It was nighttime when I first pulled into France‘s second-largest city, by car, and the lights were on – a wash of royal blue shining up onto orderly rows of stately Renaissance buildings in ochre hues and reflecting in the river that bisects the city. Handsome was the word that came to mind. A masculine gold-and-sapphire answer to Paris’s ravishing, soulful beauty.
This was the postcard edge of Vieux Lyon, the old quarter of the city. Behind the grand, polished edifices lining the main avenue, a tangle of ancient, narrow streets delivers on the quintessential old-world European fantasy. At bistros called bouchons, people linger over slices of red praline tart, the city’s signature dessert. The same silver bikes roving Paris by the thousands slide through traffic. Graffiti is covered by pink tissue paper in the shape of a poodle.
Lyon, the gateway to the Rhone-Alps region, makes a fantastic alternative to the country’s famous capital for those interested in culture, food and enchanting surroundings. Located in the eastern part of the country, it’s reachable from Paris by the high-speed TGV train and the new budget service, Ouigo, which launched on April 2. (You can also rent a car and wander there via the chateau-rich Loire Valley.) Significantly smaller and more affordable than Paris, it’s easy to get around (by bike, streetcar or foot) and isn’t overrun with tourists.
Lyon isn’t Paris writ petit. It has charms all its own. These are the ones I’ve fallen in love with over the years visiting relatives who live there:Traboules
These 16th-century covered arcades and tunnels feel like secret passageways through the historic districts, and they are Lyon’s distinctive architectural feature. It’s said that the Allied forces used them to elude the Nazis during World War II.
Lyon was originally a Roman colony, and several ruins remain. The Pont du Gard (pictured below), one of the most spectacular preserved Roman structures outside of Italy and the highest Roman aqueduct in the world, is an easy day trip.
Trompe L’oeil Murals
Lyon elevates murals to high art. Of the 60-some murals in the city, the trompe l’oeil masterpieces are the biggest attractions. They cover entire sides of tall buildings, and some fool you into thinking the scene is real.
Lyon launched the public-bicycle system that everyone associates with Paris – Paris’s Velib program is modeled after Lyon’s Velo’v. In fact, Lyon was the first European city to figure out how to make a municipal bike program sustainable.
Inside Cathedrale Saint-Jean in Vieux Lyon, this mechanical wonder first constructed in 1383, and reconstructed in 1661, contains a 66-year perpetual calendar that will be accurate until 2019. It also includes the position of the moon, the sun and the earth, as well as the stars in the sky over Lyon.
The Shell House
Hidden along one of the alleys in the Croix Rousse historic district, best known as the center of the city’s famous silk heritage, seashells cover every inch of surface of a home and courtyard. There’s a no-trespassing sign, but it’s worth a quick peek through the fence.
Hilltop villages like Oppede le Vieux (pictured below) are only a couple hours away. Day trip bonus: stopping at French truck stops. My favorite one offered used of old-school fitness equipment like pull-up bars, and curvy concrete daybeds outside under trees.