What to do in Lucca for a half-day? If you have only a few hours to visit Lucca, follow the itinerary that our Aussie friend and blogger Anne did last summer together with her daughter in the walled town during their trip to northern Tuscany.
On a sultry day in the height of a Tuscan summer, my daughter and I sat in the mist at a café. Little jets tied to the awnings spurted out a fine mist every few minutes, and it drifted on the breeze, a light cooling touch in the sweltering heat. We’d arrived in Lucca with no plans, for it was simply too hot to think.
The city walls, however, made an easy landmark from the train station. I bought a map from a vending machine, and we headed to the old town and settled in a café for cold drinks (We had a lot of cold drinks that day). As I read the sights I wanted to see, my daughter planned our walking route on the map. Here are tips on what to do in Lucca for a half day.
What to do in Lucca for a half-day
We only had an afternoon, barely enough to get a taste of the city. Next time I will stay here, so I can take my time exploring Lucca’s narrow streets, her many churches, and colored buildings. Geraniums sprouted from every corner. Completely enclosed by her walls, Lucca has held onto her medieval character.
Unlike many a Tuscan town, Lucca is flat. This makes it perfect not only for walking but also for riding bikes (popular with locals and tourists alike). There is even a bike path atop her walls. If you are looking for tips on what to do in Lucca in half-day, this is our experience as “first-timers” to town.
Taste Buccellato, the traditional cake of Lucca
Sitting under the mist proved the perfect opportunity to try the local cake. Buccellato is a sweet bread mixture with raisins and aniseed. The first written reference to this cake was in 1485, in legal documents relating to a woman who used a poisoned Buccellato to rid herself of her husband. In 1578 the city administrators actually imposed a tax on the cake to raise money to rebuild Lucca’s embankments.
The cake is such a part of daily life here that there is a local saying: “Chi viene a Lucca e non mangia il buccellato è come non ci fosse mai stato” – whoever comes to Lucca and doesn’t eat Buccellato might as well never have come. Who am I to argue with tradition?
Church of San Michele in Foro
Leaving the shelter of the café, we braved the heat and headed for San Michele in Foro. Dominating the Piazza San Michele, lined with beautiful 15th and 16th C palazzi, the church is unexpectedly stunning. Standing atop the old Roman forum (Lucca became a Roman colony in 180BC), San Michele has a false facade that is covered with twisted marble columns.
Most unusually for a church, the inlaid marble between the columns depicts wild beasts and mounted huntsmen. High above us stood an enormous winged figure of St. Michel, with two other angels to keep him company lest spending Eternity atop a church proves lonely. Inside the church was dark and cool – a perfect escape from the heat of the day. The painting to the right of the altar brought to mind Fra Filippo Lippi – all that time spent in museums is finally paying off! The work is actually by his son, Filippino Lippi (who can be seen – reputedly – as a baby with his mother in Lippi’s Madonna and Child with Two Angels which hangs in the Uffizi). Depicting Saints Helena, Jerome, Sebastian, and Roch, this work is reputedly one of Filippino Lippi’s more beautiful paintings.
Casa Puccini Museum
A few corners away, in the Corte San Lorenzo, stands the Casa Puccini, where the composer was born. The birth home of the great Maestro of the opera Giacomo Puccini is now a museum where you can follow the traces left by the great composer and know more about his life and passions. The surrounding square is lined with cafés, each named after one of his operas. (If interested, every summer, the big open-air opera Puccini Festival takes place on the shore of Massaciuccoli lake in the close town of Torre del Lago Puccini).
From here the course on our map led for a while along the Via Fillungo, Lucca’s main shopping street. This is a perfect place to meander along, glancing in the windows and browsing the occasional shop. Somewhere in our wanders, I purchased a gorgeous leather bag for my camera (that was my excuse) – so much easier than braving the Leather Inferno of Florence.
A glance down a side street and I spied the Torre Guinigi, a medieval tower famed for the oak and ilex trees growing on top of it. Yet as we walked towards the Torre we kept losing sight of it – just how do you lose a medieval tower?
The Palazzo Guinigi was once by the powerful Guinigi family, previous rulers of the Lucca who somehow prevented the Medici from adding Lucca to their list of financial conquests. The tower with its ilex trees offers a great view over the city, showing the Roman layout overlaid with the winding old streets and laneways of medieval times.
We sought refuge from the heat at a café in the old Roman amphitheater. We really just wanted cold drinks but ended up with a plate of salami, cheeses, and olives. A perfect snack on such a hot day – and once again, the mist drifted down from the umbrella.
The cobblestoned Piazza del Mercato retains the amphitheater’s elliptical shape, for medieval houses were built right up to the walls. The low archways remain, where gladiators, beasts, and other combatants once entered the arena.
Walk up onto the walls
We finished the day with a walk up onto the walls. This proved an absolute delight – I hadn’t realized such a wide path, complete with grass and trees, ran atop the walls. People were walking their dogs, others rode bikes, and kids were playing in parks.
There were even some cafés and restaurants, and the walls overlook the city. We didn’t manage a complete circuit (some 4km), but we did pass a church displaying the scallop shell of the pilgrim, for Lucca is on the Via Francigena, the medieval pilgrimage route to Rome.
There is obviously so much we did not get to see. But that comes from being a traveler, not a tourist; a little done well, and an appetizer of what to do in Lucca when we return. If you have more time at your disposal have a look also at the following blog posts to decide what to do in Lucca: The walls of Lucca seen from above and below Lucca a secret city behind its walls Lucca Comics and Games.