Though the history of Lyon stretches back over 2,000 years to its origins as a Roman settlement, its Croix-Rousse neighbourhood can be mostly defined by the last 200 years. Perched atop a hill above the city centre, the area was home to thousands of silk workers in the 19th Century, helping the city cement its reputation as a European nexus for textiles. While the industry of that era is no longer, La Croix-Rousse maintains an idiosyncratic atmosphere among Lyon’s arrondissements.
Nicknamed la colline qui travaille (the hill that works), La Croix Rousse does not have the basilica or convents boasted by its its southwestern sister, Fourvière (la colline qui prie – the hill that prays).
Nevertheless, the arrondissement – undoubtedly due to a lack of pressure generated by over-tourism – has been left to develop organically and embrace its quirks. Croix-Rousse is divided into two separate areas. The first is the hills (les pentes), a maze of zig-zagging streets and secret passageways, whose distinct appearance has undoubtedly contributed to a bohemian atmosphere.
Once used by the silk workers to transport their goods from one place to another without being exposed to the elements, the passageways, or traboules, now act as a historic curiosity. The summit of the hill, le plateau, has a more village-like atmosphere – and is where the Croix-Rousse Market takes place, six days a week.
If summiting the hill is a little taxing early on in the day, then Mokxa is a cosy little place to stop for a caffeine boost. Serious about their coffee and where it comes from, this roaster and café’s coffee is all organic or sourced from farms with sustainable agricultural practices.
Located in a small, quiet square just a few minutes north of Place des Terreaux, watching the world go by with one of their generously-sized cakes is one of many indulgent reasons to visit.
3 rue de l’Abbé Rozier, 69001 Lyon, +33 4 27 01 48 71, cafemokxa.com
A four-minute walk
Time slows down in Place Sathonay, a shaded and secluded square not far from the Saône river. Surrounded by vibrant café terraces and usually filled with locals enjoying a gentle game of pétanque, it offers a particularly charming snapshot of French life. As well as a good place to rest one’s feet and escape the noise of the city, it has some interesting bistros – Bel Ami, a wine bar that also serves up original Franco-Spanish tapas, is one of the best.
Place Sathonay, 69001 Lyon
A three-minute walk
Amphithéâtre des Trois Gaules
After a short climb up a pretty stairway from Place Sathonay, the Roman relic Amphithéâtre des Trois Gaules slowly reveals itself. Dating from around 20 BC, this ruined amphitheatre is less heralded than its more spectacular companion at Fourvière but its age is equally as hard to comprehend. The name is derived from Lyon’s role as the ancient capital of the Three Gauls (Lugdunensis, Belgica and Aquitania) – the three provinces of Roman France. It was here in AD 177 that the first Christian Martyrs were thrown to the lions including, most famously, St Blandine.
These days it’s a quiet place to visit but changes wildly in complexion during the annual Fête des Lumières light festival (5-8 December) when it morphs into a bright neon art installation.
Rue Lucien Sportisse, 69001 Lyon
A ten-minute walk
La Marché de la Croix-Rousse
This is a food-obsessed city and the Marché de la Croix-Rousse on le plateau is a classic bustling French farmers market featuring over 100 vendors, stretching for a kilometre down the Boulevard de la Croix-Rousse. The seemingly endless rows of stalls are made up largely of friendly local producers selling a rich abundance of fresh vegetables, meat, cheese, fruit and bread. Don’t be surprised if the intensity of the aroma from the cheese stalls stops you dead in your tracks.
Boulevard de la Croix-Rousse, 69004 Lyon
An eight-minute walk
A local institution on le plateau since 1977, Sébastien Bouillet’s chocolaterie and pâtisserie is a sweet distraction from the nearby farmers market. Opened originally by Henri Bouillet in the Place de la Croix-Rousse, he handed the reigns over to his son Sébastien in 2000 following his successful training with some of France’s finest pâtissiers.
His original creations are colourful and deftly crafted, clearly showing how much time and effort Bouillet has put in to his work. The Maca’Lyon, a salted butter caramel macaron coated in 70 per cent dark chocolate and gold flakes is probably reason alone make the trek up the hill.
15 Place de la Croix-Rousse, 69004 Lyon, +33 4 78 28 90 89, chocolatier-bouillet.com
A three-minute walk
Maison des Canuts
Located in an unassuming building on a narrow street in the centre of le plateau, the Maison des Canuts tells the story of 500 years of silk production in Lyon. The museum is small but the high ceilings allow room for live demonstrations on the vast original weaving looms.
Canuts is the name given to the silk workers of Croix-Rousse and the Maison des Canuts also explains how the desperately poor working conditions of the 19th Century led to numerous bloody uprisings and revolts. Something to ponder when walking back down the hill past the breezy bars and coffee shops that now occupy the
10 Rue d’Ivry, 69004 Lyon, +33 4 78 28 62 04, maisondescanuts.fr
A six-minute taxi
L’Ourson qui Boit
Japanese chef Akira Nishigaki is the creative force behind one of Lyon’s best-known restaurants, L’Ourson qui Boit, located on the eastern fringes of les pentes and just a short walk from the banks of the river Rhône. The unique fusion of Japanese and French cuisine in a modern, uncomplicated setting with a constantly evolving menu has been a hit with locals and visitors alike for years so booking ahead is advised. Nishigaki took his culinary prowess a step further in 2016 and opened a pâtisserie next door featuring an exquisite selection of tarts and pastries.
23 Rue Royale, 69001 Lyon +33 4 78 27 23 37
A nine-minute walk
Just south of the 2000 year-old Amphithéâtre des Trois Gaules is La Grooverie, a playful bar that feels very in-sync with the bohemian vibes of Croix-Rousse in 2019. The dark interior is subtly lit by jaunty red and yellow neon lights and its handsome, curved bar sits across from vintage arcade games, pinball machines and a foosball table. The retro games only add to the ambience. True to its name, La Grooverie offers weekly club nights filled with the sounds of funk, soul, RnB and Brazilian flavours, as well as live music from Tuesday to Saturday.
9 Rue du Jardin des Plantes, 69001 Lyon, +33 4 78 98 52 32, lagrooverie.fr