There are two things I never realised about Lyon before I found myself there earlier this year.
1) The old city (Vieux Lyon) is a UNESCO heritage site.
2) It is the culinary capital of France.
These two facts together mean that Lyon is a great place to visit for a few days of eating, drinking and walking off the effects of said eating and drinking so that you can carry on eating and drinking.
The third lesser known fact about Lyon is that its hospitality industry workers run a close 2nd to those of Paris in the brusqueness stakes… Sheer, barefaced abuse in some cases. Pretty hilarious.
Being British, previously when I’d thought of France’s second city, images and emotions of Birmingham had sprung to mind, so it was a wonderful surprise to turn up and find such a pretty place.
So, here are some tips on where to stay, stuff-face and visit if you are in Lyon on a long weekend.
There are really only two luxury/ boutique hotels in Vieux Lyon, and very few in the whole city which is a real surprise, and frankly this lack of choice is severely irritating.
We stayed in Villa Florentine, which I would quite happily blow off the face of the earth, massively overpriced and the rudest general manager I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet. The other is Hotel Cour des Loges.
In summary, Villa Florentine is in massive need of an upgrade, all rooms are desperately 80’s including suites, so not one room is value for money there.
In Cour des Loges, the lowest level of room you should even think of staying in is a Piazzetta room (lower than that and you are basically staying in a monk’s cell) and the standard rates for those start at €485.
If I were to go back to Lyon I probably stay at the Sofitel Bellecour, which is modern, comfortable and on the banks of the river in Vieux Lyon. It’s much less expensive than either of the two “boutique hotels” mentioned above, and sometimes that style vs cost equation comes out on the side of the established hotel chains.
Take my advice and give both Villa Florentine and Hotel Cour des Loges a wide birth.
Wherever you do end up, don’t opt to include breakfast. The point of holidaying in France is to eat that in cafés.
Just idly wandering around Vieux Lyon and the peninsula of Presqu’île is a very pleasant pasttime. There are lots of shops, galleries and countless cafes and bouchons. Even just strolling up and down the two river banks of the Rhône and Saône for a couple of hours is time well spent.
There is a fantastic street market along the riverbank of Quai St-Antoine every morning save Monday, selling everything from cheese to cider, chacuterie to snacks, Bresse chickens, truffles, vegetables, flowers and bread (closes by lunchtime). All from independent producers and farmers. Quintessential French. Wonderful.
One of the first stop-offs should be to take the fenicular to the top of Fouvière to see the Notre-Dame de Fouvière basilica. It’s a bit of an odd place, built close to the end of the 19th Century, so not even particularly old. It was privately funded, and is a great strapping piece of architecture built by some fervent Christians to put two fingers up to the socialists or something. Anyway it’s an amazing vantage point from which to see Lyon, and that view is great for informing you on where you fancy exploring next.
There is a lovely park cascading down the hill from the basilica and walking down to river level you get to see all sorts of nooks and crannies of the old town.
Don’t bother with the Museum of Automatons in Saint Georges – just not what I was hoping for. The Museum of Contemporary Art is definitely worth a looksee though.
Now we really get down to business. The Bouchon is a particular type of brasserie that serves Lyonnais food. According to the Wiki entry there are authentic and non-authentic ones, with the authentic ones deemed to serve the most traditional Lyonnais cuisine with the correct atmosphere i.e. a Bouchon does not serve haute cuisine, in stuffy surroundings, it is more robust fare served in a congenial, simpler atmosphere. Not sure you really need to seek out all the authentic ones though, generally the ones we found were all really good.
I would heartily advise you to book ahead if you want to stand a chance of eating dinner out at the weekend in any half decent restaurant.
Auberge Rabelais– We (finally) ate on the Saturday night at this restaurant, apparently one of the oldest in Lyon, that we stumbled on after being turned away from a dozen others.
It’s very trad and a bit worn, but you couldn’t fault the food or wine, and there were groups of 10 turning up at 11pm at night and the proprietress was happy to keep on serving.
Paul Bocuse -This most eminent of chefs has a number of eateries around Lyon, his 3* Michelin restaurant is in the burbs, but he has a chain of 4 brasseries in Lyon itself Le Nord, l’Est, Le Sud, and l’Ouest, each serving a different type of French cuisine (food reasonably priced, but wine expensive).
Brasseries Georges– This seems like a popular and well regarded (if touristy) restaurant in Lyon. We were sent by our concierge who had apparently phoned ahead and ascertained that we wouldn’t need to wait more than 15mins for a table (you can’t book). When we arrived, we discovered that the wait would be at least 1.5hours, so hungry and pissed off, we caught a cab back into Vieux Lyon to try and find somewhere else, as there isn’t anywhere else around it to eat.
It was a huge venue though, very art deco and really bustling. I would not suggest this for couples, go if you are in a big group and fancy a raucous meal out.
Rue Mercière – one of the oldest streets in Lyon, has seen it’s ups and downs over the years, but since the 80s has become well known for it’s restaurants, especially a number of Bouchons.
Scoot along earlier in the day and maybe book for later that night at the one that takes your fancy. There are a number of really beautiful venues, with Le Merciere being one of the top bouchons in all Lyon (we couldn’t get a table on a Sunday afternoon, which was a great shame).
Le Bouchon aux Vins– We spent a couple of lovely hours at this restaurant on a Sunday afternoon, part of Jean-Paul Lacombe’s clutch of 6 venues in Lyon, another of which is also on Rue Mercière – the rather splendid Bistro de Lyon. His Micheln 2* Leon de Lyon is in rue Plenèy not far away.
Bernachon – Maurice Bernachon is a very well respected chocolatier, and he has a tea-room alongside his shop. Nice place to rest up for 30mins.
Les Lyonnais Bouchon – Couple of nice venues in Vieux Lyon. I felt the food is a little on the pricey side, nice surroundings though and good place to sit and chill whether it’s brunchtime through to post dinners drinks.
Le 110 Vins – originally a wine bar set up by a guy who had recently trained as a sommelier. Pierre Many turned his bar into a restaurant a couple of years ago. It’s buried in Saint George, and he loves to introduce wine to his customers (he now has over 350 types in his cellar) and pair it with his dishes (which he experiments with a lot in his open kitchen). I like it because it’s a place with a story, and Pierre was the friendliest guy we met in Lyon!
Sandwiched in between two of France’s most important wine regions (Beaujolais to the north and the Côtes du Rhône to the south), the city is stuffed with wineshops, and every restaurant has its favourite local producers, with everything served by carafe as well as by bottle.
The surrounding wine country means that you can spend many happy days roaming the area visiting wineries, and there are many, many fabulous restaurants out in the countryside too.
Lyonnais cuisine is really good, my favourite specialities were the St Marcellin cheese, which was a revelation as a dessert, and the Lyonnais sausage which has that slightly fermented taste rather like Laotian sausage. I also enjoyed the pike quenelles, and it was great to have puy lentils with lots of dishes, kind of old fashioned but scrumptious.
I’d go back to Lyon in a heartbeat, but I would definitely book ahead on the restaurant front, as it was frustrating not being able to eat at the places we wanted to.
I think also that I’d try and go for 4-5 days and split my trip between staying in Lyon and staying out somewhere in wine country, because there are some fabulous hotels with great restaurants of their own (or should that be fabulous restaurants with hotels of their own?) – not least George Blanc in Vonnas, and Troisgros in Roanne, both run by 3* Michelin chefs.
Lyon is a really exciting place to visit if you are a foodie, it was a huge surprise for me and I’d definitely recommend it as somewhere a bit different to go for a weekend away.