By Sabrina Sucato
If Paris is the heart of France, then Lyon is the stomach.
France’s second-largest city is also its unofficial food capital. As we all know, food is the window to any culture’s soul. It informs us about local traditions and values and entices us to stay and spend more time learning about the area. In other words, if you really want to learn about the French way of life, Lyon is the place to be.
So visit Paris, especially if you have never been before. Stand under the Eiffel Tower, hike your way up Montmartre, and find “I love you” written in your native language on the Love Wall. But afterwards, hop on the train to Lyon and prepare to be dazzled by the rich culture and cuisine the city has to offer.
To see the best of Lyon — including landmarks in the UNESCO World Heritage Site — and minimize your carbon footprint, follow this walking guide.
Begin your walking tour as soon as you leave the Gare de Lyon Perrache train station, located in the heart of the city. Like Paris, Lyon is divided into different zones, or arrondisements. The first and second arrondisements make up Lyon’s central peninsula, where many of the cultural sights and activities are housed. As a quick glance at a map will reveal, the city is rather unique in terms of geography. Since it is the meeting point for the Rhone and Saone Rivers, it is effectively divided into three distinct regions. The western and centermost parts are a hub for many historical hotspots and activities while the eastern side is somewhat quieter and feels more dedicated to local community and culture.
From the Perrache station, head west and use the Pont Kitchener Marchand to cross the Saone River. Grab a freshly made baguette as you get closer to La Basilique Notre Dame de Fourviere. Trust me, you will need the carbohydrates to fuel your climb up the hill to the basilica. The combination of steep inclines and seemingly endless staircases will likely have you huffing and puffing your way to the top, but the struggle will be worth it in the end. Not only is La Basilique a must-see location for both its historical and architectural value, but the view of Lyon from the highest point in the city is breathtaking. Conveniently, there are benches aplenty around the church made just for catching your breath and taking in the sights.
After you tour Notre Dame de Fourviere, walk directly behind it to Theatres Romains de Fourviere. Lyon’s Roman amphitheatre feels like a secret destination tucked into the hillside below the basilica. The massive space is well preserved and walkable. It is particularly fun to visit with friends, since you can all stand at different points of the stadium and test out how far your voices travel in the space.
Before you cross back to the central strip of Lyon, swing by the Cathedrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste, or “Lyon Cathedral.” This religious fixture is a must-visit, both for its rich Gothic architecture and for the gilded astronomical clock housed within it. Once you absorb the sights at the cathedral, stroll across the Pont Bonaparte to re-enter the city center. While there are countless attractions to see in this area, bookmark Places des Jacobins and Place Bellecour as can’t-miss destinations. These two city squares are ideal locations for an afternoon walk or outdoor lunch.
As you wander from one public retreat to the next, shop the many local stores in the area. This neighborhood is Lyon’s shopping mecca and contains practically every type of store you could want to visit.
While in this zone, make a point to visit Kulteco, a hip, eco-friendly clothing store in the heart of the city. The shop stocks its shelves with unique, sustainable pieces that are often fair trade and made by hand. Kulteco seeks to educate the community on positive environmental practices and often hosts clothing swaps and crafting sessions.
As evening approaches, traverse the Pont de la Guillotiere and begin your exploration of the easternmost neighborhood of Lyon. This area is less touristy and, as such, is the perfect place to go for dinner. To make the most of your citywide explorations, swing by the food market on the east side of the bridge. As you walk along the stalls that line the river, pick up a few bites from the neighborhood vendors. Not only will your purchases support the area’s economy, but they will also allow you to experience the food capital’s local specialities. Don’t leave the market without a chunk of one of the regional cheeses and a loaf of saucisson en brioche, Lyon’s mouthwatering, gourmet version of pigs in a blanket.
If you have enough time, head north and stop by the botanical gardens just before sunset. The Parc de la Tete d’Or is ideal for a lazy stroll before your evening meal. Enjoy the pristine garden landscapes and paths that make up the park. In spring and summer, you might even want to consider an impromptu picnic here, especially if you do a quick shopping trip at the Tet d’Or food market beforehand. Spreading out a blanket by the large pond in the center of the park and feasting on fresh bread and cheese would be the perfect way to soak in local scenery.
If you plan it right, you can take a short walk south after your visit to the park and arrive at Lyon’s other train station, Gare Part-Dieu. After a full day spent traversing the city on foot, a relaxing train ride to your next destination will be a welcome reprieve.
Sabrina is a 20-something freelance writer based in the scenic Hudson Valley, NY. She has lived in both Bologna and Milan, Italy, and is now hopelessly addicted to gelato. When she's not writing or dreaming of Italy, she can be found drinking copious amounts of coffee and testing out new dessert recipes.