On August 18th, we left Barcelona early in the morning and headed to Lyon, France via train. When we arrived at our AirBnB, we were immediately captivated by the view from our patio which sat directly in front of the Rhone river. We got settled in and went for a walk along the river where we discovered a number of cafes and restaurants as well as several large boats offering food and drinks at all hours of the day. These party boats don’t actually go on “booze cruises,” you just enjoy the ambiance and view from the deck of the boats or from their patio seating on land. This is definitely unique to Lyon and we recommend at least going for a drink in the afternoon or evening.
On our first full day in Lyon, we wanted to get the lay of the land; so, we decided to check out the well-renowned Musee Des Beaux Arts (€7 per ticket) located near place des Terreaux in a former convent. Not only is it a marvelous building, but it has quite an impressive collection of art from all over the world including ancient Egyptian artifacts, European coin collections, Asian pottery and of course, the works of contemporary French painters. After perusing the art for 1.5 hours, we found the terrace café inside the museum and had an espresso amongst the trees. It’s a great place to get a break from the crowds and heat of the day! The average cost for an espresso at the Terrace Cafe is €3-4.
After the museum, we knew we needed to head over to Old Town or ‘Vieux Lyon’ as the locals call it because that’s where all the main tourist attractions are. So, we crossed (on foot) over the Rhone and Saone bridges and headed up the hill (Parc des Hauteurs) to La Basilique Notre Dame de Fourviere which proved to be a pretty steep hike to the top. Once we reached the top, we caught some beautiful panoramic views of the city. There aren’t any good cafes or restaurants at the top of the hill; so, we recommend brining a bottle of wine and some snacks with you to enjoy while gazing at the view of Lyon. The best time of day for this is obviously sunset!
Whilst on the hill, you can explore the inside of the Cathedral if you choose and afterward, don’t forget to walk over to the Roman ruins and amphitheater (Theatre gallo-ramain) which are fun to see and provide another perspective on the city. The ruins seem to still be used today for performance theater, capturing the history of the area and preserving it in time.
Once we descended from the hill top, we found ourselves in Vieux Lyon which is impossible to mistake for any other quaint French town because of its distinct Lyonnaise culture. There are traditional Lyonnaise Bouchons (restaurants serving French cuisine) at every turn, emanating smells of cheese, escargot, and rich delicacies only the French offer. The shops and boutiques are quite picturesque selling local wines, rum cakes, pastries, chocolate, and candy galore. It’s a tourist’s dream and don’t be surprised if your wallet is lighter when you return home from all your indulgent purchases.
Being a self-proclaimed Foodie, I was intent on eating as much Lyonnaise food at local Bouchons as our budget would allow for, namely because Lyon is acclaimed as the “world capital of gastronomy”. We looked at menus for every single Bouchon in Vieux Lyon and found a lovely Bouchon called Le Panier du Chef which offered a number of pre-fixe menu options at different price points and excellent service too.
Note: When in Lyon, it’s very common for Bouchons to offer pre-fixe menu selections (Appetizer, Main Course, Dessert) for €25 - €45 per person. Here are some suggestions for MUST HAVE Lyonnaise food while visiting Lyon:
• Salade Lyonnaise – A filling salad with bacon, poached egg, lettuce & vinaigrette
• Andouillette (sausage) – Large, course sausage with a distinct taste. Worth a try!
• Coq au Vin – Braised Chicken with Burgundy wine, lardons, mushrooms, and garlic
• Lyonnaise Potatoes – Pan fried and thinly sliced potatoes served with butter and parsley
• Fish Soufflé – Like nothing I’ve tried better. It’s like an egg casserole with fish, butter and sauce.
• Escargot – MUST TRY as an appetizer. Snails typically served in their shell with garlic, pesto and butter.
• Duck Confit – If you are going to try duck, try it in FRANCE!
• Local Beaujolais or Bourgogne Wines – Try the local wines. They are affordable & plentiful.
• Cheese Cheese Cheese (the stinkier the better!) – Try Saint Marcellin, a strong, white goat cheese!
• Olives of all types – You’ll find them marinated 100 different ways.
After dinner in Vieux Lyon, Mike and I liked to stroll around and look for views of the city during twilight. Lucky for us, Lyon has so many bridges, hills and waterways that it’s beautiful at every turn. Though it can be easy to get a little lost if your main point of reference is a bridge; well, mainly because there are so many of them!
If you have more time to explore, we had fun finding the Traboules of Lyon. In the Saint Jean District, there are hundreds of passageways that weave through Vieux Lyon, linking the streets by secret alleys which were at one time used to transport silk from place to place. The longest passageway runs between 54 Rue Saint Jean and 27 Rue du Boeuf. There isn’t anything glorious to see; but we enjoyed discovering more about the rich history of the city and learning about the silk trade from years past.
The following day, we continued exploring the city, heading to Parc de la Tete d’Or, the city’s most famous park in the center of it all. On our way there, we were pleasantly surprised to stumble upon La Fresque Des Lyonnais which is a massive mural painted on the side of a building, designed to resemble an actual apartment complex. At first glance, it’s hard to tell whether it’s real life or a work of art! You have to admire the creativity of the French!
Parc de la Tete d’Or is exactly as the name intends except it’s so much more. Yes, it’s a massive park with fountains, gardens and beautifully winding walkways. However, it’s also a Zoo which is free to all. We were surprised to see giraffes, monkeys, alligators, deer, ostriches, etc., all in the park! No wonder families and kids turn out in droves for a weekend stroll in the park. It’s definitely worth a visit if you have the time and some comfortable walking shoes.
Based on everything we saw over the course of 4 days in Lyon, here are our top recommendations:
1) Visit Vieux Lyon – the old town is a must. It’s where we spent the most time!
2) Dine in at least 1 Lyonnaise Bouchon – You must do this…you can thank me later.
3) Walk up to La Bisilique Notre Dame de Fourviere for the panoramic city views.
4) Take in the art at Musee des Beaux Arts & an espresso on the Terrace
5) Enjoy a walk or picnic at Parc de la Tete d’Or
6) Stroll the bridges and streets between the 2 rivers: Le Rhone and Le Saone – the views are beautiful
7) Take a Lyonnaise Cooking Class – If you are in to French cuisine, this is the place to take it all in!
Rhone River Party Boats
In the spirit wanderlust, Mike and I decided that it’s just as important for us to visit the major metropolitan cities as it is to find the small towns or hidden gems of the country side.
While in Lyon, we heard that a visit to Annecy, France is a must-see, so we decided to make a day out of it. We boarded the train at 9am for the 2 hour journey to Annecy, which is known mainly for Lake Annecy (Lac D’Annecy) in Haute-Savoie, the 3rd largest lake in France and the #1 cleanest lake in France, nestled against the French Alps.
As soon as we arrived in Annecy, we were in love with the town and the people. Strolling through the streets felt like a fantasy with its charming cafes, luscious flowers, beautiful birds and picturesque views at every turn. It doesn’t take long to take in the beauty of this quaint town and we were fortunate enough to arrive on a Tuesday morning when the streets turn in to a farmer’s market loaded with goodies from fruits, vegetables, homemade jam, and olives to meats, fish, craft beer and pastries. You have to go early to hit the market because it closes up around 1pm.
After you walk around the streets and grab some coffee and a bite to eat, head over to the Jardin de L’Europe and walk through this lovely park to the Pont des Amours. Legend has it that if two lovers kiss on the Pont des Amours bridge, their love will last forever. So, don’t be surprised if you see couples taking kissy-face selfies on this bridge! And if romance isn’t your thing, it’s ok. You won’t be disappointed by the views from this small bridge.
Immediately next to the bridge, there are several vendors renting boats and offering tours. We opted for a 45 minute guided boat ride around the entire Lac D’Annecy (€7 per person). Or you can rent your own motor boat (€60 per hour) or paddle boat (€30 per hour). The fresh air, clarity of the water, and beauty of the French Alps made it an exquisite, yet short ride.
After we docked, we decided we had to see more of this gorgeous area; so, we rented bikes from Roul Ma Poule, a shop which is conveniently located in town. The ½ day cost per bike was €15 or you can rent it for a full day at €20 per bike. You can also rent electric bikes, roller blades, kayaks and paddle boards to enjoy the lake for a day.
The ride around the like is 40km. There are 2 routes you can take to start. The Green route goes from Annecy Le-Vieux all the way to Doussard (20km) on a relatively flat path without vehicle access. This route covers the entire West side of the lake and is more beautiful than I can describe in words. Feel free to bring a picnic lunch or stop at the few roadside cafes along the way. If you choose to take the Pink route which covers the entire East side of the lake, it is much more challenging, with many more hills and areas where you must ride on the road with cars. You will find many cyclists on both paths. We took the Green route 20km, ate our packed lunch, then turned around and biked back to Annecy. Either way you choose, it will surely be a majestic experience. And once you return to town, you will have earned yourself a scoop or two of gelato at one of the many shops!
We highly recommend 1 or 2 days in Annecy and wished we were able to stay the night to fully enjoy everything Annecy has to offer.
After our time in Lyon, we were ready to explore the Coast of France; so, we chose Marseille because it is the capital of the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region and is the country’s 2nd largest city after Paris. Not to mention, its history dates back to 600 BC, when Marseille was founded by the Greeks. Marseille is now the largest French city on the Mediterranean coast and the largest port for commerce, freight and cruise ships. That said, The Old Port or Vieux-Port is the main harbor and marina of the city and the center of all the action.
We were fortunate enough to stay in a lovely AirBnB on Avenue Montgrande, only a 10 minute walk from the Vieux-Port. This allowed us easy access to all of the main sites and tours. On our first full day in Marseille, we decided to explore the heart of the city by taking Les Petits Trains de Marseille (€8 per ticket) for a ride around the city as well as a stop at the 19th century Notre-Dame De La Garde, a Romanesque-Byzantine basilica to enjoy the panoramic views. This is by far the distinguishing monument of Marseille, as it can be seen from many areas of the city. Thus, it should not be missed!
Once we returned from the tour, we decided to wander up to the Panier District to check out the oldest town in the city, with its winding streets and cobblestone steps. Both Panier and Vieux Port have countless restaurants with patio seating so that you can enjoy the food, the people watching and the views of Marseille. Fish and seafood seem to be the most popular menu items in Marseille but we were surprised to find much Mediterranean and African food as well.
On our 3rd day in Marseille, we booked a same-day boat tour at the Vieux-Port so that we could learn more about the infamous Calanques and get an up-close-and-personal look at them. Les Calanques are limestone and dolomite rock formations that are considered a national monument in France. They are a cultural gem, providing majestic landscapes, biodiversity and cultural heritage with many traces left by humans over thousands of years. We took a tour of the National Park through Compagnies Maritime which offered a ½ day tour of 9 Calanques and a 45 minutes swim in one of the accessible coves. For the petit circuit, the ticket price is €32 per person. It was a great day!
Please Note: the tours are conducted ONLY in French; so, if you don’t speak the language, they pass out a printed guide so you can read and educate yourself on the history of each Calanques. It’s not ideal but at least it’s better than nothing!
As I touched on earlier, Marseille has a long history as a port town and thus, many of its most distinct attractions are best reached by boat/ferry. One of the most popular tours to do while in Marseille is to take the Frioul-d’If Ferry ride which runs all day (about every hour). You can buy your tickets at the Vieux-Port to Frioul Archipelago and the infamous Chateau d’If prison (€16 per person).
The first stop on the Ferry is Chateau d’If and you can take a tour of the prison for €6 per person. We were glad we stopped for some of the lovely views and to reminisce about the story of The Count of Monte Cristo which made this island and prison famous. After 1 hour, we hopped on the next Ferry to Frioul which is another example of a Calanques; but, it’s one of the few where a small number of people actually live. It’s a great stop for the views, swimming on/near the rocks, having lunch or dinner at the local cafes and restaurants or just stopping in for ice cream and a cocktail. The ferry tour was very crowded and we had to wait in a number of long lines to board the ferry; but, there are plenty of seats for all. You just need to be ready to have patience and don’t mind waiting in lines for the crowds of people taking this tour every day at all hours of the day. Best timing is early in the morning (before 1pm).
But our favorite experience in Marseille was the day trip we took to Cassis, an ancient fishing and farming village that dates back to 500BC. It is the most charming French town we’ve had the pleasure of visiting thus far. I’ll go into detail on Cassis in the next section.
Notre Dame de la Garde in Marseille
Our day trip to Cassis was our favorite day in France. It had everything we love: a beautiful drive along the French Riviera, a gorgeous, charming and ancient fishing village, amazing beaches and views, delicious food and excellent beach clubs for day bed and umbrella rentals. It’s extremely picturesque at all times of the day, the locals are very friendly and it was fun to get lost in the small winding streets. We would’ve enjoyed staying overnight in the town instead of only 10 hours, so we would recommend that if you have the time.
For $4.50 per person return trip, you can take the M8 bus (Carnoux – Cassis – Marseille) for the 45 minute drive to Cassis. It’s a very nice drive. I recommend sitting on the right side of the bus to catch the amazing views of the Calanques as you approach. It’s quite spectacular. When we arrived in Cassis, it was easy to find the heart of the town and we immediately started wandering down the colorful, sloped streets. There are countless cafes, restaurants, boulangeries and all types of shops with artist fares. Walk the harbor front for beautiful views of the ocean and large calanques.
We were in the mood for a beach day so we wandered down to the Plage De La Grande Mer which is in the town center. Because of its central location, this beach gets very busy so we decided to walk about 15 minutes further down and stumbled across a MUCH more beautiful beach called Plage De Bestouan. We immediately discovered Same Same Beach, a restaurant with a sunning patio that was renting day beds and umbrellas. It’s a terrific location with a funky, laid back vibe and an unforgettable view. For 2 day beds and an umbrella for a full day, the charge was €50, a little steep but well worth it to have such a comfortable, relaxing and enjoyable experience. Around 6pm, we packed up and walked back to the bus station for our ride back into the city.
The whole day was easy, fun and well worth it. We recommend putting Cassis on your list of small towns to visit on the French Riviera.
If you’re a seafood lover, then you’re in the right place! Restaurant menus in this town are dominated by shellfish dishes Here are a few iconic items/dishes you must try while in Marseille:
• Bouillabaisse – A large bowl of fish stew (with varying types of fish)
• Aioli – garlic, lemon juice, eggs and olive oil served with boiled fish, eggs and vegetables.
• Pastis – a strong alcoholic beverage made with anisee and spices that is served with water. A great summertime aperitif.
• Navette – Boat-shaped biscuits often orange flavored