Lyon is France’s 3rd largest city by population, behind Paris and Marseille. It is the 2nd largest metropolitan region by area. An interesting distinction that to me is appealing, larger area, less people.
Historically a center of European business and world silk trade, it is currently considered the gastronomic center of France with many Michelin star restaurants to its credit, and it is home of the world famous chef Paul Bocuse. Lyon also is the birth place of moving pictures – cinema! The Lumiere brothers invented the technology here. The author of The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery is from this area and the airport bears his name.
As a metropolitan area you will discover an historic area, and a completely modern area of the city with a thriving business district. It is impossible to discover it all as a short term traveler, but we gave it a pretty good shot.
Feeling rusty at international travel, and not being all that experienced to begin with, we opted for an arranged pick up at the Lyon St. Exupery Airport, through our hotel Hotel de L’Abbaye Lyon. After overnight travel, some delays, and no upgrade (i.e., no sleep), this was a good option. We were late arriving but only by about 40 minutes which is basically on time in today’s travel environment. Our driver was waiting as promised, and drove us the roughly 35 minutes to our hotel. This was at approximately 3:00 p.m. on a Sunday.
Hotel de L’Abbaye Lyon
Hotel de L’Abbaye is a quaint, but luxurious boutique hotel located on the Presqu’île in the Ainay district of Lyon. Presqu’île is a peninsula that lies between the two rivers of Lyon, the Saône and the Rhône rivers.
The location is an .8 mile walk to both the famed Rue Mercière, and Vieux Lyon. There is a grocery store immediately around the corner, as is public transport, and it is tucked away in an extremely quiet little nook next to the Saint-Martin d’Ainay Basilica. In fact, the hotel is the former presbytery of the Basilica. The building was built in 1852, became a secular and public boys school in 1905, and was sold at auction in 2017 at which point the conversion to boutique hotel began.
To me Hotel de l’Abbaye checks every box: historic, modern, centrally located, and quiet. A hard combo to find. The hotel’s entrance shares a courtyard with a Basilica where you can enjoy watching life in Lyon go by. I didn’t get pictures of our room, but the windows opened and I did get pictures from our room looking down on the street.
Basilica Saint-Martin d’Ainay
If this Basilica had not been right outside of our hotel doors, I’m certain we would have never seen it. The history is extensive and fascinating, so I’m glad we discovered it by chance.
I was unable to determine the significance, if any, to the beautiful color of all of these doors of the Basilica. The relief carved above one of them was amazing and looked as though it could have been completed yesterday.
The property was first noted as a Benedictine priory in the 9th century! It eventually became an Abbey, and has a long a storied history – important in both religion and war. It served as a grain storage facility during the French Revolution which saved it from being destroyed completely. At the beginning of the 19th century it was returned to church use, and underwent extensive renovation. Basilica designation came in 1905.
One of Lyon’s most famous streets, it is a destination for eating, drinking, and people watching. Just across the Saône River from Vieux Lyon, it is snapshot into the past with beautiful old buildings that have transitioned into a modern and trendy area lined with eateries and brasseries begging you to stop and enjoy life for a moment.
Our first evening found us enjoying happy hour at Cafe Mercière, where my husband enjoyed a local brew and I ordered an espresso martini. I’m here to tell you paper straws are just as awful in France as they are in the U.S.
For dinner we meandered a little further down the street and landed at a place called the Garden Bistro. What is it about sitting at sidewalk tables that just feels so right? Although I’ll admit I was having FOMO about sitting inside which looked equally beautiful at both locations. We ordered what we were told was a local Viognier in a Pot Lyonnaise which is a non descript bottle containing 460 ml of wine, so just over half of a bottle. Pots Lyonnaise are not only fun, there is an interesting history.
Prior to the 19th century, Lyon was known for silk production and the employment contract of each silk weaver, provided that they would receive 500 ml (50 cl) of wine each week, in addition to their regular pay. This wine was poured from a large container into smaller bottles that each silk weaver would take home with them. Employers being employers, they began providing bottles to the workers that had a thicker bottom, and held 40 ml (4cl) less, hence the 460 ml (46cl) Pots Lyonnaise was born. Perhaps this factored in to the silk worker uprisings between 1831 and 1834?
After dinner we found a spot inside a little bar called Plein Sud for a nightcap. We found ourselves immersed with French speaking employees and patrons! So fun, and one guy had a beautiful German Shephard who took a liking to me, so we made friends while we enjoyed our drinks.
The walk between Rue Mercière and Hotel de l’Abbaye took us across the main square of Lyon – Place Bellacoure, the Place des Jacobins, and Rue Victor Hugo (the antithesis to Rue Mercière).
Although Rue Mercière is in the historical district of Lyon, it is not until you cross over the Saône that you are in the oldest section of Lyon. On Monday morning we set out for this section of the city that is all old buildings and cobblestone streets.
I had my heart set on visiting the St. Antoine street market on the way, which I thought I would find along the Saône river between the Bonaparte and Marechal-Juin bridges. We ended up walking through a Muslim flea market and decided that we must have gotten the directions wrong. No delicacies to be found, just cheap sunglasses and undergarments, so we went ahead and crossed over the river at the bridge in front of the Palace of Justice into Vieux Lyon. We eventually found the St. Antoine Market – more on that later.
There are a ton of tourist shops in Vieux Lyon and I’ll be honest, I’m all about it. We stopped for coffee and pastry and I found some mushroom and truffle mustard while we meandered in and out of cute shops. If anyone can share with me where the good coffee hides in France, I’m all ears.
Our destination was the Basilica Fourvière at the top of the hill, but I was equally intrigued by the mini Eiffel Tower replica next to it, which turned out to be a cell phone tower. You can walk up the hill to Fourvière district if you’d like, but anytime you can take a funicular, why wouldn’t you? I actually love public transportation. I seriously have a thing for subways and most forms of mass transport. Purchasing tickets took a few tries and we eventually figured out it didn’t like our credit card and we had to use our debit card. Nothing feels more like a win than figuring out something so basic in a foreign country!
Basilica Nortre Dame de Fourvière and the Roman Ruins
The Basilica was built in 1872 and is world UNESCO sight located on top of the city. It is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and is every bit as large and majestic as the same named cathedral in Paris. There are 4 spires on the building are approximately 280 feet tall. Each spire represents a virtue: prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice.
There is a guided tour of the rooftop of the Basilica but our timing didn’t coincide with the tours, but it is something I would make sure I timed correctly if I had known about it before we arrived. After enjoying the amazing views of Lyon, we walked to the Roman ruins. There were two former amphitheaters. They are both currently used for concerts and events which I think is awesome.
We took the funicular back down to Vieux Lyon and set out to find a Salad Lyonnaise for lunch. We spent the afternoon exploring, looking for traboules, making a quick trip through the Cathedral St. John, before visiting the Museum of Cinema and Miniatures.
Museum miniature and Cinema
No trip to a European city is complete without a visit to a museum and I loved miniature things so this one intrigued me. Housed in a 16th century building, the top floor is a collection of miniature scenes replicating over 100 different vignettes. My Mom loved creating dollhouses and miniature rooms which made this visit nostalgic for me. We started at the top floor and then worked our way down the remaining three floors which were dedicated to the models made for film sets.
The museum was extremely crowded and all of the information for each exhibit was in French so we enjoyed soaking in what we could, which probably wasn’t very much. If you love miniatures, I highly recommend this visit. I didn’t really get that excited about the cinema aspect, but I think my husband enjoyed that more than the miniatures.
After the museum we decided to head back to the hotel for a rest and to decide what we were doing for dinner. Lyon is much like the U.S. in that there are many restaurants closed on Monday. After consulting with our hotel, we decided we hadn’t had enough of Rue Mercière and headed back that way.
I remember on my first trip to France in 2009, I was so surprised by the graffiti everywhere. I had thought of it as an American thing, but it clearly is still a global pastime.
The thing that surprised me this time is that Burrata was everywhere. Up until this visit, Burrata was an Italian food in my mind. I will now think of Burrata every time I think of this trip. We had this amazing plate at Restaurant Mozzato, fresh tomatoes, truffle and pesto – so good.
The following morning we headed to the Part-Dieu train station to hop on the TGV to Dijon. In a few days we would be back in Lyon as an overnight stop on our Rhône river cruise, I’ll write about that visit separately. For now, here are just a couple more pictures that need sharing.
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Your photography is beautiful. I felt like I had a little morning getaway to Lyon reading this.
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Thanks Robin! Cheers!