Visiting Lyon: What are the best things to do in the Gauls’ capital? Discover our editorial team’s picks!
Nestled in East-Central France, between the Alps and the Massif Central, lies the magnificent city of Lyon, at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers. As France’s third-largest city, Lyon is a metropolis rich in history and culture: from ancient Roman theaters and Gallo-Roman relics, to the medieval and Renaissance Old Lyon, the more classical buildings of the Presqu’île, the industrial-era Croix-Rousse, and finally, the ultra-modern contemporary structures in Confluence. This dynamic city has been evolving continuously for over 2000 years! Wondering what to do in Lyon during your stay? Here’s our selection of the 18 essential things to visit to discover the city’s many treasures!
1. Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière
Atop the Fourvière hill stands the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The hill’s name is believed to come from the Latin “Forum Verus,” meaning old forum, as it was chosen by the Romans for the foundation of Lyon in 43 BC. Completed in 1896, the basilica is an emblematic monument of the city and a must-visit when in Lyon! Overlooking the city, it features rich interior and exterior decor, including a mosaic cycle depicting the history of the Virgin in the history of France and the Church. From the basilica’s esplanade, enjoy a panoramic view of the city! While on Fourvière hill, also visit the remains of the Gallo-Roman Theater of Lyon, the oldest in France, built by Augustus in 15 BC.
2. Old Lyon
A visit to Lyon is incomplete without exploring the picturesque Old Lyon district. This area is one of the largest Renaissance-style ensembles in Europe. During your stroll, admire the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Cathedral and the traboules of Lyon. These shortcuts in the form of interior passages allow you to move from one street to another, crossing through one or several buildings. The traboules house architectural curiosities like spiral staircases, facades, or galleries.
3. The Presqu’île
Planning to visit Lyon? Start your adventure from the central Bellecour Square. The third-largest square in France, it has had various names before adopting the name Bellecour in 1850: Place Louis-le-Grand, Place de la Fédération, and even Place Bonaparte. Thus, you can lose yourself in the neighborhoods of the Presqu’île, heading up to the Place des Terreaux, bordered by the Museum of Fine Arts and the City Hall. On Rue Mercière, you’ll find numerous small restaurants and bars for relaxation, perfect for a culinary weekend in Lyon. The recently renovated Hôtel-Dieu, now hosting the city of gastronomy since 2019, is one of the largest buildings on the Presqu’île. It now houses numerous shops, hotels, and restaurants to discover during your stay!
4. La Croix-Rousse
“The hill that works” is the nickname of La Croix-Rousse, in reference to the Lyonnais silk workers. It contrasts with “the hill that prays” – Fourvière. This district is deeply marked by its past as a major silk industry hub. Today, it’s a space rich in diverse culture. If you have time and enjoy comedies, don’t hesitate to visit one of the famous café theaters in Croix-Rousse!
5. River Cruises in Lyon
Lyon, nestled between the Saône and Rhône rivers, reveals itself uniquely through its cruises. Navigating these two rivers offers a refreshing perspective of the city, allowing visitors to appreciate its charms from a different angle. It’s both a relaxing and enriching experience that highlights the riverine beauty of Lyon. In terms of cruises, there’s a variety to choose from. For romantics, dinner cruises combine gastronomy with illuminated urban landscapes. If you’re insatiably curious, a guided cruise is ideal, with a dedicated guide sharing Lyon’s secrets and history. Party enthusiasts will enjoy the aperitif or festive cruises, offering relaxation and music in good company. And for those seeking unique experiences, there’s always an unusual cruise to discover, be it a floating yoga session or a special tasting.
6. Parc de la Tête d’Or
The Parc de la Tête d’Or (see the park tour) is the largest public park in France! Opened in 1857, it’s now the green lung of the city, spanning nearly 117 hectares within Lyon. Highly popular among locals, the park is a wonderful place to relax, meet friends, and picnic. The Lyon Zoological Garden is also located in the heart of the park. Free of charge, it hosts numerous preserved species, including adorable red pandas and lions — the emblem of the city!
7. Museum of Illusions of Lyon
Located in the heart of Lyon, the Museum of Illusions is a must-visit stop. This establishment offers a series of optical illusions, light games, and puzzles that challenge your perception. It’s an interactive experience where you’ll directly test the limits of your brain and eyes. Beyond entertainment, it’s also an educational place. You’ll understand how the brain processes visual information and how it can be deceived. Ideal for families, groups of friends, or even solo, plan a good hour to fully enjoy your visit.
8. Quays of Saône and Rhône
Along the Saône or along the Rhône up to the Confluence stretch long quays. Sometimes green, sometimes paved, they offer a pleasant walk and especially many places to relax, unwind, and chat. Further upstream, you’ll find barges where you can have a drink, dine, or party. At the Confluence, on the Presqu’île, is the dynamic district of the same name where modernity and historical past coexist.
9. Festival of Lights of Lyon
If you’re visiting Lyon at the end of the year, don’t miss the Festival of Lights, held every year in early December. For four nights, the city is adorned with illuminations and light shows of all kinds. Whether in the streets, on buildings, or famous monuments, lights are everywhere! Enjoy this magical atmosphere with family, friends, or even solo. You’ll leave with stars in your eyes!
10. Lyon’s Gastronomy
Wondering what to do in Lyon? Whether you’re a foodie or not, the city’s gastronomy is a must-try. Renowned throughout France, Lyon’s culinary specialties will delight your taste buds. From the typical Lyonnais bouchons to quenelles, the famous praline tart, and bugnes, you’re sure to enjoy a feast!
11. Musée des Confluences
Opened in 2014, the Musée des Confluences sits in a building resembling a UFO and houses the collections of the closed Lyon Museum, which shut down in 2007. Visiting Lyon? Take a tour of this exceptional contemporary museum offering collections around the “confluence of knowledge.”
12. Gerland Park
Looking to spend an afternoon with friends surrounded by trees? Head to Gerland Park. Dedicated to leisure, you’ll surely find something to keep you busy: playgrounds, skate parks, etc. If you just want to take a walk away from the city’s hustle and bustle, you can follow the canal surrounded by various plants. Open from 6:30 am to 8:30 pm in winter, and from 6:30 am to 10:30 pm in summer, it’s one of the must-dos in Lyon.
13. Les Halles Paul Bocuse
Les Halles Paul Bocuse is an essential institution of the city. They showcase the gastronomic excellence of Lyon. If you’re in the area, don’t hesitate to visit this covered market hosting no less than 48 merchants who will delight your taste buds!
14. L’Île Barbe
Located in the middle of the Saône, L’Île Barbe — meaning “wild island” — is a place to visit if you enjoy peaceful walks in green spaces. Land of multiple legends, it is now divided into two parts: public and private. In the public domain, you can enjoy spaces equipped for children, or even a petanque field. History enthusiasts will be delighted to visit the remains of the Notre-Dame church, and food lovers can find refuge at the Auberge de l’Île, a high point of Lyon’s gastronomy.
15. The Aquarium
The Lyon Aquarium is a must-visit for all marine life enthusiasts. Located in La Mulatière, a bit outside the city center, this aquatic space hosts a wide variety of species, from local river fish of the region to exotic tropical species. You can observe sharks, rays, and many other marine creatures up close. The tactile pools are especially popular with younger visitors, allowing them to touch and interact directly with certain species. For an immersive experience, the 360° tunnel envelops you in the underwater world, with fish swimming all around you. It’s also an educational place: explanatory panels and educational workshops are regularly organized to raise awareness about ocean protection.
16. Institut Lumière
Are you a film buff? The Institut Lumière in Lyon — located in the eponymous villa — is a must-do if you’re staying in Lyon! (Re)Discover the beginnings of the 7th Art and learn more about the famous Lumière brothers, Louis and Auguste. Dive into their unique universe that shaped their fame and take a journey back in time through various surprising objects.
Lyon is known for its vibrant nightlife. We particularly recommend Le Sucre, a panoramic rooftop in Confluence promising delightful and addictive evenings.
18. Participating in a Workshop in Lyon
If you want to delve deeper into Lyon’s gastronomy, we advise participating in this workshop in Lyon to discover the secrets of pâté en croûte. For 2 hours, at 180 €, Chef Joseph Viola – a Meilleur Ouvrier de France – will introduce you to the pure traditions of Lyonnais cuisine. Thus, through this workshop, you’ll learn step by step how to make the famous Lyonnais pâté en croûte recipe. You can then delight your taste buds by tasting your preparation, much to the delight of food lovers! If you’re interested in participating in a workshop in Lyon, we also recommend the beer brewing workshop or the woodturning workshop.
How to Get to Lyon?
From the Rest of France
- By Plane: Lyon is home to the 4th largest airport in France: Lyon Saint-Exupéry. You can reach it from most major cities in France and Europe. While prices vary depending on your departure city, we still advise you to plan ahead and use a flight comparison tool like Skyscanner to find the best-priced tickets.
- By Train: Lyon has two main train stations: Lyon Part-Dieu and Lyon-Perrache. These are served by numerous trains (TGV, TER, Intercités) from many French cities: Montpellier, Paris, Annecy, Grenoble, Marseille, Lille, Strasbourg, Valence, and more. Prices will vary depending on your city of departure.
- By Bus: Located near the homonymous SNCF train station, the Lyon-Perrache bus station welcomes several bus companies — such as FlixBus, Eurolines, or OUIBUS — coming from different French cities. Here again, ticket prices will vary depending on your city of departure.
From the Airport to the City Center
If you’ve decided to fly to Lyon and want to reach the city center, located 25km from the airport, several options are available to you:
- By Taxi: A taxi hub is located at Lyon airport, ensuring quality service. However, the rates are considerable. Expect to pay around €49 for the trip.
- By Rhônexpress: With Rhônexpress, you can reach the center of Lyon in less than 30 minutes. This special tramway will drop you off at the Lyon-Saint Exupéry TGV station. Services run 7 days a week (including public holidays), every 15 minutes (from 6 am to 9 pm) and every 30 minutes (from 4:25 am to 6 am and from 9 pm to midnight). By purchasing your tickets 1 month in advance, you can benefit from a preferential rate of €9.90. Otherwise, the cost is €16.30 for those over 25 and €13.60 for those aged 12-25. The journey is free for children under 12.
Where to Stay in Lyon?
If you choose to visit Lyon, you’re undoubtedly wondering which neighborhood to stay in. Several choices are available to you: Fourvière, Saint-Jean, Presqu’île, and many more. For accommodations, the more traditional might opt for a hotel room. Don’t hesitate to use a hotel comparison tool to find the one that suits you best.
Now, you know what to do in Lyon and its surroundings during your stay in the capital of the Gauls!