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Exploring Vieux-Lyon and its Traboules

The old plaza in front of the Saint-Jean Cathedral in Lyon, France

Wandering down the cobbled streets of Vieux-Lyon (Old Lyon) is like taking a stroll back in time. It’s easy to spend a few delightful hours admiring its medieval and Renaissance buildings, its secret courtyards, its many cute craft shops and cafés, and magnificent historical places like the Saint-Jean Cathedral.

Our fist view of Saint-Jean took my breath away. I have a soft spot for old Gothic and Romanesque architecture, and its impressive white façade is a beautifully balanced mixture of both. This World Heritage monument sits in front of a spacious plaza with a little – and very old – water fountain in the middle. We sat there for a while to contemplate its beauty, the rhythm of the city reflected in locals and tourists passing by, and the ever-present Notre-Dame de Fourvière rising proudly above the plaza. Inside the church, its arched vaults and 12-century stained-glass windows invite you to a moment of reflection. There's also an astronomical clock dating back to 1598 – one of the oldest in Europe!

Walking along the side of the Saint-Jean Cathedral, it was easy to be distracted by the many delicious temptations found on our way – sweet crepes, retro-looking cafés, wine bars, ice-cream parlors, chocolatiers, craft soap shops, plenty of photo-worthy alleyways, and so much more. I felt like taken away to another world, and in reality, I truly was!

The Musée Miniature et Cinéma is just a few steps from the main plaza, housed in a 16th-century building that is listed as UNESCO World Heritage. This was a fun stop for my little one – who was excited to come up-close-and-personal with many of her favorite superheroes like Superman, Batman, and Spiderman – and a surprising visit for me, not having expected to find so many fantastic movie props and special effects on display this far from California! Certainly recommended if you have the time (and included in the Lyon City Card!)

Guignol puppets are a symbol of Lyon and you'll find an abundance of them in Vieux-Lyon. Personally, I'm not a big fan (I've always found them a little creepy), so we skipped Le Petit Musée de Guignol. There's also the Museum of Puppetry and Art, at the Musées Gadagne, which we didn't visit either, but are a good place to learn more about the history of Lyon.

Perhaps the most popular thing to do when visiting the Vieux-Lyon quarter is to explore its unique Traboules – hidden passageways that lead to secret courtyards and spiral staircase towers connecting buildings from block to block. They were used in older days by the silk trade workers to move their merchandise efficiently around the city, and also during World War II as secret meeting places for the resistance against the Nazis. There’s an official app – Traboules by Lyon Tourism – that guides you through the city, allowing you to discover these fantastic alleyways that are true windows into the past. Finding concealed entrances and clues leading to the next traboule was exciting for both me and the kid, and a must-do for anyone visiting Lyon.

Going back in the direction of Saint-Jean, on the northern side of the cathedral, we came upon a children's playground right next to the ruins of a previous church dating back to the 4th century, before the cathedral was built. This was the perfect way to end our day with a little playtime next to the peaceful archaeological garden and the ancient cathedral in the background.

Playground next to Saint-Jean Cathedral in Lyon, France

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