lyon old town

Your guide to the vieux lyon

Lyon old town is an amzing place to visit. It's the original medieval city and is known as Vieux Lyon. It was built on the west bank of the Saône river at the foot of the Fourvière hill, west of the Presqu'île. This area is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

The old part of Lyon lies between Fourvière and the river Saône. It was formerly the hub of Lyon, and the focus of its silk working industry with as many as 18,000 looms in operation in the mid 16th century.

Many of the city's wealthy inhabitants lived here, in magnificent town houses, more than 300 of which still stand. Space, however was at a premium, so this led to the construction of a number of narrow alleyways, known as traboules.

They are a fascination not to be missed. They're known as incontournables in the local parlance. Built perpendicular to the Saône, they were the solution to lack of sufficient space in which to develop a conventional network of streets, by linking the various buildings together.

Certainly no visit to Lyon would be complete without a journey into Vieux Lyon. The best route is to approach from the north-east. Go past the Marché des Bouquinistes along the quai de la Pêcherie, over the pont La Feuille and then either forward to place Saint Paul or down along the true right bank of the river.

On the river in Lyon old town you'll find artisanal stallholders offering fine jewellery, paintings, sculptures, fabrics, knitwear and boundless opportunities to improve your colloquial French with a bit of eavesdropping or stallholder banter.

Read our Lyon tourism guide

a wander through lyon old town

But what is Lyon old town really like? Join me as I wander around the Vieux Lyon...

Divided into three – St Paul to the north, St Jean in the centre and St Georges in the south – Vieux Lyon was once the seat of government and commerce. A place where those of wealth – traders, bankers and minor royalty – rubbed shoulders (or cocked a snook) as they to-and-fro'd between their elegant 15th-17th-century town houses.

More than 300 such mansions are still to be found – including one that today sees service as an Indian restaurant! – scattered about this enclave of very narrow passageways, known as traboules, wherein anyone not on intimate terms with the Fat Pill will have difficulty manoeuvring.

The same holds true for cars, especially anything larger than a Twingo that tries to negotiate the tight corners made all the more hazardous by adherents of that popular and widespread French contact sport called 'Parking the car'. 

One of the wonderful things about Lyon old town is the numerous street corner cafés. They do a roaring trade in coffee and croissants, and provide refuge for those who come in to read the free daily newspapers while surreptitiously eating their own food when 'Madame' is not looking.

At every turn, the alleyways break into little squares where ageing buildings lean companionably on one another like old friends, which, of course, they are. From a distant corner the sound of an accordion squeezing 'The Girl from Ipanima' from its bellows flows around the buildings, giving voice to the gentle breeze rising from the river. And the sudden smell of waffles interrupts the comforting dreaminess places like this instil in me; places that so emphatically proclaim that 'This is France'. 

Something not very French is happening in lyon old town

Outside the Boulangerie du Palais on the corner of rue St-Jean and the rue du Palais de Justice a queue is forming, an alien concept in contemporary France where queuing ranks alongside a rugby maul in terms of finesse. My situation is not at ease with the sight of so much patience and order, and my train of thought rebounds for a moment on the knowledge that the word 'queue' is also a mot argot reference to an intimate and size-variable item of a man's anatomy.

It's all very disconcerting.

Having zigzagged back to rue St-Jean over the course of an hour, I found the baker's queue still much in evidence. It was very disturbing; not at all French-like. Either the baker was on a go slow and it was the same people still waiting, or there was a rapid turnover in sugary beignet soufflé et sucré de pâte à choux frite (doughnuts), known very colloquially as pet de nonne, or nun's fart...but don't ask for them by that name.

Perhaps it was the aroma drifting from the boulangerie, or the chiming of stomach o'clock, but I was overcome by a sudden longing for lunch. Thankfully, among many well-appointed and pricey looking establishments round in Lyon old town, I found 'Un, Deux, Trois' on place Neuve Saint-Jean. It's a 20-cover Bouchon Lyonnais, a delightful little place offering, as the name suggests, three set menus, the most of which I most definitely made in spite of being reprimanded for not eating all my Salade Lyonnaise.

There was about it that quintessential atmosphere that brings you to undiscovered France, embracing simplicity, authenticity and good food; it doesn't say that anywhere, but it should, and from the barrage of air kisses that flowed every time the door opened it was clear that this was a popular place with locals in the know. So much so, that – and I don't think I've witnessed this anywhere else – a queue started forming outside the door, as people waited for others to vacate their tables.

Another queue.


But, to the 'Un, Deux, Trois' background of 1950s and 1960s music – Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochrane, Little Eva, the Everly Brothers and Chubby Checker getting himself in a twist – I had a destiny, with Iles Flottantes, the calorie-free version, of course.

Back at the boulangerie the queue was still there, coming up to three hours since I first passed. Order was restored, mercifully, when I reached the funiculaire for Fourvièvre, and the 'queue' for these little trains reverted to type: baguette-wielding Ninja-grannies, arms and elbows akimbo, stern faces and trampled toes...that's more like it!


19 place Bellecour, 69214 LYON                                         Tel: 04 72 77 69 69

Recent Articles

  1. French Food and Drink - No BS Guide for lovers of Food, Wine, Liqueurs

    Aug 28, 19 03:18 AM

    Our guide to French food and drink for those who love traditional French food along with our no BS guide to understanding French wine and liqueurs

    Read More

  2. Things To Do In Carcassonne The Ultimate Tourist Guide

    Aug 24, 19 06:26 PM

    The ultimate tourist guide to things to do in Carcassonne when you visit this wonderful town in Aude France. Discover the places to go and see in Carcassone.

    Read More

  3. Lyon Old Town Guide to Vieux Lyon

    Aug 18, 19 07:48 AM

    Your complete guide to Lyon old town otherwise known as the Vieux Lyon. Don't miss this amazing part of the city if you're visiting Lyon in France.

    Read More

  4. 18 French Villages You Must Visit Most Beautiful Villages in France

    Aug 17, 19 06:31 AM

    Our guide to the 18 most beautiful French villages you simply must visit. Loads of info, photos and facts in our ultimate villages in France tourist guide

    Read More

  5. What a Pissoir - The True Story of France's Unique Urinals

    Aug 13, 19 03:47 PM

    Is there anything more French than a pissoir? Sadly on the decline nevertheless the pissor is an endring image of the country. This is their story

    Read More