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While Paris may be France’s number one claim to fame, Lyon has more than a few tricks up her sleeve. Are you curious to get to know this French city better?
We’ve got you covered with all the fun facts about Lyon, from history to gastronomy to puppets! You’re sure to come out the other side more informed, and maybe craving a croissant.
WARNING: Drooling May Occur.
As the culinary capital of France, with 22 of the best restaurants in all of France calling Lyon home, the Michelin Guide doesn’t lie! Let’s sink our teeth into seventeen juicy tidbits about the history of Lyon!
Table of Contents
Historian Dio Cassius documented that in 43 BC, the Roman Senate demanded that a settlement for Roman refugees from the war with the Allobroges be erected near the Saône and Rhône rivers. The settlement was constructed on Fourvière hill and was named Lugudunum, which roughly translated to “Desired Mountain.” This area was, of course, the same area where present-day Lyon resides!
Being the smart and strategic people that they are, the Romans realized Lyon, then called Lugudunum, was the perfect spot to start building roads from. Since there was a convergence of two rivers, it was simply the perfect place to be the epicenter for Roman roads to span outwards from. To this day, Lyon is one of the main gateways to Europe. You can travel to most major European cities in less than two hours!
During the Renaissance, the silk trade was the key factor in the city’s development and economic strength. Due to close ties to Italy, which can still be seen this day in Lyon’s architecture, the silk trade flourished in Lyon! The treasury, called the Bourse, was built in 1749 in Lyon and even when international banking switched cities and countries, Lyon held steady as France’s center for banking!
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Lyon’s astronomical clock, situated in the Saint Jean Cathedral since 1383, is one of the oldest in the world! It stands 9 meters tall and plays the hymn of Saint Jean-Baptiste. Unfortunately, this clock has been inactive since 2013 so while it’s beautiful to see in person, it doesn’t actually accurately tell time or the positions of the stars anymore. Hopefully, they’ll get around to fixing that soon!
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There is a big, tall, metallic tower in Lyon that is reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower you gawk at while visiting Paris. The 80 meter tall tower near the Fourvière basilica in Lyon was built in 1894 to attract visitors from the World’s Fair. It was commissioned by a restaurant owner who wanted to build the tower on the hill and put his restaurant inside. Today it functions as a radio and TV authority— no more culinary delights in this tower!
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You know what’s super amazing and makes you feel like Sherlock Holmes? Secret Passageways! There are nearly 400 winding secret passageways through the city of Lyon that will take you up, down, and all around the city. You’ll find yourself flitting down spiral staircases, curving down underground, or darting under vaulted ceilings and arches. You never know where these secret passageways, called traboules, will take you!
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Dating all the way back to the 4th century, it is believed that the traboules were constructed to allow people easier and more direct access to the town’s freshwater source. The city had lots of problems with malfunctioning aqueducts, so they had to get creative about how to solve their water problems! Secret passages were the answer. When in doubt about what to do, go ahead and add some secret passageways!
During the 19th century when the silk trade was booming in the city of Lyon, the traboules were used by silk workers to cart enormous loads of cloth from their workshops. However, during WWII the passageways actually harbored Lyon’s resistance to the Nazis. Secret passageways are the perfect place for secret meetings!
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Lyon is the birthplace of the cinematograph. Brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière invented the cinematograph and were some of the first filmmakers in history! Thomas Edison beat them to the punch, but his kinetoscope only allowed one person to view the moving images at a time. The Lumière brothers invention allowed simultaneous viewing by as many people as were present!
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The brothers more than just inventors, they were smart men as well! They patented their cinematograph in 1895 and the first footage, the very first film, is quite a simple one. None of the drama, tears, or love that we’ve come to equate with modern movies. The film just shows workers as they are exiting the Lumière factory. Sounds…riveting.
The Lumière brothers actually didn’t see film as all that important. They regarded film as a “novelty” and nothing of consequence. They left the film business in 1905, after their brief 10 year film flirtation. However, the inventors didn’t stop inventing! They developed the Lumière Autochrome, which is the very first practical photographic colour process.
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There are over 1,500 restaurants in Lyon which gives Lyon the highest number of restaurants per inhabitant in all of France! That means that Lyon has the highest concentration of restaurants per capita. We definitely consider that a gastronomic win!
There is a specific type of restaurant only found in Lyon, called a bouchon! They are charming family-owned bistros that specialize in the homemade foods from the recipes that the mothers of Lyon prepared for the silk workers back in the Renaissance! Talk about old recipes, right?
We all love Mom’s cooking. In Lyon, the Meres de Lyon, which translates to the Mothers of Lyon, are the infamous women that are chiefly responsible for the city’s culinary reputation! It all started with Mère Fillioux who opened the first bouchon bistro and gained a reputation as an incredible chef far and wide! She then taught Mère Brazier, who taught the great Bocuse…. And the rest is scrumptious culinary history!
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In the early 1970s a group of local young artists decided to take art outside of the museum and into the streets! They formed the artist cooperative group: CitéCréation. To date, CitéCréation has created over 150 murals throughout Lyon and has completed over 650 murals throughout the world!
80% of CitéCréation’s mural artists are women! These kick-butt female muralists are responsible for painting huge murals throughout the city of Lyon that illustrate everything from historical events, famous people, and the simple and sweet moments of normal life. In case you were wondering, on average a mural takes between two to nine months to complete!
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One of the most famous puppets of all time is Guignol, a timeless puppet star in puppet theatre who was actually invented by a tooth puller! Laurent Mourguet started his career as a silk weaver, but after the Silk Crisis, he became a peddler, and then a tooth puller. He used puppet theatre to attract customers! Some people advertise with posters, others with puppets!
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As the birthplace of the cinematograph and the infamous puppet Guignol, Lyon is full of surprises. This ancient city that was founded by Romans, held the title of silk capital of the world for centuries.
Now it is a shining culinary star and has been dubbed the “World Capital of Gastronomy,” by renowned French food critic Curnonsky. He was also known as the Prince of Gastronomy. When culinary royalty speaks, we listen!
We hope that these seventeen facts about the history of Lyon proved to be tasty tidbits and that you savored every word! If they didn’t quite satisfy, go out and treat yourself to a crepe. We’re sure you’ll feel much better.
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Lily Allen-Duenas is a wandering yoga instructor, massage therapist, and reiki healer. For the last two years she’s been journeying around the world, teaching yoga on island resorts in Cambodia, surf hostels in Sri Lanka, and wellness centers in the Phillipines. Lily loves building her life around her passions, health, wellness, and travel. You can follow her journey at wildyogatribe.com or get social with her @wildyogatribe