Welcome to Lyon, the Real Heart of French Culture
January 1, 1970
by Georgia Cox
Welcome to Lyon
France: forget smoggy Paris; forget the painfully pebbled beaches of the likes of Nice and Marseille – Lyon, as a confluence of culture & history is the height of your French fantasy. Despite being the third-largest city in the country, this self-proclaimed food capital of the world is often overlooked by travellers as a place to sojourn and relish in French culture.
Where Accessibility is Key
As a gateway to the Alps and a leisurely 3hour drive from the Mediterranean, Lyon lacks the stress of a big city like that of Paris yet offers a diversity of culture astounding for a city on such a small geographical scale. At once the birthplace of film and a crucial region during the Nazi Resistance, Lyon is a junction where past and contemporary worlds collide.
Watch: the Beginning of Film
Start your journey in 1985 where the first motion picture, black and white, 50 seconds long, was captured by brothers Louis and Augustine Lumière and projected to the public of Lyon. Now the city rejoices in its reputation as the home of cinematography. The Institut Lumière (25 rue du Premier-Film, 8th arrondissement) pays tribute to their revolution in the field of film. It also showcases time-honoured yet colour films from the likes of Vittorio de Sica, Alfred Hitchcock and Terry Jones, on weekends.
Discover: a Confluence of Old and New
Jump forward to the present-day to the ultra-modern Confluence, where the Saône River meets the Rhône to join it in its course out to the Mediterranean. At the tip of the two rivers’ junction is the Musée des Confluences, (86 Quai Perrache, 2nd arrondissement) whose sleek futuristic construction is set to mirror its’ contemporary and often philosophical anthropology and science exhibitions. This two-year young Coop Himmelb(l)au architectural masterpiece is somewhat of a standout in an otherwise classically designed metropolis.
Explore: Ancient Roman Theatre
For another jounce back in time, the Théàtres Romains de Fourvière is a Roman Amphitheatre dating back to 15BC. To sit in the 25-tier conch which has a capacity of 10,000 people and climb on the jagged ruins behind the theatre is staggering when you realize it is the oldest theatre in France. Yet despite its antiquity it is still put to use every summer the famous Nuits de Fourvière music festival.
View: Jardin des Curiosités
From the Amphitheatre head south, letting your curiosity lead you to the rightly named Garden of Curiosities (Place de l’Abbé Larue, 5th arrondissement) for a first glimpse over the city. Marvel at the view of the metropolis, the grey stone chimneys jutting out of the terracotta roofs, bordered with bushy green leaves and an aerial perspective of the Saône River.
Gape at: the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière
Although, that isn’t to say the view from the Jardin des Curiosités is unparalleled. To the north the view from the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière (8 Place de Fourvière, 5th arrondissement) is prodigious, as you witness a broader vista over the city, as well as the Alps in the distance. Inside the basilica, which is actually two churches one atop the other, the stained glass windows, tapestry and tiled interiors – the construction of which spanned a total of 92 years – are stunning enough to make any atheist wonder if there really is a God. As well as being a tribute to the Virgin Mary, the basilica was built as a sign of dominance over the Saint-Jean Baptiste Cathedral, which lies modestly in Vieux Lyon.
Wander: the Streets of the Old Town
A venture up the steps of Vieux Lyon, or the ‘old town’, offer another unique perspective over Lyon, particularly at sunrise when the city is still sleepy-eyed and just beginning to stir. When I trekked out to the old town one Wednesday at 6am, I noted once more that the France we see in films doesn’t represent the stark reality of everyday life. Suffice it to say the metro affair isn’t particularly pleasant at this hour: it’s somber, chilly, and suddenly France doesn’t smell of freshly baked baguettes and croissants like we had all imagined, but rather reeks of metro floors stained with red wine and de la pisse. Climbing up the unrelenting steps of Vieux Lyon is momentarily agonizing, but good things await you at their summit. If you do happen to master the timing, as you reach the pinnacle of the town your tired eyes will suddenly light up in the reflection of the sun peeking its way over the urban horizon. Then, as you descend the steps of the old town, you’ll witness the city rouse, gilded in the morning sun.
Traverse: the Ancient Traboules
Now that you’re properly awake, wind through the old town, which will lead you to secret passageways known as traboules or ‘short cuts’, some of which date back to the 4th century AD. Originally developed for silk traders to transport their goods through the city, the narrow tunnels served a pivotal role in the resistance against Nazi occupation, as resistance fighters absconded themselves in the undisclosed hideaways. Although the traboules are plentiful, only a few are open to the public, and those that are can prove a challenge to find. Coursing through 54 rue Saint-Jean and 27 rue du Bœuf is the longest one still open to the public.
Learn: French, of Course!
From there, a walk north through the old town will deliver you to Elephant & Castle (16 Quai de Bondy, 5th arrondissement), an English pub which hosts Franglish language exchange meet-ups twice a week. The concept is a speed-dating style conversation congregation, where you get 7 minutes to speak to each native French speaker in English and 7 minutes in French before swapping for a new partner. The evenings can book up weeks in advance, particularly for French native speakers, so signing up beforehand is necessary.
Shop: at the Saint-Antoine Fresh-Air Markets
Across the river the Marché Saint-Antoine (Place des Célestins, Quai St Antoine, 2nd arrondissement) is the real world experience where you will put your well practiced albeit shaky French to the test. The Saint-Antoine outdoor market is live and bustling every Tuesday through to Sunday from 6am ‘til 1 or 2pm, depending on the day. All of your French fantasies will truly be brought to fruition here with a smorgasbord of cheeses, breads, an array of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole roasted chicken with baked potatoes, not-so-French but oh-so-delicious seafood paella, fresh pressed juices and local wines. As the morning light bounces off the rosy Delrouval apples and the scent of the homegrown Saint-Marcellin cheeses tempts your nostrils, here is the place where you’ll pinch yourself, waiting to wake up at any moment. The best part? Most vendors offer samples, simply because they know they’re products are so good no normal person could walk away after trying them. Ask to goûter (to taste), but do so at your own risk.
Coffee & Brunch: at La Boîte à Café
Provided you have any room left in your happy belly after the market spree, La Boîte à Café (3 rue Abbé Rozier, 1st arrondissement) serves indisputably the best coffee (using Moxka beans) and sweets in town. Their sister café, Konditori (85 rue Paul Bert, 3rd arrondissement) also boasts the top brunches the city has to offer in a fresh white and wide-open interior. Think waffles topped with mushrooms, onion chutney, roasted cherry tomatoes, under scrambled eggs and drizzled with maple syrup.
Dinner: at a Traditional Lyonnais Bouchon
For a heavier, more typical Lyonnais feast head to the rue des Marronniers, just behind Bellecour metro station in the 2nd arrodissement, for your pick of a local restaurant. Note that Lyonnais Bouchons are not for the light-hearted: standard dishes include black sausages and offal.
Drink: in the 1st Arrondissement
Wash it all down with a drink at Barberousse (18 rue Terailles), a pirate-esque themed bar with an excessive menu of 60 exotic and enticing shooter flavours. It is a clever tactic, because who wouldn’t be curious to try a grapefruit or Christmas-tree flavoured shot? Lyon being a prominent student-city, the nightlife is definitely not lacking, particularly in the proximity of Hôtel de Ville. Locals are not only warm but also surprisingly convivial toward foreigners. The centre is bustling with students, local and estranged, every night of the week.
Relax: on the Quays
Alternatively, for a more relaxed evening, simply perch yourself at the slanting steps of the Quai Victor Augagner on the Rhône. It has become a sort of locals’ requisite of living in Lyon, to sit at the steps in the evening and watch the sunlight slowly trickle away behind the Hôtel Dieu across the river. It isn’t always safe in these parts – you do constantly need to be wary of your belongings – but this is the real France. It isn’t all and only what the movies show us. It’s rather a confluence of romance and reality, and not just black and white like the films the Lumière brothers revealed to the Lyonnais all those years ago.