If you’re looking for the perfect 3 day break or weekend away in France you must visit Lyon. The old town (Vieux Lyon), contemporary Presqu’île, and the delights of the Parc de la Tête d’Or. There is so much to see and enjoy in this fine city while relaxing too.
How to get to Lyon
Perhaps the most relaxing way of getting to Lyon, one that avoids much hanging around at airports, is to travel by rail.
And from the UK that is eminently pleasurable, involving just two rail journeys: one, a 1½-hour run to Lille, and then 3 hours on the TGV to Lyon Part-Dieu.
Moreover, if you take the 1058 Eurostar from St Pancras, you get to Lille with enough of a time gap to wander into the city for lunch for a few hours before heading for the 1553 TGV to Lyon.
You can, of course, fly to Lyon’s airport from Paris and London, and from some regional airports in the UK.
What is Lyon famous for?
The city is known for its historical and architectural landmarks and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Lyon was historically known as an important area for the production and weaving of silk, and in modern times has developed a reputation as a centre of gastronomy. If you enjoy your food and drink you’ll love Lyon.
If nothing else, Lyon makes a wonderful break from trooping around Paris, and is much more relaxed about its place in the world. So, here is my suggestion for a 3 day break in Lyon – the city on the two rivers.
3 day break to Lyon
Day 1: Vieux Lyon
No visit to Lyon would be complete without a journey into Vieux Lyon. This old part of Lyon lies between Fourvière and the Saône, and was formerly the hub of Lyon.
It was the focus of its silk-working industry with as many as 18,000 looms in operation in the mid-16th century. Many of the city’s wealthy inhabitants lived here, in magnificent town houses, more than 300 of which still stand.
Space, however was at a premium, so this led to the construction of a number of narrow alleyways, known as traboules. They are a fascination not to be missed.
Traboules were built perpendicular to the Saône, they were the solution to lack of sufficient space in which to develop a conventional network of streets, by linking the various buildings together.
You can spend a whole day here, wandering the alleyways that beckon like an impatient child. It’s an atmospheric place with the tang of la vraie France luring you on, and a galaxy of restaurants and bouchons giving plenty of reason to stop for lunch.
There is a temptation to be drawn upwards to the basilica on Fourvièvre Hill, but if time is at a premium then to be honest this, for all its renown, brings little reward.
The view over Lyon from Fourvièvre Hill, while impressive, is only truly great in certain light, and the big church is just a big church of interest only to those who like big churches or study architectural evolution.
Of course, you could justifiably visit the splendid Musée Gallo-Roman, for which you need the St Just funiculaire, alighting at Minimes.
But, on balance, you might feel that you can more usefully commit your time elsewhere than on Fourvièvre.
Learn more about Lyon old town in our Guide to Vieux Lyon.
Day 2: Presqu’île
Presqu’ile is the modern face of Lyon, centred on the peninsula between the Rhône and the Saône, with Place Bellecour at its heart.
Along the Rue de la République there are numerous shops, department stores, cinemas, restaurants, cafés, bistros, all set against a backdrop of architecture that is typically 19th-century Lyon.
At the very end of Presqu’île is Lyon’s newest attraction, the Musée des Confluences, a magnificent new museum both architecturally and in its content, which sets off to explain, well, the history of everything…or so it seems.
Do not miss this stunning experience, but do allow a good few hours, including on-site lunch, to get the best from the experience.
Take the tram to Confluences to visit the museum, and then use it to return as far as Perrache, alighting there and walking forward into place Carnot for a coffee. Then head on to marvel at the grandeur of Place Bellecour, wherein you will find the tourist office.
This huge square, all 62,000 square metres of it, is quite magnificent, unless you’ve parked in the car park beneath it, and can’t remember which entrance you need to use to get it back!
In times past this was a large marshy area before undergoing a series of identity changes. In its time it’s been used as an arms depot, a public square, a Royal Square – thanks to Louis XIV – ruination – thanks to the Revolution – until Napoleon ordered its reconstruction in 1802.
Only then did it take on its present appearance. The large equestrian statue of Louis XIV at the centre of the square is known locally as the ‘Bronze Horse’.
Dating from 1828, it replaces an earlier statue, smashed and melted during the Revolution; even this new statue was threatened with destruction in 1848 because of its somewhat pompous inscription.
But was saved by the Commissary Extraordinary of the Republic when the inscription was replaced by one paying homage to Lemot, a sculptor of Lyon – and that’s what you see today.
Some years ago I had visited the Musée des Beaux Arts to view a self portrait by Rembrandt. I doubted that it would still be there – it wasn’t. But I went to see it anyway, and was reminded how impressive this former Benedictine abbey – of the Dames nobles de Saint-Pierre – really is.
Those recruits from the highest aristocracy in France may have set themselves apart, but they certainly knew how to dull the pain of seclusion.
I didn’t find the Rembrandt self-portrait, but by dint of careful navigation I did find one painting by the Dutch master – La Lapidation de sainte-Etienne 1625 – or, the Stoning of St Etienne.
I puzzled over how you could kill someone by bashing his head in with rocks and then naming a great French city after him…but then it was lunch time!
With typically French sensitivity in matters gastronomic, I found that you could actually reach the museum’s superb restaurant without having to pay admission to the museum.
So, if passing this way and in need of a bite, do drop in, the dishes on offer are excellent.
Day 3: Visit the Parc de la Tête d’Or
After two busy days patrolling the essential sights of Lyon, it was good to relax and be less organised. That’s where a visit to the Parc de la Tête d’Or played a part.
Situated on the banks of the Rhone, the Parc covers an area of 105 hectares, and was modelled on the archetypal English garden. It includes a 16-hectare lake created in an arm of the Rhône.
The park also includes the Botanical Garden of Lyon, created originally in 1796 on the slopes of the Croix-Rousse, and transferred to the park in 1857; it is the largest botanical garden in France.
The name derives from folklore, which proclaims that a golden head of Christ is buried here; cynics might feel that it is simply a ruse to get everyone in to do the digging.
Be that as it may, I found the park, in spite of my dislike of any form of zoo, a refreshing place, and certainly much larger than I imagined…it was only one inch on my map.
The inherent danger of a limited-time visit to a great city such as Lyon is that you spread yourselves too thinly. So from the parc, it makes sense to head across to the Rhône, and stroll along its banks back towards the centre of town.
In summer there are plenty of barge-restaurants to experience at lunch time, or simply to wander off, back into Vieux Lyon for a leisurely recap. Whatever you decide, a three-day visit will allow you to get a real flavour of this splendid city.
Alas, three-days does breed a longing to return.
C’est la vie.
Want to know more about the city? Read our Visitors Guide to Lyon.