By virtue of its history, location and passion for gastronomy (which borders on obsession), Lyon variously has been called the "stomach of France" and the "world capital of gastronomy."
Located in the Rhone-Alps region, between Paris and the French Rivera, Lyon is the third-largest city in France (after Paris and Marseilles), known not only for exceptional foods and wines but also for its legendary chefs and cooking traditions.
Having previously visited Lyon briefly on a river cruise, my husband and I hungered to return. This time we stayed for a week, arriving on the high-speed train from Paris to the Lyon-Perrache station, a two-hour trip through the rolling countryside.
Don't get me wrong. The charm, sophistication and ambience of Paris are unbeatable, but Lyon is more tourist-friendly and accessible. There are fewer queues, dining and lodging are less expensive, and locals are demonstrably more welcoming. After a brief conversation, Jean-Luc, a dentist who shared our train compartment, unexpectedly offered to drive us to our hotel. After we politely declined, a young female culinary student at the station spotted us and offered to carry our bags to the taxi stand.
Paris has the Seine, but Lyon has 30 bridges crossing the two rivers that run through it, the Rhone and the Saone, creating four gracious riverbanks with panoramic views. The city center, which dates back more than 2,000 years, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998. Vieux Lyon, the city's oldest district, once was the center of the European silk trade. Many of the preserved medieval buildings have secret passageways, called traboules, worming through them. They were used by workers to protect precious fabrics from rain.
In addition to opera, ballet and theater, the city's cultural offerings include one of the largest fine-art museums in Europe (Musee des Beaux Arts); a museum that honors the fathers of modern cinema (The Institut Lumiere); a fabric museum that traces the history of textiles and silk-weaving (Musee des Tissus et des Arts Decoratifs); and a museum displaying the puppets of the world (Musees Gadagne), with more than 2,000 puppets and 1,000 castle sets.
With a Lyon City Card (about $25 for one day and available for purchase online from the Lyon Tourism Office, en.lyon-france.com), we took advantage of the city's excellent Metro system to see many of these attractions for free or at a discount. For an orientation, we took an open-top bus and riverboat tours around the city, which is especially beautiful at night when 35 buildings and monuments are illuminated.
For those interested in fashion and interior design, Lyon, like Paris, offers department stores such as Printemps and Galeries Lafayette, antique shops, concept stores and trendy boutiques. The city also has its own 250-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower, La Tour Metallique de Fourviere. Built by engineer Jacques Buffaud in 1894, the metallic structure once was an observation tower atop a now-defunct restaurant.
As for the food …
Skipping breakfasts, we managed to squeeze in enough lunches and dinners to confirm there is no such thing as a bad meal in Lyon. Following are a few of the culinary highlights.
Tracking the footsteps of Paul Bocuse: Lyon is the birthplace of the revered chef, who popularized nouvelle cuisine around the world. To make dining more democratic, he also created a new type of restaurant, opening five brasseries across the city, each with a distinctive style of French cuisine. We visited one, Brasserie Le Sud (nordsudbrasseries.com), just off Place Bellecour (billed as the largest public square in Europe), which specializes in Mediterranean cuisine.
We also made the pilgrimage to L'Auberge du Pont de Collonges
(bocuse.fr), a 20-minute taxi ride from the city center. The 88-year-old Bocuse was born upstairs and still lives in the building that houses this three-star Michelin restaurant, whose design and colors look like something out of a fairy tale. Among the highlights of our lunch were several classics: seared foie gras with passion fruit sauce, quenelles (dumplings) of pike with a Bechamel and crayfish sauce, and a European sea bass baked inside a flaky crust that looked like a piece of art. This turned out to be the most memorable meal we have had in our lives, in terms of the food, service and ambience.
Tackling the restaurants: The city has more than 2,000 restaurants, ranging from informal to the 15 that have stars in the 2014 Michelin Guide. (There are 72 Michelin-starred chefs in the region). We made a few reservations by reading newspaper articles, blogs and online reviews and then relied on recommendations from friendly locals.
Located at the crossroads of several terroirs — with Beaujolais to the north and Cotes du Rhone to the south — Lyon has the advantage of being able to draw upon exceptional wine and agricultural products. Here, table wine typically is served in a special carafe with a weighted glass bottom, called Le Pot Lyonnais; it holds roughly a pint of remarkably affordable local wine, right-sized for two light drinkers.
Historians attribute the origins of Lyonnaise restaurants to the "Meres Lyonnaises," women who once cooked for prominent families and went on to establish their own businesses serving family-style cooking during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Bouchons, family-run bistros that serve large portions of inexpensive fare, are unique to Lyon. Their roots trace back to the taverns or inns where silk traders stopped to eat, clean their horses and rest overnight. Rue des Marronniers is one of several streets lined on both sides with bouchons, such as Chabert & Fils and Aux Trois Cochons. However, even in Lyon, not all bouchons are authentic. Each year, the Chamber of Commerce certifies those meeting its standards of authenticity and allows them to display a designation "Les Bouchons Lyonnais" in their windows.
Visitors can dine at celebrated gourmet restaurants such as La Mere Brazier (lamerebrazier.fr), a Lyonnaise institution since 1921, founded by one of the first women to earn three Michelin stars. (Bocuse was an apprentice to Eugenie Brazier.)
Another good choice: Les Trois Domes (les-3-domes.com), a one-star Michelin restaurant at the Sofitel Lyon Bellecour that offers panoramic views of the Rhone from a contemporary eighth-floor dining room.
Browsing the markets: Though some 26 outdoor markets are held each week at different locations in the city, Les Halles de Lyon, created in 1859, inarguably is the most famous. Over the years the market has changed locations, was brought indoors and renovated, and was renamed Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse after the iconic chef who did his shopping there. Merchants sell high-quality regional and imported specialty foods alongside restaurants and seafood bars that operate under the same roof.
Another outstanding option: The Saint-Antoine Lyon outdoor market is on the banks of the Saone River. Daniel Boulud, the legendary French chef who moved to the U.S. and created an international restaurant empire, grew up on a farm outside Lyon and helped his father sell products at the market when he was a young boy.
As visitors walk through two rows of stalls that extend for several blocks, they'll spot food trucks with juicy chickens on rotisserie spits and have the opportunity to sample such delicacies as Saint-Marcellin or Brebis cheese; saucisson brioche, sausage covered in a rich, buttery pastry dough; pates; and tarte aux pralines (characteristic Lyonnaise red praline tarts). They can even stop for some freshly shucked oysters and eat them at a picnic table beside the river.
Taking cooking classes: Though Lyon has the patina of age, its culinary scene remains vibrant and inventive. Students come from around the world to train here in cooking and hospitality and also to apprentice as cooks and waitstaff in restaurants. These same schools offer tourists unique opportunities to perfect their home-cooking techniques through hands-on workshops and three- or six-week courses for food enthusiasts. The workshops are sponsored by the Paul Bocuse Institute, both in nearby Ecully or at its new hotel school in Lyon.
While Lyon is less known than Paris or Provence, food lovers will fall in love with this welcoming city that's so rich in culinary history and traditions.