A weekend in Lyon: How to see the top sights

A view of Vieux Lyon across the river with St-Georges church and colourful buildings.  This is one of the nicest views you can see on a weekend in Lyon

Lyon is generally recognised as being France’s gastronomic capital. But it’s not all about eating here (although that does play a big part!). There are lots of other things to see and do on a weekend in Lyon.

As France’s third largest city, Lyon has a generous sprinkling of attractions to keep visitors occupied for a weekend break.

It is home to top notch museums, it has two Roman amphitheatres, a Unesco-listed old town and it’s also where the Lumière brothers pioneered the cinematic industry. 

Read on for more information on how to see the sights on a weekend in Lyon. And click here for guide books to inform your trip.

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Where is Lyon?

Lyon is part of central France, not far from Geneva on the Swiss border.  It’s situated in the Rhône Valley, home to the famous Beaujolais wines (and if wine is your thing, you can day trip to the region for some tastings).

Lyon’s neighbourhoods

France’s third largest city is made up of nine neighbourhoods (arrondissements). 

Much of the city, including the business district, lies to the east of the Rhône River. This is one of two major rivers (the other being the Saône) that run through the very heart of the city and that you can book tours to cruise along.

The main tourist attractions (or at least the ones you’ll want to explore on a weekend in Lyon) can be found in just a handful of central neighbourhoods.  

We focused on the following ones and below are our top tips on what to see in those areas and how you might explore them. Or you may want to book onto this hop-on hop-off bus that will take you to the main areas or this pedicab tour.

A weekend in Lyon

The Presqu’île

A good place to kick off your weekend in Lyon is the Presqu’île (city centre). 

This is located on the long peninsula sandwiched between the two rivers. Most of Lyon’s main attractions are dotted around here (and the surrounding neighbourhoods).

Place Bellecour

Most tourists that start their Lyon break in this central area will undoubtedly head for Place Bellecour. We read that this is one of Europe’s largest squares. Marvelling at this huge expansive space, it certainly felt that way.

The enormous Place Bellecour.  The square is a wide open square with buildings around the side.

When we stepped into Place Bellecour from Rue Victor Hugo (a wide pedestrian shopping street that runs south to Gare de Perrache), a massive wheel was gently rotating in the corner adjacent to Place Antonin Poncet. This is perhaps a reference to the city’s silk weavers, and we were told this appears in the square during the winter months.

The wheel in Place Bellecour.  If you have a weekend in Lyon in the winter months, you will see this wheel.

At night the wheel is lit up and we stood for ages admiring the kaleidoscopic colours projecting from it as it slowly spun its spell on us.

The wheel in Place Bellecour, illuminated at night (it is red here).  If you have a weekend in Lyon in the winter months, you will see this wheel.
The wheel in Place Bellecour, illuminated at night (it is purple and red here).  If you have a weekend in Lyon in the winter months, you will see this wheel.

A statue of Louis XIV mounted on his horse takes pride of place in the centre of Place Bellecour.

Place Bellecour.  You can see the buildings in the background, the wheel and the statue of Louis XIV

The square is also a perfect spot to admire the Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière (see below) as it overlooks Lyon from its spectacular hilltop retreat.

You are only a few minutes’ walk here from both the Rhône and the Saône rivers. If you’d like a closer view of the basilica, just head for Pont Bonaparte.  This straddles the Saône and offers fabulous views of Vieux Lyon (the old town) and Croix Rousse (silk weavers’ area) to the right.

If you look in the opposite direction, you’ll notice a small red bridge a little further down the river. This popular tourist attraction is called Passerelle Saint-Georges.

The Passerelle Saint-Georges red bridge.  You can see the bridge spanning the river with buildings in the background

We’d thoroughly recommend a slight detour and a short stroll down to it (the river should be on your right).

Cross this beautiful bridge and you’ll see the St-Georges church straight ahead. From the halfway point, you’ll get fantastic photos of Vieux Lyon and the basilica with the bridge’s elegant red frames.

A view of Vieux Lyon across the river with St-Georges church and colourful buildings.  This is one of the nicest views you can see on a weekend in Lyon

Place des Jacobins

After your detour to the Passerelle Saint-Georges, you can then back track to Place Bellecour. From here, you can take one of several streets leading north to explore the area called Mercière-Saint-Antoine.

Most of the streets take you to the delightful Place des Jacobins, the highlight of which is the striking fountain in the centre.

The Place des Jacobins.  This image shows grand buildings in the background with a fountain in the foreground.

Then if you are peckish or fancy something more substantial, potter along the narrow pedestrianised Rue Mercière. This is lined with small bistros (bouchons) and larger eateries such as the stylish Le Bistrot de Lyon.

However, if you only fancy a drink, albeit in stylish surroundings, turn right at the end of this very pretty street and walk a few minutes to Rue Édouard-Herriot. Here you can pop into the Grand Café des Négociants and marvel at its opulent interior while sipping on tea or coffee.

The inside of the Grand Cafe des Negociants.  You can see the bar with large mirrors behind and orange and yellow sculpted walls.

Once refreshed, backtrack until you reach the Pont Alphonse Juin on the Saône River where you can admire the superb views of the old quarter and the basilica.

Place des Terreaux

From here, don’t cross the bridge to Vieux Lyon but rather head north with the river on your left. 

Keep going until you reach the next crossing to St-Paul Ferry Dock. The river bends here and you can stop briefly, look up and admire the houses lining the hills in Croix Rousse.

A view of Vieux Lyon the river.  You can see the colourful buildings and the basilica high on the hill

If you steal yourself away from the river and walk down Rue Constantine, you’ll soon come to Place des Terreaux. One of Lyon’s main tourist sights, there is quite a bit to see and do around here.

You can’t miss the impressive 19th century fountain here depicting a woman riding a chariot pulled by four horses. French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, the man behind the Statue of Liberty, was the mastermind behind this.

A picture of the amazing statute in Place des Terreaux.  A woman on a chariot in on the top of the pedestal with horses below.  You can also see buildings in the background

You’ll also find the Hôtel de Ville at the far end of the square, built predominantly in the 1650s.

The Hotel de Ville in Place des Terreaux.  This is worth seeing on a weekend in Lyon.  It is a grand building with 3 domes in gold.

If you have time (we didn’t) pop into Musée des Beaux-Arts (the entrance is on the square).

The outside of the Musee des Beaux-Arts

From what we read, the museum (a former Benedictine convent) houses France’s best collection of sculptures and paintings outside of Paris. Art enthusiasts can see works by Rembrandt, Monet and Picasso, to name a few.

La Croix-Rousse

From Place des Terreaux, it’s a steady climb up the slope to the hilltop quarter of Croix Rousse. Head first up Rue Ste-Marie des Terreaux and then onwards along Montée de la Grande Côte.

The street with the steps where you can start climbing to Croix Rousse
The street with the steps where you can start climbing to Croix Rousse

You’ll come to some steps and Pentes de la Croix-Rousse. From the viewpoint here, you can look back over the city.

We read that this bohemian quarter was originally an independent neighbourhood and only became part of Lyon in the mid-19th century. It’s worth spending quite a bit of time wandering around this area.

It boasts a main square (Place Bertone), an outdoor food market and a smattering of eateries dotted along the Boulevard de la Croix-Rousse.

As you’ll discover from your guidebooks, La Croix-Rousse was home to a thriving silk industry. At its height in the 15th century there were literally thousands of workshops where silk weavers beavered away for long hours at their looms producing this in-demand product.

The vibrant trade practised in the quarter’s narrow streets made Lyon Europe’s silk-weaving capital. Only a few of the old silk workshops have survived the industry’s inevitable decline.

We didn’t have time on our weekend in Lyon, but anyone interested in finding out more about the city’s colourful past should check out Soierie Vivante association. A few other operators, including Maison des Canuts, offer a guided tour where visitors can see manual looms in operation. 

The Mur des Canuts

If you are short on time, head for the Mur des Canuts, a popular tourist draw that is free to admire. It’s definitely worth the ten minute walk from Boulevard de la Croix-Rousse along Boulevard des Canuts.

The work of mural painters from the co-operative CitéCréation, this lifelike fresco takes up the entire 1,200 m2 façade of an old building. It records the changes that have shaped and transformed Croix-Rousse since the first fresco was applied in the mid-1980s.

The Mur des Canuts mural.  This is a huge mural covering the entirety of the side of a building.  It is very lifelike and shows buildings, shops and steps.

Cross the road in front of it so you can see it from a slight distance. It’s from this perspective that you’ll fully appreciate how incredible and life-like this is.

There’s also a small display on the left under an arch that offers a fascinating historical account of the fresco and its evolution over the past three decades.

Once you’ve exhausted yourself looking at the intricate detail of this eye-catching artwork, double back to the district’s main boulevard and head down the hill to the river.

Vieux Lyon

Characterised by its warren of narrow cobbled streets, covered passages and mix of medieval and Renaissance architecture, this Unesco-listed neighbourhood is arguably Lyon’s calling card.

The old town is relatively small and compact, so everything here is within a few minutes’ walk. Wander independently or book onto a tour to learn more about the history of the area with a guide.

Part of Vieux Lyon.  You see the old buildings and a cafe/restaurant on the corner.

Cathédrale St-Jean

Cathédrale St-Jean is the main tourist sight and it’s definitely worth popping in to this beautiful building, which took around five centuries to complete, to explore the interior. One of its highlights is the 14th century astronomical clock.

The Cathédrale St-Jean - a must on a weekend in Lyon.

We really enjoyed pottering around this charming area soaking in the sights and admiring the architecture. It’s also a great place to stop off to for a bite to eat.

Vieux Lyon Museums

Nearby, you’ll find some of the city’s top museums.

These include the twin-themed Musée Gadagne (combining a local history museum and international puppet museum), Le Petit Musée Fantastique de Guignol (paying homage to Lyon’s famous Guignol puppet) and Musée Miniature et Cinéma.

We didn’t have time to go into any of the museums, so it’s worth planning ahead if you’d like to visit.

Fourvière

The Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière.  This is a side shot.  You can see three of the towers with their crosses on the top.

You can reach Fourvière via funicular from the Saint-Jean station. This takes you to the magnificent Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière. You can also take the footpath that winds up the hill through the Chemin du Rosaire.

Lyon’s Roman amphitheatres

Anyone interested in delving into some Roman history only has to walk five minutes down the road from the basilica to visit two well preserved Roman amphitheatres. 

In Roman times, this area was home to the city of Lugdunum. You can still find remnants of Gaul’s commercial and military capital in the two excavated amphitheatres perched on the hillside.

The ruins of one of the Roman amphitheatres that you can visit on a weekend in Lyon

The larger of the two, the Grand Theatre, is apparently the oldest theatre in France and dates from 15 BC. It is still used for modern performances.

While here, and if you have time, pop into the Musée de la Civilisation Gallo-Romaine. You can take a look at its collection of Roman artefacts, including statues, mosaics and coins.

The Basilica Notre-Dame de Fourvière

When you come out of the funicular station entrance, you can’t miss the imposing Basilica Notre-Dame de Fourvière.

The Basilique Notre Dame de Fourrière.  This is front shot.  You can see two of the towers with their crosses on the top.

Most tourists can’t resist popping into this magnificent building first but we’d advise that you make a slight detour to the amphitheatres. You can then double back to explore the interior of this 19th century wonder with its intricate mosaics.

Visitors can do rooftop tours and also visit the crypt. It’s a superb vantage point from which to enjoy the dramatic panoramic views of the city.

To return to Vieux Lyon, you can either return by funicular or descend via the Chemin du Rosaire, a tree lined pathway that zigzags down the slope.

The Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière from the pathway leading back to the old part of Lyon.  You can see trees and bushes in the foreground.

A weekend in Lyon: how to get to there

Lyon is well connected throughout Europe and beyond.  You can catch flights from countries which include the UK, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal and Malta. 

It’s also linked internally, with domestic flights from other French destinations including Bordeaux, Nantes, Paris, Nice, and Corsica.

Its location also means that it’s easy to catch the train to nearby Switzerland. 

A weekend in Lyon: Lyon airport to the city

You can catch the Rhône Express into the city from the airport. This costs 28.30 euros for adults over 25 and 24 euros for young adults (12 years to 25 years). The journey takes around 30 minutes.

It takes you into the city’s main train station. From here, you can pick up trams, buses or the metro to your final destination, or catch a cab.

If you’d prefer to take a cab directly from the airport to your hotel, click here.

A weekend in Lyon: Places to eat in Lyon

As mentioned at the start of this post, Lyon is regarded as France’s gastronomic capital. You therefore won’t be spoiled for fine dining. In fact, the challenge will be how to choose wisely with so much on offer with only a weekend in Lyon.

We ate at Brasserie Georges one evening. This is the largest brasserie in Lyon with an art deco interior and serving hearty Lyonnaise food.  We had a fabulous three-course meal here, although be aware that you’ll be tackling huge portions!

We also ate in the Rue Merciere. This picturesque street has a generous range of restaurants lining it. This includes Le Bistro de Lyon on a corner and with a lovely grand interior. There is also a restaurant specialising in salmon!

There are plenty of places to eat in the old town, and a range of eateries in Croix-Rousse area along the Boulevard de la Croix-Rousse and Place Bertone.

A weekend in Lyon: food tours

If you’re a foodie and really want to learn about the cuisine in this area, you could alternatively book a food tour during your weekend in Lyon.

This four hour food tour of Vieux Lyon includes 17 tastings, and this tour includes a trip around the local indoor food market. The “Lyon Secret Food Tour” includes tasting local pastry and cheese, slugging local wine and trying a “secret” dish to be revealed during your tour!

Other ideas for weekends away

If you enjoy short European breaks, you might be interested in other recent posts:

Jointly produced by Emma Marshall and Nick Warburton

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