Two days in the city of delights
ested between the Saône and Rhône rivers in the east-central region of France, Lyon has been a cultural hub since the city’s founding by the Romans in 43 B.C. For the next three centuries, it was the most important city in the Western empire after Rome. A hub of trade and influence, Lyon was a refined and cosmopolitan place, and it quickly took shape as a capital of gastronomy. Today, the home of star chef Paul Bocuse offers an endearing mix of tradition—think heavy stews and Rhône Valley wines—and trendiness, with new boutique hotels, avant-garde architecture and art and music festivals.
The view from the pool at L'Ermitage Hôtel
WHERE TO STAY
With its Haussmannian facade and neo-Renaissance rotunda, the Le Royal Lyon, built in the 19th century, when Lyon was a thriving mercantile hub, feels like a luxurious maison particulière. Its interiors, decorated with typical French notes such as toile de Jouy, are warm and intimate; at the restaurant, young chefs trained under Bocuse whip up contemporary takes on regional classics. Suspended on the Mont Cindre, L’Ermitage is a boutique hotel decorated like a minimalist monastery. Its all-white rooms have sprawling views of the cityscape and river, making it the perfect place to breathe after a busy day.
Hike up the steep hill leading to the imposing Basilica of Fourvière, which overlooks the city. The exercise is much needed in this city of creamy, hearty dishes, and the city views from the top of the hill are memorable. The basilica, built in the 19th century and decorated with rich mosaic tiles and neoclassical columns, is a stellar example of the opulent neo-Romano-Byzantine style. Roman ruins nearby attest to the region’s rich history. The large Roman baths and theater date from 15 B.C.; the Roman Odeon was built in the second century.
The Basilica of Fourvière
The venerable tradition of the bouchon—a form of casual eatery that began when workers took a saucisson-and-wine break during the day—still thrives in Lyon. At Daniel et Denise Saint-Jean, chef Joseph Viola (nominated as a Meilleur Ouvrier de France) concocts delicious quenelles (fish dumplings in a creamy fish sauce), pâté en croûte with foie gras and sweetbreads and various offal in refined sauces. Finish with local treat île flottante, a cloud of whipped meringue floating on an airy puree of pralines.
Take a digestive walk in Vieux Lyon, the Renaissance-era quarter listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its magnificent facades bear witness to Lyon’s history as a silk capital. Beware of the famous traboules, or labyrinthine alleys. They are so treacherous that they can cause even seasoned locals to lose their way. Learn more about the history of the city at the Musée Gadagne, which is housed in a typical Renaissance building that has been preserved and restored. Then stop by the museum’s bistro for a café crème.
Head to the Croix-Rousse hill for a taste of local bohemia in the historical heart of the silk industry. At the top of the hill, the original machines and tools used by the workers are on display in the old silk workshops. Close by, chocolate whiz Sébastien Bouillet runs two patisseries filled with his signature macarons (flavors include banana caramel, anise and chocolate pepper), pastries, chocolate pralines and even a chocolate fountain. On your way down the hill, stroll through the Village des Créateurs, where local designers sell fashion, accessories, childrenswear and design objects.
Every self-respecting Frenchman considers the apéro the most important moment of the day. Walk to L’Antiquaire, a semi-hidden Prohibition-style cocktail bar at the bottom of the Croix-Rousse, for happy hour. The bar serves old-fashioned cocktails, selected wines and nibbles in a hushed atmosphere.
Opéra Nouvel, with an addition by Jean Nouvel
The Opéra Nouvel is a masterpiece of architecture, with a Beaux-Arts edifice topped by Jean Nouvel’s steel-and-glass barrel vault, which shimmers with red lights at night. Go for an opera, ballet or classical music performance.
Seasoned gourmets and gourmands start their day at Bocuse’s world-famous food market, Les Halles. There, some of the best butchers, cheese mongers, charcutiers and pastry chefs sell their goods to chefs and regulars in a fun, convivial atmosphere. Pick some local specialties: Saint Marcellin, a deliciously funky creamy cheese; Rosette de Lyon, a pungent saucisson dotted with peppercorns (unfortunately, you will not be allowed to bring it back to the US); and tarte aux pralines, a wonderful butter tart covered in pink caramelized peanuts. Tastings are a must.
Lunchtime at the market! Pick a spot at a seafood bar, and enjoy fresh-off-the-boat oysters, sea urchins and other delicacies. Then wash them down with a chilled white Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Cinema was born in Lyon, and the Institut Lumière, housed in the Lumière brothers’ art nouveau mansion, features films, cinematic devices and the famous cinématographe invented by the brothers.
A gallery at La Sucrière
In a former industrial area south of the city called la Confluence, the world’s leading architects are erecting a cutting-edge enclave. Notable projects are the ethereal orange cube by Jakob + MacFarlane, two towers by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma and a new museum, a massive futuristic cloud by Austrian firm Coop Himmelb(l)au. La Sucrière, a former sugar warehouse, is now the home of an art center; nearby, the equally industrial-chic Docks 40 serves trendy cocktails and bites.
Lyon may seem like a sleepy bourgeois town, but don’t be fooled.
The restaurant on everyone’s must-try list is the mythical La Mère Brazier, led by popular young chef Mathieu Viannay. There, he reinvents the 1920s establishment’s classics, such as artichauts au foie gras and poularde de Bresse demi-deuil, adding lighter dishes such as citrus-pepper scallops and Wagyu beef with wasabi sauce. The adjacent wine bar allows for lingering around another bottle of Côte-Rôtie or perhaps a glass or two of a digestif.
Lyon may seem like a sleepy bourgeois town, but don’t be fooled. After hours, the city’s young and beautiful head to the Brotteaux area for dancing and drinks. At Le Boudoir, an exclusive lounge, you’ll meet students, chefs and art-world personalities sipping champagne and fresh cocktails.