Travel: Lyon, France’s foodie capital

A view of Lyon from over the Saone river

A view of Lyon from over the Saone river

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With more restaurants per head than anywhere in France, including 14 with Michelin stars, Lyon is a foodie paradise, finds Alison Gray

Christmas in Lyon must be something else. The gastronomic capital of France is a foodie paradise for the rest of the year so I can only imagine the excitement surrounding preparations for the fête de Noël.

Les Halles Paul Bocuse

Les Halles Paul Bocuse

There are 2,000 restaurants for a population of 500,000, making it the city with the most number of restaurants per person in France. Fourteen of them have been awarded Michelin stars and there are 60 Michelin starred restaurants in the Rhône-Alpes region.

There is one name that will become very familiar as you explore the foodie hot spots of this culinary haven. Paul Bocuse is a legendary figure among chefs and this year the city has been celebrating 50 years since he received his first Michelin star.

Like many Michelin starred French chefs with amazing, and expensive restaurants, he also has a string of much more affordable brasseries, in his case named after the four compass points. We managed to get a table in Le Nord on a June Wednesday evening. Three plats for the rather precise sum of €26.60/£19.20 included warm Lyonnaise sausage with pistachios in a brioche casing and green salad plus roasted sea turbot fillet in a white wine sauce with Bouchot mussels. The dessert special was cherry claufoutis which our thoughtful waitress encouraged us to reserve, as there were only three portions left in the middle of a busy service and she didn’t want us to miss out. The market halles are also named after Bocuse, a mark of the deep regard in which he is held, according to our tour guide, as such honours are usually made posthumously and Chef Paul is still very much with us. There are 58 merchants in this rather high end market which features artisan chocolatiers and macaron makers as well as purveyors of the finest cheeses and wines of the Rhône-Alpes region.

A culinary tour of Lyon is not complete without a visit to a bouchon, a restaurant unique to Lyon. Tables are traditionally clad in red and white gingham and the walls are hung with gleaming copper pans. Here you will find food at its earthiest, particularly offal – without recourse to foams, emulsions or garnishes of edible flowers. Quite often you don’t even get a sauce. My salade gourmande starter at Daniel et Denise, one of Lyon’s most popular bouchons did feature mixed salad leaves and green beans, but there were also crayfish tails and foie gras. My husband was broken by his main course. He tried “offally” hard – but the level of butchery/surgery required to dispatch le rognon de veau roti entier en cocotte facon grand-mere (old fashioned pot-roasted calf’s kidney) was above his level of knife skills.

Pralines in Les Halles de Lyon Gourmet market

Pralines in Les Halles de Lyon Gourmet market

If you can take a break from eating or thinking about eating, which is difficult in this city, there is much to do. The Confluence Museum, so called because it is located at a point where the Rhône meets the Saône is the city’s newest major attraction, celebrating its first birthday this weekend. There’s the Fabric Museum tracing the city’s 2,000 year old history as a centre for textiles and silk weaving. Or cinephiles will love the Lumiere Institute.

You can also walk off some calories by exploring Old Lyon on foot, paying particular attention to the traboules, or secret passageways that date from Renaissance times. They are like Edinburgh’s closes, but even grander.

We stayed at the 40-room College Hotel located in a 1930s building in the heart of Old Lyon, and themed around the school days of the past.

The front desk is arranged around a vaulting horse dating from 1914, framed by oversized pencil holders.

Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse

Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse

Breakfast at The College is also amusingly retro. Served in a “classroom” seats are brown leather benches and tables are wooden desks with graph paper for a place mat. Depending on personal experiences of the education system, some guests might be freaked out by the authenticity of the decor, but others will enjoy the trip down memory lane. It was amusing to see suited businessmen trying to fit their heavy frames behind the little 1950s desks.

Upstairs the bedrooms and bathrooms are an homage to sleek white minimalism with a pop of colour provided by a red Charles Eames chair beside the bed. Lifts in the seven floor hotel are lined in class photos dating from the 1920s to the 1970s and it’s fun to see that while the hairstyles and skirt lengths of the teachers change, the toothy grins from the front row do not. In another quirky touch, each floor has a 1960s vintage fridge from which the “boarders” can help themselves to free non-alcoholic drinks.

This was our first visit to Lyon, France’s second biggest city. With so much still to see and do (and eat) we’ve vowed to return.

• EasyJet (www.easyjet.com) flies from Edinburgh to Lyon from £49.41 one way. Flights are once a week on Saturdays in winter. P&O (www.poferries.com) operate ferries from Zeebrugge to Hull, with a crossing for two and a standard car plus a cabin from around £275.Rooms at the College Hotel (5 Place Saint-Paul, tel: 33 (0)4 72100505, www.college-hotel.com) start from around €90/£65. Check online for offers.

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