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The capital of the Rhone-Alpes region, Lyon is the second-largest metropolitan area in France. But this historic city beats Paris as a cruising destination, thanks to its prime location at the confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers.
The original medieval town, Vieux Lyon, was founded in 43 B.C. by a lieutenant of Julius Caesar on the hilltop district known today as Fourviere. Ruins of this Roman settlement are recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with concerts and operas still held at the (partially intact) ancient amphitheater every summer.
In the Middle Ages, the city expanded to the east bank of the Saone, and it has belonged to multiple provinces over time. It wasn't until the Renaissance era that Lyon truly flourished, largely in the industries of silk-weaving and printing. Almost 500 years later, it still holds its status as a leading world center for textile design.
Modern Lyon is most famous for its excellent gastronomic scene, as well as many striking buildings, such as the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourviere, which looms over the city; La Tour Metallique, sometimes called the Eiffel Tower's "little sister"; and almost 100 walls painted with huge murals.
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Other Europe River Cruise Ports:
Antwerp • Arnhem • Berlin • Brugge (Bruges) • Brussels • Bucharest • Budapest • Cologne • Dresden • Ghent • Heidelberg • Honfleur • Koblenz • Lyon • Passau • Porto • Prague • Rotterdam • Rudesheim • Strasbourg • Vienna
Silk is the top purchase among shoppers, and cruise lines' shore excursions probably will include a stop at a store selling beautiful scarves, ties and clothing. Croix-Rousse is the main region for silk production and can be conveniently visited on a guided tour.
The official language is French. English is spoken, but not all shopkeepers or waiters are fluent. It is best to start with bonjour (hello) and ask parlez-vous anglais? (do you speak English?). Always say merci (thank you) when leaving a store or restaurant. People will smile politely at your poor pronunciation, but they appreciate the effort.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
As part of the European Union, France uses the euro. Visit XE.com for current exchange rates. Credit cards are widely accepted, and ATM's are easily found throughout the city.
Where You're Docked
Ships dock along the Quai Claude Bernard, on the east bank of the Rhone, near the University of Lyon.
There is no cruise terminal at Lyon; vessels simply dock against the riverbank. The Rhone's banks have been pedestrianized, with trees and flowers planted to brighten up the setting. It is possible to walk into town for shops, banks and Internet facilities. Many cafes, restaurants and bars are located on the opposite street, and some float on the water. A small boat-cafe called La Passagere (21 Quai Victor Augagneur; 33-4-72-73-36-98; 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. daily) serves alcohol, coffee and hot chocolate.
The cruise line will provide complimentary transportation to and from shore excursions, but if you wish to strike out on your own, it's easy to walk to most of the sights (or catch the funicular from Vieux Lyon Metro station up the steep hill to Fourviere).
Public transport is very efficient and affordable. There are four metro (subway) lines, as well as four tram lines and more than 100 bus routes.
Some ships carry bicycles onboard, or you can use Velo'v, a cheap form of bike rental available from several spots around the city. From the dock, you can cycle on a flat path to an urban park, Parc de la Tete d'Or, about 1.5 miles north. The busy streets are best avoided on two wheels.
Watch Out For
Crime is not a major concern in Lyon, but pickpockets are known to operate in tourist areas, so it is sensible to take the usual precautions.
Also, be careful when crossing the street, as French drivers do not always slow down for disoriented tourists.
Fourviere Hill has it all -- an unbeatable panoramic view, a mini-Eiffel Tower (not open to tourists), an 1870's basilica (open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.) and Roman ruins. The Amphitheatre des Trois Gaules (built circa 19 A.D.) is fenced in so you can view it only from the outside. Ride up and down the hill on the funicular for an extra novelty.
In the city center, keep an eye out for more than 100 trompe l'oeil murals and wall-sized frescoes, which tell the various stories of Lyon. Some stretch several stories high, from street level to top floor. At the outdoor Musee Urbain Tony Garnier (4 rue des Serpollieres), 30 inspiring murals are painted on the buildings of a housing project.
At night, more than 150 buildings and monuments are illuminated, with some using light projectors to create colorful patterns and images. Don't forget to step out on a balcony or open deck to view them from your ship.
If you're looking to do some souvenir shopping, the car-free Rue St. Jean in the Old Town is Lyon's mecca for souvenir shops. Wear flat shoes that can handle this cobblestone street. The parallel Rue des Trois Maries, between Place de la Baleine and Rue du Palais de Justice, is a quieter option when the crowds are hectic. This area also houses many bouchons (traditional restaurants), although these are aimed at tourists and do not necessarily serve the most authentic local cuisine. Ideal for cruisers, outdoor second-hand book markets are set up along the Saone at Quai de la Pecherie. The titles are mostly in French, but you will find lovely vintage maps and postcards. (10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday and Sunday)
Been There, Done That
If you have already seen the main sights, explore Lyon's other claim to fame as the birthplace of cinema. In the late 19th century, residents Louis and Auguste Lumiere invented cinematography, recording a 50-second film of their family's employees in 1895. The site of the Lumieres' business is now a theater screening international classics. But the best stuff is next door at the Institut Lumiere, which shows original Lumiere movies and displays their famous cinematograph and other early filmmaking devices. (25 rue du Premier Film)
Resist the temptation to go back to the ship for a free lunch. Instead, treat yourself to French cuisine at its best. Why? Because Lyon is regarded as the gastronomic capital of France.
The good news is that food is reasonably priced, even for a three-course lunch with plenty of wine. The bad news, for the unadventurous, is that the Lyonnais specialty is offal. Typical dishes include tripe, tongue and trotters (the feet of pig or sheep). At one restaurant, a chicken is cooked inside a pig's bladder, and a pig's digestive tract is filled with blood. However, these traditional bouchons also embrace other kinds of meats and nibbles.
For a snack on the run, grab a warm croissant or pain au chocolat from one of the city's many bakeries with outdoor counters.
At the very cozy Le Garet, diners are welcomed with pork crackling, caper berries and a jar of cornichons (sour gherkins). Meals range from a tomato steak salad to frog legs and seafood broth with creamed spinach, as well as the obligatory brains and liver. To make a reservation, e-mail email@example.com. (7 rue de Garet)
Les Cafe des Federations does not provide menus. Instead, a charcuterie plate is presented with sliced sausages, caviar and puy lentils before the waiter recites the main dishes of the day. Expect calf's head and black pudding, but also quenelles en brochette (fish soup) and poulet au vinaigre (chicken in a creamy vinegar sauce). (8-10 rue Major Martin; 04 78 28 26 00)
For something more familiar, start at the top. Lyon's super-chef Paul Bocuse, known as the father of nouvelle cuisine, celebrates the taste of fresh ingredients. His namesake restaurant has earned three Michelin stars and he also owns Le Nord, Le Sud, L'Est and L'Ouest. Lunch is served at Le Sud brasserie, a short walk from the Rhone, at the edge of Place Antonin Poncet. The decor and food evokes the Mediterranean, with fare including salade nicoise, osso bucco and spit roast. Diners can enjoy eating on a sun-filled terrace in summer. (11 Place Antonin-Poncet; 04 72 77 80 00)
Best for a Splurge: The five-star Villa Florentine, ideally located on Fourviere Hill, is walking distance to the main attractions. Guests receive spectacular city and river views that can even be enjoyed from the outdoor swimming pool and Jacuzzi (but not from all rooms). The original building was constructed in the 16th century as a convent, and the elegant lobby used to be a chapel.
Close to Port: The waterfront Sofitel Lyon Bellecour is situated on the Rhone river, near the Place Bellecour. The National Opera House and museums are only meters away, and it's five minutes to Perrache and Part-Dieu stations. Onsite is a Michelin-starred restaurant, Les Trois Domes, as well as two bars, a day spa and gym.
Best Value: The Best Western Hotel Du Pont Wilson is a few steps from the banks of the Rhône, between Place Bellecour and the Part Dieu. Nonsmoking and air-conditioned rooms each have wireless Internet, a TV, a mini-bar, a safe and views of the river and Fourviere Hill.
Tight Budget: The two-star Hotel de Noailles is located by the eastern riverbanks, between the city center and Part Dieu TGV station. Air-conditioned rooms lack a water view but offer TV's and wireless Internet.
Staying in Touch
Many hotels, cafes and bars have free wireless Internet. But remember, most river-cruising vessels also provide complimentary Internet access and computers onboard.
On river cruises, excursions typically are included in your fare. Most cruise lines offer two complimentary choices: generally a bus tour and a walking tour. All excursions visit the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourviere, Lyon Cathedral, Roman ruins and examples of Renaissance-era architecture.
Bus tours are best for first-time visitors, as the route will pass by all the major sights. Brief stops are made for passengers to stretch their legs and take photographs. Walking tours are conducted at a slow pace but, because of the cobblestone streets and two-hour duration, they aren't recommended for the less mobile. These walks, guided by a Lyon resident, tend to focus on the back streets of the Old Town (Vieux Lyon) and visit shops, squares, statues, a silk-weaver and restaurant areas. You may also get a chance to ride the funicular and walk through traboules, secret passageways that lead into the courtyards of people's apartments and create shortcuts throughout the city.
For More Information
Lyon Tourist Office and Convention Bureau: Tourist information office is located at Place Bellecour in the 2nd district.
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IndependentTraveler.com: Europe Travel Guide
--by Louise Goldsbury, Cruise Critic contributor