What to do in Lucca
Lucca is deceptive. It doesn’t begin by overwhelming you, except for those walls. After a one day visit you may leave thinking you have seen it. Stay a few days more and you begin to feel that you haven’t seen it at all. Stay a little longer and you may discover, as John Ruskin did, that a lifetime has gone by and you are still looking.
The walled city isn’t large. It takes twenty minutes to walk across it at a leisurely but steady pace. Don’t expect to maintain a steady pace, however, because although Lucca isn’t large, it is dense. It has been continuously inhabited for more than two thousand years; it was never abandoned and it was never destroyed. During most of its history Lucca thrived. It survived the Dark Ages intact and by the Early Middle Ages it was the capital of Tuscany. In the High Middle Ages it was the silk capital of Europe; its merchants and bankers preceded those of Florence and Siena. During the Renaissance Florence conquered the rest of Tuscany, but Lucca never fell. It did inevitably succumb to Napoleon but he prized the small republic sufficiently to bestow it upon his sister, Elisa, to rule as princess.
All of these periods survive today, in layers. When Lucca rebuilt it always built on what came before. No city better preserves its original Roman street layout. The medieval buildings were erected on Roman foundations and the Renaissance mansions assembled medieval houses and towers into grand edifices. Peel the plaster off a Renaissance building and you will usually find medieval brick underneath.
If you have only one day in town, you will want to see the Cathedral of San Martino and the basilica of San Frediano. You will spend some time in Piazza San Michele, site of the Roman forum, dallying and admiring the façade of the church. If the weather is fine you will certainly walk or bicycle along the walls. If it is inclement the Cathedral museum has an excellent audio tour, the Villa Guinigi museum has a precious collection of local art and antiquities, and the Mansi museum allows you to visit one of the grandest palazzi in town, filled with treasures.
Try not to be overly ambitious. A visit to Lucca is often inserted into a hectic tour of must do’s and must see’s in more famous places, and Lucca is the perfect place to stop and catch your breath. Wander aimlessly a while, have a cappuccino, wander some more.
Two or three days are a more appropriate schedule for a visit. There is an archeological site under San Giovanni and a new museum dedicated to comics. Depending on how you feel about heights you will want to climb the Guinigi tower, with the trees on top, and the clock tower. There’s a good chance you will find a concert worth attending since Lucca is a city of music. And you will have time to explore the streets, where every few paces there is a palazzo with a story behind it, another church, a workshop or store, and an endless supply of cafés. You will begin to absorb the city. In one of these cafés you will probably begin to plan your return trip.
To help you make the most of your visit, we’ve compiled a list of Restaurants in Lucca, which we work to keep as up-to-date as possible.
To see more of Lucca, view the Slideshow of original photographs.