Lights, Cameras, & Noods
From Nice we took a long train ride to Lyon and we arrive just in time for the very last night of their Festival of Lights! As soon as we’ve checked into our AirBnB we do a search for a quick dinner and you already know that the second we saw an option for hand pulled noodles, (recall our Lisbon favorites?) we were ready to go.
We hit the streets and despite the drizzle, there are plenty of people out for the festival, so we hurry on to Les Pâtes Vivantes de Lyon. We arrive and it’s cracking, the tables are set merely inches apart and are filled, people almost sitting elbow to elbow. In my excitement I have a little trouble with the door, it seems locked and I can’t open it. Luckily a couple guys are leaving and push open the door, and we make our way in – crisis averted! I order one of my favorite dishes zhajiang mian and Carl tries their noodles in tomato sauce with egg, which is also another very typical dish. There’s a great mix of people, old and young, as we wait for our food, I just soak up the loud din of noises and conversation. It’s been a long while since we’ve been in a Chinese restaurant and if not for all the French conversation, we could very well be home.
In the hum of the room we start to sense a little discontentment in the room, seems the restaurant is busy must be backed up. The couple next to us is speaking a mix of English and French; they’re finishing off a single bowl of noodles, as the other order has still not come yet. They’re still having a good time though, laughing over how the girl is struggling with chopsticks. Somehow we manage to get our food pretty quickly, even before their second bowl arrives. The noodles have a decent chew but the zhajiang mian doesn’t have enough sauce while the tomato sauce is a little too salty. Not quite as cheap as Lisbon, but it was still great to get some food variety.
After dinner we make our way back out onto the streets and head south towards the Place Bellecour, where the major light installations are set up. Many of the streets are closed to cars and there are police checkpoints for bags, unsurprisingly our camera bags are checked. The Festival of Lights is steeped in tradition and religion, but what started as the people of Lyon placing candles in their windows evolved to include shop-window illumination competitions that eventually led to the first ever public plan for lighting a city in 1989, and now is an international event celebrated by all. Over our travels we’ve seen a number of light festivals, including one in Amsterdam, but apparently Lyon was the first European city to start such a project and make claim to being a true city of lights.
For us it was a tremendously special way to first experience Lyon, as normally when we arrive some place in the evening we can’t see much of a city. However in Lyon, it was the perfect time to arrive; standing atop a lit bridge to watch projected light patterns playing across of faces of the buildings along the river or coming upon a square with a fountain glowing with teals and blues and song. Colorful lanterns strung throughout the streets and fairy lights hung in shop windows, while merry makers boasted the best vin chaud (hot mulled wine) from their makeshift stalls, like grown up lemonade stands.
We make our way down towards the Place Bellecour, the largest pedestrian square of Europe and also the official center of Lyon, where we see the iconic ferris wheel spinning brightly. Across the way there’s an inexplicable installation with a cute retro minivan but my favorite was tucked to the side on a rather muddy lawn: a set of skeletal spheres that progressed in size and were lit in sequence, creating new shapes in the between moments. The festival came to a close and we considered taking metro, but when we saw the crowds we opted to walk back.
An Ideal Life in Lyon
One of the best things about our AirBnB was its proximity to La boulanger des Chartreux and the daily street market, Marché de la Croix-Rousse, a food market along one side and an “anti market”, something like a flea market on the opposite side of the street. We went to La boulanger des Chartreux almost every day to buy a fresh baguette and we tried their flan and a ham sandwich as well. It was like magic to push open that door and enter into the warmth of ovens, the thick smell of flour dust and dough turning golden just hanging heavy in the air. Their pastries were exquisitely presented but there was no air of pretense here, just the comfortable solidity of the French everyday, and where my favorite phrase, “Bonjour, une baguette s’il vous plaît,” earned me a smile and nod.
We made a day of our visit to Marché de la Croix-Rousse, which was quite extensive, perhaps one of the largest outdoor markets we’ve been to. Many of the stalls offer similar produce, so make sure to shop around. We hunt down some Lyonnaise cheese – which turns out very creamy and almost smelly but tastes amazing slathered on fresh bread. We find some awesome looking black radishes, which we’ve never seen before so we decide to pick up a few along with a delicious smelling rotisserie chicken that they bag with extra juices. Another big score for us was finding cheap avocados, so we load up knowing we’ll soon head into winterville where avocados only exist in dreams.
All My favorite things
It’s a hilly walk to and from the apartment, which is probably for the best given our daily baguette consumption. We’re also located right next to a couple high schools, so this is the most kids we’ve see in a while, and makes Lyon feel more like a neighborhood than a tourist destination. It’s definitely one of things we love about the city, along with the Parc de la Tete d’or, a huge public park with a lake, botanical gardens, and a zoo – my favorite things, all for free. Even though we’ve just started traveling, we’ve been quite surprised by just how many European cities and countries offer such wonderful public spaces for its people. Pairing that with the work-life balance culture where people take the mid afternoons off or how everything shuts for Sundays, we really find the European living to contrast so sharply with the American life back home.
We spend a long afternoon wandering through Parc de la Tete d’or, visiting the zoo area first. The sun is shining but the air is frigid. With the winter temperatures many of the exhibits are closed, but surprisingly there were still flamingos out, a lion, and zebras happily grazing in the fields. Most impressive were the two blush colored pelicans that preened for our cameras, I’d never realized how large they were until this moment. There was also quite a collection of monkeys and lemurs, one really strange pigmy one who had a face like an old man.
When we couldn’t take the cold, we escaped into the botanical gardens, starting in the main giant greenhouse. I’ve always loved tropical plants, but there’s nothing quite like walking into the warm goodness of a greenhouse during the winter time. The garden transported us with its tall leafy palms, bright birds of paradise and even a little goldfish pond complete with a bridge. There was even a coffee plant, a guava tree, and a banana tree – sans edible fruit of course. The greenhouse was sectioned off for both hot and cold tropical plants, though you can probably guess where we lingered the most. I savored the vibrant flowers and the beautiful variegated leaves and I dreamed of going to an island next, rather than freezing Switzerland! Alas, I was just not made for winter! Luckily there’s promise of some amazing hot chocolate, so I think I will survive.
In addition to the main greenhouse, there were several smaller ones, the most unique housed an incredible collection of carnivorous plants. Those plants had the most interesting patterns and bulbous shapes; some were particularly large while others were almost microscopic! After making our way through the various greenhouses, we couldn’t stand being outdoors in the cold, so we called it a day and headed back to make some dinner. That night we used those awesome black radishes and made a delectable radish and carrot sauté with a side of green beans and chicken quarters. Unfortunately we didn’t really make use of the awesome color contrast, but perhaps next time when we can do something more summery and utilize them raw.
The best way to see Lyon
For our final full day in Lyon, we headed over to Vieux Lyon, Lyon’s Old Town, where we hiked up the lush winding pathway through Des Hauteurs Park to the La Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière for its spectacular view over the city.
Not far, we continued our trek to the Théâtre Gallo Romain just as the sun started to make its descent. We had just begun to explore the theater ruins when nature called and we had to make an executive decision to find a bathroom. Luckily the theater also has a museum next door, the Gallo-Roman Museum of Lyon-Fourvière, and doubly lucky was the minimal entrance fee, 4 EUR per person. Though unplanned, we were extremely glad we made the visit.
The Gallo-Roman Museum of Lyon-Fourvière is somewhat small its architecture is striking and all the artifacts are related to Lyon and its history. Everything from Roman columns, statues, pieces of signs and frescos and tiles, to coins and tools all which were found within the city, it felt much more remarkable that it was specifically found within that very city. There was also the cutest kids’ area with puzzles and games all done in a beautifully illustrated theme: we proudly admit that we tested a couple games and enjoyed their exhibits. By the time we finished the museum the sun had set and the sky was awash with dusk colors, so we backtracked over to the Basilique for a sunset photo of Lyon before heading back home.
4 nights in Lyon during the chilly month of December was just enough time to get a real taste of Lyon. We didn’t do too many touristy things and was able to take our time visiting a few spots while just enjoying the local vibe. Browse our photos for inspiration or read on for more things to know before going to Lyon and other logistical information or jump down to the details on all the places we recommended.
We stayed in a charming boudoir styled “Appartement calme Croix Rousse” located in the 1st arrondissement of Lyon. It was a great apartment with everything we needed plus a really great bakery just down the street (good sandwiches as well as pastries). Also close by is the giant (street long) Marche Croix Rousse for groceries, easy to get to the train or walk to many places. We tried to keep our noise to a minimum but the floors, the couch and the bed is rather creaky. Also note that you’re technically on the first floor and the curtains are pretty but rather transparent. Good apartment otherwise!
Use our referral link to get $40 in travel credit when you sign up!
Vaccinations: Routine Vaccinations
Mosquito problems: None while there
Problems for tattoos: None
Traveling as a woman: Standard Precautions
Getting Around in Lyon, France
We used metro a couple times to get to and from the main train station as well as to a couple farther attractions. During the Festival of Lights metro was way too packed, even though they did try to anticipate the overload. Single tickets for metro are 1.90 EUR.
Currency: 1 EUR = 1.15 USD
Tipping in France not necessary, but appreciated. Tax is already included in their pricing, so the price you see is what you pay.
$45-55/person: This was for 4 evenings in Lyon with a private Airbnb apartment. We cooked our meals almost every single meal in but bought bread and pastries each morning. We shopped for groceries both at a regular supermarket, Monoprix (best place to save!) and at the weekly outdoor market. The only paid attraction we visited was the Gallo-Roman Museum of Lyon-Fourvière, otherwise everything else was free!
Some typical costs
- hand pulled noodles at Les Pâtes Vivantes: 10-15 EUR pp
- Gallo-Roman Museum of Lyon-Fourvière: 4 EUR
- AirBnB: $45/night
Les Pâtes Vivantes de Lyon, lespatesvivantes.fr, 9 Rue Mercière, $-$$ – plenty of tightly fitted seats inside. Try their zhajiang mian and a tomato egg noodles.
Festival of Lights, fetedeslumieres.lyon.fr/en – An annual lights festival that occurs early December.
La boulanger des Chartreux, boulangeriejocteur.com/chartreux.html, 49 Rue des Chartreux, $ – we bought a baguette almost every day, but also tried their flan and sandwiches, solid bakery!
Marché de la Croix-Rousse, Boulevard de la Croix-Rousse, $ – Open everyday from about 6:00am to 1:30pm.
La Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière, fourviere.org/en, 8 Place de Fourvière – we didn’t go into the church, but instead hung out by the edge of the parking lot to get the view of Lyon. Make sure to go up via the pathway through Des Hauteurs Park!
Gallo-Roman Museum of Lyon-Fourvière, lugdunum.grandlyon.com/fr, 17 Rue Cleberg, $