torn between Lyon or Marseille for a 3-4 day stay? Not an easy choice as both cities have their own very distinct personality, feel, and attractions.
Lyon has a refined ambiance, It’s the gastronomic capital of France and has a great architectural heritage with the old town. Marseille, on the other hand, has a very multi-ethnic cultural scene, colorful streets and city life, and stunning coastal views, with a unique Mediterranean charm.
Lyon is located in the middle of France, the third largest city in the country with a population of over 500,000 souls.
Lyon is considered the unofficial gastronomy capital of France with many 3-star restaurants. It’s also known for its cultural attractions including its Roman ruins, vibrant nightlife, numerous museums, and beautiful riverfront areas along two rivers.
Lyon was once the capital city of the Gallo Roman Empire (Lugdunum), and more recently during World War II the center of the French Resistance
Marseille is a bigger city with a population of close to 1 million (1.6M for the metro area), it’s the second most populous city in France.
From the historic neighborhood of Le Panier to the picturesque Vieux Port (Old Port), Marseille has a unique ambiance. It has stunning coastal views, including the breathtaking Calanques National Park, with scenic hikes and hidden beaches.
The city’s vibrant arts scene, bustling markets, and lively multicultural festivals contribute to its dynamic and energetic atmosphere.
What travelers say
- Key highlights in Lyon include the Roman theater and museum, old churches, the opera house, the Basilica Fouvière, the Museum of Fabrics, the traboules, and the views over the confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers.
- Marseille is more of a gritty working city, a big lived-in old port city comparable to Genoa, Naples, or Liverpool. However, many feel Marseille has more of a real city character and soul and is an often-overlooked city.
- To visit Lyon properly, you need at least 3 days. It’s a larger city with good transportation. It’s a good destination if you’re flying or traveling by train.
- Lyon has a fantastic gastronomy scene and highly reputable restaurants and a wide choice of shopping and clubbing spots. There’s also an abundance of green spaces.
- Marseille also has many things to see but the distances are larger and there are some not-so-pretty areas, although the city has been cleaned up considerably in recent years.
- Marseille has a picturesque and historic old port, the Chateau d’If site, the nearby islands, and the perched Notre-Dame-de-la Garde church overlooking the city with incredible views.
- Marseille was elected the European City of Culture a few years ago and now has a nice range of both brand-new and refurbished old museums.
- Marseille has beautiful sand beaches and blue coves, but they are further away from the port and city center.
- Marseille has cheaper accommodation and is generally more affordable than other French cities.
Lyon’s airport is very well-connected and user-friendly. Getting around the city is nice and easy using the subway and tram systems and bike rentals.
If you stay around Lyon’s old town, you can walk to most places and you may not need to take buses except for getting into town from the train station. A funicular also takes you up the hill to the Basilica.
Marseille is easy to access from Paris by high-speed train, and there are cheap fares if you book well in advance (e.g. 3 months). There are also many affordable flights except during the holiday seasons.
Note that driving in Marseille is even tougher than in Paris, with horrible traffic.
Vibe & people
The vibe in Marseille is sometimes compared to New York City due to its buzz of energy. Lyon, on the other hand, feels a lot less hectic, smaller (it’s almost half the size), and cleaner.
The people in Lyon are generally accessible and open-minded, however, the traditional old families in Lyon give the impression of coldness and sometimes unfriendliness. The vibrant student life somewhat makes up for the “bourgeois” vibe, though.
Lyon has a more continental climate with colder winters and very hot summers compared to Marseille. Lyon is the third largest city in France but the old city has a small-town feel.
Lyon is very picturesque, crossed by both the Rhone and the Saone rivers. The modern center is made up of high-rise buildings with impressive Paris-like architecture. The Old Town is very charming and explorable.
The Parque d’Or is beautiful, great for a run or sitting at a café. Lyon may not feel as tourist-friendly as other large French cities such as Paris, but it feels relatively safe to visit.
Marseille has a large youth population with many ethnic groups. the city is known for its very diverse population, including significant Arab and African communities.
Marseille takes a bit more effort to appreciate and get into the city’s rhythm. However, it’s an interesting city with vibrant local life, very distinct from all other French cities.
Marseille is colorful, lively, and with a very rich cultural life, a result of the astonishingly diverse population – some areas of Marseille feel just like being in Algeria or Africa.
The area near the train station is a bit gritty but lively with every imaginable ethnic market and eatery, with exotic aromas.
The city has ample and beautiful parks and some stunning modern architecture buildings and exhibitions such as the MUCEO (see Sights section).
The views out over the sea and port and from Notre Dame de la Garde are amazing.
Sights & culture
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 located.
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.
One intriguing sight is the 14th-century astronomical clock, capable of computing moveable holidays (e.g. Easter) until the year 2019.
In the Presqu’ile, visitors enjoy beautiful walks along the river, and at night, can admire the lit Basilique from the Place Bellecour square. The city has about 100 Lyon architectural heritage sites that are lit at night.
You can also walk across the West bridge to the new town and Renaissance district, a UNESCO Heritage site where the Traboules, a network of hidden shortcuts connecting historical buildings, historically for moving silk around the city.
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.
There’s a lot to do in Lyon in addition to its renowned gastronomy, such as silk industry historical sights, Italian-influenced Renaissance architecture, and a broad array of interesting museums.
In Marseille, the Vieux Port (Old Port) is the city’s heart – it has been around for 26 centuries. The pedestrian area around the port is an important hangout place with stylish hotels all around. And then there’s the port, really huge for an ‘old’ harbor.
Near the port area is the “Le Panier” (the basket) neighborhood, a historic neighborhood with a special charm. The iconic “La Canebière” avenue that leads to the Old Port has some great historical buildings with impressive architecture.
The Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde Basilica overlooks Marseille and the Mediterranean, built on an ancient fortress on a high point of the city. You can take a nice long walk there from the city center.
The Palais de Longchamp is worth a visit as it houses both the Natural History Museum and the Art Museum. The Palais Pharo built by Napoleon III offers great seaside architecture
Marseille also has a lot of recent urban and cultural enhancements. The MUCEM is a new museum devoted to European and Mediterranean civilizations – which Marseille is a great blend of. It was opened in 2013 in the port next to the 17th-century Fort Saint-Jean – the two are linked by a high footbridge.
Another recent cultural venue is La Friche, a tobacco factory near the St-Charles train station turned into a trendy cultural area with a skate park, startup offices, a large terrace, and regular cultural events.
Cours Julien is another trendy area in Marseille, considered the main artist district with numerous cafes and terraces, works of street art, hip artsy boutiques, a pedestrian area, a concert hall, an art movie theater, and a street market.
La Corniche Kennedy is a long Marseille boulevard running alongside the Mediterranean and overlooks the sea and islands. Besides fishermen’s barracks, it has beautiful 19th-century villas such as Villa Valmer and Gaby Deslys Villa.
See some great tours and activities you can do in Marseille.
Nature & outdoors
Lyon’s Parc de la Tête d’Or is a sprawling urban park with greenery, lakes, and vibrant flower beds. You can cycle along the banks of the Rhône and Saône rivers and enjoy the picturesque scenery on the cycling paths.
The nearby Monts du Lyonnais mountain range has numerous hiking trails for all skill levels and wind through charming villages with panoramic views of the countryside.
The Rhône and Saône rivers provide a great setting for water-based activities, while nearby cliffs and crags offer thrilling rock-climbing routes.
the Marseille area has great opportunities for water sports, including sailing (the city has constant strong winds), hiking, and camping in the stunning mountains of the Provence natural parks, scuba diving, mountain biking, etc.
Marseille’s Les Calanques natural park offers panoramic hikes and kayak tours in breathtaking landscapes with gorgeous steep cliffs and small coves on the Mediterranean.
Marseille has some wonderful beaches though a bit harder to find and access than the nearby Côte d’Azur. Plage du Prado is a wide and open family beach with attractions for kids and skate parks. You can also find beaches off the beaten path along La Corniche Kennedy.
Marseille also has some awesome parks for running and biking on trails, the biggest one being Parc Borély. Parc Longchamp is also a nice place to hang out and work out after visiting Longchamp Palace.
Food & nightlife
Lyon is considered a food paradise by many travelers who enjoy the Vieux Lyon area and its little restaurants (called Bouchons). Its gastronomy (for some a heavy and fatty style of cuisine) revolves mostly around organ meats and cream e.g. Andouillettes, Quenelles, Salade Lyonnaise.
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. On the other hand, 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. The iconic Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse has an extensive selection of gourmet delicacies and regional products.
Nardone is known to be the best ice-cream maker in Lyon.
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 generally found in Old Lyon.
Lyon also has great cultural centers such as the National Opera, the Celestin Theater, and the Lumiere Institute, and all contribute to the city’s cultural influence.
Marseille also has a very diverse food scene, a lot of it around and East of the Old Port. The port is the best place for eating a bouillabaisse, a traditional Marseille seafood stew fishermen originally made using fish they couldn’t sell.
Chez Michel is widely considered the city’s best bouillabaisse restaurant, being a multi-generation family place. Be aware though that many restaurants near the seafront are expensive tourist traps.
Ethnic food places are abundant in Marseille. There are lots of couscous restaurants by the Old Port and in the Noailles area. You can have a great African dinner East of the Cours Julien area, which has food from many different countries.
For an even more local and affordable experience, you can check out the grill shacks near the train station.
You’ll also find many restaurants and bars along Corniche Kennedy Boulevard.
The Cours Julien area is also one of the edgier neighborhoods for cultural events and nightlife, with some of the best bars, restaurants, and clubs in Marseille. Some trendy pubs can also be found around the Vieux Port.
Rue de la République is lined with renowned department stores, chic boutiques, and upscale brands. Rue du Président Édouard Herriot is another popular shopping street with trendy fashion boutiques, luxury retailers, and specialty stores.
The Vieux Lyon vibrant neighborhood also has many shops for unique souvenirs, local crafts, and traditional Lyon silk products.
A lot of stores and small commercial centers concentrate around the Old Port area. There are also major commercial centers on the outskirts of the city including Prado Shopping and Aushopping Marseille Saint-Loup.
Lyon’s Presqu’ile, the central area between the two rivers, is an excellent place to stay in. It’s a convenient base for visiting various parts of the city on foot. the tourist information center is located there.
Travelers often recommend the Hôtel des Célestins for its central location in the Presqu’ile, nice rooms, air conditioning, and 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.
In Marseille, there are hundreds of hotels. Most travelers recommend staying around the Vieux Port area, a very lively area with easy access to public transport and within walking distance of many sights.
Among the hotels most highly praised by travelers is La Résidence du Vieux Port which has friendly staff, great breakfast, and clean comfortable rooms with unforgettable views of the port and hill, optionally with a balcony.
The Grand Hotel Beauvau Vieux Port MGallery is also frequently recommended. It has a great location and a breakfast room with the most amazing view of the Vieux Port.
Residhotel is a nice “budget” option. A one-minute walk inland from the port, a 20-minute walk from the train (or 2 quick metro stops ). Not exactly upscale or fancy. The rooms are quite large and have a kitchenette with fridge, microwave, stove, etc. Wi-fi and air conditioning. There is a huge grocery store a two-minute walk away, a Starbucks and a bagel store around the corner.
Lyon is only 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.
You can also do a day trip to Beaune (one hour by train) in the heart of Burgundy for its stunning architecture and iconic vineyard. If you have the time, you can also go to Dijon.
From Marseille, you can take a short trip to Aix-en-Provence, known for its elegant architecture and vibrant arts scene. Stroll along the charming streets, visit the Cours Mirabeau, and explore the historic Old Town.
Another remarkable day trip option is the breathtaking Calanques National Park, a pristine coastal area where rugged limestone cliffs meet turquoise waters. Hiking trails with panoramic views provide pleasant access to hidden coves.
History enthusiasts can venture to the ancient Roman city of Arles, famous for its well-preserved amphitheater and fascinating Roman ruins.
The enchanting hilltop village of Les Baux-de-Provence is a great place for a day trip with its medieval charm and the impressive Carrières de Lumières, an immersive art exhibition held in an old quarry.
You can also take a boat trip to the islands in the bay of Marseille.