World Cup warm-up: a family city break in football-mad Lyon

Lyon (in white) playing Paris Saint-Germain in the Groupama stadium. Photograph: Daniela Porcelli/Getty Images

With a month until the Women’s World Cup kicks off in France, a mum and daughter visit Lyon – host for semi-finals and the final – to watch Europe’s best team

As my seven-year-old daughter, Ella, jumped up and down along with 26,000 Lyon fans, I couldn’t help grinning. Back in the UK, women’s domestic league games rarely take place in large stadiums. Big matches – such as last weekend’s FA Cup Final – attract large crowds, but the playground taunt “football isn’t for girls” is hard to argue with when it’s rare to find a women’s game shown live on terrestrial TV, or a match at a Premier League ground.

But at Lyon’s 60,000-seater Groupama stadium – which will host both semi-finals and the final of next month’s Women’s World Cup (7 June-7-July) – and where Lyon play their big games, women’s football is on another level. We watched the best women’s club team in the world bang in five goals against rivals Paris Saint-Germain to win the title decider, before captain Wendie Renard leapt over the barriers, grabbed the microphone and serenaded the fans. We stood on our seats and cheered our hearts out, singing, “Qui ne saute pas, n’est pas Lyonnais…” (Whoever isn’t jumping, isn’t from Lyon). Drums banged, flags waved and faces were streaked in red, white and blue, the club colours. We had only been in the city 24 hours, but already we’d fallen head over heels for the place.

Ella, the writer’s daughter, at the Lyon match. Photograph: Anna Kessel

Football-mad Lyon is a natural choice for the finale of what is expected to be the most high-profile tournament in the history of the women’s game. More than 750 million people watched the 2015 World Cup in Canada, where England’s Lionesses won a historic bronze medal; even greater interest is anticipated this year.

In France more than five million watched the announcement of the French squad live on TV last week, the news made the front page of sports daily L’Equipe, and the entire tournament will be broadcast on Canal+. A whopping 180,000 fans with tickets will descend on Lyon next month. Many more may come for the atmosphere, the Fifa fan zone (Place Bellecour 26 June–7 July), and two exhibitions celebrating the women’s game (rue Bouchut, and Lyon’s Hôtel de Ville).

After travelling by train from London, we took a tram from Lyon’s Gare Part-Dieu to our hotel in La Confluence, a newly regenerated area where the Saône and Rhône rivers meet. We loved Mob Hotel (doubles from €68 room-only), a stone’s throw from the space-age Musée des Confluences, with a balcony overlooking the Saône. Although aimed at a hipster crowd (beard oil and organic crisps on sale in the lobby), Mob was full of activities for kids, including table football in the restaurant, shadow puppets and iPads, with Netflix free of charge.

Mob Hotel. Photograph: Aldo Parede

The informal feel of the hotel matched the city. Nearby was the Orange Cube, a cultural centre likened to Swiss cheese, and on almost every street corner stood rental Vélo’v bikes and motorised scooters. Parc de la Tête d’Or, in the north of the city, is France’s biggest urban park – with a lake for pedalos, zoo, botanical gardens and, to Ella’s delight, lots of candyfloss. From the park it is possible to walk, or scoot, along the Rhône back to the centre of Lyon.

Keen to continue the sporting theme, we braved the spring temperatures with a dip in Lyon’s famous riverside outdoor pool, Centre Nautique Tony Bertrand (8 Quai Claude Bernard, €3.40, under-6s free). A second pool opens in June each year, offering water slides and whirlpools. Both are open every day throughout the summer. Afterwards we warmed up with big bowls of noodles and gyoza dumplings at Kuro Goma (15 rue de Bonald).

Lyon’s famous outdoor pool on the banks of the Rhône. Photograph: Getty Images

Lyon is known for its food, so on our first evening we sampled traditional cuisine at a Les Lyonnais bouchon (19 rue de la Bombarde). The atmosphere was brilliant – dark wood chairs, shared tables, a woman casually feeding her poodle pork scratchings from the table. But it was pretty heavy fare: gratin dauphinois and meaty plates, and even the frisée salad came with lardons bigger than my finger. We waddled off to the big match that night.

We preferred the food at the Sunday morning market on Quai Saint-Antoine, where the smell of chicken roasting, fresh bread, cheese and patisserie filled the air. A basket of local strawberries were so fragrant you could taste them even before they were in your mouth. From there, we took a boat back down river to explore the Musée des Confluences – an architectural spectacle in the vein of Bilbao’s Guggenheim. Arranged thematically, its exhibits answer a series of questions – Who are we? How did we get here? – in an innovative way. Many objects are on display without a case so kids can touch anything from dinosaur skeletons to bits of meteor and moon rock.

The Musée des Confluences. Photograph: Alamy

On the train home Ella cradled her player cards from the Lyon team: Ballon D’Or winner Ada Hegerberg, England Lioness Lucy Bronze, and host nation favourites Eugénie Le Sommer and Amandine Henry.

“Mum, can we come back for the World Cup?” she asked.

“Yes,” I smiled, “I think we can.”

England and Scotland at the World Cup

The two home nations will play each other in Nice on 9 June – for the first time in any football World Cup tournament. England’s other group stage matches are against Argentina in Le Havre (14 June) and Japan in Nice (19 June); Scotland play Japan in Rennes (14 June) and Argentina in Paris (19 June).

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