Lucca: the laid-back Tuscan experience
Updated: Jan 25, 2019
Lucca has everything you expect from Tuscany: grand piazzas, tiny squares, beautiful churches, terracotta-coloured buildings, narrow winding streets, al-fresco dining and of course fabulous food and wine. What is doesn't have is masses of tourists. If you've ever visited Florence in the height of summer, your experience can be marred somewhat by the crowds, by the selfie-sticks, by the endless queues. So if you fancy a Tuscan trip next summer, why not bypass all that and head for Lucca. You will not be disappointed.
Getting there: Though it lacks the mass tourism of Florence and Siena, Lucca could hardly be described as off the beaten track. It's easily accessible from Pisa Airport. Just hop on the PisaMover tram to Pisa Central station (they depart very frequently) and the train journey is less than half an hour and costs a mere €7.20 one-way. You won't need a car as there are traffic restrictions within the old city walls and everything is reachable on foot or by bike, if you want to hire one. You could also use the local buses if mobility is an issue.
Lucca is a small city, surrounded by 4.2 kilometers of historic city walls. We entered the old town through one of the massive gates in the walls as we were coming from the train station and this really gives you a sense of how the city looked and felt in medieval times, surrounded by this massive defensive structure. I would describe it as one of the most perfect towns I've ever visited and we fell completely in love with the place after a few hours. It has a laid-back elegance and a sense of tranquility that makes you instantly relax and switch pace. For me, it's a city to enjoy the small pleasures: sitting on a small square in the evening sun with a glass of wine and a simple bowl of pasta; enjoying a gelato under the stars; taking an early morning stroll on the old city walls... It's ridiculously picturesque and no exaggeration to say there are treasures to be found around every corner. Small city though it is, it takes an inordinate amount of time to get from A to B - far too many distractions en-route.
WHERE TO STAY: We lucked out and found ourselves a great apartment for our stay. Located right beside the old city walls, Itaco Apartments can be found on the corner of Via Buiamonti, a short walk to the centre of town. We booked through booking.com. Though I love staying in nice hotels, sometimes there's nothing better than having your own apartment. It's great to have the extra space and I love being able to shop locally and cook a leisurely breakfast the next morning. It always makes me feel like more of a local.
I loved the apartment. It was big and airy with two fans and tiled floors which kept us cool. The bedroom was very large with loads of wardrobe space and the bed was comfortable. The kitchen was well-equipped with everything you could possibly need but they had also included tea, coffee, salt, pepper, olive oil and Balsamic vinegar which I thought was a very nice touch. I really enjoyed sitting with my Italian-brew coffee that first morning, picking at fresh tomatoes, cheese and crusty bread and gazing out the windows at the old city walls. Can't think of too many better ways to start a day.
EXPLORING LUCCA: Like I always say, the best way to explore a city is on foot and Lucca is no different. One of the must-do things that should be on everyone's itinerary is to walk the circuit of the old city walls. As I mentioned before, it's only 4.2 kilometres in circumference but it took us almost two and half hours to complete as the scenery is spectacular and we kept stopping every couple of minutes to take in the views and to take photos.
The walls are very well-preserved and monumental in scale. The entire upper part of the walls form a wide path used by both walkers and cyclists, offering panoramic views of the city from a different perspective. One one side you have the richly coloured roofs of the city and the many church spires; on the other side you have endless green spaces and views of the Apuan Alps in the distance. Trees have been evenly planted to border the path, sometimes on both sides creating a wonderful leafy and shaded avenue.
There is much to see and do in the city centre but one of my absolute favourite afternoons was spent on top of the 14th century fortication Torre del Guinigi. This striking red brick tower is a unique one and you'll see why upon approach. No you're not seeing things and yes those are oak trees growing on the top. In fact the entire viewing point is a gorgeous but tiny roof garden. It is well worth the 230 step climb and the €4 entrance fee. I've never seen anything quite like it and the views are absolutely spectacular. It's a sea of red roofs as far as the eye can see, over to the mountains in the distance. You'll spot the other famous Luccese tower Torre del Ore as it asserts itself high above the tops of the surrounding buildings. The trees provide a perfect shade from the heat of the day but it does mean space on the top is a little tight at times. In saying that I could've stayed up there all evening. It's blissful.
The Cathedral of San Martino is another must-see. It's absolutely beautiful with its gleaming pale stone and its dramatic four tiers of columns over the entrance, all of which have a slightly different decorative scheme. I particularly love the side elevation which seems to be quite the feat of engineering - the top levels have no obvious supporting structure. The square itself is extremely picturesque and a nice place to spend an afternoon.
Not far from here on Piazza Cittadella is Puccini's home where he composed his famous opera Turandot before succumbing to cancer. In the end it was completed by someone else. We didn't visit the house but there is a terrific sculpture of him outside, seated and smoking a cigarette. The sculpture dates from 1993-94 and is by Vito Tongiani. I love his self-assured, relaxed pose and his intelligent and thoughtful expression. And as you can see it's such a charming little square with flowers everywhere and beautiful shuttered windows on all of the buildings.
For much of our first afternoon here we just pottered around the tiny streets of the city, taking photographs of the gorgeous crumbling buildings like the ones below through the arch on Corte Pini, one of my favourite spots. The brickwork was very well preserved though the interiors of some had fallen into disrepair and had trees and weeds growing up throughout. Somehow they didn't look rundown - it added to the charm. Yet some were still occupied such as the houses at number 7 and 10 below. They had such pride in their homes: no. 10 had a beautifully ornate door and fanlight with little plant pots and trees on the doorstep. No. 7 had huge shuttered windows with plants visible within, and relief sculptural plaques on the wall. Others had flower boxes hanging from the windows. It's very quintessentially Italian.
Piazza dell'Anfiteatro is the oldest square in Lucca and one of many great spots for grabbing an aperitivo and people-watching. As the name and shape of the square suggests, this was once the venue for gladiator shows and where many met grisly ends. Dating from the 1st century AD, the original structure has been incorporated into the buildings which now surround the square allowing the original shape to be preserved.
L.U.C.C.A. - Lucca Centre for Contemporary Art on Via della Fratta is also worth a visit. It's not a huge gallery and opens until 7 every evening so you'll have plenty of time to squeeze it in. We were lucky enough to catch a great show of photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson. In America during our stay. Entrance fee is €9 with reductions for students.
EATING YOUR WAY AROUND LUCCA
And now for food. As you would expect there are great feasts to be had in this city though it's important to get on board with siesta time. Have an early breakfast as you will most certainly be having an early lunch. You would be very lucky to find a decent lunch option anywhere after 2:30 pm as most shut up shop at this time and don't re-open again until 7pm or later. There are the odd few places that stay open all day but these are for the most part aimed purely at the tourist market. I'd avoid them unless absolutely necessary - it's worth seeking out the proper Italian spots, annoying though it is to have a food schedule forced upon your day.
We made that rookie mistake on our first day: we headed out exploring until 2:30 and when hunger finally got the better of us realised that everywhere was closing at this time. We managed to bag an outdoor table at Trattoria da Ubaldo on Via dell' Anfiteatro just before the kitchen closed. The staff were very nice and didn't bat an eyelid at our late arrival thankfully. It's quite a unique spot with very eclectic decor and if classic rock music is not your thing, then maybe look elsewhere. There are no middle-of-the-road restaurant-friendly Spotify playlists here - you will hear full albums played back to back. We were treated to Fleetwood Mac and early Guns n Roses but when Aerosmith came on we figured it was time to leave. However we had a fantastic experience here and the food was excellent. Ubaldo the manager is usually on site and easy to spot, covered in tattoos and piercings with long hair and a great beard. That's him sitting behind me with the black skeleton print t-shirt. He was very cool and extremely friendly and the atmosphere was relaxed. We were very excited to see they had Ichnusa Non Filtrata, a Sardinian beer that we couldn't get enough of when we were there. I had the Parmigiana Melanzane and Martin had a spaghetti dish with garlic, chili, parsley and tomato. Mine was good but his was absolutely divine and I ate half of it. Such a simple dish but so well made. My mouth is watering just thinking about it. We finished with two excellent coffees, served in their branded cups. A pretty great first lunch of our holidays.
That night, on the recommendation of our two friends, we booked a table in Gigi's on Piazza del Carmine. A busy spot opposite the market, we were lucky enough to get the last available table on the terrace. The place itself is gorgeous - a traditional Italian trattoria - and has been an institution in Lucca since the fifties. We had a great dinner here. I started with the gnudi which are a lighter version of gnocchi, made with ricotta instead of potato. Mine was filled with spinach and ricotta and served in a tomato sauce and were really tasty. I opted for the chargrilled chicken with rosemary potatoes for my main which was also good and finished with one of my favourite desserts: affogato al caffè. Martin went for one of his favourite Italian dishes Tagliata di manzo, sliced beef with herbs and roast potatoes and thought it was excellent too. We decided to be brave and try the €10 house red Il Fiascetto di Gigi which, as you'll read on the label, is actually bottled specially for the restaurant. We couldn't believe how good it was: light but flavoursome and very moreish. So don't turn your nose up and go for a more expensive bottle. This is a very drinkable and unbelievably good value wine.
So far so good: high-fives galore for two great meals in one day. On our second night we headed for Corso Garibaldi to In Pasta: Cibo e Convivio which specialises in freshly made pasta. This is a very pretty and vibrant part of town and I'd like to spend more time here on my next visit. In Pasta is a very casual spot, more café-like than a restaurant. There are no printed menus - you order from the chalkboard on the wall inside. I had my usual Campari spritz to start and Martin opted for one of their very refreshing Monte Fiore beers. As you could expect, their pasta was really good. They have such an interesting menu it was hard to decide which one to have. We finally decided on an arrabiata and a ravioli dish, filled with spinach and ricotta and served in a nutty cream sauce with marjoram, one of many fresh herbs they have hanging from the ceiling inside. Both were great. We had an outdoor table on this lovely tree-lined street and decided to take our time here, ordering a light bottle of red to go with our pasta for a mere €14. We finished off with two coffees and our total bill was €43. Outstanding value.
As we hadn't had dessert we stopped off on the way home for a street-side gelato at one of Lucca's best-loved spots Gelateria Veneto which has been around since 1927. I had the Amarena cherry, pistachio and chocolate - three delicious scoops and the perfect end to a great day. This is a great part of the city for late-night drinks. It seemed to be full of locals and cheap too - €5 for a good Negroni.
EXPERIENCE THE CLEAN BEER REVOLUTION: Venue: De Cervesia on Via Michele Rosi. Ok maybe revolution is a strong word but this was quite a Tuscan discovery - craft beers that don't give you a hangover. De Cervesia is described as a 'tap-room' offering a selection of craft beers from the Lucca-based micro-brewery Brúton. The place itself is cool, open to the street with stripped brick walls and high stools to sit at the counter; hipster but without the attitude and the staff were very nice. They have five beers on tap for €3.20 a glass. We opted for Brúton which is a blonde ale. It was light but full of flavour and very refreshing. It tasted very clean and pure which I imagine it must be as we felt fresh as daisies the day after. A very cool spot and definitely worth a visit.
We really enjoyed our time in Lucca. It was a good place to start our trip and its gentle relaxed pace of life was just what we needed. It has all the ingredients for a great holiday: warm weather, great food, picturesque streets, spectacular scenery and friendly locals. It's not somewhere you go to tick off the great sites. Instead it's a city that's made for enjoying simpler pleasures: a leisurely lunch at a street-side table; ambling through charming squares and stopping for an ice-cream or a coffee in the sun; popping into tiny churches or strolling the circuit of the old city walls. It's also surprisingly good value. I was expecting the high prices usually associated with Tuscany but Lucca turned out to be the cheapest spot, for food especially, on our ten-day trip.
Next stop: Emilia-Romagna and the lovely city of Ferrara. You can read about it here.