I went to Lyon once, a few years ago. But to be honest, I was only there for a night or two so that I could rent a car and drive up to Lake Annecy, a beautiful lake close to the Alps. No, I never really took the time to explore Lyon, or to appreciate what it really is. It sounded like just another French city, and Paris is the French city to me, so why bother? But like that cute awkward guy standing at the corner who wants to talk you but needs encouragement, Lyon needs your time to charm you, so this time around Lyon and I have a second chance to bond.
There are a few basic things you should know about Lyon. First, like Paris, it is centered around a river. Paris has the Seine, and Lyon has the Rhone and Saone rivers. But unlike Paris, no herd of tour groups will hog your pictures by the river and bridges. Lyon just isn’t as touristy, and this is a good thing.
Secondly, Lyon is mainly divided into two – the New City and the Old City. The Old City is called Veux Lyon, consisting of cobbled, narrow passageways around old medieval and Renaissance buildings. You can walk through the small lanes and enjoy passing by chocolatiers, pastry shops, glace (ice cream) stands, and all sorts of small businesses inside the tall, wooden-windowed buildings. Okay, don’t just pass by them. Eat them, okay? If you’re not making yourself borderline diabetic, then you’re not really in France, are you?
If you’re hungry, step into one of the many restaurants there serving local Lyonnaise cuisine. For God’s sakes, don’t be tempted to go for a hamburger. You can get those at the mall back home in Malaysia. Try some local specialties, of which you can read a review of a restaurant I tried in Lyon here. A Lyonnaise dessert specialty is the tarte de praline, a buttery crust with a red sweet, sticky praline filling (picture below). It’s hard to get this outside of Lyon, so you should try it here.
If you want a taste of what the local living is like, you should visit the morning farmer’s markets around Lyon. The one I particularly like is the Marche St-Antoine Celestins, a fresh food market by the river close to Veux Lyon. You get to see (read: more eating) the local produce, from cheeses to vegetables to fruits to even rabbit meat.
Then after that you could take a walk at Parc Tete D’or, Lyon’s beautiful park that houses an open, FREE zoo. Yes! With lions and zebras and stuff! It’s also beautiful and scenic, with the perfect morning lighting that will make your selfies look like you just swallowed ten sachets of collagen drinks.
When you’re tired of the city, it’s time to rent a car and drive out to the villages surrounding Lyon. By the way, did you know that Lyon’s countryside has some of the most beautiful French villages in the country? It’s the kind of small towns and villages that would make you feel like Belle from Beauty and the Beast, but maybe without the singing villagers. Some notable spots are Beujolais and Theize, pretty, quaint villages surrounded by hillsides, vineyards and farms. If you pack a picnic basket, you can find a scenic spot and enjoy your food with a view. Otherwise, the local cafes serve decent food, and even better chocolat au chaud (hot chocolate), café au lait (coffee) or hot tea.
Be warned that almost all of the corners of the villages are picture-worthy, so you can unleash the Asian tourist inside of you and click away to your heart’s content. Otherwise, make an effort to take long walks around these villages. Check out the local veg patch, go inside the pretty churches, breathe in the chilly, country air. Do all these while wearing sensible shoes. It’s the country, so skip the heels and impractical handbags.
The best thing about Lyon is that it is a lot quieter and a lot cheaper than Paris, but with the similar modernisation of a city. Shopping is definitely cheaper, especially clothes and branded footwear. However, the locals don’t speak English as widely as Parisians, and I find this endearing – it gives the feeling of adventure in a beautiful city where people speak a language you don’t understand.
Lyon is easily accessible by a direct train from Paris, so go on. Your French medieval city slash fairytale countryside awaits!