As I mentioned in my first post about Lyon, the city is primarily famous as a center of gastronomic excellence. But another reason Lyon is a popular tourist destination is because of its well-preserved Renaissance-era Old Town, aka Vieux Lyon. If you’ve ever wanted to explore secret courtyards and hidden passageways, learn about the weird ways of silk workers, and see some fabulous street art, then Lyon is the place for you. Don’t worry, we will still be eating plenty! After all Miss, this is France, and a dinner here is never second best.
Morning: Free Walking Tour of Vieux Lyon
Hours: Daily at 10 AM
Of course you don’t need a walking tour to explore Vieux Lyon. As long as you have one eye and a method of transportation that works on cobblestones, you should be able to get around nicely on your own. But I think exploring a historic district is ever-so-much more fun if you have a knowledgeable guide or owl who can lead you about and teach you things, especially in a city like Lyon which is actually famous for its hidden passageways. That’s why I selected the Free Walking Tour of Lyon, and I was not disappointed in any way! I can’t share with you everything I learned on the tour–that would be cheating–but I can offer you…
three fun facts about vieux lyon
1) Our tour of Vieux Lyon began at the Cathedral Saint Jean-Baptiste. Our guide, Paul, told us that it is a Gothic cathedral, and one of the ways that you can tell something is Gothic is because the attempts to portray living figures aren’t always realistic. In Italian Renaissance art, you would be more likely to find attempts to accurately portray humans, but in Gothic architecture, you’re just as likely to find figures like the ones on the side of this cathedral, which look to be…fish people. Paul told us that the term Gothic started as an insult for French medieval architecture, which was considered to be barbaric. Now of course, people know how to appreciate flying buttresses and fish people properly!
2) Lyon is famous for its long hidden passageways, which are called traboules in French. These traboules were mostly used by the silk workers who have traditionally lived in Lyon in order for them to take their goods from where they lived in the Croix Rousse neighborhood to Vieux Lyon to sell their silken wares. But apparently the traboules have recently served a more useful purpose! When Lyon was occupied by the Germans, the French Resistance in Lyon used the traboules to get around and hide. Take that Nazis! You’re no match for the might of the traboules!
3) Paul wasn’t joking when he said that Lyon was famous for silk production. You can still see silk shops and places where silk is manufactured all over town. But for some reason, the silk workers of Lyon are known as “canuts”. No one knows exactly why or where the word “canut” comes from. But you will see canut all over town, so at least now you’ll know what the word is referring to. There’s even a Lyonnais cheese dip called cervelle de canut, which literally means “brain of a silk worker”. I would feel very uncomfortable serving that at a cocktail party, let me tell you.
Travelerette Tip: The practice of running free tours is very controversial in the tourism world. There are some organizations that run genuinely free tours, for example the free walking tour in Tokyo given by volunteers promoting tourism in Japan. However, many free walking tour companies actually charge the guides a few dollars/Euros for each person who attends the tour. So if the guides don’t get good tips, they could actually LOSE money from the tour. Nothing free about that in my book!
I liked this tour company that runs the free Lyon walking tour, Airotour, because they charge the customer 2.5 Euros when you reserve your spot on the tour. That way the guide gets to keep 100 percent of all tips earned. So there’s no way the guide can lose money from giving this tour.
Travelerette Treasure: My favorite stop on the tour was this mural depicting famous people from Lyon. Look very carefully for the two men with the movie camera on the right. Those are the Lumiere brothers from Lyon, who are generally credited with inventing French cinema. Lyon: you have given us food, film, fish people, silk, and secret passageways. Is there anything your little French heart cannot accomplish?
Lunch: Restaurant Un Deux Trois
Address: 1 Place Neuve Saint Jean
By the time your tour is over, you’ll want to have lunch. You simply can’t leave Lyon without eating at a traditional Lyonnais restaurant, called a bouchon. The bouchon is Lyon’s answer to a bistro, and a typical bouchon will serve a limited selection of classic dishes from Lyon at rock-bottom prices. We’re talking three courses for 20 Euros here.
I was very excited about this meal because I met a nice young Polish woman on the free tour and she had asked for my help getting lunch. I speak French and she spoke no French, so I offered to join her at a bouchon and translate the menu. It was like I was guiding my very own food tour! Lucky for me she was not a picky eater because those are not allowed on my Way of the Bouchon food tour.
For an appetizer, I started with the famous Salade Lyonnaise, which has bacon, croutons, and a poached egg on top. It’s like someone looked at a pile of lettuce and thought about how they could make it as unhealthy as possible. This is my kind of thinking! The ideal Salade Lyonnaise has croutons that have soaked up some bacon fat and become extra amazing.
For the main course, I had another Lyon classic, the pike quenelles. These are a kind of fish dumpling covered in cream sauce and then broiled. Again, the Lyonais seemed to have figured out the trick of adding as much fat as possible to something healthy (fish) in order to make it taste amazing. I think this is a good trick to have! I would also like to know the trick the people of Lyon have to eat like this and not be incredibly fat.
For dessert at a bouchon in Lyon, the only real choice has to be tarte a la praline. This tart gets its pink color from the pink candied almonds that are used to make the sticky filling. It’s so sweet that you don’t need more than a small slice, but if you like the taste of almonds, you will almon-dore this dessert.
Early Afternoon: Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourviere
Address: 8 Place de Fourvière
Hours: 7 AM-7PM
The Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourviere is located on Fourviere Hill, right next to Vieux Lyon. Don’t let the word hill fool you, it’s quite a climb to get to the top here. If climbing is not for you, there is a funicular that goes from Vieux Lyon to the top of Fourviere Hill. But I chose to walk because I had just eaten a bouchon-riffic feast and I needed to burn off some calories.
Your reward when you reach the top will be glorious views of the city and a stunning church that looks like a wedding cake dedicated to the Virgin Mary. If you want to know more about this cloud-white sanctuary, peruse my…
three fun facts about the basilica of Notre dame de fourviere
1) Lyon used to be a Roman city called Lugdunum, and the Roman forum used to be where the Fourviere basilica is now. (Fourviere is kind of a mangling of the expression “Vieux Forum” or “Old Forum”.) In fact, at least one early Christian was martyred by the Romans on the spot. One of the reasons I recommend walking up Fourviere Hill is so that you can see the assorted Roman ruins scattered along the way.
2) The basilica was built fairly recently, in the late 1800s, in honor of the Virgin Mary. During the Franco-Prussian War, some Lyonnais promised to build a church for Notre Dame if Mary would save them from the Germans. Lyon was indeed spared, and so the French kept their promise and built Mary a pristine white basilica. It is said in Lyon that Mary has kept watch over the city throughout its history, starting back in the days of the bubonic plague in the Middle Ages. I wonder if Mary has a soft spot for the city because of their fervent prayers or delicious food. Why not both?
3) Not only is the church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, but all the artwork inside is dedicated to her as well. There is everything from spectacular mosaics depicting miracles associated with the Virgin Mary…
to cupolas on the ceiling depicting her relationship with the whole Trinity. Let me tell you, the city of Lyon is definitely a place that knows how to show their gratitude!
Travelerette Treasure: As a teacher, I was enchanted with this representation of Wisdom decorated so beautifully in white and gold. The Latin inscription at the top is a selection from Proverbs that translates to, “Listen, for I have trustworthy things to say. I open my lips to speak what is right.” That’s a good enough definition of wisdom for me!
Travelerette Tip: Don’t miss the viewing area behind the basilica. It’s the best spot from which to get spectacular views of the entire city. Look how close the Cathedral appears to be! But you can get some shots from farther away as well, if you want.
It’s very easy to see the Presque Ile clearly from this vantage point, which is the little “Almost Island” in the center of Lyon in between the Rhone and the Saone rivers. If you’re curious to know more about these waterways, do I have a treat for you! They are the next stop on our itinerary.
Late Afternoon: Lyon City Boat
Address: 2 quai des Célestins
Hours: Changes Depending on Time of Year, Check Here for Details
Price: 12 Euros if you buy online, 13 Euros in Person
With two major French rivers running through it, Lyon is an ideal city in which to experience a boat tour. Lucky for us, there is a one hour affordable guided boat tour that will take you up and down not just the Saone, but also the Rhone. By the end of the tour, we should be able to tell both rivers apart, especially if we listen to…
three fun facts about the rivers of lyon
1) The Confluence neighborhood in Lyon is known for its more modern colorful buildings, which the Lyonais like to give equally colorful names. This orange fellow is known as the Cheese…
while this green guy is known as the Pencil Sharpener. I think that is so clever! Just don’t get mixed up and try to put Cheese in the Pencil Sharpener. I think that could create a real mess.
2) Between the Rhone and the Saone, every kind of boat imaginable goes down one of the rivers of Lyon. We saw all manner of nautical vehicle from cruise ships to boats hauling giant piles of lumber. But my favorite boat was this colorful fellow, which is a library boat! I think that’s such a great idea for a city that has so many rivers. Let’s get one in New York! It could tour around the Hudson and East Rivers, spreading joy and knowledge to children around the land!
3) After all this talk about the Saone and the Rhone, you are probably wondering how to tell the two apart. Well, I’m glad you asked! You can easily tell the two apart based on color. The Saone above is more brown-green…
whereas the Rhone is more of a blue-green because its waters come directly from the Rhone Glacier in Switzerland. I wonder if the Saone ever gets an inferiority complex because its color looks a little muddier. I hope not! Both rivers are equally charming when you’re cruising on top of them.
Travelerette Tip: Don’t miss the opportunity to get a glimpse of the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Fourviere in the distance. You’ll be able to see how far you managed to walk earlier that day. Good for you! You deserve a delicious dinner this evening, and by golly you are going to get one.
Travelerette Treasure: Out of all the crazy buildings in the Confluence area, my favorite was the Musee des Confluences because it looks like the Death Star. Dun dun dun dun da dun dun da dun!!!
Evening: Au 14 Fevrier
Address: 6 Rue Mourguet
When I tell you that Lyon is said to have the best restaurants in France, and Au 14 Fevrier is currently ranked the #2 restaurant in Lyon on Tripadvisor at the moment, I assume you’re going to want to drop all your stuff and run to dine at this gastronomic temple with all great haste.
The cuisine here is slightly atypical for Lyon because the head chef, Tsuyoshi Arai, is Japanese, and the cuisine is French with a Japanese influence. All the waitstaff is Japanese, but they speak French and English as well. Their French seemed to be better than their English, so I chose to speak French with my waitress, except for a very brief exchange in Japanese about my recent trip to Tokyo and Kyoto.
But enough about me! On to the food! The restaurant doesn’t have a menu, you just sit down and enjoy the food that the chef has elected to prepare for you that evening. (Don’t fret if you have allergies, though, because you can inform the restaurant of that in advance.) As long as you are not a picky eater, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
As with any upscale restaurant, the first course was the amuse bouche, and at Au 14 Fevrier, you get treated to 4 treats to amuse your bouche. They were all delicious, but my favorites were the refreshing gazpacho in the shotglass and the decadent foie gras. I think whoever came up with the amuse bouche was a genius. It feels like you’re getting something for free, but you aren’t really because you’re already paying for dinner.
The first appetizer was a fluffy potato waffle served with an egg-mustard foam in an eggshell. I had to eat it by dipping the waffle in the sauce with my fingers, and it felt like there was something a little naughty about eating finger food in a high-class joint like this one. Aside from the tactile pleasures of this dish, I really enjoyed the pairing of the sharp mustard with the light waffle. There’s really nothing that French mustard can’t improve.
The second appetizer was a much lighter langoustine served with citrus and yuzu oil. This was so tangy and refreshing, it was like eating one of those orange commercials that makes you want to move to Florida. Also I guess I lucked out going to France in the summer because I was getting to eat all the langoustines.
Next came a richer vegetable course, grilled zucchini, ham, zucchini blossoms, and green olive paste. It looked kind of like a Jackson Pollock to me. I love the sour taste of green olives, and they were delicious with the mild zucchini and the salty ham. Really, everything at this restaurant was a feast for both the eyes and the tongue.
The next course was the most unusual preparation of foie gras I have ever had: served with cabbage, pickles, and beets. But of course the briny vegetables cut the richness of the foie gras most nicely, and the beets added a welcome sweetness. I have to admit, I was feeling a bit guilty about eating foie gras two times in one meal. Was a peasant going to come by and guillotine me? I felt like this was the kind of thing they guillotined you for during the Revolution.
Now for a fish course, served very simply with tomato and al dente peas. It tasted like a warm summer day, only without the irritation of sun in your eyes, sand in your toes, and sunscreen in your mouth. It was a relief to have a light dish like this after the decadent foie gras.
The final course was a medium-rare lamb served with cherries and eggplant. The lamb was incredibly tender and had a delicious kind of crust of salt around the edges. I know lambs are so cute but I don’t feel even a little bit guilty about eating them. If they didn’t want me to eat them, they should try being less delicious. Suck it, lambs!
The cheese course was accompanied by the most adorable cheese board I have ever seen, in the shape of France. And each cheese was placed on the region that it comes from! That’s so clever, and it perfectly represents France’s devotion to its local cheeses. I think all French restaurants should present their cheese courses this way. Sadly I did not write down the exact names of each cheese, but I do recall that there were three hard cheeses, two soft and stinky cheeses, and one blue–my favorite. I like an assertive cheese that knows how to stay up for itself and ask for a pay raise.
Some French restaurants offer you a predessert, but at Au 14 Fevrier, they give you a predessert aperitif of blood orange juice, Campari, and soda. As I drank it, I felt as if I was on a yacht in the south of France rather than in a small restaurant surrounded by French people, a table of Russians, and the sounds of people watching the Euro Cup soccer match in the streets. Campari tends to have that effect on me.
Japanese haute cuisine tends to not be big on pastry, so I wasn’t surprised that the dessert course was fruit based. I was a little surprised to find that there would be vegetables involved. The dessert was delicately shaped “ravioli” made from sliced pineapple and stuffed with avocado cream, served with light dabs of spongecake. Don’t worry, the dessert didn’t taste like guacamole; it tasted as pineappley as a pina colada! The avocado just added some richness to the ravioli filling.
Of course, it’s not haute cuisine without mignardises at the end. Somehow I managed to find room in my stomach for an al dente caramel, a miniature tarte a la praline, a macaron with a smiley face on it, and a glazed kumquat. I really think that using macarons as emoji should catch on. It would be efficient and delicious communication.
And That’s How to Have a Perfect Day in Lyon!
What would you do with one day in Lyon? Which do you like better, the Cheese building, the Pencil Sharpener building, or the Darth Vader building? Does someone deserve to be beheaded for eating foie gras twice in one day? How about for eating two tarte a la praline? Please leave your thoughts below!
I am here to provide perfect travel itineraries with 24 hours, 3 fun facts, and 1,000,000 laughs! I hope that I can motivate you to get out there, see the world, learn something, and have a sense of humor about it all.