will be open in 2019!
What to Do
Let’s do this clockwise around our made-up clock from earlier.
On a pretty day, the Parc de la Tete d’Or (1 o’clock) is a wonderful place to spend a few hours or a day. It has a small free zoo, a botanical garden, and miles of green space for picnicking. There is also a lake and boat rentals.
At 4 o’clock sits the French Resistance Museum. There is a free app with an English audio guide to download ahead of time (or rent for €1) which, other than mixing up left and right in some exhibits, is pretty solid. The 45 minute snippet of Klaus Barbie’s (the Butcher of Lyon) trial is hard to watch but powerful.
The Confluence Museum (6 o’clock) is an odd makeup of fascinating exhibits on ethnography, and the architecture of the building makes it one of the most interesting museums around. Don’t forget to walk around the area a bit if you like modern architecture; there are some great buildings!
Vieux Lyon and Fourvière at 9 o’clock are absolutely worth spending time. You will want to go to Notre Dame de Fourvière at the top of the hill, both for the view and for the basilica itself, which is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever been inside. Just down the street from there is the remains of the Roman theatre complex, and the Gallo-Roman Museum. It is absolutely worth the price of admission, though it is free the first Sunday of the month, to explore the fascinating history of Lyon.
The Croix Rousse (12 o’clock) isn’t especially touristy, although the Mur des Canuts, a huge mural taking the entire wall of a building, is one of the most impressive pieces of street art I’ve come across. There are also two other fantastic murals, the Fresque des Lyonnais and Fresque “la bibliotheque de la cité,” that are also worth seeing on the northern side of the Presqu’ile.
As far as the Presqu’ile itself, the highlight is the aforementioned architecture, mainly 19th century with exquisite facades, balconies, and roofs. Take time wandering.
The ultra modern Confluence Museum is worth a visit.
What to Eat
Lyon is known as the culinary capital of France, so food is incredibly important here. I even wrote an entire article on it! I am not going to rewrite it all here.
The food in Lyon is to die for!
Other Useful Information
Lyon actually has seasons. Being close to the Alps, winter can get cold and wet (occasionally with snow). Wind can also whip down the rivers. But on nice days, the population is out sunning on the banks!
Lyon is largely a safe city, and I never felt in danger walking around the Presqu’ile at night.
There are some awesome day trips that can be taken from Lyon. I especially enjoyed Annecy, but thought medieval Perouges was overrated.
Scooters are everywhere here. I am referring to those annoying electric ones that people rent and then leave lying all over. I have nearly been killed or maimed on multiple occasions by scooters whipping between pedestrians. Be careful.
Annecy is the perfect day trip from Lyon!
After spending an amazing three months in France, I can safely say that Lyon is the place I’d choose to live if I were to come back permanently. It is big but not too big, beautiful, walkable, friendly, and has some of the best food I’ve had in Europe. I can’t overstate how much I think everyone should come here, and to experience what I consider to be the perfect French life!
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