Visiting Lyon for the first time, it’s tempting to do nothing but eat your way across France’s third largest city. While it boasts plenty of cultural, historical, and architectural attractions, Lyon’s well-deserved gastronomic reputation means that a seductive plate of food seems to be calling out from every direction. The city has more than 4,000 restaurants and 19 chefs with Michelin stars.
During a long weekend in Lyon, I managed to resist that siren song as much as possible so I could explore the city. Eventually, I just gave in, and happily so. France’s food culture in general is such a profound and pleasurable sensory experience. Yet Lyon somehow manages to take that to new levels of joyfulnesses, a heightened conviviality, and a belief that eating is an kind of spiritual moment.
Unfortunately, a weekend was only just enough time to get the smallest taste of Lyon’s culinary might. Still, if you’re considering making your first visit, here’s my 48-hour itinerary.
To get your bearings, think of Lyon in three slices that are cut by the Soâne and Rhône rivers that run south through the city before merging. The heart of the city is the peninsula that sits between the two waterways, with the older city to the west and the relatively newer city to the east. Public transportation is solid, and these three inner sections are explorable by foot.
10 am: Confluence
I started my day by visiting the sourthern most tip of that central peninsula. You can actually walk to the very tip and dip your toes in the water. Besides the majestic view of the two rivers, this junction filled me a sense of how Lyon’s geography had made it a vital crossroads for Europe’s trade routes for centuries.
11 am: Musée des Confluences
Just a few hundred meters from that tip is the Musée des Confluences, a science and anthropology museum that opened in December 2014. Even if you only have time to see the exterior, it’s worth a stop. The Austrian firm Coop Himmelb(l)au designed the swirling structure which is meant to symbolize a floating cloud. The permanent exhibitions inside are just as distinct, taking a more conceptual approach by focusing on broad themes about humanity that span different eras and cultures: Origins, Species, Societies, and Eternities. What are the stories different people tell themselves about the beginning of the world and what happens after we die? It’s too much to take it all in during a single visit, but try to explore at least one of the exhibits.
1 pm: Cité Internationale de la Gastronomie of Lyon
An even more recent addition to the city is the Cité Internationale de la Gastronomie of Lyon. From the Confluence, I took a No. 15 bus north about 20 minutes to visit this remarkable new museum that opened last October in the Hotel Dieu. The former hospital is undergoing a massive transformation that includes this museum that highlights Lyon’s gastronomie history. A ticket is €12, but for another €12 you can head up to the top floor where there is a kitchen and dining room that offer tastings.
For my visit, we had an Italian wine with marinated salmon, a cod soufflé, and cubes of lamb and sweet potato. In the kitchen, you watch the final prepartion while the chef explains the menu, and then you move into the dining room where the tasting is served.
3 pm: Place Bellecour
From the Hotel Dieu, I walked a short distance west to this plaza, which sits in the middle of the central peninsula. In thinking about your own agenda, this can be a good place to start, with the tourist office sitting in one corner of the plaza. You can also get a good view of the hills that overlook the western part of the city.
3:30 pm: Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste
From Place Bellecour, I walked west and crossed the Soâne to the Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste. Work began on this Gothic church in the 12th century, but didn’t finish until the 15th century. Tucked inside the gorgeous interior is a particulary inspiring astronomical clock from the 17th century.
4:30 pm: Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière
Stepping outside Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste, a quick left turn puts you at the entrance to the funiculaire, the tram that takes you up the hill to the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière. Built after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the church was a giant thank you from residents for their city being spared in the war.
5:30 pm: Roman Theater
Just 5 minutes walk south of the basilica is the Gallo Roman Museum. This includes the well-preserved amphitheater that faces the Alps and is reminder of Lyon’s former status as a regional capital of the Roman Empire.
8 pm: Les Culottes Longues
When in Lyon, one must eat at the famous “bouchons”. These are smaller, less formal restaurants that are cozy, loud, and very friendly. But this being Lyon, the food is still top notch.
Of course, a wide range of local restaurants have embraced the bouchon name. So to help tourists navigate them, the city has created an official “Bouchons Lyonnais” label for restaurants that truly reflect the spirit and quality.
On this night, we ate at Les Culottes Longues, where I had steak with Saint Marcelin cheese sauce (a specialty of the region). My friend had the scallops with fresh vegetables. A few glasses of wine and a shot of Armagnac later, we were feeling very at home in Lyon.
11 am: Les Halles de Lyon-Paul Bocuse
This is the city’s main covered market, which has a history dating back to the 19th century but was recently redesigned with a more modern flare. There are 48 merchants inside selling fish, cheese, patisseries, bread, and charcuterie.
Walking through the aisles, the choices felt overwhelming. Even before noon, the restaurants inside and the counters at the oyster stands were packed with people drinking wine and nibbling. I opted to graze, getting a little bit here and there, including a small wheel of Saint Marcellin cheese and baguette that made for a satisfying improvised lunch.
2 pm: La Maison des Canuts
Located on the northern hilltop neighborhood of the city known as Croix Rousse, La Maison des Canuts is dedicated to the silk industry, which had been a critical part of Lyon’s history and economy for centuries. Croix Rousse was the traditional working class district. The “canuts” were the name of the workers who made silk products, and this small museum displays many of the traditional machines used to weave the fabrics.
A section is also dedicated to the Canut Rebellion of 1831, a bloody uprising that saw workers seize control of the city for several days in a protest against falling prices and difficult working conditions. While the revolt ultimately failed, it served as a template for workers’ movements and events to come such as the 1848 revolutions.
3 pm: Traboules
At the Canuts musem, I picked up a small map of the famed “traboules” in the Croix Rousse section of town. These are the mysterious, covered passageways that snake through the city, taking people through and under various buildings. The city counts about 400 traboules, with about 40 being accessible to the public.
Typically, visitors are pointed to Vieux Lyon, with its Medieval streets, to explore the traboules. The Croix Rousse is clearly not the prime tourist destination, but I found the traboules here to be fascinating. There is a much greater sense of seeing a real city where people live and work. And the further I descended down the hill toward the Soâne, the more I could see how rapidly this neighborhood is developing. By the very end, I had stumbled into some streets with hipster coffee shops and designer boutiques.
5 pm: Vieux Lyon
After crossing the Soâne one more time, I finally decided to wander the streets of Vieux Lyon. This would understandably be the first stop after Place Bellecour for many visitors. This is indeed one of the oldest parts of the city, and a massive effort to renovate and preserve it that began in 1964 has made it shine.
8 pm: Les Retrouvailles
For our final big meal, we picked Les Retrouvailles near the southern edge of Vieux Lyon. Eating in this neighborhood can be tricky and full of tourist traps. But this place was highly recommended by a local, and it turned out to be a terrific choice.
Inside was cozy and bustling. I had to walk through the kitchen and around the cooks to get to the bathroom. We chatted with people sitting next to us as everyone watched everyone else to see what they had ordered. A long table of desserts loomed behind us, though we decided to just order off the menu.
And the food, wine, and a generous pour of Armagnac provided a sublime finish to my introductory tour of Lyon.