Last Updated on December 26, 2023

Nestled along the winding banks of the Rhône and Saône rivers, Lyon, the jewel of France’s Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, beckons with an enchanting blend of history, gastronomy and cultural allure.

Steeped in a rich tapestry of Renaissance architecture, Lyon’s historic districts showcase the city’s evolution from a Roman outpost to a flourishing center of silk weaving during the Middle Ages. The Old Town, with its labyrinthine traboules and cobblestone streets, unfolds like a living storybook, while the Presqu’île peninsula boasts elegant boulevards and vibrant markets.

Lyon’s culinary prowess is equally legendary, earning it the title of the “Gastronomic Capital of France.” Here, traditional bouchons and Michelin-starred restaurants alike craft culinary symphonies, inviting visitors to savor the city’s gastronomic legacy.

Journeying through the heart of Lyon, each cobblestone holds a tale, and every corner reveals a new chapter in this city’s timeless narrative.

My husband and I are planning a 2024 European river cruise itinerary that starts in Lyon and ends in Avignon. We understand that this will only provide mere snapshots of Lyon, but we’re already doing our research, making a to-do list, and chatting with family who have visited this charming capital of French gastronomy.

Top Tourist Sites in Lyon, France

Explore Vieux Lyon (Old Lyon)

Vieux Lyon is a UNESCO World Heritage site with narrow cobblestone streets, Renaissance architecture, traboules (hidden passageways), and charming courtyards.

This is the largest of the Renaissance old quarters in Europe and during the 15th through 17th centuries, Lyon’s silk industry thrived, bringing rich merchant families from across Flanders, France and Germany. It was estimated that during the 16th century there were more than 180,000 looms in the city.

Today, the living testament to Lyon’s rich history showcases traditional bouchons, cozy restaurants, a variety of museums, churches and festivals and events throughout the year.

Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière

Perched atop Fourvière Hill, this iconic basilica offers breathtaking panoramic views of the city and its two rivers, the Rhône and the Saône, from its observation deck.

Built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the basilica dedicated to the Virgin Mary exhibits a mix of architectural styles including Byzantine and Romanesque Revival.

The interior of the basilica is adorned with intricate mosaics, stained glass windows, and ornate decorations. As a focal point for religious celebrations, the basilica features the Festival of Lights (Fête des Lumières) in December with a spectacular display of lights and show projections.

Traverse the Traboules

Lyon’s secret passageways are known as traboules, hidden Renaissance corridors winding their way through and under buildings, connecting streets and revealing the city’s historical charm. These were created to give silk workers direct access to the riverbank, making it easy to transport textiles and as a protection from the elements so the silk would never touch the water or be affected by the weather.

Approximately 40 of these passages are still open to the public, running beneath buildings in the direction of the Saône River. 

Take a Gastronomy Tour

Lyon has more restaurants per capita than any other French city and for centuries has been renowned for the high quality of its produce and the excellence of its cuisine.

Visitors can indulge in Lyon’s culinary delights by exploring its vibrant markets, such as Les Halles de Lyon-Paul Bocuse, open since 1859. Here, 50-plus vendors sell their specialties ranging from chocolates, fruits and vegetables, oysters, cheese, frog legs, and more.

It’s impossible to be in Lyon and not to want to savor traditional Lyonnais dishes at a local bouchon or experience fine dining in one of the city’s Michelin-starred restaurants.

Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon

Immerse yourself in art at this Museum of Fine Arts, home to an extensive collection of European paintings, sculptures, decorative arts, and antiquities.

Situated in a former Benedictine convent built in the 17th century as an elegant backdrop, the museum is one of the largest and most significant fine art museums in France. The collection includes works by renowned artists such as Rembrandt, Delacroix, Monet, Picasso, and more.

Croix-Rousse District

Known as the “hill that works,” Croix-Rousse was historically the silk-weaving district dating back to the 16th century. Today, visitors can still find remnants of the district’s industrial past including many traboules and old silk workshops.

The area’s distinctive bohemian and artistic vibe is augmented by lively markets, colorful murals and street art, galleries, funky bookstores and boutiques, and a stunning panoramic view of the city and the Rhône River.

Lyon City Boat Tours

Saone river in Lyon city at evening.
Saone river in Lyon, France at evening. Photo courtesy of Deposit Photos.

It’s always a treat experiencing a city from a different perspective. That’s why we love boat tours.

Lyon boat tours along the Rhône and Saône rivers offer a unique perspective and the chance to enjoy the scenic beauty and architectural wonders from the water. These tours typically take passengers along both rivers, passing under historic bridges and through the heart of Vieux Lyon.

Others may include the Presqu’île, the peninsula between the Rhône and Saône, a central part of Lyon with a mix of shops, restaurants, and cultural attractions, and Ile Barbe, a small island on the Saône River.

Institut Lumière

This is the opportunity to delve into the world of cinema at the birthplace of cinema itself. The Lumière brothers, considered the pioneers of early cinema, lived in Lyon, and the institute celebrates their legacy with exhibits and screenings.

The institute is housed in the Lumière brothers’ family home where visitors can explore displays showcasing early cinematographic equipment, photographs and documents related to the Lumière brothers’ experiments and inventions.

Place des Terreaux and Bartholdi Fountain

Admire the impressive Bartholdi Fountain at Place des Terreaux, surrounded by notable buildings like the City Hall and the Museum of Fine Arts located in the heart of Lyon.

Situated near the confluence of the Rhône and Saône, the fountain is named after its creator, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, the French sculptor best known for designing the Statue of Liberty now in New York City. The intricate artwork featuring bronze sculptures and reliefs was inaugurated in 1892 and is a stunning example of the artistic and architectural heritage of Lyon.

At night, the square is beautifully illuminated, the play of light enhancing the architectural details of the buildings and the sculptural elements of the impressive fountain.

Depending on how much time visitors have when coming to Lyon, there are other places to see as well. However, if you’re only here for a day or two, these recommended attractions will keep you busy.

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