Everyone grows up reading or hearing fairytales; tales of towns surrounded by Medieval walls. What happens inside and outside of these walls is always a fascinating adventure. My visit to Lucca, Italy, proved that fairytales are real, and that mysterious walled towns still exist. No visit to Tuscany should be complete without a visit to Lucca; the birthplace of Puccini. This well-preserved little town oozes charm inside and outside of its famed historic wall and is one not to be missed. So if you’re wondering what to do in Lucca, Italy, here is your perfect pocket guide to help you plan.
Getting to Lucca
Getting to Lucca from anywhere in Italy is easy by train. The city is located less than half an hour from the coast of Versilia, at the foot of the Apuan Alps. I arrived by a quick and easy train from Florence to the station in Lucca for only eight euros. If you are coming from Pisa, it is even easier with only a 20-minute train ride from there. This makes Lucca the perfect day trip destination from bigger cities you may be visiting. If you arrive by train you have quick and easy access to the heart of Lucca from the station with no need to rent a car. Like many towns in Tuscany, the old centre of Lucca is closed to car traffic and managing a car with parking could be a hassle.
If you have a rented car and prefer to travel to Lucca by car, you can easily find Lucca on the A11 highway coming from the North or South and highway A12 from the coast. You’ll likely want to look for parking outside the city walls of Lucca, the parking inside the walls is limited.
What to see and do in Lucca
Whether you are visiting Lucca for the day, or planning a longer trip to explore, you will sense the pride and preserved heritage of the people “inside the wall.” Lucians are quick to distinguish if they were born inside or outside the wall, and if they live and work inside or outside the wall. The pride is well-earned, their city’s ancient wall has maintained it original structure since the Renaissance, and this is not because many haven’t tried to destroy it. Lucca has a rich history of protection, and of mastery in strategic battle and outwitting enemies. This history is fascinating.
Book a Private Tour with a Local Guide
Because Lucca is a small town, and Lucians are a close group, everyone in Lucca knows Riccardo Scarafoni of Tuscany Cruises on the Road. He was born inside the walls of Lucca and has a rich knowledge both of Italian history in general and of Lucca and the surrounding areas in Tuscany. I spent my first day in Lucca on a private tour with Riccardo which was one of my very favorite parts of the trip.
For a small city, Lucca is mighty. There are 101 churches within the city walls and the town is nearly 72 square miles. I learned about a handful of these churches with Riccardo on my tour, we popped into a few off-the-beaten path to wander inside and see incredible art masterpieces. I highly recommend narrowing this list down to the two main churches in Lucca, Il Duomo or the cathedral and St. Michael’s Church. St. Michael’s is easy to find and in a main square with many shops and cafes nearby, its grandeur is typical for Italy and the interior is magnificent. The cathedral of St. Martin in Lucca was my favourite, inside you can catch a glimpse of Ilaria del Carretto’s Tomb by Jacopo delle Quercia and the really incredible Volto Santo, a wooden crucifix of the Holy Face, and ancient symbol of Lucca.
Walk the Wall
Of course, the 16th century wall itself is something to explore for sure. The 4 kilometres of panoramic walkway around the city of Lucca offers the perfect opportunity to stroll or cruise with a bird’s eye view from above which allows you a vantage point you cannot have any other way. It is the perfect way to see Lucca.
Piazza dell’ Anfiteatro
The Amphitheatre Square, or Piazza dell’ Anfiteatro is authentic Lucca and a real gem from Roman times. Originally an amphitheater, this town square is oval and you can get a true sense of this from the inside. Inside you will find many shops and the perimeter of the oval lined with one café after another offering local Italian dishes. I enjoyed a leisurely lunch inside the Piazza dell’ Anfiteatro one afternoon and it was the absolute perfect place to be for yummy pasta, rosé and people watching.
The Guinigi Tower
You cannot miss the Guinigi Tower when you visit Lucca, it isn’t easily seen from most narrow streets but it is a prevalent and famous landmark in Lucca and worth climbing to the top of to see the view from above. The curious thing about this tower at first glance are the trees growing from the top of it. When you reach the top of the tower you enter into the roof garden which was built by the Guinigi family. Some stories claim that the Guinigi family planted the garden when they ruled to symbolize the town’s rebirth while under their control, but Riccardo’s folklore touts a tale of the family wanting the tallest tower and the only way to go beyond what was legal at the time was to plant trees on top of it. Either way, it is worth seeing and it isn’t often that you can be in a garden on the top of a tower in the middle of a fairytale Tuscan town.
Finally, if you are a Puccini fan, you might take the opportunity to visit the Puccini Museum which is his birth home. You can follow this visit up with a stop in any of the local bakeries for sweet specialties named after the famous opera singer.
Where to stay in Lucca
My visit to Lucca was made extra special because of my stays in two separate villas close-by. The first of which was Villa Benvenuti, a seventeeth-century estate with seven bedrooms and plenty of other rooms to happily get lost in, and just 15 minutes from the city of Lucca. Originally known as Ai Bernadini, named for the distinguished Luccan family that once lived there. It was renamed during World War II, Villa Benvenuti after Signora Benvenuti lived there and its doors were opened to refugees of the war. I love that Benvenuti also means welcome in Italian, because this is exactly I how I felt while I was there and how I know these refugees must have felt too.
The villa, situated on 69 acres, offers guests an invitation to explore the grounds with whimsy. I happened upon the Secret Garden during one of my explorations and then returned there the next day for a really quiet yoga practice. Wildflowers, roses, boxwood hedges, a stone pergola and fountains down every path and around every corner make it a truly magical place to be. The kitchen with huge floor to ceiling doors that open out to a breakfast terrace is flanked by a herb garden ripe for picking. I could smell the rosemary from my table each morning and I picked just a bit of lemon balm and mint and put it in my tea. The estate grows the typical grapes in Lucca, and its vineyard produces Dragone wines, named after the current owner’s Welsh family roots. Villa Benvenuti also produces its own olive oil from olives grown and harvested on the property.
Noteworthy, especially in the hot July heat of Tuscany, was the delicious pool on an upper terrace of the estate with a beautiful view of the acres and acres of goodness below. This pool was a beautiful place to be during my stay in this villa.
The second villa, Villa Michaela, is a fifteenth-century villa situated at the foot of the Zano mountain and nearby Vorno village, with a rich history of ownership that dates back to the 13th century even. The 50 acre estate houses the main villa with twelve large double bedrooms that are each uniquely decorated in English country house style. The estate includes a 12-metre pool, and private church along with gardens and outdoor dining space.
I had the luxury of having the entire villa nearly to myself the first night I arrived, the staff was readying the estate for a big wedding shortly after my stay. I wandered in and out of each of the 12 bedrooms like a little girl who could not get enough. It was like walking back in time and wandering through a princess’ castle. My room, the best one in the villa, named “Dante” is typically used for the honeymoon suite and was incredibly luxurious with canopy bed, a double Jacuzzi bath and spectacular views of the sunsets over Vorno and beyond.
Every room is filled to the brim with carefully curated antiques, the rooster collection in one of the casual dining rooms fills the top of the space above cabinets and the china in the massive chef’s kitchen is magnificently displayed, but the most spectacular room in the villa is the formal dining room with frescoes and crystal chandeliers that look like jewelry dangling above the expansive dining table that can seat between 36 and 80 dinner guests at one time.
I was invited to partake in a personal cooking lesson with the estate chef, Chef Celine, during my stay and together we made shrimp and mushroom risotto and ate it accompanied with the private label rosé. The villa offers a variety of cooking courses that can accompany your stay.
Where to Eat in Lucca
There are so many beautiful places to each in Lucca, and you cannot go wrong with any of the local restaurants, but my very favorite meal was a meal I shared with a dear friend at Osteria Miranda, aside from the perfect signature Aperól Spritz and delicious upscale artful cuisine, the ambience of dining al fresco with a view of the wall and a showing of an old black and white film on the wall while you are dining under the stars in Lucca was bar none.
As is the case with most Italian cities the gelato on every street corner is worth investigating. I learned that the locals have many favourites. I feasted and tried as many of the shops as I could while I visited Lucca and my two favourite gelato shops in town are Cremeria Opera and De’ Coltelli, both are stand-outs because they use natural ingredients and the gelato was absolutely incredible.
An absolute must-see for foodies and visitors interested in eating authentically in Lucca is a pop into Casali Francesco, this original shop has been in this spot for decades and the same family still bakes the traditional focaccia breads that their ancestors baked. The shop is tricky to find, off-the-beaten path and popular but well worth the trip. Be sure to have a focaccia sandwich with local cheese (and prosciutto if you are a meat eater) made the traditional way, you will want two.
Where to shop in Lucca
The best shopping in Lucca can be found on Via Fillungo, here you will find a mix of well-known Italian designers and worldwide brands as well as local boutiques. The boutique shopping otherwise is abundant and sprinkled throughout the city and tucked in the narrow streets and squares.
How to stay active in Lucca
Lucca is a cycling city! Not only do most of the locals own bicycles, making it a bike friendly city, but Lucca is the host of many professional cyclists who make their home here during training months of the year. It is one of the most popular places for pro cyclists to train because of the varying elevation and terrain that the area provides. As a result, it is pretty common to spot a professional cyclist while you are visiting Lucca, which is exactly what happened to me.
Take a Tuscany Bike Tour
I met pro cyclist Daniel Teklehaimanot while I was visiting with my now good friend Paladino Meschi, a native of Lucca and life-long cyclist who owns the best bike shop in the city called Chrono. Whether you are looking for a bike to rent for a few hours of cruising the wall, a few days of exploring on your own, or joining a shop ride or organised cycling tour, Chrono is the place to go and Paladino is the person to speak with. His shop is filled with the best cycling brands including Pinarello, and bikes of all kinds and sizes. In addition to the shop, Paladino organises Bike Experiences for groups of cyclists to experience the Tuscany lifestyle by bike. These experiences occur between March and October and take place seven days a week.
Day Trips From Lucca
Villa Torrigiani di Camigliano
Part of my tour with Riccardo of Tuscany Cruises on the Road included two quick trips outside of Lucca, one to visit the Villa Torrigiani di Camigliano about 10 km from Lucca and the second to visit the Devil’s Bridge on the way. This villa, dating back to 1593 is grand in every way with architecture inspired by Versailles. The Bolognese architect, Alfonso Torregiani, left his mark here with exquisite design unlike any other villa in Tuscany.
It was the garden and private chapel that I loved most about this villa. I wandered through the garden and discovered a hidden cave that spanned the distance under a raised set of stairs in the formal garden. The cave, with little windows to the outside world, was filled with statues and little fountains and happy bats. The private chapel had a special side entrance for the family and hidden prayer room for them to attend mass in an intimate space away from the rest of the congregation.
The Devil’s Bridge
The Devil’s Bridge, or Ponte della Maddalena, is worth seeing while you are close. It is an incredible example of medieval engineering. The bridge crosses the Serchio river and was a vital part of the medieval pilgrimage route for people coming from France and going to Rome. According to Riccardo’s folklore, which he was told from the time he was a boy visiting the bridge on Sunday’s with his parents, the bridge was almost finished but the builders could not figure out how to finish it. The devil offered to help in exchange for the first soul that crossed it. The bridge was finished, and the devil requested the soul and the towns people sent a dog across and the devil swooped up the dog and took it’s soul. No matter what you believe, the bridge is a magnificent thing to see and I could not help but think about all of the people who had walked there in years past. Walk to the top of the bridge if you can, it’s an easy short walk with a great view at the top.