When people first think of France and its exciting range of destinations and cultural centers, they may list Paris, Nice, the Alps, maybe even Marseille. But Lyon is often forgotten and denied the real attention it deserves.
In fact, France’s third-largest city and second-largest urban area is a wonderful destination with a whole host of sights, culture, and history to offer.
Lyon is famous for its World Heritage Sites, the Lumière brothers, its silk industry, and its gastronomy. And it’s known for a long list of beautiful sights, from the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière to Vieux Lyon and its traboules.
So, mes amis, let’s get started on this list of 15 things Lyon is known and famous for…
1. Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Lyon
One of the central landmarks of Lyon is its cathedral, built in the 12th century. (Before the cathedral, there was another church on the site which dated back to the 6th century). It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the seat of the Archbishop of Lyon.
This beautiful cathedral is a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic styles, which perhaps explains why it took nearly three centuries to build from start to finish.
The best time to visit is in the early morning. It’ll be less busy and the bells will seem even more impressive against the morning quiet of the Old City.
2. Croix-Rousse and its silk industry
La Croix-Rousse is a hill in the center of Lyon, at a height of 254 meters. It is also the name of the neighborhood found here. Today, it houses a vibrant cultural scene and an impressive range of street art.
Historically, Croix-Rousse was the center of Lyon’s silk industry, for which the city is famous and its economy was dependent on. Most of the buildings in this area have very high ceilings with exposed rafters, which were necessary in order for tall silk looms to fit inside.
Lyon’s silk workers were known as canuts, and were subject to very poor working conditions. This led to a number of revolts in the city throughout history, such as the Canut Revolts in 1831, 1834, and 1848.
The influence of the canuts on the city is obvious, as we’ll see over the course of this guide.
3. Lumière brothers
Lyon is famous for the Lumière brothers, who grew up in the city and are considered the inventors of cinema. They are aptly named the Fathers of Cinema. They produced a number of short films between 1895 and 1905, making them some of the earliest filmmakers.
Today, you can visit the Institut Lumière in Lyon, which is an organization and museum dedicated to the brothers and French cinema. The organization was founded by the grandson of Louis Lumière, and the museum holds a variety of real-life equipment used by the brothers.
Presqu’île is an interesting geographical feature of Lyon.
In the south of the city, two rivers join into one. The Saône from the north-west meets the Rhône from the north-east, creating what feels like a little island in the center.
Yet, it’s not quite an island, and is actually a peninsula. This gives its name Presqu’île: almost-island.
On the very tip of Presqu’île, you’ll find the Musée des confluences and its jardin (garden). The museum specializes in science and anthropology. Opened in 2014, it is located in a beautiful piece of modern glass architecture. The garden is also wonderful for tranquil strolls and picnics by the river.
Lyon is known within France and beyond as an icon for murals. The city’s streets and city center are lined with them, so be sure to keep your eye out.
The most famous mural in the city is la Fresque des Canuts (the Silk-weavers’ fresco – those canuts come up again and again). The fresco depicts average daily life in the city, and is the biggest fresco in Europe.
Even more interestingly, the fresco is regularly updated, so the characters and the stories that they tell change regularly. Isn’t that cool?
Frescoes that are less known but still just as amazing include La Bibliothèque de la Cité (The City Library) and la Fresque des Lyonnais célèbres (Famous Lyonnais Fresco). La Bibliothèque de la Cité depicts hundreds of famous novels from the Lyon region, whereas la Fresque des Lyonnais célèbres features 30 famous figures from Lyon, including the Lumière brothers and Antoine de St-Exupéry.
6. Musée Miniature et Cinéma
The Musée Miniature et Cinéma combines two museums into one, for all you museum lovers! And it’s located in the stunning Maison des Avocats, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Musée Miniature features over 100 realistic miniature scenes, created by European artists. The main artist is Dan Ohlmann, who has designed scenes such as Maxim-De-Paris restaurant’s interior, as well as libraries, attics and abattoirs.
The Musée Cinéma holds props from a wide variety of films, perfect for the film buff interested in the making and production of modern movies. Props range from those in Jurassic Park and Gremlins to sci-fi films such as Alien and Fantastic 4.
7. Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon
The Musée des Beaux-Arts is Lyon’s cultural and artistic center.
If you’re a fan of art, it’s well worth a visit. It houses art dating from ancient Egypt all the way to up to the modern era. Famous painters such as El Greco, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso and Francis Bacon find their work here.
The gallery is located in a former Benedictine convent built in the 17th century. It became home to the art gallery after the nuns were expelled following the French Revolution.
8. Food and gastronomy
In 1935, famous food critic Curnonsky described Lyon as the “world capital of gastronomy”. And he wasn’t lying!
Lyon has a culinary history dating back centuries. In the 16th century, Catherine de’ Medici brought cooks from Florence to her court, and they prepared a variety of dishes from all across the different regions of France, but with local ingredients. This was a significant development at a time when cuisine was largely limited to one’s region.
Since then, Lyon has been a center for simplistic but high-quality food. With more than a thousand places to eat in the city, it has one of the highest concentrations of restaurants in France. Lyon was the city of Paul Bocuse, one of the world’s most famous chefs.
If you’re looking to sample some of what Lyon has to offer in terms of food, head to one of the city’s bouchons (also the French word for cork). These are small, traditional, family-owned restaurants. And, they’re great!
9. The Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière
If you visit Lyon, you’ll notice that you can see this Basilica from many different points of the city (it’s almost like Lyon’s Eiffel Tower). And, on a clear day, you can even see Mont Blanc from the top of the Basilica.
Built between 1872 and 1896 on a large hill overlooking the city, the Basilica is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Along with four main towers, its belltower is topped with a gilded statue of Mary.
It is believed Mary was responsible for sparing Lyon from the bubonic plague that spread through Europe in 1643, and from the invasion of the Prussian army in 1870.
Interestingly, Fourvière is actually made up of two churches, one on top of the other. The upper church is much more elaborate and decorated, and finishing touches were not completed until 1964. The lower church is simpler in style.
France is home to some of the top universities in the world, and Lyon is no exception. ENS Lyon is one of the four prestigious “École Normale Supérieure” that are found in the country. It offers a variety of subjects within sciences, maths and humanities.
ENS is quite a small university, home to just 2361 students in 2021. It is ranked the 5th best “small university” in the world, according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.
The university is located near the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers, making a pretty location for the university’s modern architecture.
11. Vieux Lyon
Vieux Lyon (Old Lyon) is the oldest Renaissance district in the city, and forms a large part of the historic city center. It is one of Europe’s most extensive Renaissance districts, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The district is known for its beautiful Renaissance and Gothic architecture, and is wonderful for an aimless afternoon wander, where you can marvel at the gorgeous buildings and the traditional French ambience.
The area is lined with traditional French cafés, shops and bouchons, which are perfect for relaxing with a chilled refreshment after exploring this historical area.
Vieux Lyon is also known for its traboules, which are secret covered passageways. Some date back to as early as the 4th century.
They were originally used by canuts (remember those silk workers?) to transport their goods while remaining sheltered from the weather. Today, they are popular among tourists.
The Traboule de la cour des Voraces is the most famous traboule in the city, located in Croix-Rousse. It was a central landmark of the Canut Revolts, and is the oldest concrete stairwell in the city.
13. Fête des Lumières
The Fête des Lumières (Festival of Lights) is a popular Lyonnais festival dating back to the 17th century.
During the days leading up to 8 December every year, residents of every house in the city place candles along the side of their windows. This creates a beautiful spectacle throughout the illuminated city and a wonderful atmosphere.
The festival’s origins lie in the plague that ravaged the city in 1643. The town promised to pay tribute to Mary if the city was spared of the plague, and so following the plague a solemn light procession with candles and offerings took place.
The festival expressing thanks towards the Virgin Mary continues today.
During the period of time when the Roman Empire ruled over Western Europe, Lyon was an important Roman city and the capital of Gaul (Gaul is what the Romans called this province which included much of modern-day France). It was controlled by the Romans since at least 200 BC.
Evidence of Roman influence can be seen in landmarks such as the Amphitheatre of the Three Gauls, which can be traced back to at least 19 AD. The amphitheater hosted ancient games, and was the meeting place of 60 Gallic tribes.
Unfortunately, only a small portion of the amphitheater remains today, as most of it has been destroyed by modernization and the building of roads.
The city is also known for its Lugdunum, a museum focusing on Gallo-Roman civilization. It is famously home to the Circus Games Mosaic, which dates back to ancient times.
Discovered in the 19th century, it is one of the few ancient representations of a circus race still in existence. Lyon itself would’ve had a circus, but this has never been found.
15. Roman Theatres
The Roman influence on Lyon also lives on in the city’s Roman theatres. For example, the Ancient Theatre of Fourvière dates back to 15 BC and still holds some theatrical events such as the Nuits de Fourvière. The theatre is located on the Fourvière hill, not far from the basilica.
The Nuits de Fourvière is a festival that takes place every summer, since 1946. It hosts a number of cultural events such as theatre, music, dance, and circus. The festival is home to a weird tradition, where spectators throw their seat cushions at the stage towards the end of the performance, in an expression of gratitude.
Near the Fourvière theatre is the Odéon antique de Lyon. It is a smaller ancient theatre with seats for 3000 spectators. It was also used as a meeting space for important nobles in the city.
And there comes the end of our journey exploring 15 things Lyon is known and famous for. If there’s something else that should be added to this list, share it in the comment box below!