A recent visit to Lyon reminded me of a well used rom-com cliche. The one where the lead character thinks they are in love with the hot/ popular/ perfect guy or gal but it’s really the over-looked, less flashy or friend character that’s really the ‘one’ (think Clueless, Bridget Jones, The Duff). I was convinced Paris was France’s best city. After all it’s got all the fame, the glamour, the fashion, the reputation. And Lyon? Well I didn’t know much about it other than it was very old and rumours it was ‘the gastronomic capital of France’ but surely this was just a marketing ploy dreamed up by their tourist board. Could it measure up to a city like Paris?
Well Oui! is the answer. Lyon is most definitely not to be overlooked for it’s flashy sister. Here are my highlights…
Oft cited as the gastronomic capital of France and even the world dinner in Lyon does not disappoint. It’s packed full of ‘bouchons’, brasserie style restaurants serving traditional Lyonnais cuisine and Beaujolais wine. There is a wonderful accessibility and affordability to eating out. None of the fear you might have in Paris about eye watering bills or the risk of being served mediocre ‘tourist’ food. Even the most obvious of tourist places seemed to be serving up decent enough fare. We were lucky to have our choices carefully curated by our travel companion Matt Vines. The brief each day was simple. Within walking distance of our apartment, fairly affordable (so we could be more generous with our wine flow) and some what ‘French’. He did good. Here’s some of what we ate:
Brasserie Leon de Lyon
Literally a stones throw from where we were staying was Brasserie Leon de Lyon where renowned Lyonnais chef Jean-Paul Lacombe has turned his Michelin-starred gastronomic restaurant into a relaxed brasserie – same 1900’s decor, same impeccable service but more affordable prices. A brilliant intro to the Lyon dining scene, we ate tartar, terrines, cold meat plates, tartine. It This was the first & best steak tartar of the trip – beautifully minced Charlois beef, seasoned like the perfect hamburger would be. I can still taste it. Wonderful decor (the wine cellar/ toilets are not to be missed) and fantastic outdoor seating.
Brasserie Georges de Lyon
On night two we ventured a little further to Brasserie Georges de Lyon the oldest brasserie in the city and one of the largest in Europe. The menu here is really traditional, we tried Burgundy snails, more tartar, Provençal fish. Not spectacular but still all very good. Perhaps the highlight here is theatre of the place, from the sheer size of the room and the history to our waiter mixing the tartar at the table and each time a birthday dessert was brought out (maybe 7 times while we were there) the gruff waiters dim the lights and play ‘Happy Birthday’ on a old school crank organ as the whole place joins in.
Lyon is home to famed chef Paul Bocuse and his Michelin three starred restaurant l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges. We didn’t make it there on this occasion (next trip for sure) but did enjoy an excellent dinner at one of Bocuses’ brasseries Le Nord. The elegant room and crisp white linen set the tone for what my favourite meal in Lyon. The menu was (and I hate to use this word) but it was mouth watering with even our waiter unable to pick his favourites because it was all so good. We ate sardines, veal escalope, Boudin Noir, their famous chicken casserole and a lot of the table were swayed by the macaroni cheese which despite being brought to the table piping hot, disappeared in record time. For dessert, devastated that the cherry clafoutis was sold out, we ordered a classic chocolate fondant which had barely landed on the table before another was promptly ordered. Effortless service and some of the best wine we tried. A must visit.
Shopping, Old Town & Sightseeing
Closest to us and I believe one of the best markets in the city, was the Marché St.-Antoine on Quai Saint-Antoine. It stretches across two quay’s full of fresh local produce, all the ripe cheese, bread, pates, meats you would imagine in a typical French market, pungent smells, briny oysters, roast chickens and fantastic fruit & vegetables. Open from early morning 4 or 5 am, the chefs of the city shop here, so you know it’s going to be good. We loaded up here one morning and then headed to the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, to enjoy a well deserved feast – there’s some 600 steps on the way up but well worth it to drink in the spectacular views of Lyon and surrounds, as far the snow capped Alps in the distance.
Do make sure to bring walking shoes. Simply strolling around the city is some of the best sightseeing I’ve done. Full of fascinating historical and architectural landmarks and a UNESCO World Heritage Site you won’t be short of Instagram moments, my favourite being the ‘traboules’. These are hidden behind open and closed doorways all over the old city, a mix of medieval and renaissance passageways towers and courtyards that are well preserved and kept open to the public. Watch out for gold plaques as you walk around or even just open doorways. Make sure you find 54 Rue Saint Jean and follow it through to Rue de Bouef where you’ll find a quieter and so somehow more authentic part of the old city.
Usually my first bit of research when planning a trip is securing a good coffee spot. Luckily Cafe en Boit (The Box Cafe) serving locally roasted Mokxa coffee was just up the road from our apartment on the slopes of the Croix Rousse right in the creative district. Nab a stool outside for some nonchalant people watching and order from their extensive speciality coffee menu – V60 filter, cold brew, Aeropress & espresso. They also do some snacks and superb pastries from Konditori
Wine & Bars
You’ll be hard pushed to drink bad wine here but it’s handy to know the essentials when ordering. Lyon has some of the best wine growing regions in the world on it’s door step – Burgundy, Beajoulis & Rhone Valley, so it makes sense to stick to local bottles. The wine shops here are a wealth of information too and in many of them you can taste in store. I’d recommend doing this your first afternoon and get to know your terroirs. We had very informative and tasty afternoon at Le Jeu de Quilles and I also came across Antic Wines which had a fun tasting in full swing when I popped my head in. Remember when you’re eating out that the 30-40 euro bottles of wine would probably cost you double that at home so don’t be afraid to climb up the list a little. You’re making a saving after all…
Try to ignore the tourist traps scattered in the busy squares and seek out the less obvious Lyon bars. We whiled away a very pleasant night at La Cave Des Voyageurs on the edge of the Old Town. We did have to remind ourselves that French service is different than what we are used to and you do need to relax into it. Ask for recommendations from the seemingly curt sommeliers and they soon warm up and treat you like one of their own.
For apertivo seek out Broc’Bar a small neighbourhood spot that drew us in from first glance because of the most welcoming shaded terrace beneath a majestic mulberry tree. Open from morning (although it’s seems breakfast is just espsresso & cigarettes) right through the day this place is consistently busy with louche European types draped in their bright red & yellow chairs sipping on espresso and Aperol spritz, gesticulating and smoking over over passionate conversations. So French.
We used Airbnb – I’ve become a bit of an addict, not just because it’s such good value but also because you end up in places like this apartment it was exactly what you would dream a French city apartment might be. Ceiling to floor windows, light filled, wooden floors, chic decor and even a piano. it was right by Place des Terreaux, a square dating back to 1206, surrounded by fountains & museums and perfectly central for exploring the city. There are plenty of charming listings on the site for Lyon.
There are many more unmissable places. Make sure you take a read of all Eat Like A Girls Lyon posts as well as taking a look at these pieces
Lucky Peach guide to Lyon by Brette Warhshaw
Michel Roux Jrs Lyon
The Guardian Top 10 Restaurants in Lyon
Lyon – The Irish Times