The French can be divided into two groups – those who like Paris and those who don’t. There seems to be no middle ground. Generally speaking, only Parisians tend to love Paris, but there exist a great deal of them who don’t. The contrary – that non Parisians prefer Paris – is less likely to be true.
Paris, however great she may be in the eyes of the global community, is a topic of great divide in France. So if Paris is not the most admired French city by the French, then what is? It’s a question that has been asked to many Frenchmen along the journey and there had been no real definitive answer. It’s a testament to not only the variety of the landscapes and cities here in France, but to the people and what they enjoy that there is such a variance of answers to this question.
Just in the last few weeks, though, a clear leader has started to emerge.
It’s a logical choice. Depending on your criteria, Lyon is the second largest city in France (the commune of Marseille is greater than that of Lyon, whereas Lyon has the greater conurbation between the two).
Lyon might ring a bell to the average joe, but it can’t be classified as one of the cities that everyone dreams of visiting or puts in the top bracket of their to-do list.
But after visiting the city for a few days, one can’t help but ask themselves why this is.
Lyon is incredible.
There’s really not many better words to sum it up than that. Everything the locals that recommended it said is true.
“It’s a bit like Paris.” they say. “Only more relaxed.”
Then they throw in the almost inevitable French dig at the Parisians.
“And the people are friendlier.”
It’s been mentioned plenty of times on this blog how the common perception of Parisians being snobbish and unkind is simply not the case, but the aforementioned statement still holds truth.
Perhaps it’s because the original statement is so true. Lyon appears even larger than it’s metropolitan population of just over two million would suggest. It’s inner city buildings are gorgeous, almost, almost, rivaling those of Paris. The architecture is very similar between the two.
The place is well kept. Nothing seems to be falling down and everything is well maintained, from the buildings on the street to the parks around the city.
There’s a well run métro system serving the people of the city and also an adequate tram network that, when combined with the buses, provide a superb public transport system. As such, traffic around town never seemed to be too overwhelming – although it can’t be said that this was tested in a vehicle.
The point is, getting around town is a breeze, and this is important because here there is lots to see.
Vieux-Lyon, the old town, is the most touristic of the areas to visit. Here, one can indulge in one of Lyon’s famous bouchons – a restaurant serving Lyonnaise cuisine. France is a key contender for being the gastronomical capital of the world and Lyon is it’s undisputed capital. The food and drink that is on display here to sample is brilliant.
The thin, cobblestoned streets wedge their way between the Saône river and the Basilique de Fourvière.
Here, at the basilica you will find perhaps the best of all the gems hidden throughout Lyon. Although, it can barely be described as hidden, as it perches itself on top of a hill that overlooks Vieux-Lyon and the rest of the inner city. From almost any prime location around Lyon, you can see it proudly surveying the town and it’s people below.
While it’s exterior may amaze, it’s the interior that blows you away – as is typical with French structures. Don’t be fooled however, as when you enter you typically will descend a flight of steps. Here, you will find the lower church, which is quite modest in comparison to what you will discover above.
Ascend to the higher level and upon entry to the church you will experience something special. Give yourself a literally hours to discover above, as the shock that follows is almost paralysing.
This trumps all that has been seen before on this journey through Europe. The Notre-Dame de la Garde competes not and not even the lavish Macarena in Sevilla manages to outdo the lavish decoration that adorns the walls and ceilings of the Basilique de Fourvière.
Much like it’s host city, this is incredible. Simply awe inspiring.
It should be considered as the number one sight in Lyon, but there remains many other landmarks to inspire you also.
Behind the basilica lie ancient Roman Ruins that span the hill upon which the basilica is situated. At the time of visiting, Lyon was very cleverly using the amphitheater for concerts at night and the view of Lyon behind the stage would be spectacular under these circumstances.
Lyon’s largest park – Parc de la Tête d’Or – is probably the best park so far visited in France. It’s size is enormous, yet it’s still relatively central and well connected with public transport. There is space for a free zoo inside and a large lake sits in the middle.
On a sunny day, the Lyonnais pack the park for picnics and fun – it’s what they do best.
Lyon, as with all the other French cities, knows how to live and the people here enjoy life to the fullest. The statement by the French locals that Lyon is more relaxed than Paris certainly holds true and the easygoing pace of the city is a joy to immerse yourself in.
A typical activity here is to sit on the bank of the river Rhône and enjoy a bottle or two of wine at night with friends before continuing on elsewhere. It’s a real community feel as the steps become increasingly busy and fill with laughter and chatter as the night goes on.
If Paris is the holiday capital of France (and indeed, the world), then Lyon is the living capital. Relatively stress-free, loads of activities and a friendly ambiance.
All of this contributes to why people have to ask themselves, upon visiting, why Lyon is not more highly renowned.
The problem is that cities don’t gain a reputation built on it’s people. Nor it’s ambiance. Cities of high stature gain their notoriety via grand structures or unparalleled natural wonders. Or even simply their sheer weight in population.
There’s no Arc de Triomph in Lyon. Nor is there a Times Square. You can argue that, particularly after seeing it, the Basilique de Fourvière is a world class basilica that should be able to put Lyon on the map and in all it’s grandeur it’s a worthy argument. But it doesn’t have the history or location of the Notre Dame de Paris, or the romantic allure of the Basilique du Sacre-Coeur.
There are no world class landmarks here, only great ones. But great doesn’t cut it in this day and age anymore and travelers want the best.
That is why Lyon is never mentioned in the same regard as the big players around the world. Why it’s photos never grace the covers of tourist guides.
And perhaps it’s a just reputation. There is no doubt that a traveler will be more amazed walking through Paris or Barcelona than in Lyon. But that shouldn’t mean that Lyon is discarded altogether.
If you want to be relaxed as well as awe inspired, look no further than Lyon.
This is why there is one group that doesn’t discard the value of Lyon – the French themselves, who will be more than happy to recommend it to visitors.