Bouchons, a Little Prince, and Secret Passageways
Lyon is the second largest city in France. But, when it comes to food, Lyon is the gastronomic capital of the country, besting that better-known city to the north, Paris.
Lyon’s bouchon restaurants focus on traditional Lyonnaise cuisine, although the city is also a hotbed of nouveau cuisine. The covered markets in the city provide a foodie experience second to none with literally dozens of restaurants, food shops, bakeries, wine vendors, and butchers sharing the same gigantic roof.
A Short History
Pre-human species were in France as far back as 1.57 million years ago. Later, Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons lived here. During the Iron Age, Celtic tribes occupied France until the Roman Empire conquered what is today Lyon in 43 BC. The Romans found the city to be strategically important because of its location at the confluence of the Rhone and Saône rivers.
During the Middle Ages, Lyon fell under the rule of the Kingdom of Arles. The Kingdom of France annexed Lyon in the 14th century at which point the city became an important center for trade. Italians came to the city and introduced silk making and the silk trade flourished. Lyon also became a center for literature and publishing.
The citizens of Lyon rejected National Convention after the French Revolution and paid dearly for it. Lyon was besieged for months until the city surrendered to government forces in October of 1793. Over 2,000 citizens, many of them rebel soldiers, were killed by firing squad and guillotine.
Butcher of Lyon
Nazis occupied Lyon during WWII and battled an active resistance. Klaus Barbie aka The Butcher of Lyon was the head of the local Gestapo. He personally tortured prisoners including Jews and children and is thought to be responsible for the death of 14,000 people. On September 3, 1944, the Free French Forces and French Resistance liberated the city. Barbie, with the assistance of the US government, fled to South America where he worked as an operative for the CIA and West German government. Much later, in 1983, Barbie was captured, extradited, tried, and convicted. He died in a Lyon prison in 1991.
Lyon is the greatest food city in the world that is still relatively undiscovered by Americans. But, the word is getting out.
Bouchons are the most the famous, and in many ways the most interesting, Lyonnaise restaurants. Serving hearty meals to locals, these are sort of Lyonnaise comfort food establishments. Originally, bouchons served silk workers in the 17th century. The menu consisted of rustic dishes like offal (organ meats), head cheese, chicken liver, tripe, and other inexpensive meats that were considered undesirable by the upper class.
Bouchon survived in Lyon over the centuries, serving simple dishes to working folks in Lyon. These neighborhood restaurants thrived because of the quality of the food and their convivial atmosphere.
Today, many bouchons have gone upscale, serving foie gras instead of offal to tourists, and charging astronomical prices. But, several traditional bouchons, as well as nouveau bouchons, happily coexist in Lyon.
One of the first things we noticed in Lyon is that everyone eats out. Every night of the week, the restaurants are jammed. And, I’m not talking about fast food joints. People in Lyon sit down and enjoy a nice long meal. That’s why you should try to make reservations if there’s a place where you really want to eat. Even if it’s just for lunch. It’s also the first thing you will be asked when you enter; “Reservation?”
Of course, we didn’t make a reservation when we wandered into The Poêlon d'Or, one of the best bouchons in Lyon. The man behind the bar, he turned out to be one of the owners, was reluctant to seat us, but I explained that we very much were looking forward to eating here. He agreed but said we had to be done by 9. I checked the clock, it was 7:40. We nodded and quickly sat down before he changed his mind.
Imagine, only 80 minutes for a meal? In Lyon, it’s unheard of.
Our meal, Karen has vegetables au gratin and I have mushroom ravioli, is spectacular, even by Lyon’s high standards. We linger over wine and dessert, try to eavesdrop on our neighboring tables (my French isn’t good enough), and finally get up to leave after a most enjoyable evening. As I pay the bill I wave to owner and point to the clock; 8:55. He smiles and nods.
I’ve listed several other excellent bouchons below, but here’s something to keep in mind about bouchons. Many of the best bouchons are certified by Les Bouchons Lyonnaise. This is a good place to start when looking for a traditional bouchon in Lyon. However, just because a bouchon is not certified by Les Bouchons Lyonnaise, doesn’t mean that the restaurant isn’t good. Some restaurants choose not to be certified. Others tamper too much with traditional dishes (often with extraordinary results) to be considered.
Have a meal or two in a bouchon and you’re likely to come away with the impression that the cuisine of Lyon is based solely on beef, pork, animal organs, and the occasional chicken. However, fresh produce is a huge part of the Lyonnaise diet.
It seems each arrondissement (neighborhood or section) of Lyon has its own farmers market.
My favorite is the Marché biologique place Ambroise Courtois in the 8th arrondissement. This market takes place each Wednesday afternoon and the vendors sell only organic produce. Locals shop here and it is not unusual to see children enjoying picking out their favorite veggies with their parents.
The market is in place Ambroise Courtois, right across the street from the fascinating Institut Lumiere, a museum dedicated to brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiére, forefathers of motion pictures. The museum is housed in their family’s extraordinary villa and exhibits include early movies.
Lyon also has two outstanding food halls. Les Halles de la Martinière and the recently reopened Les Halles de Lyon each have dozens and dozens of vendors under a single roof. They range from produce stands piled with fruits and veggies, to cheese mongers, to butchers, to wine vendors, to chocolatiers, to restaurants and bars of all kinds. You could spend days here and not sample everything these halles have to offer. And, if you want to bring back a souvenir or gift, this is the place to shop.
Les Halles de Lyon is more high-end and more expensive. I prefer Martinière because the offerings are organic. But, you can’t go wrong at either place.
Lyon loves its produce so much, it has its own salad. Of course, it has slabs of pork on top of it and a coddled egg, but there’s greens under there somewhere. Almost any restaurant in Lyon will have salade Lyonnaise on the menu, but vegetarians and healthy eaters fret not; this isn’t your only option. Tons of salads populate Lyonnaise restaurant menus and if you don’t see anything, ask, most places are happy to accommodate. We found the salads so fresh and filling, we often just had one by itself for lunch (with a glass of wine, of course). And the best part of having a salad for lunch? There’s room for dessert!
One of the signature desserts of Lyon is the tarte Lyonnaise. A brioche crust with a simple filling of crushed pink pralines, cream, and sugar, you can find this delicious treat in patisseries all over the city. The best might be at Boulangerie Jocteur in Les Halles de Lyon.
The Little Prince
Lyon has a long history and has produced many famous people from Roman emperor Claudius to chef Paul Bocuse. But, the most famous Lyonnais is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Heck, when the name the airport after you, you’ve done pretty well
Saint-Exupéry was a famous aviator in France, flying for the French Air Force during WWII. After the French surrender to the Nazis he fled to North America where he begged the US to enter the war and fight the Axis. During his time in America, he wrote the classic book “The Little Prince.”
The Little Prince
In 1943, Saint-Exupéry returned to the war, this time flying for the Free French Air Force. It was during a mission on July 31, 1944 that his plane disappeared over the Mediterranean. His body was never recovered although some of the wreckage of his plane was finally found in 2000, 56 years after Saint-Exupéry’s crash.
The Little Prince, while considered a children’s book, is actually quite sophisticated and poetic, dealing somberly with human relationships and the absurd society created by adults. If you have a copy in your house, I suggest digging it out and re-reading it. A film based on the book was released in 2015 and it is magical as well.
In 2000, on the 100th anniversary of Saint-Exupéry’s birth, the city of Lyon unveiled a statue depicting Antoine and his Little Prince. Across from the southwest corner of Place Bellecour (in front of the house where Saint-Exupéry was born), the statue sits on a fifteen foot column. I like to think it represents Antoine and the Little Prince on a planet, peering down on the Earth.
The historic section of Lyon, Vieux Lyon, is situated mostly in the 5th arrondissement. Vieux Lyon is divided into three districts, named after the churches in each district; Saint-Paul, Saint-Jean, and Saint-Georges. This area was the main hub of commerce during Middles Ages and the Renaissance. In the 20th century, Vieux Lyon was abandoned by wealthy residents who moved across the river to Presqu’ile or to Fourviere Hill. As the area became more rundown, it was scheduled for demolition to make room for an expressway. But, in 1954, the Malraux Law declared Vieux Lyon as an historic district, protecting it from the wrecking ball.
There are numerous historic sites throughout Vieux Lyon and the best way to see them is by taking a walking tour. Lyon Explorer and Free Tour Lyon both offer free guided walking tours of the city (tip not included). Or, you can opt for a self-guided tour. Cities on Foot has an interactive map that, while not exhaustive, gives you the highlights.
One of the most interesting features of Vieux Lyon is the Traboule (meaning to cross.) The original layout of Vieux Lyon had the streets running parallel to the Saône River. Since there were few perpendicular streets to the river, residents had difficulty getting fresh water. Traboules are a series of passageways between buildings (kind of like alleyways, but indoors) that allowed for easy access between streets.
Later, by using traboules, silk merchants could more easily transport their wares and residents could get drinking water. During WWII, the traboules were credited with helping the French Resistance in Lyon by providing secret meeting locations, escape routes, and hiding places for the fighters. There is also an excellent Museum of the Resistance that tells the story of the resistance movement in Lyon.
Today, over thirty traboule in the city are open to the public. The longest one connects 54 Rue Saint-Jean to 27 Rue du Boeuf. One of the most beautiful traboule connects 9 Place Colbert to14 bis montee Saint Sebastion. It features a six story external staircase. If you want to see several traboules, download this map to see where they are located. Keep in mind that when you visit a traboule you are visiting someone’s neighborhood. Traboules, while open to the public, are like courtyards in apartment buildings. Families live here so keep your voices low and refrain from taking pictures of people without their permission. Think of how you would feel if someone took a picture of you through the window of your house.
Lyon sits at the confluence of the Rhone and Saône rivers. So, as you would expect, there are a lot of bridges in Lyon. Many of them are beautiful works of art. I find the most interesting bridges in Lyon to be pedestrian only. Perhaps that is because pedestrian only bridges are so rare in the US. Whatever the reason, strolling across these bridges will not only get you from one place to another, but you might also run across interesting people and sites you might otherwise miss on the banks. Three of my favorites are the Passerelle Paul Couturier, which was destroyed during WWII and subsequently rebuilt, Passerelle Saint-Vincent, and the Passerelle du Palais de Justice. Here is a link to a Google Map of the bridges of Lyon, however, it is not a comprehensive listing.
Fourviere Hill is actually the oldest part of Lyon, being the location of the original Roman settlement of Lugdunum. Two funicular access the hill, keeping you from a steep climb. Once on top, Fourviere hill has several Roman sites to visit including Roman baths and two Roman theaters. All these ancient sites are part of the Lugdunum Museum.
But, the site not to be missed is the Church of Notre Dame de Fourviere. The Basilicata itself is a minor one, built on the ruins of a Roman forum. The real attraction is the view of Lyon from the church grounds. Atop the hill, you can see for miles on a clear day.
Lastly, there is another quirky site on Fourviere that you may want to visit. The Metallic Tower of Fourvière was built three years after the more famous Eiffel Tower in Paris and mimics the design of its more famous cousin at only about one quarter the height. It is used as a television relay station which makes it a bit of an eyesore, yet the mini-Eiffel is oddly alluring.
Lyon–Saint Exupéry Airport (LYS)
International airport named after Lyon’s favorite son. Flights to all over Europe and the States.
69125 Colombier-Saugnieu, France
Excellent public transport system of buses, trams, subway and a funicular make a rental car unnecessary.
Uber and taxis are also widely available.
Two free walking tours and paid private tours.
Free Tour Lyon
Guided walking tours are free, food tour charges a fee.
Lyon Food Tour
Several excellent food tours at reasonable prices
Lyon Wine Tours
Tour Rhone Valley wineries and taste classic varietals.
Wine (and food) tours. Both private and shared tours.
Cities on Foot
Interactive self-guided tour of Vieux Lyon.
Monument dedicated to Lyon’s favorite son, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and his creation The Little Prince.
Near the southwest corner of La Place Bellecour, Lyon, France.
Paul Couturier Footbridge
Passerelle Paul Couturier is a wonderful footbridge used by locals.
Behind the Church of St. George, Quai Fulchiron, 69005 Lyon, France
Replacing earlier bridges that were swept away by floods and ice, the St. Vincent Footbridge is one of the nicest in Lyon.
Quai Saint-Vincent, Lyon, France
Footbridge of the Palace of Justice
A relatively new (1983) but no less beautiful bridge crossing the Saône.
Located behind the city courthouse and the Musée Miniature et Cinéma
A large bridge crossing the Rhone which services vehicles and trains. Beautiful ironwork decorates the span.
Rue de l’Universite, Lyon, France
Historic indoor passageways connecting streets.
Museum dedicated to brother Auguste and Louis Lumiére, early forefathers of motion pictures. The museum is housed in their family’s extraordinary villa.
25 Rue du Premier Film, 69008 Lyon, France
Musée Miniature et Cinéma
Delightful museum on miniatures and film props
60 Rue Saint-Jean, 69005 Lyon, France
Metallic Tower of Fourvière
Miniature version of Paris’ Eiffel Tower. This one stands “only” 282 feet high.
8 Montée Nicolas de Lange, 69005 Lyon, France
Jardin Rosa Mir
Enchanting garden undiscovered by American tourists
http://rosa.mir.free.fr/ (website is in French)
87 Grande Rue de la Croix-Rousse, 69004 Lyon, France
Two theaters, one for the first century, the other from the second are in good shape and worth a visit along with the Roman bath on site.
6 Rue de l'Antiquaille, 69005 Lyon, France
The Flower Tree
Odd and out-of-place piece of modern art will bring a smile to your face.
Place Antonin Poncet, 69002 Lyon, France
Fête des lumières (Festival of lights)
Lyon’s annual celebration of lights with events all over the city.
Basilique Notre Dame de Fourviere
19th century church on a hill with spectacular views of the city.
8 Place de Fourviere, 69005, Lyon, France
Lyon Cathedral (Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Lyon)
12th century Gothic church. As of this writing the church is undergoing a renovation.
70 rue Saint Jean, 69005, Lyon, France
Musée des Beaux-Arts Lyon
Best fine arts museum in France outside of Paris.
20 Place des Terreaux, 69001, Lyon, France
Museum documenting the resistance to Nazi occupation during WWII in Lyon. Be sure to get the English audio guide.
14 avenue Berthelot, 69007, Lyon, France
Musée des Confluences
Architecturally stunning modern building where the Rhone and Saône rivers meet. Interesting exhibits.
86 quai Perrache, 69002 Lyon - France
La Fresque des Lyonnais
One of several outdoor frescoes in Lyon, this one depicts famous Lyon citizens on a nearly 10,000 square foot surface.
Cnr 2 Rue hade la Martiniere and the 49 Quai Saint Vincent, Lyon, France
Plum Teaching Kitchen
Shop at the market and then learn how to create authentic French dishes. Private lessons, too.
49 rue des Tables Claudiennes, 69001, Lyon, France
Maison des Canuts
Museum preserving the heritage of silk artistry in Lyon
10 rue d Ivry, 69004, Lyon, France
The Poêlon d'Or
Excellent bouchon. Reservations suggested.
29 Rue des Remparts d'Ainay, 69002 Lyon, France
Cafe des Federations
The most famous bouchon in Lyon.
A real throwback to the old bouchons of Lyon.
7 rue du Garet, 69001, Lyon, France
Top of the line Lyon restaurant. Massive wine list.
24 quai Saint Antoine, 69002, Lyon, France
Le Tete de Lard
Traditional bouchon with lots of veal, sausages, and foie gras.
13 rue Desiree, 69001, Lyon, France
Le Kitchen Café
One of the best restaurants in Lyon. Dessert and pastries are superb.
34 rue Chevreul,Lyon, France
Bouchon with foie gras and truffles when in season
3 rue Laurencin, 69002, Lyon, France
Café du Jura
Bouchon that has been in business for over 150 years.
25 rue Tupin, 69002, Lyon, France
Bouchon Chez Paul
Traditional bouchon, they even pass dishes around to your neighbors. Service can be spotty.
11 rue Major Martin, 69001, Lyon, France
Bouchon Des Cordeliers
Traditional bouchon with excellent service.
15 rue Claudia, 69002, Lyon, France
Le Potager des Halles
Creative cuisine. Near the La Fresque des Lyonnais
The Pope of French cuisine passed in 2018, but his restaurants live on.
Les Mauvaises Herbes
Vegetarian (mostly vegan, raw) restaurant in the land of beef and foie gras.
3 rue du jardin des Plantes, Lyon, France
Le Jardin Intérieur
Excellent vegetarian restaurant
2 rue de Belfort, 69004, Lyon, France
Against the Grain
Creative vegetarian restaurant
135 rue Sébastien Gryphe, Lyon, France
Affordable vegetarian restaurant
89 rue Paul Bert, 69003, Lyon, France
Limited menu, but truly unique in execution.
46 avenue Jean Jaures, Lyon, France
Best pizza in Lyon since 1966
45, Rue Franklin 69002 Lyon, France
Great place for tarte Lyonnaise
102 cours la Fayette | Les Halles Paul Bocuse, Lyon, France
Classic cocktail bar
20 rue Hippolyte Flandrin, 69001, Lyon, France
Floating bar on the Rhone. Lots of beer selections
2 quai Victor Augagneur, 69003, Lyon, France
Floating cocktail bar on the Rhone
21 quai Victor Augagneur, 69003, Lyon, France
The best ice cream shop (glacier) in Lyon.
1 Place de la Baleine, 69005, Lyon, France
Les Halles de la Martinière
Finally reopened, this is an outstanding organic food hall with dozens and dozens of vendors.
23 rue de la Martinière - 69001 Lyon, France
Les Halles de Lyon
High end and rather expensive food hall with fifty restaurants, fruit stands, cheese mongers, etc.
102 cours la Fayette, 69003, Lyon, France
Marché biologique place Ambroise Courtois
All organic farmers market. Wednesday afternoons, 3-8pm.
Place Ambroise Courtois, Lyon, France
Excellent cheese shop (and wine bar!)
3, rue Romarin, Lyon, France
Le Dada Shop
Unique and kooky shop with housewares, home décor, and accessories.
13 Rue du Griffon, 69001 Lyon, France
Mercure Lyon Centre Beaux-Arts
Great location on Presqu’ile
73-75, rue du Président Edouard Herriot, Lyon, France
Nos Chambres en Ville
Quiet B&B in the 1st arr.
12, rue René Leynaud 69001 Lyon France
Hotel Campanile Lyon Center, Gare Part Dieu
Good value choice in Lyon
31 rue Maurice Flandin | Le Forum, 69003, Lyon, France
Novotel Lyon Confluence
Modern hotel in the trendy confluence area.
3 rue Paul Montrochet, 69002, Lyon, France
Another trendy hotel in the up and coming confluence area.
56 quai Rambaud, 69002 Lyon, France
Great location on the hill. Reception is in the chapel of a former convent.