But what happens once you've seen it all? Or if you just want a break from the city?
Within close reach of Lyon − in two hours or less − you'll find amazing vineyards, some of the prettiest towns in France, adorable medieval villages, Roman ruins, a Papal palace, and fields of lavender. And that's just a start.
There's a reason my region (yes, I happen to live here!), the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, is considered the heart of France...so please, let me be your guide.
Lyon has been a city at the crossroads since Roman times.
Two major rivers meet here, the Saône and the Rhône, and under the Roman Empire, Lyon – then called Lugdunum – was on the road from Rome to Hispania, or Spain.
During the Middle Ages, huge trade fairs attracted merchants from across Europe and again, Lyon was perfectly positioned, eventually becoming the silk capital of Europe.
Today, Lyon remains at the heart of France, about halfway between Paris and the French Riviera and surrounded by some of France's most iconic and exquisite sights.
What follows is a list of the best day trips from Lyon, all of which I've experienced personally and can recommend most enthusiastically. This list will help save you research time so that you can spend that time enjoying the sights!
HOW TO TRAVEL OUT OF LYON
There are 3 different ways to take day trips from Lyon:
Head down to the lake for a stroll along what is called the Riviera of the Alps. If you have the time, you can take a boat across the Lac du Bourget to the stunning lakeside Abbaye d'Hautecombe, a magical 12-th century building nearly hidden in the forest. This is where the Dukes of Savoy were traditionally buried. You can also drive here – it's a half-hour away.
You've probably heard of Annecy, one of (if not THE) prettiest towns in France. It has a gorgeous lake, spectacular mountains, and a delightful medieval quarter. It's hard not to love!
It's an ideal day trip from Lyon and takes about two hours by train, with the first train leaving Lyon around 7am and the last train leaving Annecy around 7.30pm. This means you can have lunch in Annecy, but you'll have to plan on having dinner back in Lyon.
This day trip is ideal if you want to walk on cobblestones and under arcades, but also take a break by the lake.
Things to do in Annecy
Walk around the Old Town. It is so impossibly picturesque you'll think you walked straight into a postcard. The triangular Palais de l'Isle, once a prison and now an exhibition space, is an iconic sight many people instantly recognize.
Enjoy Lake Annecy. Either take a boat ride on its crystal-clear waters, or walk or ride its circumference. The lake is now circled by a hiking/bike path.
Avignon is not an obvious day trip destination but at just over two hours from Lyon on the high-speed train, it's do-able. The Avignon train station is right downtown and near the sights, so exploring is easy.
This day trip is ideal if you're fascinated by the Middle Ages and European history.
Things to do in Avignon
Visit the Papal Palace, the seat of the papacy during the 14th century and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Discover the Pont d'Avignon (Avignon Bridge), subject of one of France's most famous children's songs.
Take a walk through the delightful old town of Avignon and explore its many ancient landmarks. Or take a walking tour that includes a skip-the-line ticket to the Papal Palace.
Visit the strategic 14th-century Fort Saint-André in Villeneuve-lez-Avignon, across the river.
Bourg-en-Bresse is the capital of the Ain department and a small provincial town that happens to pack quite a bit of punch.
It has plenty of historical monuments and a delightful (though small) old town, along with classical buildings and a reputed gastronomical reputation.
This is a town for those who like to go off the beaten path, witness artisans still at work, and eat exquisite regional food.
Things to do in Bourg-en-Bresse
Visit the 16th-century Gothic Monastère Royal de Brou (Royal Monastery of Brou), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Brou museum has a significant collection reflecting the history of the town and the region.
Take a walk through the old town of Bourg-en-Bresse, filled with half-timbered houses and plenty of historic architecture and landmarks.
Explore the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation and its Gothic-Renaissance mix and its wood-carved interior and stained glass windows.
Visit Vonnas, a half-hour drive away (or 45 min by train), and have lunch at L'Ancienne Auberge 1900 to sample a volaille de Bresse, or Bresse chicken, which has a protected designation of origin. The entire village gravitates around this and several other restaurants (plus a hotel complex) of Michelin-starred Georges Blanc.
Half of it is undulating plains and gentle hillsides covered with vineyards, while the other half is wild and rugged, not surprising given it borders the Alpine départements of the Savoie and Haute-Savoie, the Jura Mountains, and Switzerland.
This is a visit for those of you who want to combine nature and food.
Things to do in the Bugey
The Bugey is a place to drive around and enjoy the countryside, or go hiking or climbing in the Gorges de l'Albarine.
Visit the unusual town of Seyssel, a town split in two with two churches, two banks, two pharmacies, two schools, two post offices... France used to end here and the Rhône delineated the border between France and what was then Savoy.
In winter, this area is ideal for cross-country skiing and snowsheoing.
In summer, you can enjoy a multitude of small lakes to get away from the heat of the city. Find out more from the Haut-Bugey tourist office.
EXPLORING THE BUGEY
While there are train stations in the area, once you get there, you have no way to explore the countryside. You'll need a car for this one!
Distance from Lyon: 56km / 34mi
Driving time to starting point at Ambérieu-en-Bugey: 46 min
Chambéry was once the capital of Savoy, a duchy in southeastern France that joined France in 1860. It's heaven for outdoor sports, winter and summer, right at the foot of the Alps.
It also has a compact but appealing old town, perfect for a wander through the history of Savoy.
Things to do in Chambery
Visit the Castle of the Dukes of Savoy, a historic castle that was once the duchy's seat. It houses a regional history museum and a chapel with a 70-bell carillon, the largest in Europe.
Visit the 15th-century Cathédrale Saint François de Sales, which has the largest collection of trompe l'oeil in Europe. The ceiling and walls look like they've been carved but no, all those curlicues are actually painted on.
Circle the Elephant Fountain, simply because it's not usual to see elephants in this part of the world. In this case they're paying homage to a certain General de Boigne's exploits in India, where he made a fortune and reinvested some of it in beautifying Chambéry upon his return.
If you happen to be a fan of the 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, you'll find a statue of him in the Parc du Clos Savoiroux and Les Charmettes, the house where he spent several years with Mme de Warens, his mistress and benefactress.
To learn even more about Chambery, take this self-guided tour with your smartphone.
Dijon is always a favorite destination, with its ancient streets and history as the former capital of the Dukes of Burgundy.
This is a city for visitors who want a bit of an urban vibe, with plenty of history and culture, and a major dedication to food and wine. Remember, Dijon is right on the Burgundy Wine Route (for when you have more than a day).
Things to do in Dijon
Visit the brand new Cité Internationale de la Gastronomie et du Vin, an amazing food and wine complex with shops, restaurants, exhibits, wine tastings, workshops and even cooking classes.
Admire the Palais des Ducs et des États de Bourgogne (Palace of the Dukes and States of Burgundy), a beautiful Renaissance building that is home to the Fine Arts Museum and its two, incredibly ornate and carved tombs of the Dukes of Burgundy.
Take a walk through the old town of Dijon by following the Owl's Trail, which will guide you to all the major attractions of Dijon, like the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Dijon, the city's medieval streets, and the many urban mansions scattered throughout the city.
If you're a fan of quirky small museums, head for the Musée de la Vie Bourguignonne (Museum of Burgundian Life), which traces the history of Dijon through all sorts of interesting displays ranging from the everyday life of schoolchildren to an array of ancient shops, decorated the way they used to be. It's a ten-minute walk from the center but you can take the free bus or just walk – I loved this little museum!
And if you're feeling athletic, climb the 300 steps of Tour Philippe le Bon for a stunning view over Dijon. On Friday and Saturday evenings, you can have an enjoyable "apéro" – or pre-dinner drink – at the top of the tower. Just take your time climbing!
Since you don't have the time to go wine-tasting in Burgundy, let Burgundy come to you with this wine-tasting experience in the heart of Dijon.
However, if you're visiting Geneva or planning a little road trip into the Alps, you may be stopping in Evian along the way. You CAN go for the day if you don't mind the drive.
This day trip is ideal if you want to see Lake Geneva and find out all about Evian water, while perhaps enjoying a few spa treatments.
Things to do in Evian-les-Bains
As the home of Evian water, you can visit their exhibit and fill up your water at their public fountain.
Drop by the spa for a treatment or the casino for a game.
Mostly, though, walk around and admire the architecture from the Belle Epoque.
GETTING FROM LYON TO EVIAN-LES-BAINS
You could take the train but the quickest one is 3 hours and you'll have to change at least once. This is a visit that requires a car. If you drive, stop to visit the lovely medieval village of Yvoire along the way.
Yes, I know Geneva is in Switzerland, not France, but locally, it's often treated as if it were part of France. Many French people work in Geneva, and many Swiss live in France. It's a so-called "border zone" and these days, the border is pretty fluid.
Geneva is an easy day trip from Lyon, especially if you're in the mood to cross a border and are looking for a bit of "international" flavor.
Things to do in Geneva
Admire the Jet d'Eau, one of the world's tallest fountains and possibly Geneva's most iconic sight.
Take a classic selfie at the floral clock, the city's other iconic sight. The floral arrangements change regularly so even if you've been here before, it will probably look different.
Walk around the Old Town and university grounds, where you'll find the Wall of the Reformers, built in honor of the leaders of the Protestant movements.
Hop the tram to ancient Carouge, sometimes nicknamed Geneva's "Greenwich Village", full of welcoming restaurants and boutiques.
Visit the United Nations headquarters. It's a one-hour visit but a fascinating one. However, the UN building is being renovated so the number of visits has been cut, which means it may take several months to snag a place – sop reserve early!
Visit the brilliant Red Cross Museum (and have lunch at their surprisingly good cafeteria).
If you're visiting in winter, Grenoble will be your jumping off point for many of the nearby ski resorts. If you come in summer, you'll be coming for history and for the views.
This day trip is ideal if you want stunning views and are interested in World War II history.
Things to do in Grenoble
La Bastille, a 19th-century military fort that stands above the city, has been converted into an entertainment and cultural space with restaurants and museums – definitely worth a visit.
Getting there is the most fun: ride the "bulles", or bubbles, and you'll be overlooking extraordinary panoramic views of Grenoble and the Alps.
The city's museum – le Musée de Grenoble – has a solid beaux-arts collection and special exhibits worth the entrance fee. Last time I visited there was a magnificent series of Giacommetti sculptures...
If you're interested in World War II history, the really excellent Musée de la Résistance et de la Déportation de l’Isère traces the region's history from 1939-1945, during which Grenoble fought the Nazis with great courage.
Orange is on the way to Provence and has a rich history and cultural heritage, given its importance during Roman times. It also has a compact old town, for lovers of the medieval and classical eras.
It's a bit far for a day trip but totally worth it if you combine a visit to the Roman ruins with a wine-tasting trip to the excellent Rhône Valley vineyards nearby.
This day trip is ideal if you want to combine Roman ruins and wine tasting.
Things to do in Orange
Visit the Roman Amphitheater, one of the best preserved in France. It is still used for concerts and plays, especially in summer, during the Chorégies d’Orange, an international opera and classical music festival with a global reputation.
The other wonderful Roman ruin (and like the amphitheater, protected by the UNESCO World Heritage List) is the 2000-year-old Arc de Triomphe, which dates back to the first century and one of the world's best-preserved Roman arches.
Go taste some wine in the nearby Rhône Valley, home to such famous wines as Chateauneuf-du-Pape. It's a ten-minute drive if you've come by car but if not, consider taking a tour to the vineyards (almost better than driving since you'll be able to sample!)
Shop at the massive weekly town market, every Thursday morning.
This village in the Ain department is the place to head if you're keen on visiting an exquisite medieval village, one of the most beautiful villages in France. The town has a rich history and was an important center of trade and industry during the Middle Ages.
In high season it can get crowded (you'll see all the tour buses in the parking lot) but here's a tip: stay overnight, and have the village almost to yourself.
It's the kind of village where you want to simply walk... stop and gaze... and walk again. Old, quaint, and stuffed with atmosphere.
Things to do in Pérouges
Stroll. Just walk around and enjoy the beauty of the village of Perouges and its medieval architecture.
Stop by the artisan shops and enjoy the handworked crafts.
Sample the galette de Pérouges, the local sweet tart or sugar pie (you'll know where to buy it because you'll smell the aroma drifting across the village – just follow your nose).
Visit the tiny but fascinating Museum of Arts and Popular Traditions.
Sit in the main square with a coffee or tea and simply watch – something's always going on.
You can take a half-hour train ride to Meximieux-Pérouges but you'll have a half-hour walk (uphill) to get to the village (it's not called a hilltop village for nothing). Otherwise it's an easy drive from Lyon.
Valence (the former Roman Valentia) was once an important Roman city, as you'll see from some of its vestiges, and it has some stunning pieces of architecture from the Middle Ages onward.
Valence is also known for its beautiful natural setting, as it is located in the heart of the Rhône Valley, surrounded by vineyards, rolling hills and the banks of the Rhône.
It's a bright, cheerful town, a gateway to the south of France, where you'll already begin to feel you're in Provence.
Things to do in Valence
Visit the 11th-century Romanesque Cathédrale Saint-Apollinaire (above).
Follow in the footsteps of Napoleon Bonaparte, who visited here 18 times between 1778-1814. You can follow his trace along Sur les Pas de Bonaparte, with 26 small plaques set in the sidewalk to guide you.
Visit the Musée de Valence, whose 20,000 stretch back into prehistory. I'm partial to Roman mosaics and the museum has a few stellar pieces.
Visit Le Pendentif, the pendant, a 16th-century memorial hidden away in the heart of the cathedral's cloister – a nice view at sunset.
Built in 1530, La Maison des Têtes (the House of Heads) is probably the city's most famous monument, named after the allegorical sculptures that surround it (Napoleon enjoyed visiting it).
An unusual venue is the Center for Armenian Heritage – Valence has the largest Armenian community in France (it makes up 10% of the population).
Grab a burst of nature by heading to the port de l’Épervière, France's largest river port, or walking around one of the town's many parks.
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Bonjour - je m'appelle Leyla! But don't be fooled by my name...
My Turkish father may have won the naming battle but my mother, with 10 centuries of Frenchness behind her, won the education war.
Born in Paris and brought up in Spain and Canada, I now live in the bucolic Alpine foothills of Eastern France, close to the Swiss border.
Offbeat France goes beyond the baguette – together, we'll explore curiosities, oddities and mysteries, with a healthy dose of legends and backstories. (Along with plenty of food stops and many castles – I am French, after all.)