The three areas of Lyon that are Unesco heritage sites are so different, they could qualify to be three separate cities: the Vieux Lyon, Croix-Rousse, and the peninsula between the Rhone and Saone rivers called presqu’ile (almost an island).
The Vieux Lyon is the medieval heart of the city and the most interesting part, in my humble opinion. It’s buzzing with tourists and locals alike who mill around the several medieval streets and alleys. The coolest part of the old Lyon is its traboules – indoor passages connecting the houses with the river. In the middle ages, they provided the shortest way to the river, from which the inhabitants were fetching the water into the city, which streets ran parallel rather than perpendicular to the river. Some of the passages are open to the public, others are private. Most feature inner courtyards with towers housing stone spiral staircases, archways, and balconies. Tourists roam the streets armed with maps, searching for hidden doors beyond which traboules lie. It’s like a treasure hunt, where the winners are rewarded with the most traboules located and visited.
Above the old city, on the high mountain, sits what’s in the last 100 years became the symbol of Lyon – the basilica of Fourviere. Reached by a cable car (or a climb up the steep set of stairs if you are so inclined), the basilica sits on the high hill like a jeweled box. Dedicated to Mary and founded in 1873, it took almost 50 years to complete. This is one of the most ornate churches I have ever seen. It’s got it all: stained glass windows, stone and wood carvings and amazing mosaics. Can’t imagine what it cost to build at the time when slave labour was no longer existent and skilled laborers were paid a pretty penny!
Croix-Rousse – is a newer district, formerly, the neighborhood of silk weavers and merchants, now – mostly up-and-coming, still seedy-looking overall, but possessing the rustic charm of the Village of the 1970’s with a Montmartresque feel, owing to its many hills and long steep staircases.  There are lots of walking tours that can be undertaken on your own by following signs on the walls.  There are also traboules in this district but those were built to carry silks, not water, and they are bigger, wider, and less mysterious.  The area teems with cafes and independent artsy shops.  But the city overall seems to be suffering from the lack of money, and it’s quite evident here in the dilapidated buildings, peeling paint, and a lot of graffiti.
Presqu’ile – is the ritziest part of town, but the lack of funds is also in your face here. Many stately facades are insulted by the storefronts on the ground floor – cheap and gaudy, some boarded up with plywood, others covered with graffiti. The facades are often majestic, the windows are regal, the iron work on the balconies is magnificent, but all of that opulence is only above the ground floor. Well, that is except for the imposing carved wood doors that interrupt the chain of cheap storefronts flanking them on both sides.
Shame, because there is so much potential here to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and with so much history!
Something is awry here overall. It has all the elements for being beautiful: two rivers, great architecture, hilly terrain, historical buildings, but somehow, it doesn’t add up.
That said, it is definitely worth visiting, if only once; if only to walk the three historic districts and eat the famed Lyonese food.


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