Surprisingly, this post was difficult for me to put together. I only visited Lyon for one day, and yet I had more than enough passion and ideas for what I wanted to write. Somehow, that, combined with the rich history and culture of Lyon, ended up a recipe for blog-post-writing disaster. Before I wrote an entire thesis on Lyon, I had to trim down a lot of the topics that were coming up. It is a smaller city and much less famous than Paris… but I much preferred my time in Lyon to my time in Paris.
If you have to choose Lyon or Paris, choose Lyon.
One of the most unforeseen things about my visit to Lyon was learning about Lyonnaise cuisine. With more than a thousand eateries, the city of Lyon has one of the highest concentrations of restaurants per capita in France. A whole Lyonnaise cuisine? How come I never tried it or even heard of it? I am the least picky eater you may ever meet and love trying new things, so it was amazing that Lyonnaise cuisine evaded me. Hopefully by the end of this article you will understand why that may have been the case. Lyon had to be one of the coolest places I visited and I highly recommend it to anyone considering a visit. If you have to choose Lyon or Paris, choose Lyon.
Founded by Romans and now a UNESCO World Heritage site, Lyon is the third largest city in France.
The city is built into the confluence of the Saône and Rhône rivers. The city center, where the rivers meet, is a peninsula known as the Presqu’île (“almost island” in English). The hill to the north of the Presqu’île is known as La Croix-Rousse or “the hill that works” because it used to house small silk workshops during the silk era in Lyon. The hill to the west of the Presqu’île is known as the Fourvière or “the hill that prays” because it is houses the basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, several convents, and the residence of the Archbishop. To the east of the Presqu’île is a large plain where modern Lyon and most of the city’s population lives.
We spent our visit on the Presqu’île and the Fourvière.
Lyon has a very rich history.
While early traces of settlement date to 12,000 BC, Lyon was officially founded under the name “Lugdunum” in 43 BC by Lucius Munatius Plancus. In this Roman city, people lived mostly on Fourvière. During the Middle Ages, settlements expanded to the banks of the Saône and the city began to be called by Lyon as we know it today. During the Renaissance, Lyon attracted bankers from Florence and merchants from all over Europe and the city prospered in its second golden age. The main industries were silk weaving and printing. Lyon became one of Europe’s largest cities and King François I even considered making it the capital of France. Around 1530, the population of Lyon reached 50,000!
In the following centuries, Lyon suffered from religious wars but remained a major industrial and intellectual center, though Geneva, Switzerland usurped the seat of financial center. In the 18th century, half of the Lyonnaise inhabitants were silk workers (canuts). In the early 19th century, the silk industry was still developing, probably due to Jacquard’s new loom. Workers’ riots protesting new technology ensued in the 1830’s and 40’s. The traditional silk industry disappeared at the end of the century due to diseases affecting French silk worms and also the opening of the Suez Canal which reduced the price of imported silk from Asia. The silk industry’s exit made room for the next industry when the Lumière brothers invented cinema in Lyon in 1895.
During World War II, Lyon was a centre for the occupying Nazi forces, including Klaus Barbie, the infamous “Butcher of Lyon.” The city maintained French resistance and was home to many secret passages known as “traboules” which enabled people to escape Gestapo raids. On September 3, 1944, Lyon was liberated by the 1st Free French Division and the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur. The city is now home to the Museum of Resistance and Deportation to commemorate this history.
Visiting Lyon today
Today, Lyon is known for many things. It is where Auguste and Louis Lumiere invented the cinematograph. It is known for its famous light festival every December. It was a stronghold of French resistance during World War II. It was where Guignol, the French hand puppet who represents workers in the silk industry was invented. It was the banking center of France. It was once (and may still be), as food critic Curnonsky dubbed the city in 1935, “the gastronomic capital of the world.”
All periods of Lyon’s 2000-year history can be found today in the modern city…including Roman ruins pictured below. The city never went through a major natural disaster (earthquake, fire, severe hurricane) or a major manmade “disaster” (redesign, reconstruction, or bombing), and so it maintains its Renaissance palaces, cathedrals, and modern-day skyscrapers all at once.
We were only there for one day, but it was one of our best trips.
Immediately stepping off the bus station, we knew Lyon was a special place. People were skateboarding in the park, rollerblading, awesome modified bikes, scooter snowboard hybrids, arcades… is this where the dream of the 90’s lives? Is this French Portland?
Lyon was everything I wanted in Paris – small shops, a lot of attitude, personality in the architecture, and interesting food.
There was a Ferris wheel at a large pedestrian square called Place Bellecour on Presqu’île. The wheel illuminated a smiley face at night and had hot churros for sale at its base.
Charming alleyways and stairs were carved through the hills and lined with French shops and homes. Reaching the tops of the hills offered sweeping views of the city.
There were murals encompassing entire buildings.
There was a Lyonnaise Eiffel tower! The metallic tower of Fourvière was built for the 1914 World’s Fair in Lyon and used to have a restaurant at the top. Now it is closed to the public and open only for satellite dishes.
There were novelty shops.
There were cathedrals.
there was food.
We’re here for the food.
You, like me, probably haven’t heard anything about cuisine de Lyon.
We’ve been all over the world, we’ve eaten grasshoppers, raw fish, dim sum… but nothing compares to what we had in Lyon.
Eating in Lyon – the Bouchon
In the Middle Ages, eateries would put bails of straw called “bouche” over their doorways to indicate to travelers that food was available inside. Around France, the word bouchon itself means “traffic jam.” Street signs really confused us until we figured out it was also the name of a traditional-style eatery in Lyon.
Today, the bouchon is a traditional Lyonnaise restaurant that serves local food and wine – usually from one of the two best known wine-growing regions nearby – the Beaujolais region to the north and the Côtes du Rhône region to the south.
Highlights of Lyonnaise cuisine
Salade Lyonnaise: lettuce with bacon, croûtons and a poached egg.
Quenelles de brochet: mixture of creamed fish or meat, sometimes combined with breadcrumbs, with a light egg binding, formed into an egg-like shape, and then cooked.
Saucisson de Lyon: large sausage made from minced beef and diced bacon.
Rosette de Lyon: cured saucisson or French pork sausage.
Coq au vin: chicken braised with wine, lardons, mushrooms, and optionally garlic. (ok this is isn’t solely Lyonnaise, but it is amazing)
Andouillette: coarse-grained sausage made with pork, intestines or chitterlings, pepper, wine, onions, and seasonings.
Tablier de sapeur: translates to “soldier’s apron.” Made from beef tripe, specifically the gras-double, which is the membrane of the rumen.
Sabodet: large sausage made from pig’s head, tongue, fatty pork, and beef.
Coussin de Lyon: pale green marzipan, with dark green netting, filled with a chocolate ganache flavored with curaçao liqueur.
Marron glace: chestnut candied in sugar syrup and glazed. Anything marron in France was my favorite.
Cervelle de Canut: translates to “silk worker’s brains.” fromage blanc, seasoned with chopped herbs, shallots, salt, pepper, olive oil and vinegar.
Île flottante: translates to “floating island.” Meringue floating on crème anglaise (a vanilla custard). This is also not a Lyon-only dessert, but you will find it here.
When I was living in France, Lyon was a short bus ride away and we went for the day somewhat blind to what we should expect. We knew that we should try new dishes in Lyon… but not exactly why.
We got off the bus and got straight to work – to a Bouchon!
Our first shared meal is pictured below. To start, we ordered a salade Lyonnaise to share. It was literally lettuce, croutons, bacon (French bacon is different from American bacon), and a poached egg on top. I wish the ratio had been different – more lettuce and less bacon – but I am probably the only person ever to wish something like that.
For our entrees, Colin ordered a dish with tripe and I ordered a sausage in beaujolais sauce… I wish I could remember what it was called… I do not know what I expected, but it surely wasn’t a cross section slice of sausage actually stuffed into a piece of toast now made soggy by soaking in wine sauce. Both dishes had flavors that didn’t sit quite right with us, and neither of us were keen to finish them. The vegetables were ok at least.
Disatisfied with our entrees, we decided to order dessert. How can you mess up dessert?
We ordered the “cervelle de canut”… again not knowing what it was, only that it was highlighted on the menu. I mean, I saw that it said “onion” in the ingredients list…but I didn’t register that they actually put raw onion in their desserts… and I LOVE onions. In hindsight, the fact that cervelle de canut translates directly to “silk workers’ brains” should have been a clue too.
Ok, so we ordered it and they brought it over. It looked so creamy and had a peice of bread stuck in the top. I was so excited and put my spoon in expecting creamy delicious sweet dessert goodness. Immediately my face scrunches into that which has just eaten a Warhead candy. Not only are there raw onions in this dessert, but there is vinegar and lemon juice? The ultimate taste bud assault (we joked that it was designed specifically to activate all of your tongue’s taste receptors at once). I would have appreciated this to put on the potatoes in my main course… but dessert? and on it’s own?? We left not knowing if we made poor choices with our orders or bouchon or if this was the most foreign cuisine we’d ever had.
Next, we went to get some savory crepes from Nataly’s Cafe-Creperie. You can always trust a crepe, right?
The flavors were not ones we were used to or that we would put together ourselves… but they were edible! The most notable thing to come out of this meal was that we learned what walnuts of St. Jacques are… they are not walnuts at all, they are actually scallops! Saint Jacques is a King Scallop! On a side note, this could be really dangerous to someone who has a shellfish allergy.
How did this cuisine happen?
Location, location, location.
Lyon is in east-central France. The city has influence from the flavors of Provence and the Mediterranean to the South, in addition to those of the Alsace and Lorraine from the North. Its location also gives Lyon access to produce, ingredients, wines, and specialties from all over France, which is exemplified in the largest covered market in the country, Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse. Its geography, along with the fact that Lyon was a financial center during the silk industry times, made it an attractive place for young chefs to flock.
But how did the cuisine actually get this way? In the 1500’s Catherine de Medici (Italian noblewoman who was queen of France from 1547 until 1559) brought cooks from Florence to her court and they prepared dishes from the agricultural products from the regions of France. This combined the regional French produce with the techniques of Florentine cooks. Centuries later, after the French Revolution, former cooks who used to serve wealthy families in Lyon set out to open their own eateries. These middle-class women specifically are referred to as Mères lyonnaises or “Mothers of Lyon” in English. “The Mothers cooked simple and refined food. They used inferior cuts as they were in the habit of not throwing anything away.” They impressed business travelers so much that word began to spread about such establishments. Some of these mothers, such as Mère Fillioux and Mère Brazier opened their own restaurants and became quite famous!
In the 2000’s, Lyon’s cuisine is defined by simplicity and quality, and is exported to other parts of France and abroad… although don’t ask me where because I have never encountered it.
Would I go back? Yes. Would I eat there again? Yes.
I didn’t LOVE the food, but I had a great time eating it! And I learned SO much. Besides, I’m sure I can find a dish with a crazy combination of flavors that speaks to me, given enough meals…
It was such an experience to try something new! If do I go back, I will make sure go to the Le Petit Musee de Guignol Fantastique – “The Little Fantastic Museum of Guignol” and Centre d’Histoire de la Résistance et de la Déportation – “the Museum of Resistance and Deportation.” I regret not knowing more about Lyon before visiting the first time, but at the same time I did enjoy being amazed at every turn.
Tips for your trip:
Have an open mind!!! [that is all you need in Lyon 😉 ]