Weekend Layover: Lucca, Italy

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Seeing Lucca for the first time, visitors describe the feeling a bit like falling in love. The town’s physical beauty is almost overwhelming. With a Roman core dating to 180 B.C. surrounded by Renaissance-era walls and rolling green hills, this Tuscan jewel shines brightly at first blush and more so with each embrace. Simply said, Lucca coos with charm and whispers of romance.

But the true magic comes from the juxtaposition between historic beauty and Lucca’s youthful spirt. The cobblestone streets provide a dramatic backdrop for rotating contemporary art installations and pop-up markets, which offers travelers an opportunity to experience a town’s past while being part of its modern evolution.

The ease with which Lucca wears the old and the new sets it apart from many of its Tuscan neighbors.

A jam-packed calendar of cultural and music events makes Lucca a year-round destination. For something special, visit during Summer Fest, an annual event that turns Lucca’s historic Piazza Napoleone into a stunning amphitheater showcasing international superstars. This summer’s lineup includes Lenny Kravitz and Mark Knopler.

Day 1

Morning
Join locals in line at Forno a Vapore Amedeo Giusti. This bakery—the name means “steam oven”—is on Via S.Lucia and speaks to the time-honored technique for making its focaccia so tasty. Try one of each: caramelized onion and olive.

Next, get oriented with a walk on history. Lucca’s most famous attraction, the 16th-century fortified walls dramatically encircling the city, once provided defense and separation. Today a four-kilometer path atop the wall serves as a biking and walking trail, playground and picnic spot where daily life revolves and unfurls.

Afternoon
From its beautiful perch along the wall, Antico Caffè delle mura, provides a picturesque setting and delicious introduction to Lucchese cuisine. Soak up the sun and great views with a table in the garden while pursuing the seafood-centric menu. Order a glass of Chianti and a few specialties, like peppered mussels with homemade brown bread and octopus stew.

In this city made for art lovers—both traditional and contemporary—immersed yourself in music and romance with a visit to Puccini House Museum, birthplace of Lucca’s favorite son Giacomo Puccini. Then give modern creatives their due with a stop in Lucca Center of Contemporary Art. “Identity is diversity,” a video art project showcasing twelve cutting-edge artists, runs through March.

Save enough energy for one of Lucca’s favorite obsessions: shopping. Each Wednesday and Saturday, locals flock to the pop-up markets between Porta Elisa and Porta San Jacopo. It’s great for people-watching and picking up anything you could need, from fresh produce to fresh underwear.

The area is also known for handcrafted ceramics and two shops within two blocks make browsing easy: check out Il Ceramologo and Ceramisti d’Arte, both near Porta dei Borghi (Borgo Gate.) Just be sure the souvenir hunt doesn’t fall during afternoon siesta, when most shops are closed.

Evening
With an impressive wine selection and prime position on Lucca’s main drag Via Fillungo, the tavern Vinarkia Della Pavona feels like happy hour nirvana. Young regulars gather every afternoon for aperitifs and free antipasti like marinated olives and prosciutto-topped bruschetta. Order a aperol spritz and check out the gallery of historic photos lining the classic wood-paneled walls, then slip past the bar to settle into the hidden courtyard underneath a canopy of fruit trees.

Convinced you’ve been mistaken for a local, you’ll be welcomed as part of the family at the venerable Trattoria Da Giulio, located just inside the wall. The vibe is old school, the menu is traditional and the portions are generous. Start with Lucchese farro soup, then try the pillow-soft homemade tortellini or roasted pork with tomatoes.

Day 2

Morning
Begin the morning sipping cappuccinos elbow-to-elbow with Lucca’s friendly residents in one of the city’s most popular markets, Forno Alimentari G. Giurlani. The tiny shop is packed with cured ham and sausage hanging from the ceiling and cases filled with delicate pastries and regional cheeses.

Before you leave, gather supplies for an afternoon picnic and then it’s time to join the daily parade of cyclists. Everyone in Lucca bikes, from elderly signoras in support shoes to couples on tandem bikes.

For independent exploration, rent wheels with an audio guide from the tourist information office in Piazzale Verdi. It’s also easy to find rentals at shops near Porta Santa Maria and Porta San Pietro. If a group outing is more your speed, inquire about themed itineraries, including food and wine, archaeological and adventure at Tuscany Ride a Bike.

Afternoon
Once upon a time, Tuscany was dotted with towers built to symbolize the wealth and power of privileged families. The Torre Guinigi, located at Via Sant’Andrea 45, is one of the few remaining and offers a stunning visual reminder of the city’s medieval roots. The tower is easy to identify from most anywhere in town. Just look up for a peak of the famous oak trees growing on top. To get an oak’s perspective, climb the 230 steeps for an awe-inspiring view.

Evening
The glistening golden mosaics adorning the Romanesque Basilica of San Frediano provide drama at all hours but especially at sunset. Savor the magic hour with an aperitif and antipasti plate from the terrace of the family-run Bar San Frediano. Don’t worry about spoiling your appetite, you’ll be eating dinner late like a true Italian.

Throughout the year, the city celebrates Puccini with nightly concerts from early spring to late fall at the Church of San Giovanni and weekend performances during winter at Cathedral Museum Oratorio. There’s no better way to experience Lucca’s magic than hearing music inspired by the setting.

With the sounds of Madame Butterfly floating in your head, it’s time for food to take center stage. Specializing in regional dishes inspired by the nearby Tyrrhenian coast, Canuleia is the place of choice when locals celebrate a special occasion. For you, just being in Lucca is the occasion. Try the seafood risotto, but save room for the pistachio gelato with chocolate sauce. Divine.

A visit to Lucca isn’t complete without experiencing Piazza dell’Anfiteatro. The elliptical-shaped plaza is believed to have originated as a Roman amphitheater. Like Lucca itself, the space is alive with people, music, and art. The plaza’s many bars and cafes stay open late, offering a stellar spot for a lemoncello or grappa nightcap and one more chance to soak up the vibrant Lucchese spirit.

Getting there
From Florence, take the Florence-Viareggio train line, which less than 90 minutes. From Pisa, take the 15-minute train to Lucca is an easy 15-minute ride. Remember to stamp your ticket in the yellow box before getting on the train to avoid being fined. Lucca’s train station is just outside the city walls on the south side of town in Piazza Ricasoli. Walk two blocks from the station to reach the walled city.

To Stay
For luxury inside the walls, book a night at San Luca Palace Hotel. Located on a beautiful plaza, the hotel oozes old elegance and surprisingly spacious rooms. With a lively sidewalk café, it’s easy to find and tempting to linger. Rates start at $148.

For a cozier vibe and your own personal in-room fresco, reserve a stay at Alla Corte Degli Angeli. Housed on the top floors of a 15th-century townhouse, each of the ten floral-themed rooms features walls adorned with scenes of nature and modern bathrooms, some with Jacuzzi tubs. Rates starting at $122.

Just because you’re saving, doesn’t mean you will sacrifice comfort or charm. Budget-friendly “B&B Anfiteatro”: http://www.anfiteatrolucca.it/en/ offers five well-appointed rooms in a historic building adjacent to Lucca’s famous Anfiteatro square. With low-key charm and an exceptionally friendly staff, staying in this B&B feels like living as a local in Lucca. Rates start at $64.

Jess is a freelance writer and blogger with a passion for all things travel, art and the outdoors.

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