Lucca holiday guide

Written by Donald Strachan, Italy specialist and Travel Writer for The Guardian.

Art & architecture

Like in its traditional rival Pisa, 17km to the south, building reached its peak of innovation and elegance in the Romanesque period, particularly between the 11th and 12th centuries. The so-called 'Luccan-Romanesque' style is characterized by tall, ornate arcades decorating a church façade. The most photographed façade in Lucca is on San Michele in Foro—named because it was built during the 1100s over the site of the former Roman Forum, now (as then) Lucca's main square. Its four decks of turned and carved polychrome stone columns are crowned with a statue of St. Michael Archangel, wielding his avenging sword. Nearby San Frediano was named after an Irish Bishop of Lucca who died in 588 AD, according to legend. It is dazzling in the morning, when the watery light hits its gold mosaic façade of the 'Ascension of Christ'. Inside is a Gothic baptismal font decorated with scenes from the life of Moses, and a chapel frescoed with tales and local myths, by Amico Aspertini. Lucca's cathedral, the Duomo di San Martino, also has an intricate Romanesque façade. Under its Gothic portico are carvings by Nicola Pisano and Guidetto da Como showing scenes from the life of St. Martin and from daily life during the various months of the year in 13th-century Lucca.

The Sacristy houses the carved 'Tomb of Ilaria Carretto', a masterpiece in marble by Sienese sculptor Jacopo della Quercia. It was made to commemorate a young bride who married into the powerful Guinigi family, but died aged twenty six. (The dog at her feet is a popular Renaissance symbol for fidelity.) The peculiar wood carving of Christ, displayed inside its own little temple, is the 'Volto Santo'. Legend says it was carved by Nicodemus, who witnessed Christ's crucifixion; academic dating says otherwise (perhaps the 13th century). You can explore the more distant past below the church of Santi Giovanni e Reparata: the archaeological area under the nave is open to visitors, and has remains of a Paleochristian church as well as ruins of a Roman dwelling and bath house, the earliest dating almost to Lucca's founding as a Roman colony in 180 BC.

  • Don't miss

    Enjoying the operatic music of composer Puccini in his home city, either at the Teatro del Giglio or at a recital in the church of Santi Giovanni e Reparata

    The view of Lucca, and the Apennines on the horizon, from the promenade and cycle track on top of the old city walls

    Getting away from it all on the hiking and underground cave trails of the Garfagnana

    San Frediano, Piazza San Frediano

    San Michele in Foro, Piazza San Michele, tel. 0583/583150

    Duomo di San Martino, Piazza San Martino, tel. 0583/490530

    Santi Giovanni e Reparata, Via del Duomo, tel. 0583/490530, www.museocattedralelucca.it; open weekends only between November and mid-March

Eating and drinking

Traditional Luccan cuisine has a strong flavour of the Apennines, whose peaks are visible along the northern horizon from pretty much anywhere in the city. Farro (spelt wheat) is one mountain pulse typically found in local dishes, including soups and risotto-like primi (the first, usually carbohydrate, courses).

Lucca is also known for its bakers. Taddeucci is the home of the buccellato—a sweet, dense, spiced bread invented by Jacopo Taddeucci in 1881. Their historic premises in Lucca's main piazza are a great place to pause for morning caffè, too. The best central restaurant for local dishes is reassuringly affordable Da Leo. It is popular with locals and visitors, with good reason. Portions are hearty, and the food is in the authentic Lucchese rustic style; there's usually zuppa di farro (mixed pulse soup with spelt wheat) and spezzatino (veal stew) on the menu.

When the sun is shining, book a table in the garden at Canuleia. A location slightly away from the main shopping and attractions gives it a slightly secret feeling, and there is a quiet elegance to the indoor dining room, too. The chef casts the culinary net a little wider than many places in town, but the seasonal risottos are never a letdown.

There has been an inn on the site of the Antica Locanda di Sesto for almost 650 years, and cooking in the present, family-run restaurant sticks to tradition: pasta made fresh each morning, carefully sourced meat, pulses and grains from the Garfagnana, seasonal and foraged vegetables, fish dishes made with baccalà (preserved then reconstituted 'salt cod') There's nothing flash, bar the impeccable, friendly service and crisp, white tablecloths—this is a ristorante not a trattoria, after all.

Lucca is also close to the wine area of Montecarlo. This small DOC growing area is just east of the city and produces especially fine whites with a good mineral bite, usually from a blend of typically Tuscan Trebbiano grapes with Semillon, Sauvignon, or Pinot Bianco.

Artisan beers are increasingly popular in Italy, especially among young drinkers, and the Lucca area has a couple of Tuscany's best microbreweries. At Bruton, brewers make use of typical Tuscan ingredients in Momus (with honey) and Bianca (with spelt) brews. Beers across the Bruton range are German and Belgian in style.

Based in the Garfagnana, Birrificio Petrognola makes a beer using local grain farro (spelt wheat) as its base.

  • Don't miss

    Taddeucci, Piazza San Michele 34, tel. 0583/494933, www.buccellatotaddeucci.com

    Da Leo, Via Tegrimi 1, tel. 0583/492236, www.trattoriadaleo.it

    Canuleia, Via Canuleia 14, tel. 0583/467470, www.canuleiatrattoria.it; closed Mondays

    Antica Locanda di Sesto, Via Ludovica 1660 (by SP20 at Sesto di Moriano), tel. 0583/578181, www.anticalocandadisesto.it; closed Saturdays

    Bruton, Via Ludovica 5135, San Cassiano di Moriano, tel. 0583/579260, www.bruton.it; also has an on-site bar/pizzeria open evenings every day

    Birrificio Petrognola, tel. 0583/605825, www.lapetrognola.com

Local towns and villages

Visitors have been coming to Bagni di Lucca, 28km north of Lucca, for its natural spring waters since Medieval times. It rose to prominence when it became a fashionable place to soak away cares and ills during the 19th century, including among English Romantic poets (and Italophile travellers) Shelley and Byron. Few of the period's grand spas (termi) remain, but you can still book at session in the natural hot waters and steam-filled rooms.

Grander Montecatini Terme, 30km east of Lucca, is Tuscany's most famous spa resort, and still buzzes between Spring and Autumn when wealthy older Italians arrive en masse looking for a health boost. Spas here tend to be medicinal in nature—the local water is a powerful laxative—so soaking up the neoclassical grandeur of Terme Tettuccio may be as close to the action as you feel the need to get.

For the best view over the spa town and the surrounding Valdinievole area, ride the century-old funicular up to the old town of Montecatini Alto. Pistoia—a fast 44km north-east of Lucca along the A11—is another northern Tuscan city with serious art heritage. Compared to its neighbours, it also has very few visitors, which means no crowds and city-centre restaurants priced with locals in mind.

Its tiny, unobtrusive church of Sant'Andrea has the fourth, and perhaps greatest, of the four 'Pisano pulpits'—others are in Pisa and Siena.Carved by Giovanni Pisano in 1301, its five panels narrate scenes from the New Testament, including a grisly 'Last Judgement'.

In Pistoia's main piazza, the Cattedrale di San Zeno is built in a local version of the Romanesque style—hooped in black and white, like a zebra doing a headstand. Inside, explore the eerie crypt.

The main town centre hospital, the Ospedale del Ceppo, is fronted by a glazed, multicoloured terracotta frieze by Giovanni della Robbia, showing scenes from hospital life in Renaissance period. Pilgrims feature prominently, alongside patients at death's door.

Even high in the Garfagnana, at Barga, there is no escaping Medieval art and architecture. A steep climb ends at the town's cathedral. Inside a polychrome marble pulpit is propped up on the backs of two stylized, Gothic stone lions. The terrace outside has one of the best views of the Garfagnana Valley.

  • Don't miss

    Bagni di Lucca, www.turismobagnidilucca.com

    Terme Bagni di Lucca, Piazza San Martino 11, tel. 0583/87221, www.termebagnidilucca.it

    Terme Tettuccio, Viale Verdi 71, Montecatini Terme, tel. 0572/7781, www.termedimontecatini.it

    Sant'Andrea, Via Sant'Andrea 21, Pistoia, tel. 0573/21912

    Cattedrale di San Zeno, Piazza del Duomo, Pistoia, tel. 0573/25095

    Ospedale del Ceppo, Piazza Giovanni XXIII, Pistoia

    Cattedrale di Barga, Via del Duomo, Barga

The ourdoors

You will get a fine view of Lucca from the saddle. The city's brick defensive walls and bastions, built between 1520 and 1650, were converted in the 19th century into a public park and promenade. The Lucchese make good use of them: everyone from joggers and rollerbladers to strolling families and the elderly takes a regular constitutional up there.

It's easy to rent a cycle in the centre—Cicli Bizzarri has road bikes, tandems, kids' bikes, and trailers for ferrying little ones around, carriage-style. From there, find the nearest ramp up onto the walls and you are away. A full circuit of the city takes around half an hour, but there are plenty of opportunities to pause and admire the scenery.

The walls also give a great angle down into the statues and manicured hedges in the garden of the Palazzo Pfanner, laid out in the baroque style for immigrant German brewer Felix Pfanner.

To get a sense of the terrain around the city, down an espresso in preparation for the climb to the top of the 45m Torre Guinigi. This Medieval tower was once the stronghold of the local Guinigi family. You will easily spot its crenellated summit—it has a clutch of holm oaks growing out of the top.

North of the city, the Garfagnana has some of Tuscany's best wild hiking. This valley cut by the River Serchio is hemmed in by the Apuan Alps to the south and the Apennines and Orecchiella mountains to the north—it gets wild and remote quickly as you drive away from Barga, past chestnut forests and plenty of fertile agricultural terrain.

The best hiking lies beyond Castelnuovo Garfagnana—stop off in the town to get a good trail map. The old pilgrims' trail around San Pellegrino in Alpe is gentle enough for almost anyone active.

Accessed from the Garfagnana, the Grotta del Vento cave complex lies below the karst of the Apuan Alps. You need to join a guided group to explore the tunnels, to see stalactites, stalagmites, and multiple weird rock formations cut by millennia of water eroding the limestone. Try to get up there for the first tour of the day (10 a.m.) to experience the cave at its quietest. And take a jumper—the temperature is a steady 11C all year.

It is only a short journey from Lucca to one of Tuscany's most popular coastlines, the Riviera della Versilia. A long strip of golden sand stretches north-west from Torre del Lago most of the way to Marina di Carrara. It is a largely flat, not especially dramatic stretch of coast—and gets very busy with young Florentines on summer weekends—but the beaches are superb. The boardwalk at Viareggio has bags of Art Deco character, as well as sands tended by private bathing establishments.

In winter, Abetone (64km north of Lucca) has slopes to suit beginner and intermediate skiers and snowboarders. It's not quite the Alps—seasons are a little shorter, and the arrival of crisp snow isn't quite so dependable—but in a good season, it makes a great day-trip. One-day lift passes start from €29.

  • Don't miss

    Cicli Bizzarri, Piazza Santa Maria 32, tel. 0583/496682, www.ciclibizzarri.it

    Palazzo Pfanner, Via degli Asili 33, tel. 0583/954029, www.palazzopfanner.it

    Grotta del Vento, Fornovolasco (signposted 12km south-west of Gallicano), tel. 0583/722024, www.grottadelvento.com

    Viareggio beaches, www.balneariviareggio.com/stabilimenti

    Abetone, www.abetone.com

Shopping

Via Fillungo snakes through the centre of Lucca, splitting it in two from north to south. It is the city's swishest shopping street, lined with jewellery shops, fashion boutiques, and cafes, many behind shop fronts that have their original 'Liberty' (or Art Nouveau) styling intact. Neighbouring streets (especially Via Buia) are also window-shoppers' heaven.

Enoteca Vanni is the best place in central Lucca to stock up on wine and Lucca's excellent olive oil. The DOP Lucca extra-virgin oil from Renzo Baldacchini is worth requesting. Check out the shop's subterranean cellars while you are there.

  • Don't miss

    Enoteca Vanni, Piazza San Salvatore 7, tel. 0583/491902, www.enotecavanni.com

Museums

The Museo Nazionale di Villa Guinigi houses an eclectic collection of treasures from around the city. The oldest archaeological exhibits date from the Bronze Age onwards, including booty from Etruscan tombs. Among many paintings and sculptural works are reliefs by local artist Matteo Civitali (1436–1502).

Lucca's Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Mansi is housed inside a palace decorated according to the over-the-top tastes of Lucchese nobility between the 16th and 19th centuries. However, there is no arguing with the quality of the painting collection, which includes panels by Luca Giordano, Pontormo, and Tintoretto.

For opera fans, the Villa Museo Puccini demands a pilgrimage. The composer of 'La Bohème', 'Tosca', 'Madame Butterfly', and 'Turandot' is justly considered one of opera's greats. His former home in Torre del Lago is a relatively modest, colonial style mansion by the side of Lake Massaciuccoli, and is still owned by the Puccini family. Recently restored, it is stuffed with mementoes relating to Puccini's life and works.

  • Don't miss

    Museo Nazionale di Villa Guinigi, Via della Quarquonia, tel. 0583/496033, www.luccamuseinazionali.it; closed Sundays and Mondays

    Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Mansi, Via Galli Tassi 43, tel. 0583/55570, www.luccamuseinazionali.it; closed Sundays and Mondays

    Villa Museo Puccini, Viale Puccini 266, Torre del Lago, tel. 0584/341445, www.giacomopuccini.it; closed Monday mornings and for the whole of November

Music

Lucca was the birthplace of opera composer Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924), and is still a musical city. Puccini's music plays somewhere in the city every week of the year. Puccini e la sua Lucca runs a series of opera recitals and concerts daily all summer (weekends only between November and March), at the church of San Giovanni and elsewhere.

The Teatro del Giglio is Lucca's premier stage, and showcases first-rate touring opera and ballet. The main concert season runs between October and April.

  • Don't miss

    Puccini e la sua Lucca, www.puccinielasualucca.it

    Teatro del Giglio, Piazza del Giglio 13, tel. 0583/467521, www.teatrodelgiglio.it; box office closed Sundays and Mondays

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Key contacts

Lucca's main tourist office is at Piazza Santa Maria 35, tel. 0583/919931, www.luccaturismo.it, e. info@luccaturismo.it.

There are also tourist information offices in Viareggio (Viale Carducci 10, tel. 0584/962233, e. viareggio@versilia.turismo.toscana.it), and in the Garfagnana at Barga (Via di Mezzo 47, tel. 0583/724743, e. urp@comunedibarga.it) and Castelnuovo Garfagnana (Piazza delle Erbe 1, tel. 0583/65169, e. garfagnana@tin.it).

Airports

Pisa (PSA - Galileo Galilei) is Tuscany´s international airport, located about 40 minutes´drive west of Florence. Florence (FRL - Peretola), north-west of the city, is a smaller airport receiving domestic and European flights.

If your villa is in southern or eastern Tuscany, one of Rome´s two airports may be a more practical option: Fiumicino (FCO) is the larger, for international flights; Ciampino (CIA) has a fewer facilities and caters to the discounters and smaller European airlines. Both are just off Rome´s ring road, the GRA, and convenient to all the motorways.

The little airport at Perugia (PEG - Sant´Egidio), in Umbria, is convenient fr eastern Tuscany and receives domestic italian flights and discout airlines from UK.

Insider tip

If you want to ditch the hire car for the day, Lucca is a convenient spot to jump on the Italian rail network. The city's station is just south of the walls, and has good connections to Florence , around eighty minutes away, Pistoia and Pisa, and to the sands at Viareggio.

Best & Finds

  • For the kids. The Pinocchio Park, Collodi or the water park at Castagneto Carducci
  • For the appetite.Tanacca, Capannori 'Highly recommended.' 2010
  • For ears. Puccini Opera Festival, Torre del Lago, outside Lucca