Lyon: I battle post-Brexit rules to live in a French city that’s cheaper than Paris – here’s why to visit

Lyon: I battle post-Brexit rules to live in a French city that’s cheaper than Paris – here’s why to visit

I first visited Lyon more than a decade ago. I was 20 years old and was working in a secondary school in the French countryside during my Erasmus year.

I had an unquenchable thirst for anything alcoholic and the energy levels of a rabid dog. So, each weekend, I made a beeline for the closest big city, Lyon. I never imagined I would one day call it home.

Following the death of a family member and the pandemic, however, I found myself on my way back there. My car was packed high with my belongings, and I had just quit my job. Aged 28, I was having an unscheduled life crisis that sat somewhere between “quarter” and “mid”.

Back in the UK, my friends and family were a mix of supportive, sceptical, and bemused. Most of them knew little about Lyon.

January 21, 2018 - Lyon, Auvergne-Rh??ne-Alpes, France. Beautiful Cobbled street of Rue de Boeuf with shops and restaurants in Old Lyon, France on a rainy day in winter. Colorful Vieux Lyon buildings. Lyon architecture. French cities. Winter in Lyon, France
Lyon’s cobbled streets are filled with cost-effective restaurants (Photo: Getty)

They were confused as to why I would navigate post-Brexit red tape to stay there. Indeed, the rigmarole of moving to France as a British citizen has included French exams, mandatory civic training, medical tests and considerable costs.

In total, I’ve spent well over a thousand pounds on visa procedures. This has included fees, getting official documents translated, and once even hiring an immigration lawyer when an administration hiccup left me in fear that I was about to be deported.

Civic training, meanwhile, has covered everything from learning the lyrics of “La Marseillaise” to the far more useful “how to find a GP in France”, and is spread over a period of four days. I’ve been living here for more than two years, but I’m far from done with navigating the bureaucracy.

Lyon was once, however, associated with a carefree time in my life – and that is what pulled me back. During my Erasmus year, I had no real responsibilities, and not even any university work to do. One hedonistic weekend rolled into another. And the city was so green.

The mountains added to Lyon’s appeal. I was instantly struck, as I had been on my first visit, by the nature within the city: two rivers, the banks of which became giant picnic spots on sunny days; immense urban parks; the promise of alpine adventures on the skyline.

Panorama of the city of Lyon with the French Alps in the background and the Mont Blanc, during the day, spring 2019. Part-Dieu building and district.
The French alps are visible from the highest points of the city (Photo: Yanis Ourabah/Getty)

On a clear day, Mont Blanc is visible from Notre-Dame de Fourvière, the 19th century basilica that dominates Lyon’s highest hill. Climbing the church domes after dark gives an even better view of the city lit up below.

The mountains are so close, and it takes just 90 minutes to drive to the nearest ski station.

It is easy to add a day of skiing to a city break. The ski pass and transport cost less than £50. Skimania runs trips to stations all over the French Alps three times a week, from December–March.

Lyon also offers a cost-effective break, when compared with larger cities. A five-star hotel in Paris will set you back over €800 a night, on average, but in Lyon, luxury is affordable. I particularly like Villa 216, a townhouse with two rooms. Doubles are available from €219, with breakfast.

The cost-of-living comparison tool Numbeo suggests that consumer prices in Lyon are 5.6 per cent cheaper than in Paris and restaurant prices are almost 12 per cent lower.

Lyon is also easy to reach by rail from the UK. You can arrive from London is less than five hours. It’s true, however, that train prices aren’t always cheap, so I recommend booking as early as possible, particularly for the Eurostar. You can get a one-way ticket for as little as €44, and that’s not during the sales.

Lyon, France - January, 2020 : Street of Lyon old town, Europe
Old Lyon’s cobbled streets add to the charm (Photo: Getty)

Go via Lille, rather than Paris. The journey is just one hour, 20 minutes from London. TGV (high-speed) trains leave from your arrival station, Lille Europe, taking three hours to reach Lyon. As with Eurostar, you’ll get cheaper rates the earlier you book. Trainline shows lower-cost train providers, including OuiGo and Italian company FrecciaRossa. The views on the train from Lille are almost entirely rural, with church spires peeking out from endless fields.

With Beaujolais to the north and the Rhône Valley to the south, the Lyonnais like to joke that although this city has two rivers, there’s a third one that is the abundant flow of wine.

My favourite wine bar, Les Assembleurs, sells wines on tap for €4 a glass. Compare this to the €6 I paid for a black coffee recently in Paris. My favourite coffee shop in Lyon, Un Brin de Folie, which is also a florist, smells divine. It offers wreath-making workshops, and the coffee costs €1.40.

Lyon has more restaurants than any French city aside from Paris. In the old town, you’ll find Rue de Bœuf, the French street with the most Michelin stars. Here, Jérémy Galvan’s lunch menu is a multi-sensory experience.

You’re told what you’ve eaten after tasting it (specify dietary requirements in advance). Expect to be putting on headphones one moment and eating with your hands the next. For a cheap, three-course meal that still feels like fine dining, Flair’s lunch menu costs just €25.

When I’m not stuffing myself with its cuisine, Lyon’s art scene holds endless appeal. Futuristic-looking Musée des Confluences is holding an exhibition all about love, À Nos Amours, running until August, and repurposed sugar factory La Sucrière is hosting a vast exhibition of photographer Elliott Erwitt’s work until mid-March.

Contemporary gallery Musée Jean Couty has a Matisse and Chagall exhibition, running until late January. Plus, much of Lyon’s art is al fresco, including giant optical illusions, known as trompe l’œil. My favourite street art is the painted staircases that go up to Croix-Rousse, the former silk weaving quartier.

Lyon, France - january 31, 2023 : Urban panorama of the city of Lyon in France in winter at sunset
Lyon’s cityscape includes a clutch of skyscrapers (Photo: Michel Peres/Getty)

A third of Lyon’s annual tourists descend on the city for Europe’s largest lights festival, the Fête des Lumières (7–10 December). It is spectacular, despite the crowds, but if you’re visiting outside of these dates, wander past Université Jean Moulin 3 after dark to see the handsome windows illuminated in many colours.

The Olympics are on the horizon, but as Lyon is only hosting football, it will be much quieter and cheaper than Paris, and well worth a detour by train.