Many years ago, I spent my 30th birthday in Paris, the fulfillment of a dream / decision that I made in my early 20s. It was wonderful, of course. I mean, it was Paris. I was with my husband, my best friends, in a city I had loved from afar for years. It made entering my 30s feel like the start of a great adventure.
Since then, I’ve been back to Paris several times and have been able to explore other parts of France. But it’s a big country, and there’s always more to see! So for my birthday this year, we found ourselves in Lyon, widely known as the gastronomic capital of France. Around that same time, the World Travel Awards named Lyon as the “European City Break” winner. Great pick, World Travel Awards. Lyon is a beautiful city that is perfect for a long weekend getaway. What did we love about Lyon?
It’s easy. Easy to get to, and easy to get around, thanks to a robust public transportation system. Our Lyon City Card (bought online in advance, and picked up at the airport) gave us unlimited access to trams, buses, and the funicular. We also took advantage of a walking tour, a boat tour, and museum admission, all included in the price of the City Card. You can also try out the Vélo’v bike share system.
It’s relaxed. In early September, the weather was lovely – if a bit too warm – and other than Sunday, the streets were uncrowded. The pace of the city is leisurely. There’s no shortage of cafes to stop for a drink. There are shady quays on the banks of the Saone to sit and watch the world go by.
It’s different. There’s so much history in Lyon, dating back to its founding in 43 B.C. There are Roman ruins to explore, if that’s your thing. Or you can seek out the traboules, the hard-to-find passageways that cut between buildings in the old city. You can spend a lovely afternoon at the new Musée des Confluences, a gorgeous building at the meeting points of the Saone and the Rhone Rivers.
It’s delicious. Lyon is all about the food. We didn’t eat at any Michelin-star restaurants, but believe me, we didn’t need to. Every bouchon, every small neighborhood cafe, every patisserie…they’re all amazing. The quality of the food and the care that goes into making (and eating!) it, is extraordinary. The best potato gratin I’ve ever had. The best ice cream I’ve ever had. Everything we ate was the most delicious version of that thing. Ever. On our last evening we ate at L’Ebauche Restaurant, which had been recommended by the owner of a wine bar we had enjoyed the night before. It was a local place, with tables spread over 2 floors, and a small menu. A prix fixe 3-course dinner was just €30, and included brilliant dishes with fresh ingredients, simply prepared. Inventive and creative without being fussy.
And then there’s the wine.
On my birthday, we took a great 1/2 day wine tasting tour that got us out of the city and into the area known as the Yellow or Golden Beaujolais, so named for the golden stones used in most of the buildings. We of course hadn’t really considered that doing a 1/2 day tasting at the START of the day would mean that our first tasting was before 10am. 9:48am, to be exact, in a church yard overlooking a valley, where our guide had set out a picnic blanket and three bottles. Not a bad way to start a birthday.
Our guide then took us and the two other couples (all Americans) to the town of Oingt, before heading to meet Etienne, the owner of the Domaine des Averlys. Etienne and his wife Mireille run every element of the vineyard, from the cultivation to the harvest to the labeling of the bottles. They produce about 45,000 bottles annually on an estate that has been in the family for 8 generations. Etienne was funny and generous, and the wine tasting in his cave was accompanied by saucisson sec and local chevre. All before noon.
Once back in Lyon, we met up with my dear friend Jon (hi Jon!), who had detoured from Paris for a couple of days, mostly to eat and drink with us. Thanks to his research, we found some great wine bars, including the quirky but wonderful Chateauneuf du Peuple. The outgoing owner offers a taste of whatever bottles he has open (with others available if none of those suit you), and every glass was just €5.
Paris is Paris. For many of us, it occupies a significant place in our imagination – even after we have seen some of the less-dreamy realities of the city. Lyon isn’t Paris, and to its credit, it doesn’t try to be. It doesn’t need to be. Having spent time in Lyon, I feel like I’ve been let in on one of France’s greatest secrets.
Stop passing through Lyon on your way to somewhere else. Just stop. In Lyon. And enjoy.