Lyon, France’s most understated city. Without Paris’ world-famous charms or the Côte d’Azur’s infamous reputation, Lyon may seem industrial, cold and unwelcoming without the same touristic appeal. However, France’s third-largest city has a rich culinary tradition and is the hometown of some of France’s most renowned chefs: Paul Bocuse, Mère Brazier, not to mention the plethora of famous French Michelin chefs who have worked here.
I would recommend eating at any known bouchon Lyonnais in Vieux Lyon; the cuisine is certain to be spectacular. Lyon’s most famous watering holes are exclusive: meals can start at 40 euros. Even if you can splurge, patrons have to make a reservation three months in advance at some of the best dining spots. Here are five ways to experience Lyon’s culinary je ne sais quoi.
1) Cuisine Lyonnaise
Lyon’s kitchens are where France’s top chefs master their craft from great culinary geniuses. So, when visiting Lyon, it is a must to try traditional Lyonnais cuisine. Quenelle (a French dumpling), gratin, raclette, tartiflette, and anything pork-related are regional specialties. The Rhône-Alpes region is also famous for its wines, in particular Beaujoulais Nouveau, which is exported as far away as China. The desserts are also heavenly.
How does one afford this splendor? It is wise to set a budget and find a bouchon within your price limit. This is quite easy to do if you spend a bit of time roaming the narrow streets of the old city, in the heart of the Presqu’Île. While you soak in Lyon’s vibrant atmosphere, don’t forget to look for restaurants in the alleys and medieval passageways.
My personal recommendation is Le Mercière (56 rue Mercière). This establishment was founded in 1978 and is located on one of Vieux Lyon’s main pedestrian roads. Customers can dine in an old passageway and enjoy an authentic Lyonnais experience without exorbitant prices. The menu du Mercière is a four-course meal for 35 euros; the wine is also great. If you eat here at noon, the prices are even better on the “carte du jour.”
2) Sweet Discoveries
No culinary paradise would be complete without excellent desserts and Lyon is not without its’ sweet tooth. Boulangeries and patisseries abound in this metropolis, with croissants, pains au chocolat, and many species of gateaux and pastries to suite even the most refined epicurean.
Lyon is famous for a particular confection: coussin de Lyon. Emerald green marzipan enrobes a chocolate curacao ganache creating one of the best sweets in existence. Literally translated, this means Lyon’s cushion, and has great historical significance to the city. When the plague ravaged Lyon in the 17th century, the city’s politicians led a procession to Fourvière to ask the Virgin Mary to save Lyon.
Apparently, their mission was successful and the cushion used in the procession inspired the chocolatier Voisin to create the new sweet. Thus, a new Lyonnais tradition was born. It is only available in Voisin (locations around Lyon) and is sold individually or in velvet green boxes.
3) Japanese Food, Made in France
Although Lyon boasts its own rich culinary heritage, restaurants from every part of the world form an integral part of Lyon’s food scene. From Mexican to Chinese to Italian, locals, expats and tourists can embark on culinary tourism without leaving the city limits.
Being a Vancouverite, I am constantly on the lookout for good Japanese food. An excellent maki or sashimi brings me back to Granville Street and any homesickness quickly vanishes. Sadly, most European cities lack decent sushi bars or noodle joints; but Lyon is an exception. There is a smorgasbord of choices: traditional Japanese recipes, North American creations and recent French adaptations jostle for sushi glory.
Although it is quite commercial, my favourite sushi place in Lyon is Planet Sushi (36 Boulevard des Brotteaux). They have a wide variety of Japanese sushi, maki, sashimi, yakitori and rolls, including vegetarian dishes. Sushi in Europe is pricey so expect to spend 25 euros for two people. For a ramen, udon or soba craving, I head to GoRamen (12 rue Neuve), a modern Japanese noodle house. The prices are decent for the Presqu’Île and both restaurants offer dine in, take out and delivery.
4) French Street Food
Although French cuisine doesn’t conjure up thoughts of street food trucks hawking good eats at good prices, Lyon has its own kinds of street food. This isn’t just a Lyonnais phenomenon. In fact, France may be the true birthplace of street food as every village has a café, boulangerie or open restaurant selling take away.
Still, this is Lyon, so its version is more refined than its North American cousin. Crêpes, beignets and waffles dripping with crème de marrons or nutella are sold from stalls that line the streets, especially at night. These French specialties are made to order in front of customers and its hard not to marvel at their crêpe-flipping skills.
One of the most popular street foods in France is kebab. Although this dish was imported through mass North African migration, it became popularized through the sheer number of take-away kebab restaurants. There is literally a kebab shop in every French town and it is a must-try in Lyon as well.
5) Taking in the Sights
Lyon isn’t only a food haven. There are many places to visit in Lyon that make the city worth the trip. It isn’t enough to simply eat in the many great restaurants; one has to explore to truly experience everything that makes Lyon unique.
One of the best ways to explore the city and its multitude of bridges is by metro or bike. Bicycles can be rented at Velo’v stations throughout the city for 1.50 euros per day; but, remember to return the bike to a station every thirty minutes or your credit card will be charged by the hour.
My suggestion: buy a sandwich or pack a picnic and bike to one of Lyon’s famous spots. Notre Dame de Fourvière, a large cathedral, overlooks the entire city and is a perfect location to see Lyon’s skyline. The Parc de la Tête d’Or is another ideal picnic place and includes a myriad of walking trails, a small train and a free zoo complete with lions. Lyon is also full of beautiful plazas such as the Place des Terreaux or the Place Bellecour or check out the hip Confluence neighbourhood by the old port that is enjoying an architectural renaissance.
Lyon’s mystique charms its visitors and many return for a second, third or fourth visit. I have been six times since 2011. When you say au revoir to Lyon, you really mean à bientôt.