Lyon is a two-thousand-year-old city steeped in history and culture. Situated at the junction of the Rhône and Saône rivers, it also offers impressive landscapes. There’s an endless list of things you can do in this city and one day in Lyon will help you easily get acquainted with the best of them.
As much as I love Lyon now, it was never really part of my ‘A’ list of travel destinations (even while spending 4 months as a student in Paris!) simply because I hadn’t heard much about it. It did not feature on the top lists of most travel websites and well, I first wanted to cover all the highlights and ‘touristy’ areas. So when a chance presented itself to visit Lyon, without having to choose it over other destinations, I did jump at it – you only live once, carpe diem right?!
And I’ll have to say, Lyon charmed me over. It’s a wonderful, sometimes quaint place which is beyond beautiful. Read on for a detailed guide on what to do in Lyon in one day.
Overview of Lyon
Lyon is the third-largest city in France and is located in the east-central part of the country, close to the Swiss border. Lyon is known not only for its historical and architectural landmarks but also for its gastronomy and cuisine.
Best time to visit
Lyon is a beautiful city that can be visited at any time of the year. June to August would be the peak season months and would see more crowds. April to May or September – October will have fewer crowds and pleasant weather (though with more chances of rain).
We went at the end of March and though it was a bit rainy at times, it was a great time to visit.
By air: Lyon has an international airport called Lyon Saint Exupéry which is located about 20 km outside the city. There’s an airport shuttle that connects the airport to the city in 30 minutes called the Rhonexpress. This shuttle runs every 15 minutes and takes you to the main train station – Lyon Part-Dieu.
The airport also has a high-speed train line offering TGV connections to several cities.
By train: The two main train stations in Lyon are Gare de Lyon-Perrache and Gare de la Part-Dieu. Part-Dieu is where the high-speed TGV trains operate from. Perrache is used mostly for regional trains.
By car: Lyon is a 2-hour drive from Geneva and 4 hours from Paris.
We took the train to Lyon. From Zurich it took us about 5 hours to reach Lyon, changing trains once in Geneva. We booked our train tickets online at the SNCF website.
Best area to stay at
Check out the itinerary below and try and find your stay so that you can walk between the sightseeing locations and are close enough to the train stations as well. Some of the areas to consider include the central parts of the Presqu’île island and Vieux Lyon.
Our experience spending a day in Lyon
We started off with the famous Bellecour – a large square dominated by an equestrian bronze of Louis XIV and surrounded by Napoleonic-era mansions. One of the largest pedestrian squares in Europe, this is the site in Lyon for a lot of demonstrations. To prove the fact to us, there was a protest being held that day so we did not go too close to the monument but walked on for some shopping along the streets of Presqu’île.
We had a great time walking along the elegant 19th-century boulevards lined with upscale chocolatiers and high-end boutiques alongside traditional stores. The whole area had a wonderful vibe to it with people shopping or sitting outside bakeries and cafes.
Place des Jacobins is another beautiful square surrounded by gorgeous buildings on all sides. There’s a delightful fountain in the middle of this square. A lovely lady offered to take our picture with the fountain which we were grateful for.
The rain kept playing hide and seek with us for a bit finally relenting and letting the sun come through – it became so warm then that we had to take off our jackets! We kept walking along the streets taking in the amazing architecture – the whole neighbourhood was a collection of beautiful buildings.
This beautiful square is where the Lyon Museum of Fine Arts is located alongside the city hall. The stunning Bartholdi Fountain is situated in the middle of this square. Unfortunately, when we went there was a lot of construction going on in this square and we couldn’t take great pictures.
The next thing we wanted to see were the murals that Lyon is famous for. Lyon has a beautiful artistic side to it and you can see it on several buildings as you walk in the city.
We first visited the Library of the City, a mural depicting a library on a tall building. The painting was amazingly lifelike and detailed. We spent some time mesmerized by it.
Next, we headed to Fresque des Lyonnais, a mural featuring people on balconies. It was just as stunning as the previous one and you could not help but be awestruck by the talent behind it!
We crossed the river (on a beautiful pedestrian bridge) from Fresque des Lyonnais and walked towards Quartier Saint-Jean and Quartier Saint-Georges which is the old town area of Lyon. It turned out to be a delightful area for a stroll with narrow, cobblestoned streets lined with shops, bakeries and stores selling warm waffles and crepes. The delicious aromas wafting through the street was enough to make us stop for a crepe – wonderfully warm and sweet, it hit the spot perfectly.
As we walked the streets of the old town, they suddenly opened up into a square where this beautiful cathedral is located. This medieval gothic cathedral has a gorgeous ceiling and a stunning astronomical clock.
The next spot we wanted to visit and the one I was most excited about was the ancient theatre of Fourviere. Being an Asterix fan I was looking forward to the arena in the likes of which gladiators had fought during Roman times. So to get to this hill the most sensible thing would be to take an Uber instead of walking a huge flight of stairs from the old town area.
So, yeah, guess what we did and came to regret?! I don’t know what level of fitness we expected from us but barely halfway up the stairs, I was huffing and puffing. Somehow I managed to make it to the top of the stairs but the last sprint made me so dizzy I had to literally sit on the side of the road with my head in my hands. We almost contemplated calling an Uber right there (we had reached a road after climbing up the stairs) and heading back to the hotel. But well, carpe diem was my motto for this trip so finally I managed to get up and walk the rest of the way (again uphill for about 500-700 m) to the arena.
All efforts were paid off though when we saw the monument – a huge ancient structure, a lot of it in ruins. We learned that 2,000 years after it was built it is still a performance venue during the Nuits de Fourvière drama festival every June and July – what an amazing feat! We also learned a bit more about the history of Lyon – the city stands on the site of the ancient Roman city called Lugdunum, founded in 43 BC, which was the capital of Gaul. (Asterix fans, remember our hero, the Gaul?!). The monument also offered great views of the city below and it was wonderfully peaceful to sit on the ruins/ rocks and just look at the spectacular sights.
Also located on top of the Fourviere Hill is the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, a huge cathedral which we had seen from down below when we had just started from our hotel.
We were again awestruck by the majesty of it. We spent quite some time sitting inside the cathedral marvelling at the paintings and the mosaics and taking in the serenity offered by the place.
Stepping outside we walked around the cathedral and came to panoramic views of the city & the river below. This bird’s eye view of the red-topped buildings, bridges and the river was one of the best parts of the day.
We ended up walking the whole day taking in the sights. But to get back to the hotel good sense prevailed and we took an Uber. It turned out to be a great unplanned day albeit with a few tiring moments.
Have you spent a day in Lyon? What has been your favourite part?
Are you planning a visit? Let me know if you have any questions.
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