We spent two nights and nearly three days in Lyon, and it turned out to be one of my favorite cities in Europe. Lyon is the third-largest city in France, with a metro area population of over 2 million, but is often overlooked by tourists in favor of Paris, the Mediterranean, and Bordeaux, or used only as a transit point traveling into the Alps. But with a rich history, a lovely location straddling the Rhone River halfway between Paris and Marseilles, and a short train trip from either, it’s a great city to add to a French vacation. With rail connections and flight connections throughout Europe and North Africa, it’s also a good weekend destination in and of itself.
There are a number of different areas of the city each with their own character. The heart of the city is Presqu’ile, an area between the Rhone and Saone Rivers, that has a ton of character, historic buildings, restaurants and shopping. On our first evening, we took the bus to Presqu’ile and took in the gorgeous 17th and 18th century buildings lighting up the night, as we walked past the opera house and Hotel de Ville and gazed across the Rhone to the more modern business district.
We came back the following day and walked down Rue de la Republique, bustling with shops and cafes, leading us to Place Bellecour, Lyon’s main square, which currently has a large ferris wheel in it.
Crossing Place Bellecour, we headed over the Saone and into Vieux Lyon, the old city. The first thing we did was take the funicular up to Fourviere Hill – highly recommended. At the top is the huge Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourviere. We didn’t go inside, but the highlight of Fourviere is the view of Lyon from the terrace behind the church.
After taking in the view for a bit, we headed back down on the funicular and explored the rest of Vieux Lyon by foot, walking along lovely cobblestone streets and meandering along. The shopping was much quirkier than in Presqu’ile, with a lot of independent clothing stores, including a cool vintage shop where I considered buying a Egypt Air tote bag from the 70s. It was a lovely day, and a lovely place to just wander.
The other area of Lyon we explored was the business district in the more modern part of town, near the Part Dieu train station, on the East bank of the Rhone. On a Saturday morning, the streets were pretty sleepy, but still had a nice vibe. Things picked up was we neared les Halles de Lyon – a large food hall, established by Lyonnais food legend Paul Bocuse.
The Halls are a must-see for anyone visiting Lyon. In addition to a number of stalls with seating for more formal eating, there are butchers, bakers, and chocolate praline makers selling a variety of both prepared foods and food for cooking. And although the Halls are a major sight for tourists, they were filled with locals buying ingredients for their suppers. We spent a while going up and down the aisles, making a few purchases, including some Lyonnais specialties to bring home.
One reason that the Halls are such a special place to visit is because Lyon is a huge food city. There are 14 Michelin-starred restaurants in the city, more than any other city in Europe! The city is a major destination for modern cuisine of all varieties. Paul Bocuse is a legend, with restaurants all over town. But Lyon is also known for less high-brow food, and traditional “bouchons” fill the city. Bouchons are somewhere between a pub and a bistro, serving heartier fare at lower prices than the high-end innovators in town. It’s here that you’ll find a variety of Lyonnais specialties, including quenelles de brochette, rosette lyonnaise, saucisson de Lyon, and cervelle de canut. With two nights in town, we figured we’d do one night of haute cuisine, and one more reasonably priced night at a bouchon.
One can easily spend $200 per person, without wine, on a tasting menu at one of Lyon’s Michelin-starred restaurants. Although this would be our splurge meal of the trip, we couldn’t bring ourselves to spend that kind of money. I conducted a significant amount of research and settled on, La Remanence, a restaurant that doesn’t have a Michelin star, but was equally well-reviewed as many that were, and had a lower priced tasting menu. The experience was definitely interesting, both in terms of cuisine and service.
The restaurant was pretty empty when we arrived for our reservation. Nonetheless, we were ushered to a table outside the main room, sitting in what was essentially a windowless foyer, staring at two large, blank, white painted walls. As the night progressed, our section clearly became the “younger” section, with older people being taken into the main dining room. (We were dressed appropriately, both in jackets and slacks.) Besides that slight, though, the service was excellent. I can’t say much more about it, because they only spoke to us in French. My boyfriend the francophone handled it all.
For 51 Euros, we each ordered one of the tasting menus, which were presented in French but seemed fine. As each course was brought, I had hoped they would explain what it was, and that my French-speaking boyfriend would be able to translate. While they did explain the courses, it turns out that a lot of haute cuisine terminology is not commonly taught in high school and college French classes, nor is it spoken among the graduate students and other young 20-somethings of Paris, which is how my boyfriend’s otherwise excellent French developed. So, at the time, we were completely unsure about what we were eating (I suggested asking in English, but he wouldn’t hear of it). Thankfully, the menu was on the restaurant’s webpage, and I later confirmed via Google Translate things like “that ‘beef’ we were eating was actually sweetbreads.” I didn’t want to be gauche, but I tried to surreptitiously take some pictures with my phone.
We started with copious amounts of bread and delicious butter, followed by a fritter-like amuse bouche. For the first course, we had grilled scallops, along with a “risotto” made of spelt, in a shrimp sauce. It was an interesting texture, but delicious.
Next up was a heart of Norwegian Cod marinated in green curry, with avocado, ginger coconut milk, and a thin slice of cured beef on top. It was alright, but one of the
lesser dishes in my opinion. The final savory course was delicious, a sweetbreads and brown butter fricasee, served with a parsnip and mushroom puree in a decadent truffle broth. It all just melted in your mouth.
Finally, the star of the meal was the dessert: a dome chocolate velvet meringue, candied lemon, candied lemon, and mandarin sorbet, with a light piece of chocolate. And if that were not enough, there were petit fours to conclude the meal.
I think if your budget can handle it, a meal like this is a worthwhile way to spend the evening in Lyon. (Maybe even start a kickstarter for it.) We had thought about going out afterward, but after a meal like that we were stuffed.
The next night, we went to Le Bouchon des Filles, a highly recommended bouchon in Presqu’ile. The only option is a set menu, though there are some choices. The food wasn’t as delicate and mouth watering, but it was something different, and definitely filling – and a lot of food for only 25 Euros.
The meal started with little corn caneles as an amuse bouche. Next, bowls of a green salad and a lentil salad, and a plate of smoked salmon, were broght to the table, family style . For our main dishes, there were several options from a variety of Lyonnais favorites. I went with the quenelle de brochet, which is an oblong patty made of chopped up, creamed pike, mixed with breadcrumbs and egg – kind of like gefilte fish without the gel, but tastier – in a cream-based sauce. My boyfriend went with a boudin sausage in puffpastry concoction, which is the waitress described as like a sausage napoleon. His was more filling, but mine tasted good.
After those heavy courses, there was of course dessert, and we went with a cheese plate and a delicious apple tart served with caramel ice cream. To go with it all, we had a massive jug of wine for only 9 euros.
And because I haven’t given you enough food in this post, a word of warning. Do not be deceived by the “McBagel” being heavily promoted at McDonald’s throughout France. (The French absolutely adore McDonald’s. France is McDonald’s second most profitable market worldwide.) Though it looks like a burger on a bagel, the “bagel” is actually a standard sesame seed hamburger bun with a hole in the center up top. What a ripoff! 😉
But Lyon is lovely, and I’d definitely return for a longer visit!