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Lyon - France's bright spark

From its light shows to award-winning cuisine, Lyon's visual and appetising treats make it a must-visit

Published on Jul 27, 2014 5:39 PM

If you are tired of the Louvre, Eiffel Tower and Champs Elysees, where can you go when in France? Lyon would be a good choice. And if you are into good food, it is a must-go.

France's second-largest city and capital of the Rhone-Alpes region, Lyon is situated at the heart of France between Paris and the French Riviera.

A two-hour train ride from Paris, Lyon's location at the crossroads of Europe's major lines of transport makes it an attractive urban destination in Europe.

Architectural heritage

A stage for more than 2,000 years of history, the city of about half a million residents has a rich architectural heritage. About 500ha of Lyon's city centre have been listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1998 largely because of its collection of Renaissance buildings.

In Vieux Lyon, the city's oldest district, a unique feature is the "traboule".

Derived from the Latin trans-mabulare, which means to pass through, traboules are corridors through buildings and their courtyards, linking one street with another. They were first built in the Middle Ages when there were few parallel streets between the hill and the river.

While exploring these passageways, you will be delighted by the discovery of quaint balconies and spiral staircases, as unexpected as they are unique.

In the Croix Rousse hill area, which once housed the important silk industry that thrived in Lyon from the 18th century, shops built on the slopes and the plateau have been converted to residential flats that are now in demand.

There is a small-town feeling here with its vintage shops and authentic bistros. With its narrow cobbled streets, small cafes and historical traboules, shopping here is a pleasant experience.

For example, at the Laspid organic designer T-shirt store, one can find clothing in organic cotton and products with original designs which are sourced from fair trade producers. A T-shirt costs about €30 (S$50).

Gastronomic heritage

France's gastronomic heritage, recognised by Unesco in 2010 as one of the world's "intangible" cultural treasures, is achieved wholly through the contributions of regions such as the Rhone-Alpes, thanks to its strong culinary traditions, naturally fertile soil and a nurturing climate.

This region boasts some of France's most creative chefs, some of whom have been awarded Michelin stars such as Michel Rochedy at the Chabichou and Jean Pierre Jacob's Bateau Ivre in Courchevel.

The most famous is Lyon-based Paul Bocuse, dubbed the "Pope of French cuisine".

Having maintained three Michelin stars for more than 40 years, the 88-year-old still goes daily to his restaurant Auberge du Pont de Collonges (40 Rue de la Plage, 69660 Collonges-au-Mont-d'Or, France, tel: +33-4- 7242-9090, www.bocuse.fr), one of 27 three-starred eateries in France.

While he does not cook anymore, Bocuse has a team of 25 chefs to help him. His signature dish is the Black Truffle Soup V.G.E., created in 1975 for then French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing in Elysee Palace. The price of a meal for one person here starts from €148 including drinks.

For a less pricey but equally good treat, try chef Bocuse's other restaurant Marguerite (57 Avenue des Freres Lumiere, 69008 Lyon, tel: +33-4-3790-0300, www.nordsudbrasseries.com), which is helmed by young and talented female chef Tabata Bonardi. It is housed in a restored early 20th-century townhouse with a lovely Art Deco entrance. The dining areas are separated into different elegantly decorated dining rooms.

The dinner set menu here is priced with a choice of three dishes at €42 or four dishes at €52, excluding drinks.

We had rabbit thigh with fresh herbs, breaded fillet with pistachios and sour vegetables for entree; paved pollack with white asparagus, pea paste and tangerine juice for the main course and orange sorbet with bitter chocolate and kumquat marmalade for dessert.

The food was elegantly presented, skilfully prepared and service was attentive. The menu was in French but the service staff were friendly and patient with explanations.

For a top-class ambience and quality, it was definitely value for money.

As a recognition of chef Bocuse's contributions, Lyon's local food market was renamed Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse in 2006. Housing 58 traders including butchers, grocers, seafood vendors, confectioners as well as cafes and bars, it is the ultimate treasury of the freshest and finest food produce from the region.

This indoor market is packed with locals and tourists especially on weekends.

The variety of cheese, sausages, seafood and confectionery was mind-boggling. Fresh oysters are sold at about €1 each and you can savour them on the spot.

For those with a sweet tooth, do not miss the famous praline tart from the various confectioners. The pastry is known for its bright red and chewy topping and offers the ultimate sugar rush.

Vendors here speak little English but are friendly and approachable.

Lyon's gastronomic heritage is famous for its traditional "bouchons", the Lyon equivalent of kopitiams.

Bouchons were originally opened as inns where workers could buy food and drinks as well as straw to rub down or "bouchonner" their horses.

Today, bouchons serve simple dishes and wines at affordable prices in a cosy environment.

We visited Daniel & Denise (156 rue de Crequi 69003, Lyon, tel: +33-4-7860-6653), a homely tavern that is popular with locals and tourists.

Try the quintessential Quenelle, or a dumpling made with minced fish, chicken, meat or vegetables. It is shaped into an oval and bounded delicately with a paste made from breadcrumbs, eggs, fat, flour, rice or cream. It is then poached in stock.

In Lyon, Quenelle is the ultimate "comfort food" because it is warm, filling and very satisfying.

Come here to soak in an authentic bouchon atmosphere with red-checked tablecloths and waiters in white aprons. An average lunch here costs about €20 a person.

Every meal here is accompanied by macaroni gratin and crispy potatoes, which could be a meal in themselves.

The biggest surprise among the group of Singaporeans at the table was when the waiter served up a plate of "grattons" or fried pig fat - the Lyonnaise equivalent of the crispy pork lard cubes found in bak chor mee, except they come in thin crisps. Imagine eating potato chips with the fragrance of pork lard.

We soon realised that in Lyon, not only can you eat pig fat fried in pig fat, but literally every part of the pig can also be found in Lyonnaise cuisine. Besides the usual stomach, brain and intestine, we were also served pig snout which tasted like gelatin.

City of Lights

Lighting is an essential element in Lyon's urban design. The city is well suited to illuminations, with its two hills - Fourviere and Croix Rousse - that offer many points of view and its two rivers, the Rhone and the Saone, that never stop shimmering.

More than 300 sites and monuments are illuminated throughout the city every night.

Every Dec 5 to 8, the city holds Fete des Lumieres, or Festival of Lights, a glittering four-day event that displays state-of-the-art light shows put on by local and international light artists throughout the streets.

The extravaganza draws millions of tourists every year who take in the beautiful installations and atmosphere as they wander through the streets of Lyon.

Each night features a different theme, colour scheme and vibe with video, music and sound to accompany the vibrant images dotting the city.

To avoid disappointment, it is best to arrive early to avoid the weekend crowds.

Lyon is a classic example of a city that strives to keeps its rich historic heritage while maintaining its urban quality and lifestyle.

When in Lyon, you will be able to enjoy the sights and sounds at a relaxed pace and, at the same time, be pampered with fine food.


The writer's trip was sponsored by the French government.

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Background story

Lyon at a glance

Lyon in numbers

  • 479,803 inhabitants
  • 16,800 hotel or residence rooms
  • 2,000 restaurants
  • 14 Michelin-starred restaurants in the 2013 guide

Getting there

By road: In the centre of a motorway over 1,000km long, Lyon is less than one hour away from all the major towns in the Rhone-Alpes region. Geneva can be reached in 11/2 hours, Paris in four hours and Barcelona in six hours.

By train: With two stations in the city centre, Part-Dieu and Perrache, and a third at the Lyon Saint Exupery airport, the TGV high-speed train connects Lyon to the heart of Europe. There are 23 return trips a day that connect Lyon to Paris (1 hour 55 minutes) and 15 to Marseille (1 hour 40 minutes).

By air: The Saint Exupery airport, about 25km from the city centre, has flights to 120 destinations around the world.

Getting around

Public transport: There are four metro lines, two funiculars, five tramways lines and more than 120 bus lines.

Velo'V: A fleet of 4,000 bicycles are available for rent at 345 pick-up and drop-off points. They are free for the first hour. A one-day ticket costs €1.50.

Cyclopolitains: These modern electric tricycles are driven by young drivers called Cyclonauts who are friendly and double as tour guides. It costs €1 a kilometre a person.