Everything you need to know about the Fête des Lumières in Lyon
The city of Lyon is just a 2 hour train ride from Paris and is a must visit for any Francophile. Straddling two rivers, the RhÃ´ne and the SaÃ´ne, the city has three main districts that interest visitors the most: the peninsula between the rivers Presqu’ÃŽle (literally almost an island), the old and hilly Vieux de Lyon, and Croix -Rousse, which is full of tunnels and traboule, secret stairs that connect houses, streets and neighborhoods.
A lot has been written about Lyon, from what to see if you only have one day for must-see experiences, but what I want to tell you in this article is what you expect when you visit Lyon in December, precisely during the weekend around December 8th.
This is when all the different districts of Lyon come together and burst into the Festival of Lights, the Festival of Lights. Yes, there are many great festivals and light shows all over France, but this one is the biggest, the best and the most fun with all the extras that Lyon has to offer.
Even if you’ve booked early and found a hotel room, there’s a lot you need to know and prepare to make the most of this bright weekend weekend. Here are my top tips.
Watch out for candles
The festival dates from September 8, 1852, when a statue of the Virgin Mary was to be erected on the hill of FourviÃ¨re. Floods and bad weather delayed the delivery of the statue, and the event was postponed to December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Persistent bad weather still threatened the procession and celebration around the statue that day, but later that evening, seeing the weather finally clearing up, locals spontaneously placed candles on their window sills, illuminating the streets. Until today, this is truly the most magical part of the whole festival. All the other towns have laser and light shows, but Lyon candles are unique and so pretty.
Put on your walking shoes
While downtown Lyon and the old districts are not that big on paper, the old districts are indeed very steep. So steep that there are two funiculars that run throughout the day, reducing the effort required to climb the steps and angled cobblestone streets. Once you’ve collected your map, suggest the best routes to visit all the best-lit sites, plan ahead, put on good shoes, and take your time. The funicular runs between certain times of the night festival, but to really appreciate all the effects you really have to be on foot. So take it slow and, if you’re there for two or more nights, flaunt the views. The illuminations are the same every night, so try to see some one night, some the next.
Climb the hill
As you walk up the FourviÃ¨re hill towards the Notre-Dame de FourviÃ¨re basilica, catch your breath at the Gallo Romaine Theater, one of Lyon’s Roman amphitheatres (see more below), and the one that is beautifully illuminated during the festival . You can sit back, enjoy the show, before climbing the last bit. Make sure you don’t get to the basilica too late in the evening, as it gets crowded and it’s worth taking a peek inside. The best approach is to start ascending just before dusk, slowing down, and spending the first part of the evening on the hill, before slowly descending, stopping at the best light attractions along the way. There are also plenty of cafes to sit down for a bit.
Do not eat or drink before hand
Much of the fun is not just the lights, but the fact that the streets are full of food and drink stalls. People sell home-brewed mulled wine from huge pots outside their homes, the majority of restaurants including the famous caps, set up tables outside where they sell food that you can take out and eat as you walk around. Then there’s the market along the river, full of food stalls, tempting you with every step. Try skipping lunch and forgoing a sit-down dinner and instead enjoy picking and selecting treats on the go. Everyone walks around with a cup of mulled wine in their hands and huddles in the corners to nibble on their boxes full of very, very good restaurant dishes.
Come a day earlier
To give yourself time to also enjoy Lyon in normal times, come a day earlier to eat in one of the famous bouchons, stroll through the streets, and browse the markets without the inevitable crowds that will flock on Friday and Saturday. Lyon has enough to see and do to warrant at least a day or two more, and there is a rather pleasant pedestrianized shopping area on the peninsula, perfect for some Christmas shopping. But make sure you come a day earlier than you stay a day longer. Mondays are rather boring days in France, with most shops and markets closed to give workers a break after Saturday and partial opening on Sunday.
Explore Croix Rousse
One of my favorite neighborhoods in the other part of old Lyon, Croix-Rousse, is the escalier route that descends from Croix-Rousse metro station, the rise of the Grande CÃ´te. At night it is beautifully lit, especially the part that takes you down from the metro station through the Jardin de l’Esplanade de la Grande CÃ´te filled with light sculptures during the festival. Further down the hill you’ll find plenty of individual shops and cafes and you might want to book this spot for a daylight return visit. You can combine a little shopping with finding the best hidden traboule. (Download the Traboules app, which will tell you where they are hidden).
Also think about Christmas
In December, it is not only the Festival of Lights, but also Christmas. Place Carnot, the large square in the center of the Presqu’Ile is adorned with market stalls and fairground rides, including a Ferris wheel that offers spectacular views from above over illuminated Lyon.
For truly special souvenirs and gifts to take back with you, head straight to Halles Paul Bocuse where you can buy Lyonnais favorite dishes, from charcuterie to cheese, sweets to wine. Many stalls will wrap your treats in shrink wrap for a safer journey.
Visit the two arenas
Lyon has not just one, but two Roman amphitheatres. The largest, the Gallo Romaine Theater in Lyon, the Grand ThÃ©Ã¢tre, is the oldest in France, built by Augustus in 15 BC, and dedicated to performances of tragedies and comedies; the smallest, the Odeon, was used for music recitals and poetry readings. The two are close to each other, encompassed by the Roman Museum of Lyon, or Lugdunum, as Lyon was called at the time. The two amphitheatres are places to discover during the Festival of Lights, because they are particularly beautiful when they are lit up. The reason I mention them separately is that they are easily missed, especially the smaller one, which I stumbled upon.
Drink new wine
If you have a great holiday at this festival and find yourself in Lyon, or anywhere in France on the third Thursday in November, then you will be entitled to a special day: Beaujolais Nouveau Day. Each wine bar and restaurant will have posters in the windows celebrating Beaujolais Nouveau has arrived prepare for an evening of tasting the youngest wine of the year that has just arrived at their doorstep. Many cafes will put straw on the floor, reminiscent of the noisier wine tastings of yore, and everyone goes out for at least a glass of young, light and eminently drinkable wine. To get a taste of the variety of Beaujolais wines available, why not plan a pub crawl?
Pro tip: Use local transport. Yes, at night it is better to discover Lyon on foot so as not to miss any of the attractions of the Festival of Lights, but it is okay to take the funicular to FourviÃ¨re or to Croix-Rousse then go back down or do do this several times and take different paths down the hills. Tickets are inexpensive and available at any metro station or at the funicular. Just be aware that during the festival not all metro stations will be open to avoid overcrowding.
France and other European countries in winter have a lot to offer visitors: