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How to Spend Three Days in Lyon, France

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Lyon in southern France is famous for its fabulous gastronomy, its architecture and winding little streets, it’s old town and its new look. There’s so much to see and enjoy but what if you only have three days in Lyon?

The greatness of Lyon’s past is truly matched by its present-day cultural dynamism and diversity.

Its location, at the meeting point of two great rivers, was always a guarantee of prominence, and today Lyon (usually spelt Lyons in English) is France’s second city. Many would claim that for the visitor, Lyon offers so much more than Paris – of course, many would also disagree. But I find there is an intimacy and warmth about the bouchons of Lyon that is often lacking in Parisian equivalents.

Lyon’s geography is dominated by the Rhône and Saône rivers that converge to the south of the historic centre forming a peninsula, or ‘Presqu’île’; two large hills, one west and one north of the historic city centre; and a large plain which sprawls eastward from the historic city centre.

LyonThe original medieval city (Vieux Lyon) was built on the west bank of the Saône river at the foot of the Fourvière hill. This area, along with portions of the Presqu’île and much of the Croix-Rousse is recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. To the west is Fourvière, the location of the basilica of Notre-Dame, several convents, the Tour métallique (half an Eiffel Tower) and a funicular railway. To the north is the Croix-Rousse, traditionally home to many small silk workshops, an industry for which the city was once renowned.

No visit to Lyon would be complete without a journey into Vieux Lyon. This old part of Lyon lies between Fourvière and the Saône, and was formerly the hub of Lyon, and the focus of its silk-working industry with as many as 18,000 looms in operation in the mid-16th century. Many of the city’s wealthy inhabitants lived here, in magnificent town houses, more than 300 of which still stand. Space, however was at a premium, so this led to the construction of a number of narrow alleyways, known as traboules. They are a fascination not to be missed, built perpendicular to the Saône, they were the solution to lack of sufficient space in which to develop a conventional network of streets, by linking the various buildings together.

Day 1 Vieux Lyon

No visit to Lyon would be complete without a journey into Vieux Lyon. This old part of Lyon lies between Fourvière and the Saône, and was formerly the hub of Lyon, and the focus of its silk-working industry with as many as 18,000 looms in operation in the mid-16th century. Many of the city’s wealthy inhabitants lived here, in magnificent town houses, more than 300 of which still stand. Space, however was at a premium, so this led to the construction of a number of narrow alleyways, known as traboules. They are a fascination not to be missed, built perpendicular to the Saône, they were the solution to lack of sufficient space in which to develop a conventional network of streets, by linking the various buildings together.

You can spend a whole day here, wandering the alleyways that beckon like an impatient child; it’s an atmospheric place with the tang of la vraie France luring you on, and a galaxy of restaurants and bouchons giving plenty of reason to stop for lunch. There is a temptation to be drawn upwards to the basilica on Fourvièvre Hill, but if time is at a premium then to be honest this, for all its renown, brings little reward: the view over Lyon, while impressive, is only truly great in certain light, and the big church is just a big church of interest only to those who like big churches or study architectural evolution. Of course, you could justifiably visit the splendid Musée Gallo-Roman, for which you need the St Just funiculaire, alighting at Minimes. But, on balance, you might feel that you can more usefully commit your time elsewhere than on Fourvièvre.

Day 2: Presqu’ile

Presqu’ile is the modern face of Lyon, centred on the peninsula between the Rhône and the Saône, with Place Bellecour at its heart. Along the Rue de la République there are numerous shops, department stores, cinemas, restaurants, cafés, bistros, all set against a backdrop of architecture that is typically 19th-century Lyon.

At the very end of Presqu’île is Lyon’s newest attraction, the Musée des Confluences, a magnificent new museum both architecturally and in its content, which sets off to explain, well, the history of everything…or so it seems. Do not miss this stunning experience, but do allow a good few hours, including on-site lunch, to get the best from the experience

Perrache, alighting there and walking forward into place Carnot for a coffee before heading on to marvel at the grandeur of Place Bellecour, wherein you will find the tourist office.

This huge square, all 62,000 square metres of it, is quite magnificent, unless you’ve parked in the car park beneath it, and can’t remember which entrance you need to use to get it back!

In times past this was a large marshy area before undergoing a series of identity changes that saw its use as an arms depot, a public square, a Royal Square – thanks to Louis XIV – ruination ­– thanks to the Revolution – until Napoleon ordered its reconstruction in 1802; only then did it take on its present appearance. The large equestrian statue of Louis XIV at the centre of the square is known locally as the ‘Bronze Horse’. Dating from 1828, it replaces an earlier statue, smashed and melted during the Revolution; even this new statue was threatened with destruction in 1848 because of its somewhat pompous inscription, but was saved by the Commissary Extraordinary of the Republic when the inscription was replaced by one paying homage to Lemot, a sculptor of Lyon – and that’s what you see today.

Some years ago I had visited the Musée des Beaux Arts to view a self portrait by Rembrandt. I doubted that it would still be there – it wasn’t – but I went to see anyway, and was reminded how impressive this former Benedictine abbey – of the Dames nobles de Saint-Pierre – really is; those recruits from the highest aristocracy in France may have set themselves apart, but certainly knew how to dull the pain of seclusion.

I didn’t find the Rembrandt self-portrait, but by dint of careful navigation I did find one painting by the Dutch master – La Lapidation de sainte-Etienne 1625 – or, the Stoning of St Etienne. I puzzled over how someone could kill someone by bashing his head in with rocks and then naming a great French city after him, but then it was lunch time! With typically French sensitivity in matters gastronomic, I found that you could actually reach the museum’s superb restaurant without having to pay admission to the museum. So, if passing this way and in need of a bite, do drop in, the dishes on offer are excellent.

DAY 3: Parks and gardens – time to relax

After two busy days patrolling the essential sights of Lyon, it is good to relax and be less organised. That’s where a visit to the Parc de la Tête d’Or plays a part

Situated on the banks of the Rhone, the Parc covers an area of 105 hectares, and was modelled on the archetypal English garden. It includes a 16-hectare lake created in an arm of the Rhône. The park also includes the Botanical Garden of Lyon, created originally in 1796 on the slopes of the Croix-Rousse, and transferred to the park in 1857; it is the largest botanical garden in France.

The inherent danger of a limited-time visit to a great city such as Lyon is that you spread yourselves too thinly. So from the parc, it makes sense to head across to the Rhône, and stroll along its banks back towards the centre; in summer there are plenty of barge-restaurants to experience at lunch time, or simply to wander off, back into Vieux Lyon for a leisurely recap. Whatever you decide, a three-day visit will allow you to get a real flavour of this splendid city.

Alas, three-days does breed a longing to return.

C’est la vie.

Getting around and planning a visit

The underground metro or the tram network are the best ways of getting round, and are especially adapted to the needs of tourists. Buy a 1-day Ticket for unlimited travel on all forms of transport.

Dr Terry Marsh has written extensively for magazines and produced guidebooks for walkers to the French Pyrenees and the French Alps.

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