Straddling the confluence of the rivers Rhône and Saône in the Rhône-Alpes region of France, the city of Lyon has long been an important destination thanks to its location between Paris and Marseille, a fact reflected in its illustrious history and heritage. Despite its size (Lyon is the third largest city in France behind Paris and Marseille), much of the city is a UNESCO designated World Heritage Site, and boasts innumerable cultural sights — from ancient cathedrals to fascinating Roman-age heritage spots.
And yet, history and heritage aren’t the only things on offer in France’s so-called culinary capital. In 1935, celebrated food critic Curnonsky heralded Lyon as the ‘world capital of gastronomy’ on account of its simple, quality cuisine; and it seems he wasn’t wrong. Over a quarter of a century on, the city is still considered the gastronomic core of the European continent, trumping even Paris in terms of sheer palatability.
For those visiting Lyon for the first, second or sixth time, the progressive nature of the city means there’s always new things to see and exciting new dishes to savour — however whistle stop your tour may prove to be.
Like much of France, Lyon owes its majestic architecture to the Romans, who established a settlement here in 43BC. The confluence of the Saône and Rhône rivers provided excellent trade links with southern France and the Mediterranean, as well as a perpetual source of freshwater for the city’s earliest residents. This favourable position also led to Lyon becoming the starting point for several Roman Roads, which criss-crossed for miles across the old kingdom of Gaul.
Over the proceeding centuries, Lyon was subject to much civil unrest, and control of the city changed hands frequently until it came under French rule during the 14th century. After this, Lyon entered a period of economic prosperity, and was frequented by a number of travelling merchants fairs from Italy, which contributed vast wealth to the city. By the 15th century, Lyon was France’s economic counting house, and remained so until the French Revolution of 1789.
Upon the outbreak of the Revolution, Lyon was one of the sole metropolises of France to contest the will of the National Convention, and rallied around the Girondins — a political party who resisted the impetus of the Revolution. After a two-month siege however, the city fell to the hands of the revolutionists, and thousands were executed as a result of the uprising.
In the wake of the Revolution, Lyon once again prospered thanks to its burgeoning silk trade, which bolstered its ties with Italy. Indeed, many of the buildings erected in Lyon at the time echoed not French but Italian architecture, giving the city a unique aspect not commonly found in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of the country.
Despite falling into the hands of the Nazis during World War Two, Lyon has continued to progress and develop, and is now considered one of France’s most progressive and contemporary cities, notwithstanding its majestic history and heritage.
Given its historic and gastronomic pre-eminence, it’s small wonder Lyon is home to such a glut of cultural wonders. Here we explore but a handful of the city’s most esteemed must-sees.
LES HALLES DE LYON
If news of Lyon’s fabled gastronomy has left you salivating at the mouth, Les Halles de Lyon ought to be your first port of call upon arrival in the city. Les Halles is essentially a vast indoor food market, where the city’s restaurateurs flock to fill their larders with culinary treats from across the region. Tasting is encouraged throughout the market, so you can sample the true taste of Lyon in one fell swoop.
MUSÉE DES CONFLUENCES
Don’t let the outlandish architecture of Lyon’s Musée des Confluences put you off; contained within are some of France’s most important artefacts from the fields of natural science and anthropology, as well as several exhibits dedicated to ancient arts and crafts. The museum is located in the 2nd arrondissement of the city, and is worth a visit for its ultra-modern, deconstructivist architectural design alone.
BASILICA OF NOTRE-DAME DE FOURVIÈRE
Looming imposingly over the city, the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière echoes the architectural prominence of Paris’ Sacré-Cœur Basilica, but is, in many ways, more dramatic. To enjoy an up-close aspect of this fine structure, and enjoy the rich tapestries held within, make for the Vieux Lyon metro station and take the Funicular to the summit — where exquisite vistas of the city below await.
WHERE TO SHOP
Paris may be the fashion capital of Europe, but Lyon is hot on its heels, affording exceptional retail opportunities for those keen to splurge on the finer things in life. Here we browse a handful of the city’s most prominent shopping destinations.
LE VILLAGE DES CRÉATEURS
Those with a penchant for collecting art will relish this cluster of boutique workshops, where Lyon’s up-and-coming artists congregate to sell unique pieces from their personal collection. Situated on the Croix Rousse pents, Le Village des Créateurs is a must-visit retail destination for anyone interested in Lyon’s emerging arts and crafts scene.
SILK SPECIALITY STORES
Lyon is celebrated for its silk production, and a number of original silk manufacturers still exist in the city today. While there’s no set Silk Quarter in the city, you’ll find several stores specialising in the sale of this elegant fabric; what better gift for a loved one back home than a ‘Made in Lyon’ hand woven silk scarf?
SAÔNE RIVER ARTS AND CRAFTS MARKET
If you’re lucky enough to cruise into Lyon on the weekend, be sure to visit the city’s Arts and Crafts Market, which takes place along the banks of the Saône. With dozens of authentic craftsman and vendors in attendance, it’s the perfect place to pick up a special gift for yourself or else sample some delectable home-grown produce.
History, culture and boundless retail opportunities — what more could you ask for during an indulgent luxury river cruise? If you can picture yourself strolling the cobbled boulevards of Lyon, click here to visit the Scenic homepage, where you can browse all of our Rhône river cruises. Alternatively, call us on 0161 231 4901.
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