Lyon has always been empowered by industry and by a rich rural history – it is south of Burgundy and Beaujolais, north of the Rhône Valley – and there are Roman and Renaissance references everywhere. But it has also played an important role in French history: throughout the wars and in times of great change, it has been famous for craftsmanship. The silks, fabrics, steel, intricate woodwork, passementerie – all have long been sought after across the world, and in recent times Lyon has been a leading supplier for luxury brands such as Hermès. From the hilltop Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière to the mysterious underground traboules, this city with two rivers and multiple bridges has a similar beauty to Paris, but on a much smaller scale.
One of the very special aspects of Lyon is that food has always been a strong focus. Historically it’s an industrial city, so people had money to spend on it; there has always been a cuisine bourgeoise, and working-class people frequented simple bouchons, where an excellent meal could be had for the price of cooking at home. These establishments are still a staple of Lyon life. When people started driving from Paris to Nice in the 20th century, Lyon became the natural stopping point, and the city had a high concentration of Michelin-starred establishments. Lyon remains the capitale de la gastronomie, though we all still look to Paris, of course.
I visit Lyon five times a year, and I especially love the city in summer, when everyone is outside in the parks and at the farmers’ markets and there are outdoor musical celebrations, such as the festival Les Nuits de Fourvière, held in the Roman amphitheatre. One of my favourite places to stay is Le Royal Hotel, a former family home on Place Bellecour that is now a 74-room hotel. It’s part of the Institut Paul Bocuse, so it’s a culinary school and hotel all in one, elegant and traditional. Another wonderful place for accommodation is Cour des Loges, in the heart of Old Lyon. This Renaissance building has a three-storey frescoed courtyard and the rooms have a cosy, slightly austere feel. One of the most special places to stay, however, is Villa Florentine, which is a boutique Relais & Châteaux hotel in the hills overlooking the city. It has an excellent table and the best views of the town below. It’s a little challenging to get up there, as it is reached by small, winding roads, but it’s worth the effort.
A great day in Lyon begins at the lively food market Les Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse, where you can sample oysters for breakfast, followed by sea urchin, tripe, offal or even tête de veau, and perhaps a glass of wine. All the chefs go there to shop and start their day, and it’s a wonderful place to get picnic ingredients before heading to the Parc de la Tête d’Or in the sixth arrondissement. The largest urban park in France, it has everything from a boating lake to bike trails to a rose garden; it’s a lovely place to spend an afternoon.
Before you go, stop at Charcuterie Sibilia to buy meats, particularly the sausage with pistachio and truffle in brioche, and the local minced pork speciality, Jésu de Lyon. For excellent cheeses, you must visit La Mère Richard; its Fourme d’Ambert, Cantal and Saint-Nectaire from the Auvergne are among the best in the world. For pains au levain and praline tarts, Boulangerie Jocteur is a must; it also offers beautiful prepared foods.
But shopping isn’t limited to Les Halles. I like to buy old cookbooks in the Presqu’île – or “peninsula” – district, near the historic Place des Terreaux. On the east side of the square sits the Hôtel de Ville, a city hall redesigned in baroque style by Jules Hardouin-Mansart after a fire in the 17th century. The surrounding streets are home to bookstores such as Librairie Ancienne Clagahé, which has rare leather-bound books and manuscripts. You’ll also find the city’s most beautiful square, the Place Bellecour, which sits between the Rhône and Saône rivers and is lined with elegant 19th-century buildings.
Another area for exploration is the Croix-Rousse, a historic district that was home to silk weavers – or canuts – and is now Lyon’s answer to hipster Brooklyn. Here you’ll find all kinds of wonderful restaurants, including Balthaz’art, a retro-chic bistro with a creative Montbéliarde beef tartare mixed with black olives, capers and candied lemon. Lunch at Daniel & Denise – an authentic bouchon, complete with red check tablecloths – is another highlight; clapeton d’agneau (chilled, shredded lamb’s feet served atop salad) is a speciality. La Meunière is another such place, where most things are served communally: meals begin with bowls of lentils, celery remoulade and pickled ox muzzle, followed by thick slices of a house pâté en croûte that’s called l’oreiller – “pillow” – de la belle meunière and is filled with foie gras, duck heart, chicken, veal and more.
One newer restaurant is Le Suprême, a modern bistro started by one of my former chefs from Daniel in New York – full disclosure: I’m a minority investor. It offers an inventive, affordable tasting menu focused on poulet de Bresse prepared in many different ways – such as chicken liver mousse or stuffed chicken legs – all with wines from producers such as Jean Foillard and Saint-Joseph. For a fancier lunch place, there is La Mère Brazier – the chicken cooked in a pig’s bladder is a highlight – after which you can wander the indoor-outdoor Les Puces du Canal, where you’ll find memorabilia, antique toys, vintage clothing and furnishings – most of which can be shipped back home. The Museum of Gallo-Roman Civilisation has an incredible collection of mosaics, statues and ceramics. After an afternoon of discovery here, I recommend a visit to Bernachon for a coffee and the best chocolates and sweets anywhere. It was founded in the 1950s, and the family has been making “bean to bar” chocolate on site since the 1970s.
No trip to Lyon is complete without a meal at L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, a temple of gastronomy that sits right on the Saône. The restaurant resembles a colourful Thai palace, and the food is just as elaborate. Loup de mer en croûte feuilletée with sauce Choron – a Béarnaise with tomato – and the oeufs à la neige are two of my favourite dishes, and you must have Bernachon’s signature Le Président cake: an incredible ganache dessert topped with shaved chocolate. It’s basically chocolate atop chocolate atop chocolate, and it’s sublime.
Vieux Lyon – or the Old City – is a designated Unesco World Heritage site; the quartiers Saint-Jean and Saint-Georges are both full of winding cobblestone streets with great examples of medieval architecture. The Cathedral of Saint-Jean, which dates from the 12th century, features beautiful stained-glass windows and an astronomical clock that is one of the largest in Europe. But then there are plenty of things to do just outside the city as well, not least a visit to the three-Michelin-star Maison Troisgros for lunch. The train takes you through the beautiful Beaujolais countryside and delivers you to the restaurant door in a little over an hour. Another worthwhile lunch excursion is, of course, the train ride to Valence for a delicious lunch at Anne-Sophie Pic’s Maison Pic. And just outside town, an easy taxi ride away, is the Henri Malartre Museum, a vast collection of everything car- and motorcycle-related – from vintage to modern vehicles – housed in a beautiful 12th-century castle.
But besides its natural and architectural endowments, and its culinary status, Lyon is beautiful because it has stayed true to its historical roots. Tradition still matters very much here. Of course, it’s a dynamic city embracing technology and investing in the future: the culture of sport (particularly football), the culture of food, the cultures of art and artisans – these are all celebrated. But the people of Lyon perfected l’art de vivre – the art of living – a long time ago and this is what has kept it a special place.