Take my recommendations for what to do in Lucca Tuscany and you’ll have a wonderful visit! This walled Tuscan town has excellent food, magnificent views, beautiful art, and medieval walls you can cycle on. It’s a satisfying combination as a tourist: eat a lovely Italian meal, then cycle it off. Or, climb the tower, eat the meal and then have a nap.
In addition, Lucca is just a nice place to hang out: it’s less touristy than other Tuscan towns, is not built on a hill, and has many pedestrian-only streets within the old walls. There are Roman remains, beautiful historical churches, and the summer festivals host great music.
Locals are proud of their Luccan (not Tuscan) food. Once upon a time, Luccan families acquired their wealth from the banking and silk industries. More money actually meant that they used extra eggs in the local pasta recipe, so the traditional tortelli Lucchesi is a more yellow pasta. It’s also stuffed with meat and topped with a meaty ragú: most definitely a rich dish (biking or stair-climbing, anyone?).
If you pass a bakery, try the local buccellato: mid-day with whipped cream and coffee, or after dinner with wine and strawberries or ricotta and rum.
Try the zuppa di farro, a sort of barley-with-bean soup. And when you bite into the Luccan bread, you’ll notice something missing: salt. (I have adopted the Italian habit of making a puddle of olive oil on a plate, salting the oil, and dipping my bread in it, but I hear unsalted bread is healthier than salted).
The New York Times had a great review of restaurants in Lucca.
Climb the 230 steps up to the Torre Guinigi (photo above) and have a look around. You’ll find the tower easily because it has a tree growing out the top.
The somewhat modernized 15th- and 16th-century walls completely surround the old town, and have a 4 km (2.5mi) circumference that will take the average cyclist about 30 minutes. See photo of the walls, below. Even at 12m (40ft) high, the tops of the walls are very safe: they are paved, and wide enough that they were even used for racing sports cars – and are a great place to have a picnic.
To rent bikes, head to the tourist office in Piazza Santa Maria and rent from one of the two bike shops, Cicli Bizzarri or Antonio Poli’s. They do have helmets available but you won’t see local cyclists wearing them. Head up the ramp from the piazza to get up on to the walls. Many hotels in town also provide bicycles for guests.
The façade of Lucca’s Duomo or cathedral is a fantastic example of Luccan Romanesque architecture. Before going in, appreciate the bas-relief sculpture by Nicola Pisano.
Inside the church, admire paintings by Ghirlandaio, Tintoretto, Zuccari and Fra’ Bartolomeo, as well as Iacopo della Quercia’s most famous work, the tomb of Ilaria del Carretto. A wooden crucifix Volto Santo, supposedly of Christ’s face carved by Nostradamus, has been a pilgrimage destination for centuries, and has been recorded in Dante’s The Divine Comedy and Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris.
The Church of San Michele il Foro is also worth a visit: the façade is made of richly carved white limestone, and the inside includes paintings by Andrea della Robbia and Filippino Lippi. Look up at the church from the side and you’ll see that the façade is really only that: a front with no back – and an open staircase up to the top.
Round out the church-hop with the Basilica di San Frediano, from the 12th century, which contains an array of impressive paintings and sculptures spanning centuries.
The composer Puccini was born in Lucca; visit his birthplace, and consider attending the Puccini festival which is held every year in July and August. (Note that the concerts are early enough to catch the train back to Florence if you came on a day trip). Lucca also hosts a summer music festival with more contemporary artists.
A Very Brief History
Founded by the Etruscans, Lucca became a Roman colony in 180 BC. Evidence of its Roman amphitheatre built over 2000 years ago can be seen in Piazza Anfiteatro, which perfectly preserves the amphitheater’s elliptical shape. Napoleon put his sister in charge of the town in 1805. The area around Lucca is also fertile in olives, grapes, marble, and (yes) spas.
The train from Florence is 70-90 mins, and the train station is just outside Lucca’s walls and an easy walk.
Photos of Lucca from top to bottom: silk scarves at the market, view of the Duomo, the Guinigi tower, Lucca’s walls, all by Sanjay
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