These are memorable times for Lyon and its flagship club, Olympique Lyonnais (‘OL’). First came the unveiling of the Parc Olympique Lyonnais, the long-awaited new stadium that would host six matches, including one semi-final, for Euro 2016.
That February, OL went on a 14-game streak of 11 wins, two draws and one narrow defeat, a run that culminated with the 6-1 destruction of Monaco, Lyon’s nearest rivals for a group stage spot in the Champions League 2016-17. They then reached the semi-finals of the Europa League, losing out to Ajax by the odd goal in nine, and for 2018-19, Lyon not only enjoyed automatic qualification to the Champions League group stage, but became the first ever French side to win at Manchester City.
Paris Saint-Germain may have usurped Lyon’s lofty role as top dogs in France but the Parisians cannot approach OL’s all-time record of seven consecutive crowns in the 2000s. Under dynamic, ambitious president Jean-Michel Aulas since 1987, Lyon have created success rather than buy it. The club has a top-class academy, the Centre Tola Vologe, that has produced the likes of Hatem Ben Arfa and Karim Benzema. And now OL have their own, 59,000-capacity stadium as a base from which to challenge the Qatar-funded hegemony of the capital.
In addition, Lyon can trace its sporting history to the dawn of organised sport in France. Like Paris, the city had a Racing Club, where the main focus was rugby. Racing became Lyon Olympique Universitaire in 1910 and continue to play rugby at second-flight level at the newly opened Matmut Stadium in the suburb of Vénissieux.
With the foundation of the Olympique football club in 1950, and the large crowds for derby games against St-Etienne, the cycle track was removed. Before Euro 84, the athletics track also went, and new roofs were built to complement Garnier’s arches. For the World Cup 14 years later, the two ends were rebuilt, with roofing and steeper gradients as the Gerland became all-seated.
The Gerland paid witness to the phenomenal rise of OL in the 2000s, and many memorable European nights. As more money poured into the club, so more upscale restaurants were opened at and around the stadium.
Then, right after his club’s record-breaking seventh consecutive league title, Aulas announced the building of OL Land, a new stadium and sports/leisure complex out in Décines-Charpieu, nearer to the airport than town. The future of football in France’s second city now looks very bright indeed.
What will happen to the Stade Gerland isn’t clear. Easily accessible by metro from the city centre, it remains the kind of resource any city of similar size would cry out for. For the time being, it still houses an OL shop – but Gerland was passed over a site for a Euro 2016 fanzone for central place Bellecour.
Lyon-St Exupéry airport is 20km (13 miles) south-east of the city centre, connected by rhônexpress tram (€16/€27.50 return, every 15mins, every 30min after 9pm, last service midnight, 30mins journey time). A taxi should cost around €40-€45. Local firms include Lyon Taxis (+33 4 86 68 88 77, +33 6 11 95 54 77) and Taxi Lyonnais (+33 4 78 26 81 81).
The rhônexpress runs to Part-Dieu, the city’s main train station, via Vaulx-en-Velin La Soie, near the new stadium that you’ll pass on the way. Both Part-Dieu and Vaulx-en-Velin have tramlinks with the ground on match days.
Local transport consists of a four-line metro, five-line tramway system and buses.
Tickets are €1.80 (€2 on board), €5.50 for one day and various other passes. Day tickets must be validated on each journey.
There’s a handful of hotels a short walking distance of the new stadium, just the other side of the Rocade Est A-road. They are accessible for pedestrians or one stop on the No.85 bus from the Peyssilieu stop directly opposite the affordable, standard B&B Hôtel Lyon Meyzieu Grand Stade on rue de la République.
Just around the roundabout, a cluster of three more chain hotels includes the 30-room Abys, a basic, clean two-star with weekend reductions and, behind it, the three-star Comfort Hotel Stadium Eurexpo Lyon, with big-screen TVs in its 73 rooms. Tucked in between is the three-star Hôtel Grand Est.
Another hub of chain hotels is clustered immediately around Part-Dieu station. Within one building on the same side of the station as the Rhône Express tram is an ibis Budget, an ibis Styles and a Mercure – with a Campanile behind them. Through the station on the city side, you’ll find a Novotel, alongside the three-star Athena. A short hop away, the B&B chain has another branch near Garibaldi metro station.
The commercial city of Lyon caters to the business traveller, particularly the 2nd and 3rd districts. More atmospheric establishments can be found in the 5th, in Old Lyon.
Right on Bellecour, beside the Euro 2016 fanzone, the Hôtel Royal is an classy landmark set above a culinary institute run by legendary Lyon chef Paul Bocuse. Nearby, three-star Hôtel des Artistes is suitably awash with paintings.
By the cluster of bars on the Vieux Lyon side of pont de la Feuillée, St-Paul is a clean two-star, Le Phénix is one star above while the school-themed Collège Hotel delivers a charming four-star stay and fine local cuisine in its adjoining Baràgones restaurant – where OL games are screened over drinks.
Bouchons and Bocuse not bars and beer bring tourists to Lyon, but traditional local restaurants and world-famous chefs can be complemented by a lively nightlife driven by a significant student population.
Bars cluster around a small area between St-Paul and Vieux Lyon stations, and the river. On facing waterfront corners, the Wallace Bar and Elephant & Castle pub are pleasantly busy during happy hour – the E&C goes big on Sunday lunches, Wells & Young’s beers and TV football. A few doors up on the corner, Baràgones is a successful bar-restaurant in its own right, though attached to the Collège Hotel – and offers good local wines plus screenings of OL games to sip them with.
Further down the riverfront, on rue St Georges, behind the church and footbridge of the same name, Johnny’s Kitchen and Johnny Walsh’s complement each other perfectly, one great for superior daytime dishes and chatty evening beers, the other springing to life after midnight. Down the same street, L’Antidote is more pub by rote.
Over the river, by focal place Bellecour and the Euro fanzone, Ed’s is a burger-and-cocktail joint, more US in style but sure to screen big matches. Towards Cordeliers metro station, near place des Jacobins on rue de la Monnaie, King Arthur is in the same family as Elephant & Castle and other Brit-style pubs across France. TV sport is the big draw here.
If you’re looking for something more local, there’s a cluster of bars behind the Opera House, on rue de l’Arbre Sec. On the corner with rue du Garet, Café 203 attracts a loyal, funky following. Decent burgers, too.
The other side of the Opera House, tucked up rue du Griffon, Flanigan’s is a popular, late-opening venue with live music, pub grub and TVs everywhere.
Moving back towards Vieux Lyon on rue Constantine, 405 (at No.9) offers generous happy hours to sample its many draught beers and gawp at sport.
Finally, right in Part-Dieu station, facing towards town, O’Conway’S is convenient for a first or farewell pint in Lyon.