Last weekend, I spent my time in Lyon for the fête des Lumières (aka “Festival of Lights”). Drawing over four million(!) people each year for a long weekend of light exhibitions all over the city, it’s certainly one of France’s biggest highlights– domestic and international. Besides dazzling visitors with extravagant light shows, it also ushers in the holiday season, as means of reveling in the winter festivities for everyone to enjoy.
The fête des Lumières had been celebrated for centuries before it became world-famous in the 1850’s. Created to honor Mary, Jesus’ mother, as thanks for overcoming the Black Plague in the Middle Ages, the festival has since become a huge tourist draw that’s worth checking out at least once in one’s lifetime, especially if living in France.
This visit marked my third, consecutive year in attending the festivities. I’d gone last year, as well as the year before, and I had a great time at both. Considering that this year might be my last in France, I knew that I had to go again– with that said, I booked an Airbnb two months in advance, found people to split it with, and was on my way!
Since the fête des Lumières is such a huge event, it’s vital to reserve accommodation far in advance: hostels and centrally-located Airbnbs are booked months before, and it’s very challenging to find Couchsurfing, as many locals are out of town to avoid the massive crowds (really, they’re insane!). I’ve been fortunate to have found Airbnbs within the city center, even a month-and-a-half prior to the event.
This year, I reserved an Airbnb in the 3rd arrondissement, which was halfway between gare Part-Dieu and Place Bellecour. It was conveniently-located, and it was cozy for up to six people. I split it with five others, many of whom were assistantes– many came and went over the weekend, and although I didn’t spend so much time with them otherwise, they were all very pleasant and excited to see the lights for the first time.
I had the Airbnb from Thursday to Sunday (three nights). It wasn’t a hassle getting to Lyon, since I live only 45 minutes away by train. I caught the 15:20 train over, arriving around 16:00 and headed to the Airbnb. I checked in at 16:30 and received the keys from the host before I was left alone in the flat. The other people whom I’d be sharing the Airbnb wouldn’t arrive until later, so until then I claimed my bed and settled in before heading out in the evening for the first night of the fête des Lumières.
An assistante who would be joining the following night (but was already in Lyon) and I met up at Place Bellecour to see the lights together. Since I wanted to maximize the number of lights to be seen, I had a strategy to tackle them: for that first night, it was a matter of sticking to the light exhibitions on the Rhône side (namely, place Bellecour, place des Jacobins, and hôtel de Ville).
We headed straight to hôtel de Ville, somehow ending up in a queue for the exhibition inside the musée des Beaux Arts (which I found a bit lackluster). There was also a queue for hôtel de Ville’s, which took place indoors this year. I found the light show inside enjoyable, as it was a bunch of slow-moving lasers that moved in-time to the calming music. While I was disappointed that there wasn’t any light exhibition outside in place des Terreaux, the one inside was worthwhile.
The assistante and I crossed the Saône to Vieux Lyon, where we checked out the light exhibition at Gare Saint-Paul. At first, it didn’t really interest me, since it was merely a video projection of a dance choreography, but it slowly grew on me after a second viewing the following night– the music was moving, and I found the blend of dance and visual effects rather distinctive. We then crossed back, checking out the lovely water-light show at Place des Jacobins on the way back to Place Bellecour.
It was around 20:30 when I had to cut my visit short and head back to the Airbnb to welcome an assistante who was arriving at that time. I parted ways with the other assistante, and I returned around 21:00 to let her in. While I could have gone out again to see the rest of the lights, I was rather tired (as was the assistante, too), so I stayed in for the night. I would have another two nights in town, so I wasn’t too concerned about packing much in, especially the first night.
While most of the assistantes who came explored Lyon in the day time (as it was their first time in the city), I didn’t do much during the day since I’ve already visited numerous times. Much of it was spent idly in the Airbnb, with a few instances of going out to stroll along the quay and check out the Christmas markets near Perrache (where I got vin chaud, as well as poutine and maple cookies at the Canadian-Québécois food stalls– so good!). Also visited the musée des Tissus et des Arts Decoratifs, which was actually pretty interesting, as Lyon was once a huge textile manufacturing city, and I stumbled upon a café nearby which served some incredible desserts– so good that I returned a second time!
I went out with my friend on the second night to see more of the lights. I covered the most that night, as we started along the Saône to see the exhibition of the Fourvière and buildings along the quay before venturing into Vieux Lyon for the Cathédrale Saint-Jean Baptiste (wildly colorful and on-par with light year’s exhibition). We also covered the small, but interactive one inside the musée Gadagne, as well as passed by the theâtre de Guignol’s before seeing Gare Saint-Paul (the second time for me).
Since my friend hadn’t seen them yet, I went with her to see the ones at hôtel de Ville and place des Jacobins again. We also tried to see the one inside Grand Hôtel Dieu, but the line was incredibly long, and we were tired by then, so we just left to return to the Airbnb. It’d been a tiring second night, but I was able to cover the majority of the highlights, which I found was a solid accomplishment.
The third (and final) night of my stay was the busiest. Saturday was extremely packed, and it was a claustrophobic mess getting through the crowds from one exhibition to the other. I went on my own this time, merely to check out the remaining ones I hadn’t gotten to during the previous two nights. I finally got to see the one inside Grand Hôtel Dieu, which I likened to a faster-paced version of the one inside hôtel de Ville. The lights were absolutely epileptic, and it felt as though I was in some kind of rave. It was electrifying, and definitely one of my favorites this year.
I made a brief visit at place Antonin Poncet where I saw large bulles illuminated by respiration before revisiting the exhibition along the Saône with the Fourvière. I couldn’t see much of it the previous night, since the crowds were so far back, but this time I headed straight to the bottom of the quay, which was significantly less-crowded, and I had a front-row view to the magic along the river.
Next was the place des Celestins, where the eponymous théâtre was. There was an exhibition going on, but I didn’t stay too long since the crowd was intensely packed, and I had to fight my way through the sea of people just to get out. I was somehow spit out at place des Jacobins (also equally-crowded), and I made the 30-40-minute trek out to parc de la Tête d’Or for its exhibition.
Unfortunately, when I arrived, there was a massive queue just to get inside the park– eventually, a worker came by and informed that it could be another 90 minutes until we could get in. I ended up deciding not to stay, since I was tired by then, so I just headed back to the Airbnb early. It wasn’t until one of the assistantes told me that she stuck it out and actually saw the exhibition that it didn’t actually take 90 minutes to enter. A bit sad that I missed out, but at the same time I already saw a lot in those three nights.
…and that concludes my third fête des Lumières in France! I’ll be honest and say that, while I did enjoy this year’s festivities, I found the light exhibitions to be lacking compared with last year’s. I attribute it to the fact that there were less outdoor exhibitions (including hôtel de Ville’s) and the concepts for the light shows weren’t as innovative. All the same, I still got to see some good ones, especially since this is probably my last one in France. It’s truly a magical time, and I encourage anyone to experience it at least once while in Lyon.