France’s second city and former football capital

Teams, tales and tips – a guide to the local game

France’s second city preceded Paris as the nation’s football capital. Champions seven years running until 2008, now based at a top-level international arena, flagship club Olympique Lyonnais never finished out of the top five between 1999 and 2019.

‘OL’ are based at the Parc Olympique Lyonnais, a contemporary stadium complex centrepieced by the Groupama Stadium, host of six matches for Euro 2016. It went on to stage the 2018 Europa League Final and the semi-finals and final of the 2019 Women’s World Cup.

This is the empire, in Décines-Charpieu, 12km east of Lyon, that long-term club president Jean-Michel Aulas has built, along with a top-class academy that has produced and profited from the nurturing of Alexandre Lacazette and Karim Benzema, among others.

True, Paris Saint-Germain may have usurped Lyon’s lofty role as top dogs in France but the Parisians are backed by an oil-rich Gulf state. Under Aulas since 1987, Lyon have created success rather than buy it. And 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 to this day.

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.

Stade de Gerland/Peterjon Cresswell

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, nearer to the airport than town. The future of football in France’s second city duly took shape.

The Gerland remains the kind of resource any city of similar size would cry out for. For the time being, it hosts local rugby club LOU – was passed over a site for a Euro 2016 fanzone, which filled central place Bellecour.

Up at OL Land, Lyon have come roaring back from the sale of the prolific Alexandre Lacazette to Arsenal and omnipotence of PSG. Reaching the semi-finals of the Europa League in 2017, Lacazette’s last fling, losing out to Ajax by the odd goal in nine, 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.

Getting Around

Arriving in town, local transport and timings

Lyon Airport is 20km (13 miles) south-east of the city centre, connected by rhônexpress train (€16.30/online €15.20, every 15mins, every 30mins after 9pm, last service midnight, 30mins journey time).

A taxi should cost around €50-€60. Local firms include Lyon Taxis (+33 4 69 96 90 69) 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 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 TCL consists of a four-line metro, five-line tramway system and buses.

Tickets are €1.90 (€2.20 on board), €6.20 for 24hrs, €12 for 48hrs. Day tickets must be validated on board for each journey. Look out for TCL sales points at newspaper kiosks across town and hubs such as Part-Dieu and Bellecour.

Where to Drink

The best pubs and bars for football fans

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 on rue Octavio Mey and the Elephant & Castle on quai de Bondy are pleasantly busy during happy hour – the E&C goes big on Sunday lunches, Eagle beers and TV football. Round the corner on place St-Paul, Baràgones is a successful bar-restaurant in its own right, once attached to the Collège Hotel – and offers good local wines plus screenings of OL games to sip them with.

Also expat-friendly are the nearby Smoking DogKelly’s and the St James Irish Pub on rue St-Jean. The Pub Danois is also close on quai Roman Rolland, and opens late.

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.

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.

Where to stay

The best hotels for the stadium and city centre

Only Lyon Tourisme on place Bellecour has a hotel reservation service.

Right by the stadium, the recently opened KOPSTER offers mid-range, contemporary comfort and a handy pre-match bar and restaurant. The local Lavorel group snapped it up while it was still being built, post-Euro 2016.

Across Rocade Est A-road, the affordable, standard B&B Hôtel Lyon Grand Stade Meyzieu on rue de la République.

Just around the roundabout, the Aka Lodge Lyon Est is another relative newbie, offering two-star chain accommodation since 2017.

Another hub of chain hotels is clustered immediately around Part-Dieu station. Within one building on the same side of the station as the Rhônexpress train is an ibis Budget, an ibis Styles and a Mercure – with a Campanile behind them. On the city side, 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, 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.