Lucca (pronounced “Luka”, not “Lucha”) was the one place in Tuscany that my uncle and auntie (my mum’s brother and his wife) insisted I must take mum during our 7-day trip around this beautiful region in central Italy.
Encircled by an imposing ring of tree-lined Renaissance walls that you can walk or cycle along, Lucca is situated in a fertile plain near the Tyrrhenian Sea, part the way between Pisa and Florence.
If you’re staying in Florence, the easiest way to get to Lucca is by train, from the city’s Santa Maria Novella station (which is walkable from almost anywhere in central Florence). Direct trains run every hour, even on a Sunday, and the price of a return journey is €15. We caught the 10:10 train, which dropped us into Lucca at 11:29.
Lucca’s train station is literally the other side of the 16th century ramparts to its historic centre. So, once you exit the station, just walk across Piazzale Bettino Ricasoli, and follow the path across the old moat. Alternatively, follow everyone else who gets off the train; most people are heading in the same direction! Don’t forget to stop off at the tourist information centre to pick up a map.
Lucca’s tall buildings and largely traffic-free (save for the odd push bike) narrow, cobbled streets mean that its the perfect place for an aimless wander. Its labyrinthine alleyways are punctuated with beautiful churches and hidden piazzas containing cute little cafes and boutique shops.
I actually found one selling the quirky but practical and super comfy vibram running shoes that I’ve only ever seen for sale online before!
Unlike Florence, where there are certain must-see sights that feature on every traveller’s itinerary, the whole of Lucca’s old city is like a living museum and is guaranteed to totally charm your socks off. It’s also pretty compact so is easily walkable in a day.
Here are a few of my favourite sights and activities in Lucca.
#1 Climbing Torre Guinigi
At 44.5 metres tall, it’s smaller than all of the other towers I climbed in Tuscany, but what makes this tower unique is the garden of Holm Oaks that sits on top of it.
A Holm Oak is an ancient tree that symbolises rebirth and renewal.
Photo by Emanuele via Flickr
Whilst you’ll get a good view of the old city from up here, if you want your photograph to include this unusual-looking tower, head up to the Torre delle Ore, about 300 metres west of Torre Guinigi.
Entrance fee: €4
#2 Piazza Anfiteatro
Built on the ruins of an ancient amphitheatre that dates back to the second century, Piazza dell’Anfiteatro is an elliptical-shaped piazza that’s surrounded by private residences, shops and restaurants, and is accessed via a series of arched passageways.
Only the lowest of the four archways belongs to the original structure of the amphitheatre; the others were added in the 19th century when architect Lorenzo Nottolini was commissioned to rebuild the piazza. It blossomed as a busy market square throughout the 20th century, and is still known by locals today as the Piazza del Mercato (Market Square).
Although its painted yellow buildings would’ve looked noticeably brighter bathed in sunlight and backed by blue skies, Piazza Amfiteatro was still one of our favourite squares in Lucca.
#3 Piazza San Michele
Once the site of a Roman forum during ancient times, Piazza San Michele is now one of Lucca’s most buzzing squares, surrounded by bars and cafes.
At the centre of the Piazza San Michele is the impressive San Michele in Foro, a Romanesque church that dates back to the 12th century. Construction took place over the period of 200 years, but was halted when the money set aside for the project ran out, resulting in an unfinished structure whose front facade is noticeably larger than the main body of the church. But who’s to say that an unfinished building is any less appealing? I mean look at Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona!
What’s more, its marble facade is apparently one of the most unusual in Italy, with a menagerie of mythical creatures decorating the tops of each of the upper four tiers.
Whilst you’re in Piazza San Michele, don’t forget to stop by Taddeucci for a coffee and a slice of buccellato (Lucca’s famous sweet bread loaf made with sultanas and aniseed seeds).
#4 Spotting Blub’s creations
If you’ve read my article, A Few Things to See and Do in Florence for Free, you’ll know that one of them involved work by the street artist commonly known as “Blub”. Blub paints icons of the past wearing diving masks with the aim of presenting “a mix between the past and the contemporary world.”
Although Blub (real name unknown) is Florentine and lives in Tuscany’s capital city, he travels often. And one of the cities he appears to have travelled to is Lucca: we spotted quite a few of his pieces here, the instantly recognisable blue background standing out against the faded yellow paintwork of so many of Lucca’s building facades.
#5 A walk or cycle along the city walls
Lucca’s monumental mura (wall) was built around the old city in the 16th and 17th centuries, and is one of the best preserved city walls in all of Tuscany.
You can walk or cycle around the entire 4.2 kilometre circumference, along the beautiful tree-lined ramparts that overlook the centro historico in one direction, and the Apuane Alps in the other.
#6 Cattedrale di San Martino
If you’re coming from the train station, this is probably one of the first buildings you’ll see as you enter the old city. Located in Piazza San Martino, Lucca’s St Martin Cathedral dates back to the 11th century. Similar in design to the San Michele in Foro (but with less tiers on its facade), the Cathedral di San Martino houses the famous Volto Santo – a life-sized Christ on a wooden crucifix that was apparently carved by Nicodemus, a man who witnessed the crucifixion.
The sculpture is carried through Lucca’s streets every year on the 13th of September, during the city’s Luminaria di Santa Croce procession.
Photo by Allan Parsons via Flickr
Due to every inch of the ground that you see here being covered in sprawling market stalls selling antiques and bric-a-brac (everything from furniture to paintings, ceramics and clothing) on the day that we visited (Sunday), I’ve borrowed the photo above from another Flickr user via the site’s Creative Commons licence.
#7 Basilica di San Frediano
As you’ve probably gathered by now, Lucca has a lot of amazing churches! This one is named after Frediano, who was an Irish bishop of Lucca in the first half of the 6th century. Most of the structure you see today dates from the 12th century, and the amazing golden mosaic depicting The Ascension of Christ was added in the 13th and 14th centuries.
#8 A stroll along Via Fillungo
Via Fillungo is Lucca’s elegant stone-paved, traffic-free shopping street. It stretches all the way from the intersection of Via Roma and Via Cenami (not far from Piazza San Michele) to Borgo Gate (one of the ancient gates in Lucca’s pristine city walls), to the north of the centro historico.
- We did look at staying in Lucca; there are some charming accommodation options to be found if you want to factor an overnight stay into your itinerary.
- You can look up an up-to-date train timetable (together with prices) at www.trenitalia.com
A word of advice
The train back from Lucca to Florence leaves from platform 4, which is – as logic suggests – right next to platform 3. Don’t make the same mistake we did and board the train on this platform. The two leave within minutes of each other, yet the one that leaves from platform 3 heads in the opposite direction and is bound for Viareggio.
Fortunately Viareggio is only 20 minutes from Lucca, and the train terminates there and then heads back to Florence. So we stayed on the train and sat there for the entire 2o minute journey hoping and praying that we weren’t unlucky enough to be approached by a ticket inspector before we got back to Lucca.
In my experience the Italians are not very forgiving when tourists make genuine mistakes with their rail tickets: the first time I travelled on an Italian train nine years ago I was fined €50 because I didn’t realise I had to validate my ticket before I got on the train.
Helpful tip: Always validate your ticket; look out for the little yellow machines on the station platforms.
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