The cradle of Lyon heritage, Old Lyon is the city’s most popular tourist spot and is simply dripping in history. This old town holds traces of each period that marked the history of Lyon, from 43 BC to the present day.
Old Lyon: the cradle of Lyon heritage
Old Lyon is home to no less than 2,000 years of history. So it’s not surprising that this vast heritage museum is divided into several districts, which have each contributed to the city’s unique identity.
During the Renaissance, one the French King’s sons, François I, married Italian Catherine de Medici, and so Old Lyon inherited colourful Italian architecture from Florence. This period gave rise to three main districts that shaped the city during the Renaissance. Saint-Paul, in the north of Old Lyon, was the upper class area and the financial and commercial district; Saint-Jean, in the centre, was home to the high clergy and aristocrats; and Saint-Georges, in the south, was where craftsmen worked hard. The town continued to evolve, reaching the opposite bank of the Saône, and spreading over several kilometres.
In the 20th century, having fallen into disrepair, Old Lyon was abandoned and neglected. But in 1963, when the Malraux law was passed, this place became the first protected area in France. It was then restored and classed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.
Today, Old Lyon retains traces of its history, and you can still visit the three main districts that were the heart of the town in the Renaissance. In Saint-Georges, you can visit Place Benoît-Crépu and the Saint-Georges church. Saint-Jean is home to the Saint-Jean Cathedral, rue Saint-Jean, which is the main artery of Old Lyon, and of course, the famous Lyon traboules or passageways. As for the Saint-Paul district, the church and square of the same name are incredible places and not to be missed!
Can you recommend a good itinerary for exploring Old Lyon?
Start at Place Saint-Jean, visit the cathedral and admire its astronomical clock which is one of the oldest in Europe. If you visit the cathedral very early or very late, you can watch the sunrise or sunset on the façade; it will truly take your breath away.
Continue along rue des Antonins to find your first traboule, then emerge onto Rue Saint-Jean. Next walk along Rue de la Bombarde, where you can see magnificently coloured façades. At 54 Rue Saint-Jean, walk through the longest traboule in Lyon, emerging onto rue du Bœuf, which leads to place Neuve Saint-Jean where you can have lunch in a Lyonnais bouchon (traditional local restaurant).
Stroll through the typical alleyways of Old Lyon, then head back to Rue Saint-Jean. At number 27, head into another traboule. You will emerge onto rue des Trois Maries. Look up and you will feel like you have returned to the Renaissance period. Return to rue Saint-Jean and make your way to Place du Gouvernement where you will find another traboule.
Rejoin rue Saint-Jean then go down rue de la Juiverie You will arrive at Place Saint-Paul, where you should take a look inside the church.
Wander around and lose yourself in these charming little streets.