I’d always heard good things about Lucca, a small town in northern Tuscany, but only after a decade of living in Italy did I finally manage to visit. I was not disappointed – in fact, a few months later when my mom came to visit, I insisted on taking her there too (and it turned out to be one of her two favorite towns in Italy, along with Orvieto).
Lucca is not a major tourist destination – the crowds are bigger in, say, Siena or Pisa – because it doesn’t have any famous sights to see. But that was exactly what I was looking for: something slightly off the beaten path, with some interesting things to see and do, but mostly just a charming town to walk around in and relax.
In fact, it’s the perfect day trip from Florence (it takes between 1 hr 15 mins – 2 hours on the train, €7.20-11) as you can pretty much see it all in one day, at an easy pace.
Here’s how I would spend a day in Lucca:
Exit the train station into the piazza in front (Piazzale Bettino Ricasoli), and stop by the Lucca Tourist Center to pick up a map for €1. Cross the piazza and at the main street, Viale Regina Margherita, turn left. Walk up the street – on your right, you’ll see the old wall surrounding the historic center of Lucca. A little ways up the street, at the traffic light, you’ll see an entrance in the old wall. Cross the street and walk through the arches and you’ll be in the historic center. It takes 10 minutes or so to walk into town.
Head straight to the Guinigi Tower, which opens at 9:30 am (entrance at via Sant’Andrea, 45, cost is €4). This is the most important tower in Lucca, and you can pick it out from anywhere in town as it has a few oak trees growing out of the top of it – a pretty unique sight. It was built by the Guinigi family, who were rich and powerful merchants in the 14th century. There are 230 steps to get to the top. It’s worth it for the gorgeous view of the whole town and the surrounding hillside.
Your next stop should be one of the many bike rental shops in town – try Tuscany Ride a Bike on via Elisa, 28. Head over to one of the entrances to the ancient Roman wall that encircles Lucca, and take a ride around on top of the wall. Yes, that’s right – on TOP of the ancient Roman wall. Lucca no longer needs protecting, so the top of the intact wall has become a park – it has grass and trees growing on top of it, and a biking/walking loop that goes all the way around (4 km). You’ll see locals jogging, biking, walking their dogs, pushing strollers, or reading on a park bench. Cycling around the top of the wall high above the town gives you a great view and a feeling of freedom.
After an athletic morning, park your bike and have a hearty Tuscan lunch. I liked Osteria Baralla (via Anfiteatro, 5 ) which had a charming atmosphere and great food. In the cooler months, try one of the filling Tuscan soups like ribollita or the farro (spelt) and vegetable soup.
After lunch, spend the rest of the afternoon biking around town. By the way, even if you’re rusty on a bike, this is the place to practice: the historic center has little to no car traffic, it’s flat, and the whole thing is non-stressful. Plus it seems EVERYONE in Lucca is always riding a bike – grannies, little kids, and everyone in between. I saw a local woman smoking, talking on a cell phone, and window shopping all at the same time as she biked slowly through town.
During your ride, stop off and visit the Romanesque Duomo di San Martino (Piazza Antelminelli); inside you can see the tomb of Ilaria del Carretto, commissioned by her husband, Paolo Guinigi, and made by Jacopo della Quercia (the church is free, but a visit to the tomb is €2). Also stop by the town’s other two main churches, Basilica di San Frediano with its gold mosaic façade (Piazza San Frediano) and the Romanesque San Michele in Foro (Piazza San Michele).
If you’re an opera aficionado, the Puccini Museum, his birth home, is worth a visit (Corte San Lorenzo, 9, for €7). And if you’re visiting Lucca in July or August, DON’T miss the Puccini Opera Festival in the nearby town Torre del Lago (http://www.puccinifestival.it/).
End your sight-seeing at the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro. This stunning oval piazza is built on the site of an ancient Roman amphitheatre. In the same curved shape of the ancient amphitheatre walls, there are now shops, restaurants, and apartments. The buildings are new, but inside some of the shops you can see pieces of the ancient structure. Have a late-afternoon coffee at one of the tables in the piazza as you take in the atmosphere.
After returning your bike, stop by Pizzeria da Felice (via Buia, 12) for a snack to tide you over for your train ride back to Florence (open until 8:30pm most nights). This humble hole-in-the-wall is a tiny place with only a few tables, but don’t be fooled: it has the most amazing cecina I’ve ever had! Cecina (also called farinata in some parts of Italy) is typical of Liguria and northern Tuscany: a simple savoury, flat, pizza-shaped “torta” made with chickpea flour, water, salt and extra-virgin olive oil. Eat it straight away, hot from the oven, topped with salt and pepper, and pair it with a cold glass of the house wine. It will be one of the simplest, but best, snacks you’ll have in Italy.