Just an hour from Florence, Lucca is a readymade Tuscan day trip – but this city rewards those who stay longer with its medieval architecture, earthy cuisine, ornate former palaces and impossibly creamy gelato.
In northern Tuscany, close to Pisa and an hour west of Florence, Lucca is well worth the quick trip from these more famous cultural hubs. Beneath terracotta rooftops and a low-rise skyline punctuated by medieval towers, incredible Renaissance art and architecture seems to crop up at every turn. And if you’ve come here to eat and be merry, Lucca will dutifully provide with pretty communal piazzas that burst with bars, trattorias and coffee shops.
The oldest square in Lucca has some fascinating and fairly grizzly history behind it, having been built on the site of a Roman amphitheatre that acted as the setting for gladiator battles. Today, it’s a pretty and vibrant people-watching spot for your morning cappuccino (or evening aperitivo) thanks to its pleasing, oval shape, delicate paving slabs and many peach-painted bars and restaurants lining the piazza, all with uniform dark green shutters.
The highlight of this 17th-century palace (once purchased by an Austrian brewer who set up one of Italy’s earliest breweries) is undoubtedly the beautiful baroque garden, resplendent with bamboo groves, palm trees, lemon trees and other colourful flora, as well as statues of Greek gods lining the well-kept paths and encircling water features. Make time for the palace building itself, which exhibits surgical instruments and medical texts in honour of Pietro Pfanner, a physician who set up an office in the palazzo and later became Mayor of Lucca.
The legacy of the aristocratic Guinigi family still stands tall in Lucca today – almost 45m (125ft) tall, in fact. The imposing Torre Guinigi is one of a handful of medieval towers now left in the city (from a total of 250 in the 14th century) and is an essential visit for the superb views provided from the summit. You’ll have to work for those views by scaling 230 steps, but it’s worth the workout, particularly when you first walk out onto the roof garden, which is framed by a ring of holm oak trees.
Lucca has more than its fair share of great gardens, and some of the finest can be found in grand, historical estates scattered in and around the city. Just north of Lucca, Villa Reale is a historical landmark with a vast garden complex, which includes camellia walkways, a geometric Art Deco-style garden, a lake and an open-air “green theatre”. To the east, the baroque masterpiece Villa Torrigiani features dramatic, cypress-lined paths and a delicately landscaped sunken garden. Or there’s Villa Mansi, northeast of the city and boasting gardens originally designed by noted Italian architect Filippo Juvarra, including multiple water features and over 40 species of tree.
Channel your inner opera-lover with a visit to the birthplace of celebrated Italian composer Giacomo Puccini, creator of such famous masterpieces as Madama Butterfly and La Bohème. Even opera-sceptics should enjoy wandering around the Puccini museum and learning more about the great man, hearing some of his music along the way. But why settle for just a taster? Head to the Church of San Giovanni in the heart of the city, where regular concerts are held to showcase the timeless work of Puccini and other great composers.
You won’t be short on gelato options in Lucca, but this unassuming and tucked-away Gelateria Paniko stands out from the crowd. A whole world of weird, wonderful and unashamedly indulgent flavours are available (apple pie, lime praline, cookies), including a big selection of vegan options – and we’re talking proper gelato-like choices in this department, not just sorbet. There are also crepes and other sweet treats available if you need something more substantial.
The impressive Cathedral of St Martin (San Martino) is well worth a look, even if just to gawp at the intricate gothic carvings that coat the building, inside and out. But the 60m (197ft) high bell tower next to the cathedral is arguably even more striking, though it was already in existence before the cathedral was built. If you want to go deeper into the history, the cathedral museum holds a collection of antique art and historical treasures.
Yes, even the walls are exciting in Lucca. Stretching over 2.5mi (4km) and standing tall at 12m (40ft) high, the city’s medieval walls are – miraculously – almost entirely preserved. These days, the walls are a focal point of city life and you’ll always find locals and tourists alike following the winding wall-top path. It’s a novel way to see the city and a Lucca must-do, so join in on foot or by renting a bike.
Whether you’re buying, bargaining or just idly browsing, Lucca’s monthly flea market is a brilliant place to stroll through. Held outside the Cathedral of St Martin and engulfing the surrounding streets, hundreds of stalls sell antiques, jewellery, furniture, clothes, toys, art and trinkets. Even if you have no intention of purchasing anything, a trip to see this buzzing hub of local life is not to be missed – something’s bound to catch your eye.