Lyon, ideally located where two of France's most important rivers meet, has been a major city for centuries. There was already a settlement here by the time the Romans came through, but it was they who really put Lyon on the map. Since then, the city has never looked back. Famous for its medieval corridors known as traboules, its history with the silk industry, and its pioneering past in the early days of cinema, Lyon is a city with a wealth of history to be proud of. And as the famed capital of French gastronomy, it's also a place to find great street food.
If you're a history buff, visiting Lyon is an absolute must-do in this region of France. And even if you're not, you'll almost certainly find something interesting in this ancient city. Ultimately, there is no better place to learn more about the long history of Lyon than in its many spectacular museums.
But museums and heavy bags don't always go together. Drop off your unneeded luggage at a Bounce luggage storage in Lyon, and you'll be able to avoid baggage restrictions in the city's top cultural institutions. Travel light as you enjoy a voyage through the history of France.
The Best Museums in Lyon
Gallo Roman museum
If you're going to start exploring the rich history of Lyon, it may be a good idea to start at the beginning. This ancient city first enters history in 43 BC, when the occupying Roman army created a city for refugees which they called Lugdunum. Perched on Fourviere Hill, the remains of Lugdunum are still an impressive place to visit, and have been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The twin theaters of the Roman town are still sometimes used for performances to this day, and the ancient streets make this a hugely atmospheric place to wander.
The site is impressive enough by itself, but it is also home to the Lyon Gallo Roman Museum. This partially-buried museum curates and displays artifacts from Lugdunum and from archaeological digs around the Lyon area that testify to the importance of the city during the early days of the Roman Empire. Easily reached from the city center by way of an iconic funicular railway, the Gallo Roman museum is easily one of the best museums in Lyon, and the first place you should go if you want to learn more about Lyon's history.
Lyon History Museum
There's something to be said for an easily understandable name. The Lyon History Museum won't win any awards for originality in its chosen name, but it might for the breadth and depth of its exhibitions. As impressive as the Roman remains of Lyon are, they only tell part of the story of this ancient city, and the Lyon History Museum does its best to tell the rest.
This museum holds over 80,000 artifacts and works of art, with items ranging from everyday life to fine art. The museum takes visitors on a chronological journey through Old Lyon, France, giving you a better understanding of the forces that have made the city what it is. Many of the exhibitions in the permanent collection incorporate interactive features that can help make this museum entertaining for younger members of the family too.
Tony Garnier Urban Museum
Undoubtedly one of the more unusual museums in Lyon, this is an excellent place to visit to get a better understanding of the 20th-century history of the city. Architect Tony Garnier was born in Lyon and became a very influential figure in the city's cultural and artistic life. In the early 20th century, he was tasked with designing low-cost social housing in the city, and the buildings he created are celebrated in this unique Urban Museum. If you have an interest in architecture or in social history, this is a fantastic place to visit to get a better understanding of both. You can explore the museum on self-guided tours, or take part in one of the many guided tours that celebrate Garnier's contributions to the decorative arts in Lyon. There's even a preserved worker's apartment from the 1930s to show you how people used to live in this area, so this open museum acts almost as a people's history of the city.
A relatively new cultural space in the city, the Musée des Confluences acts as an anthropology museum and natural science center. Opened in 2014, this museum occupies a striking modern-looking building right at the confluence of the two rivers that have made Lyon so important through the ages. Inside, you'll find a stunning array of exhibits from the natural world that explain not only the origins of life, but perhaps its meaning too.
The museum is divided into four areas: Origins, Species, Societies, and Eternities. This new museum uses fossils, reconstructions, and interactive exhibits to explore just about every facet of life on earth. It's one of the best things to do in Lyon with kids, but it's also a place that will give adults plenty to think about. Don't miss the opportunity this museum offers to delve into the mystery of existence.
African Museum of Lyon
The African Museum of Lyon is the oldest museum in France dedicated to African art and artifacts and makes a fascinating place to explore. Created in 1861, the museum holds exhibits that date back to the colonial days of France in West Africa. The museum is divided into three sections covering everyday items, religious life, and social life, and you'll come away with a deeper understanding of the richness and variety of African culture and history, which is not necessarily something you'd expect to find in Lyon, France. As well as its permanent collection, this museum hosts temporary exhibitions from around the world in its exhibition spaces, ensuring that this cultural space dedicated to African history remains in dialogue with the modern-day countries that produced the artifacts it contains.
Museum of Fine Arts
Lyon's Museum of Fine Arts is a grand institution that no art lover should miss. Not only one of the biggest art galleries in France, this is one of the largest museums in Europe, which is saying a lot when you consider the competition. Housed in a 17th-century mansion, the museum holds a stunning collection of art and artifacts, with everything from Egyptian relics to cutting-edge modern art on display. Situated in the heart of Vieux Lyon next to the Hôtel de Ville, this impressive museum holds one of the largest collections of fine art you're ever likely to see, with work by Gauguin, Cézanne, van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, and just about every other famous artist you can name. The museum covers every era of art history from the 14th century up to the 20th. Located in a former Monastery, it also boasts a cloistered garden decorated with statues by Rodin. In other words, it's a paradise for lovers of art and high culture, and not a place you should miss on your trip to Lyon.
Modern Art Museum
If you love art history, Lyon's Museum of Fine Arts is a no-brainer. But if you prefer your art a little more on the cutting edge side, the Musée d'art Contemporain, located in the Cité Internationale, is the obvious place to visit. Devoted entirely to contemporary art, this museum provides a welcome counterbalance to the ancient history covered by many of Lyon's other museums. In the spirit of innovation, this museum is constantly changing its collection, so you'll always see something new. The museum focuses on displaying art created directly on-site during the Biennial Contemporary Art Festival, and it's fascinating to see paintings, sculpture, video, and multimedia installations in the place the artists intended for them to be displayed.
The Center for the History of the Resistance and Deportation
Symbolically housed in the former headquarters of the Gestapo, this moving museum tells the story of the French resistance during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II. Charles de Gaulle once called Lyon the capital of the resistance, and many of the bravest members of this clandestine organization were based in the city. This museum tells the story not only of the resistance but also of the Jews, political prisoners, and other victims of the Nazi regime deported from Lyon to concentration camps throughout Europe. The museum is undoubtedly a sobering place to visit, but it's important that this dark history be remembered.
The city of Lyon is indelibly connected with the production of silk. Silk was made here for over 500 years, and the city saw many breakthroughs in silk production in that time. Although Lyon is no longer a world leader in the production of silk, the legacy of this luxury item shaped the culture and architecture of the city, and can still be seen to this day.
Lyon's Textile Museum celebrates not only silk production in the city but explores the techniques and technology used to create textiles in every period of human history from around the world. The exhibits here cover 4000 years of textile manufacture, from ancient looms up to present-day machinery. Anyone with an interest in textiles or decorative arts should definitely check out this museum, which goes a long way to exploring the wider history of the city, too.
The Lumiere brothers, Auguste and Louis, grew up in Lyon. As manufacturers of cameras and photography equipment, they were some of the first people to see the potential of moving pictures and were pioneers in the creation of cinema. The brothers screened the first-ever presentation of a projected film in 1895. However, much to their misfortune, they perceived moving pictures as a temporary fad, and the world of cinema soon moved on without them.
The Musée Lumiere in Lyon contains the Cinematograph, the machine the brothers used to project their very first film. You can see some of the films they made and admire the technical artistry and innovation that went into their creation. Not only a great place for film lovers to visit, this is a fascinating museum for anyone interested in the history of art.
What are the best free museums in Lyon?
Lyon, and France in general, aren't generally known as great budget travel destinations. However, if you want to enjoy some culture on the cheap, you can visit one of the best museums in Lyon without spending anything. On the first Sunday of each month, the Gallo Roman Museum is totally free to visit, making this one of the best free things to do in Lyon. Additionally, the impressive ruins of the Roman theaters are always free to enter.
Which are the best museums in downtown Lyon?
Old Lyon is home to some of the city's most impressive historic monuments, and therefore some of its best museums. You'll find the Lyon History Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts located right in the heart of town.
Are there any cheap museums in Lyon?
Many of the top museums in Lyon are surprisingly inexpensive to visit. For example, a visit to the Resistance Museum costs a very reasonable four euros for adults. The most expensive ticket to the Gallo Roman Museum is only seven euros, and even the stunning Fine Arts Museum only costs €12, which is very reasonable when you consider the truly astonishing collection on display there.