Lyon is known for many different things. It has some of the best chefs and finest gastronomy. It is the third biggest city in France (Paris and Marseille are number 1 and 2). It was the hometown of the Lumière brothers, inventors of many great things and among the first filmmakers in history, and the birthplace of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince. And Lyon has some of the most notable architectural and historical landmarks in the country. Recently, I got to spend a few days in this beautiful city in the east-central part of France. Most of my time was spent with my friend, but I also got to discover an especially beautiful area of the city with some magnificent architectural masterpieces: the Old Town of Lyon.
The main part of the city until the 16th century
The medieval Old Town of Lyon is located on the west bank of the Saône. Its French name is Vieux Lyon, and it stretches over an area of 424 hectares at the foot of the hill Fourvière. This part of town is actually one of the most extensive areas of Renaissance architecture in Europe. Vieux Lyon can further be divided into three parts, all references to Christian saints: Saint Jean, Saint Paul, and Saint Georges. The first used to be the focus of political and religious power during the Middle Ages, the second attracted Italian banker-merchants in the 16th and 17th century, and the latter was home to silk weavers in the 16th century. The silk trade and industry was one important reason for the city’s development during the Renaissance period. This part of the town was the central part of Lyon during the 16th century but lost its focus status as Lyon Presquile, the peninsula between the Rhône and the Saône, was developing.
The Old Town of Lyon today: a protected part of the city
As people started losing interest, the area of the Old Town deteriorated. It got so far that this area started becoming too unsanitary to live in during the 20th century. The then mayor in the 60s wanted to demolish large parts of the Old Town and build a highway instead. However, a French government policy was introduced in 1954, and the Old Town of Lyon was the first one to be protected under this so-called Malraux law, which protects special cultural sites in the country. Thanks to that, the mayor’s plans couldn’t be followed through, and the area had to be preserved instead. Following this, the Old Lyon was cleaned, restored and brought back to its former glory and is now one of the most thriving parts of the city. In 1998, the Old Town and other surrounding parts were declared a World Heritage site by the UNESCO.
The secret passageways of Lyon
A very remarkable part of the city’s infrastructure are hidden passageways, named traboules, that can still be found in the Old Town and the Croix Rousse. The streets of Vieux Lyon mostly run parallel to the river, so it could take some time to get from a building to the river. And that’s why the traboules were established. The name traboule derives from Latin ‘trans-ambulare’ and literally means ‘to pass through’. So you get what they made possible: they allowed inhabitants to quickly pass through a building and provide them with a faster access to the river (or to get from the workshops to the merchants).
These narrow passageways date back to the 4th century, and apparently, there are more than 400 of them in Lyon. However, only 40 are open to the public, and you need to have a good eye to find the small identifying seal that marks the entrance of a traboule. Visiting the secret passageways and courtyards are a must when you’re in Lyon, and it is a great way of exploring the city’s hidden past. Every passageway is different, each of them has a unique colour (mostly pastel). Every courtyard, staircase, or ceiling is particular and unique. If you want to find some of them on your own, take a look at this website or you can also take part in a guided tour. The best option, of course, is to have a friend living in Lyon who can take you on a private tour ;)
The most prominent buildings of Vieux Lyon
In the Southern part of the Old Town, in Saint George quarter, the St George Church is standing on the riverbanks of the Saône. A church has been standing at this location since 550, but the current St George church was actually only rebuilt in 1844. This church in Neogothic style was designed by the same person who later made the plans for the Fourvière Basilica that is overlooking Lyon from its prime position up on the hill.
Lyon Cathedral, or Cathédrale Saint Jean-Baptiste de Lyon, is located in the Saint Jean district of the Old Town. This might be the most prominent building of Vieux Lyon, and it is also the seat of the Archbishop of Lyon. In front of the church, there is a large plaza, and the cathedral is also fairly close to the river. Built in 1180 (actually finished only in 1476) on the ruins of a church erected in the 6th century, Lyon Cathedral has a Gothic facade but its interior is mainly Romanesque. During the yearly held Festival of Lights in December, a festival where artists light up buildings, streets, squares and parks all over Lyon, Lyon Cathedral gets illuminated and choreographed lighting is displayed on its facade.
Palais de justice de Lyon, also called Palace of the twenty-four columns, is located on the right river bank of the Saône river. The building was erected in 1835 and is now the historic courthouse of Lyon as a new justice building was constructed in 1995. With its columns, you can easily spot it already when you’re crossing the river to get to the Old Town.
Maybe not a prominent building of the Old Town, but still important to people living in Lyon (or in France in general) are the boulangeries. They are very typical small French bakeries that you can find on many corners of the city and that have been part of the French lifestyle for a long, long time. You’ll see the typical bread like the baguette, or Viennoiseries, the flaky pastries that you’d enjoy with coffee or for breakfast, or the pastries like Eclairs in every french bakery. A very typical find in a boulangerie in Lyon is the Brioche Praline, or brioche aux pralines. It is made from a sweeter dough and contains pink pralines (sugar-covered almonds that are dyed pink), thus making it almost as sweet as a cake. I had a peek at Boulangerie du palais, a favourite of my Lyonnais friend.
Besides churches and bakeries, you’ll also find many restaurants and several museums like the Musee Miniature et Cinema (combining film special effects and the art of miniatures) or the Musées Gadagne (Museum of World Puppets + Lyon historical museum) in Vieux Lyon.
The Old Town of Lyon is one of the best preserved medieval Old Towns in Europe, and walking around there is sucha pleasure, no matter the weather! With its many charming boutique shops, the cobbled alleyways, the traboules and the mix of Renaissance, Romanesque and Gothic architecture, there’s something new and exciting to discover on every corner of Vieux Lyon. Plus, it’s located next to the river Saône, and boy, do I love me a city with a river! Have you ever been in Lyon and had a chance to go to this part of town? What’s your favourite Old Town? Despite the rain and grey sky that I was experiencing during my stay, Vieux Lyon might actually be on my top 3 list now.