Ultimate Guide to Visiting Old Town Lyon
Drenched in medieval history and charm, Old Town Lyon transports you back through a city whose history was built on silk, religion and grandeur. Known locally as Vieux Lyon, this section of town holds some of the oldest structures in Lyon (outside of the city’s Roman ruins, that is). A day could easily be spent wandering the cobblestone line streets, exploring the hidden passageways and taking in the ornate, colorful buildings that have stood witness to the city’s history for centuries.
Brief History of Lyon Old Town (Vieux Lyon)
Vieux Lyon’s oldest parts date back to the 4th Century and newest to the 16th Century. During the Medieval and Renaissance periods, this section of Lyon was the economic and intellectual hub of the city. It served as a home to the elite and home to the lower class, as many of the silk weavers of Lyon inhabited parts of the Old Town.
Old Town Lyon is made up of three quarters: Saint George, Saint Jean, and Saint Paul. Each of the quarters is named in honor of the churches or cathedrals that are central to those quarters.
Saint George became known as the home of many of Lyon’s silk weavers Brought to Lyon in the 15th Century, silk weaving became one of the primary industries of the city with Lyon’s silk being transported across the courts of Europe.
The Saint Jean section, even today, beats as the heart of Old Town Lyon. In the Middle Ages, its religious significance stretched across France as the seat of the Primate of Gaul, a title given to the Archbishop of Lyon that came with religious jurisdiction over many places in France.
Marking the northern tip of Old Town Lyon sits the section of Saint Paul. This section of town was home to the wealthy bankers of Lyon, who lived in houses called “hotels.” The Gadagne Museum is one example of these old hotels/houses. The Gadagne family, originally came from Florence, and inspired the saying “riche comme Gadagne,” rich as a Gadagne.
What to See in Lyon Old Town
Lyon’s cathedral, Saint-Jean Cathedral, stands on Place Saint-Jean withs its beautiful Romanesque and Gothic architecture. The cathedral took almost 300 years to complete and contains a 16th Century astrological clock inside of it. If you time your visit around noon, 2pm, 3pm or 4pm, you’ll be able to hear the clock chime.
The Archaeological Garden behind Saint-Jean Cathedral contains ruins of religious buildings that date back to 4th century.
La Tour Rose
La Tour Rose is a beautiful pink hotel with a charming courtyard. Pop in to see a pink tower rising to the sky worth of Rapunzel’s golden hair. The entrance is located on 22 Rue du Bouef.
Lurking between buildings of Old Town Lyon are traboules or hidden passageways. Since the streets of Lyon were laid out before the medieval times, it was often difficult for silk weavers to be able to quickly transport materials to finalize the production of the silk. The solution was to create these passageways between buildings to go easily from building to building instead of having to walk around one street to get to the neighboring building. Traboules kept the French Resistance alive during World War II, providing sanctuary for members to get around Lyon.
Not all traboules are open to the public, but if you see a door open or a lion plaque above the door be sure to take a look. Some famous traboules to see in Old Town Lyon include:
- 54 Rue Saint-Jean and 27 Rue du Bœuf
- 27 Rue Saint-Jean connecting with 6 Rue des Trois Maries
- 31 Rue du Boeuf with 14 Rue de la Bombarde
- 2 Place du Gouvernement with 10 Quai Romain Rolland
- 9 Rue des Trois Maries with 17 Quai Romain Rolland
Place du Change
Named after its most famous building, the Temple du Change, the Place du Change housed Lyon’s Stock Exchange until the French Revolution. In 1803, the Temple was converted into a church. Across the square from the Temple sits Maisson Thomassin, one of the oldest residential houses in Old Town Lyon. Built in 1298 age has not weathered the beauty of this building.
Saint Paul Church
Saint Paul Church, located in the XX end of Old Town Lyon, has seen many reincarnations and purposes of the years. Originally built in the year 549, the church saw revamps in 8th, 9th, and 12th centuries. It was badly damaged during the French Revolution, which saw the church turned into a store for saltpeter, a material used for manure and fireworks. It was converted back to a church in 1801.
Museums in Lyon Old Town
Explore the history of Lyon and the history of puppets in one museum. Gadagne will walk you through Lyon’s past, starting as the Roman outpost of and up to modern times. The puppets section talks through the world’s history of puppets with puppets that also tell the history of Lyon.
Guignol Little Museum
Meet the most famous French puppet and his crew at the Guignol Little Museum. Laurent Mourguet, a dentist-turned puppeteer, used his experience coming from a family of modest silk weavers to create silk weaver puppet Guignol. A unique gem of France’s cultural history, you can learn more about Guignol at this little museum.
Movie and Miniature Museum
Lyon’s museums are nothing if not unique, and the Movie and Miniature Museum. is no different. Feel like a giant next to miniature scenes of grocery stores, subways, and even other museums then pale in comparison to the extraordinary props of some of the world’s most well known movies.
What to Eat in Lyon Old Town
If Lyon is the culinary mastermind of France, bouchons are its heart. Serving traditional Lyonnaise faire, bouchons feel like the most delicious home cooked meal you’ll ever eat in an equally homey central. Many of the best bouchons are located in Old Town Lyon, including Les Lyonnais, Les Fines Gueles and Le Laurencin.
Sweet, pink and delicious, pralines make up a wide range of pastries and desserts in Old Town Lyon. You’ll see these bright colored treats in breads, tarts, and cookies throughout the bakeries in town. The praline tart is also a staple at many of the bouchons.
Looking for more to do in Lyon? Check out this full guide to Historic Lyon.