Things to Do in Rhône-Alpes
Welcoming visitors to Annecy’s Old Town, the 12th-century Island Palace (Palais de l’Île) sits right in the middle of Canal du Thiou on a prow-shaped islet between colorful canal-side streets. Over the years, the landmark building has served as a courthouse, mint, prison, military barrack, and ducal residence.
Centered around the 254-meter hill of the same name, the Croix-Rousse district was the heart of Lyon’s 18th-century silk industry, with the influx of workers earning it the nickname ‘the hill that works’, while neighboring Fourvière was dubbed ‘the hill that prays’. The historic district makes a fascinating addition to a walking tour, with its unique traboules - narrow, tunnel-like passageways that served as the setting to the 19th-century silk-workers revolt - snaking between the historic workshops and running down to the riverside. Today, some of the traboules have been restored, most notably the Passage Thiaffait, which is now home to the ‘Village of Creators’ and lined with artist’s galleries, crafts workshops and fashion boutiques.
The lively district retains its village-like atmosphere and is now crammed with bars, restaurants and cafes, many of which offer impressive views along the riverside. Additional highlights include the daily Croix-Rousse Market, the ruins of the Roman Amphitheatre of the Three Gauls, the landmark Gros Caillou (literally, a ‘Big Rock’) and the Croix-Rousse tunnel, a bus, bike and pedestrian route that burrows through the hill and is now the backdrop for a dazzling light and sound show.
Soaring dramatically over Annecy’s intact Old Town and set atop a rocky promontory, the Annecy Castle (Chateau d'Annecy) is a fine display of Savoyard defensive architecture as it was the princely residence of the Counts of Geneva between the 13th and 17th centuries; it was later on abandoned and served a military barracks until the end of World War II. Imagine yourself as a brave 14th century knight and try to identify the primitive keep, the gates, and the cellar rooms. Like many other fortresses elsewhere in Europe, the castle was considerably extended and given several upgrades throughout the centuries, both in terms of style and defensive purposes. The furniture, artworks, and accessories nowadays found inside the otherwise bare yet fascinating exhibition area are testament to these changes, and perfectly complemented by sections on contemporary Savoyard art and Lake Annecy’s eventful history.
Most visitors like to enjoy an excursion to Annecy as a half-day tour from close by Geneva, where they can dwelve in the city’s rich history and wander its colorful canal-side streets. Another option would be to hop on a full day tour of both Geneva and Annecy, which includes a scenic cruise on the turquoise waters of Lake Geneva.
Soaring up the rocky peak of Aiguille du Midi at 12,605 feet (3,842 meters), the Aiguille du Midi Cable Car is one of the highest in Europe. Setting out from Chamonix, the cable car has two stages, culminating in an elevator ride to the summit with spectacular views over Mont Blanc and the surrounding French and Swiss Alps.
At the heart of Lyon is Bellecour Square—more commonly known as Place Bellecour—an enormous, unbroken brick expanse (the third largest square in France) sprawled between theSaône and the Rhône Rivers. These are echoed by two sculptures, named for the waterways, that flank a famed statue of Louis the X1V, on horseback.
The Sun King, in 1708, took this former vineyard, army barracks, and private gardens, and developed it into a public square. His architects framed the space with elegant facades, and it has since hosted public events and, more recently, an iconic Ferris wheel.
The shadeless plaza is surrounded by excellent eateries and cool cafés - Lyon is, after all, the Gastronomic Capital of France - w here you'll find respite on steamy summer afternoons.
With a prime position in the foothills of the mighty Mont Blanc and with access to some of the best ski terrain in the French Alps, Megève is one of France’s most famous winter resorts. More than 290km of downhill runs and around 80km of cross-country trails, one of France’s largest ski schools and excellent facilities make Megève a top choice for both first-timers and experienced skiers, and it’s lavish reputation has made it a favorite haunt of wealthy Europeans, celebrities and royals.
Dotted with rustic ski lodges and romantic chalets, Megève is undeniably atmospheric during the winter, with its historic buildings gleaming with fairy lights and horse-drawn carriages trotting down the cobblestone streets. Visit in the summer and it’s equally attractive, with a lively weekly market, a popular spa resort, and opportunities for hiking, mountain biking and horse riding.
Lyon Opera House (Opéra National de Lyon) is an arts hub and architectural gem noted for its combination of a modern shell and 18th-century facade. To fully experience it, attend a performance—from musical theater to dance. But whether it's to marvel at the building, or see a show, a visit to the opera should be on your Lyon itinerary.
Towering 15,531 feet (4,734 meters) above sea level, Mont Blanc is Europe’s highest peak and a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. Straddling the border of France and Italy, this iconic peak is considered the birthplace of modern mountaineering. Enjoy the endless hiking and mountaineering opportunities and the thrilling views from the heights.
Surrounded by the dramatic heights of Massif des Bauges Natural Park, Lake Annecy appeals to leisure travelers and watersport enthusiasts with its clear, turquoise waters,. On its shores, the lush Jardins de l’Europe and Annecy's historic Old Town add to the postcard-worthy scenery.
After Northern France fell to the Nazis, Lyon became the seat of the French Resistance. Information, arms, and supplies flowed across the mountains and into the city, where the nation's bravest freedom fighters plotted liberation. The Nazis were not amused, and in spring 1943 occupied the city with horrific intent. The infamous Klaus Barbie, "Butcher of Lyon," installed his Gestapo forces here.
Today, this former military hospital and seat of malevolence has been been transformed into the moving Resistance and Deportation History Centre (Centre d'Histoire de la Résistance et de la Déportation), a must-see for anyone interested in the era. It documents Lyon's dark est hours with dignity, using photographs and evocative exhibits, such as the vehicles used to deport Jews and other undesirables, and excerpts from Barbie's trial for crimes against humanity.
Multilingual audio guides make it accessible to anyone.
More Things to Do in Rhône-Alpes
At the foot of Fourviére Hill, the historical streets of Old Lyon (Vieux Lyon) offer a welcome change of pace from the modern city across the river. With elegant medieval churches, Renaissance-era monuments, and pastel-painted facades, this is Lyon’s most atmospheric district.
Lyon's elegant Museum of Fine Art (Musee des Beaux Arts) is housed in a 17th-century palace that was designed for the Royal Abbess of the Dames de Saint Pierre and later remodeled to outrageous heights by Louis XIV.displays one of the finest collections in all France.
More than 70 rooms display one of the finest art collections in all of France, including an outsanding array of antiquities and artwork, more than 600 Ancient Egyptian pieces, rare Asian ceramics and the second-largest numismatic collection in the country. Thirty-five rooms are dedicated to European paintings, from classic artists such as El Greco and Rembrandt to more modern masters such as Picasso and Renoir.
The museum also offers temporary exhibitions, as well as activities and events for adults and children. The shady sculpture garden is often softly lit for visitors on special summer evenings.
Perched in the shadow of Mount Salève, the Maison du Saleve is an 18th century farmhouse dedicated to showcasing the relationship between man and mountain. With exhibits, workshops, guided walks, hikes, and an exhibition for children, there are plenty of learning opportunities. There are also some incredible views — from the exhibit’s photography to the outlook over Lake Geneva and the Mont Blanc mountains. The mountain has affectionately been called the “Balcony of Geneva.”
La Salève has a long legacy of scientific study, and is also considered to be a birthplace of rock climbing and mountains expeditions. Permanent and temporary exhibits detail the history, study, and sports of the mountain. Guided walks in the nature around the museum allow for the best immersion in the surroundings, and bikers will appreciate the cycling paths weaving throughout. The whole experience is family-friendly and accessible from Geneva, which offers access via its city pass.
Stroll the cobblestoned streets of Old Town Lyon (Vieux Lyon) and Place St-Jean to discover the Lyon Cathedral (Cathédrale St-Jean). Among the draws of the 12th-century cathedral are stained-glass windows and a 16th-century astronomical clock. A top Lyon attraction, Cathédrale St-Jean is a must-see for Old Town visitors.
A gleaming retro-Byzantine confection of Roman columns and religious iconography, the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière (Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière) is visible, by design, from almost anywhere in Lyon. Today it is the symbol of the city and Lyon's most visited attraction, well worth the climb just to enter the outrageous interior.
Completed in 1896 as a challenge to secular forces then gaining power in France (likeSacré-Coeur Montmartre), the basilica's gleaming marble, gold gilt, fantastic stained glass, and borderline hallucinogenic ceiling are meant to impress. And they do.
In addition to the basilica and an adjacent chapel dedicated to a particularly miraculous Virgin Mary, both free to the public, this site also offers an observatory, museum, and fantastic views.
The covered markets of the Les Halles de Lyon have been open since 1970. The full name of the markets includes the name Paul Bocuse, a legendary figure on both the French and international cooking scene. Many of the shops located here are star-rated by the Michelin guide, and more than 95% of the shops are run by business owners who really know their products. These are local businesses, which draws in loyal customers.
There are approximately 60 shops in Les Halles selling products that have to do with cooking and food. You'll find butchers, bakers, caterers, fishmongers, and more selling their high quality fresh products. It is also a showcase for local food products and a great place to find good meats, poultry, seafood, cheeses, fruits, and vegetables. You can also enjoy a sit down meal with a glass of wine at the markets.
Lyon’s Célestins Theatre (Théâtre des Célestins) is as famous for its design as it is for its theater program, which showcases contemporary and classical pieces and even cabaret. The most established theater in the city, Célestins was designed by French architect Gaspard André and unveiled in 1881 in the neoclassical style inspired by Ancient Greece. André also designed other famous Lyon buildings, including Place des Jacobins and the Grand Temple de Lyon.
Named after the Célestine monastery that sat in the spot of the theater from 1407 to 1779, Célestins is in the heart of Old Lyon, just off the right bank of the Saône. The famous theater has two auditoriums inside—one with space for 750 people and another smaller one with 150 seats. Its facade gets lit up during Lyon’s Festival of Lights every December, which attracts millions of visitors.
Listed as a “monument historique” in 1997, the theater was renovated between 2003 and 2005, and today, the site is accessible for tours that take visitors behind the scenes and even into the costume rooms to learn all about the theater’s history.
When Lyon brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière created the world’s first “cinématographe” in 1895, it sparked the beginning of film. At the Lumière Institute (Institut Lumière), in the grand family home where the brothers invented the first moving picture, visitors can now learn all about the history of the extraordinary family and get to know the origins of early cinema. You’ll see the first moving picture reel, “Sortie d’Usine,” and on the ground floor, you can view displays of the brothers’ movie players and cameras while learning just how their inventions worked.
Based in the historical Monplaisir district, the family’s Art Nouveau mansion is all grand staircases, high ceilings and chandeliers. Equal parts museum, cinema, library, documentation center and old family home, there are two main exhibitions to visit at the institute: “The Pleasure and the Days,” dedicated to the family life of the Lumières, and “Gabriel Beyre’s World,” all about the most famous Lumière cinematographer.
The museum is of special interest to film buffs and Francophiles, meaning it’s easy to see why cinema is so ingrained in the French psyche. Naturally, there is also a film theater and regular film screenings at the institute.
Located on the grand Quai Romain Rolland, Lyon’s Palais de Justice hails back to 1842 and is as famous for its architecture as it is for the trials that go on inside the building. Designed by French architect Louis-Pierre Baltard, the Palais is one of France’s most impressive 19th-century buildings, filled with neoclassical details that run in contrast to the flamboyant Rococo style of the time. Known as the “Palace of the 24 Columns,” Baltard’s design was given the grand seal of approval by the French government in 1996 and officially named a “monument historique.”
Home to the Rhône Assize court and Lyon’s Court of Appeal, the Palais de Justice dominates the Saône river view of Lyon’s right-bank, and the 413-foot (126-meter) bridge that extends from the Palais across to the left-bank of the Saône provides a popular stroll through the heart of the city. Every December, the Palais’ neoclassical columns get lit up for Lyon’s famous Festival of Lights.
Based in the Cité Internationale district by the river Rhône, Lyon’s Museum of Modern Art (Musée d'Art Contemporain de Lyon) showcases contemporary artworks by an international collection of artists.Established in 1984, it also shows work by local emerging artists and focuses on current trends in the art world by aiming to hold temporary exhibitions by artists who create original art for the museum. The artists are given the freedom to experiment within the blank walls that are theirs to claim at MAC. With three enormous floors of space, every temporary exhibition sees a complete transformation of its stage.
The Lyon Museum of Modern Art cares for more than 1,079 pieces of art, which includes works from both its temporary exhibitions and the impressive permanent collection. Housed in a 1930s mansion designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, MAC Lyon also has its own restaurant, the Café du Musée, with a terrace overlooking Parc de la Tête, and a well-curated bookstore.
The oldest Roman theater in France, Lyon’s Ancient Theatre of Fourvière (Théâtre Antique de Lyon) was built under the orders of Augustus and expanded in Hadrian’s time. Completed in 17 B.C. with space for 10,000 people, today the Grand Theatre is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Lyon.
Restored in the 20th century, the ancient theater is now used to stage popular cultural events such as the summertime Nuits de Fourvière festival, where dance, opera and circus performers play alongside international music acts like Franz Ferdinand.
Situated on Fourvière Hill near the Notre Dame Basilica, from the theater you can also see the grand remains of the Odeon of Lyon, with its beautiful inlaid floor of marble and porphyry. Forming a pair with the main theater, the Odeon was built early in the second century with space for 3,000 people. Behind the Ancient Theatre of Fourvière, you can also visit the remains of an ancient Roman temple, dedicated in 160 A.D. to goddess Cybele.
If you’ve ever wanted to see movie props up close, or you’re just looking for a good rainy-day destination where you can take a break from wandering cobblestone streets, head over to the Musée Miniature et Cinéma (Cinema and Miniature Museum). In a stately building in Old Lyon (Vieux Lyon), you’ll find real objects from hundreds of films, mini masterpieces, and more.
The 289-acre Tête d'Or Park (Parc de la Tête d'Or) was designed by landscape architect Denis Bühler and opened in 1856. It is also home to one of France's leading botanical gardens, with more than 20,000 plant varieties. There is an international rose garden that is popular in the spring when the flowers are in bloom. Another popular attraction is the African plain, which is a zoological area of more than 7 acres where zebras, giraffes, antelopes, lions, and other rare species roam free.
The lake is a great place to participate in water activities such as boating and swimming. Children can enjoy mini boat rides in a pool dubbed the Little Lake. There are also pony rides, two tourist trains, quads with pedals, swings, go karts, and a carousel to make the day more fun for younger visitors. Bring your own picnic or stop at the park's shop for sweets, snacks and souvenirs.
For a bird’s-eye view of historic Lyon, don’t miss the largest animated miniature park in France. At Mini World Lyon, explore four different worlds, around 1,000 mini buildings, and top sights such as Tête d’Or park and Fourvière Hill. You’ll also find a 3D cinema and unique temporary exhibits.
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