Whether you have an eye for architecture or a taste for high-quality cuisine, you’ll find plenty of reasons to linger in Lyon, says Ben Grafton
1 - Parc de la Tête d’Or
With its vast landscaped gardens, stunning lake and zoological reserve, the Parc de la Tête d’Or is the perfect place to begin your sojourn in this ancient city. Nestled on the banks of the Rhône, it is one of France’s largest municipal parks, stretching over 262 acres. Enter through the enormous wrought-iron gates on the south-east side, and head to the International Rose Garden, whose 350 or so varieties should keep horticulturalists busy for a little while at least.
Nature lovers will also feel at home in the zoo, which houses numerous species of exotic animals born both in captivity and in the wild, including the notorious Nile crocodile. Elsewhere, Guignol – the city’s beloved puppet mascot – celebrates his 200th birthday this year and his shows are played out to families enjoying their ice creams. The summer months are particularly pleasant, when you can take a boating trip out onto the lake to cool down, or simply soak up the sweet scent of the botanical gardens and treat yourself to a Flake 99.
2 - Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon
Situated off the Place des Terreaux on the city’s Presqu’île, an islet which lies between the Rhône and Saône rivers, the magnificent Musée des Beaux-Arts is a must for any short or long-term visitor. It is housed in the ancient 17th-century abbey of Saint Pierre and is generally considered to contain the country’s largest and most important collection of art after the Louvre. More than 8,000 antiquities, 2,500 paintings and 3,000 sculptures are spread over three floors, with 70 rooms featuring exhibitions from ancient Egyptian to contemporary art. While Monet, Degas and Gauguin fly the flag for France, Byzantine objets d’art and Japanese ceramic chefs-d’oeuvres make up an eclectic collection. The impressive cloister gardens of the inner courtyard are themselves a worthy attraction. The museum is open daily (except Tuesdays and bank holidays) 10am-6pm (Friday 10.30am-6pm). For more information visit mba-lyon.fr.
3 - Vieux Lyon
From Place des Terreaux, cross the Saône over the Pont Bonaparte, and you’ll reach Vieux Lyon, the cultural heart of the city. Stroll through this Renaissance picture book to the Cathédral Saint-Jean, with its impressive astrological clock and circular stained-glass window, spectacularly illuminated during the annual Fête des Lumières (Festival of Lights) in December.
Wind your way past old boutiques to the Romanesque church of Saint Paul, and to Saint George, alongside the city’s famous traboules – sheltered passageways historically used by merchants to transport silk between streets, which were exploited by the Resistance to evade capture by the Nazis during the Second World War. Threatened with dilapidation, this historic centre was officially listed as France’s first “protected sector” in 1964, and since then, the majority of its buildings have been restored to their former glory – the Maison des Avocats, with its ornate, arched galleries, is as fine an example of bourgeois Lyonnais grandeur as you are likely to find.
4 - Fourvière
From Vieux Lyon, brave the five-minute funicular ride from Saint Jean up the Fourvière Hill to the Basilica de Fourvière, which overlooks the old town. From here, take in panoramic views of the whole city, from the red-orange rooftops of the Presqu’île to the iconic Crédit Lyonnais building – affectionately known as le Crayon (“the Pencil”) because of its distinctive shape. The basilica itself is a testament to the eclectic characteristics of late 19th-century architecture: its mock-Byzantine exterior gives way to a Gothic northern façade. Inside, mosaics, paintings and floral friezes inspired by art nouveau divert attention from the decorative, neo-classical ceiling. For sweeping views, climb the 287 steps to the observatory and enjoy a truly heavenly perspective.
5 - Léon de Lyon
With such an array of cultural hotspots, it is easy to forget that Lyon is also considered the gastronomic capital of France. Fun and friendly bouchons (traditional bistros) line the streets in the old town and on the Presqu’île, luring in passers-by with their welcoming ambiance and appetising local menus. Jean-Paul Lacombe’s Léon de Lyon is used to attracting the kind of clientele that fit into the “rich and famous” mantle – Bill Clinton once famously paid a visit.
A little over a year ago, Lacombe, one of the city’s best-known chefs and entrepreneurs, toyed with the idea of selling his 40-cover luxury restaurant – thank goodness he didn’t. Instead, Léon de Lyon has undergone a refurbishment, complete with chunky revolving doors, and a menu which has been adapted in line with changing customer trends: entrée-plat-desserts are now available for around €22, bringing it onto a par with more low-key local establishments. While fellow Lyonnais and celebrity chef Paul Bocuse makes headlines each time he embarks on a new culinary adventure, Lacombe prefers the modest approach – his exquisite offerings of suckling pig and local quenelles, however, are anything but ordinary. Léon de Lyon, 1 rue Pleney. Tel +39 472 101 112 for reservations.
6 - Part Dieu
Only a short bus ride from Saint-Exupéry airport, and with high-speed TGV lines propelling travellers to Paris in just two hours, Part Dieu is likely to be your first and last port of call. But it’s far more than just a commuter’s crossroads. As well as the hustle and bustle of the city’s main station, Part Dieu is also synonymous with the emergence of thriving business and commercial properties – one of which, the Basilica de Fourvière, stands as one of Lyon’s most famous landmarks.
There’s plenty of scope for last-minute shopping too – the vast, indoor shopping precinct threatens to gobble up any would-be gift-hunters in its 230-plus stores, while the culturally minded might prefer to make the short walk to the Lyon Auditorium. Famous for its swirling seashell design, it is the brainchild of celebrated French architects Henri Pottier and Charles Delfante. It also has pedigree when it comes to attracting performers, playing host to the Lyon National Orchestra, as well as a variety of workshops, jazz and world-music concerts from June to September.