The city of Lyon lies a mere 2 hours by train from Paris and is a must-visit for any Francophile. Straddling two rivers, the Rhône and the Saône, the city has three main districts that are most of interest to visitors: the peninsula between the rivers Presqu’Île (literally meaning nearly island), the old, hilly le Vieux de Lyon, and Croix-Rousse, which is riddled with tunnels and traboules, secret stairways that connect houses, streets and quarters.
Much has been written about Lyon, from what to see if you only have one day to can’t-miss-experiences, but what I want to tell you about in this article is what to expect when you visit Lyon in December, precisely during the weekend around the 8th 0f December.
This is when all the different districts of Lyon come together and burst into the Fete des Lumieres, the Festival of Lights. Yes, there are plenty of good light festivals and shows throughout France, but this one is the biggest, best, and most fun with all the added extras Lyon offers you.
Even if you have booked early and found a hotel room, there are plenty of things to be aware of, and be prepared for, to get the most out of this light-inspired weekend city break. Here are my best tips.
Look Out For The Candles
The festival dates to September 8, 1852, when a statue of the Virgin Mary was supposed to be erected on Fourviere Hill. Floods and bad weather delayed the delivery of the statue, and the event was postponed until December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Ongoing bad weather still threatened the procession and celebration around the statue that day, but later in the evening, seeing the weather finally clearing, the locals spontaneously placed candles on their windowsills, lighting up the streets. Until today, that is really the most magical part of the entire festival. Every other city has laser and light shows, but Lyon’s candles are unique and so pretty.
Put Your Walking Shoes On
While Lyon’s city center and old sections are not so large on paper, the old parts are very steep indeed. So steep that there are two funiculars running throughout the day, taking some of the effort out of climbing the steps and angled cobbled streets. Once you have picked up your map, suggesting the best routes to take in all the best-illuminated sights, plan ahead, put on some good footwear, and take your time. The funicular runs between certain times of the nightly festival, but to really appreciate all the effects, you really need to be on foot. So, take it slow, and, if you are there for two or more nights, spread the sights. The illuminations are the same every night, so try and see some one night, others the next.
Climb The Hill
As you are climbing the Fourviere Hill toward the Basilica Notre-Dame de Fourviere, catch your breath at the Theatre Gallo Romaine, one of the Roman amphitheaters in Lyon (see more below), and the one that is beautifully lit up during the festival. You can sit down, enjoy the show, before climbing the last bit. Make sure you don’t get to the basilica too late in the evening, as it gets busy, and it is worthwhile taking a peek inside. The best approach is to start walking uphill just before dusk, taking it slow, and spend the first bit of the evening up on the hill, before meandering slowly back down, stopping at the best light attractions along the way. There are plenty of cafes for a little sit-down as well.
Don’t Eat Or Drink Before Hand
A big part of the fun is not solely the lights, but the fact that the streets are full of food and drink stalls. People sell home-brewed mulled wine from huge pots outside their houses, the majority of restaurants, including the famous bouchons, set up tables outside from where they sell dishes which you can take and eat while you walk. Then there is the market along the river, full of food stalls, tempting you at every step. Try and skip lunch and forgo a sit-down dinner and instead, enjoy picking and selecting goodies on the go. Everybody walks around with a cup of mulled wine in their hands and huddling in corners to munch their boxes full of really very good food from the restaurants.
Come A Day Earlier
To give yourself time to also enjoy Lyon on a normal day, come a day earlier to eat in one of the famous bouchon restaurants, to meander the streets, and browse the markets without the inevitable crowds that will be pouring in on Friday and Saturday. Lyon has enough for you to see and do to warrant an extra day or two at least, and it has a rather nice, pedestrian shopping area on the peninsula, perfect for some Christmas shopping. But do make sure to come a day early as compared to staying a day longer. Mondays are rather boring days in France, with most shops and markets closed to give workers a break after Saturday and partial Sunday opening.
Explore Croix Rousse
One of my favorite areas in the other old part of Lyon, Croix-Rousse, is the road-cum-steps winding its way down from the metro stop Croix-Rousse, the Montée de la Grande Côte. At night it is beautifully lit up, especially the part that takes you down from the metro stop through the Jardin de l’Esplanade de la Grande Côte filled with light sculptures during the festival. Further down the hill, you will find lots of individual boutiques and cafes and might want to earmark this spot for a daylight return visit. You can combine a bit of shopping with searching out the best hidden traboules. (Download the app called Traboules, which will tell you where they are hidden).
Also Think About Christmas
In December, it’s not just Festival of Lights time, but also Christmastime. Place Carnot, the large square in the center of Presqu’Ile gets decked out with market stalls and fairground rides, including one large Ferris wheel that offers spectacular views from the top across illuminated Lyon.
For really special souvenirs and presents to bring back with you, go straight to Les Halles Paul Bocuse where you can buy Lyon’s favorite foods, from charcuterie to cheese, from sweet things to wine. Many stalls will shrink wrap your treats for safer travel.
Visit Both The Arenas
Lyon has not only one, but two Roman amphitheaters. The larger one, the Theatre Gallo Romaine de Lyon, the Great Theatre, is the oldest in France, built by Augustus in 15 B.C., and dedicated to performances of tragedies and comedies; the smaller one, the Odeon, was used for music recitals and poetry readings. Both are close together, encompassed by the Roman Museum of Lyon, or Lugdunum, as Lyon was called in those days. Both amphitheaters are places to check out during the light festivals, as they are particularly beautiful when lit up. The reason I mention them separately is because they are easily missed, particularly the smaller one, which I stumbled across by sheer chance.
Drink Some New Wine
Should you be making a proper vacation out of this festival, and find yourself in Lyon, or anywhere in France on the third Thursday in November, then you will be treated to a special day: Beaujolais Nouveau Day. Every wine bar and restaurant will have posters in the windows celebrating Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé getting ready for a night of tasting that year’s youngest wine just arriving on their doorsteps. Many cafes will put straw out on the floor, harking back to more riotous wine tastings in the old days, and everybody goes out for at least one glass of the young wine, which is light and eminently drinkable. To get a taste of the variety of Beaujolais wines available, why not plan a bit of a bar crawl?
Pro Tip: Use the local transport. Yes, during the night it is best to explore Lyon on foot as not to miss any of the attractions of the light festival, but there is no harm in taking the funicular up to Fourviere or to Croix-Rousse and then walk down or to do that a few times and take different ways down the hills. Tickets are cheap and available at every metro station, or at the funicular. Just be aware that during the festival, not all the metro stops will be open to avoid overcrowding.
France and other European countries in winter have many things to offer visitors: