Did you know that the city of Lyon, France, was selected by the New York Times as one of the world’s top 50 places to visit in 2019? I didn’t. And yet, I found myself living in this wonderful city for four weeks, and falling in love with it!
There’s an interesting story about how I ended up in Lyon for the summer, but I’m saving that for another post. This one is about my experience visiting the city as a single parent with a six-year-old who was a little apprehensive about going to a place where “people speak a different language” and she didn’t have any friends. Not that I would tell her so, but I was actually feeling a bit of the same.
Thankfully, we found a city that was welcoming and accepting of us with our very limited French. Making new friends for her was just a matter of hitting the local playground. As for me, I found a great expat community on Facebook that helped with sightseeing tips and recommendations. I was even able to coordinate a few play dates that allowed us to have some of the local experiences that perhaps we wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Is Lyon a good place to visit with kids?
Definitely yes! Lyon is a very family-friendly place. As a single parent, I felt safe at all times. I also felt understood. Sitting at restaurants with a restless kid, there was no judgment. This was refreshing because I had somehow come to expect the French would be a little less patient with children, especially those who can’t stay seated nicely for too long. Yet, everywhere we went in Lyon, children were accepted as part of the equation and treated accordingly.
Planning a day out in the city wasn’t too complicated. Lyon offers plenty of things to do with kids of all ages, and most of the city’s popular attractions offer English information on their websites and/or brochures. If everything else fails, there’s always a public park or nearby playground, oftentimes conveniently situated next to beautiful ancient buildings and city landmarks. Watching my kid play happily while contemplating the beauty of Saint-Jean Cathedral’s medieval architecture was one of those moments that made me think, “Wow. Life is good right now.”
We also took plenty of days off just to relax at home and recover from all the walking, especially on those really hot canicule days that hit France and other European cities this summer. I found this to be key if traveling with a young kid (at least mine) in order to avoid burnout. Being in Lyon for a month allowed us to take our time exploring the different neighborhoods or arrondissements without feeling we had to cramp everything the city has to offer into a few days.
Favorite kid-friendly attractions in Lyon
As a first-time Lyon visitor, I found that booking a boat cruise and a double-decker bus tour of the city’s main attractions were both great ways to start getting familiarized with our new terrain. After that, I alternated days out in the city with days recharging at home where I’d be planning our next outings.
Here's my list of kid-approved activities we enjoyed during our stay in Lyon.
Boat Tour along the Saône River – This is the very first touristy thing we did after getting settled in Lyon and I still think it was a great way to officially launch our trip. Our 1-hour boat tour along the River Saône with Les Bateaux Lyonnais gifted us our first glimpses of Lyon’s most notable landmarks rising elegantly above the city: the imposing Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourvière and the Metallic Tower of Fourvière – a mini replica of the top of the Eiffel Tower. Going past the old medieval and Renaissance districts, I began noticing what I called the “French palette:” soft pink, light yellow, and mild brown façades on most of the older buildings. It was interesting to see the contrast between Old Lyon and the modern district of La Confluence, further south on our route, where buildings in geometrical shapes and bright colors are outfitted in sustainable ways. As the sun started to set, we turned to head back to the docking point, and several large boats that function as floating bars and restaurants along the riverbank started lighting up in inviting ways. Such a relaxing way to start getting acquainted with Lyon! (Tickets price: €13 for adults / €8 for children). This activity is included with the Lyon City Card.
Double-Decker Bus Tour – Lyon City Bus offers hop-on, hop-off tours covering the main city attractions. Buses depart from Place Bellecour (you can buy your tickets at the Lyon Tourism Office located in this huge plaza) and make 14 stops along the route for a total duration of 1.5 hours, allowing you to jump off to explore the areas that interest you the most, and then hop back on to continue touring. Audio commentary is available in French, English, Spanish and German. I recommend this activity if traveling with young kids mostly because it’s an easy way to go around the city without having to walk everywhere – giving you a respite and keeping them entertained along the way. However, to make the best of your experience, make sure to review the route map before your tour starts and decide which stops you’ll want to get off to explore further. The bus doesn’t stop long at each place so it’s better to plan ahead and know what you’re doing. Also, we didn’t get picked up at our last stop and ended up having to take the Metro back home and missing out on the last part of the tour. I found out later that this particular stop wasn’t being served after 4:30 p.m. during the summertime. I wish somebody had told me so when I purchased the tickets! (Tickets price: €21 for adults / €8 for children 4 to 15 years old). Discounted tickets offered with the Lyon City Card.
Exploring Vieux-Lyon and its Secret Passageways – The oldest district in Lyon, Vieux-Lyon, is one of those places that transport you to a different time and engage your heart and imagination in beautiful ways. Here you'll find the magnificent Saint-Jean Cathedral with its Gothic and Romanesque style, and you'll be able to explore old secret passageways known as Traboules, which were fun to discover for both my daughter and me. I was going to say that the best part is that it doesn’t cost a thing but then I remembered the many tempting shops I saw – from chocolatiers to French soaps, puppets, ice cream, wines and everything in between, so really, proceed with caution! Check out my blog post about other things to do in Vieux-Lyon here.
The Musée Miniature et Cinéma – We came across this little gem of a museum while exploring Vieux-Lyon on foot on a hot summer day. The air-conditioned 16th-century building (listed as UNESCO World Heritage) offered a welcomed break in our day. What I wasn’t expecting was the number of amazing props, character costumes, and special effects gadgets featured right there, in the heart of Lyon. Terminator, Aliens, Robocop, Independence Day, Star Wars, Men in Black and many other big movies are all well represented here. Also, the collection of miniature sets, created by the museum founder Dan Ohlmann is nothing short of fascinating. As for me, the highlight of my visit was coming across the ever so frightening Mother Queen from the Alien movies. Spooky! (Ticket prices: €9 for adults / €6.5 for children / Free access included with the Lyon City Card)
Basilique de Notre-Dame de Fourvière – One of Lyon’s main historic landmarks, the 19th-century Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière is a formidable visit and an absolute must-see. While entrance to the basilica is always free, we signed up for a special behind-the-scenes rooftop tour – a fabulous experience! You can read more about that visit here. There’s also a free audio guide for smartphones available for downloading here.
Ancient Theatre of Fourvière – Also on the Fourvière hill, very close to the basilica, you’ll find the oldest Roman theatre remaining in France, dating back to the 15th century BC, with capacity for 10,000 people. Part of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Lyon, it is free to visit and fun for kids to run around. If you happen to be in Lyon in the summertime with no kids (or have someone to babysit while you indulge in a night out), there is an awesome festival, Nuits of Fourvière, that takes place right on the Roman ruins featuring different music acts every night. On the hillside next to the archaeological site, you’ll find the Gallo-Roman Museum of Lyon-Fourvière, which houses a collection of Roman art, pottery, and coins. We didn’t visit the museum but heard that they host fun treasure hunts for children throughout the summer (exclusively in French though.) Access to the museum is included with the Lyon City Card.
Parc de la Tête d’Or – This is the largest park in Lyon (some say it’s the largest park in France!) and a great place to spend a leisurely day. The park covers around 105 hectares, which translated into practical language means that it would take you hours – and unlimited energy – to explore it all. My recommendation is to pack a picnic, pick a section you like and relax while enjoying the greenery. There is a beautiful lake in the center where you can rent pedal boats, and a mini train that takes you around the whole park starting from the main gate area. I recommend starting your park visit with a ride on the train – you'll get a sense of just how big it is and what to focus on. There’s also a small zoo where many African animals like giraffes, zebras, antelopes, and elephants roam free. Throughout the park, you’ll find several children’s playgrounds, a carrousel, rose gardens and beautifully landscaped areas. The botanical garden of Lyon is located here, too, featuring camellias over a hundred years old and carnivorous plants, among many other species. By the way, the Museum of Contemporary Art of Lyon is next to the park as well. We didn’t go this time but if you start with a visit to the museum, you can end your day with a nice stroll in the park. Access to the museum is included with the Lyon City Card.
Les Pentes de la Croix-Rousse – The Croix-Rousse neighborhood is situated on top of a hill rising to the north of the city, offering amazing views of Lyon. The hill is often referred to as “the working hill” because the city’s silk workers or canuts used to live and work here. Many silk manufacturing workshops remain there to this day. We stayed in this area during our first week in Lyon and spent a lot of time walking up and down the many stairs – pentes – that connect the upper neighborhood with the downtown areas. Along the way, we saw vestiges of the Roman era, like the Jardin des Plants, the amphitheater of the three Gauls, and the Roman road or Rhine route that once connected the city of Lugdunum – the Roman name of Lyon – to Germania. We also found many fun traboules, like the ones in Vieux-Lyon, to explore here! The heart of the Croix-Rousse has many cute sidewalk cafés, plus an assortment of boulangeries, patisseries, and other artisanal shops, as well as a fantastic farmers' market that takes over Boulevard de la Croix-Rousse every morning. The Lyon City Tram offers an hour-long guided tour through the slopes of Croix-Rousse that can be booked at the Lyon Tourism Office in Place Bellecour. (Ticket prices for the Tram Tour: €9 for adults / €5 for children / free for children under 4)
Musée des Confluences – This sparkling and modern museum is an impressive sight on its own with its futuristic architecture that combines metal and glass. It seats at the southernmost tip of Lyon, where its two rivers – the Saône and the Rhone – meet or “confluence.” The interior of the museum is spacious and bright. Its permanent exhibits span the history of the world since the beginning of the Universe. You’ll find anything from fragments of meteorites to fossils and huge dinosaur bones. My little one really enjoyed the temporary exhibits about beetles and “mini-monsters” (insects and mites), while I loved the "Headdresses from around the World," and the "Yokanoishima, Spirits from Japan" exhibits. If you have time and energy to spare after the museum, a walk through the Confluence district offers a different perspective of Lyon, surrounded by modern and eco-friendly buildings. The new Confluence shopping mall is a 15-min. walk from the museum and has a large terrace with several dining options facing the water. There’s also a game arcade and a big movie theatre that plays American blockbusters in English with French subtitles. (Musée des Confluences ticket prices: €9 for adults / free for children under 18). Free access to the museum is included with the Lyon City Card.
Aquarium of Lyon – We visited Lyon’s aquarium on one of the hottest days during our stay in the city, and spent 2-3 wonderful hours literally “chilling” inside its air-conditioned facilities. I particularly liked the aquarium’s approach of showcasing local aquatic life found in the rivers around Lyon, the rest of France, and also in rivers around the world, like the Amazon, Africa, and Southeast Asia, for instance. We saw sharks, Lionfish, Rockfish, eels, sea horses, jellyfish, and many fish species we hadn’t seen anywhere before. There’s also a small theatre showing cute children’s short films, which gave us a nice opportunity to sit down and relax for a while. The aquarium is on the outskirts of Lyon, in a small town called La Mulatière, very close to where we were staying. (Ticket prices: €15 for adults / €11 for children aged 5-10 / €6 for children aged 3-4)
Musée Lumière – Housed in what used to be the magnificent residence of the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière, considered the “fathers of the cinema,” the museum features different artifacts that chronicle the history of the cinematograph. You can also watch some of their short films and learn more about their lives. Behind the museum is the Institute Lumière, featuring a cute courtyard with a café/bar and a library packed with old movies and industry-related books worth checking out. If you’re a cinema fan, you will love this place. As for young kids, it didn’t quite resonate with my six-year-old but the museum is small enough to allow you to go through the visit rather quickly. If you decide to go, give yourself time to check out the awesome daily market in the plaza outside the museum and go for a walk around the Monplaisir neighborhood to get a good sense of what day-to-day life in Lyon is like. We found a playground full of local families with their kids next to a really old church and a stonewall with names of local soldiers lost during World War I. (Musée Lumière ticket prices: €7 for adults / €6 for children aged 7-18 / free for children under seven)
So what do you think? Would you visit Lyon with your kids? If so, don't forget to check out the Only Lyon Tourist Office website for additional resources, information on guided tours, and ideas to make the best of your stay. Also, feel free to reach out to me if you need help planning your trip!
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