It’s strange, but second cities often struggle to get a look-in beside the competing charms of their national capitals. Birmingham may have a great gay scene, but you’ll rarely hear it mentioned in the same breath as London, except perhaps by Brummies themselves; Hamburg is an elegant destination, but for foreign visitors it’s perpetually in Berlin’s shadow. Mind you, what isn’t these days?
And so it is with Lyon, the capital of the Rhône valley. Unlike gay Paris, you don’t hear much about it, which is somewhat baffling as it’s really quite appealing. France’s second-most important city after gay Paree is unbelievably undiscovered. Although Lyon doesn’t often make it onto tourist itineraries, many cultural treasures await those who take the time to explore the city.
With a history dating back to ancient Roman times, Lyon has earned a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The city boasts France’s oldest ancient ruins, medieval quarters, and fine Renaissance houses. The atmospheric neighborhoods found along the Rhône and Saône Rivers reflect the city’s rich heritage. The Quartier Saint-Jean and Colline Croix-Rousse districts have an enchanting Old World character, while the Presqu’ile exemplifies 19th-century elegance.
As if that wasn’t enough, Lyon is also close to some of France’s great wine appellations and is also the gateway to the French Alps. Perhaps it’s the close proximity of the Swiss, but the picturesque place sparkles, and the gleaming new trams and trolleybuses run on time. In short, it’s a big city that actually works.
Lyon has a handle on the finer things in gay life, too. Many French provincial cities have rather feeble gay scenes, especially in the more right-wing regions: it’s partly to do with conservative politics and the traditional lack of a British-style pub culture, so that the patter of homo socialising is markedly different. For visitors, that can be a snag: between the sexless cafes and hardcore sex clubs, there’s often not much room for ordinary drinking or dancing.
Lyon’s Gay Pride celebrations are usually spread over 10 days or so in mid June, and on the 15th of last month some 15,00 people took part in a rally through the city – the first after France voted to legalise gay marriage. The gay scene is reasonably extensive, scattered around the 1st arrondissement at the top end of the Presqu’lle, the long and weighty peninsula that marks the confluence of the rivers Saône and Rhône, and which contains the main shopping areas and tourist traps.
A night on the scene is likely to start with a good meal, and there’s no shortage of gay-friendly restaurants in the city of the cuisine Lyonnais, especially in the streets north of Hôtel de Ville. Rue Royale is particuarly rich in eating options, with the affable, cosy L’Ultime a safe bet for classic brasserie food, the nearby La Gargotte another fine option, and the Mexican eatery Yucatan highly popular with local foodies.
The liveliest stop on Lyon’s bar scene is probably Cap Opéra, a few steps away from the radically ornate opera house, unsurprisingly. Officially, it’s gay-friendly, but the ambience is more gay than mixed and the place is frequently packing it. On the rare occasions the atmosphere isn’t smoking, the owner has the intriguing habit of spraying the bar top with vodka and setting fire to it. I dread to think what the insurance premiums might be, but a good old gay time is guaranteed for all.
If you’ve danced or cruised your feet (or pants) off all night, a soothing option may be brunch at the beautiful Art deco Brasserie Georges, a real Lyon institution, usually open from 7am. And there’s little reason to worry about over-indulging; however rich the food may be, there’ll always be traboules to explore, hills to climb and plenty of boys to chase after. And if you want a wonderfully potted slice of France, chances are you’ll find Lyon highly satiating and satisfying. Absolument fabuleux.
First published: GuySpy, July 2013