Tuscany’s medieval Lucca holds you captivate until you fall in love with this gorgeous walled city near the Ligurian Sea.
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Lucca’s commanding medieval wall encircles the historic centre and confronts you at its imposing gates. Once within the confine of the walls, the stillness of the city and friendliness of locals riding bicycles or enjoying a cafe in one of the many piazzas is calming.
Streets are kept in pristine condition and Lucca doesn’t feel overrun by tourists as other cities like Florence feels.
Without a travel itinerary, it’s pleasurable just taking your time to absorb Lucca’s relaxed pace.
What to see
One day in Lucca is just not enough to absorb this wonderful Tuscan city.
With a deluge of ancient churches, museums, medieval architecture and of course the city’s walls, you’ll want to stay much longer.
Le Mura di Lucca
At 11 to 12-metres high, Lucca’s Renaissance 9-metre-wide walls stretch 4.2-kilometres, encircling the city with this 4th construction of the walls, dating back to the mid-1600s to early 1800s.
The first construction built by the Romans was in the 2nd-century BC, followed by a second construction in the Middle Ages and finishing in 1270.
Similar to the current walls, the third construction started at the end of the 1500s. Advancing military technology propelled the rebuilding and fortification of the walls.
The only time the walls were used for defensive purposes was in 1812 when the River Serchio flooded forcing the closure and reinforcement of all the gates to save the city.
A small section of the walls was turned into a green space in 1812, followed by a public park in the late 1800s.
Today, the walls offer wonderful relaxation and recreational areas, meeting points, picnic tables and benches, fresh drinking fountains, and a great path for walking.
Six main entrance gates, another three ancient gates, eleven bastions, and several secondary doors allow entrance to the city.
Porta San Pietro
One of the oldest gates, the fortified southern gate dates back to 1565-1566 and is the closest to the train station.
Two grand stone lions guard the original heavy wooden studded gates. Lucca’s motto and the spirit of the city: ‘Libertas’ adorns the central arch.
Porta dei Borghi
The intriguing northern gate built in 1198 and 1265 is used as private residences and provides a grand entrance to Lucca’s main street via Fillungo.
Porta San Gervasio
Blocked to traffic perhaps due to the narrow entrance, the 8-metre-high medieval San Gervasio gate was completed in 1255.
‘City of 100 Churches’
To say there’s a church on almost every corner in the city is a slight exaggeration, although Lucca boasts a plethora of churches and the reason for its title.
As you wander through Lucca, you can’t but help bump into a church.
Church of San Giusto
The second half of the 12th century saw the current church including its superb two-coloured façade built on top of an older building.
Hailed as one of Guidetti (Florentine architect) workshop’s most important works, the doorway is decorated with two protruding lions supported by twisting atlantes.
Basilica of San Frediano
Constructed during the 6th-century and renovated in the 12th-century, the striking façade, which includes an inlaid mosaic using glass, gold, and precious stone representing The Ascension of Christ the Saviour that was added in the 13th-century.
Santi Paolino e Donato
Dedicated to Lucca’s patron Saint Paulinus of Antioch, the current church isn’t the original (San Giorgio) built here in 738.
Dedicated to St Anthony, another church was built after the year 1000, followed by yet another church in 1261, with the present church built in 1515.
Statues of Saints Donato and Paolino added in 1710 on the marble façade, guard the entrance.
Rich frescos adorn the interior of the church as does a marble choir by Vincenzo and Nicolao Civitali (son of Matteo Civitali, sculptor of San Michele in Foro’s madonna).
San Michele in Foro
Built over the ancient Roman forum and with its first mention in 795, this impressive basilica was rebuilt after 1070.
The intricate façade is adorned at the very top with 2 angels framing a 4-metre-tall statue of Saint Michael the Archangel.
To celebrate the end of the 1476 plague, a sculpture of the Madonna Salutis Portus, by Lucca’s sculptor Matteo Civitali graces the basilica’s lower-right corner.
Cathedrale di San Martino
Dating back to 1063 and built in a quieter part of the city amongst expansive grounds, the cathedral’s polychrome marble façade is similar to Pisa’s Cathedral.
Valuable works by Italian artists from the Renaissance period are housed inside as are Jacopo Tintoretto’s Last Supper, Federico Zuccari’s Adoration of the Magi, and Fra Bartolomeo’s Madonna and Child.
Check the narrower arch on the right for a labyrinth bas-relief with an inscription that recalls the myth of Theseus and Ariadne. Even after centuries of study, its significance and meaning are still a mystery.
The rear of the cathedral is just as spectacular and its surrounding manicured lawn is a great resting spot.
Steeped in history, this famous piazza popular with locals is where the Italian composer Giacomo Puccini (best known for La Boheme and Madama Butterfly) was born in 1858 – his home is now the Puccini Museum.
The fabulous bronze statue of Puccini created by Vito Tongiani further enhances Piazza Cittadella.
Piazza San Michele
During the Roman age, Piazza San Michele served as the centre of Lucca and you can discover important buildings such as the San Michele in Foro in this piazza.
Constructed in the 16th-century as a Hall of Justice with many changes to the building over the centuries and completed in 1588, Palazzo Pretorio is now used by the civil law courts.
A dramatic statue of one of Lucca’s sons – Matteo Civitali sculptor, architect, painter, and engineer – stands poised in the centre of the building.
Museo della Tortura
For those wanting to see a little of history’s macabre torture implements and methods, then visit the Museum of Torture. The entrance is free although entry to the museum is €10, so gave this one a miss.
A pleasurable stroll through Lucca’s cobbled alleyways reveals hidden street gems.
Wrapped up for Christmas in Piazza Bernardini, visit Mode Mignon for luxury clothing.
Turn any corner and Lucca reveals time-worn cloisters and marvellous architecture still standing after centuries.
Pop-art also finds its way into the city…
One last peaceful walk of the walls before leaving Lucca.
Make sure you validate your ticket before boarding the train as you can be fined up to €60 for not validating – there are no machines once on the train.
Forgetting to validate tickets today as too busy chatting, the conductor politely explains the situation before producing a €10-fine for both – it could have been €120.
Once validated the train ticket only lasts for 4 hours.
Where to eat
Lucca’s culinary claim to fame is the rich bright yellow pasta Tortelli Lucchese, which is stuffed with seasoned meat and smothered with a meat-laden ragù.
If you don’t eat meat, then the soup of farro made with a barley-type grain and served with beans may be a tasty alternative.
Opting for a few coffee, local pastry and delicious savoury stops throughout the day, giving the traditional huge sit-down 3-course meal a miss.
Ninci Frediano e Figli
On Piazza Napoleone 2, many locals frequent this cosy bar with only a few tiny tables and chairs inside, a few more outside.
A little pricey for a morning cappuccino (€2) and brioche (€3) – owners are friendly enough.
Loads of chocolates and gourmet packaged cakes fill empty nooks, although these may be because of Christmas.
Il Bernino di Stella Polare
On via Fillungo 86, this swish cafe offers free wi-fi whilst you enjoy an excellent coffee (€1.10+) and pastry (€1+) surrounded in a very modern ambience.
I’m not sure if it’s customary in Lucca that when you return your coffee cup and plate to the counter, you’re charged a cheaper price than what’s on the menu – does anyone know?
Along via S. Paolino 93, this has to be one of Lucca’s cheapest cafes.
Great service from very friendly staff and excellent coffee (€1+), tea (€1.50), and yummy savouries (€1+).
After an amazing but long day exploring Lucca and still not seeing everything Lucca offers, it’s time to take the return train to Pisa for a little R&R.