Lyon's prosperity began under the Romans in the first century AD - it was then named Lugdunum as the capital of the Three Gauls; ruins scattered throughout the city and region bear witness to this rich cultural heritage. Situated between the Rhône and Saône Rivers, at the crossroads of north and south, east and west, it was a cultural, commercial and political centre that further expanded in the medieval ages, notably with the silk trade.
Today Lyon is the second largest city in France and proudly celebrates its heritage (the historical centre has been designated as a World Heritage Site by Unesco). It is considered the gastronomical capital of France, thanks in large part to the chef Paul Bocuse, who helped create nouvelle cuisine and continues to foster new talent through the Bocuse d'Or chefs' award. It is also an important cultural centre, with a world-class orchestra, the Opera Nouvel (whose semi-cylindrical dome was designed by Jean Nouvel), the Musée d'Art Contemporain de Lyon (an art deco building modified by Renzo Piano), the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Biennale d'Art Contemporain and, of course, the Fête des Lumières.
Now the city's landscape is fast evolving, with major development projects mostly along the riverbanks. The most talked-about is Confluences, a major overhaul in a formerly desolate industrial area south of the peninsula. It includes avant-garde constructions by architects such as Jakob and McFarlane and Kengo Kuma; soon the massive Musée des Confluences, a futuristic glass cloud by Viennese agency Coop Himmelblau, will showcase the area's history.
A comfortable bed
Located in the heart of the Old Town, Collège Hotel is whimsically decorated like a school, with chalkboards and school desks. The rooms and common spaces such as the "Library" all offer spectacular views of the city; at night, the facade lights up in blue, pink and yellow tones (www.college-hotel.com; 00 33 4 72 10 05 05; doubles from €125 [Dh618] per night).
Slightly higher-end is the Collège's sister hotel, L'Ermitage. Suspended atop the Mont Cindre, this charming urban retreat serves gastronomical cuisine in an elegant, classic setting. During the warmer months, guests kick back by the pool, taking in the panoramic views of the city, valley and rivers (www.ermitage-college-hotel.com; 00 33 4 72 19 69 69; doubles from €165 [Dh816] per night).
Find your feet
Start at the Place Bellecour, where the equestrian statue of Louis XIV (who once owned the square) reigns proudly; not too far, a statue pays homage to the local writer St-Exupéry and his Petit Prince. From this central point start many of the city's main streets, including the rue de la République and rue Victor Hugo. Walk west and cross the Saône to ascend the Fourvière Hill. The hike may be harsh, but the panoramic views and beautiful basilica, built in the late 19th century, are well worth it.
Meet the locals
The favourite local topic of conversation is gastronomy, of course, so stroll the markets of Saint Antoine, La Croix-Rousse and, for higher-end products, Les Halles de Paul Bocuse. This is where chefs, housewives and amateur cooks share espressos and tarte aux pralines, the local treat, while discussing upcoming menus. Or sit at a seafood stand and savour fresh-off-the-boat oysters, sea urchins and mussels while chatting with the servers, French style.
Book a table
Paul Bocuse remains the father of contemporary cuisine in the region, but a younger chef whose name is on everyone's lips is Mathieu Viannay, a double Michelin-starred wonder who has taken over the legendary brasserie of La Mère Brazier (12 rue Royale, 00 33 4 78 23 17 20), established in 1921 by Eugénie Brazier. There, he serves the house classics - such as artichokes and foie gras (€38, Dh188), and "la volaille de bresse demi-deuil" or truffled chicken (€145; Dh717 for two to four guests), and reinvents others using seasonal products. The local tradition of bouchon, or casual restaurant, still thrives in the city. At Daniel et Denise (156 rue de Créqui, 00 33 4 78 60 66 53), a typical local address, chef Joseph Viola serves classics such as "quenelle au brochet" or breaded pike balls (€17; Dh84), pâté-croûte au foie gras et ris de veau or pâté en croute with foie gras and sweetbreads (€13; Dh64) and île flottante aux pralines, a meringue and vanilla custard with pralines, (€7; Dh34) in a warm, convivial atmosphere.
The boho neighbourhood of La Croix-Rousse, the historical silk district, is now filled with lovely little boutiques. The Passage des Créateurs features boutiques by local designers. For a well-deserved treat, Sébastien Bouillet serves unexpected macaroon flavours such as orange-carrot-lemon at Maison Bouillet (www.chocolatier-bouillet.com). Nearby, his fun Chokola store features a chocolate fountain and a large selection of sweets.
What to avoid
Don't be fooled by the Old Town establishments claiming to be authentic bouchons; most of them are not. A new legislation has nominated only 17 establishments entitled to the title of bouchon, including Daniel et Denise and Les Lyonnais.
Discover the history of cinema at the Institut Lumière, the Lumière brothers' art deco mansion, which is now a museum. The cinematograph that the brothers invented is on display along with a myriad of filmmaking devices. Next door, the former factory now shows cinema classics.
Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies direct from Dubai to Lyon, in seven hours and 45 minutes, from Dh3,260 return, including taxes.