Torn between two of France’s most beautiful cities, Bordeaux and Lyon? If you’re trying to decide which one to visit for a 2-4 day stay, you’ve come to the right place. In this article, we’ll explore the unique experiences each city has to offer and key differences between them, so that you can make an informed decision about which one is right for you.
Bordeaux is located in southwestern France on the Garonne River, close to the Atlantic coast. It’s relatively small with a population of around 250,000 people. It’s often referred to as “the little Paris” due its rich history and elegant architecture. The Bordeaux wine region produces some of the world’s most famous wines including Sauternes, Margaux, and Pomerol.
Lyon is located in the middle of France, the third largest city in the country with a population of around 500,000 people. Lyon is considered the unofficial gastronomy capital of France with many 3-star restaurants. It’s also known for its cultural attractions, such as its Roman ruins, vibrant nightlife and numerous museums, and beautiful riverfront areas along two rivers.
What travelers say
- Lyon has stunning historical places such as the Great Roman Amphitheater and Museum, Musée des Beaux-Arts, and the World War II Resistance Museum.
- Lyon has a fantastic gastronomy scene and more reputable restaurants than Bordeaux.
- Bordeaux is an epicenter of French wine and has great vineyard trips to offer.
- Lyon wins for river views with very picturesque promenades, while the Bordeaux area has a fantastic seaside. From Bordeaux it’s easy to access both ocean and mountain.
- Bordeaux is more manageable in size than Lyon for a short visit.
- Lyon has a greater number of medieval stone buildings than Bordeaux.
- To visit Lyon properly, you need at least 3 days. It’s a larger city with good transportation, which makes Lyon is a good destination if you’re flying or traveling by train.
- Lyon has a wide choice of shopping and clubbing spots.
Access & transportation
Bordeaux is very well-connected by the Atlantic high-speed train line (TGV in French), being only 2 hours away from Paris and 3.5 hours from Madrid.
Getting from the Bordeaux airport to the city center is fairly easy, there are buses, trains and taxi. It’ll take about 30-45 minutes. Bordeaux has a tram system that runs throughout the city, affordable and very convenient.
Lyon’s airport is very well-connected and user-friendly. Lyon’s subway and tram systems and bike rental make getting around relatively easy and pleasant.
If you stay around Lyon’s old town, you can walk to most places and you may not even need any bus tickets, except for getting into town from the train station. A funicular can also take you up the hill to the Basilica.
Vibe & people
Bordeaux is close to the ocean and vineyards and it has hot summers and mild winters. It feels more open-spaced and less dense than Lyon due to the way the river and docks are set up.
The city is mainly low-rise, with private houses and gardens as you get away from the center. In the last decade, however, the Bordeaux area has grown a lot, especially people moving from Paris as Bordeaux is only 2 hours away by high-speed train.
Bordeaux tends to have a bourgeois, opulent feel, and the people in Bordeaux are quite traditional and can be seen as distant, snobbish, and not always welcoming.
The people in Lyon are a bit more accessible and open-minded, however, the traditional old families in Lyon also give the impression of coldness and even unfriendliness. In both cities, however, The vibrant student life somewhat makes up for the “bourgeois” vibe.
Lyon has a more continental climate with colder winters and very hot summers compared to Bordeaux. Lyon is the second largest city in France (tied with Marseille) but the old city has a small-town feel.
Lyon is very picturesque, crossed at its core by two rivers, the Rhone and the Saone river, with the modern area resembling Paris in many aspects. The center is made up of high-rise buildings (6 or 7 floors) with a Paris-like, impressive architecture.
The Parque d’Or is beautiful and great for running early in the day or sitting at a café. The Old Town is very charming and explorable. The city is known for its ‘traboules’, a network of hidden passages connecting historical buildings.
Lyon may not feel as tourist-friendly as other large French cities such as Paris. However, despite the urban problems that go with a large city however, it feels relatively safe to visit.
Sights & culture
Bordeaux is often referred to as “the small Paris” as some parts of Bordeaux display Haussmanian architecture, reminiscent of Paris, with broad and elegant avenues and façades.
The elegant city center is covered with cut and carved stone. Bordeaux sparkles, and its center is a harmonious blend of old and new.
Bordeaux is very walkable. It has impressive and beautiful medieval buildings everywhere, the most prominent of which have been renovated in the last 15 years. The city has earned UNESCO world heritage site status.
You can easily spend 3 full days visiting the museums, monuments, as well as parks, riverfront, etc. You can also take a tour of the Opera House. Le Musée du Vin et du Négoce showcases the history of the wine trade in Bordeaux.
- The Cathedral Saint-André where Alienor d’Aquitaine married her first husband who became Louis VII
- The Museum of Aquitaine which had a very good pre-history section
- The Fine Arts Museum (Musée des Beaux-Arts) with its 3 separate buildings
- The Grand Théatre, often considered the most beautiful theatre in Europe.
- The Esplanade des Quinconces
- The Quartier des Chartrons, old merchants’ quarter with its beautiful 18th-century architecture
- Place du Parliament – there’s a fresh food market right behind it on Saturdays
You can walk or cycle along the elegant new riverfront (“les quais”) and stroll up and down Rue Sainte-Catherine, the longest pedestrian street in France. The pedestrian area around Sainte-Catherine off the Place de la Comédie is a maze of streets full of major department stores, specialty shops, cafés, and restaurants.
Bordeaux is also a world-famous wine city, offering lots of wine tours as well as châteaux visits in the area.
Lyon is divided into thirds by the Saone (West) and the Rhone( East) rivers. In between the two rivers is the Presqu’ile (peninsula), the area where most tourists concentrate. It’s a pretty area with narrow streets and old buildings that offers easy access on foot to most areas of interest.
From the Presqu’ile you can cross the river over to the old town (Vieux Lyon) where the oldest architectural sights and historical pedestrian streets are.
On the Presqu’ile, you can visit two of Lyon’s best museums, the ancient medical practices museum facing the Rhone, and a printing museum hosted in a 15th-century mansion – Lyon was a poetry and humanities center during the 16th century.
You also catch the funicular to the Roman ruins and to the Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière. From there you can walk down the hill alongside gardens with great views, and reach the old town.
In the Presqu’ile, visitors enjoy beautiful walks along the river, and at night, can admire the lit Basilique from the Place Bellecour square.
You can also walk across the West bridge to the new town and Renaissance district, a UNESCO Heritage site where those mysterious Traboules passageways are hidden.
Lyon has silk industry historical sights and Italian-influenced Renaissance architecture, as well as other great museums including the stunning Natural History Museum and the dramatic French Resistance and Deportation museum.
The city has about 100 Lyon architectural heritage sites which are lit at night.
Food & nightlife
Bordeaux gives you access to the great Bordeaux wine culture, including the famous Medoc and Saint-Emilion wines, with numerous wine-tasting and gastronomic options.
In Bordeaux, the best nightlife is usually found in the back streets around the animated pedestrian center. The Maison du Vin is a great wine tasting place that looks like a giant boot on the other side of the river – you can take the tramway there.
There are a lot of great restaurants for all tastes, ranging from sophisticated to traditional to relaxed. Here are a few places travelers recommend:
- Chez Dupont – a vibrant bistro with hearty meals.
- Le Bistrot d’Edouard serves Southwest France specialties.
- la Boîte à Huitres, tiny place serving fresh shellfish and wine
- La Tupina, typical Bordeaux bistro with local specialties
- Le Clavel-St-Jean, modern style wine bar
- Le Chapon Fin, historical high-end restaurant with traditional cuisine
As mentioned, Lyon is considered a food heaven by many travelers. Its gastronomy revolves mostly around meats – for some a heavy and fatty style of cuisine (organic meats and cream).
There are hundreds of restaurants, ranging from tiny bistros to grand halls, so it’s not always easy to tell which are the authentic ones vs the more touristy ones.
The restaurants on the main street of Saint-Jean are mainly tourist traps. That said, most of the restaurants on Rue de Boeuf are good quality, including two Michelin-starred places: Les Loges and Jeremy Galvan.
- Halles de Lyon (Paul Bocuse)
- Bouchon Comptoir
- Daniel & Denise Saint-Jean
- Les Apothicaires
- Villa Florentine: terrace with a great view over the city
- La Table D’Ambre
- Le Potager des Halles
Another option for sampling Lyon gastronomy is by exploring some of the city’s many markets.
It’s worth noting Lyon is also close to some of the most famous wine regions of France, including Burgundy, the Rhone Valley, and the Beaujolais region.
Nightlife is very vivid in Lyon with a wide spectrum of bars, pubs, and clubs scattered throughout the city, from local to Latin to Irish. The liveliest places are often found in Old Lyon.
Lyon also has renowned cultural centers such as the National Opera, the Celestin Theater, and the Lumiere Institute, which all contribute to the city’s cultural influence.
In Bordeaux, most hotels are located in the following areas:
- The Golden Triangle: the shopping area near the city center and the Opera House
- The old historical quarter
- The Saint-Jean train station area
- The Du Lac area near the convention center
- The Merignac area close to the airport
- The Chartrons district
The best area to stay in Bordeaux is no doubt the city center area which is close to the popular tourist attractions, the Golden Triangle shopping area, the numerous hotels, and the lively nightlife. The center is also a short walk from the river.
A usually cheaper alternative is the Gare Saint-Jean train station area which has a broad range of hotels, bars, and restaurants. It’s a convenient location as it’s close to the city center.
Travelers often recommend the Hôtel Etche-Ona (Basque old style) and the related Best Western Premier Hotel Bordeaux Bayonne Etche-Ona (modern style), both owned by the same family. The two hotels are very close to the main pedestrian area.
Lyon’s Presqu’ile, the central area between the two rivers, is a good place to stay in. It’s a convenient base for visiting various parts of the city on foot, and it hosts the tourist information center.
Travelers often recommend the Hôtel des Célestins for its central location in the Presqu’ile, its quality rooms, air conditioning, and its pleasant guest experience.
The nearby Hôtel des Artistes, also in the Presqu’ile, is a similarly good option. La Résidence is another well-situated hotel in the same area.
The Sofitel is often recommended. It’s close to many sites and to the metro. It has a Michelin-starred restaurant as well as a casual restaurant. It also has a rooftop bar with great views of Mont Blanc.
Hotel Cour de Loges in Vieux Lyon is also well regarded.
From Bordeaux you can visit the famous Bordeaux and St-Médoc wine country and the pretty (but touristy) town of St Emilion with its medieval scenery and great wine.
Other day trips include Mont de Marsan, Agen, Libourne, Pauillac, Blaye, or Plassac (Roman site). Bordeaux is also a good base for visiting the Loire Valley and its châteaux.
Bordeaux also has quick access to fantastic beaches of the Atlantique Ocean and the nearby Bassin d’Arcachon great lagoon (about an hour away by train). Arcachon is an attractive seaside town where you can find some of the best oysters in the world. The area has the Pyla dune, the highest sand dune in Europe.
The “Les Landes” protected natural area and its world-famous surf beaches are also nearby. If you’re driving, you can easily drive down to the beautiful Basque Country.
Lyon is only two hours from the French Alps, Europe’s biggest ski area, and three hours from the Mediterranean Sea.
From Lyon, you can drive east to the medieval town of Pérouges or go south and visit the important Roman ruins in Vienne.