Situated on the Rhône and Saône rivers, Lyon is a picturesque French town located in Central Eastern France. Lyon is the capital of the France’s Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region and it is the third largest town in France.
Modern day Lyon attractions are its food, light festivaland industry. It is a city however where old meets new. As you wander through the tree lined streets, you’ll certainly feel the history that resonates through this beautiful city.
When you think of France, the Roman Empire and Roman ruins don’t immediately come to mind. They’re saved for the greats like Rome or England yet Lyon has it’s own well preserved Roman amphitheatre. Additionally it has some of the best Roman ruins in France located in its museum.
Lyon is in fact an ancient Roman settlement. It is steeped in history beyond what you find in its paved streets. You just need to take the funicular up the hill and head to its open air museum.
Now known as Lyon, ‘Lugdunum’, was an important Roman town in the ancient Roman Gaul. Coming from the Gaulish word ‘Lugudonon’, which means fortress, or hill, the hilly landscapes was home to one of the larger cities in the western region of the empire. This hilly landscape is one of the features that Lyon is famed for today. Additionally is is a source of much of its beauty.
Notably, it was settled as early as 44BC and eventually became the administrative capital for Gaul (France) and Germany. Additionally Lyon housed the imperial mint. Many leaders also visited the city during their reigns.
This rich history and sheer size of the city (historians estimate that there could have been up to 200,000 inhabitants at one time), along with its well preserved sites, make Lyon a great place to explore Gallo – Roman history. Furthermore the Roman ruins in Lyon are well preserved making it one of the best things to do in Lyon.
Finding the Roman Ruins
There are two key sites that you will want to visit, and luckily they are right next to each other. Located on the hill of Fourvière, the site is either a steep ascent by foot, or an easy 5 minute ride by funicular. Being the funicular fan that I am, this was in fact a no brainer. At €2.80 return, it was also very reasonable.
It’s about a five minute ride to the top, but first you’ll need to purchase a ticket. It is a little tricky to find the funicular station. There is no clear sign for the funicular railway. First look for the Metro sign instead. In the foyer of the Metro station you can buy tickets for the funicular using a ticket machine. It’s in a variety of languages and quite easy to operate. Once you pass through the ticket barriers, you’ll see the railway cars. Next, head towards the right hand side, this is the line that will take you to the top of the hill.
The ancient theatre of Fourvière
The most impressive Roman ruin in Lyon would by far be the Fourvière amphitheatre. It’s a short walk from the funicular station. It’s free to visit too. Best of all you can also walk all over these Roman ruins.
The view from the top of the amphitheatre is spectacular. If you look closely at the photo above, you’ll see a person on the middle stair case. That should give you some perspective of just how small when walking through the Lyon Roman amphitheatre.
This is one of Lyon’s attractions that is popular with both visitors and locals. The Roman ruins are partially restored. They maintained for modern day events and are a popular spot to stop and eat your lunch. Sections of the Roman ruins have been left to age naturally, so there’s plenty of opportunity to search for ancient markings and insignia in the rock face.
Once you’ve explored the stone seating area, take a walk down onto the stage. There’s two great views to enjoy from this vantage point. Look down the hill towards the twinkling river and city below, or look back up the hill towards the seating and imagine yourself centre stage. It’s hard not to imagine yourself back in the Roman times.
The sheer size of the amphitheatre and its fantastic state of preservation makes it the most impressive of the French Roman ruins. This, coupled with its easy access and free admission, mean it is one of the best things to do in Lyon.
The Gallo Roman Museum
Once you’ve taken in the wonder of the Lyon Roman amphitheatre, you’ll want to visit the neighbouring museum. It’s located right next ruins. The Gallo Roman Museum of Lyon is home to 1000s of pieces and, at €4 for an adult, it is exceptional value. Leave a piece of ID at the counter to get your free headset.
Spanning 5 floors, this modern museum has been designed to take you on a journey through time. Its exterior has been designed to blend into the hill in which it has been built into. Conversely its unassuming modern interior focuses your attention solely on the artefacts.
he museum is a mixture of artefacts, interactive displays and hands on activities. My favourite was station 2 where you can watch a short video that uses a projector and 3D map to tell the story of the growth of Lugdunum as a city during the Roman inhabitation. It’s quite incredible to see how Lyon has formed and changed over time in population, inhabitants and in construct.
The museum has a gradual slope down between floors, with nooks and display areas where you can explore various parts of Roman life, such as building, society and leaders. The museum is extremely interactive. Whilst its best to keep your hands off the ancient Roman ruins, there are plenty of displays that you can touch and play with to help you feel immersed in Roman life.
In conjunction with the amphitheatre the museum is one of the best places explore in Lyon. It is certainly an essential part of your stay. Allow 3-4 hours for your visit as whilst you’re on the top of the hill you’ll want to take some time to enjoy the view from the lookout and to visit the Lyon cathedral and enjoy its spectacular architecture.