Just a half-hour east of Pisa on the A11 Autostrada, Lucca is an ancient city with a wealthy history. Surrounded by the final of several fortified walls – this one designed to flummox those ‘new-fangled’ cannon balls (versus bows and arrows) — the wall today serves as a city park where locals and visitors alike can walk along the tree-lined top of the structure, peering in at the wonders of the city. Some of those wonders include gardens, waterways, more than two-dozen churches and myriad houses, palaces and piazzas.
When I first discovered Lucca back in 1998, it was still largely a place for locals – the people who lived in the region, their friends and visitors. It was lively, but in a peaceful, uncrowded way that made wandering through its streets or along its ancient wall a serene pleasure.
Nowadays, it’s very different. Many of the piazzas and sidewalk cafes are filled with tourists, and it’s getting more difficult to walk down the streets without being bumped into.
But it’s not impossible. Yet. And because of the city’s charm and beauty, it’s well worth the effort. That’s why I always encourage visitors in Tuscany to take a day for Lucca. The train station is just across from the city’s wall (La Mura). If you drive in, just follow the signs to La Stazione (the train station), go past the front and take a slight left to the entrance of the large paid parking lot next door. Then, with the station at your back, walk across the street, up the paved pathway and through a tunnel that takes you to the top of the wall – and there begins our tour.
Before heading down off the wall, however, check in with your appetite. If it’s lunchtime, you might want to try the first of three restaurant options I’m going to give you in this article – Ristorante Caffetteria San Colombano. Perched right there on top of the Wall, the eatery is an indoor/outdoor place, but if it’s a nice day I’d opt for outdoor, under the trees with gorgeous views. Everything I’ve had on the menu has been very tasty, but be sure to cap off the meal with a coffee. Really. Good. Coffee.
If you get to the top of the wall from the train station and aren’t ready for lunch yet, look straight across and you’ll see the bell tower of Lucca’s Duomo – San Martino. Go down the stairs to your left to street level, and head for the first street you see that goes into town (to the right) – Via del Molinetto – and you’ll come out on the piazza in front of the Duomo.
First begun in the 6th century, it was expanded in the 11th and has been renovated, added onto and made more gorgeous in several centuries since then. Some highlights? The three-arched portico out front was added to the front of the 11th-century building in the early 14th century and includes several works by Pisano. Inside, the Volto Santo was originally carved by Nicodemus. Legend has it that he carved everything except the face, then went to sleep. When he awoke, the face was there, so it’s considered a miracle – Volto Santo means “holy face.” Each September, the cross is the centerpiece of the Santa Croce (holy cross) festival where it is carried through the streets of the city, which are illuminated by thousands of candles. Also, don’t miss the Sarcophagus of Ilaria del Carretto, the second wife of one of the city’s leaders, Paolo Guinigi. It was carved in 1405 by Jacopo della Quercia and is really quite beautiful.
Come out of San Martino and go straight across the piazza, your back to the church. You’ll pass through Piazza San Giovanni. On your left, the last store on that block, is Il Cuore, which means “The Heart.” It’s full of meats, cheeses, sweets, olive oil and wine. A great place to pick up some goodies to take back to your farmhouse or hotel. Come out, turn left and keep going in the straight line you were on before. You’ll come out on Piazza del Giglio and…
My second restaurant option: Ristorante Il Giglio on the right, facing a statue of Garibaldi. We’ve spent many an afternoon on their patio enjoying delizioso dishes – the fish is particularly good – and local wines. The piazza is also home to one of the oldest theaters in Italy, Teatro del Giglio, built in the 17th century and still hosting a robust calendar of events throughout the year.
The next piazza over is the big one – literally and figuratively. Piazza Napoleone, named for – you guessed it – Napoleon Bonaparte. His sister, Elisa, ruled over Lucca in the early 1800s. The piazza is ringed by magnificent trees and serves as a stage for several activities, festivals, markets and events throughout the year. One of the most popular is the Lucca Summer Festival. Debuting in 1998, it’s a music festival that has featured some very big names – The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Santana, David Bowie, Dave Matthews and more.
If you have a car for your travels, you’ll find a music store on the east side of the piazza where you can perhaps pick up a CD of Ennio Morricone or Andrea Bocelli to complement your drive around Tuscany.
Stay on this street, Via Beccheria — past the piazza. Further up you’ll see the green cross – the sign for a farmacia (pharmacy) – on the left. In front of that you’ll find Piazza San Michele. There’s a gelato store on the right. Grab a cup or cone then walk around to the front of the church that dominates the piazza, San Michele in Foro. It’s one of my favorite churches because of its multi-tiered façade supported by pillars with varying designs in marble, all topped by a statue of St. Michael. I also admire its unique crucifix that hangs over the altar. If you’re there at night, it’s stunning to see it all lit up.
We’ve now come to my third restaurant option: Trattoria da Leo. Stand facing San Michele church and turn left. The street will narrow and when it does you’ll see tables and umbrellas on the left. Circle around that building and you’ll find the entrance – and possibly a crowd waiting to get inside. It’s worth the wait. Family-owned for years, it’s a charming spot with great food and service. If you’re a carnivore, the Bistecca di Maiale (pork chop) is fabulous. And don’t skip dessert.
Now, go back to the corner with the farmacia cross. With that on your right and the gelato shop to your left, go straight down the street, Via Roma, to Via Fillungo and turn left.
This is the Rodeo Drive of Lucca. Lots of jewelry stores, clothing boutiques, leather shops and so much more. It’s also the gateway to one of the most interesting spots in town. To get there, watch for the signs for Anfiteatro, hook a right and then a left to go through the portal.
This was originally an amphitheatre, like the Colosseum in Rome only not quite as grand. It surely hosted gladiators and other performances. Vendors constructed stalls around the outside, which eventually became permanent structures. Through the years, homes were built on top and the “arena” was used for other purposes, but the oval shape remained. Make the circle, popping into some of the shops along the way. My favorite jewelry store in Tuscany is there – Marrakesh.
There are several other stops you could make depending on your areas of interest. For art and history lovers, Palazzo Pfanner is a wonderful example of 17th-century architecture, and its gardens are dotted with dozens of statues representing the twelve months, the four seasons, and more. Inside there’s an exhibition of Luccan fashion from the 18th to the 20th centuries.
Palazzo Mansi is home to the Pinacoteca Nazionale, or National Gallery. If you like “over the top” everything framed in gold with murals and statues, this is your spot. The “nuptial room” is just beyond! More art – much of it produced in Lucca — can be found in the National Museum of Villa Guinigi, built in the early 15th century by the aforementioned Paolo Guinigi, then Lord of Lucca.
If you like ancient churches, San Frediano is worth a visit. First consecrated in 1147, it’s been renovated and restored several times throughout the centuries. The mosaic over the entrance is a Byzantine-era work depicting the heavenly ascension of Christ. The interior is refreshingly simple but hosts several engaging paintings, sculptures and more.
And if classical music is your thing, you’re in luck! Giacomo Puccini was born in Lucca. His home is now a museum with drafts of his compositions, costumes from his operas, early photos, and the piano on which he crafted Turandot.