Modern-day Lyon might be best known as a cultural and gastronomic center, but with a history dating back to 43 B.C., France’s third largest city also boasts a wealth of historic sites. Lyon was once an important settlement and provincial capital of Roman Gaul, and the city’s ancient ruins rank among France’s most significant – a duo of Roman theaters dramatically sited above the Old Town.
The two theaters mark out the center of the ancient town, then known as Lugdunum, and are built into the Fourvière Hill, looking out over the Rhône and Saône rivers. The larger of the two, the Gallo-Romain Theater is the oldest in Gaul, built by Augustus in 15 B.C. and housing up to 10,000 spectators, while the smaller but more extravagant Odéon dates back to 161 A.D. Today exploring the Roman ruins provides a fascinating glimpse into Lyon’s past, with the onsite Gallo-Romain museum showcasing a range of exhibits dating from prehistoric times to 7 A.D.
While hiking or taking the funicular to the hilltop theaters is an atmospheric addition to a city tour, the most authentic way to experience Roman Lyon is to visit the theaters during the summer Nuits de Fourvière festival. Throughout June and July, the Gallo-Romain Theater is restored to some of its former glory, serving as the main venue for the festival’s music, theater, dance, opera, circus and film events, which make the most of the theater’s still impressive acoustics and unbeatable setting.