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Lucca: A Superb Base for Exploring Tuscany

Carolyn Grote

When most people go to Italy, Tuscany is a first choice and Florence a requirement. But nowadays a trip to Florence means you can be surrounded by American college students spending their semester abroad. My recommendation? If you want to experience a typical Tuscan town, go to Lucca.

Recently, I spent my entire vacation at a lovely apartment in Lucca. Lucca is a charming, fully-walled old city with a pedestrian-only center which still feels very local.  Situated mid-way between Pisa and Florence, Lucca, is also a terrific base for exploring northern Tuscany. 

As I approached the ramparts for the first time by car, I felt a bit of trepidation.  Dare I drive through the small portals?  Would I be caught in a maze of narrow streets with no place to park? But in fact, the situation is quite easy. Either I could park for free right along the esplanade outside the walls and walk in. Or I could drive through the gate into the main city entry and pay to park in a large lot. And for the first-time visitor, this latter is an excellent choice. That is what I did.

Although having a car gives added flexibility to tour northern Tuscany, in fact, Lucca is a city where one could manage without one. The train station is just outside the walls, which makes for an easy walk into the center. And there is a major bus terminal located within the city walls. With so much to see in Lucca, one would be happy staying put. But when the visitor is ready to explore afield, many of the nearby sites are accessible by train or bus. I have had had several clients happily stay in Lucca without a car.

Once inside the walls, Lucca is charming.  Cobblestoned streets, pretty shops, cathedrals and churches galore. From morning to evening, Lucca's delights unfold. 

Early morning is a lovely time to be in Lucca.  At 8am you will see parents pedaling their children to school on bikes. This is a delightful rush hour: a busy, but quiet flow of bicycles and pedestrians.  Workers stop at their favorite café to have their morning coffee. Storekeepers unlock and roll up their security gates then wash the glass doors and windows and sweep the sidewalks in front.

Lucca Morning

Lucca Morning Commute

As the sun warms up and stores open, the city comes alive with lots of locals sitting on the benches and chatting with their friends. Now the food shopping starts: Lucchese buy homemade pasta, dried herbs, local olive oil and other specialties at the small stores inside the walls. 

Every morning there is a daily market for fresh produce, and once a month, on the third weekend, the antique flea market fills the streets.  Here you can buy dishes, glasses, antique picture frames and even pieces of the gilt trim from ancient palazzos. 

Lucca Antique Fair

Lucca Antique Fair

As the day progresses, tourists soon arrive - often Italian ones - to visit the famous sites.  The Piazza dei Afitreatro is the site of the 2nd century Roman amphitheatre, now a lovely circular plaza with shops and cafes.  The Torre Guinigi is the famous tower with a tree on top, from where you get a terrific view of the city.  The 16th century remparts are definitely a special treat in Lucca.  They circle the old city with a  three-mile circumference and on top is a broad park.  They are used all day long by morning runners,  parents with strollers or just folks strolling and enjoying the view of the city inside and the mountains in the distance.

By mid-afternoon when school is out, parents and children line up at the bakeries for an afternoon snack of different foccacia.  This delicious bread that is almost like a pizza, comes out in great rectangular sheets, and each person requests the size slice they want, has it cut in a square, wrapped in paper, and then walks away already nibbling this treat.

The Via Fillungo is the main shopping street, and it has many elegant shops. Perhaps the most charming time to visit is towards the end of the day when the Lucchese engage in their passaggiata ... the arm-in-arm evening stroll up and down the street.  They window shop, make a purchase or two, have a prosecco or a gelato.  After all dinner won't be until at 8pm.

Lucca is the birthplace of Puccini, and every night at 7pm from March to November there is a mini-concert at the Basilica di San Giovanni. Off-season, concerts are Friday only. It is particularly stirring to hear a small chamber orchestra play Puccini's music as it reverberates through the high ceilings and stone walls.

Of course there is an excellent selection of restaurants for a good meal right within the walls of the city. Local specialties include its deep-green virgin olive oil, tortelli ( a ravioli-like pasta) and soups with faro (a local barley-like wheat product). Two restaurants to visit are:

  • Buca di S. Antonio - generally considered the best restaurant in Lucca.  Excellent regional food. Friendly service. Used by locals (who tend to get the best seats - and why not?) and tourists as well. Reservations recommended. 
  • Trattoria Da Leo - The food is simple and good, with prices to match.  A good, reliable place with lots of charm.  Characteristic taverna décor.  Cash only.  Closed Sunday.  Call for a reservation.

Lastly, there are many great places to visit within just an hour or so. Viareggio is the nearby seaside resort with broad sandy beaches and calm water. Cinque Terre are the five perched villages over the Mediterranean.  Here you can go from village to village, by train, by ferry or even by a  mountainside trail.  Centuries ago, wealthy Lucchese built summer villas on gentle hillsides outside the city walls. Villa Torrigiani is one that has gardens designed by Le Notre, the famed landscaper of Versailles.  A special treat are the fountains that appear magically as visitors stroll along.  Montecatini is an old-world spa town just 30 minutes away where you can drink mineral water said to cure all sorts of woes. Montecatini Alto is the old town high on a nearby hilltop where cafes spill out on a central plaza.  And of course, Florence is just an hour's trip by train or bus so you don’t even need to worry about managing with your car there.


Beaches at Viareggio

All told Lucca is a great place to see an historic Tuscan town and a great base for exploring northern Tuscany.


More travel articles for Tuscany

Things To Do in and Around Lucca

www.luccagrapevine.com: A local, English-language magazine about things to see and do in Lucca.

www.puccinielasualucca.com: Describes the ongoing Puccini festival in Lucca. 

www.luccatourist.it: The official English language tourist site for Lucca. 

Buca di Sant'Antonio: reviews and website for the restaurant.

Trattoria da Leo: reviews and website for the restaurant.

Northern Tuscany Vacation Rental Reviews

Tuscany Hotel Reviews

Northern Tuscany Restaurant Reviews

Ville et Village: vacation rentals in Italy and France

Tuscany Vacation Rental Listings

Discuss this article

Carolyn Grote is the owner of Ville et Village, an agency offering vacation rentals in France and Italy. She has been selected as a top villa agent for France by both Condé Nast Traveler and Travel & Leisure magazines.

© Carolyn Grote, 2012

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