Cities That Surprise: Lyon, France

Lyon, France is often referred to as “Little Paris,” but after spending a few days there last month, I would like to propose some other potential nicknames that more accurately capture the character of this city, and its relationship to Paris:

  • “Kinder, gentler, cheaper Paris”
  • “Paris for beginners”
  • “Paris without the suffocating pee smell”

And yes, Lyon City Managers, if you’re reading this, you are welcome to use any of those as Lyon’s official new slogan. As much as I adore Paris (and I do, oh, I do!), Lyon might be my new favorite French city. At the end of our stay, while packing up to head back to Paris, I found myself asking my boyfriend Nick if we “really had to leave,” which sounds ridiculous, because going to Paris is never a bad thing, but it just goes to show how great Lyon really is. It can make you complain about going to PARIS. That’s impressive, isn’t it?

Here are a few of the things that made Lyon so surprisingly wonderful, and why I’m dying to go back!

THE FOOD

First things first: the bakeries here are unreal. Since Nick is a pastry chef, we stopped at pretty much every single bakery we saw, gleefully yelling “This counts as research!” while cramming the 7th croissant of the day into our mouths. Every single bakery we visited in Lyon was outstanding. The croissants, the bread, the brioche, the macarons — to die for. I know, I know, great pastries in France, what a shocker! But Lyon is a global culinary mecca for more than just the classic carbs. Many world famous chefs hail from Lyon and when you go out to eat, you’ll see why. Traditional Lyonnaise food is more than a cuisine, it’s an experience. Be sure to go to a restaurant that offers a full Lyonnaise menu. Our favorites were Chez Chabert, which serves dinner family-style, and truly makes you feel like you’ve stumbled into a warm, raucous family meal. All the Lyon natives we met insisted we go to Bouchon Comptoir Brunet, a legendary restaurant that definitely lives up to its lofty reputation. Also, do me a favor and get yourself to La Petite Table des Nuits, sit at one of the outdoor tables overlooking the city, and order red wine and bread. It will make your list of Top 10 Best Life Moments, I guarantee it.

THE BEAUTIFUL SCENERY

Lyon is filled with green spaces, the streets are lined with trees, a river winds through the middle of the city, and the metro area is surrounded by rolling, green hills. From pretty much any angle or location, this is a stunning city with a harmonious mix of beautiful things to see, both man-made and natural. I spent most of our time there gasping dramatically at all the different views and whispering, “Is this real life?”

THE SHOPPING

Shopping in Paris is great, but it will also bankrupt you within a couple hours if you’re not careful. In Lyon, I found an awesome mix of small boutiques and large brand stores, with much lower prices (and often, much friendlier service) than their big city counterparts.

THE MAGICAL ALLEYWAYS

Of the man-made beauty in Lyon, nothing compares to the narrow cobblestone alleyways that criss-cross the city. Framed by ancient buildings and lit with oversized lantern sconces, they make wandering through the city feel like exploring a real-life fairytale. It’s easy to get lost here, but in the best way. Turn left, turn right, lose your sense of direction and discover an adorable floral shop or cafe or bookstore. Every destination feels unexpected and surprising, like it was a statistical improbability to find it and you probably could never find it again. But that’s OK, because you’re already on your way toward the next hidden gem, the next gorgeous restaurant tucked into the cobblestone maze that is Lyon.

THE HISTORY

At one point Nick and I got lost in those aforementioned alleyways while eating our 5th croissants of the day and popped out in the middle of a tiered rock formation. “Whoa, where are we?” Nick asked, and I pointed at a small sign that said, “World Heritage Site.” Turns out we had literally stumbled into the remains of an ancient Roman auditorium. There was no gate, no entrance fee, just a small informational sign to inform you of the significance of the place you were standing. This is a great example of the way Lyon’s history is woven seamlessly into its present. In fact, the entire city is categorized as a World Heritage Site. You can see it in the stone churches and footprints of villages built thousands of years ago by fallen civilizations. You can hear it in the eclectic collection of dialects spoken here. You can feel it in the air, in that spark of hallowed magic that younger cities just don’t have. After leaving France, I went to a city in Switzerland that was just as old as Lyon, but it felt weighed down and stagnant. It was pretty, but dull. Lyon has managed to honor its rich history without sacrificing the dynamic energy of a modern city. It’s truly the best of both worlds.

THE PEOPLE

I’ve never found the “French people are so snooty” stereotype to be particularly accurate, but it’s especially untrue of the people in Lyon, who are warm, chatty, funny, and fun-loving. It’s crazy that a city so ancient can feel “young,” but between the many stylish teenagers roaming the streets, the vibrant night life, and gregarious locals drinking wine at sidewalk tables, Lyon really does. Great cities are great because of the people who live there. Lyon is no exception!

Bottom line: Next time you’re planning a trip to Paris, set aside a couple days in your itinerary and book a train ticket down to Lyon (it’s only two hours each way, and the ride is absolutely gorgeous!). Socialize, shop, eat, explore, eat more … Just don’t be surprised if you never want to leave.