1. The classic itinerary for seasoned tourists who want to see as much as they can!
Begin by visiting the Tourist Office in Place Bellecour. Here you can ask for a map of the city, gather some handy tips and advice, optimise your itinerary, choose a guided or audio-guided tour, and get the LyonCityCard.
While in Place Bellecour, stop for a moment to admire the equestrian statue of Louis XIV (note that he is riding without a saddle, in the style of a Roman emperor!), before crossing the river Saône, towards Fourvière hill (the first stop on the itinerary), which you can make out in the distance.
At the top of the hill, you will immediately spot the golden statue of the Virgin Mary, who has overlooked the city since the 8th of December 1852. Did you know she is the reason locals celebrate the Fête des Lumières (Festival of Lights)?
To get there, take the funicular (known as ‘la ficelle’ among locals) from the Vieux-Lyon metro station (free with the Lyon City Card – just remember to touch on to validate).
From the esplanade surrounding the Basilica, this unique viewpoint offers a panoramic sweep of the whole city. You can see how the city has spread over time to the east, beyond the Saône and then the Rhône. And in the background stand the Alps. You can also visit the Basilica, the construction of which began in 1872 to thank the Virgin Mary for saving Lyon from the Prussian invasion in 1870. Its architect, Pierre Bossan, designed it as a marial fortress – understated and unadorned on the outside and very heavily decorated on the inside. Its huge crypt, dedicated to Saint-Joseph, lets in the light of day, which is quite remarkable for such a structure (the word ‘crypt’ being derived from the Greek word for ‘hidden’).
Just a short walk from here, you can visit Lugdunum, the ancient ruins of Fourvière (entry is free). Take a break on the tiered seating of the grand theatre, which dates back to the 15th year BC and look out over the city below. Just imagine, during the reign of Hadrian the rows of seating went right up to the top of the hill. Below, the smaller odeum was designed for musical performances, rhetoric and poetry, and it still displays some beautiful mosaics.If you are interested in ancient history, make sure you also visit the museum built into the hillside (included in the Lyon City Card).
You can then walk down the hill to the Vieux-Lyon (Old Lyon) district, or take the funicular at the station Antiquaille, in time for a well-deserved lunch break!
At the foot of the hill you will discover Vieux-Lyon, a medieval and Renaissance district, which stretches from Saint-Georges (in the south) to Saint-Paul (in the north), with the must-visit Saint-Jean Cathedral situated in between the two. This cathedral alone includes elements from all the successive periods from the late Romanesque until the Gothic period (from Early to Rayonnant and finally Flamboyant!). Take a stroll through this charming district and its traboules. These hidden passageways reveal magnificent inner courtyards with Italian-style galleries, wells and spiral staircase towers. Click here for an itinerary of things not to miss in Vieux-Lyon...After this stroll through the paved alleys of Vieux-Lyon, cross the Saône on the footbridge in front of the Palais de Justice (Law courts). The architect Louis-Pierre Baltard based the design of this building’s 24-column façade on the lengthier lateral side of a Greek temple, in order to lend it more scale and majesty.
Stop for a moment half-way across the footbridge to take in the view: wouldn’t you say that Croix-Rousse hill and its tangle of buildings has a Roman feel to it?
You arrive on the Presqu’île (Lyon’s river-bound peninsula). Place des Célestins and its theatre is one of my favourites. Take a look through the periscope in the middle of the square (designed by Buren). What do you see? An amazing feat of architecture created by Wilmotte and Targe! Take a little shopping trip through the stylish boutiques of the Carré d’Or district, cross the Place des Jacobins and wander up the Haussmanian-style Rue de la République (known as ‘Rue de la Ré’ among locals) until you reach the Palais de la Bourse, and then continue on to the Opera House, with its dome redesigned by Jean Nouvel, opposite the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall). Next, head on to the Place des Terreaux at the opposite entrance to the Hôtel de Ville, where you will find the Museum of Fine Arts, as well as the Bartholdi fountain (notice that the horses’ nostrils smoke: an impressive special effect created by water vapour!). If you still have any energy left, head to La Martinière and the Fresque des Lyonnais (a huge wall painting featuring famous local figures), and then walk down the banks of the Saône back to Place Bellecour. The evening light on the ochre façades is very beautiful and the wide pavements are perfect for a leisurely stroll.
The Fourvière, Vieux-Lyon, and Presqu’île districts stand as witnesses to Lyon’s gradual expansion over the past two millennia. They form part of the 500 hectares listed as UNESCO World Heritage.
This is my suggestion for a condensed route but which ensures there is plenty to see, as the Presqu’île, from Place Bellecour to Place des Terreaux, via the Carré d’Or for a pleasant luxury shopping experience, is dotted with iconic buildings, squares and museums, including the Grand Hôtel-Dieu, Théâtre des Célestins, the Musée de l’Imprimerie (Museum of Printing) and the Museum of Fine Arts, Saint-Nizier Church, Palais de la Bourse, the City Hall and the Opera House. And let’s not forget, just south of Bellecour towards Perrache, you will find the laid back Ainay district and its Roman Basilica.
You can also enjoy a meal in one of the many restaurants, from a local ‘bouchon’ to a brasserie or luxury restaurant, or take a break for a snack or refreshment in a café or tea room … They can be found on every street corner.
Such a packed day deserves a break…And this evening, I have a feeling you may be thinking about extending your stay in Lyon or coming back for another visit. And if by any chance you get an opportunity to do so, here are a few more suggestions!
2. The contemplative variation
Head to the Tourist Office in Place Bellecour to get the day off to a good start. The friendly team is there to make your life easier, and will be more than happy to provide you with a Lyon City Card and help book guided tours. All with a smile!
Take a seat on the double-decker tour bus and set off on a guided exploration of Lyon’s main sites. You can hop on and off the bus to take a closer look, visit the sites, have a drink or taste one of Lyon’s specialities. Simply hop on the next bus to continue your journey!
Enjoy lunch in one of the many restaurants to be found in the Vieux-Lyon or Presqu'île districts. During the afternoon, head to the Musée des Confluences to explore science and the history of humanity, all in the heart of a very modern district.
3. Sporty and adventurous variation
Fancy exploring Lyon’s iconic sites on an electric bike or Segway? Head to the Tourist Office as soon as you arrive to book your adventure! Simply choose your route and mode of transport and set off on a fun morning of discovery! During the afternoon, you can enjoy a stroll in the Vieux-Lyon or Presqu’île district, or perhaps one of Lyon’s major museums (ideas can be found in the classic itinerary).