With family treats, street art and fabulous food, the French city astride the Rhône is the ideal destination for anyone travelling to southern France this summer, says Harriet O'Brien

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Travel essentials

Why go now?

Les vacances start here. Dynamic, creative and with a wonderful old centre, Lyon is also family friendly. Its outdoor summer festival, Tout le Monde Dehors (00 33 4 72 10 48 50; tlmd.lyon.fr ) enlivens the city until 5 September, with street shows of dance and circus acts.

Touch down

Lyon's Saint-Exupéry airport, 26km east of the centre, is served by easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com ) from Gatwick, Stansted and Edinburgh; by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com ) from Heathrow; and by BMI (0844 8484 888; flybmi.com ) from Manchester. From 9 August the new Leslys tramway (rhonexpress.com, €14 one way) replaces the shuttle bus from the airport to central Lyon. It leaves from Terminal 3 and runs in 30 minutes to Part Dieu station (1) in the business district. The heart of the city, 2km further on, is easily accessed from the station by Métro (B line) or trolleybus C; tickets cost €1.60 one-way.

I travelled from the UK by train with Rail Europe (08448 484 064; raileurope.co.uk ). Trains from London St Pancras, Ebbsfleet and Ashford connected in Lille or Paris Gare du Nord. The total journey time to Part Dieu station (1) is five to six hours.

Get your bearings

France's third-largest city (after Paris and Marseille) is set around two hills and two rivers. Furthest west is Fourvière hill, site of a large Roman colony. Immediately below is medieval Vieux Lyon, which gives on to the River Saône. To the east is Presqu'ile, a narrow peninsula squeezed between the rivers Saône and Rhone. It was developed from the 15th century and became the city's hub. At its heart is Place Bellecour (2), dominated by a statue of King Louis XIV. To the north of the peninsula is Croix Rousse hill, developed in the 19th century to accommodate the tall workshops of Lyon's silk weavers.

The main tourist office (00 33 4 72 77 69 69; lyon-france.com ; 9am-6pm daily) is at the south-east corner of Place Bellecour (2). Pick up a free map giving details of the traboules of Vieux Lyon – hidden passageways between ancient streets.

Check in

In the heart of town, Hotel le Royal (00 33 4 78 37 57 31; lyonhotel-leroyal.com ) on Place Bellecour (2) at number 20 is a supremely elegant boutique establishment, built as a large townhouse in 1888. Bedrooms are decked in Toile de Jouy fabrics, corridors are lined with framed samples of exquisite Lyon silk. Doubles from €190 including breakfast.

Over in Vieux Lyon, the College Hotel (3) at 5 Place St Paul (00 33 4 72 10 05 05; college-hotel.com ) is a quirky yet comfy three-star, with public spaces styled on school life and 39 all-white bedrooms. Doubles from €115 room only.

For historic atmosphere, try Artelit Chambres d'Hotes (4) at 16 Rue du Boeuf in Vieux Lyon (00 33 4 78 42 84 83; dormiralyon.com ). Three chic suites flank the courtyard of a late-medieval property. Doubles from €100 including breakfast.

Day one

Take a hike

From the tourist office, cross Place Bellecour (2) diagonally and follow Rue du Col Chambonnet to the River Saône. Turn right along Quai des Célestins and follow the street as it changes name to Quai St Antoine. Cross the pedestrian bridge Passerelle du Palais de Justice (5) turning right along Quai Romain (6). At number 17 push the entrance button and open the door to a well-used traboule (hidden passageway) between ancient streets. This traboule takes you through two courtyards from which you emerge in Rue des Trois-Maries. Cross the cobbled lane and proceed left to number 6, the opening to a particularly elegant traboule. Follow the traboule to Rue St-Jean, Vieux Lyons' principal little street. Turn right and then left into Rue de la Fronde: at the end is Musée Gadagne (7). This magnificent building houses two museums: one on the history of Lyons, one on puppetry (Wed to Sun 11am-6.30pm; €6 for one museum, €8 for two). Take the lift to the fourth-floor café where an inner garden typical of the Renaissance has been carefully replanted. From the museum turn right into Rue du Boeuf. Number 27 is the opening to Vieux Lyons' longest traboule, leading back to Rue St-Jean.

Lunch on the run

A la Marquise (8) (00 33 4 78 37 89 85; la-marquise.fr ) at 37 Rue St-Jean is a charming little patisserie offering takeaway quiche for €3.20.

Cultural afternoon

If you have young children in tow, make for Musée des Miniatures et Décors de Cinéma (9) at 60 Rue St-Jean (00 33 4 72 00 24 77; mimlyon.com ). On display is a range of sets and special effects that you'll recognise from several recent films as well as enchanting models of theatres, dance studios and local silk weavers' workshops. Open 10am-7pm daily; adults €7, children €5.50, under 4s free.

Known as the "petit Louvre", Lyon's Musée des Beaux-Arts (10) is housed in a tranquil Benedictine convent at 20 Place des Terreaux (00 33 4 72 10 17 40; mba-lyon.fr ). Open 10am-6pm daily except Tuesday (Friday from 10.30am), €7.

Window shopping

The main shopping area lies between Place Bellecour (2) and Place des Cordeliers (11); Printemps (12) is at Place de la République and Escada (13) at Place des Jacobins. For handmade Lyon silk head to La Maison des Canuts (14) at 10 Rue d'Ivry in the Croix Rousse district. For gourmet fare visit Les Halles Paul Bocuse (15), located at 102 Cours Lafayette in the Part Dieu district.

An aperitif

Make for the terrace of Le Bar des Lyonnais (16) at 1 Quai des Célestins (00 33 4 78 37 41 80; restaurant-lyonnais.com ) and enjoy a glass of wine while looking across to Vieux Lyon.

Dining with the locals

Amongst the Lyonnais, one of the most highly rated bouchons is Café Comptoir Abel (17), 25 Rue Guynemer (00 33 4 78 37 46 18; cafecomptoirabel.fr ). The bistro serves local specialities as saucissons with lentils (€11) and quenelles de brochet (pike dumplings served in a creamy sauce, €18).

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

Cathédrale St-Jean (18), at the heart of Vieux Lyon ( cathédrale-lyon.cef.fr ), contains remarkable stained glass and an astronomical clock; open 8am-noon and 2-7pm daily (to 7.30pm on weekdays, 5pm on Saturdays), free.

Take a ride

Opposite the cathedral (18), the Vieux Lyon funicular scoots you vertiginously up to Fourvière station at the top of the hill. You emerge from the funicular station immediately beside the fortress-like, neo-Byzantine Basilica of Nôtre Dame de Fourvière (19), built in the 1870s. Head to the wide terrace to the north of the building to take in a sweeping panorama of the city.

Nôtre Dame de Fourvière (7am-7pm daily, free) is a riot of gilt and mosaic inside. Built by public subscription – and still maintained entirely by public donations – it is a much-loved landmark. It stands on the site of a Roman temple. Alongside it are two interconnecting chapels, dating from the 12th century: one to the Virgin Mary and the other, intriguingly, to St Thomas of Canterbury. For centuries, both chapels were popular pilgrimage sites.

Out to brunch

Make that an early lunch. Restaurant de Fourvière, next to the church at 9 place de Fourvière (00 33 4 78 25 21 15; latassee.fr ), opens at 12.15pm on Sunday. Its terrace offers stunning views and is particularly atmospheric when the church bells are ringing. The menu features Lyon favourites such as duck casserole (€18) and andouillette – a local speciality of tripe sausage (€16).

A walk in the park

From Nôtre Dame de Fourvière (19), walk downhill along Rue du Juge de Paix and turn left into Rue Cleberg to reach the most remarkable site in Lyon: two Roman theatres set side by side in what is now an archaeological park (20) (daily 7am-9pm; admission free). They were discovered only in 1933 in the grounds of what was then a convent. The larger of the structures seated 10,000 people and still contains an ornate VIP area; the smaller theatre was for musical performances for audiences of about 3,000.

For an absorbing insight into Lyon's Roman past visit the adjacent Musée Gallo Romain (00 33 4 72 38 49 30; musees-gallo-romains.com ; 10am-6pm daily except Mondays; €4).

The icing on the cake

The spectacular murals of Lyon are testimony to the city's modern verve and creativity. They were devised in the 1970s to rejuvenate the city and challenge the sombre, industrial reputation it had acquired. Today there are more than 60 huge murals across Lyon. Head to Presqu'ile to see some of the best: Fresque des Lyonnais (21) on the corner of Rue de la Martinière and Quai St Vincent is a massive trompe l'oeil painting showing a host of city celebrities (Paul Bocuse and architect Tony Garnier among them); Bibliothèque de la Cité (22) on the corner of Rue de la Platière and Quai de la Pêcherie shows a wonderful library of books by Rhône-Alps writers.