When it comes to travel planning, there’s a sweet spot when choosing how long to stay in a place. You don’t want to remain too long and wind up bored, nor do you want to leave too quickly and miss important things. I like to think that, over the years, I’ve gotten pretty good at judging the perfect length when planning trips. Most of the time, I get it right. With Lyon, I didn’t.
Lyon is a fairly easy journey from Geneva; the train whisks you there in about two hours. Because of this, I figured making Lyon a day trip was just fine and, indeed, it’s definitely doable in a day. But, for me, I wound up loving Lyon, so much so that I wished I had been able to linger and explore longer. Staying at least one night would have been ideal, and making an entire weekend out of it would not have been a bad choice either.
Still, though I regretted the length of my visit to Lyon, I was lucky to have had a day there, as the city was truly fantastic. From the lovely riverside views to the abundance of historical treasures to the culinary delights, France’s so-called “Second City” had much to offer.
Arriving in town, my plan was to make my way first to the hilltop Fourvière district, home to both a spectacular church and Roman ruins. As I headed toward the river, where I would cross a bridge and catch the funicular up the hill, it immediately became apparent that a slight change of plans was in order: I had stumbled on the Saturday morning market.
Markets in Europe fall under the category entitled “things of which I will never tire,” and thus taking time to explore Lyon’s was all but mandatory. Filled with French grannies doing their weekly shopping, stands heaped with every imaginable type of cheese, and the delicious smell of rotisserie chicken wafting through the air, Lyon’s market did not disappoint.
I eventually tore myself away from ogling the produce and made my way up the hill, where my first destination was the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière. Two things stood out about Lyon’s Notre-Dame. First, my favorite part of the church was the underside of its portico; standing just below it and looking up made for some pretty incredible views.
Second, the church is perched atop Lyon, and nearby, you’ll find a panoramic viewpoint of the city. Here’s what it looked like on the day I visited:
Was it a foggy day? No, not particularly – that’s pollution you see, not bad weather. It was a bummer, but there was a silver lining. On the day I visited Lyon, all public transportation was 100% free, in an effort to address the pollution problem by getting locals to ditch their cars for the day. It’s never nice to see a smoggy city, but I loved that Lyon was taking real steps to address the problem.
From the viewpoint at Notre-Dame, it’s only a short walk to another must-see in Lyon: the Roman ruins and the Museum of Gallo-Romanian Civilization. I spent some time poking through the museum’s interesting collection before heading out to the ancient Roman theater. While I’ve seen grander theaters in Epidavros and Taormina, it was cool to find something like this in France; even though I know how far the Roman empire once stretched, I still never associate it with places like France – yet, here it is.
And though the history nerd that lurks within me was thrilled about the Roman ruins, there was another aspect of Lyon I was equally excited about: the food. Lyon is known as the gastronomic capital of France – Paul Bocuse is based there, so it’s clearly legit – and I knew I had to have one really good meal while there. I wound up at Les Lyonnais Bouchon, which turned out to be a great place to do just that. I loved the restaurant because it was filled with locals and felt cozy and very French. Which, yes, I know, I was in France, so it should feel French, but that is the best way I can explain it.
Anyway…I began with the classic salade lyonnaise. Even though it’s billed as a starter, this salad could easily fill you up: it was a hearty portion, topped with a poached egg, croutons, tomatoes, and a very generous amount of bacon.
For my main, I had a pike soufflé in lobster sauce. I’m not an expert on French cuisine, but to me, this felt classically French: the dish was decadently rich and drenched in a delicious sauce.
I ended my meal with an espresso and a crème brûlée. While I may not have strictly been hungry for dessert at that point, like I said: Lyon is a culinary capital, and I went all in. Worth it.
Beyond stuffed, I headed to Lyon’s Old Town to work off the calories and walk off my food coma. Much like I felt in Nice’s Old Town, I was completely charmed by this area of Lyon. The narrow streets, the colorful buildings (here, in varying shades of yellow and orange), and the interesting shops: Old Lyon ticks all the boxes for quintessential European charm, and so I adored it.
I could have poked around the Old Town for even longer, and perhaps I would have if not for the call of my return train to Geneva. I had arrived in Lyon not knowing much about the city, but I left with an appreciation for all it had to offer: food fit for feasting, history worth remembering, and more than its fair share of beautiful streets to get lost in. I would go back to Lyon in a heartbeat – and I hope someday, I get to do just that.