48 Hours In: Lyon

From Roman remains to Renaissance architecture, this traditional centre of French silk-making weaves a rich tapestry of delights for the visitor
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The Independent Travel


France's largest urban area beyond Paris lies on the cusp between the industrious north and the indulgent south – and manages to combine the best of both in a well-preserved and compact city. April is a fine month to come here: the Old Lyon carnival takes place on 23-25 April, followed by the city's marathon on 26 April.


Eurostar (08705 186 186; eurostar.com) trains from London St Pancras connect in either Lille or Paris for Lyon, with a travelling time of five to six hours and return fares from £99 through agencies such as Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; raileurope.co.uk). Trains arrive at Part-Dieu (1) station, hub for tram, trolleybus and bus routes.

You can fly from Heathrow to Lyon Satolas airport on British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Bmi (0870 6070 555; flybmi.com); easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet. com) flies from Stansted. Buses to Part-Dieu (1) station in the city centre run every 20 minutes until 11.40pm (every 10 minutes during peak hours); a single ticket costs €8.90 and a return €15.80. A taxi costs about €60.


The origins of the city's areas are surprisingly distinct. The Roman remains and Renaissance quarter lies to the west of the Saône; the 18th- and 19th-century districts occupy the peninsula to the north of the confluence of the Saone and Rhône known as Presqu'île. The quality and homogeneous character of the buildings in these areas is so highly regarded that a swathe of almost 500 hectares is a World Heritage Site.

It was the invention of a native of Lyon, Joseph Jacquard, that forced the early 19th-century migration of silkweavers from St Georges to new houses in the Croix-Rousse district that had space for his power loom. Since the 20th century, the city's expansion has focused on the east bank of the Rhone.

The two skyline landmarks of the city are the pencil-like tower of Credit Lyonnais (2) near Part-Dieu and the white basilica of Notre Dame de Fourvière (3) on the hill to the west. The tourist information office (4) (00 33 4 72 77 69 69; lyon-france. com; open 9am-6pm daily) occupies a pavilion at the south-east corner of the city's largest square (and notional centre), Place Bellecour, once a parade ground.

The Lyon City Card confers unlimited use of public transport (including the excellent Metro), free access to 21 museums, river cruises, guided tours and even some concerts, as well as various retail and entertainment discounts; a one-day card costs €19, two-day €29 and three-day €39.


The finest view of any hotel in Lyon must belong to Villa Florentine (5), a converted convent at 26 Montee Saint-Barthelemy (00 33 4 72 56 56 56; villaflorentine.com). It's a quiet location perched above the Renaissance silkweavers' district and the beautiful tiled roofscape of its houses. A pool and spa are complemented by the Michelin-starred restaurant Les Terrasses de Lyon. Doubles from €230. Breakfast costs €25.

It's back to school at the College Hotel (6) at 5 Place Saint Paul (00 33 4 7210 0505; collegehotel.com) where breakfast is eaten off classroom forms and drinks are obtained from teacher's desk. There is a roof garden terrace. Doubles from €115; breakfast €12 per person.

Located close by, the Saint Paul Hotel (7) at 6 Rue Lainerie (00 33 4 7828 1329; hotelstpaul.fr) has free Wi-Fi and doubles from €66 (breakfast €6 per person.


A funicular that starts in Rue Mourguet (8) takes you up to a terrace with a panorama that can take in the western Alps on a clear day. Next to it stands Notre Dame de Fourviere (3). This striking basilica was built between 1872 and 1896 in fulfilment of a promise by the people of Lyon: they vowed to build a new sanctuary to the Virgin Mary if the Prussians spared the city during the 1870-1 war. Using a mixture of styles, no opportunity was lost to decorate every surface in marble, paint, gilding and mosaics. The result is sometimes likened by Lyonnais to an upturned elephant because of its four corner towers.


From the terrace walk south through the park containing the main Roman theatre for 10,000 spectators built around 15 BC and the smaller Odeon for music and public readings. Both are still used for performances of plays and concerts during the summer Les Nuits de Fourvière. Overlooking them is Musee de la Civilisation Gallo-Romaine (9) (00 33 4 72 38 49 30; musees-gallo-romains.com) built into the hillside with viewing windows over the ruins; open Tue-Sun 10am-6pm, admission €4.

A funicular from Minimes station beside the ruins takes you back to the narrow streets that make up the St- Georges district, lined with interesting small shops and restaurants. Walk past St-Jean Cathedral (10) and into Rue Saint-Jean; at number 27 is the most recently restored of Lyon's 450 "traboules" – narrow passageways entered through seemingly private doorways that link parallel streets. Their vaulted corridors usually give access to tiny courtyards above which rise elegant Renaissance staircases.


To the south of the magnificent Pont Lafayette (11) on the east side of the Rhone are several converted barges with bankside terraces in a quiet setting away from any traffic. Le River Boat (00 33 4 72 60 93 06) offers bruschettas from €13.50 and Antipasti salad for €14.50.


Whether your interests run to Etruscan bronzes, Limoges enamels or Renaissance furniture, the Museum of Fine Arts (12) at 20 Place des Terreaux (00 33 4 72 10 17 49; mba-lyon.fr) has a fine collection. But the most popular part of the museum is devoted to paintings, and especially the 19th and 20th-century collections, which include works by Monet, Renoir, Dégas, Bonnard, Picasso, Daumier, Dufy and Braque. An 1892 painting of Kew Green by Pissarro shows the landmark chimney of the pumping station in the background, and there is a Monet depicting Charing Cross and Big Ben.

Earlier works include paintings by Delacroix, Rubens and Rembrandt. The museum opens 10am-6pm daily except Tuesdays, admission €6.


Nine traditional silkweavers still practise their craft in Lyon. A Jacquard loom can still be seen in operation at Soierie Saint-George (8) at 11 Rue Mourguet (00 33 4 72 40 25 13) where the material it produces can be bought.

Different processes can be seen in the large Atelier de Soierie (13) at 33 Rue Romarin (00 33 4 72 07 97 83; atelierdesoierie.com), where they practise screen printing by hand – using stencils to build up colours through fine woven gauze on to the silk. Shawls, ties, scarves and handkerchiefs start at €15.

On Sunday mornings, the west bank of the Saône south of Pont La Feuillee (14) is lined with stalls selling all manner of arts and crafts: wooden bowls, ceramics, hats, jewellery, dresses, handmade mirrors, metallic flower arrangements, framed miniature rooms and furniture, puppets, hand-painted boxes, paintings. On the opposite bank is a daily food market.


L'Apostrophe Caf' Comptoir (15) at 6 Rue Octavio Mey is a popular local bar selling everything from hot chocolate (€2.50) to champagne (€7).


With 1,828 restaurants in the city, Lyonnais are spoilt for choice but Brasserie Georges (16) at 30 Cours de Verdun Perrache (00 33 4 72 56 54 54; brasseriegeorges.com) is one of the most popular. Orders in the huge 500-seat dining-hall are taken until 11.15pm (even later - until 12.15am – on Fridays and Saturdays). The bistro-style menu includes green lentil salad with chives and sherry vinegar (€5.50) and chicken-liver cake with a mushroom and Madeira sauce (€8.50).


Notable principally for its 14th-century astronomical clock, the cathedral of St Jean (10) reflects the traditional Lyonnais dislike for ostentation in its restrained Gothic decoration. It opens 8am-noon and 2-7pm daily.


The Cafe des Beaux Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts (12), at 20 Place des Terreaux (00 33 4 78 39 19 65; www.mba-lyon.fr), serves a €20 brunch at weekends (11am-5pm). The salon features a monumental Raoul Dufy painting, La Seine, de Paris à la mer.


Hire one of the 4,000 bikes spread around 340 pick-up points under the Vélo'V scheme (velov.grandlyon.com).

Imaginative planning and design has converted roads into 5km of traffic-free paths along the eastern bank of the Rhône, with separate lanes for cyclists and walkers. Besides copious tree planting, it is punctuated by playgrounds, paddling pools and wood-slatted recliners.

North of Pont Morand there are small sandy beaches among the trees, and the water in the Rhône is clean enough for bathing. At its northern end the path skirts the long curve of apricot-coloured Cité Internationale, designed by Renzo Piano, which overlooks the city's largest park.


You never know what you're going to encounter in Parc de La Tête d'Or (17), a 105-hectare triangular park. At its southern apex is a predictable botanical garden with Kew-like five-bay conservatory built in 1876-80.

You will also find a rose garden and small zoo with elephants, giraffes, lemurs and flamingos. But further into the park there is a reconstructed temple of the Kogis Indians of Colombia and a tunnel underneath the central lake leading to an island memorial to the 10,600 Lyonnias who fell in the First World War (open 10am-noon, 2-6pm).


Few cities could rival Lyon for its enlivening and often gargantuan murals – there are 180 of them (see cite- creation.com for more details) – and one of the largest is at the foot of Rue de la Martinière (18), illustrating through the characters on balconies or at windows some of Lyon's most celebrated personalities over several centuries.