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Lyon is one of those places that a lot of people have heard of but don’t necessarily know much about – unless they’ve been there.
Yet France’s second city is a dynamo, a brilliant cultural gem that is underrated because… I’m not sure why, actually.
Perhaps people rushing from Paris to Provence want to get there in a hurry and not get waylaid... That could be part of the reason.
But another, more important one, is that Lyon is simply not that well known. When you read about France, Lyon isn't the first destination that comes up, is it.
If people only knew what they were missing, they might make a beeline for France’s second city (this ranking is disputed by Marseille, by the way, but you can make the case for both, depending on how you calculate).
I live near Lyon and it excites me to visit because each time, I discover something new, and that something is often spectacular.
So let’s try to nail it: what IS Lyon best known for? Once you know, you may be tempted to visit. And once you visit, you’ll be back. Again and again.
You’ll be surprised at the length of this list! So, here goes.
This is probably the most famous Lyon city claim to fame and it has been known for its cuisine, home of specialties which together make up the Cuisine Lyonnaise.
Not only is Lyon food famous, but so are its individual dishes like quenelle de brochet (pike dumpling), Salade Lyonnaise, and plenty of pork and offal-based dishes like tripe.
With its 16 Michelin-starred restaurants, Lyon can also lay claim to famous chefs. Paul Bocuse, named chef of the century, was born just north of here and spent his life building up the restaurant that bears his name.
His mentor was none other than Eugénie Brazier, who was the first woman to earn three Michelin stars and revolutionized Lyonnaise cuisine by offering simpler, lighter dishes. Why not discover some of Lyon's food specialties by taking a food tour?
The city is famous for its vibrant food markets, both indoor and out.
The Marché Saint-Antoine Célestins along the Saône has wonderful produce and great cheeses and yes, you just might find a chef or two squeezing the tomatoes here (keep walking and you’ll end up at the outdoor second-hand book market).
Then there’s the market on Croix-Rousse, the silk-weavers’ hill, with its flowers and regional specialties, and the Marché Carnot, for the most local produce.
Not exactly a market but a fabulous indoor food hall is Les Halles Lyon Paul Bocuse, the most upmarket food emporium and one of the best places to see in Lyon, with all the “big houses” of the city and their cheeses, charcuterie and pastries.
And possibly the most fun culinary event of the year is the Lyon Street Food Festival, a fun event which brings together gastronomes from food truck owners to major chefs to prepare some of their signature dishes for those who would like to get to know them but haven’t been to their major restaurants.
When exploring the question of what is Lyon known for, silk rises to the top of the list.
For centuries, Lyon was the capital of the European silk trade, known for its silk production and weaving techniques. Master weavers had been brought in from Italy, and the industry grew, with Lyon’s massive trade fairs attracting merchants from across Europe.
By the mid-17th century there were 14,000 looms in the city and the silk industry was responsible for the wellbeing of a third of the population.
Silk prices eventually fell (the Industrial Revolution and the introduction of machines helped) and the workers rebelled, in one of the first industrial workers’ strikes in France.
You can learn all about Lyon’s traditional silk production process at the Maison des Canuts, a silk weaving museum and workshop or by taking a silk walking tour.
Silk traders had to ferry their bolts of silk from the workshops on the hill to the shops below.
All those bolts of silk had to stay dry when it rained so silk workers used hidden passageways – called traboules – that still connect streets and courtyards today.
The traboules also served as hiding places during World War II for members of the French Résistance, and some of the best traboules to visit in Lyon can be found in the Old Town.
Members of the Résistance during World War II used the traboules and many other corners of their city to fight the Nazis. Lyon was famous for its role in the French Resistance during World War II, with significant historical sites and monuments commemorating the resistance movement.
A well-designed museum (Centre d'Histoire de la Résistance et de la Déportation) is one of the more famous places in Lyon. Not only is it a museum that details Lyon’s resistance to the Nazis, but it is located right in the building which served as Gestapo headquarters during the war.
Lyon is blessed with an ample collection of Gallo-Roman ruins, mostly built during the first century CE when Lyon was called Lugdunum.
These ruins are well preserved and showcase a Grand Theater and a smaller Odeon, all open for us to wander around. Performances are still held here today – in summer, the Nuits de Fourvière (Fourvière is the name of the hill on which the ruins lie) feature world-renowed artists against the magical backdrop of Ancient Rome.
Hidden in the grassy hills around the ruins is a Gallo-Roman museum with excellent displays of the many artefacts and rich history of Rome in Lyon. Shaped internally like a spiral, you start at the top and work your way down from one display to the next.
Behind the Roman ruins, a block away, is the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, one of the most famous landmarks in Lyon, one which you can usually spot from most corners of Lyon. People visit here for two reasons: for the basilica itself, and for the panoramic views of Lyon you can get from its gardens.
In the mid-17th century, when the bubonic plague spread across Europe, the Virgin Mary is believed to have interceded and saved the people of Lyon. The same thing happened during a cholera epidemic two centuries later. And during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), after the Prussians had marched on Paris, Lyon avoided capture and again, survival was attributed to the Virgin Mary.
To give thanks to Mary, the Lyonnais decided to build the Fourvière Basilica, and in early December each year, they thank her by lighting candles throughout the city.
An intriguing little addition is the little metallic tower that sits next to it – it is often likened to a mini Eiffel Tower. It was built as a restaurant during the World’s Fair in 1894 but today, it serves as a communications hub.
This candle-lighting tradition has evolved into the Festival of Lights (Fête des Lumières), which attracts millions of visitors every year and is famous for its spectacular light displays.
While the event is crowded and chilly, the light show is indeed spectacular, each year different from the next, and absolutely worth experiencing at least once in your lifetime.
Lyon is renowned for its role in the development of cinema: it was the birthplace of the Lumière brothers, who invented the cinematograph in 1895, the world’s first viable film camera.
To trace its history, you can visit the Lumière Institute, which pays homage to the brothers and showcases the history of cinema through various exhibits and screenings.
Every year, Lyon’s Lumière Film Festival celebrates classic and contemporary cinema and attracts renowned filmmakers and actors from around the world.
Lyon is also known for its prestigious Lumière Awards, which honor exceptional achievements in the world of cinema.
Wherever you look in this city, you’ll feel its connection to cinema.
One thing Lyon is famous for is its outdoor art scene.
Its vibrant street art scene, with numerous murals and graffiti, decorates many city walls. However talented these artists, the real artistic draws in Lyon are the more than 150 giant murals that dot the city.
A number of the more spectacular ones are downtown, making them easy to view. One of the most popular Lyon murals is the Fresque des Lyonnais, which depicts famous citizens of Lyon in various poses, leaning against balcony railings.
Like any city of its rank, Lyon has an exciting cultural scene, with numerous theaters, an opera house, and world-class museums.
Particularly noteworthy are the many cultural festivals held in Lyon:
Lyon is an architect’s delight, particularly celebrated for its UNESCO-listed Renaissance (and medieval) architecture in Lyon Old Town.
But it also leads the way in innovative urban planning. It built the first skyscrapers in France, in the suburb of Villeurbanne, to house the city’s industrial workers.
More recently, the iconic so-called Crayon building caps the skyline with its pencil-like point, not to mention avant-garde neighborhoods like Confluence (famous for its sustainability) and the Cité Internationale complex, or the enlargement of the Lyon Opera by adding a dome to the top of the then classical building.
Many cities have a river but Lyon has two, the Rhône and the Saône, and they both meet here, right in front of the modern, metallic wing-like museum of Confluences, in the neighborhood of the same name.
The riversides are put to good use, with markets and book fairs and plenty of houseboats that have been turned into bars and restaurants. There’s also talk of turning parts of the riverside into beaches, just like the temporary summer beaches in Paris.
Of the two, the Rhône appears to have the more classical, elegant architecture while the banks of the Saône are more lively and, somehow, Mediterranean.
The renowned Olympique Lyonnais football club (European football) is one of the most successful football clubs in France, having won many titles and awards. More informally, it’s called the OL, or oh-ell.
Guignol is France’s best-known puppet, a sort of local Punch-and-Judy, and he’s from Lyon.
He was fashioned in the 19th century to represent a canut, or silk worker (his creator was a silk worker) and is still entertaining children and adults of all ages.
Lyon has honed the art of puppetry and Guignol is now a cultural icon, whom you can get to know better at the city’s Gadagne Museum, or at the smaller Petit Musée de Guignol, both in the Vieux Lyon.
The city is connected to the famous French novelist Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of "The Little Prince," who was born in Lyon. The Little Prince is believed to be the world’s most widely read non-religious book.
Here and there, across Lyon, there are reminders of the aviator – a statue, a street name, and even a shop.
The Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste is already noteworthy, with its mix of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. But one unusual and special feature of the cathedral is its astronomical clock, with its perpetual and religious calendar.
It dates back to at least 1383, making it one of the oldest in Europe. Sadly, it has been under repairs for a decade, since it was vandalized, but the exterior has now been spruced up and the scaffolding removed. Work is ongoing on the mechanism but even if it's not working, it is a work of art worth seeing up close.
There are so many noteworthy things to see in Lyon that choosing one thing that makes the city famous is an unreasonable task.
But if I were to single out the thing most visitors might know about before they visit, I would have to say food. Lyon’s culinary fame is global, and you’ve probably heard about Lyon’s food specialties, or perhaps even tried some!
When you visit, though, you’ll understand more about what Lyon is known for