Swiss Tips: Lyon Uncorked
Narrow Medieval passages contrast with vibrant walls of urban art; an elegant opera house boasts a designer makeover and an upside down white elephant perches on the hillside... Scratch the surface of Lyon and you’ll discover a wealth of detail - and a gourmet tradition bar none.
A café terrace at Placedes Terreaux, an elegant square flanked by the Rhône and the Saône on Lyon’s famous Presqu’ile. In front of you is the grandiose 17th-century Hôtel de Ville and a giant cascading fountain by Frédéric Bartholdi. If it looks at all familiar that’s because this famous French engineer/designer went on to create the Statue of Liberty. And just across the street? The elegant facade of the Musée des Beaux-Arts.
Discover the secrets of ancient Lyon...
with a map of the traboules, a network of more than 400 ancient stone passages that ‘weave’ through the city’s Vieux-Ville and Croix-Rousse quarters. Built by medieval silk merchants with an eye to logistics, the traboules helped protect precious bales of fabric as they passed from hand to hand in the narrow streets. Centuries later this intricate web of passages would conceal Lyon’s World War II resistance fighters, who used the alleys as secret routes to clandestine meetings behind ancient oak doors. Duck under low stone arches to find tiny courtyards and twisting stairways leading to shabby chic apartments hidden from the main thoroughfares. A good place to start is from Traboule des Voraces in pl Colbert.
Lunch in Lyon is a large slice of downtime
Everyone hurries off to enjoy a hearty menu du jour at a favourite bouchon – the bustling local cafés/restaurants that line the rue St Jean in the Vieux-Ville and many of the pedestrian streets on the Presqu’île. Look out for the rue Mercière, where tables spill out onto the pavement (and road...) both summer and winter. There’s terrace heating in the chilly months and cheerful diners relax elbow to elbow under the shelter of striped awnings. Some bouchons are narrow and cosy inside, others a touch more spacious with cellar seating or ancient curved staircases leading up to a first-floor dining room. Where does the name come from? Popular folklore has it that the corks (bouchons in French) of a thousand wine bottles littered the floors each day. This may well be no exaggeration. The Côtes du Rhône still flows like water and traditional dishes have yet to be swept away by nouvelle cuisine. For a typical Lyonnais dish try quenelle de brochet, a light and fluffy pike dumpling nestled in a bold, orange crayfish sauce and served piping hot in a vintage terracotta bowl. Or local delicacy cervelle de canut – literally a weaver’s brain! However, the reality is less disturbing. Chopped shallots and fresh herbs stirred into chilled fromage blanc.
Get the view
For a breathtaking vista of river boats and bridges (and a fantastic workout...) climb the 287 steps to the striking all-white Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière This slightly over-the-top edifice is dubbed by locals the upside down elephant for the ungainly proportions of its four towers. Eaten too much at lunch? Take the cable car from the Vieux-Lyon metro stop and save your legs for the leisurely stroll down. Look for the path that winds down through public gardens overlooking the atmospheric remains of Lyon’s famous Roman arena.
Insider tip: the Gallo-Roman Museum here is free on Thursdays.
Can’t believe your eyes?
Lyon loves a trompe l’oeil... and the huge mural at the riverside quai St Vincent depicts 30 famous sons and daughters of the city – including author/aviator Antoine de St-Exupéry, the filmmaking Lumière brothers and VIP/celebrity chef Paul Bocuse. Inspiration also runs high in the downtown area known as Etats-Unis, where run-down 1920s apartments by Lyon architect Tony Garnier have been transformed by vivid urban frescos. International street artists were recruited for the task and the results draw an alternative tourist crowd.
Music and architecture
Somewhat ironically it’s free jazz that packs the lobby bar most weekends at the Opéra de Lyon. However, the building itself is stunning and worth the visit whatever’s playing. French architect Jean Nouvel was given carte blanche to replace 19th-century ostentation with a contemporary barrel-shaped glass loft and roof-terrace café. His success was to make it work on two levels. Not only did the grande dame get a designer makeover but the updates brought a whole new generation of music lovers to her door. And the roof top views are absolutely unrivalled in the city. Book for a guided tour and inspect the cutting edge suspended auditorium.
La Confluence is the city’s former docklands area that’s now up-and-coming trendy. The river panorama at wine bar/restaurant Le Selcius is one of the best in town and its famous brunch draws a well-heeled crowd from the creative sector. For easy access pick up a rental bike from the Vélo-v station in front of the Perrache railway station and peddle south down the Presqu’île. In less than ten minutes you’ll uncover a whole different side to the city – with classical Lyon giving way to a new and edgy area, lined with converted warehouse venues. We all love a bargain and if you have the stamina to attack just a handful of Lyon’s cultural gems then a Lyon City Card is definitely the way forward. Choosing a tariff from one to three days (starting at €22), the card then allows you to fast-track free into more than 20 museums, enjoy discounted rates at others, as well as guided tours of Vieux-Ville and Croix-Rousse, (including the ancient silk workshops). There are also free river cruises and unlimited access to buses, trams and the metro. Discounts include such trips and attractions as the Opéra de Lyon and the Maison de la Danse. Under-16s and students qualify for a discount on their Lyon City Card, which can be bought online or at Lyon Tourisme.
Place Bellecour is said to be the largest traffic-free formal square in Europe, adding a touch of glamour with its delicate pinky/orange sand. In pride of place is a statue of Louis XIV, surveying his kingdom from a horse. It’s not exactly original (that was destroyed by revolutionaries in 1793), but as it was built in 1825 it still qualifies as a national treasure. If you’re arriving by train into central Lyon then Bellecour is a perfect first snapshot of the city, with fine apartment buildings shielding the square from river breezes and a line of designer stores leading from its northern edge. Check out the fun stuff at weekends as Bellecour draws families to its playgrounds and fountains. Lyon Tourism is located here and easy to spot – look out for a white painted pavilion and a tricolor on its flag pole. Lyon’s annual light-up-the-city event La Fête des Lumières is a magical four-day experience, with the city’s landmark buildings sparkling like stars. The 2014 festival runs from 4-8 December, promising imaginative designs, colours and music to a new theme on each of the four evenings. A video plays over the glowing pink facade of a theatre; a hotel flashes with bold images in gold and white while spotlights mark the beat of a pop anthem on the stone paving of the Place des Terreaux. Sounds out of character for sensible Lyon? Well, you’ve heard the expression ‘paint the town red’? This time it’s flick the switch and light the town red. And yellow. And silver. Insider tip: book early for hotels as the success of Fête des Lumières builds every year. Try to arrive for the first night as the crowds definitely rally for the weekend dates.
Duck into the MAC Lyon (Musée d’art contemporain) and you’ll be in one of the most dynamic and active cultural spaces in France, housed in a fantastic architectural statement created by the Shard’s Renzo Piano. The Cité Internationale location puts it close to the Rhone and the green spaces of the Parc Tête d’Or. With a completely modular interior, the MAC can present even the most avant-garde of shows and organisers pride themselves on a cutting edge programme.
Shopping - away from the high street
The sloping lanes and alleys of the Croix- Rousse district represent Lyon’s creative village – and shopping here is a far cry from the usual high street experience. Check out independent designers, vintage stores plus unique hand-made jewellery and accessories at such eclectic retail haunts as Frippes Ketchup, Twig 7 and Jimi Vintage. This is not smart well-heeled Lyon, this is fun and alternative. At Le Village des Créateurs for example, start-ups and pop-ups are encouraged to take over small store spaces in order to launch their labels. It’s a win/win situation as Lyon’s fashionistas love the chance to pick up an original piece at a bargain price.
Where to Stay
Le Collège This designer three-star has so much character that it’s hard to know where to start. The quirky retro classroom theme includes a vintage wood and leather vaulting horse as a reception desk, 1970s school photos in the lifts and fun mini-flasks of tea or coffee at breakfast in the canteen! However, there’s nothing old-school about the contemporary all-white rooms, generous bathrooms and super-soft beds. For early-evening people watching, there’s an extensive first-floor outdoor terrace, giving guests a view across the rue St Jean and other Vieux-Ville favourites. There are also four school-room styled meeting rooms that will give your next teambuilding event a touch of humour. While the equipment is high-tech, the atmosphere is definitely fun. ‘Ten out of ten’ for free soft drinks in trendy fridges on each floor and super-helpful staff.
Mama Shelter How to describe an über-cool new vibe that’s leaving others in awe of its fast-growing success? Mama Shelter is a concept hotel that doesn’t take itself too seriously – although client care is totally VIP. Choosing a dynamic location a little off the tourist track means more space and great prices. Mama Lyon is close to the Jean Macé bus and metro stops and rocks a distinctly Brooklyn loft vibe. A young, professional crowd snaps up bargain rooms online, while locals and guests enjoy live music and a funky bar. What sets Mama apart? Attention to detail - such as enormous iMacs in each room and free in-room movies, Philippe Starck bathrooms, free wifi and generous outdoor terraces decked with smart day beds that transform the upper suites into gorgeous penthouses. A luxury stay for an affordable price is the Mama mantra and the team goes the extra mile to make every guest feel like a star. How do you know when you’ve discovered the “in” place? When the restaurant and bar (open until 1.30am) are busy all day and even the meeting rooms are trendy and high-spec. For a dynamic alternative to a stuffy conference why not bring the team for a Mama breakfast and a day of blue-sky thinking? Launched in Paris six years ago by the Club Med Trigano family, with Cyril Aouizerate and Philippe Starck, Mama Shelter is already shaking up Marseille, Bordeaux and Istanbul. Where next for this unique French brand? Mama is about to open in Lille, as well as branching out into the US with a movie-star location in LA.
Hotel Carlton Fresh from a complete revamp the elegant facade of this three-star hotel certainly looks the part and the location is spot-on for all the sights of the Presqu’île. Although the interior is not exactly groundbreaking it is fresh and comfortable and the renovated bathrooms are larger than most. The USP? Step out of the door and walk to almost anywhere in Lyon, then glance upwards as you return and marvel at one of the city’s most iconic Belle Epoch towers.
Cour des Loges Five star hotel & spa extravagance all wrapped up in a rambling Renaissance palace. Guests climb ancient stone stairs to discover lits bateaux and contemporary designer bathrooms; or relax at the indulgent new Pure Altitude hamman, sauna, pool and fitness. Tucked away amid ancient cobbled streets, Cour des Loges started life as four houses featuring Florentine architecture and vaulted ceilings. Today a grand glass atrium arches over the impressive courtyard restaurant, run by Michelin-starred chef Anthony Bonnet. Take your coffee out to the ivy-clad terrace garden or settle into the conservatory-style relaxation zone at the urban spa. The Cour des Loges team are also experts at hosting business events with a choice of elegant and well-equipped meeting rooms. Why not impress a client with a trip to Lyon? Work or weekend, there’s a sense of timeless luxury here that could help clinch a deal or unlock a creative block.
Insider tip: a uniformed valet will park your car and attentive concierges (on hand 24/7) are happy to fix opera tickets or hard-to-get restaurant tables.
L’Ermitage The ultimate retreat only 20 minutes from downtown Lyon, L’Ermitage has a view to die for and minimalist-chic rooms that reflect its reclusive heritage. Perfect for weekend escapes, meetings and away-from-it-all teambuilding retreats, the hotel is perched at the top of the postcard-perfect village of St Cyr in the leafy Monts d’Or, the hills that flank Lyon to the north. With easy access off the Geneva autoroute, L’Ermitage is a great way to enjoy the city from a distance, with panoramic views from a magnificent balcony and garden terrace. L’Ermitage was built as an oasis of calm and it retains that Zen vibe in its modernist bedrooms and meeting spaces There’s also a contemporary spa and pool (with great views), a gastronomic restaurant and the same quirky old-school touches found at sister hotel Le Collège. But what really draws people back to L’Ermitage is the joy of finding a creative and independent new favourite place. Self-contained high-tech meeting rooms and suites have flexible layouts – and the only distraction will be the view! Oh, and the Tube. This is a converted vintage CitrÔën van parked in the courtyard that opens up a window to keep you supplied with coffee and croissants. Make your next weekend or event a memorable one at L’Ermitage.
The four-star Fourvière welcomed its first guests in June 2015. Close to the eye-catching Basilica, perched high on the Fourvière hill, the hotel, bar and restaurant is a spectacular and sympathetic conversion of the ancient Convent of the Visitandines. Check out stylish rooms leading from historic cloisters, a wellness loft with unique city views, a peaceful lap pool in the terrace garden and a choice of unique spaces for events and meetings.
Where to Eat
Mama Shelter With a weekend table that groans with healthy granola crunch, sunny-side eggs and maple syrup bacon slices, Mama is fast becoming a brunch legend. Fresh orange juice, a choice of coffee machines and some delicious home baking help make it a weekly treat for young families living locally. Who wouldn’t want a stylish start to their Sunday? Weekday lunches are more about the adults, with smart, young regulars and guests greeted at the table by smiling staff. Proud of its market-fresh and seasonal dishes, Mama turns dining into an all-day event, right up to the early hours closing time. In fact, it’s quite the exception for a hotel to have such a buzz around its restaurant.
Bistro Pizay Elbow-to-elbow with the alternative, arty crowd - enjoy classic local dishes with an original twist; such as magret de canard with rosemary and honey. Generous pichets of Bourgogne keep the atmosphere buzzing. Located in a narrow side street close to the Opéra and Hôtel de Ville, Pizay gets a busy work crowd. Evening diners are also a loyal crowd and the place feels like a real find.
Canteen L’Ermitage (ch de l’Ermitage, Mont Cindre, St Cyr au Mont d’Or; +33 (0)4 72 19 69 69) Watch chefs Audrey and Victorien at work in the inspirational open kitchen before choosing a seat on the glorious terrace or cosy by a window in the conservatory dining room. Whatever the season you can lunch with a view – autumn leaves or winter frosts – and the three-course formule du jour reflects the best of fresh fruit, vegetables, organic meat and fish. Insider tip: select your main course while leaving the choice of starter and dessert to the chefs. They’ll select mouthwatering sharing platters of oriental flavours or traditional tastes with a twist – a shaving of truffle, a sliver of ginger or twist of lime.
Baràgones Still full from lunch? Or simply looking for a tasty aperitif? Then the cheese, paté and charcuterie boards are the goneries (Lyon slang for snacks) of choice here. With wooden Bordeaux crates lining the walls, this classic “petit zinc” bar enjoys a packed happy hour slot, followed by a mellow late-night session. In fact thanks to its location on the corner of bustling Place St Paul there’s a constant stream of passers-by and almost everyone stops for a chat and a glass of wine.
Les Loges Pull up a chair for Sunday brunch under the vaulted ceilings and spectacular glass of Michelin-starred Les Loges and it’ll be hard to think of a reason to leave. For dinner (daily except Sunday and Monday), chef Anthony Bonnet has also pulled out all the stops. Try starters such as Ecrevisse de Carmargue or Truffe Noire and you’ll wish you had more time in Lyon – and more meals. For a special occasion the seven course Menu les Loges is a celebration in itself. And although €105 is not exactly cheap, it does promise heaven at the table. Le Café-Epicerie; a smart, contemporary bistroboutique serving lunch and dinner with a Provençal flourish. This time chef Bonnet has created a more modest menu for the little brother of Cour des Loges, but it’s not without its highlights. Smoked salmon or foie gras followed by a delicate salad of aged Parmigiano? Or freshly carved Cecina de Leon ham? Le Café-Epicerie bases its dishes on the aromatic oils, scented vinegars and subtle spiced confitures of the South; definitely the place to relish a cheffy experience.
Book a Lyon City Greeter for a great insight into the latest cool hangouts. LCGs are volunteers who share their local knowledge and love for Lyon with visitors – the surefire way to avoid the regular tourist trail.
Looking for more Lyon?
Amanda Kerin of Sky's the Limit has you covered. Check out here 5 Must Dos in Lyon.