Sam Ballard explores the fabulous French city which is a focal point for river cruises on the Rhône and Saône
Located in the heart of France, at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers, Lyon is one of the jewels of European river cruising. Renowned for its cuisine, in a country that prides itself on its gastronomy, the city has numerous feathers in its cap, including a charming old town, beautiful cathedral and incredible history. This is quintessential France, but without the Parisian prices. It’s also the gateway to some of the best wines in the world.
Given all of that, it’s little wonder that most of the major river cruise lines operate on the Rhône/Saône. Itineraries will typically start in Lyon, first going north (on the Saône) to Mâcon, which is a short transfer from Beaune with its stunning Unesco-listed medieval hospital. Then it’s south, back through Lyon, and on to the Rhône’s famous valleys and vineyards with calls at pretty French villages, such as Viviers, before finishing up at Arles and Avignon.
Lyon is foodie heaven. Birthplace of the renowned chef Paul Bocuse – the genius behind nouvelle cuisine. His influence is everywhere. Not surprising for a man who was given the accolade of Chef of the Century. There are plenty of Michelin star restaurants in the city – and many that have been awarded multiple stars, among the most famous being La Mère Brazier and Bocuse’s own L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, a three Michelin star restaurant that is often simply referred to as Bocuse. Needless to say, booking early is recommended.
The city boasts an imposing gothic cathedral, which sits in the middle of the Old Town and took 300 years to build, as well as an equally impressive basilica – the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourviere – which overlooks the whole city from an imposing perch high on a hill. Despite only being about 150 years old, its white walls make it look like something out of a fairytale. Take the opportunity to head up to the basilica at night for the best views.
One of the most unique features of Lyon are the traboules – secret passageways that were used by silk tradesman in the fourth century. The corridors allowed workers to move quickly around a city where the maze of streets often do not connect – opening up to small courtyards with winding staircases that lead up to apartments. Locals say that you are not a true Lyonnaise until you are able to navigate the 400 or so passageways that slice through the Old Town.
The traboules took on a different use during the Second World War, however, when local Resistance fighters would use them for clandestine meetings to thwart the invading Nazi troops. They’re widely credited for being the reason why Lyon was never fully occupied – giving them an even more special place in locals’ hearts.
However you choose to spend your time in Lyon, a good time is guaranteed
When in Lyon – or most cities in France for that matter – it is clear that the country’s fascination with cycling permeates day-to-day life. So, our advice to you is to do as the French do and use two wheels to get around. The city has mile upon mile of marked cycle lanes – not to mention a large amount of space on the banks of the river. Sure enough, a tour around the city on bike proves to consistently be one of the most popular shore excursions offered on a Rhône/Saône river cruise. If your ship doesn’t offer one then look up a private tour guide. It really is a great way to see the city within a limited time.
Whether on bike or on foot, the Parc de la Tête d’or is a must. Located on the banks of the river – and not far from many of the river ship moorings – the manicured grounds and elegant orangeries offer up the very best in 19th century French sophistication. There’s even a zoo inside the sprawling 117-hectre site.
However you choose to spend your time in Lyon, a good time is guaranteed. The city’s Old Town is walkable – although beware that it is cobbled – and if you want to scale the Fourviere Hill and are worried about mobility, there is a charming funicular that dates back to 1862. Like most things in Lyon it is done with a measure of elegance that the French do so well.
The city really is a special place to visit on a river cruise and its proximity to the French Riviera and the vineyards of the Rhône valley is also a real bonus. A combination that makes for a holiday you will never forget.