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Lucca: Tuscany’s Less-Traveled Gem

Updated on November 4, 2017
bdegiulio profile image

Traveling has always been one of my passions. It exposes us to new cultures, experiences, and makes the world a better, more tolerant place.

Church of San Michele di Foro
Church of San Michele di Foro | Source

While many a visitor to northern Tuscany will flock to Pisa, and nearby Florence, our recent travels took us instead to the medieval city of one hundred churches, Lucca. In actuality there are only sixty-seven, according to ace local guide and historian Wanda Martinelli, but fear not as you will never venture far in Lucca without coming to one of its infamous churches. What you will also notice, perhaps more so than its numerous churches, are the many towers that punctuate the skyline and dare you to climb them.

Rooftops and towers of Lucca
Rooftops and towers of Lucca | Source

There is plenty to see and do in Lucca, and you can easily spend two or three days leisurely strolling it’s narrow, medieval streets, and visiting its churches and towers. It is also conveniently located just twenty minutes from Pisa, and an hour from Florence for an easy day-trip. But once you get inside Lucca’s massive, fully intact ramparts, I think you will become consumed with this gem of northern Tuscany. There is much to see so come along for a few days of visiting the best of Lucca.

On the wall with guide Wanda Martinelli
On the wall with guide Wanda Martinelli | Source

Upon arriving in Lucca we decided to enlist the services of local guide, Wanda Martinelli, to show us the ropes. Utilizing a guide early in your visit, no matter where you are visiting, is a great way to get your bearings and learn a little history of your destination. This will inevitably help you as you venture out on your own in the coming days. Wanda is a wealth of knowledge, having lived in Lucca for her entire life. Her enthusiastic personality and expert knowledge of everything Lucca make her uniquely qualified for anything you may want to see and do in the area.

Church of San Michele di Foro
Church of San Michele di Foro | Source

The Churches of Lucca

You simply cannot visit Lucca without venturing into at least a few of its magnificent churches. One of the more remarkable examples is located in what I consider to be the most beautiful piazza in Lucca, the Piazza San Michele. And sitting prominently in the square is the stunning Church of San Michele in Foro. Built in the late eleventh century at the site of the then forum, hence the term “in Foro”, the towering façade and bell tower of this beautiful white marble church strike an imposing figure. Atop the church is the Archangel Michele flanked by two angels. The upper most façade upon which Michele sits appears to be unsupported, and one wonders how it has survived for centuries, certainly a testament to the architects of the day. The intricate detail of the exterior sculptures, and the arched inlays, make this one of the most notable examples of architectural design in Lucca.

San Martino Cathedral
San Martino Cathedral | Source

Among the numerous other churches in Lucca certainly the San Martino Cathedral should not be missed. Known as the Duomo of Lucca, this Gothic and Romanesque church and accompanying bell tower sit in the Piazza San Martino, and date back to the eleventh century when the cathedral was consecrated by Pope Alexander II. The interior of San Martino contains a number of notable works of art including the Ilaria del Carretto, otherwise known as the tomb of Paolo Guinigi’s wife. The marble sculpted tomb shows the adoring affection of the dog at her feet and dates to 1413. Other notable works include the Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints by Ghirlandaio, and the Holy Face of Lucca, which legend dates to AD 742, and is displayed in its own free standing marble chapel within the church.

Ilaria del Carretto
Ilaria del Carretto | Source
Holy Face of Lucca
Holy Face of Lucca | Source

If you are staying in Lucca then this next church is notable for two reasons. The Church of San Giovanni, located not far from the Duomo of Lucca, is the site of a nightly Puccini concert. Held each evening at 7pm, the concerts last for approximately ninety minutes and tickets can be purchased for twenty euro. Every evening presents a different performance honoring Puccini, and other composers, and you do not have to be fan of opera to fully appreciate and enjoy the show. It’s a very informal evening and you can poke around the church before, during the intermission, and after the performance. I highly recommend attending a Puccini concert while you are in Lucca, and even though I do not consider myself a fan of opera it was certainly an unforgettable evening.

The other reason San Giovanni is notable is due to the ruins upon which the church was built. During the day you can go underground and tour the Roman ruins and the medieval crypt that date back to the first century BC. So now you have two reasons to visit San Giovanni.

Church of San Giovanni, site of the nightly Puccini concert
Church of San Giovanni, site of the nightly Puccini concert | Source

The Towers of Lucca

At one time there were a lot of towers in Lucca. I tried to find the exact number but my research yielded mixed results. Suffice to say that at one time there were upwards of a couple hundred tower houses in Lucca alone. Today, there are a few remaining, and along with the church bell towers it makes for a picturesque skyline. If you happen to climb one of the towers you will be greeted with an amazing view of Lucca and the surrounding hills. We climbed two of the towers on our recent visit, the Torre Guinigi, and the Torre delle Ore, otherwise known as the clock tower.

Torre Guinigi from atop the Torre del Ore
Torre Guinigi from atop the Torre del Ore | Source
Torre del Ore from atop the Torre Guinigi
Torre del Ore from atop the Torre Guinigi | Source

What makes the Guinigi Tower so unique is the fact that there are trees growing from the top of it. You can’t miss it as it’s visible from pretty much anywhere in Lucca. I am always drawn to scenic views from above so this was high on our list of things to see. At about forty meters in height the Torre Guinigi is not the tallest in Lucca, but certainly the most visited. There’s something about those trees growing from the top that draws curious visitors. The 230 steps to the top will soon be forgotten when you see the view. In case you were interested, the Torre Guinigi dates back to the fourteenth century, a time when it was vogue for the wealthy to build towers, sort of a keeping up with the Jones thing. Not to be missed.

Torre Guinigi Visitor Infomation

Prices:

  • Adult tickets – 4 euro
  • Can get a combo ticket for both the Torre Guinigi and the Torre delle Ore for 6 euro.
  • Children up to 14 years old, groups, students and over 65: 3 euro

Hours vary by season:

  • Open daily at 9:30am. Closing time ranges from 4:30pm in the winter to 7:30pm during the peak summer months.

Torre Guinigi from atop the Torre del Ore
Torre Guinigi from atop the Torre del Ore | Source

The other tower we climbed, the Torre delle Ore, is actually the tallest in Lucca at about fifty meters high. Its 207 wooden steps will give you the loftiest view of Lucca and a great look at the nearby Guinigi Tower. Like the Torre Guinigi, the Torre delle Ore dates to the late fourteenth century, and although there are no tress growing from its rooftop it does have a functioning clock and bells. If you only have time to climb one tower it’s pretty much a toss-up, so climb whichever one fancies you. I will say that it was neat to be atop the Clock Tower and looking at the folks over atop the Guinigi Tower—great photo opportunity.

Torre delle Ore Visitor Information

Prices:

  • Adult tickets - 4 euro
  • Combo ticket - 6 euro
  • Children up to 14 years old, groups, students and over 65: 3 euro

Hours vary by season:

  • Open daily at 9:30am. Closing time ranges from 5:30pm in spring and fall to 7:30pm during the peak summer months.
  • Closed November to December.

Lucca from atop the Torre del Ore
Lucca from atop the Torre del Ore | Source

Medieval Wall

So what’s next to see in Lucca? Well, plenty if you have the time. There is course the wall, which at four kilometers long circumnavigates the entire community of Lucca. You can walk on it, run on it, ride a bike atop it, or just sit and people watch while enjoying the view. The current wall was completed in 1650 during the Renaissance and at nearly thirty meters in thickness was designed to protect against the more advanced weapons of its day, namely cannon fire. Originally built in the second century BC the wall was rebuilt and expanded a few times until its present day configuration. Never tested in battle, today it is used more for recreation and enjoyment rather than keeping intruders out.

On the wall - walking, biking, sitting
On the wall - walking, biking, sitting | Source

Anfiteatro

If you roam around Lucca long enough you will eventually find your way to the Anfiteatro. An oval ring of buildings surrounds the former Roman Amphitheater from the second century, and there are four gateways to the square that once accommodated up to ten thousand spectators. Today the buildings house private residences and a number of shops and cafes with outdoor seating. The center of the square contains a somewhat unique and odd sculpture that looks very out of place to me. The sculpture is either quite new or temporary as I do not see it when I Google photos of the square. Regardless, the Anfiteatro was the historical gathering place of Lucca, and portions of the original structure are still visible as you walk around the exterior of the building.

Odd statue in the Anfiteatro
Odd statue in the Anfiteatro

Inspiration is an awakening, a quickening of all man's faculties, and it is manifested in all high artistic achievements.

— Giacomo Puccini

Puccini

Earlier I mentioned the nightly Puccini concerts at the Church of San Giovanni. Giacomo Puccini was born in Lucca in 1858, and spent much of his childhood here. Considered a native son of Lucca, the world famous composers house is now a museum and open to the public. We spent some time visiting his home, and it was fascinating to walk the rooms and see the memorabilia that included original manuscripts, his piano, photos, and costumes from many of his operas. In the Piazza Cittadella in front of his home is a bronze statue honoring the famous composer. There is also the Puccini Museum Bookstore located just off the square where the ticket office is located. Books and CD's of his life and music can be purchased as well as tickets to tour his childhood home.

Puccini Museum Visitor Information

Hours:

  • Daily from 10am to 7pm
  • Closed on Tuesdays.

Fees:

  • Full price: 7 euro
  • Reduced Price: 5 euro, under 18 and over 65

Puccini Concert
Puccini Concert | Source

Domus Romana Lucca Museum

Given its historical significance, there is a very interesting archaeological museum in Lucca that you may want to visit. Called the Domus Romana Lucca, this small museum is located beneath the Orsucci palace, which today is the site of the Locanda di Bacco Tuscan Restaurant, and the Relais San Lorenzo B&B. The ruins were discovered during renovations to the palace in 2012, and a visit will give you insight into early Roman life in Lucca. A Roman home and portico once occupied the site, and while most of the uncovered relics were taken by the state for preservation the original brick and mortar of the building remain along with replicas of the finds. Before touring the museum be sure to watch the brief film on early life in Lucca and ask for a guide to take you through the museum. Our guide, Anna, spoke excellent English and was a wealth of knowledge. One can only wonder what else remains preserved and buried below the streets of Lucca?

Domus Romana Lucca
Domus Romana Lucca | Source
Domus Romana Lucca with our guide, Anna, center in blue
Domus Romana Lucca with our guide, Anna, center in blue

As you can see, there is plenty to see and do in Lucca. Its medieval streets are very walk-able, and its location makes it the perfect base for exploring northern Tuscany. Being surrounded by its more famous neighbors makes Lucca much less crowded and allows for a stress free visit. If you are interested in day-trips from Lucca you can always take the train to Florence, which is only an hour away. Another easy day-trip is to take the train to Pisa. Located just twenty minutes south of Lucca, many visitors opt for a chance to see the infamous Leaning Tower of Pisa. We did this on our visit to Lucca and it can easily be done in a half day. Another possibility is to head to Cinque Terre. We actually came to Lucca after spending five nights in Cinque Terre, and it can be reached in about an hour and a half. And lastly, if you are interested in a day at the beach, Lucca is located just thirty minutes from Viareggio and a number of beaches on the Ligurian Sea.

I hope you enjoyed this visit to beautiful Lucca. This medieval, Tuscan community is loaded with history, and is easy to reach from major airports in Florence or Pisa. It also has a modern train station making it accessible from almost anywhere in Italy.

Ciao for now.

A markerLucca, Italy -
55100 Lucca, Province of Lucca, Italy
get directions

A markerLucca, Italy -
55100 Lucca, Province of Lucca, Italy
get directions

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    • bdegiulio profile image
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      Bill De Giulio 104 minutes ago from Massachusetts

      Hi Larry. Thank you. I’m still waiting to win the lottery also.

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      Larry W. Fish 3 hours ago

      It sounds like a wonderful adventure, Bill. I have never had the opportunity to travel to Europe. When I win the lottery I will keep it in my plans, hahaha. Most of my time was spent in Asia during my military days. An enjoyable article, thanks for sharing it.

    • bdegiulio profile image
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      Bill De Giulio 3 weeks ago from Massachusetts

      Hi Anne. Thank you, glad it brought back some nice memories. We really enjoyed Lucca and it’s relaxed atmosphere.

    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 3 weeks ago from Australia

      Thank you for bringing back some wonderful memories. Such a beautiful place, and too often overlooked. Love the photos.

    • bdegiulio profile image
      Author

      Bill De Giulio 3 weeks ago from Massachusetts

      Thanks Linda. We very much enjoy these types of places also and love exploring the many medieval communities of Italy. Each one is different and has so many stories to tell. Have a wonderful weekend.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I'm always a bit envious when I read your travel articles, Bill, especially when they involve a visit to Europe. You visit such wonderful places. I love exploring old churches and cathedrals, so I'm sure I'd enjoy a trip to Lucca. Once again, you've shared some lovely photos.

    • bdegiulio profile image
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      Bill De Giulio 3 weeks ago from Massachusetts

      Hi Flourish. The trees, which are holm oaks were planted. These towers, of which there were hundreds at one time were tower homes where families lived. This one, the Guinigi Tower is named for the family that owned it. As soon as I saw the garden atop the tower I knew we were climbing it. This particular tower has been standing since the 1300s so it’s not going anywhere.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 weeks ago from USA

      What a spectacular find! I often wonder what kind of history we’re walking on daily, just buried beneath our feet. The structure with trees on it was fascinating; did someone plant them purposely or did they happen to spring up there? I can’t imagine it’s good for the stone or whatever the building is made of. However it’s beautiful and unusual.

    • bdegiulio profile image
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      Bill De Giulio 3 weeks ago from Massachusetts

      Hi Heidi. Lucca is one of those Tuscan communities that should be overrun with tourists, but it’s not, which is a good thing. Being so close to Pisa and Florence probably helps keep it that way. Glad you enjoyed the tour, have a great day.

    • bdegiulio profile image
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      Bill De Giulio 3 weeks ago from Massachusetts

      Thank you Mary. I couldn’t agree more, we always find a local guide, usually early in our visit. This way we get our bearings, hear the history, pick the guides brain, it always helps for the remainder of our visit. Our Lucca guide, Wanda, was wonderful, so full of personality. It worked out well. Thanks again, have a wonderful weekend.

    • bdegiulio profile image
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      Bill De Giulio 3 weeks ago from Massachusetts

      Hi Mary. You said it, anywhere in Italy is fun and an adventure. This was our first visit to Lucca, an amazing place. Thanks for stopping by, have a great day.

    • bdegiulio profile image
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      Bill De Giulio 3 weeks ago from Massachusetts

      Hi Bill. Thank you. Lucca was really was amazing. These Tuscan, medieval communities have so much history to them, everywhere you turn there is a story. We really enjoyed this trip but it was good to get home. Have a great weekend.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 3 weeks ago from Chicago Area

      I vaguely remember seeing this area featured on a travel show sometime back and thought it really looked interesting. Though on the most-visited list, I think it's definitely worth checking out (if I ever get there!). Your photos and commentary are delightful! Thank you for sharing with us!

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 3 weeks ago from Brazil

      It looks like your trip to Lucca was a success. I personally think having guides improve the experience. All too many times people wander around aimlessly or have their nose stuck in a guidebook. Local people bring out the passion of a place better than any guidebook.

      You have some wonderful images, thanks for sharing them with us.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 3 weeks ago from Ontario, Canada

      We enjoyed Lucca very much and were really impressed by what this place offers. Anywhere in Italy is really fun.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      It really is spectacular. As an old history teacher, I can't imagine being surrounded by so much history....the walls have stories, the streets have stories....my goodness! Thank you for sharing your trip with us, my friend.