12 Reasons Why Lyon Is One of France’s Most Underrated Cities

Tourists and locals walking a cobble-stoned street of Vieux Lyon with several Lyonnais bouchons, boulangeries, and restaurants Brian Powers/Flickr

Paris, Nice, Bordeaux, the D-Day Beaches… these are what people think of when they think of France. But Lyon? It rarely makes the list. Despite being France’s third-largest city, the country’s gastronomical capital, and home to several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Lyon tends to fly under the tourist radar. These 12 impressive sights, historic landmarks, and fun traditions of the city make it well worth a visit.

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A photo of Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière's relatively austere neo-Byzantine façade, which contrasts with its ornately decorated interior Ali Arminio

Let’s start at the top. From almost anywhere in Lyon you can look up and see the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière atop the city’s tallest hill. Built in the late 19th century to honor the Virgin Mary and (not so humbly) demonstrate the city’s wealth, the neo-Byzantine basilica has unsurprisingly has become the symbol of Lyon. Locals call it the "upside-down elephant" for its large rounded body and four main towers as legs. Inside you will find lavish amounts of stained glass and mosaics, the crypt of Saint Joseph, and the Museum of Sacred Art. Fourvière hill is one of the best places to gain a panoramic view of the city, so after exploring the ornate belly of the basilica head to the terrace or observatory for the best angle of Lyon.

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The concrete spiral staircase of the Gallo-Roman museum which descends to the first dimly lit, stone-walled exhibition room Marko Kudjerski/Flickr
Could there be a more appropriate location for an archeological museum than underground? The Gallo-Roman museum was built into the side of Fourvière hill so that it could preserve the archeological site above. Upon entering, you descend a concrete staircase to discover statues, tablets, and other artifacts from back when Lyon was the Roman city of Lugdunum. Two large windows are cut out of the hillside to allow visitors to observe the Roman ruins next door. However, the rest of the museum’s design—dim light, barren décor, and stone walls—creates a fitting atmosphere to learn the story of the city’s ancient past. Don’t miss the most famous piece, the Circus Games Mosaic, one of the only ancient representations of a chariot race still in existence.
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A crowd of visitors exploring and sitting in the stone stands of the Grand Roman Theatre of Lyon Andrew Smith/Flickr

This complex consists of a large amphitheater called the Grand Theatre and a smaller Odeon beside it. It was completed in 15 BC as the center of the Roman city, where 10,000 people would squeeze in to cheer on gladiator fights. Today, the Grand Theatre is the oldest Roman theatre in France and hosts cultural events throughout the year, such as the Nuits de Fourvière. That has become one of Europe’s largest summer festivals, a multidisciplinary arts show that gives artists the power to make the rules: The festival asks them what project they've always wanted to produce but couldn't afford to do, and then it gives them the creative freedom, financial backing, and international audience to make their visions a reality.

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A residential garden courtyard in the center of Vieux Lyon's city block, accessible only by the secret passageways Dennis Jarvis/Flickr

Most everywhere you walk in the "Old City" you’ll see passageways, called "Traboules," which were built in the 4th century so merchants could travel throughout the city unseen. Today, they are mostly open to the public and offer a behind-the-scenes peek at what the city looks to the residents. Simply duck through the large doors tucked between the local business (they’re surprisingly easy to miss if you don’t know about them) and suddenly you’ll be in another world. Filled with homes, courtyards, gardens, and narrow stone corridors—and away from the bustle on the streets—the Traboules are a serene escape into the city’s past and contemporary Lyonnais life.

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A silk worker using both hands to weave a patterened textile on a large Jacquard loom David Baron/Flickr

What better way to treat yourself with a souvenir of your travels than with a scarf or tie from Europe’s silk production capital? In Croix-Rousse, the neighborhood atop the city’s northern hill, you can find where the Lyonnais silk workers, called canuts, established the famous industry and where a few still work today. Be sure to look up: In order to fit the large looms in the workers’ hybrid factory-homes, buildings here have noticeably taller windows and ceilings. The Maison des Canuts museum and workshop have exhibits explaining the silk industry’s long history; after seeing that, visitors can watch weavers create products using intricate techniques invented in the 15th century.

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A Lyonnaise salade topped with a poached egg, bacon, tomatoes, croutons, and a Dijon dressing Myeongji Shin/Flickr

Come to the gastronomical capital of France with an empty stomach, because you’re going to want to try everything. For uniquely Lyonnaise cuisine, visit one of the small, family-owned bouchons found on every street on the older side of town. At these cozy restaurants you’ll try the city’s signature dishes: Lyonnaise salads (topped with poached eggs, bacon, and a Dijon dressing); saucissons and andouillettes (varieties of sausage); quenelles (fluffy fish dumplings, usually from pike); and praline tarts. Prepare to dine the French way, taking your time to savor the food and atmosphere.

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Claude Monet's purple representation of the Thames River at Charing Cross in London, hung in the Museum of Fine Arts, Lyon Ken & Nyetta/Flickr

Lyon’s most important museum contains one of the largest art collections in France. It was founded in 1803 when 110 paintings were donated from the Louvre in Paris. Since then, the museum has grown to house masterpieces from the largest Islamic art collection in France to classical Greek sculptures to important paintings from the 13th century to the present day, including notable works by Rembrandt and Monet. 

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The entrance to the Lumière brothers' factory and site of the first ever film, where you can find life-size glass plates printed with frames from the film Ali Arminio

In Lyon, the Lumière brothers created cinema as we know it today. Before them, people had to watch short, looped films through individual viewing machines. But in the 1890s, the Lumière brothers invented a camera that doubled as a projector, drawing massive crowds to theaters and transforming the cinematic experience into a collective one. The Lumière Institute features a museum dedicated to the early history of cinema, daily film screenings, and the Lumière Film Festival held every October. You can even stand in the exact spot where, in 1895, the Lumière brothers shot their employees Leaving the Lumière Factory, which many film historians consider to be the first real film.

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Pedestrians crossing over a skinny bridge at the Confluence to the colorful cubic apartment buildings covered in large windows Anthony V./Flickr

What if you had everything you could need in life within blocks of home? That’s one of the ambitious goals of the Confluence city center, which aims to create a fully sustainable urban community. This less-than-one-square-mile plot of land, where Lyon’s two rivers converge, is the newest part of the city and is still growing since its 2005 debut. Abundant solar panels and glass walls demonstrate the urban experiment’s goal to create an ecological, collaborative living environment of the future. Here people of all social classes live, work, eat, shop, and play. At the Musée des Confluences, built in 2014, questions about Lyon’s anthropological history are answered. Do check out the breezy shopping mall (it has ceilings but no walls), and relax in the public green areas along the rivers which give you a good vantage point to contemplate the contemporary architecture. After an afternoon in "utopia," you just might forget you’re in one of the oldest cities in France. 

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A seven-story neon orange cube with swiss-cheese-like holes cut out for air circulation and light. Clément Belleudy/Flickr
Here's another shot of this community's innovative urban landscape. This is the ecologically designed Orange Cube, which houses office space, a restaurant, and a rooftop observation deck for checking out the rest of the Confluence's unique landscape.
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A pickup truck with its bed curled up along the wall of the Museum of Contemporary Art, one of the museum's many art fixtures surrounding its entrance Jean-Pierre Dalbéra/Flickr

This museum doesn’t just display art, it also creates it. Its "production of works" philosophy invites artists to set up exhibitions at the museum’s full disposal, and the building only contains art that was created on-site. With no permanent exhibitions, the attraction completely reinvents itself every time a new artist takes over. This means you could come back every year and experience a whole new place. It’s an exciting new way for visitors, artists, and the community to engage with contemporary art, and with exhibitions rotating every few months, your visit becomes even more one-of-a-kind.

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A crowded Lyonnais street at night during the Festival of Lights lined with large lit-up butterfly decorations Vinicius Pinheiro/Flickr

For four days every December, Lyon transforms into a spectacle of technicolor. The Fête des Lumières dates back to the 14th century when the Black Death (i.e. Bubonic Plague) was decimating the city. Inhabitants marched to Fourvière with a candle in hopes of good health. Now every year leading up to December 8th (the feast of the Immaculate Conception), the city council organizes light shows in the streets and on the façades of major buildings while households decorate their windows with colorful candles. It’s a vibrant celebration of gratitude, tradition, and pride for Lyon.

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The lights of the city reflected along Rhône river at sunset in Lyon Fred PO/Flickr

Lyon is a city of contradictions: It has the intimate charm of a smaller town with the excitement of a larger urban hub. It’s full of history and beauty but few seem to realize it, and a perk of attracting fewer tourists than other major French cities is that here, you can find a more authentic taste of what French life is really like. You’ll soon discover that the rhythm is slow, but the energy is high. A favorite Lyonnais pastime is simply sitting for hours at an outdoor café or along the riverbanks enjoying the view. With so much to see and do, Lyon is a city that is absolutely worth the effort—but only if you give it the time it deserves.

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