Lyon's Architectural Landmarks, Lyon

Lyon's Architectural Landmarks (Self Guided), Lyon

Founded by the Romans in the 1st century B.C., over the course of the past millennium Lyon played a major role in the political, cultural and economic development of Europe. The city's long history is clearly imprinted in its urban fabric, manifested in numerous buildings of various epochs and styles. To explore some of Lyon's most notable architectural landmarks, embark on this self-guided walking tour!
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Lyon's Architectural Landmarks Map

Guide Name: Lyon's Architectural Landmarks
Guide Location: France » Lyon (See other walking tours in Lyon)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 9
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 4.3 Km or 2.7 Miles
Author: jenny
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Ancient Theatre of Fourvière (Amphitheatre Gallo-Romain)
  • Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière
  • Metallic Tower of Fourviere
  • Lyon Cathedral
  • Hôtel Dieu
  • Palais du Commerce
  • Lyon Opera House
  • Bartholdi Fountain
  • Fresque des Lyonnais (The Lyon Fresco)
Ancient Theatre of Fourvière (Amphitheatre Gallo-Romain)

1) Ancient Theatre of Fourvière (Amphitheatre Gallo-Romain) (must see)

There are a lot of interesting vestiges of ancient Lyon to behold and one of the best of them, undoubtedly, is the Amphitheatre Gallo-Romain, at the foot of the Croix-Rousse Hill.

This theatre, first built under the reign of Roman Emperor Tiberius, around 19AD, was also known as the Amphitheatre des Trois Gaules. Its main purpose was to serve as the Sanctuary of the Three Gauls – an administrative institution set to federalize and romanize Gallia as an Imperial province.

Other than that, the theatre was used, as were all such places in Roman times, as a place for entertainment. Theatrical plays were put on here along with gladiator fights and other public events. The theatre was also used for public executions.

The original amphitheatre wasn’t very large; it had room for just about 1,800 spectators. The basement was made up of three elliptical walls joined by cross-walls and a channel around the oval central space.

Around 230 AD the theatre was enlarged, added with two new galleries, which brought the seating space up to 20,000. At the end of the Gallo-Roman era the theatre was abandoned and fell into ruin, with parts of it being built on.

Archaeological digs between 1956 and 1976 uncovered the remains of what you can see today in the Jardin des Plantes.
Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière

2) Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière (must see)

You may be forgiven to think that the Basilique de Fourvière is the most important church in Lyon, considering its elevated, eye-catching position on top of the eponymous hill, some hundreds of meters above the River Saône.

The church stands on the site of a Roman forum of Trajan and an early Christian temple, and was built in 1872 by Pierre-Marie Bossan showing an unusual departure from the then fashionable Gothic style towards a mixed Romanesque-Byzantine appearance.

Funded privately by the nobles of Lyon, the temple was built in white stone with crenelated walls and four main towers. A gilded statue of Virgin Mary tops the bell tower.

In fact, there are two churches there, standing one on top of the other. It is only when you learn that the church was built and decorated to show off Catholic wealth after France’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, that you start to realize that everything there is a slightly over-the-top. But never you mind, just forget the past and enjoy the beauty of the present.

The interior is quite simply breathtaking, with magnificent wall frescoes, elaborate mosaics on the upper arches and the ceiling, marble statues and beautiful stained glass windows. The crypt of Saint Joseph is as beautifully decorated as the rest of the building.

Between the church and the adjoining Chapel of the Virgin is a terrace that affords great views of the city, but if you want to see Lyon in all its splendor, there is an observatory on top of the north-east tower, with only 297 steps to climb!
Metallic Tower of Fourviere

3) Metallic Tower of Fourviere

The Metallic Tower of Fourviere is a true landmark of Lyon, bearing striking resemblance to the Eiffel Tower in Paris which was built three years earlier. Some of the locals refer to it as the “Eiffel Tower” or the “Picon”; a fairly widespread rumor attributes its paternity to Gustave Eiffel, although no kinship has been proven.

The steel framework structure stands 85.9 metres high and weights 210 tons. Atop the Fourvière hill it marks the highest point in Lyon, culminating at an altitude of 372 metres. The tower opened to the public for the first time on May 3, 1894.

Originally, it had a restaurant on the ground floor, and a Roux-Combaluzier lift capable of carrying 22 people to the summit observatory, 80 metres high, for a fee of 1 franc. The latter was particularly popular during the Exposition Universelle of 1914 held in Lyon.

In 1905, the Gay family – the then owners of the land on which it stands – acquired the tower and kept it in their possession for nearly 40 years, using it as an observation facility, complete with restaurant and souvenir shop.

At some point, the commercial affairs came into decline and, in 1943, the tower was dangerously close to being destroyed for scrap metal. Luckily, the ensued legal fight managed to repeal the already issued requisition order and the tower was saved. In 1953, it was bought by the French Radio-Television (RTF) company, which sought an elevated point for broadcasting the only channel of the local TV station inaugurated a year later.

In 1963, the tower became a relay antenna for RTF, and has since been no longer open to the public. Its decoration at the base has given way to concrete, the upper terrace has been removed, and the original hydraulic piston elevator replaced with an electric model carrying 4 passengers only.
Lyon Cathedral

4) Lyon Cathedral (must see)

The Lyon Cathedral (Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Lyon) is an archbishopric church and thus is the main church in the city.

It was built between 1165 and 1480 on the site of the ancient Sainte Croix and Etienne churches, whose vestiges can be seen in the nearby archaeological gardens.

Because of the time it took to build, the cathedral has two distinct architectural styles: the eastern end containing the apse and the choir is in Romanesque style, while the nave and the façade are in Gothic style. Above the main portal there are several medallions representing the signs of the Zodiac, the Creation and the life of Saint Jean.

While the church may seem austere, if you visit the Basilique de Fourvière, in the choir you will see lovely 13th century stained glass windows, and on the left and right of the main altar there are two crosses dating back to 1274. You can also admire there several paintings, including the “Adoration des Mages” by Houyez, “La Circoncision” by Vignon and “Le Christ et la cananéenne” by de Plattemontagne.

The most compelling item within the cathedral is the magnificent astronomical clock in the north transept. Built in the 14th century, it is a marvel of technology for the era and it still works today. When it chimes on the hours of 12, 2, 3 and 4, a cock crows and the angels make a triumphant sound – reminding us of St Peter denying Christ before dawn and His subsequent entrance into Heaven.
Hôtel Dieu

5) Hôtel Dieu

The opulent Hôtel-Dieu de Lyon is the former hospital on the bank of the Rhône in Lyon; it is one of the largest buildings of the Presqu’île peninsula.

Back in the year 1000, the Ordre des Frères Pontifes (Bridge-Building Brotherhood) established here a minimal care facility for ailing pilgrims. In 1184 it became a hospital, known as the Hopîtal du Pont du Rhône, run by nuns. Initially, it was quite small, with only a priory and a chapel.

The first qualified doctor appeared there in 1454. In 1478 the municipality bought the facility and enlarged it to 200 beds, simultaneously adding a new chapel and a cemetery. During the 15th century, it was enlarged again, with the chapel turned into wards. In 1622 the outbuildings were pulled down and replaced with a number of buildings in the form of a cross around a central dome. Soon, a new church was built, designed by Guillaume Ducellet, followed by yet another building for convalescents added in 1663.

In 1761, Jacques-Germain Soufflot built the Grand Dome for changing the air over the large wards down below. During the French Revolution, all the unqualified workers were dismissed and replaced with trained medical personnel.

The hospital was enlarged once again in the early 19th century. In 1896, the first radiology department in France, performing X-rays, was established. In 1923 an Oncology department was set up in the Grand Dome.

The institution continued operating as a CHU (Centre Hospitalier Universitaire) – a teaching hospital – until its closure in 2010. As of 2019 the complex has been converted into a luxury hotel and a shopping mall.
Palais du Commerce

6) Palais du Commerce

The headquarters of Lyon's Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Palais de Commerce was initially intended to house a museum of art and industry together with shops and offices for silk trade, as well as the Chamber of Commerce and Tribunal.

The decision to build the palace was taken by the City Council in 1853. The project was finished in 1860, designed by architect René Dardel, featuring four pavilions around a central glass-roofed main hall, called the “Salle de la Corbeille”, with both the north and south façades richly decorated with ornate coping and columns supporting elegant balconies.

The statues representing Agriculture, Industry, Justice, Temperance and Trade reflect the purpose of the work carried out inside the building. The ceiling paintings done by Lyonnais artists, such as Ponthus-Cinier and Beuchot, continue the themes of the statues.

At the foot of the steps giving onto Place des Cordeliers there are two more, allegorical statues depicting the Rivers Saône and Rhône with their arms entwined. On the north side of the building, the former Place de la Bourse has been turned into a small, rather charming public garden.

In 1894, President of the Third Republic, Sadi Carnot, was assassinated while leaving the building. In memory of the late president, there is a plaque installed on the wall near the main entrance.

Parts of the palace are open to the public for guided tours only.
Lyon Opera House

7) Lyon Opera House

A successful amalgamation of the old and new, the Lyon Opera House is in fact the third incarnation of an opera house on this site.

The original one was built in 1756, designed by Jacques-Germain Soufflot. By 1826 the building had proven too small and had to be pulled down. Another, larger theater, featuring Neo-Classical style, was built in its place in 1830 by architects Pollet and Chenavard.

That edifice, in turn, was also considered small and outdated in the mid 20th century, upon which a competition was launched to build a renovated and enlarged version. The competition was won by Jean Nouvel in 1986.

Nouvel kept only the façade and made more space by having basement areas dug out for rehearsal rooms. On top of the building, above the statues of the Muses, he added a steel-and-glass cylinder that is seen today. This allowed to hide the rather ugly fly tower and is now mostly used by the ballet. The magnificent lobby retained the original stucco work, gilts and frescoes, tall arched windows and several lovely chandeliers. The main auditorium is oval shaped and has six levels of galleries.

If you consider taking in a play, opera or ballet, whilst in Lyon, don’t hesitate to book your tickets here. There are wonderful views of the city to be enjoyed from the dome’s terrace too.
Bartholdi Fountain

8) Bartholdi Fountain

While every town or city in France is proud of its fountains, Lyon justifiably takes pride in its most famous one – Bartholdi Fountain – on Place des Terreaux.

The fountain was designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi in 1889 and manufactured by Gaget and Gautier. It was originally intended for the city of Bordeaux when first exhibited at the Exposition Universelle of 1889. After the show, however, the mayor of Bordeaux perceived it too expensive for his city, and so the fountain was bought by the mayor of Lyon in 1890.

The centerpiece of the fountain is an allegorical sculpture of the River Garonne, called the “Char triumphant de la Garonne”, featuring a woman with a small child in a chariot drawn by four water horses. The statue is made of lead on an iron frame; it weighs 21 tons and is 4.85 meters high.

The woman figure represents the Garonne and the four horses with their bridles of water weeds represent its four main tributaries, namely: the Tarn, Ariège, Lot and Gers. The horses are leaping and plunging, thus symbolizing these tributaries jumping into the sea. However, since placed in Lyon, the woman figure is believed to be representing the River Saône instead.

Architect Bartholdi is best known for his other major works, like the Lion of Belfort created in 1879 and the Statue of Liberty in 1886.
Fresque des Lyonnais (The Lyon Fresco)

9) Fresque des Lyonnais (The Lyon Fresco) (must see)

Among the many wonderful things to see in Lyon, surely the most remarkable one is the Fresque des Lyonnais.

This incredible trompe-l’oeil covers an entire building with over 800 square meters of still-life deception. It was created between 1994 and 1995 by various artists from the Cité de la Création, who have done similar work throughout France and in several other countries. The marvelous thing about this fresco is that there is always something new to discover that has previously escaped the eye.

Depicted here are 30 famous individuals, both living and dead, from different epochs and places, including the Lumière brothers (early film-makers), the Roman Emperor Claudius, Joseph Marie Charles (inventor of the Jacquard loom), Saint Irénée and many other distinguished historic personages. There are also some contemporary ones too, like l’Abbé Pierre (founder of Emmaüs), Bernard Pivot and Bernard Lacombe (the former player and former manager of the Olympic Lyonnais football club, respectively).

On the ground floor you can see shops, a library and a cafe that you’ll never be able to enter, even though they look quite real! On the one wall of the building there are painted hundreds of books, some open, and, if you look carefully, you will find among them “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Have some fun and try to see if you can spot a smoking pipe, goldfish in a bowl, a pair of glasses and a feather quill in an inkpot.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.

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