Discovering Lyon, France

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River cruising is a very intimate way to see parts of a region and some smaller towns and cities that one often misses when visiting on your own via a train or a car.  I was sailing on the Viking river cruise ship, Viking Delling, along the Rhone River through Provence, with my niece who was celebrating her birthday (in photo).  I had always wanted to take a dream trip like this with her.  It was also her first trip to Europe.  The cruise was for seven nights and started in charming Avignon and ended in the lovely city of Lyon, located in east-central France in the Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes region.  The river cruise stopped in the ports of Viviers, Arles, Tournon, Vienne and Lyon and included enough wine drinking and vineyard visits to last a lifetime.

Lyon was the city I was most looking forward to visiting and was where our river cruise ended.  Lyon is the third largest city in France and a unique location, being where the Saone and Rhone Rivers meet.  The history of the city dates back to 43 BC.  The strategic location of Lyon, which has a two-river vantage point, today’s Fouviere Hill, was favored by the Romans.  The city grew and became the starting point of the Roman road system which ensured that all roads would lead there.

The Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourviere dominates the city from the top of the Fouviere Hill, and locals call it the elephant because of the close resemblance to an elephant lying on its back with its feet in the air.  The wonderfully realist murals of the city were a favorite thing to see.  There are currently over 60 outdoor murals that capture a variety of subjects – my favorite Lyonnais mural was La Fresque des Lyonnais which is a mural of some of Lyon’s most famous figures past and present and was very realistic.

A very unique architectural feature of the city is the famous Traboules, which are secret passages that run through various buildings and used by pedestrians even today.  These secret passageways came to be very handy during WWII when residents were able to hide here and went undetected during the Nazi occupation.  Behind unassuming doors are narrow passageways that lead to internal courtyards with spiral staircases and numerous apartments.  It was a very quick way to get around town, and part of the fun was guessing which unmarked door will open up to this secret area of the city.   

My favorite part of the city was Les Berges du Rhone – which are pathways set on platforms along the banks of the Rhone River.  This is the area where we docked, giving us access to the rest of the city.  People in Lyon are quite active and Les Berges du Rhone was filled with visitors and locals alike enjoying cycling, walking and swimming in the public outdoor pool.  This area very much captured the vibrancy of the city along the banks of the Rhone River.

There are several and unique aspects that make Lyon such a wonderful city to visit – but probably our favorite was the incredible food.  Lyon is known as the food capital of France and after an epic week of eating and drinking through Provence – there was still more gourmet delights to come in Lyon.  Aside from being known as the author of French Cooking and recipient of the National Order of the Legion of Honour, he is most known for the Bocuse d'Or, the world renowned cooking competition held in Lyon.  The chef superstar of Lyon – Chef Paul Bocuse is apparent throughout the city and everywhere you look you will find a Bocuse restaurant or brasserie. 

Cuisine Lyonnaise is served throughout the city, but our favorite was in the older Le Vieux area, where the owners of bouchon style restaurants were very encouraging to have us sit and enjoy their cuisine.  These courtyards, filled with guests eating and drinking, felt very festive but maintained a local charm.

Our favoritesdishes, which were absolutely delicious, were the Salade Lyonnaise, the Potatoes Lyonnaise, and Quenelles, which is a mixture of creamed fish or meat combined with breadcrumbs and formed into an egg-like shape and then baked to perfection.  Pralines also tempt you in every bakery window.  They are made of almonds wrapped with cooked sugar and pink food coloring.   They are offered individually or placed on top of tarts called “tarte aux pralines” or “brioche aux pralines”.

Spending a few days in Lyon was definitely the highlight of our trip.  We enjoyed exploring all the sites in this walk able and scenic city.  The city was filled with contemporary shops mixed in with traditional shops that have been a part of Lyon from the early beginnings.  My niece loved shopping for gifts from some of the local shops and brought back chocolates, olive oils, soaps and delicious Coussin Lyonnais which is a famous confection made in Lyon.  The trip offered us time to reconnect and explore new areas, try new foods, and other friendly travelers.  I am still receiving texts from my niece reliving moments that we had in France.  It was a trip of a lifetime.

Learn more about how you can enjoy a Lyon vacation with help from our expert.

Michelle Bokermann-Enriquez.