Lyon, France, doesn’t roll off the tongue like some of the better known French cities. But that’s actually part of its appeal. Families feel like they’ve discovered some of the best of French culture, cuisine and charm without having to stand elbow to elbow with other visitors.
Lyon (pronounced lee-ohn) is France’s third-largest city. It’s about 5 hours south of Paris by car and 2 hours west of Geneva, Switzerland — but only 2 hours from Paris via France’s high-speed TGV train, which makes it a great stopping point for a night or two for those who are traveling between Paris and destinations farther south. In addition to Paris, Lyon has TGV links directly to Perpignan, Toulouse, Nice, Marseille, Strasbourg, Nantes and Lille. You can also get to Lyon directly from cities like Barcelona, Milan, Geneva, Frankfurt, Brussels and London via train journeys of various lengths.
Located at the confluence of two major rivers (Rhône and Saône), Lyon has become a common stop on riverboat cruise routes through the region. This strategically important location gave it its history as a key capital during the ancient Roman period, and there are still fantastic ruins to explore. Lyon was also a center point of the Renaissance, and remarkable cathedrals and fine art museums dot the city center. More recently, Lyon was a hub of the French resistance during World War II, while also serving as a key strategic headquarters for the occupying Nazi forces.
For those lucky enough to have been to Lyon, it is typically the food and wine that drew them here. Considered by some to be the gastronomy capital of the world (or, at the very least, of Europe), this reputation was pioneered by several three-star Michelin chefs having a presence here. The city continues to launch the profile of chefs who go on to have legendary careers in the U.S. and elsewhere.
And while there are plenty of fine dining experiences to choose from in Lyon, including more than 20 Michelin-star restaurants, this doesn’t mean the food scene here is just fussy white-tablecloth venues where parents aren’t comfortable dining with kids. In fact, many of the most promising young chefs in Lyon right now have made a point of opening restaurants with casual atmospheres that offer dishes at more accessible price points. This concept is proving quite popular and the trend continues to grow.
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Many of the best known Lyonnaise dishes will feel quite familiar to palates of all ages and experiences. Local sausages, pates, roast pork and charcuterie were made popular here during the Industrial Revolution when silk workers needed quick and filling foods during breaks or after their shifts. And of course, the region is home to the ubiquitous coq au vin and salade lyonnaise. Lettuce topped with croutons, bacon and egg might make even the most vegetable-averse child consider ordering a salad!
As in most of France, wine reigns supreme in Lyon. Two major growing regions are an easy day-trip distance from Lyon: Beaujolais and Côtes du Rhônes. The Beaujolais region is commonly referred to as the “Tuscany of France;” a day-long wine tour of this area pairs really well with short walking tours of a few of the medieval villages that seem to pop up every few miles.
Côtes du Rhônes is one of the oldest and largest wine regions in the world. The sun-drenched fields produce the popular red Syrahs as well as lesser known white varieties like Viognier. If you don’t have a full day to get out and explore, it is popular to do tastings of these varieties at some of the finer restaurants right in Lyon, because they’re known for how well they pair with food,
For a more kid-friendly experience, consider a trip out to Hameau Duboeuf in the Beaujolais region, less than an hour from Lyon. It is a theme park developed by Georges Duboeuf, one of the largest wine producers near the town. Adults can taste while children enjoy the 4D cinema, rides and mini golf. While not an upscale or intimate experience, it is extremely family-centered, which can be hard to find among French wineries.
Given its compact city center, Lyon is a perfect place for a walking tour. Our travel advisors can set you up with a knowledgeable and kid-friendly guide. Start in Fourvière Hill, one of the most historic neighborhoods and a designated World Heritage site. Here you’ll find Lyon’s iconic basilica, Notre-Dame de Fourvière. It is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who is credited with saving Lyon from the bubonic plague. Memorials to her are common throughout the city, but this church’s location at the highest point makes it a strong focal point and popular pilgrimage site.
Be sure to spend time wandering around Vieux Lyon, which dates back to the Middle Ages and is home to the city’s unique covered walkways, called traboules. Kids will delight in these hidden passageways, which can include spiral staircases, stone arches and vibrant pastel colors. Originally built to allow easier access to the rivers for fresh water, they were then used for silk workers to carry the product around town, and finally served as hidden meeting points for resisters during World War II. Challenge kids to find all 40 that are open to the public, marked with a small seal identifying them as such.
For those who want to kick the adventure up a notch, bike, pedicab and Segway tours are also popular in Lyon. Bike rentals are plentiful as are dedicated bike lanes, making this a relatively safe and fun way to explore.
Food tours are a fun strategy to truly dig into Lyon’s acclaimed culinary scene. We love tours that include visits to one or more of Lyon’s famous food markets, or you can wander on your own. Don’t miss the indoor market hall Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse, named for the famous chef. Sampling is fun here, and vendors include butchers, bakeries, chocolatiers and cheesemongers.
Lyon’s outdoor markets, the two largest of which are La Croix Rousse and St. Antoine, are great for produce, fresh herbs and other ingredients to make a gourmet meal. It is common for local chefs to base their menu on what’s offered that day at the markets, and visiting these places is part of daily life for residents.
For those looking for a dose of culture, Lyon has several excellent museums. The Musée Cinema and Miniature explores the magic of special effects and miniatures in the movie-making process, a great escape from more traditional history lessons for kids visiting Europe. The Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon is housed in a former abbey and features paintings by legends like Monet and Rembrandt as well as Egyptian antiquities. A sculpture garden in the abbey courtyard is a nice respite for kids.
Because it’s important to incorporate outdoor play while touring cities with kids, families should have Parc de la Tête d’Or, one of the largest parks in France, on their radar when in Lyon. It features three different rose gardens, a botanical garden, a zoo and a lake perfect for boating in the summer.
Hotels with a strong sense of place enhance a visit to this region, and Lyon offers several luxury properties steeped in history. Perhaps the best example is the InterContinental Lyon Hotel Dieu, situated right on the banks of the Rhône. The building is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, built in the 12th century as a monastery. The architectural features here are stunning but still welcoming. In fact, the hotel often runs discounts for a second room for those traveling with kids.
For families who prefer to be a bit out of the fray, La Villa Florentine is a great option. Situated at the top of a hill in the Old Town, this Relais & Chateaux property has great views of the city below, and the rooftop pool is a kid-pleaser for sure. And it doesn’t lack historic charm either. As a former convent, the reception area is in the chapel, and each of the 29 rooms is unique, spread out among a series of well-preserved buildings.
Also in the heart of the Old Town of Lyon, Cour des Loges is like treating the family to a stay in a castle. While walkable to most of the attractions in the city, its exterior gardens feel like a hidden oasis.
Our advisors offer great perks for booking a stay at any of these hotels through our agency.
Lyon may lack the iconic attractions of Paris, or the scenic lavender fields of Provence, or the jet-setting beaches of Saint-Tropez, but it is still well worth a stopover during a trip to France with the family. At the very least, your taste buds will certainly be glad you carved out the time for a visit to this culinary gem.
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