The Lyon Festival of Lights: the visitor guide

cultural events in France | French culture

Millions of people flock to Lyon every year for the city’s popular Festival of Lights. The Capital of the Three Gauls lights up with thousands of candles to put on a magical show for visitors and locals alike on December 8th. It’s a golden opportunity to soak up the fairytale atmosphere as you explore the city at night. Here are some facts and top tips to help you squeeze every last drop out of the Lyon Festival of Lights, the 4th most popular festival in the world!

The Festival of Lights in figures

  • 20 kilometres:

That’s the distance between the first installation (usually Lyon Cathedral) and the last (often Hôpital Saint-Joseph Saint-Luc). You can feast your eyes on all the illuminations along the way but be warned, you certainly won’t be alone so keep a cool head! 

  • 2 million people

That’s how many people usually descend on the city for the 4-day event. The Council puts the figure at between 1.8 and 2 million with half from the Rhône region and 100,000 overseas visitors. That makes an average of 500,000 people exploring the streets of Lyon per day. 

  • Millions of tealights

The Festival of Lights is a record-breaker every year: 8 million tealights were sold in the Grand Lyon area in 2014, 12 million were used for a single installation in 2022 called Les Lumignons du Coeur! 

  • The world’s 4th most popular festival

The Festival of Lights is currently the 4th most loved event among its visitors and won the Best Public Event award in 2007!

The history behind the Festival of Lights

A 19th century tradition.

It all began in the 17th century when the plague reached the South of France. On September 8th 1643, Lyon Council began to pray to the Virgin Mary statue at Fourvière Church to spare Lyon from the epidemic. Their prayers were answered and there’s still a pilgrimage on September 8th to remember the event.

The Council was meant to unveil a statue by the sculptor Joseph Fabisch at the top of Fourvière during the pilgrimage on September 8th 1852. But the Saône flooded and delayed the inauguration until… December 8th. The weather had a mind of its own again on that day and put a damper on events. But things brightened up and the locals put candles in their windows to celebrate. The Church did the same and kept Fourvière lit up all night as the locals gazed in wonder. Flares, fireworks and candles: that’s the story behind the Festival of Lights.

A tradition rooted in Lyon’s cultural heritage

The Festival of Lights became Lyon’s official festival in a sign of faith. The custom of putting candles on your windowsill on the night of December 8th spread among families and religions from 1852 onwards.

The city’s mayor, Michel Noir, sparked (pun intended!) the tradition of illuminating Lyon’s landmarks and bringing the city to life with art installations in 1989. The festival has lasted 4 days since 1999 and is devoted entirely to the festivities and hosting millions of visitors.

Lyon and light: they go way back!

This event was meant to happen in Lyon! It ties in perfectly to the city’s history. Lights, sounds, colours… Does cinema come to mind? What about Auguste and Louis Lumière? The brothers who invented cinematography in 1896 in Lyon? Actually, Auguste also invented autochrome, the first colour film development process. 

Let’s not forget André-Marie Ampère, another bright spark from Lyon who became famous for his experiments with the electrical telegraph. A unit of electric current is even named after him: ampere.

Institut des Frères Lumière à Lyon<br />

An international festival

There are lots of reasons to describe the Festival of Lights as an international festival. 

Firstly, it celebrates artists from Lyon and overseas (11 foreign artists out of 37 in 2022) who hail mainly from Europe. 

It’s world famous and millions of visitors from all over the globe flock here to gaze at the interactive installations. 

Last but not least, the artistic sound and light creations go around the planet. The Festival of Light is a real laboratory and fantastic showcase for all the avant-garde, innovative and creative artists involved in illuminations and performance. Other cities have followed in Lyon’s footsteps and established their own Festival of Lights, including Dubai, Turin, Montreal and Rio de Janeiro.

Foreign visitors: here’s your Festival of Lights guide

Local lingo: what’s a lumignon?

They make the magic happen. They’re tealights in holders that the locals call lumignons or lampions. As soon as November comes around, the shops stockpile bags of these iconic ribbed tealights and glass holders. Locals and visitors light the candles and place them on their windowsills or on public squares on the night of December 8th

Wrap up warm

It’s cold in Lyon in winter, plus the Saône and Rhône riverbanks make it feel damp. So it’s best to wear the right clothing. Remember that Lyon is near the mountain so you can wear a ski suit… or a chunky jumper… or a flashy puffer to stay warm and toasty as you wander around the city all night!

Enjoy a mulled wine

It’s the festival’s go-to drink to warm your cockles (please drink responsibly). Hot and sweet red wine infused with oranges, ginger, cinnamon, vanilla and star anise. The sweet scent of spices is irresistible! Pick up a bretzel or praline brioche bun to go with it to boost your energy and keep you cosy!

Festival of Lights key sites

The Capital of the Three Gauls (find out more about Lyon’s history) plays host to 4 days jam-packed with installations and sights. Feast your eyes on the artwork and soak up the fairytale atmosphere with streets illuminated by millions of tealights on a 20km route through the city between the Saône and Rhône (with shortcuts in and out of the Pentes de la Croix-Rousse neighbourhood). 

The landmarks and squares set the scene for performances or video mapping, including Place Bellecour, Place des Terreaux, Place des Jacobins, Place de la République and Place des Célestins, Lyon Cathedral, Saint-Paul train station and Parc de la Tête d’or. From the Renaissance district to La Confluence, the entire city puts the spotlight on shows and installations that range from the traditional to the game-changing and unexpected. What’s the highlight of the Festival of Lights? Head up Fourvière hill to drink in views of Lyon from the church…

The work that the council, national and international artists and designers put into creating unique sights to showcase the city’s architecture is what makes the festival what it is. The views of the city at night are a sight for sore eyes for children and adults alike! The Festival of Lights is a unique event when visitors from all over the world can get together and literally invade the Capital of the Three Gauls! It may not be the quietest time to visit the city, but it is an international hotspot that provides a unique showcase for Lyon’s neighbourhoods and heritage! 

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