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You might think this isn't the best season to visit Lyon - you'd be both right and wrong.
Yes, there are seasons during which the weather is balmier, but none when the light is clearer. Lyon in December can be as grim as it is gorgeous, with an energy you won't find when the heat of summer flattens you.
But weather isn't what defines a place, is it? Lyon in December is exceptional – in fact, it might just be the perfect season for a visit: the cuisine is anything but light, so the cold outdoors make it perfect for sampling; the Christmas spirit is bright and filled with light; and the greyness that sometimes envelops the city seems to somehow heighten its beauty.
I've visited a number of times in December, since I only live just over an hour away by train, so Lyon is my go-to city and large enough to always offer up something new.
Let's look at what you can actually DO in Lyon in the last month of the year... first, the "incontournables", as we say in French, the "unmissables".
This is the one event at the top of every travel tips list if your trip to Lyon happens to fall around December 8th. And with reason.
The Festival of Lights in Lyon is a unique event which takes over the entire city with not one light show, but many, up and down the hills and across town, from Place Bellecour to the Place des Terreaux.
A bit like a Mardi Gras or Carnival, you have to like crowds and enjoy massive events that take place out of doors, often in the cold. I didn't love the crowds, but the light shows were spectacular and I'll be heading back for another round of what has now become an international event.
There are plenty of Christmas markets spread around Lyon, many of them focused on a neighborhood. But if you can only see a single one, the Place Carnot has the largest and best known. Head there for some Christmas cheer and plenty of music of every kind. Let your nose guide you towards the hot mulled wine and the grilled chestnuts!
If you've seen photos of the giant Place Bellecour, you've probably seen these things: the Tourist Office, the omnipresent statue of Louis XIV on horseback next to the metro station, and, if you're visiting in winter, a giant ferris wheel towering over the square. That ferris wheel, imported from Italy, stands 55m / 150ft tall and has 28 six-person cabins.
The first time I saw it, it felt rather overwhelming, especially in a city of classic low-rises.
The wheel used to face North-South, but now faces East-West. A few years ago, the city was sued by a resident for physical and psychological damages caused by the wheel's lights. She won, and the ferris wheel was reoriented to avoid her window...
This video will give you an idea of the incredible view you can expect from on high!
Of course! Lyon is considered the gastronomical capital of France, so it stands to reason that tasting all of the foods could be high on your list. Lyon has plenty of specialties you can discover on your own or if your time is limited, a food tour is the perfect way to discover them.
Lyon is the capital of the Rhône department (one of France's 101 departments) and as you may know, Paul Bocuse – known variously as the Chef of the Century and the Pope of Gastronomy – is from here.
At Christmas, the French eat a lot of seafood and other delicacies that might not otherwise be everyday fare. And Les Halles Paul Bocuse, named in honor of the chef, is where you'll find all of these! The freshest oysters, the widest range of cheeses, the most delectable pastries... Once you enter, you may never leave!
This is a winter classic. A bouchon is a traditional restaurant in Lyon, which serves typical – and often heavy – local foods. True foodies looking for things to do in Lyon any time of year will of course try out a bouchon, but this kind of food is best sampled in winter. It'll warm you up no end!
While you'll enjoy the Festival of Lights in early December, there's another fantastic installation that isn't to be missed. Between Christmas in Lyon and New Year's, hop on the funicular and ride up Fourvière Hill to the Basilica for an unbelievable light show on the church's façade.
Lyon is known for its many interesting museums, and getting out of the cold while imbibing some culture is a win-win. You can take your pick but I've chosen some of my favorites for you:
Lyon has two dozen excellent museums on everything from the French Resistance to the birth of printing and photography, so if you want to get inside, you know what to do!
Winter weather can be a bit of a challenge, which is why many people visiting Lyon in winter try to find things to do indoors. And yes, I agree, on a cold, dark day, getting inside is a good idea. But the month of December also has some gloriously sunny days that will almost beg you to go outdoors. Below are activities for both sunny and gray days – you choose!
This might not be an obvious choice, because if it rains or snows, cobblestones can be slippery. Also, the charming cafés that crowd the streets in summer are nowhere to be seen. But there are three things to do in Old Lyon if you happen to be here when it's cold.
The first is to visit the Food Traboule for a meal, an upmarket food court which a group of chefs have put together. It's a fun mixture of fusion foods, if you still want to eat "Lyonnais" but are open to new interpretations.
The second fun thing to do in the Vieux-Lyon is to explore the traboules, or secret passageways that link streets to one another. Many of them are closed, but a few of the larger ones remain open, perfect to warm up if it's chilly outside – and a great thing to do on one of those sunnier days.
And finally, this is when you get to drink a cup of mulled wine, a welcome respite from the multitude of ice cream parlors that crowd the Rue Saint-Jean in summer. Just pop into one of the many establishments along the street, and sample!
One of my favorite outdoor activities is to visit Lyon's magnificent murals, of which the city has around 150. Some aren't very central, but some of the most stunning - like the Fresque des Lyonnais or the Mur des Canuts - are easy to get to. The winter light shining on these giant works of art give them a particular brilliance in winter.
Are you a long-distance runner? Do you dream of getting out into nature at night? La SaintéLyon is an annual race that starts in the city of Saint-Etienne and ends in Lyon. It is made up of two hikes, several team relays, and individual races. Do one segment, or do them all.
It's apparently not an easy race for beginners or a difficult one for seasoned runners. But if you've already been training and are ready to test yourself... find out more on their website (in French only, I'm afraid).
While the Light Festival gets all the kudos, there's another, smaller festival that isn't half as showy but that has a neighborhood feel. If you happen to be in Caluire-et-Cuire, a northern suburb of Lyon wedged between the Rhône and Saône rivers, drop by their festivities for some local flavor and watch the release of flying lanterns.
People usually gather on the Saturday of the Fête des Lumières but the exact gathering places are published closer to the date. Check the (automatically translated) site of the local city hall.
On the first Saturday of the month, December included, head for the courtyard of the Hôtel-Dieu to the Marché des Créateurs "Lyon Can Do It", for artisanal products from throughout the region, from porcelain to jewelry to candles and plenty more. Take home something original!
Many specialties cannot be taken home with you – they tend to be food-related. But there is one item that Lyon serves up better than anyone else: silk.
Croix-Rousse Hill was once the heart of Lyon's silk trade, and Lyon was the European capital of silk. Scattered throughout the area (as well as in other parts of Lyon) are wonderful silk manufacturers and boutiques, where you can pick up genuine silk scarves made locally, by hand.
If you're curious about the silk-making process and want to see it at work, this tour will guide you through it and show you how it's done.
The southern tip of the Beaujolais is close to Lyon, just half an hour's drive. The end of November is when the Beaujolais Nouveau is released, so it's still fresh and new and fun to drink.
But that's not the only reason to visit in December. Pierres Dorées means "golden stones", a name that portrays the yellow ochre rock used to build houses in this region, giving the region a decidedly Tuscan feel.
One of those villages, Oingt, is a special place, home to an informal contest of Nativity displays each year. Residents and shops vie with one another to build and display the prettiest scenes.
And if you want a taste of wine in a real chateau, head for my favorite in the area, the Château de Montmelas (website in French), open in December.
Yes, seriously! France's largest urban park is as wonderful in winter as it is in summer, and in the cold, in lieu of summer picnics, the citizens of Lyon will make a beeline for the heated tropical greenhouse filled with plant species from around the world.
You may not be south of the Equator, but you'll be surrounded by coconut palms, banana leaves and orchids galore...
For those of you with a scientific bent, Lyon officially has a humid temperate subtropical climate with hot summers.
What’s it really like? In December, it rains, it sometimes snows, there’s some sun, and you’d better carry around your list of things to do indoors (see plenty of them above).
Yes, I did say the S word. Snow. Neige. It does happen in Lyon, and when it does, I find it rather beautiful, because it doesn’t last. But not every December, so don’t get your hopes up.
A lot of people suggest you bypass December in Lyon and opt for another month. I’ve visited several Decembers and I couldn’t disagree more. There’s energy in the air, freshness, Christmas is on its way, and if you’ve lived in really cold parts of the world, this will barely feel like winter. It can be the best time or the worst time to visit, depending on how adventurous you are.
The average temperature in December can hit 7.3°C/45°F in daytime and plunge to 1.6°C/35°F at night. But these days, frankly, who can predict… In truth, December is the second coldest month of the year in Lyon (the coldest being January).
So make sure you dress warmly, and in layers. You'll want to be able to remove a layer if you spend an hour or two in a museum or a restaurant, or add a warm scarf is the temperatures plunge.
Lyon is magical in December, at a time when many cities take out their holiday finery. The combination of bright lights and cobblestone reflections is one of the charms of France in winter. The same goes for Paris in December – the Champs-Elysées may not be everyone's favorite street during high summer season but in December, it becomes an enchanted pathway of twinkling trees.