Last year, I had the chance to visit Lyon’s famed Fête des Lumières. I’d wanted to go when I studied abroad in Bordeaux, but Lyon was just too far away. In Dijon, all I had to do was take a 2-hour train ride.
In this post, I’ll go over what exactly the Festival of Lights is, the best parts of the festival, as well as where to stay and what to do in the city (including an interactive map that I’m very proud of haha).
History: What is the Fête des Lumières?
The Festival of Lights is a four-day annual light display in early December that attracts 3-4 million visitors. At nearly every corner of the city, there’s some sort of light installation or animation, often projected onto major city buildings. It’s also a tradition for local Lyonnais to leave candles in their windows.
While largely secular today, the Fête des Lumières actually was originally a religious celebration of the Virgin Mary. Lyon suffered from the plague in 1643, and city leaders promised to pay tribute to Mary each year if the plague ceased. Since the town survived, the Lyonnais followed through on their pledge and have paid tribute to Mary every year since.
The light displays only began in 1852, however, when a statue of Mary was to be inaugurated twice, only to be delayed both times because of flooding or storms. The second inauguration date was December 8th, the day of Immaculate Conception in the Catholic tradition. Once the storm cleared that day, the citizens decided to celebrate spontaneously by placing candles on their windowsills, lighting up the town. This tradition later developed into shop light display competitions, which later transformed into the city-sponsored light installations that you see today.
Hôtel de Ville
Bank of the Saône
Best Days to Go to the Festival of Lights
In 2019, the Festival of Lights is from Thursday, December 5th to Sunday, December 8th. Historically, the Fête des Lumières runs for four days around December 8th.
I was told last year that local Lyonnais like to wait until Sunday night to attend the light shows, once the tourists have cleared out. Sunday is probably the quietest day, followed by Thursday, with Friday and Saturday being the busiest. If the festival falls on other days, the weekdays (barring Friday) and Sunday are generally less crowded than Friday and Saturday.
Where to Stay in Lyon
*This section contains affiliate links, meaning I may earn a small commission on any bookings completed. This doesn’t cost you any extra.*
I was incredibly lucky to be able to stay with a friend last year (I actually met her a few years back on a plane to Lyon LOL). Housing prices are steep around the festival, and you may have to stay in surrounding towns to get affordable housing.
If cost isn’t a factor, I recommend staying on the presqu’île, the section of the city between the Rhône and Saône Rivers. It’s most centrally located, and will give you easy access to most of the city’s gems.
If cost is a factor, you might consider Villeurbanne, a suburb of Lyon, or la Croix-Rousse, the historic hilltop neighborhood. Prices tend to be cheaper in these two areas, but the city is still very accessible. You may very well need to go beyond these areas, however, since 3-4 million people attend the festival and housing is snapped up quickly.
I recommend looking for housing on Airbnb (there are even unique stays, like houseboats), Booking.com, or even Couchsurfing (a platform where you can find a couch to sleep on for free). Couchsurfing might sound a little sketchy, but I’ve had great experiences with my stays; just make sure to find locals with good reviews. You should also take the time to get to know your host, if they’re free, as Couchsurfing’s mission is to connect tourists with locals, not just free housing. For more info about Couchsurfing, here’s my review of the platform, plus tips for first-timers (includes a very crazy storytime).
Which light shows are the best?
There are 40+ light installations throughout the city, but they range from actual animated shows with music to simple strings of lights.
Here are the most popular and most impressive shows that I saw last year (map at the end of the next two sections!):
Cathédrale Saint-Jean—One of the most popular and most impressive shows, if not the most. Gets incredibly crowded, so expect to wait in line for a few cycles (there’s crowd control). The best views are atop the hill across from the cathedral, but it can often get muddy—bring good shoes
Bank of the Saône—Another major show, where you can watch displays against the buildings across the river, and the Fourvière Basilica atop the hill. Gets VERY crowded and can be hard to see if you’re not tall, so try to make your way to the front of the bank.
Place Bellecour—Watch a cute animation against the Ferris Wheel in the square, and see other blow-up installations.
Musée des Beaux-Arts—The courtyard of this fine arts museum had a pianist in 2018, and the light shows were controlled by which keys were played.
Hôtel de Ville—Another mesmerizing display against the side of an important Lyon building.
Vieux Lyon / Musée cinéma et miniature
One of the miniature sets—the NYC subway!
What to See During the Day in Lyon
You’ll also obviously want to entertain yourself when the light shows aren’t happening, so here are some things to do in Lyon during the day (map at the end of the next section!).
Musée cinéma et miniature (7-10 euros)—See real props from films like Mary Poppins, Aliens, and the Hunger Games. The miniature sets are also so intricate! All housed in a classic building in Vieux Lyon (the old town)
La Fourviè (free)—the prominent basilica atop the hill overlooking Lyon. An impressive exterior and interior, and great views of the town from above. Walk to the top, or take the funicular.
Le théâtre Gallo Romain (free)—An ancient Roman amphitheater right next to the Fourvière. The amphitheater is free to visit, but there’s a museum nestled in the side of the theater that does cost money (3-7 euros). The museum is dedicated to Roman artifacts.
Parc de la tête d’or (free)—Kind of like the Central Park of Lyon, but not so central. Houses a zoo and free botanical garden. A really lovely part of the city.
Old town / Vieux Lyon—The quaintest part of the city. Fun to walk around and take photos; a good place for traditional French cuisine and souvenirs.
La Croix-Rousse—A historic neighborhood atop a hill, full colorful houses and coral rooftops. Known for its role in the silk industry and its many “traboules,” or Lyon’s famous secret passageways. It’s now known as a hipster/artist’s district.
Traboules—The traboules are hidden passageways that silk workers used to transport their products in the 19th century. Some of the oldest traboules are estimated to have been built in the 4th century, though. These are a classic part of the town, and you can read more about them here.
Confluence Museum (free for students under 26, otherwise 5-10 euros)—A science center and anthropology museum in an eye-catching modern building. I’ve never been, but my friend enjoyed his visit here last year, and others have said good things about it.
La Part-Dieu—Massive indoor mall, if you want to escape the cold. Has a Decathlon, an affordable French sporting goods store (I’m a big fan haha).
the brioche aux pralines at à la Marquise
Where to Eat in Lyon
Locals will be selling vin chaud (mulled wine) and crêpes on the streets for a few euros each. If you want a snack while you’re wandering around the city, you can definitely find one.
For classic French cuisine, visit the old town or the Rue des Marronniers near Place Bellecour. The old town (Vieux Lyon) is lined with traditional restaurants, and you can find tables of people outside in the summertime, enjoying their meals and sipping drinks (and unfortunately having a smoke, as is typical of the French haha). Rue des Marronniers also is lined with many popular restaurants, and is closer to the town center.
There is a great bakery in the old town called A la marquise, where you can find one of Lyon’s specialties, the brioche aux pralines (pink praline brioche). The storefront is very aesthetic, and the pastries are supposed to be heavenly.
If you’re a vegetarian/vegan/flexitarian, I recommend the following places:
Le roi falafel—Great Lebanese food with a sassy and hilarious owner. The plates are generally better than the wraps, and I really liked the falafel plate. Located on the presqu’île, and prices range from 6-15€.
Hank Burger—Amazing vegan burgers and other vegan fast food. They have the Beyond Burger, and unique sauces to go with it (like fig). This is actually a chain restaurant that was founded in Paris. Located on the presqu’île, and prices range from 8-15€
Yaafa—Known for their cheap falafel pitas at around 6-7€. I didn’t love these, but they were decent food for a good price. Multiple locations around the city.
Cigkoftem—More falafel (lol). Even cheaper than Yaafa, with items for only a few euros. If they ask if you want spicy sauce, know that it’s really spicy! Located in the 7ème arrondissement.
Piment et Citronnelle—a Thai restaurant with vegetarian-friendly options (possibly vegan, too). The pad thai was pretty decent, and the setting was homey. Located in the 7ème arrondissement, and prices range from 10-15€.
Map of Lyon and the Festival of Lights
Here’s that map of all three above sections that I promised! Click the top left icon to see a list of the categories.
Getting Around Lyon
Lyon is a very walkable city, and I’ve only had to take the metro/tram a handful of times in my many visits. There have been some visits where I didn’t take public transport at all, and just walked! I will admit that this was a lot of walking though, and sometimes the metro/tram is necessary.
The public transport system in Lyon is called TCL (Transports en Commun Lyonnais), and unfortunately not on Google Maps. You can find an interactive map online though, and there is also an app. For the nights of the Fête des Lumières, you can buy a ticket for 3,10 euros called TCL en Fête, which will allow you unlimited use of the public transport system from 4pm until the end of service (usually midnight, but sometimes earlier, especially for the funicular; be sure to check!). On the final day of the festival (December 8th), public transport is actually free from 4pm on.
There are also 24h, 48h, and 72h passes from 6€ to 15,50€ if you want to use transport during the day, or you can buy single 1-hour tickets for 1,73€ each.
For safety, no cars, motorcycles, bikes, or scooters are allowed within the perimeter of the festival. There will be some sort of barriers and signs indicating the official blocked-off areas.
There may be security checking bags around the perimeter, but I don’t remember if there was any last year. There is so much security in France in general that it kind of melts together; to go into many public libraries, you have to get your bags checked!
In any case, I just want to remind you to be vigilant, as this is a MAJOR French event, and such big events are often the target of terrorist attacks. I don’t want to dissuade you from going at all, as we shouldn’t live in fear, but you should definitely be aware of potential risks and stay alert.
On that uplifting note, I hope this post gave you a better idea of what to expect! If you’ve visited the Fête des Lumières, let me know what you thought and if there’s anything you’d add to the post! If you have any questions about going, don’t hesitate to reach out 🙂
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