The third-largest city in France, Lyon is loads of fun to explore with impressive cultural landmarks and charming historic neighbourhoods wherever you go. Known for everything from its cinema and silk to its fabulous food and secret traboule tunnels, it lies at the confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers in the southeast of the country.
Founded 2,000 years ago by the Romans, the city flourished during the Renaissance as an important centre for the silk trade. Thanks to all the untold riches pouring in, countless merchants and bankers built lavish homes and palaces across its hills and what is now known as ‘Vieux Lyon’; the historical heart of the city.
Many of the top attractions in Lyon are illuminated at night, earning Lyon the nickname of Capital of Lights. Lyon also has plenty of top-class museums and traditional bouchon restaurants to check out. These shine a light on the role the city played in the history of cinema, the French resistance and just why it is considered France’s gastronomic capital.
Over the course of a week visiting Lyon, we had a great time exploring all its hidden corners and enticing arrondissements. Here’s our list of the best things to do in Lyon, so you too can make the most of your days spent ambling around the enchanting city.
See also: Where to Stay in Lyon
Map of Things to do in Lyon
18. Lyon Cathedral
Situated in the heart of the Vieux Lyon district, the Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Lyon was built over a span of 300 years, and remnants of each period of the church’s construction are evident throughout the structure.
Stained glass windows and the crosses on either side of the alter date back to the 1200s. The 14th-century astronomical clock was a triumph of technology for its time. The impressive cathedral organ was rebuilt in the 1800s and updated with three keyboards and 30 stops.
Featuring remains of the 4th-century buildings that occupied the site before the cathedral’s construction, the archeological garden next door is worth a visit as well.
17. Croix-Rousse Neighborhood
Long known as ‘the hill that works’ due to all its silk weaving workshops, the popular Croix-Rousse Neighborhood sprawls across a plateau in Lyon’s fourth arrondissement. One of our favorite parts of the city, it has a lovely small-town feel with cute little cafes and local boulangeries bordering its maze of leafy squares.
Here you’ll find the massive Mur des Canuts mural and the superb museum of the same name; both of which highlight the hill’s unique history and architecture. To gain a greater insight into the area’s rebellious past and actually find some of its hundred or so hidden traboule passageways, we decided to take a guided tour. Well worth the money, it included a silk-making demonstration and stops at Croix-Rousse’s symbol the Gros Caillou and the beautiful Belvedere viewpoint.
To get back to the center, you can stroll to the bottom of the historic neighborhood’s slopes (known as ‘Les Pentes’). Its narrow streets also contain loads of trendy bars, interesting art galleries and the ancient Amphiteatre des Trois Gaules which was constructed by the Romans in 19AD.
16. Musee Lumiere
As a huge fan of early cinema, we were very excited to visit the Musee Lumiere which is now located in the family’s former villa and factory. Across its two floors, you’ll learn about the brothers’ incredible contributions to both film-making and photography and see some of their many inventions.
Founded in 1982, the museum covers the lives of Auguste and Louis Lumiere and how they created countless devices to capture moving images and colored pictures. Alongside all its antique cameras and magic lanterns, you can watch some of the first movies ever made. If you don’t speak French, it is a good idea to get an audio guide that explains the exhibits and the huge technological discoveries they made.
Just as impressive is the elegant Art Nouveau mansion itself which was built by their father in 1899 in the Monplaisir part of town. Right next door, you can also watch iconic films and arthouse pieces in the Institut Lumiere’s brutalist-style cinema.
15. Fresque des Lyonnais
Along with the Mur des Canuts, the Fresque des Lyonnais is one of the city’s biggest and best-loved public art pieces. Overlooking the tranquil Saone River, the enormous trompe-l’oeil painting depicts thirty famous people from throughout Lyon’s more than 2,000 years of history.
Painted in the mid-nineties by the CiteCreation cooperative of artists, the colourful work covers two windowless sides of a large building located not far from Place des Terreaux. Looking out from the mural’s balconies, windows and shop entrances are important figures such as Emperor Claudius, Le Petit Prince and, of course, the Lumiere brothers.
Very life-like, its saints, artists and entrepreneurs all make for some fantastic photos – just watch out when stepping back to take a picture as the road beside the building gets quite busy.
14. Musée des Confluences
One of the most unique and imaginative buildings we’ve seen in a long time, the spaceship-like Musée des Confluences lies right at the southern tip of Presqu’ile. Inside is just as thought-provoking as its four main exhibits cover the origins and meaning of life, different species and societies and various visions of the future.
Set at the spot where the Rhone and Saone rivers meet, the museum was unveiled in 2014 as part of a larger urban renewal plan for the former industrial area. Almost impossible to describe, it has been said to resemble ‘a floating crystal cloud of stainless steel and glass’ – just go and see it for yourself, you really won’t regret it!
Its extensive collections are also sure to have something that will interest everyone as millennia-old meteorites and Egyptian mummies are displayed alongside dinosaur skeletons, samurai armour and even classic cars.
13. Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse
If after all the sightseeing and traipsing about you’re after a much-needed snack and break, then Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse is one of the best places to head. An absolute must for foodies, its sixty or so stands are all immaculately presented with everything from local cheeses and meats to freshly-baked pastries and elaborate seafood platters on sale.
First opened in 1971, the chic and stylish indoor market is named after the famous French chef Paul Bocuse who was based in Lyon and helped popularize the nouvelle cuisine movement. Here you can sample some sumptuous regional specialties or pick up some boxes of chocolate and bottles of fine wine to take home with you.
While we found it a bit expensive, the fresh food is definitely delicious and hey, when you’re in the culinary capital of the country, you just have to try some of the dishes France is famous for.
12. Musee des Tissus et des Arts Decoratif
As Lyon was long an important centre for the silk trade, it is well worth checking out the Musee des Tissus et des Arts Decoratif when in town. Located in its second arrondissement, it contains textiles, tapestries and other expertly made artworks from all around the world.
Impressively established back in 1864, its vast collection of over two and a half million objects now occupies two historic old houses that themselves date to the 1730s. As you wander around its dimly lit galleries, you’ll see silks from Marie Antoinette’s chambers, haute couture creations by Christian Lacroix and fine fabrics woven in China, Japan and Iran among other places.
In the other part of the museum are some fantastic furniture and period pieces that highlight how the wealthy used to live in Lyon in centuries gone by. While the displays were quite dated when we went, renovations are undergoing to refresh the collection and present the works in a more modern light.
11. Musee Miniature et Cinema
Asides from its silk and gastronomy, the city is also known for the huge role it played in the history of cinema. At the Musee Miniature et Cinema in Vieux Lyon, you can see cool film props, costumes and carefully recreated sets with excellent exhibits, and also look at special effects and miniature art.
Sprawling across three floors of the sixteenth-century Maison des Advocats, the private gallery was opened in 2005 by artist Dan Ohlmann. While some rooms focus on stop motion, animatronics and prosthetics, other levels contain full-size models from movies like Alien and Robocop.
Possibly the most fascinating part however are its 120 hyper-realistic dioramas that depict everyday life in shops, restaurants and homes either in Lyon or further afield. Painstakingly painted down to the last detail, you’ll find yourself examining these tiny scenes for much longer than you’d expect.
10. Mur des Canuts
Located on the Boulevard des Canuts in the Croix Rousse district, this expansive mural depicts the heritage of the neighborhood that was once home to the city’s many silk weavers, or canuts. Painted in the trompe-l’oeil style, the scenes illustrated in the mammoth fresco blend in seamlessly with their surroundings, challenging viewers to examine the line between art and reality.
First painted in 1987, the largest mural in Europe has been revised several times to reflect changes made to the nearby structures and has become a popular tourist attractions in Lyon.
9. Resistance and Deportation History Centre
Simply one of Lyon’s must things to do for those interested in the past, the Resistance and Deportation History Centre can be found in the seventh arrondissement, not all too far from the train station. Home to lots of impactful exhibits and heart-wrenching oral testimonies, it shines a light on Lyon’s resistance movement and the tragic deportation of Jews during the Nazi occupation.
Founded in 1992, the moving museum is located on the site of a former military health school that was later used by the Gestapo as its headquarters. It was here that chief Klaus Barbie, infamously known as ‘the Butcher of Lyon’, tortured both Jews and members of the French Resistance.
Its well-done displays show what life was like in Lyon under German occupation with authentic old documents and artifacts featuring alongside replicas of people’s homes and streets. Texts and video clips also share the true stories of those who resisted, fought and died during the Second World War.
Built from wealth generated from the production of silk, Lyon is famous for its “traboules,” the unique covered passageways constructed to protect the delicate fabric from inclement weather as it was transported from one spot to another.
The Vieux Lyon district has one of the longest traboules in the city, stretching from the Rue St-Jean to the Rue du Boeuf, though there are many others in the city. Hidden behind nondescript doors, the corridors proved useful during World War II by providing a way for locals to escape raids by the Gestapo.
Today, most traboules are on private property, serving as entrances to local apartments. However, visitors can access several traboules in Vieux Lyon during daylight hours by pressing a service button near the door.
7. Place Bellecour
A primary attraction of the Presqu’île district located between the Saône and the Rhône rivers, the Place Bellecour is the largest pedestrian square in Europe. The square’s massive size has made it the ideal site for local festivals, outdoor concerts and special events, and the recent addition of a large Ferris wheel adds to its appeal.
Several statues are worthy of attention as well, including an 19th-century sculpture of King Louis XIV seated on horseback, but it’s the plaza’s proximity to Lyon’s luxury shopping district that generates the most foot traffic. Four major streets lined with shops begin at the Place Bellecour.
6. Roman Theatre of Fourviere
The oldest Roman theatre in the whole of France, Lyon’s ancient amphitheatre was built between 17 and 15 BC on the side of Fourviere hill. In its heyday, 10,000 cheering spectators would cram onto its steep stone seats to watch dramatic games, theatre pieces and dance performances.
Remarkably well-preserved, the impressive old theatre was lost to time until being rediscovered and restored in the late nineteenth century. Nowadays, guests can marvel at its magnificent architecture and amble about the crumbling ruins of the cavea that used to continue even further up the hillside.
From the top of the theatre, you can enjoy fabulous views over the city and the stage area below. Before heading off, make sure to stop by the outstanding archaeological museum next to it for more info on Lyon’s Roman past. The fun Nuits de Fourviere cultural festival also takes place here each summer.
5. Musee des Beaux-Arts de Lyon
Constructed from stones gathered from the tumbled walls that once stood on the site of Place des Terreaux, the massive Musee des Beaux-Arts de Lyon was once home to the convent of Saint-Pierre.
When the nuns were expelled from the city during the French Revolution, the Municipal Council established the building as a place to conserve the city’s cultural treasures.
Officially opened in 1803 and completely renovated during the 1990s, the museum today rivals the Louvre in volume and diversity, with collections that range from ancient Egyptian antiquities to 20th-century paintings by the likes of Matisse, Picasso, Braque and Miró.
4. Place des Terreaux
With beginnings that date back to the 13th century, the Place des Terreaux located in the Presqu’île district has long played an important role in Lyon’s history. Originally built as part of a walled fortification, the site was turned into a city plaza in the 1600s.
The site of many beheadings by guillotine during the French Revolution, the central square is today bordered by the Lyon City Hall to the east and the Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon on the south. On the north side of the square is a fountain designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, creator of the Statue of Liberty.
3. Parc de la Tete d’Or
The largest urban park in France, the Parc de la Tete d’Or is a popular destination for families, joggers and cyclists.
Many of the park’s attractions are aimed towards children, including a carousel, a small zoo, a miniature train and a puppet theater, and there’s a variety of sports facilities on the grounds as well. A lake offers opportunities for boating, waterside picnics and scenic strolls along the shoreline.
For visitors, the highlight of the park is the Jardin Botanique de Lyon, which features picturesque 19th-century greenhouses filled with a wide range of tropical plants, including century-old camellias, carnivorous plants and water lilies from the Amazon.
2. Fourviere Basilica
Dominating Lyon’s “Hill of Prayer,” the Fourvière, the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière was built in the late 19th century from a design by architect Pierre Bossan.
he architecture of the church is unique in that it has both Byzantine and Romanesque styles. In addition to four corner towers rising over the structure, the basilica features a bell tower with a golden statue of the Virgin Mary.
The upper sanctuary of the church is ornamented with mosaics and stained glass. Visitors can take a funicular to the site from the metro station in Vieux Lyon or can climb the steep ascent to the summit of Fourviere Hill on foot.
1. Vieux Lyon
The heart and soul of life in town, Vieux Lyon is almost certainly one of the most beautiful historic quarters in Europe. Getting lost amidst its little cobbled lanes and hidden traboules is a magical way to spend the day before dining at one of the area’s traditional bouchon restaurants in the evening.
Mostly built between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, its hundreds of charming old buildings are packed tightly together in between both Fourviere hill and the Saone River. The wealthy Italian, German and Flemish merchants who settled here due to the silk trade commissioned elegant Gothic and Renaissance-style houses, many of which now contain little family-run bars, cafes and bakeries.
Aside from strolling along the bustling (but touristy) Rue St-Jean, one of the district’s standout sites is the soaring Lyon Cathedral and its fourteenth-century astronomical clock. Other than enjoying its lovely ambience and architecture, you can also take the funicular up to Fourviere for fine views of all its pretty terracotta roofs below.