Located about an hour to the west of Florence, Lucca is a town filled with Tuscan charm and perfect for a day trip. Lucca is at the bottom of the Apuan Alps, so there is much diversity in the terrain surrounding the city. Those who visit Lucca will find that its modern day attractions display the city’s history, from Roman times to the Middle Ages. From the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro to the many churches that dot the city’s streets, there is just about everything in terms of architecture.
For a little bit of history about Lucca, it was founded by the Etruscans and became a Roman colony in 180 BC, which is noticeable in its rectangular street plan. After the fall of the Roman Empire it became property of the Lombards, where coins were minted. It eventually became prosperous in the 11th century, as a stop along the silk route. Furthermore, it was the capital of the margravate of Tuscany during the 11th and 12th centuries, which was a part of the Holy Roman Empire. Eventually Lucca started to name itself as independent (with the charter of 1160) and stayed that way for about 500 years in relative peace and prosperity. Tuscany, much like entire Europe, was at the time under the system of feudalism, so there are actually references of the bigger feudal families in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Over the years Lucca passed between the hands of numerous tyrants who fought against Florence, and was supported by the kingdom of Bavaria. In 1408, Lucca was the seat of a convention held to discuss the schism with the Roman Catholic Church.
The city was then sold to numerous families from various parts of Italy as time went by (Genova, Parma, Verona, Florence, Pisa), but in 1628 Lucca declared its independence from these states and became an oligarchy. However, its peace was disturbed when Napoleon (in 1805) took control of the city, placing his sister, Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, in charge. Thus initiated the Bourbon-Parma Duchy, which lasted until 1847 with the formation of Tuscany, and then a part of Italy in 1859.
When you arrive to the Lucca, the impressive city walls are what you see first, and they are what you will remember most, as most walls surrounding cities became dilapidated. Surrounding the city, it’s not rare to see locals (or tourists!) pedalling on their bikes as they make their way around the city. The top of the walls became a promenade after the city stopped needing protection from the walls. It’s also a lovely area in the spring and summer when the temperature is agreeable and the market takes place near Porta di San Jacopo. Interestingly enough, each of the four sides of the walls has a different type of tree species.
Here is a list of the most interesting sights to see in Lucca:
The 16th Century Walls: As you arrive into Lucca, you will no doubt see its famous walls, so why not start your visit there? Not only do they offer a panoramic view of the city and its surroundings, but they are completely pedestrian. The trees that line the walls offer a nice respite from the heat of the Tuscan sun. Hidden passageways and ramparts display the city’s rambling history.
The Churches: The city is not lacking in churches. Lucca is known for having a large number of religious buildings inside of its historical center, displaying a myriad of architectural styles. The largest one, “Il Duomo,” or the Cathedral in English, is in one of the quieter areas of town, and holds some beautiful art pieces, such as the Volto Santo from the San Frediano Basilica or the Ilaria del Carretto’s Tomb by Jacopo della Quercia. This church is just a step away from the main street called “Il Fillungo,” where all of the mains shops are located.
The Guinigi Tower: The Torre Guinigi is a spectacular tower that rises above the city, one that you will surely notice from the city walls. As one of the only medieval towers that still stands in Lucca today, it is remarkable for the garden that stands on the top. The garden was grown by the Guinigi family, who wanted it to represent the “rebirth” of the city when they controlled it. Climbing to the top may be a bit tiring, but the views of the city and hills are certainly worth it.
The Roman Amphitheater: A beautiful landmark that dates from the Roman times, Lucca’s amphitheater cannot be missed! In the shape of an oval, typical Tuscan buildings line the square, respecting the original Roman architectural plan. Even though the actual amphitheater no longer stands here, the square’s form and respect for the original structure takes you back to Roman times. There are numerous restaurants and cafes on this square that allow you to soak it all in while sipping an espresso or eating gelato. In the summer there are always events going on, and there is a special ambience about the square.
But most of all, don’t forget to take a passeggiata around the streets and walls of Lucca!
How to get there:
By car: From Florence, take the A11 highway that is called “Firenze Mare,” and exit at Lucca “Est” or “Ovest.”
By train: There are direct trains to Florence (1:20) with TrenItalia. From Santa Maria Novella Station in Florence to the Lucca train station.