3 DAYS IN...

Narrow passageways called "traboules" are unique to Lyon and are among the city's main attractions.

Ancient beauty
waiting in Lyon

This French city’s Old Town
is famous for its gourmet
cuisine and buildings more
than 500 years old

Walking along the narrow streets of Lyon's Old Town is like taking a giant leap back 500 years. Cobblestone streets lined with ancient façades extend through France's largest Renaissance-era neighborhood. The ambience is enhanced by numerous older structures from the Gothic, Romanesque and classical Roman times, and by the absence of modern buildings. You won't find this uniform look in many of Europe's other large cities.

The Old Town is about a mile long and four blocks wide, with nearly 500 protected buildings that have been kept in excellent condition and are alive today with boutiques and art galleries. Lyon, famous as a gourmet center of France, can boast of many fine restaurants in the Old Town. History buffs will probably want to spend more time in the old section, but the modern side of Lyon is also a fascinating place to wander, eat and shop.

With a population of 1.26 million, Lyon is the second-largest urban area in France, but fortunately, most of the visitor attractions are concentrated in the central square mile.

The entire complex of old and new sections has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, affirming the importance and beauty of this amazing city. UNESCO usually selects only individual buildings or small complexes as World Heritage Sites, but here we have a large area of about 1 square mile assigned the highest mark of distinction.

In recent years, Lyon's popularity has skyrocketed, so you might consider coming during the off-season, October through May, to avoid the crowds.

The interior of the Cathedral St-Jean is noted for its 13th-century stained glass, 16th-century astronomical clock, paintings and extraordinary architecture.

Day One

Exploring the Old Town

This ancient neighborhood's narrow streets are clustered together and easily explored on foot. A half-dozen main pedestrian lanes are connected by smaller cross alleys, and plazas are filled with shops and restaurants. Start early, about 9 a.m. before the shops open at 10, so you can enjoy crowd-fee conditions. Once the shops open, people begin arriving in large numbers, making midday great for people-watching.

While there are lots of eating and shopping opportunities, the main activity here is just strolling and looking at the sights. A handy guidebook published by the Visitors Bureau offers information about many of the historic buildings, but you might not need to know when each structure was built. Simply realizing that most buildings are nearly 500 years old keeps things in perspective.

Restaurants are generally open for lunch from noon to 2 p.m., and again for dinner from 7 to 10:30 p.m., but there are some all-day cafes, brasseries and creperies. Most shops, art galleries, boutiques and antique stores are open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Cathedral St-Jean: One block from the Vieux Lyon metro station, the cathedral is one of the oldest buildings in Lyon and sits in the middle of the historic zone, which sprang up around it in the Middle Ages. The church was built during a 500-year period, starting in the 12th century, in a mix of Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance styles. The interior is noted for its 13th-century stained glass, 16th-century astronomical clock, paintings and extraordinary architecture.

Lyon was such an important religious center that more popes came here during the Middle Ages than to any other place outside Italy. It expanded as a trading, banking and manufacturing center, and became the second-largest city in France, partly due to its strategic location at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers, and alongside important east-west roads dating back to Roman times.

Silk manufacturing rapidly developed during the 16th century, and this tradition has grown into a diversified fashion industry that today employs 47,000 in the region. Lyon's modern chemical and pharmaceutical industries also grew out of this tradition of silk dyeing, employing another 50,000 today.

Place St-Jean, in front of the cathedral, is the Old Town's largest plaza, with attractive façades all around, including the Choir School on the right side of the cathedral. Dating to 1200, it served as school and housing for the church choir and is considered the town's oldest nonreligious building. On the north side of the cathedral along Rue Saint-Etienne is a small archaeological garden where recent excavations have turned up evidence of earlier churches, dating to the fourth century.

Saint-Jean: From the cathedral, walk north along the main lane of Old Lyon, Rue Saint-Jean. These next few blocks are the city's most beautiful. Notice how old and unique each colorful building is, with handcrafted architecture that renders each structure unique. This beauty could be lost on the casual traveler who might see only the contents of shop windows.

The sun sets over the city of Lyon.

For a little surprise, find the door at No. 68 Rue Saint-Jean, push it open and walk inside the narrow corridor leading through the building and out the other side. This is one of the joys of Lyon, a "traboule," or hidden passageway, and there are many waiting to be discovered.

Traboules: These narrow passageways are unique to Lyon and are among the city's main attractions. Traboules provide access to interior courtyards and a shortcut between streets at midblock. Many are open for the public to walk through -- if you can find them, which can be a little bit of a trick. Each entrance is concealed by an unlocked door that you have to push to open. Some traboules are open only until noon. A free map offered by the tourist office shows all the hidden passageways.

Traboules were developed centuries ago to protect silk from the weather as it was carried from one place to another. There are 230 functioning traboules throughout the city, but the most interesting ones are here in the Old Town.

A block further on Saint-Jean leads to No. 54, one of the longest traboules, crossing five courtyards. Each courtyard has its own style, with staircases for access to apartments and open space that brings air and light into the building complex.

When you emerge at the other end of the traboule at No. 54 Saint-Jean, you will be on Rue du Boeuf. Toward the end of this street on the left is the four-star deluxe hotel Cour des Loges, which was created in 2000 within a group of former college buildings dating to the 14th century.

Continue walking north a few blocks to the Hôtel de Gadagne, a Renaissance mansion that houses the Lyon History Museum. The mansion also houses the International Puppet Museum. A seven-year renovation of this complex has just been completed, incorporating audiovisual and multimedia tools to heighten the experience of visitors.

Another important ancient street, Rue Juiverie, continues two blocks past more notable mansions before reaching the end of the old town at Place Saint-Paul. Here you can visit the ancient church of Saint-Paul, then return into the heart of Old Lyon along Rue Lainerie, which connects with Rue Saint-Jean at the beautiful Place du Change. The Temple du Change here was built in 1631 as a bank for exchanging foreign currencies and later converted to a Protestant church.

A short trip up Fourviere hill, the oldest part of Lyon that was founded by the Romans, affords some fantastic views of the city.

Back on Rue Saint-Jean you can enter several "allée," or short corridors, to peek into courtyards at No. 58, 52, 50 42, 28, 24, 18 and 17. Then head to the No. 27 traboule to another pretty lane, Rue des Trois Maries. A few more traboules are open nearby at Nos. 2 and 3 Place du Gouvernment, leading to the river at Quai Romain Rolland, the site of an outdoor Sunday morning art market.

That covers most of Old Lyon, but there is also the smaller Saint-George section in the south end you might explore before moving on. Continue south a few blocks along Quai Fulchiron, the street just behind the cathedral, then turn right just beyond the St-Georges Church, which takes you up the Montee des Epies. Turn into Rue Armand Calliat and continue on Montee du Gourguillon, which loops you to the start of Rue St-Georges at Place de la Trinité, a lovely intersection of three lanes.

Preservation: Survival of historic structures is the result of much hard work by the government and concerned citizens, starting as far back as the 16th century. In the 19th century a professional organization was established to protect the city's history, the Société Académique d'Architecture.

The neighborhood deteriorated through neglect during the 18th and 19th centuries, and after WWII city planners proposed renewal projects that would have destroyed most of the old buildings. This was stopped by the combined efforts of author and Minister of Culture André Malraux and an aroused public. In 1964 this historic neighborhood was declared France's first protected district, and the Old Lyon Renaissance Association was created to care for the buildings.

According to UNESCO, "The historic site of Lyon may be regarded as an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, which combines an exceptional site with an urban continuity dating back more than 2,000 years that is remarkable for its harmony."

On Rue Saint-Jean you can enter several "allée," or short corridors, to peek into courtyards.

Fourviere: An essential part of your visit is taking a short trip up the hill behind the Old Town to see the oldest part of Lyon, founded by the Romans, and enjoy some fantastic lookout views. Take the easy way up by riding the world's oldest funicular (built in the 1860s) from the Vieux Lyon metro station one stop to Minimes, and then walk 200 yards to the archaeological park.

Ancient Roman sites: Lyon was settled 2,000 years ago by the Romans, who made this their capital in Gaul, most of what is France today. It was the second-largest city in the empire, with a population of about 50,000. Four aqueducts brought water to this hillside settlement, which was a major military garrison and trading center, complete with a forum, temples, apartments and two large theaters, discovered beneath the hillside in the 1930s and renovated in the 1950s. The larger one holds 10,000 spectators and is so well preserved that it is still used today for concerts, dance, operas and plays. A smaller, second-century Odeon was designed to hold 3,000 spectators for more intimate music and poetry recitals, and is also in perfect condition.

The Gallo-Roman Museum, opened in 1976, is so cleverly hidden inside the hill you cannot see it, let alone appreciate its scope, until you enter and walk along the 340-yard ramp lined with rich historic Roman displays.

Fourviere Basilica: After visiting the archaeological park, walk 200 yards north along the street in front, Rue de l'Antiquaille, until you reach a landscaped path that continues to Fourvière Basilica, a huge neo-Byzantine structure that dominates the hill. Built in the late 19th century, the basilica has a colorful interior with extensive mosaics and stained glass, but the main attraction is an outdoor terrace that offers a perfect panoramic view across the city that is especially charming at twilight.

Descending the hill back into the old town is easy on foot, with comfortable paths and staircases leading you down in 15 minutes. By now it might be time to look for dinner in one of the typical local restaurants ("bouchons") in the old town, or perhaps try different ethnic cuisines available.

Day Two

Modern Lyon

Along with the historic district, Lyon offers a delightful modern side, Presqu'île. This is the heart of downtown, concentrated into an area about one mile long and six blocks wide on a peninsula between the Rhône and Saône rivers a few minutes from the old town. A metro line also runs the entire length, making it easy to hop from one end to the other.

This modern shopping area features one of Europe's longest pedestrian routes along Rue de la République and Rue Victor Hugo. Several broad plazas, such as Place des Jacobins and Place de la République, enhance the neighborhood, as do the many little side lanes connecting the main pedestrian route with the busy commercial streets.

Most of the buildings were constructed during the 19th century in a fashion reminiscent of Paris, for both cities were redeveloped under the influence of Napoleon III and Baron Haussman in the Second Empire style of broad boulevards and grand, ornamented buildings. Some buildings dating to the Gothic period lend added visual appeal.

Place Bellecour: This square, formerly the Place Royale, houses an equestrian statue of Louis XIV in the center. Measuring 200 by 300 yards, this is one of the largest squares in Europe. The official tourism office here offers free maps, guidebooks for sale and a gift shop. If you arrived without a place to stay or want to change hotels, ask for help. Even if most of your time is spent in Old Lyon, the new town houses most of the hotels. It takes only 10 minutes to walk across the river to the old section.

Rue de la Republique: Lyon's main pedestrian shopping promenade starts from the northeast corner of Place Bellecour and continues about half a mile with small boutiques and large department stores. On the right side of the first block, you will see the elaborate 1877 façade of the former Bellecour Theater, now housing the large FNAC department store stuffed with high-tech goodies. Next door is the Pathé cinema complex with 10 screens behind an Art Deco façade.

Movies were invented in Lyon by the Lumière brothers, who photographed the world's first motion picture here in 1895. The Lumière Museum is at 25 Rue du Premier Film.

Romans settled the area 2,000 years ago, leaving behind remnants of their ancient civilization, such as this theater.

Three blocks further is the Place de la République, one of Lyon's most important squares, enlivened by a merry-go-round and massive fountain that sprays much of the plaza with low jets. Just southeast of the square is a hospital dating from 1706, Hôtel-Dieu, with several historic passages open to the public. On the west side of Place de la République is a Neoclassical arch leading into a covered retail gallery, Passage de l'Argue, created in 1825 as one of the world's first shopping malls. The passage is flanked by a major department store, Printemps. Those interested in outdoor vegetable markets could take a detour three blocks west to the riverbank where vendors sell fresh produce every morning.

Chocolate lovers will want to visit Voisin, in business for 100 years at 28 Rue de la République, and on the left at No. 24, notice the very popular Bar Americain & Café Anglais, which offers full meals or just drinks and dessert. Then look for three landmark buildings in the blocks ahead: Saint Bonaventure Church, founded in 1327; the Palais du Commerce, a massive mid-19th century palace that housed the stock exchange, law courts and chamber of commerce, located by the Cordeliers metro station; and the Bourse, an opulent bank on Rue de la Bourse.

Two blocks beyond, you reach the opera and city hall facing each other across the Place de la Comedie, the northernmost extent of our walk. The Opéra de Lyon was built 1826-31, then dramatically reconstructed in the 1980s. Hotel de Ville, one of the great buildings of France, is much older, constructed as a palace with Italian influences during the time of Louis XIII in the early 17th century. It is closed to the public but can be appreciated from the outside.

Place Des Terreaux: Around the corner from city hall is one of the main squares of Lyon, with a dramatic fountain and sculpture ensemble in the middle by Alexandre Bartholdi, creator of the Statue of Liberty. This "Chariot of Liberty," commissioned for the city of Bordeaux but displayed instead in Paris at the 1889 World Fair, ended up in Lyon.

Fine Arts Museum: Lyon's Fine Art Museum has one of France's richest collections of art, ranging from ancient Egypt through Impressionism. Put this high on your list of places to visit. Opened in 1802 and recently renovated, the museum is especially strong in European Old Master paintings. It is a thrill to ramble along from one room to the next. Even those with a slight interest in art will find many works to enjoy. The peaceful garden courtyard is a highlight, surrounded by vast arcades and statues.

Walk south along Rue Paul Chenard, a busy commercial street. In a few blocks you'll reach Saint-Nizier Church, an excellent example of flamboyant Gothic architecture, started in the 15th century and finally finished in the 19th century. From here, continue south along Rue Mercière, which becomes a pedestrian lane lined with excellent restaurants. This charming lane leads into Place des Jacobins, another square with a central fountain featuring hefty mermaids holding up four artists and surmounted by a small dome. Continue south two more blocks back to Place Bellecour, and take a break on a park bench.

Rue Victor Hugo: This street is the southern extension of the pedestrian promenade through Presqu'île, and continues for eight shop-lined blocks to Place Carnot. At the end, walk one block to Rue Auguste Comte and head north through the antique district. Lyon has nearly 600 antique shops. Those more interested in the field might enjoy visiting the Museum of Decorative Arts and Textiles, nearby at 34 Rue de la Charité.

By now you have walked many miles and have earned your dinner, after which you should rest up for a big trip out of town tomorrow.

On Sunday mornings, Rue Saint-Claire in Annecy hosts an outdoor market with olives, artichokes, escargot, fresh baked goods, fruits, vegetables and many kinds of cheese.

Day Three


Perhaps the most enjoyable day-trip possibility is a train trip to the popular town of Annecy. Taxi over to Lyon's main train station, Gare de la Part-Dieu, passing through a bland commercial district, unless you are attracted to the modern Part-Dieu shopping mall with 260 stores and Galeries Lafayette a block from the station. You could save that for your return later in the day.

It takes about 2 1/2 hours to reach Annecy, a journey through a lovely countryside. Annecy is one of the prettiest villages in all Europe. The old section has several small canals running through it and a main street lined with ancient buildings and sidewalks covered by sheltered Middle Ages arcades. The Thiou Canal has quays, or walkways, that run along it, with quaint old colorful buildings like paintings that have come to life.

A small castle, the Palais de l'Isle, sits in the middle of the canal like a stone ship with a pointed bow. Built in the 12th century as the governor's residence, it became a fort, a prison, a courthouse and the mint until it was nearly torn down in the 19th century. Now it is one of France's most photographed buildings, preserved as a national monument, the Musée de l'Histoire d'Annecy, with a small historic exhibition. The Castle Museum is on a hill next to the old town and makes a fine visit if you have the time.

The Thiou Canal has quays, or walkways, that run along it, with quaint old colorful buildings.

Sunday Market: Annecy is especially wonderful on Sunday mornings when a big outdoor market opens along the main street of the old district. You might want to time your visit to arrive on a Sunday. You could easily spend a couple of hours simply wandering through the marketplace spread out along Rue Saint-Claire, filled with people, and olives! We're in the south of France, after all, where people love their olives. They even give away free samples of tapenade, crushed olives, sold from big barrels. Other goodies: artichokes, escargot, fresh baked goods, fruits, vegetables and cheeses. One of the rules in these markets is you don't touch the food yourself. Just point and the merchant will serve you.

You'll find all sorts of things for sale besides food, and it's a great spot for people-watching and photography. There are souvenirs and postcards for sale to tourists, but most of the people here are residents or perhaps French tourists on holiday, because of its proximity, just four hours from Paris by train. If you're coming from Paris, you'd want to spend at least a night here. You can combine this with visits to other nearby towns, like Grenoble and Martigny.

Annecy is reminiscent of a Swiss town on a waterfront, like Lucerne. After all, it's close to the Alps, and this region shares in the Alpine culture. The lake at Annecy is a popular recreation spot, claimed to have the cleanest water in France. With a stunning setting of mountains in the background, Lake Annecy provides opportunities for fishing, boating, cycling, hiking and camping that could extend your stay many more days.

Dennis Callan's "Three Days in ..." series explains how to get the most out of the world's great places. Callan is president of the Hawaii Geographic Society and frequently leads tours through Europe, Canada and the United States. He produces the "World Traveler" TV series, airing at 8:30 p.m. Saturdays on 'Olelo, channel 53. His previous 51 articles can be found at www.tourvideos.com. Callan will be on three long trips through December, and will resume the series early next year.

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