It's a tradition in some European cities to celebrate summer with a sound and light show featuring colorful graphics projected onto the facades of historical buildings, accompanied by symphonic music played at high volume in the streets.

Lyon, the second-largest city in France, puts its own spin on this practice by saving its light-show-on-steroids extravaganza for early December.

Not only does the four-night Festival of Lights entice visitors during the off-season, but it also gives them a full-throttle light experience that rivals any in the world.

The show, which attracts 4 million visitors every year, comprises some 75 projects on display throughout the city, with some of the most spectacular shows taking place at Place des Terreaux and Place Bellecour.

But while big-name events can sometimes create unpleasantly crowded conditions, my experience at the 2014 festival proved that even people like me who get claustrophobic in large crowds can relax and enjoy the fun, thanks to some first-rate crowd control.

The “Reves de Nuit” show at last year’s Festival of Lights in Lyon, France.
The “Reves de Nuit” show at last year’s Festival of Lights in Lyon, France.

Visitors can move from site to site with more elbow room than you'd expect because shows are spread out throughout the city and are repeated on a loop, with enormous lighted arrows displaying the way to the next show at the end of each cycle.

Some of my favorite exhibits included a building-size child's night light; a forest of what looked like multicolored light sabers; images of ballet dancers swirling from building to building; and, especially, a half-hour show called "Reves de Nuit," which combined a gigantic, moving graphic story about Antoine de Saint-Exupery of "The Little Prince" fame with acrobats swinging high above the crowds.

The festival is expensive to produce (the 2014 event cost about $2.9 million, 60% of which was funded by sponsors), but the city is committed to continuing the tradition, and this year's festival is slated for Dec. 5 to 8.

The good news for winter visitors to Lyon whose itinerary doesn't coincide with the festival is that the city offers a robust menu of other year-round attractions.

A street display during Lyon’s Festival of Lights in 2014. This year’s festival begins Dec.  5.
A street display during Lyon’s Festival of Lights in 2014. This year’s festival begins Dec. 5. Photo Credit: Felicity Long

The city is bursting with Michelin-star restaurants, the most famous of which is Paul Bocuse, a three-star eatery founded by one of the most famous chefs in the world, who is credited with putting the city on the gourmet map.

Of course, less rarified fare is also readily available, particularly at the traditional bouchons, where the menus lean toward hearty dishes such as sausages and pork. Or spend a morning snacking at Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse, where discriminating shoppers can try everything from pate and oysters to freshly baked breads and, of course, a dizzying array of cheeses.

Antiques hunters can while away an afternoon at the Lyon flea market, where kitsch and genuine antiques sit side by side at the 400 stalls that pack this indoor-outdoor venue.

A highlight for culture buffs is the Musee des Confluences, which opened to much fanfare last December. Situated, as its name suggests, at the confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers, the facility is eye-popping with its stainless-steel-and-glass exterior and its amorphous shape.

The interior boasts natural science and anthropological exhibitions, such as a millennium-old mummy and 3-D videos depicting what the Big Bang might have looked like.

An artisan cheese shop in Chamonix.
An artisan cheese shop in Chamonix. Photo Credit: Felicity Long

Lyon is also a great walking city, from its ancient Roman districts and Unesco sites to its futuristic quartiers, some of the most popular of which include the many silk-weaving workshops that once gave the city its livelihood and which now are being repurposed for other uses. Other popular attractions are the 19th century La Basilique Notre Dame de Fourviere, accessible via funicular, and the colorful houses in Old Town that are reminiscent of Italy.

Of course, Lyon in winter also has the advantage of being less than two hours by car from several ski resorts.

Our itinerary also took us to Chamonix, where you'll swap the convenience of ski-in/ski-out hotels for the historical charm of one of the Alps' most famous ski areas.

In fact, the village hosted the first Winter Olympics in 1924, and since then the tiny streets have evolved into a haven for visitors looking for Michelin-star dining, high-end shopping and high-adrenaline winter sports.

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