Lyon Old Town: Guide to Vieux Lyon

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Lyon old town is an amazing place to visit. It’s the original medieval city and is known as Vieux Lyon. It was built on the west bank of the Saône river at the foot of the Fourvière hill, west of the Presqu’île. This area is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

Tourist guide to Vieux Lyon – the Lyon Old Town

The old part of Lyon lies between Fourvière and the river Saône. It was formerly the hub of Lyon, and 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.

Vieux Lyon

They are a fascination not to be missed. They’re known as incontournables in the local parlance. 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.

Why you should visit Lyon old town

Certainly no visit to Lyon would be complete without a journey into Vieux Lyon. The best route is to approach from the north-east. Go past the Marché des Bouquinistes along the quai de la Pêcherie, over the pont La Feuille and then either forward to place Saint Paul or down along the true right bank of the river.

Read our Visitors Guide to Lyon

On the river in Lyon old town you’ll find artisanal stallholders offering fine jewellery, paintings, sculptures, fabrics, knitwear and boundless opportunities to improve your colloquial French with a bit of eavesdropping or stallholder banter.

What is Lyon old town like?

But what is Lyon old town really like? Join me as I wander around the Vieux Lyon…

Divided into three – St Paul to the north, St Jean in the centre and St Georges in the south – Vieux Lyon was once the seat of government and commerce. A place where those of wealth – traders, bankers and minor royalty – rubbed shoulders (or cocked a snook) as they to-and-fro’d between their elegant 15th-17th-century town houses.

A view of Vieux Lyon from the River Saone

More than 300 such mansions are still to be found – including one that today sees service as an Indian restaurant! – scattered about this enclave of very narrow passageways, known as traboules, wherein anyone not on intimate terms with the Fat Pill will have difficulty manoeuvring.

The same holds true for cars, especially anything larger than a Twingo that tries to negotiate the tight corners made all the more hazardous by adherents of that popular and widespread French contact sport called ‘Parking the car’.

One of the wonderful things about Lyon old town is the numerous street corner cafés. They do a roaring trade in coffee and croissants, and provide refuge for those who come in to read the free daily newspapers while surreptitiously eating their own food when ‘Madame’ is not looking.

At every turn, the alleyways break into little squares where ageing buildings lean companionably on one another like old friends, which, of course, they are. From a distant corner the sound of an accordion squeezing ‘The Girl from Ipanima’ from its bellows flows around the buildings, giving voice to the gentle breeze rising from the river.

And the sudden smell of waffles interrupts the comforting dreaminess places like this instil in me; places that so emphatically proclaim that ‘This is France’.

Things to do in Lyon old town

There is of course plenty to see as we’ve already discovered. But no visit to Lyon old town would be complete with taking in two wonderful museums:

Musee du Cinema et de la Miniature

When you think about it, a collection of miniatures and exhibitions around cinema couldn’t be any further apart, but they are brought together in the most fabulous way at the Musee de Cinéma et de la Miniature in Old Lyon.

This is a wonderful family friendly afternoon out and there really is something to cater to every taste.

On the cinema side of things, the museum has a wonderful collection of items from a range of genres.

For example, you can see the original Harry Potter glasses right there alongside the infamous mask from the movie Scream. If you’re more of a comedy fan, there are masks from both The Mask and Mrs Doubtfire. Other movies that are featured here include Gremlins, Back to the Future, Edward Scissorhands and so many more classics!

There is also an exhibition showing some of the special effects used in the movies. If you’re keen to go behind the scenes then this will give you all the information you need.

What’s great about this exhibition is that it is based around effects that were made before the digital era so it showcases some real talent and makes you truly appreciate what skill these movie makers have.

The miniature collection is made up of both temporary and permanent exhibitions. This is great news if you want to visit more than once as you can guarantee that there will be something new to see.

The permanent collection is made up from 100 scenes that are astonishingly realistic. They’re made by artist Dan Ohlmann who has spent the last 20 years honing his craft to create scenes that have to be seen to be believed.

Musée des Automates in Vieux Lyon

Did we hear the words animated puppets? It sounds a little strange and it’s certainly not your average afternoon out but what a way to discover this incredible niche!

The Musee des Automates in Old Lyon is home to 20 scenes featuring a range of automated puppets. Some are incredibly old fashioned while others are more recent and this is a place of whimsy and magic that is perfect for adults and kids.

This isn’t the largest museum by any stretch of the imagination, being set across just seven rooms. But there’s a charm about it that certainly makes it one of the most interesting.

The displays are set around several different themes including Mozart’s The Magic Flute, The HUnchback of Notre Dame, 20,000 leagues under the sea and many more.

They’re not only designed to pique your interest but also give you an insight into the secrets of how these puppets are made. If you have little ones with you, the museum also runs a weekly workshop for kids to get involved and discover more about puppet making.

What’s really interesting is that all of the displays are made within the museum and it isn’t only here that they are kept.

The workshop here creates masterpieces that can be hired to businesses or for display in shop windows and when you go to the museum, you’ll be delighted to see that as the seasons change, so do the displays. There’s always something new to see.

A day in the Vieux Lyon

Outside the Boulangerie du Palais on the corner of rue St-Jean and the rue du Palais de Justice a queue is forming, an alien concept in contemporary France where queuing ranks alongside a rugby maul in terms of finesse.

My situation is not at ease with the sight of so much patience and order, and my train of thought rebounds for a moment on the knowledge that the word ‘queue’ is also a mot argot reference to an intimate and size-variable item of a man’s anatomy.

It’s all very disconcerting.

Having zigzagged back to rue St-Jean over the course of an hour, I found the baker’s queue still much in evidence. It was very disturbing; not at all French-like.

Either the baker was on a go slow and it was the same people still waiting, or there was a rapid turnover in sugary beignet soufflé et sucré de pâte à choux frite (doughnuts), known very colloquially as pet de nonne, or nun’s fart…but don’t ask for them by that name.

Perhaps it was the aroma drifting from the boulangerie, or the chiming of stomach o’clock, but I was overcome by a sudden longing for lunch. Thankfully, among many well-appointed and pricey looking establishments round in Lyon old town, I found ‘Un, Deux, Trois’ on place Neuve Saint-Jean.

It’s a 20-cover Bouchon Lyonnais, a delightful little place offering, as the name suggests, three set menus, the most of which I most definitely made in spite of being reprimanded for not eating all my Salade Lyonnaise.

Read: No BS Guide to Eating and Drinking Like the French

There was about it that quintessential atmosphere that brings you to undiscovered France, embracing simplicity, authenticity and good food; it doesn’t say that anywhere, but it should

And from the barrage of air kisses that flowed every time the door opened it was clear that this was a popular place with locals in the know.

So much so, that – and I don’t think I’ve witnessed this anywhere else – a queue started forming outside the door, as people waited for others to vacate their tables.

Another queue.

Amazing.

But, to the ‘Un, Deux, Trois’ background of 1950s and 1960s music – Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochrane, Little Eva, the Everly Brothers and Chubby Checker getting himself in a twist – I had a destiny, with Iles Flottantes, the calorie-free version, of course.

Back at the boulangerie the queue was still there, coming up to three hours since I first passed. Order was restored, mercifully, when I reached the funiculaire for Fourvièvre, and the ‘queue’ for these little trains reverted to type: baguette-wielding Ninja-grannies, arms and elbows akimbo, stern faces and trampled toes…that’s more like it!

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