Famous for its Renaissance walls, a Roman theatre-shaped piazza and its famous opera singing son Puccini, Lucca has enough sites to keep you entertained for at least a couple days. Stay longer and sink into Lucca’s relaxed vibe and some of the best food in Tuscany. Its compact size and location also makes it a perfect base for visiting the nearby countryside, the seaside resort town of Viareggio and the medieval towns of Barga and Montacatini Alto. While Lucca’s most popular sites can be seen in a (very) busy day trip, this compact city deserves at least a night to experience its charm once the day trippers have gone. Plan to stay three or four days to take in this town senza fretta (slowly and without stress).
Start with a stroll or cycle along Lucca’s Renaissance Walls
To get your bearings in this wall-ringed city, start with a stroll or cycle around the 4km long pedestrian-only promenade atop Lucca’s Renaissance walls. Set out before 8am and you’ll likely be sharing the pathway with a handful of dog-walking locals and very few tourists.
In addition to the 4km of pathways, there are 11 ramparts of various shapes and sizes. Most of these have been converted into parks and playgrounds and are popular with picnickers or those wanting some time out of the sun. Even during the hottest time of the day, you’ll find plenty of shade thanks to the trees planted over 150 years ago when the top of the walls were converted to the promenade enjoyed today.
While many people rent a bike to explore the walls, cycling is also a very popular way to explore the historic city centre. If you decide to cycle, you’ll be able to choose from single bikes, tandem bikes and even buggies from one of the many rental shops. If cycling isn’t appealing, join in with the numerous walkers and joggers and instantly feel like a local!
If you’re in need of a caffeine fix during your walk, try Ristoro Delle Mura La Casermetta in the northeast side of Lucca, convenienty located on the promenade. There’s seating behind the bar with a scattering a tables under the trees. Depending on the time of day, you may see tables of students from the nearby Lucca Italian School.
Visit the Duomo di San Martino (St Martino’s Cathedral)
In the city of a hundred churches, there are many worth exploring while in Lucca. If you only have time for one, make sure you visit the Duomo di San Martino. The Duomo is by far the largest, has the most impressive collection of art and has a campanile (tower) you can climb for beautiful views of Lucca and the surrounding countryside.
One of the most significant pieces of art is the Volto Santo of Lucca, a 13th century wooden crucifix, which is the subject of a centuries old legend that is celebrated during the Luminara, an annual candlelit procession held annually on 13 September.
There are a few ticket options when visiting the cathedral and the neighbouring buildings. A ticket to the cathedral costs 3 euros with a separate ticket to climb the tower an additional 3 euros. Alternatively at your first point of entry, you can purchase a combination ticket for 9 euros which includes the cathedral, its museum, the tower and entry to San Giovanni (a nearby church which hosts Puccini concerts in the evening). San Giovanni has a tower with excellent views of the Duomo (the photo below was taken from San Giovanni’s tower). At the back of the 12th century San Giovanni church you’ll find an excavated area of the remains of a Roman church over which the current church was built.
Relax in one of Lucca’s many piazzas
Lucca has several piazzas ranging from the large, sprawling Piazza Napoleone, which holds an antiques market and other stalls throughout the week, to the small, intimate Piazza del Salvatore, which has a (very useful) spring fed water fountain in its centre.
While there are many options for a scenic aperitivo (aperitif) or cappuccino stop, one of my favourites is the centrally located Piazza San Michele. There are several bars with views of the piazza, which doubles as a popular meeting spot in the early evening, the church and its surrounding buildings.
For a sweet treat, there are two bakeries I recommend near the piazza. Try Pasticceria Taddeucci for local specialities such as the torta di verdura (vegetable pie – it tastes better than it sounds!), buccellato (a semi-sweet bread with raisins) and other sweet treats. For breads and foccacia, try Forno a vapore Amedeo Giusti, a few shops past Piazza San Michele on Via Santa Lucia.
Window shop and people watch on Via Filungo
For people watching, shopping and the evening passeggiata, a trip to Lucca isn’t complete without a stroll along Via Filungo, Lucca’s main pedestrian only shopping street. Starting at the intersection of Via Roma and Via Santa Croce, make your way along Via Filungo to Piazza Anfiteatro. The piazza, known for its elliptical shape, had its surrounding buildings constructed in the shape of the former 2nd century Roman theatre. While the value for money of the restaurants in this “square” is lesser than many of the other restaurants in Lucca, the piazza is surrounded by beautiful buildings, is accessible only by four archways and is definitely worth even a short visit. For a budget conscious option, consider taking in the view from one of the couple bench seats while eating a gelato from a nearby gelateria. Alternatively, you can’t go wrong with a pre-dinner drink at one of the many restaurants lining the piazza. If you’re planning to visit in the end of April, make sure to visit Piazza Anfiteatro on 27 April, when thousands of flowers are packed into the square for the Festival of Flowers for St. Zita.
Climb one of the two towers
Work off the pastries or gelato you’ve undoubtedly enjoyed with a hike to the top of one of Lucca’s towers. In medieval times, rich and powerful families built towers for protection and to show off their wealth. The higher the tower, the more rich you were (also known as the medieval version of keeping up with the Joneses). Of the towers still standing today, the Guinigi Tower, built in the 1300s, has a very unique feature – a rooftop garden of oak trees. The other climbable and less busy option is the Torre delle Ore, with a huge bell and 360 degree views (including of the Guinigi Tower). If you want to visit both towers, you can purchase a combination ticket at a slight discount.
Wander Lucca’s tranquil and colourful back streets
Much of Lucca’s beauty is a combination of all of the above, along with its tranquil and picturesque (and very much uncrowded) backstreets and laneways. Get out for an early morning or late evening walk and you’re likely to have them pretty much to yourself.
Restaurants and eating options
This wouldn’t be a post about Italy if I didn’t have a section devoted to food! As with the rest of the country, Lucchese restaurants will change their menus throughout the year depending on the produce in season. For example, in September porcini mushrooms, truffle, pumpkin and artichokes will feature heavily on menus.
Of the many pasta dishes on offer, the local speciality is Tortelli Lucchese, made with egg pasta stuffed with meat and served with a rich tomato ragu.
For mid-range restaurant ideas (pastas in the range of 8 – 11 euros), check out the following:
- Osteria Dal Manzo – located near Palazzo Pfanner with seating in an atmospheric alfresco area. The service is attentive, the food some of the best I’ve had in Italy and the twinkling lights in the outdoor courtyard provide a charming backdrop. While the name means “restaurant of meat” there are plenty of seafood options. Located away from the touristy areas, this was a hidden gem of a two week trip. My suggestion is to go with the menu of the day (note – not a tourist menu).
- Gigi trattoria – located on Piazza del Carmine, the trattoria has a cute alfresco area and lovely, Italian family style food. Gigi’s was recommended to me by a local and other diners were almost exclusively Italian speaking. It’s popular so book earlier in the day for an evening meal.
- Trattoria Da Leo – A busy restaurant with good food and alfresco area just off of Piazza del Salvatore. Very popular with English-speaking tourists, especially on the night I visited. While the service can be a bit hit or miss since it is very popular, the food is very much ‘Italian home cooking’ and serves generous portions.
- Enoteca Vanni -As a great pre-dinner drink option, also on Piazza del Salvatore, Enoteca Vanni has a few tables set on the square. With a huge underground cellar, it has to have the most expansive collection of wines in Lucca.
As a bonus cheap eats option, you can’t go past Pizzeria da Felice, a couple minutes from Piazza Michele on the way to Via Fulingo, on Via Buia. It is hands down the best pizza by the slice in Lucca. You can’t miss it as there will be a constant queue of people waiting for their pizza! Don’t worry, the line moves quickly.
I visited Lucca in September 2016 during two weeks studying Italian at the Lucca Italian School. During this time, I stayed with a local resident in a homestay, which really made Lucca quickly feel like home.
Have I missed any highlights? Do you want to visit Lucca? Leave me a comment or question below.