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Paris may be nicknamed the City of Light, but Lyon is definitely the City of Lights.
We all love a good light show but there's something special about the Lyon light festival: it lasts several days, it takes place all over town (not just on a building or two), and it happens in Lyon in winter, a season which is often harder for visitors.
Well, Lyon in December may not be technically winter, but watching my breath curl and feeling my toes freeze means the Christmas season is upon us, an ideal stop on your way to visiting Christmas markets in France.
While the Fête des Lumières is a main highlight of Lyon's year, I should warn you it is not an event for everyone. The weather is usually cold, a lot of walking is involved, and the crowds are HUGE – thousands of people crammed into tiny twisty streets.
But if you decide you can handle all that, you'll be rewarded by a fabulous array of (30 or so) light events, some of them extremely sophisticated, with images dancing on buildings and light tunnels inviting you to walk through.
The Fête des Lumières – the most important festival of lights in France – dates back to 1852, when Lyon city planned to inaugurate a statue of the Virgin Mary on Fourvière Hill on 8 September in gratitude for protection from all sorts of ills.
But the weather wouldn't play along so the celebration was moved back three months to 8 December. Of course the weather in December was no better, and the city considered cancelling the event, but the good people of Lyon took matters into their own hands.
Across town, people lit up their windows and balconies with lumignons, or little lights, giving the city an ethereal and fairytale look.
The tradition has remained.
During the Lyon festival of lights, you'll see individual lights in windows, and hotels often give out small electric candles so you can play along. That said, these lights have a hard time competing with all the bright Christmas lights and displays...
The city experimented with public light installations for the first time in 1989 and ten years later, it inaugurated the first four-day festival of lights in Lyon, held every year since.
Except for twice.
In 2015, the Fêtes were cancelled for the first time, because of security concerns. In January of that year, a horrible massacre took place in the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris. Two Islamic terrorists killed 12 people in that attack and the next day, one of their associates killed another five.
And in 2021, the event was vastly reduced because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Today, it is back in full force and again ensconced in the city's contemporary culture.
The exhibitions change each year and the lights shows aren't organized by the city but by individual artists and creators, who go all out to impress the (possibly) two million people who attend the festivities.
Here's what I saw when I visited.
The city usually produces a map of the Fêtes that shows you where everything is located. This is important because there are plenty of venues, and unless you happen to live in Lyon or spend several nights here, you probably won't be able to see them all.
Here are my favorite observations points, although since the shows change each year, what's good today may not be worth the effort tomorrow. But, generally speaking:
The city is also trying to improve its facilities for people with disabilities and have set up a special email, text and phone number you can access for more information (in French), along with reservations for special access tours.
However, from the crowds I saw, I would be very careful about accessing some of the more popular and highly crowded venues without any assistance.
One thing I learned about attending the Light Festival is the importance of having a plan of some sort. You simply cannot decide to show up at the last minute and hope for the best...
The Fêtes usually take place on the weekend nearest to 8 December, and last from Thursday to Sunday, although there has been talk of shortening them by a day or extending the hours.
They usually start at 8pm and last until 11pm, although some years on some days they start a bit earlier.
This is one of the biggest events of the year in Lyon, and people come from far away to see it. I reserved my "inexpensive" room six months ahead of time and still had to pay €150 for the privilege.
Yes, prices are at a premium and demand is huge.
If you're planning to visit, click here to book your hotel room as far in advance as possible. You may have to book as much as a year in advance if you're looking for premium accommodations. And don't be surprised if your favorite Lyon hotel costs twice as much as usual – prices do skyrocket during the festival.
Where you stay doesn't matter too much because there are exhibitions in most parts of town, but I would advise staying either within walking distance of the center or near a Metro station, since there is no other public transport during the Fête.
I prefer to stay near the Part-Dieu train station when I can, so I don't have to carry my luggage too far and can just hop the train when it's over. In normal times, getting around Lyon is simple, but less so during the festivals.
Unless you plan to stay in a hotel near the edge of town with a parking lot, don't even think of driving.
All cars are banned from the city center during the Fête, and while there are public parking lots, you'll be hard-pressed to find a place.
You can come by train (you'll usually end up at Lyon Part-Dieu station) or you can fly in and catch the Rhône Express from the airport to the Part-Dieu station.
France's energy situation has been somewhat precarious and some people have been asking me about what happens to energy consumption when all these lights go on.
According to the organizers, a 2019 study showed the amount of electricity consumed during the four days of the festival make up about 0.1% of the city's annual public lighting budget, or a third of one day's worth.
This is because most displays use LED lights, the lights themselves are of the latest quality, and the nightly lighting of buildings such as the Cathedral, Palais de Justice, or the Basilica are turned off during this time.
That said, rumors do surface about energy use. There are regular questions about whether the festival should go on, or whether it should be shortened, or any number of critiques.
For now, things remain as they are, although the contradictions between France warning about power outages and staging a light festival are not lost on most of us.
Given the crowds, the cold and the popularity of this event, these few simple tips will help ensure your trip is perfect.
Speaking of security, there are crowds.
Many of the light shows take place on large squares crammed with people. When each show ends, all those people are funneled into ancient streets – which get smaller and smaller, while the crowds get denser.
While I understand the need to control pedestrian flow, this is not handled well.
Often, we were directed in circles as we tried to "escape" a specific route – so there is plenty of room for improvement on that front. Just be aware and use your common sense as you navigate the crowds and make sure you can duck in somewhere if it becomes too dense.
The lights festival doesn't start until 8pm so you'll have all day to visit this incredibly stunning city – if you don't know Lyon yet, you may be very (pleasantly) surprised.
Here are a few things you can do during the day:
If you happen to be visiting before the festival starts, this food tour would be perfect – Lyon is known as France's culinary capital, after all.
This is also a good time to get your bearings for the evening light show: drop by the Lyon tourist office and get a map of the festival. As evening comes around, the tourist office gets crowded so get this out of the way earlier if you can.
You can visit the Old Town, take the funicular up to the Basilica, sample some of Lyon's fabled cuisine, explore its Roman history, or search for its secret passageways and monumental murals. And so much more.
The sad reality is that this is a high point of the year in Lyon and hotel prices do jump. Your best bet is to book as far ahead of time as possible, once the dates are announced.