Lyon

Lyon, France

After three nights in Avignon, Peter and I boarded a train and arrived in Lyon, about an hour later, at 1:15pm.

Our first impression of Lyon was that the temperature was much lower than Avignon. Phew.

We stayed three nights at a hotel near Bellecour square and I felt that we didn’t even make a dent in exploring the city. Lyon is a big city – France’s second city to be precise – and it sprawls out as far as the eye can see.

We had two full days in Lyon. Our itinerary was as follows:

Arrival day (Sunday): Get acclimated to the lay of the land; drink some wine

Full day 1 (semi-public holiday): Wine tour in the morning and sightseeing in the afternoon

Full day 2: “Wine” tour in the morning and sightseeing in the afternoon

Truth be told, I was not a fan of France before this trip. I still don’t consider myself a fan, or even a person who likes France, but our experience this trip, specifically in Lyon, has been our best French travel experience.

I now consider myself ‘France tolerant’ which is a big upgrade from ‘France hater’.

The purpose of our trip to Avignon and Lyon was to visit the Rhône wine region. This wine region flanks the Rhône River, stretching from Lyon to Avignon.

We toured the Châteauneuf-du-Pape AOC in Southern Rhône whilst in Avignon and, from Lyon, we toured the Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu AOCs in Northern Rhône. As a bonus, we also toured the Beaujolais (boh-zhu-lay) AOC.

Geographically, it looks like this from north to south.

  • Burgundy AOC
  • Beaujolais (Beaujolais AOC, Beaujolais Villages AOC, Beaujolais Crus)
  • Lyon
  • Northern Rhône AOC
  • Southern Rhône AOC
  • Avignon

This trip was the third wine region we’ve visited in France. Prior to this trip, we’d visited Bordeaux and Alsace. The Rhône has been our favorite thus far.

The Beaujolais AOC was our fourth wine region and, unfortunately, I cannot speak to the wine. The tour we took in this appellation was marketed as a wine tour, however, the emphasis was not on wine.

Accommodation

We stayed at the InterContinental Lyon. This hotel is one of the nicest hotels I have ever stayed at, possibly the nicest.

The hotel is massive, stretching for almost the entire length of a city block. The front of the hotel faces east, overlooking the Rhône River.

This is what we saw when we walked into our room. 

The hotel is in a building that wraps around the perimeter of the city block. Another hotel occupies the south and west sides of the building and there are shops on the north side of the building.

In the courtyard of the building are shops, restaurants, and bars. It’s a party in the courtyard come 5pm!

Protip: There is a narrow alley that runs along the west side of the hotel that is packed with eateries. A person could spend a week at the hotel and between the courtyard restaurants, the alley restaurants, and restaurants within a three-minute walk, never eat at the same place twice.

Inside the InterContinental is Le Dôme Bar, voted one of the best bars in the world. It’s located in what the website describes as “the nerve center of the hotel” or as I describe it, under the building’s magnificent dome that stands 32 meters (105 feet) above.

It’s fancy but not too fancy and it’s worth a visit for a drink or two, but I recommend getting there when it opens or booking a reservation online.

The building was a hospital until 2009 when it shuttered and began a 10-year-long renovation to become what it is today.

What I’m not sure about is if the entire building or only the section of the building that is now the InterContinental was a hospital. Either way, the entire building has been spectacularly renovated and modernized.

As an example, there are original marble plaques on the columns in the Dome Bar from the days when the hospital was built. The plaques list the names of the financial donors and how many beds their donations paid for. 

The location of the hotel was very good but due to the size of Lyon, our exploration was contained to a 15-minute walk from the hotel. At times Lyon had a Parisian feel and other times, it had a Prague feel.

There’s something for everyone in Lyon.

The hotel is a few stops from the Lyon Part Dieu station via the Metro but it’s not a direct journey, there’s one change travelers need to make which is a bummer.

Alternatively, it’s a 10€ taxi ride from the station to the hotel. We took taxis to and from the station because the price was right and public transportation is always a bad experience with luggage in tow.

To the west of the hotel and across the Saône River are Lyon’s old town and La Basilique Notre Dame.

La Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière

Following our morning wine tour on our first full day, we had a quick bite to eat and then hiked up the hill to La Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière.

At the top is the basilica, a large square, an ice cream shop, and a cluster of fake wooden trees that looked like Christmas decorations that had not been dismantled.

I thought the view from the basilica was going to be amazing but, sadly, it was not. The treetops got in the way of every photo and it was a lot of effort to hike to the top only to be disappointed. Wah wah wah.

Protip: At the time, we thought the only way to get to the top was on foot, however, in writing this post, I found out that there is a train/funicular that runs from Vieux Lyon-Cathedrale Saint-Jean (river level) to Fourviere (basilica level).

What a fun thing to learn after the fact.

Speaking of rivers, there are two rivers that run through Lyon, the Rhône and the Saône. The rivers merge in the southern part of the city.

Back to the hike.

If you chose to tackle the hill on foot – which I definitely think you should do so that you can feel the pain we felt – then there are two routes to choose from.

The first route follows the road and is longer but with less of an incline than the second route. There are a few scenic lookouts along the way that are shaded but other than the lookouts, you’ll be in the blazing sunshine.

Road route from the river to the basilica

The second route begins in the old town and it’s stairs from the outset and throughout.

My best estimate is that this set of stairs comprises 5% of the total stairs to the basilica

When you get to the top of the “old town” stairs, you’ll cross a road and follow the trail/path into the park and be presented with more stairs. Hundreds and hundreds of stairs.

Park route from the river to the basilica

We descended from the basilica via the second route and it felt never-ending. The upside is that the second route is mostly shaded because the majority of the hike is in a heavily forested park. 

Old town

By the time we reached the old town, we wanted nothing more than to sit at a wine bar and enjoy a glass of wine in the sunshine but due to it being a semi-public holiday, not much was open and our wine bar dreams were dead on arrival.

Note: A semi-public holiday in France is almost the same as a full-public holiday. The city basically shuts down.

With our wine bar dreams crushed, our next move was to explore the old town because we were standing in the old town.

With the day being a semi-public holiday and the old town being a tourist hot spot, most of the businesses in the old town were open but due to the crowds, we had no chance of snagging a seat anywhere, not even for a coffee. 

And any chance of taking a decent photo was dead on arrival. As we walked around, I found one tiled art installation which was my favorite of the three I’d found up to that point.

This artist, @mifamosa, creates art that is a cheeky play on the street name. In the photo below, Place de la Baleine translates as Square of the Whale or Whale Square.

Art by @mifamosa

There was a second tiled art installation not too far from the whale. It was round and red, white, and black, like a target. I didn’t take a photo of it because it was underwhelming and I regret that decision now. Everyone loves these miniature tiled art installations!

Here’s a third installation we found in Lyon. It overtook the whale as my favorite.

Art by @inthewoup

Since we were dealing with a semi-public holiday and a cramped old town, I decided to return to the old town at a later date for photos, even if this meant waking up pre-8am.

Not one to let me down, I woke up early on the morning of our departure and we walked to the old town. To my horror, garbage wheelie bins had replaced people in the alleyways.

I could not win with Lyon’s old town. Nonetheless, it’s cute.

Eat, drink, and tour recommendations

Here are a few recommendations for Lyon for non-French food lovers.

Business nameTypeNotes
SlakeCoffee
Two AmigosRestaurant
BLORestaurantReservations recommended
Toke Vieux LyonRestaurant (fast)Excellent and inventive empanadas
Le Dôme BarCocktail barTry the Guilty Martini
Lyon WinetoursWine tourWine tours of Northern Rhône

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