You must speak and understand French to travel in Lyon, France – let’s just get that straight right out of the gate. You don’t need to be able to translate Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but you need to be able to function: ordering from a menu, small talk with a server, shopping, asking directions, etc. Lyon is not Paris and leading with English simply will not work.
Lyon – like most French cities – is truly a walking city, with wide, spacious sidewalks. Although you can certainly see the city on foot, the metro and the tram are big helps. You can buy the daily ticket liberté (4,80€ per day) which gives you all day access on the metro, tram and bus. When you are on foot, keep your eyes on the ground as you stroll the sidewalks. The Lyonnais love their dogs but unfortunately many do not like picking up after them.
Vieux Lyon (Old Lyon) is excellent and I highly recommend exploring it. However, be wary of its many bouchons (Lyonnaise bistros) that have owners outside smilingly and aggressively calling out “Bonjour!” to you as you walk by. These are tourist bistros. The food is not bad per se but certainly nothing special. The prices are also often far too high for the simple recipes being cooked.
Eating out in Lyon is a fairly regulated affair. Restaurants begin serving lunch at noon but will stop seating people by about 2:30pm. After this, you will be politely but firmly turned away. Your only option between then and dinner will be to stop by a boulangerie and pick up a quiche or sandwich emporter (to go). Indeed, it’s a good idea to find the boulangerie nearest to where you’re staying, be friendly with the owner and frequent it for food to fill the void between lunch and dinner. When it does come time for dinner, restaurants will not receive people earlier than 7:30 or 8pm and traffic does not pick up until closer to 9pm.
Also note that most restaurants are not interested in turning over as many tables as possible. Waiters and waitresses – who are paid good, comfortable salaries and do not expect tips – welcome guests and converse without any sense of rush, unless he or she is taking care of the whole dining room. As such, do not use American standards of speed to judge your restaurant experience. You can wait as long as half an hour or more for your main course to come, especially if it’s being made one-off just for you. Additionally, your waiter or waitress will not constantly be checking on you every five minutes with a “Hey how’s it going?” Meals are treated as social affairs and you are left alone to converse with your dining companions (dining alone can therefore feel quite lackluster in Lyon).
Note that in Lyon, café, bar or even bar – restaurant on the sign outside does not necessarily indicate that food is served. More often than not, these locales only serve coffee, liqueurs, wine, beer and soda. And for your morning coffee, un café will get you an espresso. If you want a typical, drip coffee, you’ll need to ask for un café long.
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