Forget Florence and Siena – this is Tuscany’s most enchanting city

Lucca is many people’s favourite Tuscan city - Getty
Lucca is many people’s favourite Tuscan city - Getty

Most destinations come with qualifications. Not Lucca. In 1902 the writer Hilaire Belloc said simply that everything here was “good’, while the novelist Henry James observed that it “overflowed with ease, plenty, beauty, interest and fine example.”

Both claims remain remarkably true today. Many people’s favourite Tuscan city (though really it is the size of a large town) is an almost faultless combination of the usual Italian temptations – art, architecture, food, wine – and the more intangible charms of a world apart kept safe and unspoiled within medieval walls.

It’s perfect for a short break – Pisa Airport is just 35 minutes away – or as a well-connected base for trips farther afield. Either way, it’s hard to imagine Lucca disappointing. Quite the contrary: it’s the sort of place, I suspect, many of us, in another life, might happily live out our days.

Walk the walk

It’s enough simply to walk Lucca’s streets to enjoy its easy-going charm, key sights and many medieval nooks and crannies. Make first for Piazza San Michele, site of the Roman forum and home to San Michele, graced with a 12th-century Romanesque façade – all pillars, tiny columns and delicate decoration – that is as beautiful as any in Europe.

The Duomo, compelling inside and out - Getty
The Duomo, compelling inside and out - Getty

Now meander south, either via the airy Piazza Napoleone or the tangle of streets around the church of San Giusto, and make for the Duomo, compelling inside and out, from the carving-filled façade to an interior that contains Jacopo della Quercia’s Tomb of Ilaria del Carretto (1407–10), one of Tuscany’s Renaissance masterpieces; look, too, at the Volto Santo, a cedar crucifix said to be a true image of Christ carved by Nicodemus, an eye-witness to the Crucifixion.

Pay a little extra to visit the cathedral museum and the fascinating Roman and other remains below the nearby church of San Giovanni e Reparata.

Then walk north via Piazza Bernardini and Sant’Andrea to the Casa Guinigi, former home of one of Lucca’s ruling medieval families and celebrated not so much for its tower – which you can climb – as the holm oaks that sprout from its summit, providing the city with one of its most recognisable landmarks.

From the tower it’s a few moments via another fine church, San Pietro, to Piazza Anfiteatro, a wonderfully picturesque oval of medieval houses built over, and incorporating, the ruins of Lucca’s Roman amphitheatre (anfiteatro).

Piazza Anfiteatro - Getty
Piazza Anfiteatro - Getty

Exit the piazza and you’re on Via Fillungo, Lucca’s elegant main shopping street, and just moments from San Frediano, another of the city’s glorious churches. An unusual 13th-century mosaic adorns its façade and the interior is dotted with beautifully frescoed chapels and the Fonte Lustrale, an immense 12th-century carved font.

The walls

Lucca’s 16th-century walls were never used in anger, but the bastions are one of its highlights; bordered by a broad swathe of green and topped by trees and a traffic-free promenade that encircles the old town for four miles.

Find time to walk, or better still bike some or all of the circuit, which offers wonderful views, especially in the southeast corner around the Duomo and Botanic Garden, the latter also worth visiting.

Bikes can be rented on Piazza Maria under the walls on the city’s northern flank from Poli and Bizzarri from €4 (£3.50) hourly or €16 (£14) daily.

The Puccini trail

Statue of Puccini, Lucca, Tuscany, Italy - GettyImages
Statue of Puccini, Lucca, Tuscany, Italy - GettyImages

The opera composer Giacomo Puccini was born in Lucca in 1858, his birthplace, just off Piazza San Michele, now a music school and small museum filled with memorabilia such as the Steinway on which he composed Turandot.

Nearby Piazza Cittadella contains a much-loved statue of the composer, complete with one of the cigarettes that would eventually cause his death through lung cancer. Visit and for details of recitals or for information on the daily concerts at the Oratorio di San Giuseppe.

Summer sees an annual Puccini Festival at Torre di Lago, close to Lucca, with full opera performances, often outdoors.

Farther afield

Within a few miles of Lucca – so easily accessible by bike or taxi – are dozens of exceptional villas and gardens, with the Villa Reale and Villa Torrigiani the best options if time is tight.

Train links make Lucca a good base for trips to other parts of Tuscany. Journey time to Florence is 1hr 20min direct, with trains roughly hourly (€8.10/£7.15). Prato and Pistoia enroute both have fine historic centres worth exploring.

Or take the line to Piazza al Serchio and back for a scenic ride through the mountains of the Garfagnana to the north. In summer, it’s a 20-minute hop to the seaside resort of Viareggio.

You can also visit the Leaning Tower and Pisa’s other sights, possibly on your last day if you time your return flight well. Be sure to book tickets if you wish to climb the Tower.

San Frediano, another of the city’s glorious churches - Andrea Pucci
San Frediano, another of the city’s glorious churches - Andrea Pucci

Eating there

Lucca has plenty of eating options, from cafés for snacks al fresco on Piazza San Michele to the venerable Buca di Sant’Antonio, Lucca’s most famous dining spot, in business since 1782; it’s not cheap, but service is polished and there are plenty of traditional Lucchese dishes.

Da Leo is popular with locals for its traditional trattoria feel, fair prices (the set menus at €20 and €24 are a good bet) and reliable Tuscan food.

Del Neni is a personal favourite, two beamed dining rooms tucked away in an alley near Piazza San Michele. Service can be slow at busy times, but the local food (try the hearty garmugia soup in season, in spring) is worth waiting for: it’s good value, too.

Staying there

Within Lucca’s old walls – which is where you want to be – the first choice among the smarter hotels is the historic, revamped Grand Universe (doubles from £174). Less expensive and more intimate is Alla Corte degli Angeli (from £117). The four-star Hotel Ilaria (from £115) and three-star Diana (from £91) are other long-established mid-range choices.

Getting there

BA, Ryanair and easyJet fly to Pisa from London and regional airports. To reach Lucca, take the People Mover shuttle from the airport to Pisa Centrale railway station, where direct trains run to Lucca roughly every 30 minutes (journey time 28 mins; £3.70/£3.27).

Further information

Both the local and regional visitor sites have excellent information on Lucca in English.

A busy but entertaining time to visit is the third Sunday of the month (and preceding Saturday), when the streets around the Duomo are given over to the Mercato Antiquario, a colourful antiques and bric-a-brac market.

Have you ever visited Lucca? Tell us about your experiences in the comments section below