Lyon Old Town (also known as “Vieux-Lyon”) is one of the largest old Towns in France. Thanks to French government policy during the second half of the 20th century, it has remained almost intact for centuries.
Introduction to the Lyon Old Town
Lyon Old Town is a Renaissance district: it was the main part of the town in the 16th century. Then, people progressively started to lose interest in that area, while Lyon Presqu’île was developing. Some parts of “Vieux-Lyon” even became unhealthy during the first half of the 20th century. In 1962, André Malraux, then French Minister of Culture, chose Lyon Old Town as the first “secteur sauvegardé” (protected area) in France.
Malraux quite simply saved the “Vieux-Lyon” area from destruction. In 1957, having been elected Lyon’s mayor, Louis Pradel wanted to demolish an important part of the Old Town buildings. His project was to dismantle the unsanitary houses and blocks, in order to build… an expressway! However, thanks to Malraux, this project could not become a reality, and the unhealthy parts of the Old Town were refurbished.
In 1998, UNESCO even decided to declare “Vieux-Lyon” as a World Heritage site.
Lyon Old Town is divided into three districts, all referring to Christian saints.
- The Northern Old Town is Saint-Paul (St Paul) district. It took its name from the Church it surrounds, which was created by adepts of St Paul (Paul the Apostle).
- The Old Town centre is named “Saint-Jean” (St John). Just as for Saint-Paul, the name also refers to a religious building. Indeed, Lyon’s cathedral is called “Saint-Jean”, after one of the most powerful chapters in the Church in the Middle Ages, related to John the Baptist.
- The Southern Old Town is Saint-Georges (St George) district. It refers to a Christian martyr of the 4th century. Again, a church in this area is named “Église Saint-Georges”.
Northern Old Town : Quartier Saint-Paul (St. Paul district)
1) Place et Gare de Saint-Paul (St Paul square and railway station)
Let’s start our journey within Lyon Old Town at the North of this unique area, in Saint-Paul district. Place Saint-Paul (St Paul square) is the first gate to “Vieux-Lyon” when you come from Northern Presqu’île, especially from Place des Terreaux (Terreaux square). However, it is not representative of the rest of the Old Town. Even though there were people living there at the end of the Roman era, Place Saint-Paul only became important at the end of the 19th century, when it was decided to build a railway station in the area. Perrache railway station has been operating since the 1850s.
However, it was mainly linked to cities to the South and to the East of Lyon. In 1873, the “Gare de Saint-Paul” (St Paul railway station) was opened, linking Lyon to regional cities located to the West (such as Montbrison, Lozanne and L’Arbresle). At the end of the 20th century, with the construction of Part-Dieu railway station which is well-connected to those cities, St.Paul railway station became almost unused. Nevertheless, it was restored a few years ago as part of a brand new project: the “Tram-Train de l’Ouest Lyonnais” (Western Lyon tram-train). In order to reduce the number of cars coming into Lyon via the crowded Fourvière axis, a tram-train was created between the Western suburbs of L’Arbresle, Lozanne and Brignais and Lyon’s city centre. Thanks to the tram-train, St Paul station has been given a second life!
The square itself plays the part of a connecting hub between Vieux-Lyon and the North of the city. The oldest and most beautiful building in the square dates from the 17th century. The other buildings date from the end of the 19th century, when the station was originally built. As a gate to inner Lyon, the square leads to the main points of the city courtesy of Trolleybus C3. One of the most utilised bus lines in Lyon’s metropolitan area, Trolleybus C3 will take you to the main spots in the city: Place des Terreaux, Rue de la République, Part-Dieu shopping centre and the railway station.
2) Église Saint-Paul (St Paul church)
To the North of Place Saint-Paul, you can see the église Saint-Paul (St Paul church). It is one of the oldest churches in Lyon. In the Middle Ages, the St Paul church was the centre of a self-sufficient area, enclosed by its own walls. During the Renaissance era, merchants used the area of the Church as a commercial centre.
As for the church itself, a former church stood there from 549 to the middle of the 9th century when it was knocked down and replaced by today’s structure and of course, it has been evolving for the last 1,200 years. The building only took its current shape in the 19th century! Originally built as a Romanesque building, various alterations between the late 13th century and the 15th century brought a Gothic style to parts of the church. Nowadays, the whole building is a mix between Romanesque and Gothic architectures, making it very special and quite unique in Lyon. Outside, for example, you can see an octagonal dome with two rows of arcading inspired by the Romanesque style. However, the steeple and the skylight at the top of the dome drew their inspiration from the Gothic style. Inside, the eastern nave’s arches are Romanesque; the western ones look Gothic. This mixture can also be seen in the several chapels located around the church. Finally, the church is decorated with paintings from Lyon. For example, in the transept you will see 20th century stained glass windows representing the martyrs of Lyon who were executed by the Romans between the 1st and 4th centuries.
3) Rue Juiverie (Street of the Jews)
When you go south, back from the church to St Paul square, you will reach Rue Juiverie. This is a little paved and carefree street, like most streets in Old Town. The street has been occupied since the Roman era. In the late Middle Ages, many Jews started to move there, giving the street its current name. In the late 15th century, the street was greatly renovated. The cattle market was shifted elsewhere and richer merchants and bankers were able to move into the area. At that time, most of them were Jewish, since it was forbidden for Catholics to lend money for interest, according to religious rules.
The current streetscape dates from the Renaissance, especially all the building facades. Some of them are quite beautiful and are definitely worth seeing. At number 8, you will see one of Lyon’s architecture wonders. In 1536, the General des Finances of Francis I, Antoine Billoud, was the owner of a two part building in Rue Juiverie. He commissioned architect Philippe Delorme to create a gallery between them. The famous apothecary Nostradamus lived in this street for some time, during the 16th century. He was well known for his prophecies and the wife of King Henri II, Catherine de Medici, was keen on visiting him to find out more about her own future…
4) Place du Change (Exchange Square)
Just like Rue Juiverie, the Place du Change (Exchange Square) symbolises the business activities which took place in the Old Town of Lyon during the Renaissance era. In those days, the “Vieux-Lyon” was the business centre of the city, with many merchants and bankers living there. Until the mid 17th century, merchants used to work in the open on the square.
The square itself is one of the nicest in Old Town. It is paved and surrounded by some old buildings. For instance, one of them (at number 2) has a roof that dates from the 13th century! In 1653, the Loge du Change (Exchange Loge) was built. A hundred years later, as a result of the growing commercial activity, it was enlarged according to the plans of Jean-Baptiste Roche and Jacques-Germain Soufflot, who also designed the first Lyon opera house.
However, when the French Revolution started, the lodge was abandoned by the merchants. It remained unused for almost fifteen years. In 1803, the municipality of Lyon was looking for a building to house the Protestants of the town. After various offers, the Protestants decided to use the lodge, which was quite suitable for their needs. Ten years ago, a clock, missing since the beginning, was installed in the building.
From Place du Change, you can go to the west and immediately reach the right bank of the Saône. The Old Town was built along the river. From North to South of the “Vieux-Lyon”, next to the Saône, you can see amazing buildings, painted with warm colours. These are a hallmark of Lyon Old Town and helped it to be ranked as a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1998.
Old Town centre: Quartier Saint-Jean (St. John district)
Going on to the south, you will reach the Saint-Jean area inside “Vieux-Lyon”. It is the major part of Old Town containing the main buildings, such as Lyon’s cathedral.
5) Les Musées Gadagne (Gadagne Museums)
Fifty metres south of the Exchange Lodge, at the beginning of Rue du Boeuf (Beef street), you will reach a rather large building with unique architecture. It is called “Hôtel de Gadagne” and is now also known as “Musées Gadagne” (Gadagne Museums).
The Hôtel de Gadagne was built at the beginning of the 16th century. Its architecture is quite surprising: two towers are located at each side of the building, containing stairs to reach the upper parts of the townhouse. Two bankers from a well-known family from Florence lived there: the Gadagnes brothers. Soon after moving into the townhouse, they got into a fight. However, instead of one of them leaving the townhouse, they decided to cohabit in two separate wings of the building… each of them enjoying his own wealth to organise the biggest parties in town! The Gadagnes were so rich that they inspired a well-known Lyonnaise expression: “riche comme Gadagne” (as rich as the Gadagnes). Nowadays, the townhouse is owned by Lyon’s municipality. The building was totally renovated in the 2000s. Important archeological excavations took place there. The works lasted for more than ten years, and the building was closed from 1998 to 2009!
Since 1921, the Hôtel de Gadagne has hosted the “Musée historique de la ville de Lyon” (Lyon historical museum). You can discover there some testimonies of the town’s history, beginning from the Roman era. The museum comprises 30 rooms, each one displaying important documents. In 1950, a second museum was created within the building: the “Musée des marionettes du Monde” (Museum of World puppets). It seems quite appropriate for this museum to be located in Lyon. Puppets have been an important part in the city and the regional culture for centuries. At the beginning of the 19th century, the Guignol puppet was created in Lyon by Laurent Mourguet. Today, It remains one of the most famous examples of Lyon’s culture in France and all around the World. Guignol is also an important symbol of the “Parler Lyonnais”, the local dialect. In the museum, you can see more than 2,000 different puppets which form part in the history of the town.
6) Rue Saint-Jean (St. John street)
When leaving the Musées Gadagne, you can easily reach Rue Saint-Jean by Rue de la Fronde (Revolt Street), to the south-east. The Rue Saint-Jean is the main street of Old Town. More than that, it is one of the most famous and most visited streets in Lyon. It goes for 500 metres from north to south, from Place du Change to Place Saint-Jean and leads to the eponymous Cathedral.
The street was built at the end of the 3rd century when the people from Fourvière Hill, the city centre during the Roman era, faced difficulties with their water supply and needed to go down the hill to obtain water. It soon became the most important street in Lyon and remained so until the end of the 19th century, when the Rues de la République and Président Edouard-Herriot were constructed in the Presqu’île.
A very typical street from the “Vieux-Lyon”, Rue Saint-Jean is surrounded by “traboules”. These are common in Lyon and a few other cities of France’s Central East, such as in Mâcon, Saint-Etienne and Chambéry. Traboules are pathways joining two streets, going through several buildings. They date from the Renaissance era. During World War II, they were used by Resistance fighters to hide their clandestine activities. The word is part of the “Parler lyonnais” regional patois, and you will never hear it far from Lyon! The word “traboule” comes from “tra-bouler”, which in “Parler Lyonnais” would mean “roll through”.
You can find 230 traboules in Lyon, even though many of them are closed to public access. In Old Town, you can walk through 33 of them. The longest traboule is located at number 54, Rue Saint-Jean. It goes through five courtyards to reach Rue du Boeuf, at number 27. Going through traboules is really enjoyable and you feel like a real Lyonnais!
7) Palais de justice historique de Lyon (Lyon’s historical Law Courts)
Almost at the south end of Rue Saint-Jean, you will reach the rear of Lyon’s historical Law Courts. The entrance is located on Quai Romain Rolland facing the Saône river.
The construction of the building commenced in 1835 and lasted for seven years. Its neo-Classical style comes from architect Louis-Pierre Baltard’s. The former courthouses which had stood there from the 15th century were demolished. The building is often nicknamed “Palais des 24 Colonnes” (“Palace of the twenty-four columns”). Indeed, its frontage is decorated with 24 columns inspired by Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. Since the mid 19th century, these historical law courts have been the theatre of some important trials in French history, such as Sante Geronimo Caserio’s in 1894 (who had shot French President Sadi Carnot in Lyon), Charles Maurras’ in 1945 (sentenced to life imprisonment for complicity with the enemy) and Klaus Barbie’s in 1987 (sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity). The inner building was listed as a historical monument in 1996, just a year after a new law court was built, in the Lyon Part-Dieu area.
Whilst being a very important monument of Lyon, the historic law courts have also remained useful. Indeed, Lyon’s Court of Appeal and Rhône’s Crown Court still take place in the building nowadays. It was even renovated between 2008 and 2012, confirming its ranking as one of Lyon’s most impressive monuments.
8) Cathédrale Saint-Jean (St John Cathedral)
Lyon’s cathedral is located in Saint-Jean district, at the southern end of Rue Saint-Jean. It might be the most important building in Vieux-Lyon, since it gave its name to its main area and its main street.
The “Cathédrale Saint-Jean” is also known as “Primatiale Saint-Jean”, since this is where Lyon’s Archbishop, also called the “Primat des Gaules” (Gauls Primate), is seated. This name emphasises the importance of Lyon at the beginning of Christendom. Back then, Lyon was the capital of Gaul. That predominance remained during the early Middle Ages and the “Gauls primate” role was introduced during the ninth century. Although it has become more symbolic, this title meant that Lyon’s Archbishop had power over other French bishops.
The cathedral’s construction commenced in the 12th century, inspired by the Gothic style. The cathedral is 79 metres long, 13 metres wide and its towers are 44 metres high. It is not the highest cathedral in France and it even looks very small compared to Rouen Cathedral, whose tallest tower reaches 151 metres! This relative shortness can be explained by the fact that Lyon Cathedral’s towers are unfinished.
It took several centuries for the cathedral to take its current shape. At first, in the 12th century, it was simply a Romanesque style church. Then, the naves were extended (13th century), the west side of the cathedral was built (14th century) and the side chapels (15th to 17th century)…
Lyon Cathedral is also famous for its astronomical clock. It was installed in 1379. It strikes every day at 12 noon, 2 pm, 3 pm and 4 pm. The automated figures spring into action. There are two angels on the clock’s sides (the one on the left turns his minute glass over whilst the other on the right behaves like a conductor), a cockerel singing, angel Gabriel appearing to the Virgin Mary and God blessing the whole scene! Underneath the clock, you can see the astrolabe with the moon, the sun, and the 24 hour numbers.
Southern Old Town: Quartier Saint-Georges (St George district)
Now that we have visited the Saint-Jean district, it’s time to discover the Southern part of “Vieux-Lyon”. Even if not the most famous part, there are still some monuments and squares that are worth seeing!
Behind Lyon Cathedral, you will find the “Vieux-Lyon” underground station. From there, you can go west to the Presqu’île, Part-Dieu district or Lyon’s Eastern suburbs. But you can also catch the funicular and climb Fourvière Hill.
9) Place de la Trinité et Rue Saint-Georges (Trinity Square and St. George street)
To the south of the underground entrances, stands the Place de la Trinité. It is a paved square, which gives it a very typical “Vieux-Lyon” style! Its name comes from the Trinitarian religious order which used to inhabit the square. During the French revolution its name was briefly changed to “Place du Triangle” (Triangle square) having regard to its shape.
Here, you can find one of the most famous “bouchons” of Lyon, called “La Maison du Soleil” (the House of the Sun). This building dates from 1723, when six different houses were combined. “Bouchons” are typical restaurants from the town, where you can usually find dishes from Lyon such as ‘salade lyonnaise’, hot dry sausages or quenelles. “La Maison du Soleil” is also known as “La Maison du Guignol”. Indeed, this “bouchon” comprises the traditional scenery that is reproduced during Guignol’s puppets show. Consequently, this typical restaurant has also become a “café-théâtre” where you can enjoy comic one-man shows and plays by comedians from Lyon.
Going South from Place de la Trinité, you will go through Rue Saint-Georges (St George Street). It is a nice paved pedestrian street and constitutes Saint-Georges area’s main street. As it remains quite unknown to most of the tourists who visit Lyon, it is quite a peaceful street. Rue Saint-Georges is certainly the place to go if you want to see many old houses. You can see many buildings reaching five storeys. Many “bouchons” can be enjoyed in the street. At number 100 is the Automaton Museum of Lyon. This museum was opened in 1991, 45 years after the creation of an automaton factory there. Many automatons were made for Christmas celebrations and for the Festival of Lights, a very important day for Lyon celebrated on the 8th of December. The museum has a collection of 250 automatons, divided into various sections. The museum can be a fun visit with children, mainly because a special hare and hounds game has been created for them inside the museum.
10) Eglise Saint-Georges (St George Church)
Let’s end our journey through Lyon Old Town at the St George Church which dates from 1844 and was constructed by Pierre Bossan, who also designed the plans for Fourvière Basilica.
Before the current neo-Gothic style church was built, the old Convent of Sainte-Eulalie, dating from the 6th century, stood here. Destroyed during the 8th century by the Saracens, the church was rebuilt in 802 and was then named “St George”. In the 14th century it was the base of the Knights of Malta. Although quite a small church, it is worth seeing. The inner church is considered the inspiration for what would become, thirty years later, Fourvière Basilica. Subsequently, Bossan designed neo-Gothic furniture typical of mid 19th century religious buildings.
To get more information about Lyon Old Town, you can visit Lyon’s tourism office website.