Bordeaux is known around the world for its wines, while Lyon is famous for its food and little restaurants. So while there are plenty of differences between the two French cities, they certainly have culinary delights in common. Personally, I love both cities very much. Having lived in Paris, it was easy for me to hop on the fast TGV trains, reaching Bordeaux in just over 2 hours, and Lyon in just under 2 hours. Each city offers a unique destination, very individual and special, and so French.
Eating and drinking after a day’s worth of sightseeing is very much a main part of the itinerary when visiting either city, with both offering great wines from their surrounding countrysides and traditional cuisine. In Bordeaux, the emphasis is more on the wine, while in Lyon, the local cuisine served in the famous bouchons is a must-try.
As a first indication of how the cities differ, maybe I can say that Bordeaux is a grander and chicer city, where you’d carry your designer bag while strolling along the wide boulevards, while in Lyon, you’d don your most comfortable shoes, and go and play hide and seek in the warren of lanes, hills, and most importantly, in the traboules, the hidden connections between streets and houses on the hills of the city.
Bordeaux Is Closer To The Atlantic Coast
Bordeaux lies on the Garonne River in France’s southwestern Nouvelle-Aquitaine region, close to the Atlantic Coast. Surrounded by wine country, the city itself is not unlike a smaller version of Paris, with beautiful sandstone buildings, and endless walks along the wide river.
Lyon Is Near The Alps
Lyon, at the other end of France, in the south-eastern Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, is within easy reach of both the Alps as well as the Mediterranean Coast, plus of course, Provence. Very hilly, Lyon is a warren of steep climbs — with funicular trains helping you get up them — and has not only one river, but two: The Rhone and the Saone, which merge right in the heart of the city.
Size And Getting Around
Bordeaux Is Easier To Maneuver
Both cities are perfectly easy to explore on foot, with most sights in close proximity to the old centers. Bordeaux had, in 2022, just below one million inhabitants. Most of the city is easily walkable. There is a good and extensive public transport network taking you from the Bordeaux St. Jean train station, at which you would arrive by train from Paris to the old center, or you can walk as it’s only half a mile.
Lyon Sprawls Further
Lyon accommodates an impressive 1.8 million people, with a fair few using Lyon as a commuter base for Paris. To reach Lyon, you head to the main Lyon Part Dieu station when coming from Paris and have an easy 20 walk into the center. Be careful when buying tickets because there is also the Lyon Saint Exupery TGV station. I am really not too sure why you would go to Saint Exupery, as it lies much further from the center, with the tram into the Centre Ville taking around 40 minutes, but people do, so don’t buy the wrong ticket.
While the center is not huge, it is steep in places, so you might want to take the little, bright red funiculars up the hills. It’s so much easier to ride up and walk down.
Bordeaux Has Coastal Influences
While Bordeaux enjoys a temperate climate influenced by the nearby Atlantic Ocean — which makes for warm summers with highs in the 80s Fahrenheit and mild winters with lows in the 40s — it can get colder. I visited once in December, and driving out of Bordeaux one morning, the vines in the vineyards were frosted over, with a chilly fog hanging over the fields; it was beautiful.
Lyon Gets Alpine Weather
Lyon, on the other hand, has weather influenced by the nearby Alps, making for similar temperatures in summer, but winter can get a little colder, with temperatures in the 30s Fahrenheit. The best times to visit both cities are spring and autumn — unless you want to pop to the Atlantic or the Mediterranean Coasts for a beach stay, in which case, summer is obviously best. In Lyon, December is the time for the Light Festival, which is lovely, and tips Lyon a little toward a winter visit.
Bordeaux Has A More Compact Center
Both cities have plenty of history and old city centers that offer stunning sights, museums, and pedestrianized streets where people can stop, shop, and have coffee. Bordeaux’s must-see attractions include the Grosse Cloche, the lovely medieval clock tower, and the Porte Cailhau, one of the ancient city gates. The Rue Sainte Catherine is great for shopping and is reportedly Europe’s longest shopping street. Speaking of shopping: Twice a year, usually in spring and winter, there is a wonderful antique market held on the grand Place de Quinconces. That one is well worth planning your trip around.
One of the best things to do in summer is play in the fountains in front of the Place de la Bourse. The Miroir d’Eau, or water mirror, is normally a sedate sheet of water offering fantastic reflections for photographers, but in summer the fountains offer a great way to cool down, or, if you are too shy, then at least watch other people getting a good soaking.
Lyon Has Three Centers That Need Exploring
Lyon has so much history, including two Roman amphitheaters, the two historic quarters on the hills, Fourvière and Croix Rouge, and the stately Fourviere Basilica. In between the two rivers, you have the peninsula Presqu-Ile, “nearly island,” with the great confluence space, where the two rivers meet, and a shopping quarter that is very similar to Paris, with grand boulevards, grand squares, and lots of shops, cafes, and restaurants.
Lyon’s traboules are an utterly unique and wonderful attraction in the city. Both historic hills on either side of the rivers are riddled with passages, stairwells, and hidden doors which connect houses, lanes, and former residences with the river. You can get maps of the various traboules — those which are open to the public — from the Tourism Information Centers, or even download an app that shows you the way.
Eat, Drink, And Be Merry
In Bordeaux, It’s All About The Wine
Bordeaux has the wine, the Wine Museum and Festival, and some iconic local treats, such as the canelé, a small rum and vanilla-soaked pastry that is crisp on the outside and soft in the middle and goes perfectly with freshly brewed coffee. And while Bordeaux certainly has plenty of good restaurants and local cuisine, there is no doubt that you do not come to Bordeaux for the food, but for the wine.
In Lyon, It’s All About The Food
Lyon, on the other hand, is foodie heaven, with the Lyonnaise cuisine famous, with even some of the best restaurants in Paris being proudly Lyonnaise. But it is the bouchons, tiny little restaurants serving traditional, hearty cuisine, that make Lyon such a great place to eat until you drop. That it was also the base of Paul Bocuse, French chef extraordinaire, is just by the by. Head out on a Gastronomy & Bouchon Tour with a local guide to hear more.
Bordeaux’s Sights Mostly Lie On Its Doorstep
In Bordeaux, you really ought to travel outside to enjoy all the vineyards. The best place to visit is quaint Saint-Emilion, which in itself is a lovely place, and on the way there you can stop off at a few vineyards. The most enjoyable way is by a bespoke tour that caters to your likes and interests. Another day trip from Bordeaux ought to be to Arcachon on the coast, a place for oysters and the beautiful seaside. Take a ferry across to Cap Ferret, one of the most serene seaside places in France.
Lyon Has A Variety Of Optional Excursions
In Lyon, you can sample the foodie delights right in the historic centers; that said, the Alps are within touching distance, and with it some beautiful Alpine towns. A must-see is Annecy, which headed the TravelAwaits Best of Travel Awards for Best International Small Towns. There is also Vienne on the Rhone River, not to be confused with Vienna in Austria. Vienne was a major Roman city in the day and is studded with amazing ruins.
So, which city wins? Both are easily accessible from Paris by train, both are great destinations full of scenery and history. One is closer to the ocean, the other closer to the mountains, one is perfect for wine enthusiasts, the other for foodies — and wine enthusiasts. Bordeaux can be combined with a beach vacation, while Lyon can easily be part of a stay in Provence, in the Alps, or indeed on the Mediterranean.
As I mentioned, I love both. But, if pushed, if you really only have time to see one city outside of Paris, then I would choose… drumroll… Lyon. Why, I am not too sure, but the steep hills (remember, you can take the funicular) dotted with the secret passages, the tiny little restaurants, the good food, the incredible murals on the side of buildings, and the two rivers are hard to beat.