Know Before You Go: Celebrating the Fête des Lumières in Lyon
For four days each December, Lyon in south-east France is spotlit. The Old Town’s cathedral morphs into a canvas for giant light projections, and the Parc de la Tête d’Or, usually home to a zoo containing giraffes and gibbons, instead becomes a Winter Wonderland. Roughly two million people—a third of Lyon’s annual visitor total—descend upon the city during the festival. In 2022, the Fête des Lumières celebrated its 170th birthday.
What is the Fête des Lumières?
It’s the largest lights festival in France, celebrated annually over the long weekend closest to December 8. The festival hasn’t been at full capacity since 2019, and there were worries that rising energy costs would impact the 2022 Fête des Lumières, but luckily most of the lights are LED, and the festival was given the (ahem) green light. As a bonus, the Fête des Lumières is also completely free to access.
Insider tip: Take cash for roasted chestnuts and vin chaud in the street. You’ll be outside a lot, and Lyon is chilly at this time of year, so you’ll be glad of the sustenance.
What to expect
The city lights up and the art installations (which include short films) become more impressive each year. Although the creations change annually, there are parts of the city which always have huge displays, including the Hôtel de Ville, Place Bellecour, Cathédrale Saint-Jean, and the Parc de la Tête d’Or. A giant festival is also an excuse for a giant party, so look out for impromptu concerts on street corners, and prepare for bars, clubs, and restaurants to overflow with revelers, as well as organized music and dance performances across the city.
Some 2022 highlights included the Grand Mix au Musée by Inook, which was projected onto the walls of the Beaux Arts Museum, where classic portraits came to life to sing anything from Britney Spears to Aretha Franklin. There was also Squidsoup’s Murmuration, an ethereal cloud of dancing lights made to look like migrating birds on Place Cordeliers. Then there was The Shape of Things to Come on Place Antonin Poncet, a display made entirely from recycled plastic by artistic team Les Petits Labos.
When you’re done with the Fête des Lumières festivities, you can also take a walking excursion around the Old Town, try some of Lyon’s famed dishes, or take an offbeat tour of the city.
Insider tip: It’s impossible to avoid the crowds, but the quietest day is Thursday.
How to get there
The airport, Lyon-Saint Exupéry, is under half an hour from the city center using the Rhônexpress. Regular high speed trains also run between Paris Gare de Lyon and Lyon Part Dieu, taking under two hours.
Where to stay
The biggest problem is finding somewhere to stay, and hotels book up months in advance. Many locals evacuate and rent out their apartments on Airbnb (but expect costs far higher than what you’d usually pay). Also, keep in mind that as most of the action takes place in the city center—around the Presqu’Île; Croix-Rousse; Vieux Lyon; and the 7th, 3rd, and 6th arrondissements—accommodation here is at a premium. If you can’t find anything within your price range, look to outlying boroughs close to metro lines, such as Villeurbanne, Caluire-et-Cuire, Vaulx-en-Velin, Vénissieux, Vaise, or Oullins.
History of the Fête des Lumières
The origins of the festival can be traced back to as early as the mid–17th century. In 1643, plague ravaged the south of France and citizens of Lyon turned to the Virgin Mary for help, climbing to the top of Fourvière Hill where the Fourvière Basilica now stands—at the time it was crowned by a much smaller church—to ask for her protection. The story goes that on this occasion, the plague stopped at the city’s confines, and Lyon was spared. From that date on, pilgrims have regularly made the journey up to the top of Fourvière Hill on September 8.
Then, in 1852, a local sculptor, Joseph-Hugues Fabisch, was commissioned to create a giant statue of the Virgin Mary to adorn Fourvière Hill. It was due to be erected on September 8, in keeping with tradition, but the River Saône burst its banks, flooding the sculptor’s workshop. The unveiling was pushed back until December 8, when residents all the way from the city center to Fourvière lit candles in their windows. This is why the festival is officially said to date from 1852, but the 4-day festival as we know it today first took place in 1999.