Old Town Lyon Things to Do
For those that wonder does Lyon have an Old Town? The answer is yes, and a spectacular one indeed! Old Town Lyon, or Vieux Lyon as it is affectionately called by its residents, is designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the best-preserved examples of Roman, Medieval and Renaissance architecture in Europe.
It is one of Lyon’s most fascinating neighbourhoods and also happens to be one of our favourite places to visit. Why? Because Old Town Lyon encompasses all of the things we like to do in an area that can be comfortably discovered in a day. In this blog we will share all the highlights with you.
Highlights of Old Town Lyon
Here are our suggestions for things to do in Lyon Old Town.
Stroll through Place du Change
Place du Change is located in the Saint Paul district of Vieux Lyon. Saint Paul was the section of the Old Town Lyon where the commercial traders from Italy conducted their banking.
The Temple du Change that sits in the square in Saint Paul, was originally the stock exchange of Lyon. This is a location steeped with Old Lyon history. When it was initially constructed in the early 17th century it was called the Loge du Change.
As commerce increased in Lyon and a larger building was required, it was rebuilt in the neo-classical style in the mid 18th century.
After the French Revolution the building was given to the Protestants who were becoming a growing population in Lyon.
Discover the Traboules
The Traboules are the covered passageways that cut through the Renaissance buildings in Lyon that were built to provide sheltered shortcuts for residents and craftsmen as they passed from street to street.
There are five hundred Traboules in Lyon with about eighty that are accessible to the public. While they exist in a few other French cities, they are primarily associated with the ancient city of Lyon.
The Traboules are accessed via doorways which are protected with an electronic lock. Residents use a code to unlock the doors so they can pass through to their apartments or houses which are accessible from the passageway.
For those Traboules which are open to non-residents there is a “secret” button on the electronic lock which allows the door to be opened. These buttons are only active between 6:00am and noon for non-residents which gives anyone the opportunity to go through these passageways between the streets.
For other ideas on what to do in the other areas of Lyon check out our article on places to visit in Lyon.
Appreciate the Lyon Cathedral – Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist
The Saint Jean district in the Old Town Lyon was known as the religious centre of Lyon in the Middle Ages. This area housed the religious and political leaders of the region and is home to the Lyon Cathedral.
While some may not consider the Lyon Cathedral as interesting as the Basilica Notre Dame that stands high above it on Fourviere Hill, this cathedral is the main church of the Diocese of Lyon. It has been the seat of the Bishop of Lyon since the 11th century.
The Lyon Cathedral is considered one of the oldest churches in France. While it’s construction began in 1180 AD and wasn’t completed until nearly three hundred years later, the history of the church is older than that.
An earlier cathedral, dedicated to Saint Stephen was built here in the 5th century. Later, in the 7th century, a baptistery was added to the cathedral and dedicated to Saint John. It is on the ruins of this site that the Lyon Cathedral was constructed and became the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist.
This magnificent building is one of the most well preserved in Lyon and is well worth spending time at. It is beautiful on the outside and awe inspiring on the inside with it’s high vaulted ceilings, gothic arches and stunning stained glass windows.
Explore the Musée Gadagne
Musée Gadagne is situated in one of the most fascinating buildings in Old Town Lyon. While the current structure is a magnificent Renaissance-style building dating to the beginning of the 16th century, its history goes way beyond that.
Archeological evidence shows the existence of dwellings on this site dating back to the early 1st Century B.C. Subsequent buildings were constructed, demolished and reconstructed on the site in the 3rd, 5th and later centuries right up until the current structure was built as a private mansion in the early 1500s.
It is currently the largest Renaissance complex in Lyon and is included in the Lyon UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Aside from its fascinating history and architectural significance, it is a museum. Well, it’s actually 2 museums: the Lyon Museum of History and the Museum of Marionettes.
Admire the Cour d’Appel de Lyon (Court of Appeal)
The Cour d’Appel in Vieux Lyon is a wonderful example of Neo-Classical architecture. The stately structure sits on the banks of the Saône river with the Notre Dame Basilica perched on Fourviere Hill visible behind it.
Its impressive façade is highlighted by 24 Corinthian Columns. For this reason the courthouse is sometimes referred to as the “Palace of 24 Columns”. It is said that the 24 columns represent the 24 hours in a day and refers to that fact that Justice never sleeps.
This isn’t the first Lyon courthouse to occupy this location. Several other courthouses were built here over the centuries, beginning in the 1400s. The current courthouse was started in 1835 and took 10 years to complete. It was totally renovated in 2008.
While the historic building was once the main courthouse in Lyon, a new building was constructed in 1995 across the Rhone in la Part Dieu to handle the day to day court activities. So while this building was once the actual Palais de Justice, it is currently used for appeals and thus is now the Cour d’Appel.
Contemplate the “Weight of Oneself” Sculpture
What an interesting name for a sculpture! The Weight of Oneself Sculpture depicts one man standing holding what appears to be another man in his arms. The man he is holding appears limp and inanimate.
It turns out that the man he is holding is actually himself. The sculpture represents the heavy weight of justice and appropriately, this statue is located on the banks of the Saône in front of the historical Cour d’Appel of Lyon.
The 2.7 metre (9 feet) tall sculpture is made from solidified marble powder. It is a compelling piece of art to look at and to contemplate.
Browse and Shop at the Petit Prince Store
Le Petit Prince (the Little Prince) store in Vieux Lyon is a treasure trove of souvenirs all devoted to the fictional little boy from another planet who finds himself stranded on earth.
The story of le Petit Prince is a heart wrenching philosophical tale filled with symbolism and messages of the human condition seen through the lens of a child.
Le Petit Prince became one of the world’s best selling books and has been translated more than any other work outside of the bible.
Why is there a store about le Petit Prince in Old Town Lyon? Well, the famous French author, who wrote the book, Antoine de Saint-Exupêry, was born in Lyon in 1900. He was an aviation pioneer who served during World War II and is believed to have died on a reconnaissance mission in 1943.
Le Petit Prince store is a wonderful little boutique and a great spot to purchase a cherished souvenir to commemorate your visit to Vieux Lyon.
Learn About The Petit Musée de Guignol
Le Petit Musée de Guignol has only been around since 1995, but it showcases a form of entertainment that began in Vieux Lyon in the 18th century. The museum features the puppet Guignol and his sidekicks who provided entertainment to the workers of the declining silk trade after the French Revolution.
The creator, Laurent Mourget, was a silk trader who turned to dentistry to make ends meet. In order to attract patients, and distract them while their teeth were being pulled, he would put on a slapstick and satirical puppet show with his creations.
Mourget’s shows became so successful that he eventually gave up dentistry to become a professional puppeteer. Over the years, the Guignol, evolved and took on many different personalities emulating people from Lyon.
Le Petit Musêe de Guignol is open year-round and features self-guided audio tours of the artifacts over two floors in the heart of Vieux Lyon.
Dine At An Authentic Bouchon
Les Bouchons are the famous Lyonaisse eateries that are known for their convivial atmosphere and hearty food. They are found throughout Lyon, but you will find some of the best examples in the streets and squares of Old Town.
These restaurants serve traditional Lyonnaise fare such as quenelle, roast pork, duck paté, saucisson and salad lyonnaise. While there are purported to be over two hundred Bouchons in Lyon, there are only about 20 that are authentic Bouchons.
These can be identified by the official Bouchon logo displayed in their restaurants and on the official list of designated restaurants. And perhaps you will notice the character in the logo is Guignol!
For a taste of real Lyon, be sure to find one of the authentic Bouchon in Vieux Lyon and treat yourself to a hearty meal. You definitely won’t leave hungry!
What Is Vieux Lyon Known For?
This beautiful part of Lyon is known for its cobblestone streets, passageways and quaint narrow streets, great shopping and fantastic dining. It is a spot meant for meandering and taking your time to explore.
Lyon City Card
Be sure to look into the Lyon City Card that is offered by the Tourist Office for a great deal. This card will give you free access to many museums including the Musee Gadagne and Petit Musee de Guignol. It will also provide you with a free walking tour of Vieux Lyon. Plus many more savings and discounts.
Old Town Lyon Restaurants
As the gastronomic capital of France there are no shortage of amazing places to eat. In fact there are three different Michelin starred restaurants on the same street rue de Boeuf – Jeremy Galvan, Au 14 Fevrier, and Les Loges. And of course there are many more options of where to eat including the famous Bouchon restaurants.
We enjoyed a wonderful meal in the Old Town at Le Francois Villon. It is a Bouchon in a super cute space, serving excellent traditional dishes. Check it out and enjoy the specials of the day!
Lyon Old Town Hotels
✅ A family-run property that has been recently renovated is The Phenix. Guests rave about the spacious rooms, excellent air conditioning and the perfect location. They offer 35 rooms with room types of solos, rooms for two or triple occupancy with three twin beds.
✅ For a property with an incredible view check out the Villa Florentine. This location is perfect for exploring the city but also offers some additional amenities such as a work out room, pool, sauna, and steam room. The 29 rooms onsite are tastefully decorated and the service of the staff is fantastic. This hotel also offers an award winning restaurant onsite.
The Final Word: Old Town Lyon
As you can see we love Old Town Lyon. There is such a charm about this section of the city and it really deserves some time during your visit. Wander the streets and explore the Traboules, do some shopping and enjoy a fantastic meal. Whatever you do – enjoy your time in this delightful area of Lyon.