Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
Lucca is this kind of city. The more time you spend here, the longer you want to stay. Yes, the picturesque walled Tuscan city at the foot of the Apennine Mountains and along the Serchio River is touristy. Still it remains an authentic city with a very nice atmosphere, different from a slightly arrogant museum-Florence (don’t get me wrong, Florence can be wonderful, but it has also been the victim of its success and mass tourism seems to have taken the best of it) or quick-cruise-stop Pisa. How long to plan for Lucca? Two days is the absolute minimum, spending at least a night within the city walls. Here are many ideas sorted out by themes to spend a good 4 to 5 days in the city, including climbing its towers, visiting excellent museums, tasting and cooking delicious Tuscan specialties, listening to some Puccini, and experiencing unexpected outdoor activities.
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A little bit of history to understand Lucca better
Founded by the Etruscans, inhabited by the Ligurians, Lucca became an important Roman city in the second century before Christ at the crossroads of some of the empire’s main way of communication, both by land and by water thanks to the Serchio River. Today’s Via Paolino and Via Fillungo lined with inviting shops still form the cross that was in the center of the squared Roman city. The arena where gladiators used to compete in front of 10,000 spectators is now the touristic Piazza Anfiteatro with its many restaurants. It denotes with its circular shape that has remained: after the Barbarian invasions, its stones were reused to build houses against its outside structure.
After the Roman Empire collapsed, the city was seriously christianized, to the point it is still nicknamed “the town of the 100 churches”.
Lucca was the capital of Tuscany for about 200 years (846-1057), and it really boomed at the end of the 11th century when some Lucchese came back from the first crusade. The trade of silk, precious stones and currencies developed greatly. Very skilled silk weavers were able to rival with Byzantine silks intertwining the precious thread coming from the Far East with gold and silver worked by some of the best goldsmiths of the time, and exporting Lucchese fabrics all over Europe.
If the Middle Ages were prosperous for Lucca and saw a new defensive wall being built, churches like the beautiful San Michele in Foro and the impressive San Martino cathedral and the tower houses of powerful families appear as well as the current architecture, they were also tainted by regular conflicts with surrounding powerful city-states such as Pisa and Florence. Between the 12th and 14th centuries, the Ghibellines, or the factions of the pope (Lucca – most of the time) and the Guelphs, factions of the Holy Roman emperor (Pisa and Florence) opposed each other. Contrary to the other Tuscan towns, Lucca was never tamed by Florence and the usually ever-present Medici coat of arm is nowhere to be seen in the walled city. Regular conflicts amongst the ruling families led to political instabilities and the decline of the city and exodus of some of its wealthiest merchants. Still, Lucca – like Venice – is one of the rare republics of Italy that had remained an independent state during the vast majority of its history until the 19th century when it got united with the Italian kingdom. Even today, inhabitants here are proud Lucchese first, Tuscans second.
Take some altitude to grasp Lucca from the top of a tower
Lucca is famous not only for its intact city wall, but also for its many towers. Most were built to show off power and wealth, while others had defensive or religious purposes. Only the church tower could be higher than the tower of the city: family towers had to be lower. The best way to grasp the city and its surroundings is by taking the steep climb up some of the most iconic towers of Lucca:
- Between 1400 and 1430, Paolo Guinigi was the lord of Lucca. He was one of the richest men on the planet back then thanks to the silk trade and his ability to lend money: his tower amongst the 250 medieval towers of Lucca had to be special! At the end of the 14th century, the Guinigi family built its 44-meter high rectangular brick and stone tower, and planted seven Holm oak trees on top of it, one for each family member. To this day, the Guinigi Tower is unmistakable and still sticks out. Conquer its 230 steps and take in the wonderful 360-degree view on Lucca in the welcoming shade of the trees.
- Torre delle Ore [the Clock Tower] was built in stones in the 12th century by the Quartigiani family in a robust and military-style architecture. Rivalries amongst leading families often lead to the destruction of their towers, or in this case their confiscation. This family tower became a city tower, used to alert the town in case of a danger signalled by some of the defensive towers located on the surrounding hills. A public clock was also installed in the 14th century as the tower had a very central location in town. Its staircase is small and dark and it takes 207 steps to climb atop its 50 meters and enjoy a stunning view on Lucca and on the Guinigi Tower.
Discover the excellent museums of Lucca
Puccini Casa Natale [Puccini birth home]
When visiting Lucca, one cannot fail to notice that Puccini hovers, from restaurant names to daily concerts. He is the city’s most celebrated genius. Visit Puccini’s birth house to also study documents, sheet music, and objects retracing the life and career of the maestro.
For a full article to follow the footsteps of the famous Lucca-born composer Giacomo Puccini (Madam Butterfly, Tosca, La Bohème…), check this article out.
Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Mansi [Mansi Palace]
The first-floor apartments of the apparently austere building are richly decorated in 17th and 18th centuries baroque style with frescoes, stucco decorations, furniture and tapestries, making it a museum within a museum. The rich Mansi silk merchants bought the typical Lucchese 16th century palace in 1616 and started important renovations. Their mansion has been converted into a national gallery exhibiting some of the precious fabrics that made the Lucchese silk so sought after and the Mansi and their city so wealthy, as well as paintings by the Italian and Flemish schools of painting. Actually, the Duke of Lucca Carlo Luigi di Borbone payed his gambling debts selling the art pieces of the Palazzo Ducale in 1836! When Lucca was annexed to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in 1847, the city asked for artwork as models for its artists and to refund the citizens of their great art loss. As a consequence, the paintings exhibited in the Mansi Palace were part of the Medici collection and cover a period from the 16th until the mid-18th century.
Museo Nazionale di Villa Guinigi [Villa Guinigi National Museum]
This late-Gothic building (1418) built as a countryside palace for Lucca’s ruler Paolo Guinigi houses Lucca’s largest art collection by local and guest artists. High quality and mostly religious art pieces from the ancient, medieval, Renaissance, baroque and neoclassic periods are very well highlighted covering a time period of 2,600 years from the 8th century BC until the 18th century. Original altarpieces from the San Giovanni e Reparata church, colums of the San Michele in Foro church and wooden chairs from the Sant Martino cathedral are staged.
Look for the masterpieces of wooden inlay works from the 15th century by the Venetian artists Christofor Canozzi. His large works were commissioned for the sacristy wardrobes of the Lucca Cathedral and showcase a perfect example of linear perspective creating a pictorial scene of Lucca and its medieval walls in a complex work of art that has been well preserved.
Our highlights: the really well preserved mosaico in Bicromia: trigone e nereide II secolo DC, the 1235 Berlinghieri’s wooden cross (tempera paintings on board) of the triumphant Christ is in an excellent state of preservation, Fra Bartolomeo’s paintings, Pietro Paolini’s (1603-1681) martyr paintings influenced by Caravaggio and Pompeo Batoni’s (1708-1781) canvas, maybe the most important Lucchese artist and one of the great painters of the 18th century.
Amongst 100+ churches, which ones should you visit?
In the city of 100 churches, it is easy to get churched out! Here is a selection of our favourites with their highlights.
Cattedrale di San Martino [Saint Martin’s Cathedral]
This is a must! While the magnificent Roman-Pisan style façade and 60-meter high bell tower impress, the marble interior of the cathedral is filled with precious sculptures, paintings and altarpieces. The Judgement of Salomon (1475) on the floor with marble inlays by Antonio di Ghino da Siena, the Madonna with the Child on the throne amongst four Saints by Domenico Ghirlandaio, the Last Supper (1594) by Tintoretto, the Dead Christ by Filippino Lippi and the Monument to Ilaria del Carretto sarcophagus (1407) by Jacopo della Quercia are some of the masterpieces to admire.
San Michele in Foro [Saint Michael’s Basilica]
Dating back to the 8th century, Saint Michael’s basilica was rebuilt and ornamented over the centuries. It’s beautiful Roman-Pisan style façade dates back to the 13th century. Inside, make sure to check out the 12th century polychromatic wooden cross, the Madonna with Child terracotta by Lucca della Robbia and the beautiful Four Saints painting by Filippino Lippi. Also look for the medieval graffiti on the columns!
Chiesa dei Santi Giovanni e Reparata [Saint Giovanni e Reparata Church]
Built over the ruins of the Roman baths and of an octagonal Roman dome (that would have inspired Brunelleschi to design the Florentine Duomo), Saint Giovanni e Reparata was the cathedral of Lucca between its construction in the 4th century and the 8th century. A museum today, it is interesting to see the layers of buildings from the first BC until the 12th centuries. At night, concerts are held in this intimate atmosphere (see below).
Basilica di San Frediano
The façade of the Romanesque church adorns an imposing and beautiful golden Byzantine-style mosaic of The Ascension of Christ the Saviour with the 12 apostles that was designed by Berlinghieri in the 13th century.
Chiesa di Santa Maria della Rosa [Saint Mary of the Rose’s Church]
This small church is worth a quick visit to see the thousand-year old Roman wall on which it was built. This is one of the most noticeable part of the antique wall.
A secret gem: the oratorio dei SS. Angeli Custodi
One barely notices its entrance and building. Built in 1638 by the religious Bonnaventura Gasperini for his congregation to care for the poor, the oratorio is one of the three churches of Lucca in Baroque style, richly decorated yet elegant and luminous. Back then, it was not as lavish: the paintings date back to the second half of the 1600’s and the frescoes were painted by Lombardi in the early 1700’s. It is truly a secret gem of Lucca, very spiritual and theatrical at the same time.
Run or bike the walls
A great way to start the day is to do as locals do, and work out on the city walls. Actually, local doctors still regularly prescribe a certain number of loops to walk to the Lucchese in need for exercise! More than a pleasant park, these walls are one of the main reasons why Lucca could remain independent for most of its history and has become a rarity in Tuscany (most defensive walls were destroyed over time to expand cities). They are its third defensive walls, built during the 15th and 16th centuries.
In the early 19th century, after Napoleon annexed Italy to France, he put his sister Elisa in charge of Lucca. She improved infrastructure, social organizations and supported the arts and has remained one of the most beloved people in the city. She decided to plant trees on top of the city walls making it a lovely promenade. Walking around town in the shade of these place trees has remained a local’s favourite activity. Running or biking the four kilometres of walls passing by bastions and over gates offers nice views on the city and a slice of local life.
By bastion San Paolino, an incredible underground space allows you to go from within the city to outside of its walls.
Stand Up Paddling (SUP) the Serchio River
Easily accessible from Lucca, stand up paddling the Serchio River is a surprising activity that allows you to not only refresh but also explore the waterway that made the tower town a transport hub since the Roman times. From two hours to multiple days to reach the sea, floating down the translucent Serchio River in a guided Stand Up Paddle outing is an exhilarating adventure thanks to a few rapids and swimming spots. Both beginners (you can easily conquer them on your knees) and experienced stand up paddlers can have fun, taming the rapids either on their knees or standing on the inflatable boards designed for white waters.
Biking to Torre del Lago
To mix culture and sports, biking to Torre del Lago to visit Puccini’s villa is a good option. Start in the city, and go to the Via Francigena, one of the most important routes of the Middle Ages connecting Rome to Canterbury, and making Lucca an important stop for pilgrims. It follows the Serchio River before you have to cross it. Past a few villages, go through the agricultural lands, past sunflower and bean fields along man-made irrigation canals. Notice the traditional fishing houses with their nets. You will have to merge onto the road for a couple of kilometres before reaching Puccini’s villa on the bank of the Massaciuccoli Lake where he used to love hunting. The way back is similar (refer to the interactive map below for the GPS track).
At the foot of the Appennine Mountains, it is only half an hour from Lucca that you will find streams, waterfalls and canyons to have great white-water fun for all!
To take a break from the churches and museums and refresh, put on a wetsuit, get yourself strapped in a harness and repel down the Rio Selvano to explore Italy’s fifth most beautiful canyon.
The Lima River is another option to try rafting, pack rafting (a fun activity in a single-person inflatable raft), or an easy Stand Up Paddle on its turquoise spring-waters. If you don’t want to get wet, fly over on a beautiful and accessible zipline experience at Canyon Park.
Food to try in Lucca
What food specialties to try?
- Tuscans are nicknamed the bean eaters, and Lucchese also love their beans. The traditional spelt soup, flavoured with rosemary and anis, often turns into a spelt salad in the summer.
- The tortelli Lucchese are a local ravioli most often filled with a mix of beef and chicken meats with local herbs and eggs.
- Bucellato is a local sweet bread with raisins and anis. Most often, it is sliced and toasted to be enjoyed with a red wine as a dessert.
- Don’t be fooled, the green vegetable pie torta de erbe is not a savoury treat! It is a dessert, coloured by spinach or other green veggies, but it is sweet!
Where to taste these Lucchese food specialties?
There are many good options to try these specialties, such as Buca di Sant’Antonio, the oldest restaurant in town. Il Cuore is a caterer and restaurant supplying excellent Garfagnana specialties including certified products (IGP) like Bazzone prosciutto or Bondiola (dry sausage) and cold cuts, and local cheeses. Trattoria da “Leo” is a low-key local’s favourite spot.
For breakfast, the pastries of Forno a vapore Amedeo Giusti are always an excellent bet. The Pasticceria Dianda proposes the best pastries in town and the adjacent bar run by the same owners does fantastic espressos and cappuccinos to go with!
For lunch, locals claim that Forno Casali bakes world’s best focaccias… A must-try!
Your most rewarding meal in town
Lucca is a fantastic place to learn about Italian and Tuscan food. Starting by selecting seasonal products in the city’s small and well supplied food stores, before crafting and tasting a full 4-course traditional meal with an Italian chef will for sure be your most rewarding meal in town! For more details on the full experience, check out this article.
Lucca is a wealthy city with a strong paper industry that does not rely only on tourism. Its narrow medieval streets are lined with rather tasteful and high-end stores, and the municipality does its best to try and keep fast food joints and cheap souvenir shops away. The front of the stores with their signage have been conserved giving a lot of charm to the city. It is not uncommon to walk into a shop that has been trading for over two centuries, like Carli, the oldest jewellery in town run by the same family since the 17th century.
Refresh in a green oasis: the botanic garden or Pfanner’s Palace
There is not too much greenery within the city walls of Lucca. The best options are the botanical garden or the lovely garden of the Pfanner Palace. The latter used to be a very popular beer garden. When the duke of Lucca requested a skilled Germanic manufacturer to oversee the beer brewing process, Felix Pfanner arrived from Austria in 1846 and set up the beer house, renting the gardens of the palace. This was almost a first in Italy and the success was such that Pfanner could buy the palace shortly after!
Enjoy Lucca music festivals and first-class concerts & operas
Follow in the footsteps of the maestro and go to a Puccini concert. You may have several options when you visit:
- What is a given is that the night you are in Lucca, there will be a concert at the San Giovanni and Reparata Church. Every night, some of the best voices of Italy resonate in the fabulous acoustics of the church in an intimate setting accompanied by a piano. A 14th century fresco representing the Virgin Mary on the throne amongst the saints is also well worth you arriving a bit earlier to visit this millennium-old church (1st century B.C. Roman ruins are found in the church which was built in the 4th century).
- The Theatre del Giglio, founded in 1675, was the cultural point of reference all over Tuscany. Check the program, as performances are excellent, and attending a lyrical music show in the classical decor of the historical theatre with a full orchestra is a very special experience.
- The Puccini festival in Torre del Lago takes place every summer. Operas are performed on an open-air stage a stone’s throw away from Puccini’s villa.
Stay in the footsteps of Puccini
Puccini used to come to play and entertain important guests at the Albergo San Martino when he was a young man. The 16th-century pension became a brothel in the 18th century along Via del Bordelo. It operated until 1958 when the Merlin law forced all brothels to close in Italy, and was converted back into a hotel.
Today, you can stay in this 3-star hotel within the city walls in one of the rooms named after some of the ladies who used to work here.
- To stay close to the action, the Albergo San Martino is a good bet and will put you in the footsteps of the most famous Lucchese, Giacomo Puccini.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.
For more around Lucca: