History & Famous Characters

Ideally located between Massif Central and the Alps, at only 300 km for the Mediterranean see, Lyon made the most of its exceptional geographical location to build 2000 years of a fascinating history. Today, Lyon became the second largest French metropolis after Paris and the Capital of Rhone Alps region. Let us tell you the extraordinary destiny of Lyon city:

Lyon, Capital of Gauls under Roman Empire:

First named Lugdunum meaning the "hill of the light" or "the hill of the crow", Lyon was founded on the Fourviere hill as a Roman colony in 43 B.C. by Munatius Plancus, a lieutenant of Caesar. Originally its role was limited to military but expanded to include politics, economics, and religion converting the city in the Capital of the Three Gauls. Soon, a forum, a theater, a temple of Cybele and public baths were erected and the city started to expend to other neighborhoods like Croix Rousse and down to the Presqu’ile area.

As the birthplace of Christianity in Gaul, Lyon witnessed its first martyrs in the year 177 with the torture of Saint Blandine. At the end of the 3rd century, the decline of the Roman Empire exposed Lugdunum to the violent invasions of the Barbarians who chased out the inhabitants of the upper city. Lyon was plagued by ravages and political instability which put an end to its growth and finally lost its status as Capital of the Three Gauls.

The gloomy Middle Ages and the ecclesiastic city:

After a long dark period marked by several wages of invasions, Lyon city flourished again in the 11th century thanks to its religious role when it was named "Primate of Gaul" in 1079 under the reign of Pope Gregory VII.

During that period, numerous churches, abbeys and bridges were erected as Saint-Jean Cathedral, the abbeys Saint-Paul and Saint Martin d'Ainay. Beside new infrastructures and growing commerce in craft, textile and food industry, Lyon still remained modest in size and much smaller than it had been in the Gallo-Roman times. From this period of time, prosperity continued to grow, reaching its peak at the Renaissance Period.

15th Century to Splendors of Renaissance (16th C):

At the beginning of the 15th century, Italians introduced the silk industry to Lyon forced by civil wars to leave their home. Lyon became an important trading center with several annual fairs and the arrival of large foreign banking houses which attracted commercial interests from all over Europe. Artists, intellectuals and elites in general came to settle in Lyon and its influence took a European dimension.

The 16th century gave the city the most beautiful ensemble of Renaissance buildings in France with Vieux-Lyon area, its architectural treasures and unusual covered passageways called "traboules" today classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The economic and cultural prosperity of Lyon was destabilized by the Reformation and the looming wars between Catholics and Protestants. The city was a scene of mass violence against Huguenots in the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacres in 1572. Banking families returned to Italy while publishers emigrated towards Geneva. Henri IV managed to calm down the population by naming an intendant and celebrating his marriage to Marie de Medicis in St Jean Cathedral in 1600.

17th Century to French Revolution (1789):

In the 17th Century, Lyon regained prosperity thanks to the Golden Age of silk and the garment industry. Lyon had the highest concentration of workers in the entire country to supply the world wealthy with clothing and interior decoration.

In the 18th Century, the capital of silk was renowned throughout Europe and started to equip itself with hospitals, public squares and impressive edifices like the hotel de Ville, Hôtel Dieu, etc. Brilliant architects as Germain Soufflot, Michel-Antoine Perrache and Morand influenced the urban modernization of Lyon and designed new neighborhoods.

At the Eve of Revolution, Lyon participated to the Enlightenment era with scientific breakthroughs as the ascension of the first Montgolfier hot air balloon, the discoveries of the physicist Ampère (1775-1836) who developed units for measuring electricity and the establishment of the first veterinary school in Europe.

The French Revolution put an end to this quiet and prosperous period. Indeed, the Convention judged the city too royalist and struck it from the map with this infamous line, "Lyon n'est plus" (Lyon is no more) and ordered the destruction of some buildings of Place Bellecour and 2000 people were shot or decapitated.

A 19th Century Industrial City:

At the beginning of the 19th century, Napoleon himself ordered the reconstruction of all the buildings demolished during the French Revolution and made of Lyon's silk industry an essential element of the French economy.

Joseph Marie Jacquard revolutionized the textile industry by inventing a mechanical loom that could replace six men at work. In need of more space, the workshops moved to the Croix-Rousse hill, and Lyon grew to the north and east. Another major innovation changed the garment industry: the sewing machine of Barthelemy Thimonnier, invented in 1829.

In 1831, the Canuts (silk workers) organized the first revolt against the refusal of manufacturers to agree to a minimum rate for custom work which was put in a bloodbath. These uprisings went on until 1870, date of the decline of Lyon’s silk industry due to foreign competition and the invention of synthetic silk.

In 1862, the world's first funicular railway was built between Lyon and La Croix-Rousse.

In the 1870s and the Industrial Revolution, Lyon set the basis of a strong Chemical, Mechanical and Pharmaceutical industries with famous names as Rhone Poulenc, Berliet, Marcel Mérieux.

In 1895, the Brothers Lumière invented the “cinematographe and shot the first film in the history of the cinema: "Sortie d'Usine".

Along 19th century, Lyon witnessed important architectural development with construction of The Opera House, the Palais de Justice (Court House), La Bourse (the stock exchange), the Tête d'Or Urban Park, The Fourvière Basilica, etc.

20th Century from the Present day:

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the mayor of Lyon, Édouard Herriot, continued to remodel the city to improve quality of life for its inhabitants. During his term (1905-1957), numerous public buildings were erected under the direction of architect Tony Garnier, (1869-1948). He designed many new building as Gerland Stadium, Granges Blanche hospital, a slaughter house nowadays converted in a Concert Hall & Event Center, etc.

During World War II, being located on the frontier between the occupied and free zone, Lyon became the center of the French Resistance led by Jean Moulin. In 1943, He was arrested and tortured at the Gestapo Headquarter, the actual place of the Resistance Museum.

The post-war years marked the beginning of the race for modernity with the development of transportation infrastructures (Metro, high Speed Train, etc) and a new Business Quarter in 1960, called Part-Dieu.

Satolas Airport was renamed in 2000 as Lyon St Exupery Airport in homage of the famous aviator writer born in Lyon (1900-1944) and author of the “little Prince” book.

The last major urban developments are the Cité Internationale Lyon’s Congress Centre design by Piazzo Architect and the transformation of the Rhone banks river into a promenade alley.

Today, Lyon is internationally known and praised for its gastronomy, arts & crafts, culture but above all its quality of life.