If you fancy escaping to a walled Tuscan city, here are 23 of the best things to do in Lucca, Italy, which should give you a good flavour of the place. I spent two nights in Lucca as part of a wider Tuscany trip, and this wee selection of sights, eats and activities is more than enough to pack into a short stay.
Lucca is known for being the ‘city of a hundred churches’. I’m not sure whether that’s factually accurate, but there are a lot of them. You’ll enjoy visiting if that’s your thing. But if you’re doing a longer Italian trip and the thought of traipsing round yet another church makes your heart sink (we’ve all been there), fear not. There’s plenty of other things to do in Lucca, not least getting your 10,000 steps a day in walking the extensive medieval walls that encircle the city. There’s also a tower with trees growing on top and stunning views. Oh and a beautiful yellow piazza in a former Roman amphitheatre, where you can sit with a glass of wine and watch the world go by.
If that sounds up your street, read on for more detail on 23 things to do in Lucca that I personally recommend…
Things to do in Lucca, Italy
1. Visit the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro
I thought Piazza dell’Anfiteatro was the prettiest spot in Lucca. Yellow-painted, green-shuttered buildings surround the ovular piazza, creating a sort of terraced effect that opens up at four ‘gateways’ to enter through. It’s sort of a charming walled square within a walled city. If you like the huge square in Siena, you’ll probably like this mini yellow version.
This is a good place to head to at the end of your first day in Lucca for an aperitivo and a people watch. Of course, it attracts a lot of tourists but it’s actually got some nice places for a drink. I wouldn’t normally recommend drinking in a main square in Italy because they tend to be so much more expensive and they’re often where all the rubbish touristy cafés are, but Lucca didn’t seem to suffer from this. We had an Aperol spritz at one of the bars and it was a 10/10.
Unsurprisingly given its name, Piazza dell’Anfiteatro was once a Roman amphitheatre. Not much from its original structure remains, but you can still picture it hosting some gladiators’ duels because of its elliptical shape. If you want to spot some of the original walls, go to the outer perimeter and walk along the Via dell’Anfiteatro. You can see some in particular in front of Piazza Scalpellini.
2. Walk around the city walls
Lucca is known for its medieval city walls that still surround most of the old town. Most walled cities ended up with their walls being moved or knocked down as the centre grew and modernised, but Lucca has managed to keep its intact.
The whole wall is about 4km. You walk on top of it, along a sort of tree-lined boulevard that makes for a good trek if you want to burn off some pasta. There are some nice views over the city and the Tuscan hills, and you’ll be among local cyclists, joggers and dog walkers going about their business. The walls also have 11 bastions sticking out at strategic intervals. Some of these have benches and cafés on, and most of them you can get off the walls at down some steps if you’re bored with the walk and need a gelato.
We walked the walls on our trip fully on one day, on top of other walking. I only realised we’d done 30,000 steps when I looked at my phone as it didn’t feel like it at all. Bonus.
3. See Lucca’s duomo
What visit to an Italian city would be complete without a bit of duomo action? Despite being a small city, Lucca of course has its own duomo, the Cattedrale di San Martino. Unlike Milan and Florence, it’s not got a big dome on it but it does have a great big bell tower, which is only half finished. This accounts for the exposed brick on the lower half of it, which I thought was just a style statement (who doesn’t want exposed brick in their living room to this very day?).
You can also go in for a small fee. Climb up the bell tower for views of the city (although you probably want to save your tower-climbing for later…) or look at the various works of art in the main body of the building.
One of these artworks is the Volto Santo, am 8ft-tall dark wooden carving of Jesus on a cross. This is a big deal in Lucca and is the reason behind one of its festivals, the Luminaria di Santa Croce. Every 13 September at dusk, the city’s streets are filled with thousands of candles to light the way. A procession follows the route the sculpture is said to have taken when it was first brought to the city. Representatives from international churches attend, and someone carries the sculpture itself. They end at the duomo later in the evening. I’m not religious one bit but this sounds like a really atmospheric thing to see; something to bear in mind if you’re planning a Tuscan trip in September.
Oh and finally, the cathedral is dedicated to St Martin of Tours. Apparently he’s the patron saint of beggars, wool-weavers and tailors, geese, vintners and innkeepers, and France. I think he just picked those to sound eclectic on the ‘interests and hobbies’ section of his online dating profiles.
4. Climb up the Guinigi Tower for views and oak trees
This was my favourite of all the things to do in Lucca that I’m recommending here. So make sure you do it!
The city has several historical towers, but none are anything like the unique 45-metre-high Torre Guinigi. I’ve never experienced anything like it, and I’ve been up a lot of towers on European city breaks in my time.
This bad boy has its own rooftop forest. That’s right, it has trees growing on the top of the tower. Oak trees no less, which symbolise rebirth and have become icons of the city.
Built in the 14th century, this tower is in the Romanesque/Gothic style with arched windows and more exposed brickwork. You can look out of the windows as you climb up, so it’s not one of those towers that’s really closed in. It’s also not too bad a climb at all, and believe me I’d tell you if it was because of course I wasn’t wearing sensible shoes for it.
At the time I visited, it was 5€ to go up the tower. This is well worth it for the views of all the rooftops against the backdrop of hills, framed by the branches of the oak trees. Lovely stuff.
5. Have a local wine in La Cantina di Lucca
Lucca is a small city, so I’m not recommending trying to cram every moment with action like you should do in Rome or Venice. Unless you’re on a really tight schedule, you should set aside an early evening to do very little. If the weather’s ok, sit outside in a piazza and watch the world go by, drink in hand.
If it’s not blazing sunshine, there’s a very good indoor option in the form of a cosy wine bar, La Cantina di Lucca. For some reason, it has an American theme to it with US flags/whisky/hotdogs. Probably not what you expect in Lucca. If you’re American, as I know some of my regular readers here are, it might not be for you. I imagine that going to an American-themed bar wouldn’t be on your list of things to do while you’re in Europe! But otherwise, it’s a novelty and seems to encourage people to talk to each other. Maybe they imported some of the instant chattiness with strangers you only really experience in the USA.
Most importantly. the bar has a big selection of organic local wines you can try. Apparently, they’re all from within 35km of Lucca, so really are proper local. Oh and the staff put packs of playing cards on the tables so you can play while you chat and enjoy your wine. A really nice touch.
6. See the San Michele in Foro
Another church in the centre of Lucca, the Basilica di San Michele in Foro has a facade you’ll remember. Arches and columns galore. They’ve really gone to town with the amount of detail when building this. Above each row of arches, you’ll see sculptures of various wild creatures. I thought this facade was actually more impressive than the main duomo’s.
You’ll spot that there’s a big angel statue on top of the many arches (as shown below). Apparently, its wings are flexible so they can move in the wind! I didn’t see even a twitch, despite it being a breezy day. But the internet reliably tells me that on special occasions, the church staff go up and give the wings a wiggle from behind so the people below can see them flapping away.
You can go into the church for free, but it’s nothing to write home about to be honest. It’s all about the outside details.
7. Stay at this beautiful B&B with a massive room
I don’t often rave about where I’ve stayed but this is one of the fanciest rooms I’ve ever slept in. You’d think it cost a bomb, looking at the size and opulence of it. Even more so when I tell you it was right by the duomo and looked directly onto its rooftop… But actually we only paid around £44 a night for it (50€). I have no idea why it was so insanely cheap, considering how posh it is, but there you go. It’s called B&B Il Duomo (wonder where they thought of the name from?!). Massively recommend!
Side note: I spent a nice 15 minutes in that room, panicking and furiously applying bicarbonate of soda to my brand-new coat, having spilled oil down the front of it. This happens every single time I’m in Italy and allowed within 10 metres of a bottle of oil. But on the plus side, I know how to run into a local shop and hunt down the bicarbonato di sodio like a pro. They don’t keep it with the baking things like you’d expect, but rather with the bottled water and fizzy drinks. No idea why, but there you go. Thank me later.
8. Have a vegan buddha bowl at Soup in Town
If you’re in Italy and don’t eat meat or cheese, I feel your pain. It’s entirely possible to survive, and even thrive, in the land of pig and cow products, but it requires planning ahead. One place I was really glad I’d bookmarked for lunch on my first day in Lucca was Soup in Town, a great little spot for lunch.
Although it advertises itself as being a soup café, the buddha bowls seemed much more interesting than the soups so I went for one of them. Absolutely delicious – black rice, grilled vegetables and mustardy sauce. This was a really good find and a welcome break from veggie pasta/pizza, given the limited vegan options in Tuscany.
9. Treat yo’self in one of the shops you can’t get at home
I bang on about this in every blog post but it drives me mad when people go into places like H&M on holiday (unless you actually need something) when you can get them at home. Pointless.
But it’s worth looking to see whether there are any affordable clothing shops that we don’t have in the UK. I always find this hard to fathom until I get there, because trying to identify nice shops through internet research just brings up really expensive designer ones. I want Zara prices but clothes I can’t get at home!
Anyway, my ‘find’ in Lucca was this little gem called Kikisix (you can get an idea of their stuff on their Instagram or on their website). The style was right up my street and I managed to have a great little spree in there without breaking the bank. Alas, this meant I spent the rest of the holiday worrying about being over my suitcase weight limit… I was actually under by 1kg. In your face, EasyJet.
10. Visit the Orto Botanico di Lucca for greenery… and ghosts
You can always rely on botanical gardens as a good thing to do on any city break. Lucca is no exception to this rule. The gardens are only small, but make for a nice little detour if you’re exploring the city on a sunny day or if you’re walking the walls. It’s 5€ to enter (at the time of writing, but do check). You can mooch round for about 20 minutes easily, taking in the small greenhouses, trees and pond. There are some terrapins lurking in the water, too.
You might also like to know that Lucca’s local spooky legend is heavily linked to the gardens and their pond. I bloody love a ghost story, so here’s the lowdown…
Spooky side story: Lucida Mansi and the pond
Lucida Mansi was a rich noblewoman, born in Lucca in 1606 and renowned for being a hotty but also very vain. In the words of The Streets, she was ‘fit but my gosh don’t you know it?’. She loved herself so much that she had mirrors installed all over her house. If she was here in 2020, she’d probably take a lot of selfies.
Anyway, she was checking herself out in the mirror one day and noticed a wrinkle. Join the club, love. But she wasn’t happy about this at all. She loved partying and wanted to always be the belle of the ball. So she had a good cry over it and was probably about to look up what the best botox clinic in Lucca was… when a man appeared in front of her out of nowhere!
Yeah, you guessed it. It was the Devil. He promised her 30 more years of youth and a wrinkle-free forehead, but he’d then be back for payment. The payment had to be her soul. Cue dramatic music. Deal or no deal, Lucida? You can probably guess. She accepted the deal, with no hesitation, and continued living the high life as a total babe.
After the 30 years of smooth skin has passed, Lucida was unsurprisingly bricking it. The Devil turned up and although she begged him to spare her, he wasn’t interested. He dragged her screaming around the city walls (for 4km, which you’ll know if you were paying attention earlier on in this blogpost) on his flaming chariot. When he completed his circuit, he sank her with the chariot INTO THE POND IN THE BOTANICAL GARDENS.
Legend has it that just before midnight every Halloween, you can hear the sound of hooves and even glimpse the burning chariot diving in the pond. And if you stick your head under the water, you’ll spot Lucida’s face in the murky depths. I am obviously not recommending you try this, for various reasons. But I hope you enjoy the story, and the gardens.
11. Have a local craft beer in De Cervesia Beershop
If you’re into craft beer, go to De Cervesia Beer & Shop. It’s mostly bottles but they have a couple on tap too from local microbreweries. Tuscany might be more known for wine, but there’s a growing craft beer scene. Although it’s described as a shop, there are a few tables at the back where you can sit and enjoy working your way through the selection.
12. Walk round Piazza Napoleone
Not too far from Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, there’s another piazza worth seeing: Piazza Napoleone. Napoleon’s sister, Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, led the Principality of Lucca for 10 years in the 1800s. She took the opportunity to re-name the piazza and had it all done up, including planting the sycamores around its edge.
Keep an eye out for glass blocks around the piazza. These were put in so visitors can see some of the foundations of the buildings demolished in the Napoleonic era.
The piazza is also home to the Lucca Summer Festival, usually in July. They get some big international names (e.g. 2021 is expecting Beck, John Legend, and Paul McCartney). So if you’re planning a summer visit, bear this in mind.
13. Admire the brilliant street art
Although there’s probably more frequent street art to spot in Florence, I found that Lucca had its fair share.
There’s a local Florentine street artist known as Blub (Instagram link here), who paints icons of the past wearing diving masks against a blue square background. She or he had a few pieces around Lucca (sadly my two photos of them are rubbish!) but there were also pieces by other street artists that I really enjoyed.
If anyone know who did the below one, let me know in the comments.
14. Do a bit of (window) shopping along Via Fillungo
If you looked up my recommendation in #9 of this list, Kikisix, you’ll have found Via Fillungo already. This is Lucca’s main shopping street for clothes and accessories, located in the heart of the historic centre.
It’s cobbled, mostly pedestrianised and winding, with some bits opening into little squares, so it’s a lovely place to wander and browse. The shops are more Max Mara than H&M in terms of price, so bear that in mind for the sake of your bank balance. Like across most of Italy, they stay open into the evening on week days so it’s bustling until late.
15. See the facade on the Basilica of San Frediano
How’s that for a mosaic? The intricacies and colour on it are really striking.
Definitely worth hovering outside until the light catches all the gold detailing for a perfect shot, before going inside to see #16 on this list…
16. Meet the mummified body of the ‘Incorruptible’ St. Zita
After getting your fill of the beautiful facade, you can head inside the Basilica of San Frediano for the price of 3€. You may be all churched out if you’ve been in lots during your time in Italy, but this one has something a bit more unusual inside…
You’ll be able to see the naturally mummified body of a woman, who was deemed a saint, on display in a glass casket.
She’s St Zita, patron saint of Lucca, but also of servants/household staff and of lost keys. I wonder whether she knows where all the hotel key cards I’ve lost over the years are?
Here’s her backstory. Zita was a servant working for a rich family in Lucca. She was apparently known for her chirpy demeanour and for giving leftover bread to the poor. After years of hard work, the family eventually promoted her to head housekeeper. But much like Jenny from the Block, she didn’t forget where she came from. She continued sneaking bread out of the kitchen in order to feed the poor. One day, a fellow servant snitched on her for ‘stealing’ bread. How mean is that? So the family sent someone to search her, but when they pulled at her apron to release the stolen bread, flowers burst out instead. They couldn’t sack her based on that. Ha. So she carried on being lovely and charitable until the day she died. And on that day, legend has it that the church bells spontaneously began to ring…
Given all these antics, her fame spread after her death and in 1580, her body was exhumed. It was found to be ‘incorruptible’ (naturally mummified), so was put on display for you and me to see to this very day. It gave me the creeps, but if you like stuff like that then it’s worth seeing.
17. Climb up the Torre delle Ore
The Torre delle Ore is another tower that you can climb to the top of for views. It’s the white one in the below photo.
Why would you want to climb another bloody tower when you’ve already climbed a great one WITH TREES ON, I hear you cry (sort of)? Good question. Obviously the view is pretty much the same. But if you want to take a photo of Guingi Tower and its beautiful trees, you can do it from here.
Just be aware the bells are loud AF if they go off while you’re up there. Not good if you’ve had too much Tuscan wine the night before.
18. Do your research if you want some vegan (or international) food
Now, as much as I liked Lucca in general, the food situation there was HARD WORK. If you don’t eat meat or cheese in Tuscany, you have to do even higher levels of planning than you do for eating in Italy overall, because Tuscany really is meat and cheese heavy. So I tried to plan ahead for Lucca with this in mind. But crikey, I’ve never had such trouble finding vegan-friendly places to eat. I’m used to finding amazing vegan eats in Italy and it’s always worth the effort, so I will happily put the time in. But it took me hours to find a list of options to save on my phone for our stay in Lucca. There just wasn’t that much choice.
I decided to ask in a local Facebook group why it was a challenge in Lucca. The answer is apparently because in 2008, the city of Lucca banned international food being served within the city walls. This was in a bid to keep food more ‘local’ (i.e. based around meat and cheese). So the usual go-to vegan options that Italy does well, like falafel and tofu dishes, would fall under ‘international’ and might not be allowed.
Anyway, if you’re struggling, the Happy Cow website/app is always a saviour. It’s still possible to eat good vegan/veggie dishes in Lucca, if you put the research in. And actually looking on Happy Cow while writing this up, it looks like a few more options have opened up since I went. Progress!
19. Wander the cobbled streets and get some pretty photographs
Unlike Rome, Venice or Florence, where there are specific sights you’d probably want to head to first, the whole of Lucca’s old city is like a living museum. Just walking around its narrow alleyways and cobbled streets (which are mostly pedestrianised) is an experience in itself, rather than it having one ‘big’ attraction after another.
One of my favourite little spots was this square and gorgeous wisteria adorning a wall.
20. Visit the Palazzo Pfanner, a 17th century villa with gardens
The Palazzo Pfanner is a small but pretty villa just inside the walls of Lucca, a bit of which is open to the public for 6€ to enter.
Inside, you’ll find a few rooms laid out as they would have been lived in, and a collection of gruesome-looking medical instruments because the original owner was a surgeon. The inside didn’t wow me, but I liked walking round the beautiful Baroque garden. It doesn’t take long as it’s only little, but it’s well looked after and has some nice fountains, fragrant lemon trees and lovely flowering borders.
21. Buy some foodie souvenirs at Vecchi Sapori di Lucca
Vecchi Sapori di Lucca is a speciality Tuscan food shop, where you can buy wine, colourful pasta, balsamic vinegar, buccellato (see #23 for more on that), condiments, biscuits, oil and other delights.
Really good for finding foodie souvenirs to take home for
your friends yourself.
22. Go to the Puccini House Museum
Puccini, the famous opera composer, was born in Lucca. His home is now a small museum, set up as it would have been when he lived there. You can see his actual piano and personal letters, along with costumes and various opera-related memorabilia.
I won’t lie, this is the one thing on this list of things to do in Lucca that I didn’t do myself, and am purely adding it for your information. I only walked past his statue and didn’t bother going into the museum itself as I have zero interest in opera. But I always enjoy going to the homes of historical figures I’m interested in, so if Puccini is your man then you’ll probably want to add this to your plans.
23. Try the local sweet treat, buccellato di Lucca
Buccellato is a sweet bread with raisins in, formed into a ring shape and eaten for breakfast or a snack. You can find it in most bakeries around the city, and definitely in Vecchi Sapori di Lucca.
Be warned though, it’s flavoured with a bit of aniseed. I am not a fan. But ‘they’ say that if you go to Lucca and don’t try buccellato, you didn’t really go to Lucca, so I forced a bit down. It’d be nice without the aniseed.
I googled buccellato from our hotel room in Lucca to read up a bit about it on our first day there, and found something that said the first reference to buccellato was in an 1485 document stating that a woman had killed her husband with a poisoned buccellato! Perhaps he just had a bad reaction to the horrors of aniseed…
Anyway, it’s always fun to try the local pastry/bread/cake, so keep an eye out for buccellato and buy one to share. Or not to share, if you like aniseed.
Things to do in Lucca, Italy – useful information for your trip
Where to stay in Lucca
As I said further up in this blogpost, I massively recommend booking B&B Il Duomo. The location couldn’t have been better. And the room was incredibly opulent for the price (about 50€ a night at the time of writing). It felt dead fancy.
How to get around Lucca
Everything is walkable. It’s a small city. However, people who aren’t as lazy as me might want to hire a bike as it’d be ideal for going around the city walls or popping to a winery just outside the city.
When to go to Lucca
I visited in spring, which is my favourite time of year for going anywhere in Italy. As long as you avoid the height of summer and the depths of winter (unless you’re well ‘ard), you’ll be fine. It’s nicer to visit when things are quieter, especially places like Lucca that are small enough to feel a bit overrun by tourists when it’s very busy.
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