The greatness of Lyon’s past is truly matched by its present-day cultural dynamism and diversity. Its location, at the meeting point of two great rivers, was always a guarantee of prominence, and today Lyon is France’s second city. Many would agree that for the visitor, Lyon offers so much more than Paris…of course, many would also disagree.
Where is Lyon?
Lyon’s geography is dominated by the Rhône and Saône rivers that converge to the south of the historic centre forming a peninsula or “Presqu’île”; two large hills, one to the west and one to the north of the historic city centre; and a large plain which sprawls eastward from the historic city centre.
Lyon Old Town
The original medieval city (Vieux Lyon) was built on the west bank of the Saône river at the foot of the Fourvière hill, west of the Presqu’île. This area, along with portions of the Presqu’île and much of the Croix-Rousse is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
To the west is Fourvière, the location of the basilica of Notre-Dame, several convents, the Tour métallique (a TV tower that replicates the uppermost stage of the Eiffel Tower) and a funicular railway.
To the north is the Croix-Rousse, traditionally home to many small silk workshops, an industry for which the city was once renowned.
Lyon was historically known as an important area for the production and weaving of silk and in modern times has developed a reputation as the capital of gastronomy in France, due to the presence here of many of France’s foremost chefs.
Read our article: Visitors Guide to Lyon Old Town
Place Bellecour is located on the Presqu’île between the two rivers and is the third largest public square in France. The broad, pedestrian-only Rue de la République leads north from Place Bellecour.
East of the Rhône from the Presqu’île is a large area of flat ground on which sits much of modern Lyon and most of the city’s population.
Situated in this area is the urban centre of Part-Dieu, which clusters the Tour Part-Dieu (nicknamed “The Pencil”), the Tour Oxygène, the Tour Swiss Life, a shopping centre, and one of Lyon’s two major rail terminals, Lyon Part-Dieu.
North of this Part-Dieu is the relatively wealthy 6th arrondissement, which is home to the Parc de la Tête d’Or, one of Europe’s largest urban parks, the prestigious Lycée du Parc to the south of the park, and Interpol’s world headquarters on the park’s western edge. The park contains a free zoo.
What is the Parc de la Tête de l’Or in Lyon?
Known in English as the Park of The Golden Head, the Parc de la Tête de l’Or is a massive 119 hectare green space in Lyon.
The park opened in 1857, the same year that New York’s Central Park opened and the style is based on a traditional English garden.
As an urban park it has a city backdrop but one could be forgiven for thinking they were somewhere far more remote once inside.
For example, you could take a stroll through the botanical gardens of Lyon where you’ll find more than 15,000 plant species spread across 6 hectares. This is the largest garden of its type in the country.
And the fun doesn’t stop there; there’s something for all the family. For animal lovers, the Parc de la Tête de l’Or is home to a zoo as well as pony rides to keep the little ones entertained.
You can enjoy a boat ride along the water and see the scenery from a new perspective as well as checking out a rather interesting miniature railway.
If you’re into cycling then this park is a prime location to get those wheels moving as there are some wonderful paths and trails for this as well as walking trails that allow you to take in the stunning scenery.
When you’re done with the plethora of activities available at the Parc de la Tête de l’Or, there are plenty of places to kick back and relax.
Since this is the largest Urban park in France, you won’t ever find yourself sitting in the same area twice; unless you want to, of course. Find a shady spot for a picnic or head to the Cafe Restaurant Tete de l’Or for a spot of food and drink.
Visit Fourvière Hill
The Fourvière district lies on the hill of the same name, overlooking the city. The energetic will visit on foot, climbing the numerous ‘montées’, a series of winding flights of steps and steep streets, all of which provide superb views across the city. It’s not for the faint-hearted; if you plan to visit, allow a full day to explore fully.
And, while you are on Fourvière hill, why not dip into Lyon’s past at the Musée Gallo-Roman de Fourvière?
17 rue Cléberg, 69005 Lyon. Tel: 04 72 38 49 30.
OPEN: MUSEUM: all year, daily (except Mon), 1000-1800. Closed 1 January, 1 May, 1 November and 25 December; ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE: daily, mid April-mid September, 0700-2100; mid September to mid April, 0700-1900.
Why you should visit Lyon Musee des Confluences
Located at the very tip of Lyon’s Presqu’Île district, where, as the name suggests, the Saône and the Rhône meet, the Musée des Confluences received more than 150,000 visitors in the first few weeks of 2015, having opened just before Christmas, 2014.
If you have never visited a museum in your life before, and even if you vowed you never would; now is the time to break that vow. Go out of your way to visit Lyon for this museum alone; you will not be disappointed…amazed, sure, but not disappointed.
This extravagantly modern concept in museum design is the successor of the former Musée Guimet and the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle to whose collections, with superlative understatement, ‘it has given a new configuration’.
And what a configuration! This is Brigit Bardot meets the Eiffel Tower meets the Millau Viaduct meets a team of museum-ists with a very idiosyncratic slant on design, and, possibly, exclusive access to be best wines of the Rhône valley.
This is a dynamic and thought-provoking project that confronts contemporary questions, issues and challenges, or, in less articulate language, one weird, wacky world of wonderment.
The building itself is a monumental collaboration of ideas meant to create an environment that facilitates the links between things of the earth and things of the skies, of Crystal and Cloud, symbolising openness to the surrounding world.
The Cloud element is constructed from a diversity of materials and standing on three principal columns and fourteen monumental pillars that provide a load-bearing skeleton and an outer skin with a combined weight of 6,000 tonnes.
Inside, it’s all lifts and escalators and stairs and metal struts and great glass roofs. One floor is given to temporary exhibitions, although with more than 800 items on display it would take some changing; one level up and we reached the permanent displays set either side of a grand couloir.
There are more than 3,000 pieces on display from stromatolites to a huge-osaurus, butterflies to brown bears, luxury cars to waffle makers; it’s all quite bewildering in the most delightful way. Even the adults gaze in wonder.
The underlying thought behind the permanent displays is to demonstrate the enormous variety of human existence, ‘…encompassing nature and the environment, the objects we have created and the techniques we have developed, but also our myths, narratives and geographical locations.’
There are museums and museums, but I have to say this doesn’t feel like a museum, it doesn’t look like a museum, and it doesn’t smell like a museum. You really can spend a whole day in here – with a break for lunch, of course – and since that’s what I did, I heartily commend you to do the same.
Musée des Confluences
86 quai Perrache, CS 30180, 69285 Lyon
Tel: 04 28 38 12 00
Tuesday-Friday 11am-7pm (Thursday 10pm)
Saturday, Sunday and public holidays 10am-7pm
A tour of Presqu’ile in Lyon
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, cafes, bistros, set against a backdrop of architecture that is typically 19th-century Lyon.
At the very end of Presqu’ile 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 lunch, to get the best from the experience.
Marvel at the grandeur of Place Bellecour.
This huge square is quite magnificent, unless you’ve parked your car in the car park beneath it, and can’t remember which entrance to use!
This heart of Presqu’ile is overlooked by the dominating basilica of Fourvière Hill. At the centre of the square is the Dominicans’ Fountain. Place Bellecour is undoubtedly the centre of city life.
Wile away a few quiet hours in the Musée des Beaux-Arts.
20 Place des Terreaux 69001 Lyon. Tel: 04 72 10 17 40; www.mba-lyon.fr.
OPEN: daily except Tuesday and public holidays, 1000-1800 (Friday, 1030-1800) – partial