Lyon: The Second City of France

Lyon, the capitol of the Rhone-Alps Region, is the third largest city in France with a population of about 465,300 within the city limits. It is located in Eastern-central France, not far from the Swiss and Italian borders along the Rhone and Saône Rivers. Its location has made it a prime spot for trade since the Middle Ages, and even today it remains an economic center in addition to being the headquarters for Interpol and Euronews. Flying into Lyon is easy with the Lyon Saint-Exupéry International Airport just 20km outside the city, equipped with a high speed train that takes you from the airport directly to the center of Lyon in just minutes. There are also two main train stations in Lyon with connections throughout Europe. Once in the city, it is easy to get around on the extensive public transportation system which includes trams, an underground and buses. Visitors may be interested in buying the Lyon City Card which allows unlimited travel on the whole public transportation system in Lyon as well as access to the main tourist attractions. Lyon is filled with many bike paths that run through town as well as bike rental shops, allowing visitors the pleasure of exploring the city at a slower pace, as many of the natives do. Another option is taking one of the Tourist Taxis that the Chamber of Commerce has arranged. These provide not only transportation, but a running commentary of tourist information as you go from one point to another in Lyon, all included in the price. Lyon has long been a center for textiles, trade and banking as well as a university town. It has built its past on innovation and ingenuity, and today, as always, it is a vital city which is a pleasure to explore.

The area of modern Lyon was inhabited first by Celtic tribes, and then by the Romans. In 43 BC Lyon, then called Lugdunum by the Romans, was declared the capitol of the Three Gauls which were made up of Lyonnaise, Belgium and Aquitaine. This put Lyon at the center of Roman history and politics, second only to the city of Rome, with both Emperors Claudius and Caracalla born there. At one point there were over 12,000 Roman legionaries stationed in the city ready to protect the Empire from invasion of the Gauls. Rome lost the city, however, in the 3rd century, and so it went on to become the capitol of the Burgundian Kingdom after the invasion of Worms by the Huns in 461. Lyon was the center of the Christian church in France during the Dark Ages, and its political importance grew once again as the power of the church increased. In the 11th century the church’s power over Lyon was multiplied when the Bishop of Lyon was granted the title of the Primate of Gaul which gave the bishop legal, administrative and military power over the city. With the many roads that passed through Lyon between Northern Europe and Italy and with its location on two rivers, it is no wonder that during the Middle Ages the commercial interests of Lyon also grew as merchants from around Europe traveled through the city. Trade fairs were established, which brought even more commercial interests. During the Renaissance, the silk industry was brought to Lyon by the many wealthy Italian merchants that came to live there. Then, in 1528, King François I granted Lyon the exclusive right to weave gold and silver clothe, making the city famous throughout Europe for its extraordinary fabrics. Soon the industry was dominating the local economy and the product was flooding the international market. At this time Lyon was also the center of book printing in France. In 1476 The Holy Bible was the first book published in French, printed on the press, the Dentes Noires, invented in Lyon by Barthélémy Buyer. Banking also became important to the city, as the first French stock exchanged was opened in Lyon in 1506. Although in the 16th century Lyon had its share of problems with workers rebellions and religious struggles, the city continued to prosper. The 17th and 18th centuries saw riots over taxes and the cost of living and many epidemics, but also new wealth came with the invention of the Jacquard mechanical loom and extensive urban renewal followed. During the French Revolution, Lyon chose to side with the King. This led to a severe backlash in 1793, when Lyon was stripped of its name and much of the city was destroyed, only to be saved by an intervention by Napoleon himself. The textile industry continued to be a central part of Lyon’s economy in the 19th and 20th centuries, and many new dyes and fabrics were developed there, including rayon. In 1895 Lyon became famous once more for the invention of the cinema by its natives, the Lumière brothers. In that same year, Marius Berliet constructed the first motor car in Lyon.

Throughout its history Lyon has been a progressive city filled with universities, invention and ingenuity. Thanks to this and its location, it gained great wealth and importance on an international level. Today it continues to hold its important position in the European market, famous even now for its trade fairs and its role in the fashion and textile industries. Lyon is a city filled with a rich past which is celebrated throughout the city while it continues to be progressive and innovative, offering something for everyone. Be sure to take your time and explore the many neighborhoods of Lyon. Stop for a coffee in the Place de Terreaux, the public square where crowds would watch the work of the guillotine during the revolution. This square continues to be a favorite meeting place for locals and tourists alike with its many café and the center fountain by Bartholdi, who also designed the statue of Liberty.

Some Attractions

Amphithéâtre Gallo-Romain

This theatre is one of two that remain from Lyon’s glorious past as a Roman city. It dates from the 2nd century and at one time could hold about 11,000 spectators who would come to see the comedies and tragedies that were staged here. This was also the site of the martyrdom of many Christians. Nearby is also the Musée Gallo-Romain which looks at Roman civilization from the 7th century BC to its fall. The collection includes coins, sculptures, mosaics, ceramics and glass pieces. Of particular interest in the collection is the Claudian Tablet, part of one of the Emperor Claudius’ speeches given before the Roman Senate that is inscribed in bronze.

Jardin Archéologique Saint-Jean

This Episcopalian church complex which dates back to the 4th century was uncovered from 1973-1977 and is made up of three churches and other buildings. The original baptismal tank and many Roman monuments have been unearthed including a Roman home and the Manécanterie, where novices would have been taught. These excavations are worth a visit as they help visualize what Lyon would have been like under Roman rule and at the time of the early Christians.

Saint-Martin d’Ainay

This Romanesque church is a rare find in Lyon. Built in the 10th century, the church was consecrated by Pope Pascal II in 1107. At the time of its construction it would have been on the outskirts of the city and therefore would have been one of the first targets during an invasion by the Italians or the Dukes of Savoy. The bell tower, therefore, also acted as a watchtower during the Dark Ages, from which a guard would sit and sound the alarm should an enemy approach. In 177 AD a young Christian girl, Blandina, and 48 others were thrown to the lions in Lyon to be martyred. The lions refused to eat the girl, so she was killed and her bones were burned and tossed into the river. The ashes of Saint Blandina were said to have washed ashore at the site of this church and now be buried below the altar.

Cathédrale Saint-Jean

Lyon’s cathedral was begun in the 12th century, but not completed until 1476. This gothic structure features high arched ceilings and many windows which all emphasize the light. Within one finds a beautiful 14th century astronomical clock which features the heavens above and two crosses hung on either side of the altar which date from the Council of 1274 and symbolize the unity of the church. Be sure to visit the 15th century Bourbon Chapel which is filled with amazing sculptures by the Bourbon brothers.

Maison de Avocats

Built in 1471, this hotel hosted merchants who came for the trade fairs. It was once called the Croix d’ Or. One can now tour this amazing complex which included stables and warehouses. Its three story gallery is wonderful, and on the ground floor one finds huge pillars that support semi-circular arches. Seeing this inn helps one appreciate the importance of commerce in Lyon and how the merchants who came from all over Europe lived while they were here.

Basilica Notre-Dames de Fourvière

This church dominates Lyon’s landscape as it looms above on the Fourvière Hill. Built from 1872-1896, the basilica is filled with mosaics and stained glass, and below it is the crypt of Saint Joseph. There are two towers, and from the North one is a great view of the city. The basilica’s gardens, the Jardin du Rosaire, run below the tower and offer a beautiful walk as one follows the Way of the Cross and enjoys the view of the city below.

Tour Métallique de Fourvière

This 372 meter tall metal tower which resembles Paris’ Eiffel Tower was built from 1892-1894 to help counter balance the Basilica of Fourvière which seems to overwhelm the landscape. Built by a Mr. Gay, it was used in the Exposition Universelle of 1914, and at the time was equipped with an elevator and restaurant. It is still the tallest landmark in Lyon, but there is no longer any public access.

Musée des Beaux Arts

This fine arts museum is located in a 19th century palace and houses one of France’s finest international collections of paintings, sculptures, drawings and decorative arts from the 16th century to the present. The collection includes everything from Rubens to El Greco as well as an astounding collection of Impressionist art.

Musée Gadagne

This Renaissance townhouse was built between 1511 and 1527 and was opened as a museum in 1921, dedicated to the history of Lyon from the Middle Ages through the 19th century. The collection includes archeological relics, sculptures, paintings, furniture and other items all displayed in a way that helps to chronicle the city’s history. On site one also finds the Palais de la Miniature, a museum dedicated to the famous Marionettes de Lyon. Lyon has a long tradition of making these fabulous puppets, and throughout the city you will find these marionettes for sale in local shops. This museum, however, looks at the history of the craft, and has a wonderful and unusual collection of the puppets which includes a large variety of both local and international origin from different periods of time.

Musée des Tissus et des Arts Decoratifs

This museum which is housed in a 17th century townhouse follows the history and development of the textile industry, which is so central to Lyon’s history. The museum first opened in 1864 and includes fabrics, tapestries, and carpets from around the world and from different periods, spanning the last 2000 years. Displays include Byzantine, Italian and Coptic samples, but focus largely on Lyon’s own role in the industry. Of particular interest is the sample of the partridge motif brocade made especially for Marie Antoinette’s bed chamber in Versailles.

Institut Lumière

This museum is housed on the site where the Lumière brothers invented the cinema in 1895 and then went on with their company to produce over 1,300 films. The collection is dedicated to the brothers and the work they did in the film industry here in Lyon. This is a great place for film enthusiasts to visit.


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  1. […] Lyon « World Site TravellersVisitors may be interested in buying the Lyon City Card which allows unlimited travel on the whole public transportation system in Lyon as well as access to the main tourist attractions. Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off […]


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