Majestic, grass-topped, medieval ramparts encircle it. Trees grow atop its lofty towers. And bicycles are the main mode of transport in this pedestrian-friendly city. This is the wonderful citadel of Lucca, Tuscany’s not-so-secret hidden gem. Head through one of the formidable old stone gates and you‘ll find the tranquil, cultured, beautiful heart of the historic city dotted with churches, cobblestone streets, traces of the original Roman founders and plenty more things to do in Lucca. Let’s take a look what else this spectacular city has to offer.
1) Walk around the Medieval city walls
As you arrive outside Lucca the first thing that strikes you is the colossal barricade that surrounds the city. The ancient ramparts that stand today were built between the 16th and 17th centuries to repel potential invaders but there have been walls around Lucca for centuries.
The first wall builders were the Romans who had settled in the area, founding a colony in 180 BC. They also set up the grid street plan that is still visible in the layout of the historic center. But their walls were superseded three time between the 11th and 17th centuries, until finally in 1650, the mammoth walls that you see today were completed.
The walls run four km. around the city with 11 bulwarks sticking out that give the fortifications a rough star shape. And, although originally they were built for defense, today the walls are topped with grass, paths, benches and trees, creating a wonderful shaded promenade for locals and visitors alike. And from the walls you can look down into the city from on high–what a fabulous introduction to this fascinating city and just one of the lovely things to do in Lucca.
2) Explore Lucca’s one hundred and one churches
Whichever entrance you use to enter Lucca, you’re bound to come across one of its many churches as they’re spread throughout the center; hence, its nickname of “the city of 101 churches.” You’ve no hope of visiting them all in one day but if you only have time for one, why not make a beeline for the wonderfully ornate, Gothic cathedral in Piazza San Martino, located at the southern edge of the city? It is included on our exclusive group tour of Lucca and Pisa.
The 6th-century Duomo of San Martino is a feast for the eyes with its stunning polychrome marble façade, bas-relief carvings and countless carved columns forming a three-tier, porticoed facade. And if you look closely, you’ll notice that each column is different from its neighbors. According to legend, this variety is because the townsfolk called a competition to design the best column pattern but, in the end, decided to take them all, creating a magnificent, decorative entrance to the city’s main church.
3) Have an aperitivo in the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro
The Roman founders famously established Lucca’s grid system street layout and today it is still visible throughout the city. But the Romans left more than just echoes on a map. At the heart of the historic center lies Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, the city’s main civic space and site of the original Roman amphitheater, the foundations of which lie three meters below ground.
In its heyday, the amphitheater seated around 10,000 spectators. And while the stone seats have long since been lost, you can still see the shape of the arena since private houses, bars and shops follow its original elliptical outline. Why not stop for an aperitivo in the glorious suntrap of Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, admiring the typical Italian architecture, unique design while sipping an Aperol Spritz or refreshing Hugo? But don’t worry, the gladiators and wild beasts are long gone so this is most definitely one of the more relaxing things to do in Lucca!
4) Take a bike tour of Lucca
The gargantuan city walls, apart from protecting the inhabitants from marauders, also have another advantage of discouraging traffic from entering the city, meaning that Lucca is a peaceful pedestrian and bicycle friendly idyll. And thanks to the narrow old streets, lined by old stone palazzi and civic buildings, much of the city is serenely shaded from the baking Tuscan sun so exploring on two wheels is a perfect way to get about.
Why not pedal through the flat, stone-paved streets, freewheel through the photogenic piazzas or glide around the wide promenades on top of the city walls with a private bicycle tour of Lucca? The tour departs from Florence and not only will you discover the beauty of this gorgeous gem, but you’ll also enjoy breathtaking views of the Tuscan countryside as you drive to Lucca, passing through parks and along the banks of the serene Serchio river. It’s a little bit of Tuscan bliss.
5) Climb the Medieval towers of Lucca
Lucca, like many Medieval communes in Italy including Bologna, San Gimignano and Siena, was once dotted with around 130 towers stretching way above the terracotta rooftops. It was extremely proud of its bell towers and private towers. Some were built for defensive reasons, some to embellish these stark residences by demonstrating wealth or power and others were just to compete with the neighbors. The message they conveyed was “the higher my tower, the greater my power” but just as towers rose with prosperity, they could be decapitated when families fell on hard times. And Lucca’s towers had one other unique characteristic: many owners planted a living tree on the top of their case-torri tower houses as a symbol of rebirth and power.
Today, sadly, few of Lucca’s old towers survive but if you’re feeling fit, why not climb the 230 stone steps of the Torre Guinigi for a fabulous view of the city? Here you can admire the gnarled holm-oak tree growing eccentrically out of the top. Alternatively, scale the 207-step staircase of the tallest tower in the city, the Torre delle Ore, to examine the 18th century mechanism of the tower’s clock and gaze out to the Tuscan hills. This is definitely one of the best things to do in Lucca, if you like skylines and the Tuscan landscape.
6) Get front row seats at the Puccini Opera Festival
Born Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini in Lucca in 1858, Signore Puccini would go on to become one of the world’s most famous and successful opera composers. He penned such classics as “Madame Butterfly,” “La Boheme” and “Turandot,” bringing ten lyrical, dramatic opera to Italians and opera lovers around the world.
If you appreciate this compelling art form, then tickets to the open-air Puccini Festival of Torre del Lago are a fabulous addition to your Italian vacation. Running from July 14th through August 18th, this year’s season boasts some of Puccini’s greatest works including “Tosca” and the tragedies “Madame Butterfly” and “La Boheme.” Speak to our expert travel consultants who will be happy to help you book the best seats in the house. This is one of the things to do in Lucca that you’ll want to do again – Bis, encore!
7) Check out the local cuisine
And finally, if you really want to get under the skin of a town, city or region in Italy, you need to taste its cuisine. And how better to learn about the commune’s illustrious history and culinary traditions than with a walking tour of the flavors of Lucca?
Your English-speaking, local expert will guide you through the fortifications that protect the city, past the Gothic cathedral to your first stop at a bakery to taste the famous buccellato, a mouth-watering sweetened bread. A coffee pit stop will energize you to explore the narrow streets still lined by shoemakers, knife grinders and silk merchants before your next stop at a local cioccolateria sweet shop. And then it’s on to the final stop, the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, where you can browse through Lucca’s typical prosciutto, pecorino cheese and salami, all washed down with a glass or three of regional red wine. I can’t think of a better way to round off your list of things to do in Lucca, can you?
Check out the top 7 things to do in Lucca
Whether you’re visiting for the morning, a long weekend or choose to base yourself here, you’ll find plenty of tempting things to do in Lucca. From clambering to the top of her towers to enjoying the operatic works of local boy Giacomo Puccini, from a tasty stop at a pasticceria bakery to a stop at one or two of her 101 churches, all tourist tastes are satisfied here. And everyone loves an aperitivo so if you prefer to watch the world go by then stop for a while in the old Roman amphitheater. Leave us a comment with your favorite memories of Tuscany and, in the meantime, make sure you include Lucca in your Tuscan travels; you won’t be disappointed.