17 Feb 2011

Lyon for a weekend

Lyon, France’s third largest city, is just 2 hours from Paris by the fast TGV train. It is therefore at the ideal distance from France’s capital (or several other places) for a brief weekend trip.

Lyon is a city of two rivers, built right where the Rhône, coming from Switzerland to the east, and the Saône (see above), flowing down through Burgundy from the north, meet up. It has thus been for long a major crossroads of culture and commerce, and this shows in a lot of its architecture, which has a clear link with that of northern Italy.

Like most cities built around waterways, it is a great place to walk, as light and the movement of water slice through it, providing natural perspectives and variations. It also boasts some impressively large squares, like Place des Terreaux, on the left, which suddenly open up from the narrow streets that feed them, as well as a sizeable remnant of the medieval and renaissance town.

Where to stay
Lyon’s oldest district lies alongside the Saone river (you can get a glimpse in the photo to the right, in the background across the river). Known as Vieux Lyon, it lies within the city’s 5th district. This area is full of bars and restaurants, has a lot of beautiful old buildings, and is within striking distance (by bus, metro or foot) of Lyon’s two railway stations connected to the fast rail line. Most of it is pedestrian too. The very good art museum lies a short walk across a bridge. I reckon that this is the ideal area in which to stay. By the way, Lyon has free bicycles everywhere.

Two reasonably priced hotels are the tiny but modernised Hôtel Saint Paul (very small rooms, but with wifi everywhere and, even better, friendly and helpful staff), and, right opposite, the much larger and slightly more expensive and fun-looking Collège Hôtel, themed like a school (which I believe it once was), complete with classroom-like breakfast room and various quirky stuff. This is it on the left, and those are chairs glued on to the facade. Both are in the Saint Paul district which is touristic and full of various forms of night-life, incuding pseudo-pubs, “gothic” bars and other places catering to a considerable student population. But one can pick and choose and there are better things to be had.

Where to eat
I didn’t stay long enough to make a restaurant guide-book, but I tried the following:

Le Potager des Halles, 3 Rue de la Martinière, 69001 (tel : 04 72 00 24 84)
Near the Saône river, just across from the Saint Paul district of Vieux Lyon, this is a medium-smart but relaxed modern restaurant with very good, quite creative cuisine, and a well-chosen wine list. Good selection of wines by the glass too. Price for a meal is around 35/40 euros, and you can see the chefs preparing it next to the small restaurant room on the ground floor. There is a less expensive bistrot annexe next-door.

As you leave, take a look at the wall of the building almost opposite across the street. It hosts one of the famous trompe-l'oeil murals of Lyon, featuring a whole range of famous personnalities who have hailed from here or the surrounding area (see below).

Traditional small restaurants in Lyon are known as “bouchons”. Most of the family-run ones have now gone, but there are some decent ones still around, although a lot may have become tourist traps. I tried and liked this one :

Aux Trois Maries 1, rue des Trois Maries 69005 (Vieux Lyon) (tel: 04 78 37 67 28)

This is very reasonably priced (about 20 euros per head for a meal) and I had the best oeufs meurette I can remember. This is a local speciality involving eggs poached in a red wine sauce.


I also tried hard to go to a wine bar called Georges Five, run by a great character called Georges Dos Santos, who also has a wine shop called Antic Wine. The wine list is out of this world, but they seem to be closed or reserved for special events quite often, so best check in advanced. This is a place for wine lovers more then food lovers, although I believe the solid ingredients are good also. Maybe next time!


What to see and do

Situated on the Place des Terreaux, perpendicular to the town hall (see right) the Musée des Beaux Arts has a very impressive collection well laid out in a grandly spacious building which boasts a friendly café with an outside terrace, overlooking the large internal courtyard. Perfect for when you need a break.

There are fine collections of classical sculpture, as well as of paintings from the Renaaissance up to the 20th. century. Below is a fine portait by Manet. I will certainly reurn to Manet at some point in this blog.

Also well worth a visit is the superbly designed and laid out historical museum, called Musée Gadagne and in the Vieux Lyon (see street below). It is lodged in what used to be the residence of two of Lyon’s most illustrious families. As you climb up the floors, you pass from century to century, emerging at the top in a modern terraced garden with its restaurant/café. A successful combination of old building and modern interior design and scenography, and a fascinating journey through Lyon’s past.

The banks of the Saone in this area also harbour a sizeable Sunday art and craft market. As usual with such things, a lot of the stuff on show here is either horrible or just plainly derivative (at least to me), but there was some interesting work on dispaly. In any case, we all have different tastes. On the opposite bank there is a very good food market on Saturdays, perfect for buying local specialities.

All this was done in under 2 days, including travel from and back to Paris, while taking things easy and including a rugby match (the trip was during the European six-nations tournament) that I watched on tv in a kind of pub. There is of course much else to do and see in such a city. Another time…

all photographs by David Cobbold


  1. I have lived here for 8 years… I really fell in love with the city (Brotteaux, Croix Rousse, Tête d'Or…) and, should I add, the suburbs just after the tunnel de Fourviere : les Monts d'Or especially Le Bois d'Oingt. May I precise Lyon is very close to one of the most beautiful wine regions : Vallée d'Azergue ie Beaujolais.
    I cannot finish this post without talking about traffic jam : this big city gives the feeling of still being human sized, which let a very appreciated calm.

  2. Thanks Olivier. I should have said something about the wine regions, of course. The old-saw saying used to be "Lyon is fed by three rivers: the Rhône, the Saône and Beaujolais". But nowadays it is striking to note that another wine river has taken to flowing backwards, as there is as much (of not more) wine from the Northern Rhône as from Beaujolais in many restaurants. This is perhaps logical as this equally spectacular vineyard lies just south of the city. Another reson to return to Lyon!

  3. There you go! Our “esthète” described Nantes in a very inspired way a while ago ... and got an award for doing so. He goes for it again and we expect the “Prix du Gros Sabodet et du Petit Jesus” to crown his effort.
    Seriously, nice introduction to a lovely city, David. Lugdunum is a lucky bird: wonderful gamay to the north, and smashing shiraz on its southern side. Difficult to follow a ... straight line between both.

  4. Just to keep the alliteration Luc, may I suggest "glorious gamay" to balance "smashing shiraz". Luckily, if you follow the rivers between, there are plenty of curves, and we like curves, don't we?

  5. Smart stylistic remark, Mr Cobbold, I should have thought of it myself. Thank you for the hint. But please, what do you alliterate “furmint” with ? Oh no, don’t tell me !

  6. No, I won't go there!

    And "fabulous furmint" sounds a little overblown, doesn't it? Errr, perhaps "overblown" is not the best choice of adjective!

    Formidable furmint perhaps?

  7. And I consulted Bill, of Oval Office fame, who also thinks “fabulous” is overblown. It would even appear an ...oxyMormon, in his case!
    Even though I resent this origin, in a way (which way?), you should remember I, just like you, originate from a kingdom. And our Royals are very close to anything divine. The Court’s chaplain – an old buddy of mine – sent me this note, straight from your file in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, under the heading: Coboldus. I suspect one “b” was dropped by lazy copists: “In illo tempore erat Coboldus in calore. Dixit discipulis suis: Eamusne ad bordellum in civitate Lugduni ? Cum maxima gaude responderunt discipuli : eamus, eamus ! » It is a pity the text stops herewith. I would have loved to learn more about your short trip.