Pushing through an old wooden door at the side of the street I enter a dark, covered, stone passageway. At the end, I see another door, surrounded by a halo of light and make my way towards it with trepidation. I reach out for the handle, twist, and open.
Narnia-like, I emerge into a different street to the one I left behind. Before me lies a bustling thoroughfare, crammed with tourists and locals alike, the strains of a cellist busker carrying on the wind. There’s no magic at work here though, I’ve passed through just one of the many hundreds of secret covered passageways – or ‘traboules’ – in Lyon.
The first traboules date back to the fourth century; they were used by silk workers in the 19th century and then later by World War II resistance members in the 20th century. In short, these traboules – and indeed, Lyon itself – are steeped in history and just one of the many reasons holidaymakers should head to this sometimes overlooked beautiful city in France.
I’ve come here after a few days skiing with friends in the Alps and normally dislike travelling alone, but in Lyon, I hardly feel the pang of loneliness at all. So, with so much culture to lap up, where is best to stay and eat?
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Where to stay in Lyon
To be in the centre of the city but without the freneticism of main roads and crowds, the affordable yet chic four-star Hotel de L’Abbaye in Lyon is an excellent choice. Within walking distance of the famous Place Bellecour, the largest square in Europe, the enchanting boutique hotel, designed in the style of a Neo-Renaissance Florentine palace, is situated right next to the picturesque Romanesque church Basilica of Saint-Martin d’Ainay. I’m staying in one of the hotel’s smaller rooms (there are 21 in total) and my large windows open up onto a fantastic view of the building.
The hotel feels stylish and calm, and nods to its erstwhile historic function as the abbey’s presbytery are in evidence, with a grand spiralling stone staircase forming the core of the building. It appears to be Art Deco in style with a modern twist, decorated by design duo Pierre-Emmanuel Martin and Stephane Garotin from Maison Hand.
My intimate bedroom features dual-tone dark grey and white walls with touches of gold, from the full-length mirror to the showerhead. I’m told this floor is infused with a 1970s flavour, the second floor with Maison Hand’s signature contemporary style and the third floor with a mix and match bric-a-brac feel. L’Occitane products are provided in the bathroom as are robes and slippers.
Meanwhile, the breakfast at Hotel de L’Abbaye receives wide praise on TripAdvisor. Entirely self-serve, the repast serves up fresh bread, tasty granolas, a cooked breakfast station, continental offerings and fresh fruit and juices. Flowers decorate each table which adds a pleasant, rural, homely vibe matched by the easy-listening music in the background. Sunlight floods in as I eat, bouncing off the enormous, curved gold sheet of a lampshade in the middle of the rook. It’s worth noting that breakfast seems to be latecomer-friendly – there is still plenty on offer close to ending time when I stay there.
There’s also a small cosy café overlooking Place d’Ainay which is open throughout the day and serves cakes and similar delicacies. Staff here are very friendly indeed and eager to help with city recommendations and advice.
For holidaymakers looking for high-end luxury, then look no further than Villa Maïa above the city on Fourvière Hill – called “the hill that prays” by locals. The hotel is part of The Leading Hotels of the World, a collection of authentic and uncommon luxury hotels. Despite being away from the madding crowd, Lyon’s Unesco-protected old town is only 15 minutes downhill from Villa Maïa while the funicular is only a few minutes walk away.
You feel instantly looked-after the minute you enter the five-star property, with smartly-dressed staff, who speak impeccable English, happy to meet all your needs. It also smells incredible wherever you are in the hotel. Even weeks later I find myself unable to forget the divine bouquet of carnations, irises, bitter almonds and other fragrant flora. I’m told it was specially designed for the hotel and inspired by Louis Benech’s garden, around which the hotel folds, in a similar style to the Roman villa that lay on the site previously. It’s home to plane trees, magnolias, Irish yews, low shrubs and hedges of Osmanthus.
My room – one of thirty, plus six suites designed by Jacques Grange – proves to be one of the best I’ve stayed in, and is huge. I highly recommend a room with a view over the city as the vista from my floor to ceiling sliding glass doors is extraordinary. All of Lyon lies at your feet. During the day you can pick out key landmarks with ease and ogle the Saône river flowing through the city, while the snow-covered Alps rise with majesty in the distance. At night it’s a bejewelled, glittering cape spread out before you, the distant cries of revellers, the clang of church bells and beeping of traffic audible as you stand on the balcony. With the doors shut, however, total peace reigns.
I feel utterly cocooned in the luxury and tranquillity the Villa Maïa offers. With a colour scheme of cream, taupe and oatmeal, the style is contemporary with a hint of art deco. My room is vast with a huge, comfortable bed and soft carpet. The mini-bar is entirely at your disposable and the Evian is regularly restocked.
It’s the Carrara marble and bright nickel bathroom I fall in love with, though. The floor is heated – with the tiles inspired by the Roman tiles unearthed at the ancient site – there are a separate toilet and shower and the bath is enormous; plus there’s a huge window straight into the bedroom. While for those voyaging à deux, this might prove rather titillating, for me, as a solo traveller, it’s a way to admire the view of the city across the room as I nurse a glass of Côtes de Rhône among the foaming bubbles. Soft illumination in the room also adds the perfect mood lighting.
I also relish the opportunity to make the most of the complimentary room service at breakfast. It’s delivered on a huge silver tray by a cheerful staff member and is a veritable feast. Served with a bakery and pastry basket along with jams and honey, guest can choose a hot drink, a freshly squeezed fruity juice, a yoghurt and cereal or fruit. On my second morning of this indulgent lifestyle, they even add in a sumptuous and pillowy sugared French toast with two plump raspberries. I also opt for a newspaper although there’s a wide selection of English films to watch on the TV, too.
What’s more, the hotel boasts a huge 20-metre-long indoor pool with a black and white chessboard marble floor, complete with whirlpool tub, sauna and steam room – all housed in vaults reminiscent of Roman thermal baths. Limestone arches let light flood in and allow the bathers to admire the garden. Guests can also make the most the fitness centre or simply lounge on the day beds.
There’s plenty of communal space within the hotel, thanks to the lounge areas – well-stocked with magazines and lifestyle books (as well as a tasty pot of cookies when I stroll though) – and bar, also with a spectacular city view.
Also offering the panoramic vista is the Michelin-starred Têtedoie restaurant which serves French cuisine. Be sure to reserve a table well in advance though, as it soon fills up!
Where to eat in Lyon
For traditional Lyonnaise cuisine, then it’s impossible not to visit a bouchon. Typical of Lyon, these eateries may not offer haute cuisine but they do offer hearty, authentic fare in a convivial atmosphere. The tradition dates back to the 18th century when cooking in Lyon was done by ‘mothers’: modest freelance cooks offering simple and generous food. Their skills at using cheap cuts of meat have produced traditional dishes such as tablier de sapeur (tripe) or andouillette tirée à la ficelle (chitterling sausage). These days the tradition of eating in bouchons is being revisited by Lyon’s up-and-coming chefs who cultivate the same values of conviviality, simplicity, generosity and the love of fresh products.
Look out for the tell-tale sign of “Les Bouchons Lyonnais” outside to make sure you’re frequenting the real deal, but take heed, these restaurants don’t shy away from using all parts of the animal when cooking, so bouchons are not for fussy eaters or the faint of heart!
For lunch, I head to the centrally-located Bouchon de Cordeliers, a lively establishment which feels thoroughly French with its red and white checked napkins and is buzzing with the native language, proving it’s not just a tourist haunt. The spot is adorned with cheeky chalkboard signs declaring such truisms as: “Alcohol doesn’t solve anything… but neither does water.” Naturally, I am quick to order a pot of Beaujolais.
Unable to face the prospect of pig’s feet and snails tatin, for starters I try the poached egg in a red wine sauce (l’oeuf en meurette) – it sounds and looks unappetising but is actually very good. Perhaps a safer option is the sausage in puff pastry. For mains, I am encouraged to try the lamb sweetbreads – the culinary term for the pancreas and thymus glands. A delicacy for some, the strange texture of the dish takes a bit of getting used to.
Another intriguing local speciality for the brave is the authentic andouillette, which starts off looking like a particularly girthy, sauce-covered sausage only to disgorge reams of intestines when sliced open, rather like a disembowelled corpse. There’s also pepper, wine, onions, and seasonings in there but one mouthful is quite enough for me.
Dessert is also traditionally Lyonnaise – a Praline tart which, in contrast to the previous dishes, sounds, looks and tastes just as it promises, and perfect for those with a sweet tooth. For those who’d rather end with something more savoury, the Cervelle de Canut Maison – a soft cheese with parsley, shallots and garlic – is traditional and appetising.
For more crowd-pleasing food, Brasserie Bouillon Barrette opened about seven months ago and is worth a visit. Situated in a happening quarter in the heart of town, there is a warm and welcoming feel to the chic restaurant. It’s certainly popular, with numerous diners piling in, with many having to be turned away it’s so sought-after.
The young and sprightly manager tells me the concept of the place is a traditional brasserie – with its vintage granite floor and earthy, orange banquette seating – infused with a modern, younger vibe. Here, the waiters dress smartly but not overly formally while its drinks menu offers a plethora of old French alcohols whipped up into the fancy cocktails beloved by modern gourmands. I start my evening with a strong and excellent Normand Sour with Bénédictine (a popular herbal liqueur that dates to the 16th century) and Bourbon.
I dive straights into mains and plump for Canard des Dombes duck fillet served with candied salsify and Madagascar sugar and hazelnut juice. It’s truly excellent and bursting with flavours – the meat is succulent and rich, and the salsify is juicy and flavoursome, all paired with the fresh tang of orange and the crunch of nuts. A glass of Cotes de Rhône red proved the perfect accompaniment.
The duck is just one of a selection of meat dishes and there are also a section of more traditional Lyonnaise bistro offerings. As for the fish dishes, I am particularly entertained by the sight of battered fish and chips served with a Union Jack flag. If you’re at a loss, the waiters are happy to help and point out what they enjoy when it comes to pairing drinks and food.
For dessert, I’m recommended the citrus pavlova and je ne regrette rien, as they say. The ideal light course after a meal, it’s a fresh and scrumptious sugary explosion with a zing of grapefruit and orange. I team this with a suggested whisky drolly named Ouiskay. The brasserie continues to be filled with diners until closing time at midnight and, in typically French fashion, many regularly pop outside for a cigarette. For those who wish to continue the night afterwards, there are a number of bars nearby, too.
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Also worth exploring is La Croix Rouge in the north of Lyon. Here can be found the unusually named Substrat restaurant (translation: substrate – a substance or surface that an organism grows and lives on and is supported by). I spend several very content hours here indulging in the most divine lunch. It’s a trendy yet cosy and friendly spot. With stone walls and wooden beams plus a colourful array of fresh vegetables in full view at the back, Substrat has a rustic-chic vibe entwined with modern twists and quirky decor. It’s also hugely popular – groups of pals, families and pairs fill the restaurant when I’m there on a bustling Saturday.
I choose to go the whole hog and opt for the three-course lunch with paired wines – and it’s worth it. The cheerful waitress explains everything as we go along, just in case I forget. After both a tiny snack of fried spaghetti and a prawn and lentil amuse bouche I am introduced to my starter – Galabart black pudding and cauliflower purée with miso and raw cauliflower. Given I generally don’t care for black pudding or cauliflower this is an admittedly rogue choice from me but the dish proves to be manna. A powerful aroma wafts from the plate before I tuck into the plethora of textures before me: the black pudding is smooth and rich and the cauliflower purée is creamy and fragrant while the raw cauliflower petals add crunch and the miso a juicy burst. It’s the perfect hearty winter dish without being heavy and pairs wonderfully with a glass of the well-rounded and fresh white 2017 Les Terres d’Ocre, the combination of which almost fizzing on my palate. The head chef later tells me he loves to cook with vegetables and I can well believe it!
The second wine is also a treat. Although a more unusual choice, the waitress recommends a Syrah rosé which has a dusky amber hue and, while fresh and light, is almost sweet with nutty undertones. This comes with my main of steamed skrei (a type of cod) which is juicy and succulent and served with an unusual foaming lake of mildly spiced spinach curry and candied ginger crumble. The latter is gorgeous and decadent, standing out above the more muted flavours of the fish and contrasting with the bitter crunch of Jerusalem artichokes.
As for dessert, there’s a sweet option with which I’m served a Blet Tendre Chenin – a gentle yet sweet wine made from aged raisins – as well as a savoury option of cheese. I taste the Fourme d’Ambert (one of France’s oldest cheeses, blue and semi-hard) – it’s a pungent fromage which sets my taste buds ablaze. In a stroke of radical genius for a French restaurant, Substrat is offering a Japanese sake to go with this when I visit, which delivers a strong hit to match the cheese before mellowing to a gentle aftertaste.
Of course, with the restaurant priding itself on seasonal produce, the menu and wine pairings change regularly and the lunch and diner menus differ too. Substrat has a sister wine bar on the opposite side of the road, but in fact, you don’t have to schlep it all the way to La Croix Rouge to enjoy the delicacies of this excellent establishment.
In the old town of Lyon you can find Food Traboule – a food court which is permanently home to outlets of 12 restaurants, two bars and a café, Substrat being just one of the eateries. While such places are cropping up regularly in London and the UK nowadays, food courts are rarer in France, and this is the only one of its kind in Lyon and opened in January 2020. Clearly the Lyonnais people have been champing at the bit for such a place, though, as there’s a huge queue when I arrive and leave.
The charm of the food court style means you can pretty much pick n’ mix from a selection of restaurants – which could be a boon for those unable to choose – and you can sit and eat anywhere within the building, making for a casual dining experience. Basking in the jovial atmosphere, I myself head to Le Comptoir des Apothicaires and dive into a creamy burrata and a glass of Côtes de Rhône. Payment is made with a pre-charged card – one of many ways in which Food Traboule offers a change from formal dining for those visitors looking for something a bit different.
What to do in Lyon
Lyon makes for the ideal long weekend holiday and there’s so much for visitors to do. For those who like to keep busy I highly recommend there Lyon City Card. The card can be bought for up to four days use and gives you unlimited access to the city’s public transport, entry to 23 museums and their temporary exhibitions, and guided tours. It also gets you discounts around Lyon and exclusive shopping offers. From €27 for one day and up to €57 for four days (with reduced prices for children and students) it’s well worth it if you plan to be out and about.
I myself adore my trip to the Musée de Beau Arts. The museum boasts one of the largest collections of European works of art (from Rubens and Rembrandt to Delacroix and Gauguin) dating from ancient Egypt to the present-day, all housed in a 17th-century former abbey.
Another highlight is the 19th-century Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière – known by locals as the upside-down elephant – which has come to symbolise Lyon and overlooks the city (not far from Villa Maïa). It was built between 1872 and 1884 and the interior is a real feast for the eyes with stunning mosaics and beautiful stained glass.
To travel further back in time, head to the site of the Roman city of Lugdunum, also up on the hill, founded in 43 BC. The unique archaeological site is composed of two major monuments of the city of Lugdunum: a theatre and an odeon, both of which are part of a UNESCO World Heritage site There’s also a museum which has one of the finest archaeological collections in France.
I also enjoy a visit to the Romanesque and Gothic Saint Jean Cathedral, in the beating heart of Vieux Lyon; the nearby Musée Miniatures et Cinema (perfect for film buffs) as well as the Tete d’Or Park – the largest and most popular of all the parks in Lyon, inaugurated in 1857, and home to a fascinating zoo.
Of course, there’s so much more to see and do, so be sure to visit the Tourist Information Centre in Place Bellecour for further information and top tips for your stay in the city. You may well struggle to fit everything in – I know I did, so you may have to factor in a return visit. There may be no magic at work among the twisting traboules of the old town, but if you’re not careful, Lyon may well cast its spell over you. Just be prepared for some holiday weight gain.
Rooms at Hôtel de L’Abbaye starts from €135. Find out more here.
Rates at Villa Maïa start from 455 euros for a garden view room, double occupancy. Breakfast and access to Les Thermes are included. To book: www.LHW.com or UK toll-free number 0800 181 123.
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