A UNESCO-designated World Heritage site, Lyon — at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône Rivers in France — bears testament to what cultural heights can be achieved over the course of two thousand years. Once the capital of Gaul, a city in the Holy Roman Empire and a silk manufacturing hub, Lyon is a treasure trove of history from its Roman amphitheater to the traboules (medieval passageways). It's also a gastronomic capital where you can grab a seat at a bouchon (family-run bistro) and dine on the city's hearty regional specialties.
What We Love
Architecture: Unlike in other ancient cities, where many surviving antiquities are in ruins, here some buildings from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance are in such excellent condition that people still occupy them. Roman theaters, Gothic churches, and stunning public artworks have survived countless generations, and many are open to the public for viewing.
Trompe L’Oeil: The Lyonnais adopted this hyperrealistic Renaissance painting style to beautify their buildings, and the murals depicting optical illusions (trompe l'oeil means "deceive the eye") make up the city's distinct public art legacy. You might think that you’re in front of a busy restaurant, but upon closer look, you'll realize that you’ve been staring at a wall.
Best Known For
Cuisine: Lyon has had the reputation of a foodie destination since the Italian Renaissance. By the 18th century, thanks to the enterprising Mères Lyonnaises (Mothers of Lyon), an official restaurant culture was born. Lyonnais food is typically simple, of the highest-quality ingredients from nearby farms, villages, and vineyards. Lunch is the big meal of the day, when everyone feasts on poularde (fattened chicken), vegetable gratins, cheeses, and countless pork dishes.
Old Lyon: Ancient history is utterly vibrant in this compact, crowded medieval and Renaissance quarter, now a popular neighborhood for tourists and les Bobos (Bohemian Bourgeoisie, aka French hipsters). Tiptoe through an ancient traboule (medieval passageways), which may lead to a courtyard that once belonged to an Italian Renaissance-era noble.
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Who It's Best For
Photographers: Anyone with even a modest aesthetic sense will get swept away by the visual splendors of Lyon. You might plan to start with a shot of the immense Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, then shift focus to the panoramic views from Fourvière Hill. Next, visit the ancient Roman amphitheater, explore the secret medieval tunnels of the silk district, or go to Place Bellecour to capture the square's lively pedestrian scene. And, of course, the Louis XIV statue.
Café Culture: If your way of exploring a new destination is to head straight for the most charming café and order the plat du jour with house wine — well, make sure you have a buddy keeping track of your ship's departure time, or you'll never want to leave the city. The dozens of bouchons and sidewalk cafés in Old Lyon alone offer endless temptations, with outdoor tables set off cobblestone streets.
Don't Say We Didn't Warn You
Bars Can Be Rowdy: If you plan to check out the bars, use common sense and vigilance, especially in the nightlife hub of Rue Sainte-Catherine, which sees its fair share of bar fights and messy drunks.
Lena Katz is a New York-based contributor to ShermansCruise who has also written for Brides.