The hills are alive in Lyon, France’s best kept secret

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Great chefs are more famous than professional footballers in this historic and culturally important city

Lyon is France’s best kept secret. Its urban scene is pleasantly elegant without a hint of crass tourism.

For the inhabitants of the city, sandwiched between Burgundy and Provence, dining in a restaurant is a passion. Here, the great chefs are better known than the professional footballers. Plan a full day of sightseeing, then relax in the evening like the locals do, in a signature cafe or restaurant.

Lyon (pronounced “lee-ohn”) has been one of the main cities of France since the reign of the Romans. Despite its everyday and business-oriented façade, Lyon is the most historic and culturally important city in France after Paris. Here you will discover ancient Roman sites, cobbled streets of the Old World, Renaissance mansions, a wide range of interesting museums and the chic, Parisian shopping streets of the Presqu’île district.

A funicular takes you up Fourvière Hill to some of the city’s best sites. Here, the Gallo-Roman museum clearly shows the importance of Lyon in Antiquity. Wonderfully explained in English, it takes you on a chronological walk using local artifacts. A model of Roman Lyon shows a city of 50,000 inhabitants in its heyday in the 2nd century AD. A mosaic shows a Ben Hur-type chariot race. The windows of the Gallo-Roman museum overlook the two adjacent Roman theaters (free entry). Today the city uses theaters as a venue for concerts, theater, dance and cinema.

From the top of the hill, enjoy the grandiose view over the city – with two large rivers flowing through it – the Rhône and the Saône. As you descend by funicular into the old town (Vieux Lyon), you advance rapidly in history up to the 16th century and to France’s best concentration of well-preserved Renaissance buildings, built when the town was enriched with trade fairs and banks.

The traffic-free street named rue Saint-Jean is the main street, flanked by other lanes reserved for pedestrians. The city’s characteristic winding passages (“traboules”) were essentially shortcuts connecting the three main streets of the old town. Traboules provided shelter from the rain when reams of silk – a key industry in Lyon – were moved from place to place. The traboules of Lyon allow visitors to discover pastel courtyards, pretty loggias and delicate arcades.

Getting around is a pleasure in Lyon. Electric buses have replaced diesel buses in the historic heart of the city, and cycle paths run everywhere. Bikers appreciate the new cycle path / footbridge along the eastern bank of the Rhône. A good destination is the expansive Golden Head Park, with rowboat rentals and a miniature golf course.

Museologists visit the Musée des Beaux-Arts (second in France after the Louvre), the Atelier de la Soie (demonstrating the printing on silk by hand), the Museums of Textile and Decorative Arts (l ‘one retracing the evolution of textile weaving over 2000 years, the other 18th century decor in a private mansion) and the World Puppets Museum, celebrating the puppets of Guignol, a still living tradition created in Lyon by a worker from the unemployed silk.

For many, Lyon’s most striking site is the recently renovated Resistance and Deportation Historic Center, with well-curated exhibits and videos telling the inspiring story of the French Resistance.

Film buffs will find it enlightening to visit the Lumière Museum, which tells the story of cinema. Antoine Lumière and his family ran a huge factory in Lyon in the 1880s, producing several million glass photographic plates per day. In 1895, they made what is considered the very first film – it shows workers leaving the Lumière factory at the end of a working day. At first, people went to the movies not for the plot or the action, but rather to be fascinated by the technology that allowed them to see moving images. After their initial success, the Enlightenment sent cameramen to capture scenes from around the world, connecting diverse cultures and people in a way that had never been done before. In a wonderful coincidence, “lumière” is the French word for “light”.

Lyon is famous for its state-of-the-art projectors, and the city hosts conventions on the subject, as well as an annual festival of lights in December (due to the Paris attacks, the festival’s regular program is canceled this year ; instead, light shows will honor the victims of the recent Paris attack). All year round, more than 200 buildings, sites and public spaces are gloriously illuminated each night. Take an evening stroll and take in the views from the Bonaparte Bridge and stop for a drink at a riverside cafe.

For dinner, head to the old town or the Presqu’île, which each have thriving pedestrian avenues. Join the parade of restaurant shoppers and browse the “bouchons” – characteristic bistros that are especially fun at night. Restaurants and accommodation in Lyon are more affordable than in Paris.

Lyon feels relaxed, welcoming and surprisingly little touristy. It seems everyone is enjoying the place – and they are all French.

If you visit:

SLEEPING: The Elysée hotel, in the city center, is a small, simple hotel with excellent rates and two-star comfort (moderate, www.elyseehotel.fr). The Globe et Cecil Hotel is professional and elegant, with tastefully decorated rooms and service oriented staff www.globeetcecilhotel.com).

CATERING: Les Retrouvailles offers tasty Lyonnaise cuisine in a charming setting under exposed beams with an open kitchen (38 Rue du BSuf, tel. 04 78 42 68 84). The Bistrot de Lyon aims to be touristy but always animated by an authentic Lyon atmosphere and reliable cuisine (64 rue Mercière, tel. 04 78 38 47 47).

GETTING AROUND: Lyon has trams, metro lines and funiculars (with tickets and day tickets that cover all three systems). Pedal taxis, called cyclopolitains, are used in place of traditional taxis for short trips.

TOURIST INFORMATION: www.lyon-france.com.

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com), based in Edmonds, writes European travel guides and hosts travel shows on public television and radio. His column is published weekly on seattletimes.com/travel. Email him at [email protected]


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