Why then has it taken me practically a year to tackle my host city? Frankly, I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s because living there seemed less like a vacation once it became familiar enough to be a home. Maybe I had better photos from the other places I’d visited on weekend outings. But most likely, it’s because I didn’t think I could do justice in describing just how incredible Lyon was for me within one article. However, I will do my best to explain my favorite takeaways.
The most unforgettable aspect of Lyon was living with a host family in the heart of the city. I lucked out living in a loft-style apartment by the river. I really enjoyed getting to know my elegant host parents and their two beautiful daughters, one of whom was my age and the other just a few years older. Having peers in the house to discuss topics from T.V. series to the “American” college experience made for some relaxing afternoons and cultural realizations. At French universities, first year students enter kn
owing exactly what major they’re going to pursue and most school’s don’t provide housing, meaning there’s isn’t as much of an on-campus social or extracurricular scene. Food and timing of the day were also major differences I noticed. My host family loved to take long, extravagant lunches—one lasted beyond 3 hours!—but would have extremely simple dinners of just soup and a small salad. This took definitely took some adjusting, but I eventually grew accustomed to it.
The beauty of Lyon is simultaneously comforting and idyllic. As the second largest city in the country, it’s not quite as overwhelming as Paris but as the subtle French allure of cobblestone streets and two sparkling blue rivers that intersect the landscape. Two days is probably ample time to stroll the different neighborhoods of Lyon, each of which has a special characteristic. Bellecour is the central square of the city that makes me think of gatherings, whether it’s historical assemblies or the meeting spot of modern French teens. L’Hôtel de Ville or City Hall held some of the city’s most grand architecture, and I was fortunate enough to be around for the biannual “Journées du Patrimoine” (Days of Heritage) where the main building was exceptionally open to the public. The inner rooms of the huge construction were brightly colored with velvet drapes, truly evoking a sense of luxury and splendor. Vieux Lyon or Old Lyon is the more tourist-driven but still charming part of town, where you can find novelty candies or dolls of Guignol, a famous Lyonnais puppet character. By the end of the semester, my favorite section of the city was undoubtedly La Croix-Rousse, the artisanal neighborhood where silk craftsmen have traditionally lived throughout Lyon’s history. Today, the quarter is still lined with workshops selling handmade jewelry, decadent chocolates, and homemade soap—which really helped me out as I parted Lyon right before Christmas.
If you’ve ever watched an Anthony Bourdain special, you might know that Lyon has been called the food capital of the world. Conventional Lyonnais dishes like Saucisson Chaud (pork sausage with steamed potatoes) or Quenelle (pureed fish stuffed inside dough with a cream sauce) tend to be a bit heavy. There are many restaurants, though, taking a modern spin on classic ingredients. Les Canuts et Les Gônes (The Silk workers and the Kids) is a tiny café in Croix-Rousse serving up a fusion of Lyonnais and Japanese-style cooking. One of my favorite dishes was a bass that incorporated a French béchamel sauce with a side of Asian veggies, like bok choy. The combination of cuisines and flavors was extremely unique. Another of my favorite places to eat was called Deux Filles en Cuisine (Two Girls in the Kitchen). The name of the restaurant was quite accurate, as the entire place was just one room with only a few tables and the kitchen completely in view. The “two girls” acted as both chefs and waitresses, delivering food hot off the stove as if they were hosting a dinner party. The whole experience was welcoming and warm, and since they rotate their menu everyday, there was always something excitingly new to try.
I could go on endlessly about what I learned, ate, and enjoyed in Lyon but there’s really nothing quite like experiencing the city for yourself. It’s a perfect combination of relaxation and activity for anybody looking to vacation in France and will always hold a special place in my heart.
Images Courtesy: Nicole Luo