What to See and Do in Historic Lyon
Bursting with a history of over 2000 years, there’s plenty of places to see in Lyon. Home to Roman ruins, secret passageways that helped the French Resistance survive in World War II, and museums that teach you the quicks of cinema and puppetry, you’ll never be at a loss of what to see or do in Lyon, France.
Wander Around Vieux Lyon
With its youngest buildings dating to the 16th Century, Vieux Lyon oozes history and should definitely make your list of places to see in Lyon. The historic, colorful buildings that line the cobblestone passageways transport you back in time to the Medieval Ages. While there are definitely some key sights to see in Vieux Lyon, which are detailed below, this neighborhood is the perfect place for a wander or stroll.
Look Inside Saint-Jean Cathedral
Lyon’s cathedral is not just beautiful architecture, but tells the tale of its history in its dual Romanesque and Gothic styling. Make sure to check out the astrological clock in the left-hand side of the church. Carved in gold, it dates from the 16th Century and calculates the Saints Days up until 2020. It chimes at noon, 2pm, 3pm and 4pm.
Inspect the Archaeological Garden
Behind the Cathedral, you’ll find a collection of ruins known as the Archaeological Garden. The ruins in this garden date back to the 4th century and consist of religious buildings that stood here prior to the building of the cathedral.
Learn About the History of Lyon and Puppets at the Gadagne Museum
The Gadagne Museum houses two of Lyon’s Museums – one covering the history of Lyon and one covering the history of puppets. Learn how Lyon became Lyon, detailing its start as a Roman outpost, the importance of the canuts (silk workers) to the wealth of the city, up to modern times. The Puppet Museum will teach you about the history of puppets around the world.
Meet the Most Famous of French Puppets
Not only can you learn about puppets in Lyon, but you can also see the most famous of them all at the Guignol Little Museum. Created by Laurent Mourgouet, a dentist turned French puppeteer, Guignol represents the silk workers of Lyon. You can see him and his friends at this little museum in Vieux Lyon.
See Everything Mini at the Movie and Miniature Museum
It may seem a little odd to combine miniatures and cinematic props into one museum, but to founder Don Ohlmann these were his two great loves in life at the Movie and Miniature Museum. See ultra-realistic miniatures of everyday scenes, Japanese temples, and butcher shops side by side with old movie props included Gizmo from the Gremlins, the Chucky Doll, and superheroes like Spiderman.
Traboules, hidden passageways between buildings, are scattered throughout the city and are a must-see in Lyon. Traboules were built to make passage of materials simpler for the Canuts (silk workers) as the medieval streets of Lyon often made journey from building to building cumbersome. They also played a large part in keeping Lyon the center of the French Resistance in World War II, as traboules served as a meeting place for members of the Resistance.
Over 400 traboules remain located in the city, mostly concentrated in Vieux Lyon and Croix-Rousse. Not all are open to the public but as you’re wandering the city look for an open building door or a lion plaque above the door.
Some famous traboules to see in Lyon include:
- Traboule de la cour des Voraces (Croix Rousse)
- 54 Rue Saint-Jean and 27 Rue du Bœuf (Vieux Lyon)
- 9 Place Colbert/14 bis montee Saint Sebastien (Croix Rousse)
- 27 Rue Saint-Jean connecting with 6 Rue des Trois Maries (Vieux Lyon)
- 31 Rue du Boeuf with 14 Rue de la Bombarde (Vieux Lyon)
- 2 Place du Gouvernement with 10 Quai Romain Rolland (Vieux Lyon)
- 9 Rue des Trois Maries with 17 Quai Romain Rolland (Vieux Lyon)
Hike up to the Basilica of Notre-Dame Fourviere
The often steep walk will take your breath in more ways than one, but the view from the base of the Basilica of Notre-Dame Fourviere will be worth the trek. The grounds around the Basilica showcase panoramic views of Lyon, making it a perfect place to watch the sunset. On some days the sky can get so clear that you can even see as far as the French Alps.
Don’t just stop to take in the view. Colorful mosaics decorate the inside of the Basilica, making it one of the most beautiful things to see in Lyon.
If the hike seems too strenuous for you, there is also the funicular that you can take from the Vieux Lyon metro station.
Uncover Roman Ruins
Lyon hasn’t always been called Lyon. In fact, while under Roman rule it was known as Lugdunum. As an outpost for the Roman Empire, the city contains many ruins.
The best place to view them is near the Basilica of Notre-Dame Fourviere. Visit the Ancient Theater of Fourviere. Though over 2000 years old, large parts of the theater remain intact. Right next to the theater is the Museum of Gallo-Roman Civilization, which houses statues, currency, jewelry, and ceramics.There’s also a set of Roman Baths on the hill, which dates as far as the 1st or 2nd century.
Additionally, on the other side of the river in the neighborhood of Croix Rousse, you’ll find the Amphitheater of the Three Gauls.
You can’t walk through the streets of Lyon without noticing the intricate and almost lifelike murals (frescoes) painted onto the sides of many of its buildings. Known as the city with the most murals in the world, Lyon’s frescoes started popping up in the 1980s when a group of students decided to open up the art world to the people. They traveled to Mexico to study the murals of Diego Rivera before coming back to Lyon to start painting the city with their own.
Some of the key murals to see in Lyon include:
- La Bibliothèque de la Cité (The City’s Library): Formerly one of the key printing cities of Europe, Lyon has a rich literary history that this mural showcases. (Location: Corner of rue de la Platière and quai de la Pécherie)
- Fresque des Lyonnais Célèbres (Mural of Famous People from Lyon): Featuring Paul Bucose, the Lumière brothers, Guignol, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (author of The Petit Prince), among others, this mural features those who have contributed to Lyon’s and the world’s successes over the centuries (Location: Corner of 49 quai St Vincent and 2 rue de la Martinière)
- Le Mur des Canuts (The Silk Weavers’ Wall): This mural nods to one of the most important groups of people in Lyon’s history, the Canuts or Silk Weavers. (Location: Corner of boulevard des Canuts and rue Denfert Rochereau)
- Diego Rivera Tribute: This mural is painted in tribute to one of the key inspirations of the fresco movement in Lyon (Location: rue Georges Gouy)
- Lumière Fresco (Light Mural): Lighting up every evening, this light mural projects what the city of Lyon will look like in 2046 (Location: 06 avenue Jean Jaurès)
For a full list of murals to see in Lyon, check out the Lyon Tourism site.
Eat at a Bouchon
No visit to Lyon would be complete without a visit to a Bouchon. Bouchons are restaurants that are dedicated to making traditional Lyonnaise food, such as tripe soup, andouillette, and coq au vin. While many restaurants boast the title of bouchon, there are only 20 that are officially certified as one.
Check out these bouchons to eat at while in Lyon:
- Le Bouchon des Cordeliers
- Les Fines Gueles
- Les Lyonnais
- Aux Lyonnais
Eat Everything Praline
The Lyonnaise praline is hot pink, covered in sugar and sumptuously sweet. You’ll find it in bakeries through the city, including in tarts, breads and more. The Patisserie A La Marquise in Vieux Lyon specializes in the pink roses, particularly tarts. You can also find the tarts listed as a dessert at many restaurants, especially in bouchons.
Visit the Lyon Museum of Fine Arts
Housed in a former Benedictine Convent, the Lyon Museum of Fine Arts (Musée des beaux-arts) contains art from Ancient Egypt to Italian Renaissance painters all the way up to French 20th century masterpieces.
Take in the Ornate, Heart-Warming Rosa Mir Garden
Not only is the garden beautiful, but the history of its creation will touch your heart. In the 1950s, Jules Senis, a bricklayer and escapee of the Spanish Civil War, was diagnosed with cancer. While undergoing treatment, he vowed to build a garden if he ever got out of the hospital. This is exactly what he did with the last 25 years of his life, dedicating the garden to his mother, Rosa Mir Mercader.
The garden when in bloom teems with roses, geraniums and ivy. Ornate columns and structures made of seashells, coral, stones, desert roses, snails, and volcanic rocks line the grounds. You can find this garden in the Croix-Rousse neighborhood of Lyon.
Find Beautiful and Bargained Books at the Book Market
While most known in Paris, bouquiniste stalls line the River Saone in Lyon. More traditional than the touristy bouquiniste of the Seine, these booths carry beautifully leather lined books, as well as bargain grabs of literature from around the world.
Take a Stroll in the Parc de la Tête d’Or
Home to the Lyon Botanical Gardens and the Lyon Zoo, the Parc de la Tête d’Or is the largest park in Lyon. Often compared to New York’s Central Park, the park has a large lake in its center where you can rent a boat and sprawling grassy knolls to stroll aimlessly through (or read a book!)
See the first movie ever made at the Lumière Museum
Did you know that Lyon is home to the first ever motion picture created? Louis and Auguste Lumière invented motion picture in Lyon in 1895. You can watch their first film, Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (Sortie des Usines Lumière à Lyon ), while you learn about the history of the motion picture at the Lumière Museum. The museum will also sometimes offer specialized workshops on film and screenings of famous films from history.