Lyon's Unesco-listed old town, with its narrow streets and medieval and Renaissance houses, is divided into three quarters: St-Paul (north), St-Jean (middle) and St-Georges (south).
Lovely old buildings line rue du Bœuf, rue St-Jean and rue des Trois Maries. Crane your neck upwards to see gargoyles and other cheeky stone characters carved on window ledges along rue Juiverie, home to Lyon’s Jewish community in the Middle Ages.
More than two millennia ago, the Romans built the city of Lugdunum on the slopes of Fourvière. Today this prominent hill on the Saône's western bank is topped by a showy 19th-century basilica and the Tour Métallique, an Eiffel Tower–like structure (minus its bottom two-thirds) built in 1893 and used as a TV transmitter.
Footpaths wind uphill to Fourvière from Vieux Lyon, but the funicular is the least taxing way up; catch it just up the escalators from the Vieux Lyon metro station.
Lyon's city centre lies on this peninsula, 500m to 800m wide, bounded by the rivers Rhône and Saône.
Independent until it became part of Lyon in 1852, and retaining its own distinct character with its bohemian inhabitants and lush outdoor food market, the hilltop quarter of Croix Rousse slinks north up the steep pentes (slopes) from place des Terreaux.
Following the introduction of the mechanical Jacquard loom in 1805, Lyonnais canuts (silk weavers) built tens of thousands of workshops in the area, with large windows to let in light and hefty wood-beamed ceilings more than 4m high to accommodate the huge new machines. Weavers spent 14 to 20 hours a day hunched over their looms breathing in silk dust. Two-thirds were illiterate and everyone was paid a pittance; strikes in 1830–31 and 1834 resulted in the deaths of several hundred weavers.
Nowadays, most workshops have long since been converted into chic loft apartments, but a few have been saved by the Soierie Vivante association (www.soierie-vivante.asso.fr).
Hidden Croix Rousse gems include place Bertone, a leafy square that doubles as an open-air stage for ad-hoc summer entertainment; the Jardin Rosa Mir, a walled garden decorated with thousands of seashells; and the panoramic Parc de La Cerisaie.
The Rhône's Rive Gauche (Left Bank) harbours parks, museums and day-to-day Lyonnais amenities, including the city's university and transport hubs.
Feature: Riverside Rejuvenation: La Confluence
Meet Lyon's newest neighbourhood: the Confluence, where the Rhône and the Saône meet at Presqu'île’s southern tip. This former industrial wasteland has recently been brought back to life by a multimillion-euro urban-renewal project, recognised for its cutting-edge, environmentally sustainable design by the French government, the European Commission and the WWF.
In Phase One of the project, focused on the Saône riverbanks, dozens of architecturally audacious, energy-efficient buildings have sprung up, including the bizarre orange, Swiss-cheese-like office building Le Cube Orange, its sister Le Cube Vert and the Pôle de Commerces et de Loisirs Confluence, an enormous shopping complex with an innovative, 2-hectare, transparent air-cushion roof. Phase One has also seen the whimsical remodelling of existing buildings, including the Pavillon des Douanes (customs house), whose balconies are now surmounted by pairs of giant orange frogs, and La Sucrerie, a converted 1930s sugar warehouse that houses a nightclub on its top floor and hosts art exhibits during Lyon's Biennale d'Art Contemporain. Phase One's crowning attraction is the ambitious science-and-humanities museum, Musée des Confluences, housed in a futuristic steel-and-glass crystal at the meeting of the two rivers.
Phase Two of the Confluence project, which was initiated in 2014 by Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron (of Tate Modern and Beijing Olympic Stadium fame), has made the new neighbourhood more liveable, adding a substantial residential and market district and linking the Confluence to the rest of Lyon with new bridges, including Pont Raymond Barre, which has tram tracks, bike and pedestrian lanes, as well as sun loungers for taking in the views of the Rhône and the Musée des Confluences. New buildings yet to come include Ycone, an innovative residential tower by Jean Nouvel, and French Tech Totem, which will house tech start-ups inside the redesigned Halle Girard.
Meanwhile, the riverbanks north of the Confluence have also been getting a serious makeover. The Rhône's Rive Gauche (Left Bank), once the domain of high-speed traffic and car parks, has been extensively redeveloped in the past decade to provide Lyon with landscaped walking, cycling and inline skating paths, along with tiered seating where locals lounge on sunny days. Known as the Berges du Rhône, the project spans 10 hectares, along more than 5km of riverfront.
A separate riverside beautification project, Les Rives de Saône (www.lesrivesdesaone.com), is spreading north along the Saône. A 15km stretch of pedestrian walkway between the Confluence and Île Ste-Barbe, north of Lyon, has already been completed; future phases of the project will eventually open up 50km of the Saône's banks for public recreational use.