Blanca Valbuena

A Guide to the Lyon Gallo-Roman Museum

  • Roman Theater Lugdunum
  • Roman Water Fountain
  • Gallo Roman Theater in Lyon France
  • The Theater at Lugdunum
  • Gallo-Roman toilets
  • Gallo-Roman Theater from 44 BC
  • Architect Bernard Zehrfuss includes an oculus in his design for Lyon's Museum
  • Staircase leading to the Gallo-Roman museum in Lyon
  • Oculus at Fourviere Museum
  • A reconstruction of the Roman Ruins in Lyon
  • Roman Ruins in Lyon's Fourviere Hill
  • Ancient Romans used thermal baths on a daily basis
  • Thermal baths for Romans in 44bc
  • Lyon's Gallo-Roman ruins
  • Lyon's Archeological Site
  • Roman Ruins in Lyon, France
  • The stage at the Gallo-Roman Theater in Lyon, France
  • aqueducts in Lyon's Roman ruins
  • Water systems in Roman empire
  • Theater at the Roman Ruins in Lyon France
  • Ruins at the Fourviere Hill in Lyon France
  • Roman Ruins in Lyon's Fourviere Hill
  • Roman food vendor 44bc
  • Residential Palace in Roman Lyon
  • Chariot tire marks on road in Lyon
  • Ancient Roman Aqueduct water system
  • Gallo-Roman Fountain at Fourviere

For those of  you who don't yet know this about me, I majored in Art History at Rutgers. The original plan was to go into law, but stupid me took an Art History class and fell in love. What nobody told me was that in the US art historians make about $30,000 per year and average rent in NYC is $46,680. I am now in technology (I'll tell you how I got into that another day), but art and history are #1 in my heart and mind. I would still encourage everyone out there to take at least one art history class. It will change the way you think and see the world. And if you happen to take them at Rutgers, I recommend that you take classes with Erik Thuno, Angela Howard, Joan Marter, and Carla Yanni.  Sadly Jocelyn Penny Small is gone - she was tough, but amazing. The faculty was superb there, I still take classes there from time to time.

Lyon Gallo-Roman Museum

When I headed decided to travel to Lyon, France, I made plans to visit the Musee Gallo-Romain. I was super stoked to see my 3rd set of Roman ruins (I had seen some in Rome, and in Split - I'm way overdue on my writing for those). Rome is great & all, but I highly recommend Lyon & Split. The tourists haven't yet heard about these sites and the experience is sooooo much better than Italy.

Any history lover visiting Lyon should make time to visit the Gallo-Roman Museum in Lyon-Fourviere. The building is stunning and showcases some incredible Roman ruins. The museum was previously housed right in the center of Lyon, but was moved to the Fourviere hill back in 1974. I walked up the hill to get there (I have a thing about walking up hills - they keep me thin & reduce the guilt of my Michelin star obsession). If you're not into "buns-of-steel" hikes, hop on the funicular or grab a cab to the museum, you'll be there in 5 minutes.

Before we get into all the cool stuff I saw there, I'll give you a break down on the museum.

Theater at the Gallo-Roman Museum in Lyon, France from Blanca on Vimeo.


The entire building is dedicated to the Gallo-Roman civilization and has an incredible collection. It features a number of fascinating pieces like a mosaic depicting the ancient circus, a Galic Coligny calendar, a speech by Claudius written on a tablet (the way this was exhibited was seriously impressive). It also houses various household items like dishes, statues and jewelry, which give you a look into everyday Roman's lives. Depending on when you visit, you might be able to catch one of the many exhibitions it hosts each year or various festivals right outside on the ruins such as Les Nuits de Fourviere (which is now on my radar for 2014).

Site Sensitive Architecture

The museum itself is a sight to behold (or as per the architect - not to behold). Designed by Bernard H. Zehrfuss, the entire structure is below ground and built into the side of the Fourviere hill, making it invisible to onlookers outside. There's always a big debate on museums that overshadow the art they house (Guggenheim Bilbao - I'm looking at you). Here, the framework, both outside and inside, is entirely concrete and blends into the hill.  It took a number of impressive innovations to pull off the look and engineering, which is one of the many reasons to visit.

The museum had an interesting effect on me. As I descended from the massive concrete staircase, I felt as if I was going into Pluto's empire to meet the dead that lived with him. I think this may give you an idea of just how cool and well thought out the museum is.

Inside, the museum is one large, descending ramp that branches off into various display rooms. This means that it is quite easy on the feet. No stairs, but comfortable ramps that guide you through the exhibits. It guarantees that each visitor sees the entirety of the museum through the progression the architect intended. The design was meant to be very simple to keep the visitor focused on the artifacts. Again, I was reminded of the Guggenheim, but this time the one in NYC, where you take the elevator to the top level and enjoy the exhibits as you comfortably descend through Frank Lloyd Wright ramp.

Zehrfuss also strategically placed oculi in order to give museum goers a better way to see problematic art pieces like mosaics, this is truly a museum that works for the art.

Bernard Zehrfuss, The Architect

Fans of architecture may want to visit the museum solely to appreciate the building by Bernard Zehrfuss. The architect’s genius is on full display here. Zehrfuss was born in Angers, France in 1911. He was accepted into the École des Beaux-Arts, located in Paris, and began taking classes there when he was 18. In 1939, he would earn the school’s most prestigious award, the Prix de Rome. That same year he would design the city’s Sebastien Charley Stadium, his first major work.

He spent time abroad in both Algeria and Tunisia from 1943 to 1953, where he served in the office if the Director of Public Works. There his talents were used to create a number of impressive housing projects, as well as schools and hospitals. The Gallo-Romam museum was one of his last works before passing away in 1996.

A Visit With Jocelyne Soubrier

Jocelyne Soubrier is the médiatrice culturelle chargée de projets at the museum. She has been working there for about twenty years and knows the site inside and out. I had the honor and pleasure of spending the morning with her. As an art history major, this is what I live for and I'd love to thank Jocelyne for taking the time to show me around and teach me so much more than I ever knew. I'll give you a little bit of history on the area, stuff I knew from my university days & stuff I learned from my time with Jocylene.

TRAVEL tip: when you go to museums, get the audio guide or pay for a tour, you will appreciate the art so much more when you put it into context. 

Gallo-Roman Lyon

We started off our tour at the theater that was built circa 15 BC.  Jocylene showed me around and gave me quite a bit of history on the city. I'm sure you've all heard of Julius Caesar. What you may not know is that this famous Roman was not an "Emperor" per se. His title, imperator, meant he was a victorious leader of the army. If you've read Shakespeare, you know that on March 15 of 44BC - The Ides of March - Julius Caesar was killed by Brutus (his adoptive son) in a coup by his senators.

Lugdunum (which in Latin stands for the Hill of Light and is now Lyon) was founded in 43 BC by Lucius Munatius Plancus, Julius Caesar's officer during the conquest of Gaul and the civil war against Pompey. Why did he choose the site? Rivers were the highways of the past and sites that were blessed with rivers tended to prosper (think of the cities along the Nile in Egypt, and even along the Mississippi in the US). Flowing water meant a way to get goods in and out of the city for trade. Lugdunum had not one, but two rivers: the Rhône and the Saône.

The site came with three large problems:

  • The Gauls: The site was populated by the Gauls, this meant that Lucius needed to integrate the cultures in order to have a working society.
  • The Rhône & Saône: Rivers flood. This meant that the city would not be situated at the river banks...this led to the third problem.
  • Fourvière Hill: He decided to build the city on the hill next to the rivers, but...if you're on a hill, how do you get water up to the people?

Jocelyne gave me a nice breakdown of how Lucius decided to deal with all this issues. In order to integrate the Gauls into Roman culture, he went to the arts and built a massive entertainment complex on Fourvière hill. This was to bethe main public place in the city of Lugdunum.  The hill contained the palace where leadership lived (this is all the way on top of the hill). Right in front of this palace he had a theater built where plays would be staged. The goal of the plays were two fold: to entertain the populace AND to teach them Roman customs in order to bring them into the fold.  The theater fit around 10,000 people who were admitted free of charge regardless of social status. Politicians would even sponsor events to gain favor from voters. Although anyone could enter the theater, classes were divided much like they are now.

  1. Lower area: The orchestra, where the most affluent people sat. This area had the best acoustics and view.
  2. Middle area: Citizens & free people
  3. Upper area: Slaves & freed slaves. As I stood at the theater, I wondered just how someone could project their voice enough for someone to hear it at this area among the sounds of the crowds. Turns out that behind the stage there was an enclosure wall that used to amplify the sound on the spectators at the top. There was also a stage curtain which was down at the beginning of the play and raised up at the end. ***when you go to the museum ask where the display illustrating this system was. The engineering behind the curtain was seriously impressive.

On a more personal note, the site is incredibly impressive. If you look carefully, you can see the indentations made by the chariots that went up the hill. You can also see the food stalls if you follow the water lines. And while we're on the subject of waterlines, there were even thermal baths on the hill.  The public baths were free (or almost free). It is amazing to think of the water systems and how the people of Lundunum engineered their aqueducts to get water all the way up the hill in order to provide water for the baths. You can even check out the loo.  I had always wanted to see a Roman toilet, and my wish was granted. This was not your run of the mill site. This site had everything you could possibly desire and more.

Also, when you go take note of the stone. It really shows you how the site was built. Sadly, all the stone and marble that decorated the ruins was stolen for some of the churches in Lyon, including the Cathedral. Even sadder still, it is no longer there, since the Cathedral was re-done. But just close your eyes while you are there, and imagine the splendor that must have been.

To the right of the Palace and Theater was the Odeum (if you're looking at the palace): This was where poetry and music were showcased. On the day I was there, there was someone playing either a lute or flute. If you happen to go to Lyon in the Summer, you can attend the Nuits de Fourvière  music festival and experience the site as its founder hoped you would.

La Croix Rousse was another hill where the amphitheater was built. This building was used for gladiators battles and hunting. It was also where representatives of the 3 Gauls met early to make decisions that would affect the empire. This was also the site where Christians were killed in 177AD.

  • Circus: Although the circus was never found (it was wood), historians know it existed because writings about it have been found on it. Just like the theater, the circus was free to the public. This was a site for chariot races that were set up by 4 color coded teams (blue, red, white, and green). of Each team was made up of two quadrigas (chariots with 4 horses - you can see an example at the museum where they have an amazing floor mosaic depicting the races). The races were made up of 7 laps, and the chariots would race around fountains that were decorated with water motifs like dolphins. Winners would win a crown of laurel (similar to Julius Caesar's) and some cash.
  • Amphitheater: Built circa 20AD, this was where the representatives of the different regions met on a yearly basis to discuss matters of the empire. This was also a site where people went for a little bloody entertainment like gladiator battles. This is also the site where the first Christian martyrs, Blandina & Pothinus were killed (really good reading on the subject here).

Props to World History Timeline for the map of the Roman Empire

The Lyon Gallo-Roman Museum is located at 17 rue Cléberg 69005 Lyon 04 72 38 49 30 


Tue-Sun from 10am-6pm.

Closed: Mondays, 1 January, 1 May, 1 November and 25 December.


Daily (7/7)
Summer: April 15 to September 15 from 7am to 7pm
Winter: September 16- April 14 from 7am to 5pm


Funicular: Take the funicular at Vieux Lyon (take Place Bellecour, go over Pont Bonaparte, go straight on Avenue Adolphe Max, make a left on Avenue Du Doyenne. It runs about every 10 minutes. The first stop is Les Minimes - Theatre Romans. This is your stop. The ruins will be directly across the street.

Travel Tip: Get there soon before Lyon, France Tourism starts booming. The city is about to get discovered and when it does, the landscape of your travels will be completely different than it is today.

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Blanca Valbuena

I am the co-founder of FriendsEat and Socialdraft. I've got an unhealthy obsession with Burgundian Chardonnay, ASOIAF, and travel.

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