Why go now?
What makes the Lyonnaise more proud about their beautiful, cultured city than anything else is its gastronomic reputation. “Lyon has the finest larder in France … and this explains why the city has such a long history of superb cooks,” says Paul Bocuse, who’s not only the most famous living chef in Lyon, but in France – and quite possibly the world. The cold months are the best time to sample hearty Lyonnaise specialities in the city’s cosy, charmingly rowdy, rough-and-tumble bouchons, a local variation of the bistro.
Eurostar (03432 186 186; eurostar.com) runs a Saturday service from London St Pancras and Ashford to Lyon Part-Dieu station (1), taking under five hours and arriving at 1pm. It can be combined with other daily trains via Paris or Lille. After the recent tragic events in Paris, expect lengthier, more stringent security checks.
Lyon-Saint-Exupéry airport is served by easyJet (0330 365 5000; easyjet.com) from various UK airports; British Airways (0344 493 0787; britishairways.com) from Heathrow; and Flybe (0371 700 2000; flybe.com) from Birmingham. A number of flights start in December, mainly aimed at the ski market: Monarch (0871 940 5040; flymonarch.com) from Gatwick, Manchester and Birmingham; Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Stansted; and Jet2 (0800 408 1350 FREE; jet2.com) from Manchester.
The airport is 25km east of Lyon’s centre. The fastest, cheapest way to get into town is on the Rhônexpress tramway, which reaches Part-Dieu station (1) in less than 30 minutes, with departures every 15 minutes (6am to 9pm) and half-hourly (5am to 5.30am and 9.30pm to midnight). Adult returns are €27.40 (rhonexpress.fr). Taxis cost €40 to €50.
Get your bearings
Part-Dieu station (1) is in the heart of the modern business district of the same name, best known for the pencil-shaped, 42-storey Tour Part-Dieu skyscraper (2). Lyon’s excellent underground and buses (tcl.fr) link the district to the Presqu’île, as the long tongue-like peninsula lapped by the Rhône and Saône rivers that comprises central Lyon is known.
The Presqu’île has elegant, mostly 19th-century architecture with stylish shops, busy cafés and superb restaurants lining its mostly pedestrianised north-south boulevards. The largest open space is the Place Bellecour (3), which also contains the Tourist Office (00 33 4 72 77 69 69 FREE; lyon-france.com; open 9am to 6pm daily), which sells a Lyon City Card (€32 for 48 hours) with unlimited public transport and free entry to museums.
The Presqu’île’s steep northern district, known as the Croix-Rousse, was once a quarter for silk weavers but is now a trendy area for arty youngsters. La Confluence, at the tip of the Presqu’île, is the largest current urban redevelopment in Europe, while Le Vieux Lyon, on the Saône’s west bank, is a Unesco-listed area notable for its concentration of magnificent Renaissance architecture.
La Villa Florentine (4) at 25 Montée Saint-Barthélémy (00 33 4 72 56 56 56 FREE; villaflorentine.com) is a plush Relais & Chateaux property in a 17th-century convent, perched on Lyon’s Fourvière hillside, with stunning views over Vieux Lyon. It has an outdoor pool, gastronomic restaurant and small spa. Doubles from €250, room only.
Hotel Le Royal (5) at 20 Place Bellecour (00 33 4 78 37 57 31 FREE; lyonhotel-leroyal.com) is a handsomely renovated Belle Epoque hotel with large, traditionally decorated rooms. Most have fine views over the city, and the restaurant is run by the Institut Paul Bocuse. Doubles from €210, room only.
Mama Shelter Lyon (6) at 13 Rue Domer (00 33 4 78 02 58 00 FREE; mamashelter.com/lyon) was designed by Philippe Starck, like all the hotels in this young, design-forward French chain. It’s a little off the beaten track, but has style, comfort, value and a great bar scene. Doubles start at €69, room only.
Take a view
Board the funicular from Vieux Lyon metro station (7) up the steep hill to Lyon’s emblematic mid-19th century Notre-Dame de Fourvière basilica (8). The church is intriguingly lugubrious, but the views over the city and the strategic confluence of the Rhône and Saône will explain why the Romans built the capital of Gaul here. For more on the city’s ancient life, head for the Gallo-Roman Museum (9) at 17 Rue Cléberg (00 33 4 72 38 49 30 FREE; €6, 10am to 6pm, Tuesday to Sunday).
Take a hike
From Place Bellecour (10), stroll down Rue Auguste Comte, the artery of antique shops. Make a brief detour left, down Rue St-Hélène, for the fascinating Musée des Tissus et des Arts Décoratifs (11) at 34 Rue de la Charité (00 33 4 78 38 42 00 FREE; mtmad.fr) which displays the glories of Lyon’s silk and textile industry. Near the Gare Lyon-Perrache (12), Lyon’s second major train station, stop for a drink at the vast Art Deco Brasserie Georges (13) at 30 Cours de Verdun Perrache (00 33 4 72 56 54 54 FREE; brasseriegeorges.com) which has been in business since 1836. Continue down the Cours Charlemagne for the Confluence district.
Linger for lunch
Sitting down to a proper meal is a joy here, and no visit to Lyon is complete without dining at a bouchon, those popular holes in the wall where offal reigns. Two of the best are Le Bouchon des Filles (14) at 20 Rue Sergent Blandan (00 33 4 78 30 40 44 FREE) and Daniel et Denise (15) at 156 Rue de Crèqui (00 33 4 78 60 66 53 FREE; daniel-et-denise.fr). The city’s best modern bistro is Le Palégrié (16), 8 Rue Palais Grillet (00 33 4 78 92 94 84 FREE; palegrie.fr) where chef Guillaume Monjuré offers a regularly changing seasonal menu – steamed fera from Lake Geneva with lardo di Colonata, tiny mousseron mushrooms and fresh baby peas.
No serious food-lover should miss Lyon’s sprawling covered market, Les Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse (17) at 102 Cours Lafayette (daily except Monday; halles-de-lyon- paulbocuse.com).
Look out for Sibilla, the celebrated charcuterie producer, and La Mère Richard, a fromagerie famed for the quality of its creamy, runny, gently lactic St-Marcellin, produced in the nearby Dauphine region.
Bernachon (18), 42 Cours Franklin Roosevelt (00 33 04 78 24 37 98 FREE; bernachon.com), a bean-to-bar chocolate producer, is a brisk 20-minute walk from the market. It should be seen both for its tea salon and pastries, and for its sumptu-ous chocolates.
There are great cocktails to be had at Soda (19), 7 Rue de la Martinière (soda-bar.fr), which is decorated with posters of crooners who liked a drink, including James Brown and Frank Sinatra. The serious young mixologists do everything from a classic sazerac to a Champs-Elysées cocktail (cognac, Chartreuse, Angostura bitters and lemon juice).
Dine with the locals
Japanese cook Takao Takano was sous chef to Nicolas LeBec, Lyon’s gastronomic golden boy, until his career crashed and he high-tailed it off to China. With great discretion and modesty, Takano stepped into his boss’s shoes, and his elegant restaurant Takao Takano (20) at 33 Rue des Malesherbes (00 33 4 82 231 43 39, takaotakano.com), is now one of the most popular tables in town.
Takano has an encyclopedic knowledge of French cooking, which allows him to make subtle changes that completely renew a classic dish. Delicious examples include steamed cod garnished with baby peas, seaweed and sun-dried tomato, and a sauce of cardamom-flavoured smoked milk and melted raw butter.
Sunday morning: out to brunch
Many Lyonnaise prefer a proper Sunday lunch, but for a perfect compromise between a big formal meal and a light midday one, head for the Café Brasserie Chantecler (21) at 151 Boulevard de la Croix-Rousse (00 33 4 30 22 04 90 FREE; cafechantecler.fr), a lively bobo (“bourgeois bohemian”) hang-out with everything from a first-rate salade Lyonnaise (endive, bacon, poached egg) to steak tartare and smoked salmon club sandwiches.
A walk in the park
For a walk on the wild side, head for the Parc de la Tête d’Or (22), a rare green lung in this densely populated city. Beyond its welcome verdure and a small zoo, the park’s main attraction is the nearby Musée d’Art Contemporain (23) at 81 Quai Charles de Gaulle (00 33 4 72 69 17 17 FREE; mac-lyon.com; 11am to 7pm daily except Monday; €15).
Take a ride
The latest addition to Lyon’s excellent public transport system is Le Vaporetto (00 33 8 20 20 69 20 FREE), a jaunty little ferry that plies the Saône between Hôtel Saint Paul (24) (6 Rue Laineri, 0033 4 78 28 13 29 FREE) and La Confluence every day from 10am to 9pm; the one-way fare is €2.
The Musée des Beaux-Arts (25) at 20 Place des Terreaux (00 33 4 72 10 17 40 FREE; mba-lyon.fr; 11am to 6pm, daily except Monday; €8) has a strong collection of 20th-century European paintings including works by Cézanne, Degas, Manet, Monet and Renoir. The ancient Egyptian collection is also outstanding. Don’t miss the bedroom set that Art Nouveau artist Hector Guimard designed for his wife.
Icing on the cake
Dazzle your Christmas guests after you’ve done a Market Table Class or a French Pastry Workshop at the excellent Plum Lyon Teaching Kitchen cookery school (26) at 49 Rue des Tables Claudiennes (plumlyon.com, courses from €160). It’s run by the gastronomically gifted Lucy Vanel, an American who trained as a pastry chef in France. Her well-run course will leave you with lots of new seasonal go-to recipes that are simultaneously modern and traditional, but profoundly French.