Everything you need to know about Lyon’s Fête des lumières

Lyon's Fête des lumières is the biggest and most famous of France's winter festivals of lights - Lyon resident and festival fan Caroline Conner explains what it's all about.

Everything you need to know about Lyon's Fête des lumières
Candles illuminate the Jacobins square during the Festival of Lights (Fête des Lumieres), in Lyon. Photo by PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

What is it?

The Fête des Lumières is a free, outdoor experience in the centre of Lyon that runs from Thursday, December 8th until Sunday, December 11th at night time. 

Lyon’s annual winter festival of lights always runs for four nights around December 8th.

Every year, different artisans create light installations throughout the city, especially in the centre of Lyon. These include large projections over some of the city’s most beautiful monuments. You’ll find incredible exhibitions displayed over the facades of major landmarks like the Hôtel de Ville and Place des Terreaux, at Place Bellecour, and the Cathedral St George. Our famous Parc de la Tête d’Or also has wonderful installations.

While the festival has a wonderful convivial energy, it can also get extremely crowded. Most of the visitors are from the region, but there is starting to be some foreign presence as well.

Saint-Jean cathedral illuminated during the Festival of Lights . Photo by PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

 The history of a Lyonnais tradition

Lyon has long been enamoured with the city’s patron saint, the Virgin Mary. The worship of Mary goes far back, and in 1643 Lyon officially placed itself under her protection. Ever since, there has been a candle-lit procession between the Cathedral and her chapel on the Fourvière hill (now part of the Basilica) on September 8th.

The first Fête des Lumières was supposed to take place on September 8th 1852 to inaugurate the statue of the Virgin at Fourvière, but the event got rained out. It was rescheduled for December 8th, when it rained once again, yet the Lyonnais people came out with their lanterns lit to show their respect for Mary anyway. 

The festival gained momentum throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, to become an international showcase of fabulous lighting installations. 

Today the festival is a free, outdoor, often interactive art festival showcasing at least 40 large scale light installations across the city. In 2021 it was estimated to have had 1,800,000 visitors. 

The people of Lyon still pay homage to Mary by lighting candles in their windows on the 8th of December.

How to make the most of the festival

Finding accommodation in Lyon during this time is doable but comes with a cost! Many locals will leave for the weekend and rent out their apartments on Airbnb.

Parking in the centre of town will be very difficult, it’s better to reserve a spot in a lot in the 3rd, 4th, 6th, 3rd, 7th, 8th, or 9th arrondissements and take public transport or walk in to the centre.

Restaurants in Lyon tend to be very small, so if you are planning on going, it is crucial that you make reservations. Google reviews function well here and lead to better results than TripAdvisor.

It might rain, just as it did at the very first festival in 1852. Dress appropriately for the weather, which will be cold and likely wet. You will likely be outside in the dark and cold for a few hours, so really bundle up and wear good shoes.

The illuminated Bellecour square, with the Fourviere basilica in the background,. Photo by PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

The festival is free to enjoy but there is a security perimeter around the centre of Lyon. Consult the map to find out which checkpoint you’ll enter through, and go early so you can get in without too much of a wait.

The official times for the festival are 8pm until midnight Thursday through Saturday, and 6pm to 10pm on Sunday. To avoid the queues, it would be wise to be inside the perimeter before that start time.

Here is the official map for the Fête des Lumières 2022.

There are no Covid restrictions in place this year.

Find the official website here.

How long does it take?

It would be difficult to see everything in one night if you also wanted to go to the Parc de la Tête d’Or, but you could see most everything in the Presqu’Île (the peninsula between the Rhône and Saône rivers) and even the Old Town in a single evening if you started at 8 and stayed till midnight. 

Is there a difference between the nights? 

All of the installations are the same for all four nights.

An insider tip is to go and check out the dress rehearsal on Wednesday evening. You won’t see everything exactly as it will be, but it’s much less crowded and still a fantastic experience. 

Friday and Saturday are the most crowded.

Caroline Conner is a wine expert who runs Lyon Wine Tastings. She will be hosting a highly limited gastronomic wine tour on Sunday the 11th that includes a 7 wine tasting, a tour of the Fête des Lumières, and then an extravagant dinner at one of Lyon’s best restaurants. Find full details here.

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The tiny island that is Spanish for half the year, and French the other half

Did you know that there's an island that is French for half the year and Spanish the other half? Not only that, it has a particularly bizarre history involving princess-swaps and hostage-handovers. Welcome to 'Pheasant Island'.

The tiny island that is Spanish for half the year, and French the other half

Most of the border between France and Spain is a land border, running through the Pyrenees and decorously diverging when it gets to Andorra.

But the northern-most portion of the border, which takes in the Basque Country, runs down the centre of a river. In the middle of this river is a very small island – 200 metres long, 40 metres wide, population 0.

Map showing the French town of Hendaye, the Spanish town of Irun and between them, right on the Franco-Spanish border, ‘pheasant island’. Map: Google maps

Despite being tiny, it has five different names; Île des Faisans or Île de la Conférence if you’re speaking French, Isla de los Faisanes in Spanish or in the Basque language either Konpantzia or Faisaien Uhartea Konferentziako Uhartea. All of these translate to either ‘pheasant island’ or ‘conference/treaty island’.

Fun fact: there are no pheasants on pheasant island (the name is believed to be a mis-translation). And at 0.00682 km square it’s unlikely to have much of a future as a conference centre. 

The reason we’re talking about this island is its unique nationality status – from February 1st to July 31st each year the island is part of Spain, then on August 1st it becomes French and remains so for the next six months.

So how did it end up with this weird status? Especially as, a little further up the river is the larger island of Isla Santiagourra – in this case the border simply goes round the island, which is Spanish 365 days a year.

The 1856 Treaty of Bayonne which formalised its hybrid status stated that “Pheasant island, to which so many historical memories common to the two Nations are attached, will belong, undivided, to France and Spain”.

International treaties of this period aren’t exactly famous for careful consultation with locals and the island is, as we already mentioned, uninhabited. There’s no contemporaneous explanation of exactly why it was felt so important to respect “historical memories” but it could simply that no-one could be bothered to argue over this tiny lump of land, or that it was handy to have a ‘neutral space’ along the border.

The island came to prominence 200 years earlier when the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees was signed there, bringing an end to decades of war between France and Spain and establishing the Franco-Spanish border (and giving the island its secondary title of ‘treaty island’).

It remained for decades a ‘neutral’ space that was often used as a handover spot by the French and Spanish, but the rotating nationality was only formally established by the 1856 Treaty. 

The treaty also appointed two viceroys to run the island – the naval commanders of San Sebastian (Spain) and Bayonne (France), which gives the island its further distinction of having the only French example of the quasi-royal title of viceroy – the term comes from the French vice-roi meaning someone who deputises for the king.

In reality, it is administered by the mayor of Irun during its Spanish phase and the mayor of Hendaye during the French phase.

Talking of royalty, the island has an especially royal history – and long before the treaty that cemented its special status it was used as a meeting place for royals from France and Spain.

In 1659, Louis XIV met his future wife Maria Theresa of Spain at the island. Relevant paperwork signed, she said goodbye to her father Philip IV of Spain and crossed into France to become his queen.

In 1721, Louis XV met his intended bride Mariana Victoria of Spain there, this time however the meeting was less successful and the two ended up marrying other people.

The bride-swapping went both ways – Elisabeth of France, daughter of Henri IV, met her future husband Philip of Spain on pheasant island.

And it’s not just women who were traded there – children were too.

In 1526 François I, who was being held hostage by Spanish king Charles V, was taken to the island where he was swapped for his two eldest sons. The boys lived as hostage as the Spanish court for four years, until the French royals agreed to pay an enormous ransom. The scene of the handover? Pheasant island, naturally. 

The island is uninhabited with no regular transport there – so if you want to visit, you will need to wait for the next Journée du patrimoine (heritage open day) when the island is, sometimes, open to the public. 

Pheasant Island is not the only weird, quasi-royal space on the Franco-Spanish border – there is of course also the principality of Andorra, which is (nominally at least) ruled jointly by the French president and the Bishop of Urgell – they rule as ‘co-princes’ which means that, technically Emmanuel Macron is a prince.