When one is planning a trip to France naturally the first destination that springs to mind is Paris, and with good reason. However, while La-Ville Lumiere is an obvious must-visit destination it is far from the only compelling reason to visit this magnificent country. Between Paris and Marseille in the Rhone-Alpes region lies the bustling city of Lyon. France’s second largest metropolitan area, Lyon is known as the French capital of gastronomy, and gourmands will think they’ve died and gone to heaven as they sample the creations of some of the world’s finest chefs. Lyon’s many culturally significant historical landmarks have made it a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Founded in 43 BC as a Roman colony, naturally this is an area that is steeped in history, and visitors to the region will have no shortage of sights to see. Here are my picks for some of the top tourist attractions in Lyon, France.
3 – Basilique Notre Dame-de-Fourviere
Built between 1872 and 1876 this is actually one of the newer historical constructs in the region, but when you gaze upon the magnificent façade of this imposing structure you’ll have little doubt why it made my list. This gleaming white basilica sits high atop Fourviere Hill and is clearly visible from everywhere in the city. From a distance it resembles a fortress as much as a church, with its crenellated walls and the turrets rising from its four corners. However, once you get closer you can see the intricate detail, including a gilded statue of the Virgin Mary surmounting the bell tower.
However, as impressive as the exterior of the basilica is to truly appreciate its magnificence you have to gaze upon its interior. Initially built as an ostentatious display of the church’s wealth, the richly opulent décor of Notre Dame-de-Fourviere will quite literally take your breath away. Stunningly detailed stained glass windows, expert marble work, and beautiful colored mosaics cover virtually every surface of the interior of the building, and you’ll quickly find your senses overwhelmed by the rich beauty surrounding you. Downstairs the crypt of Sainte-Jean can be explored, or if you are feeling particularly energetic you can climb the 287 to the basilica observatory, where a magnificent panoramic view of the cathedral grounds and the sprawling city of Lyon awaits.
Admission to the basilica is free, or you can join a guided tour for a small fee. Entrance can be gained between 8 AM and 7 PM daily, though the observatory can only be accessed at certain times of day. If you wish to attend Mass at the basilica you can do so on Sundays, at 7:30 AM, 9:00 AM, 11:00 AM, and 5:00 PM.
2 – Theatres Romains de Fourviere
The Roman Theater of Lyon is the oldest theater in all of France. Built late in first century B.C. during the reign of Augustus this ancient construct is remarkably well-preserved considering its vast age. On site ruins of three historic Roman structures can be found. The theater itself, along with a temple and an odium, sprawls across Fourviere Hill, offering commanding views of the city and the basilica to the north.
The theater itself is huge, with steep gallery seating rising up from its base. At the base a decorated floor remains intact, and the foundations of what was once a large stage are still in place as well.
The temple on the site is slightly newer, having been constructed to the Goddess Cybele in the 2nd century A.D.
The odeum is a significantly smaller version of the main theater. It was once used to house small musical performances and intimate poetry competitions. It is quite well preserved, and visitors will appreciate the beautiful of its inlaid marble floor.
1 – L’Abbaye Saint-Martin d’Ainay
Though not as beautiful as other Lyon architectural highlights like St-Nizer, St-Polycarpe, or St-Bruno des Chartreux this particular selection makes my list because of its vast historical significance. Built in 1107 the abbey church of St. Martin is Lyon’s oldest church. Situated right in the heart of Lyon, between the Saone and Rhone rivers, this Romanesque Benedictine monastery is in remarkable shape, considering it is well on its way to celebrating its 1000th birthday. Painstakingly restored in the 19th century, the church barely shows its age, and visitors here will marvel at its beautiful Romanesque art and the majesty of its bell porch tower.
Of course Lyon isn’t all about ancient churches. There is much more to do and see in Lyon if ancient architecture isn’t your thing. Lyon is a city known for its love of the performing arts and concerts, plays and operas abound throughout the year at such venues as the Croix-Rousse Theater, the Lyon Auditorium and the beautiful Opera Nouvel.
If you are a sports fan then definitely try and get tickets to see the city’s football (soccer) club and cheer on Olympique Lyonnais with thousands of other rabid French fans. Even if football isn’t your game of choice you’ll find yourself getting swept up in the atmosphere of Stade Gerlande, and the remarkable passion of the fans within.
Lyon is a vibrant city and is seems there is one festival or another practically every night – particularly in the summer. However if you are lucky enough to visit in September you definitely need to check out the Biennial Dance Festival. A massive event that lasts for weeks the festival attracts the best dance troupes from across the globe. If you happen to be there during the winter the Festival of Light is another highlight, illuminating the city of Lyon for 3 nights early in December.
Finally, don’t forget to eat well while in Lyon. As I mentioned above the region boasts some of France’s finest chefs, and there are literally dozens of world-class restaurants to try here. If you can work it into your budget I highly recommend splurging for at least one night out at an eatery like Georges Blanc, le Bec, or Paul Bocuse.
Of course, all these recommendations just scratch the surface of what to do and see in Lyon. Many other tourist attractions on and off the beaten path await you on a trip to this wondrous region.