Last Updated on August 17, 2023
One of the most wonderful aspects of traveling is finding the unexpected. Based on a newspaper article that assured me I’d find some of the best Italian food in Lucca, Italy, I set off to explore this oft overlooked city in Tuscany. I found the food, of course, but also much more…..
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By Jim Ferri
Many travelers to Italy hit only the “big name” spots: Rome, Venice, Florence, Bologna, the Amalfi, etc. Lucca, however, is a wonderful Italian town that relatively few travelers know. That’s unfortunate, since it differs from it’s Italian siblings in many ways.
It first caught my attention years ago while I was reading an article in The New York Times. The author, Mark Bittman, soon to become the Time’s food columnist, rated Lucca’s cuisine as “the best in Tuscany.” I jotted a mental note to seek it out the next time I was in Tuscany, or, in fact, anywhere near Tuscany, one of the top places to visit in Italy.
Years later, in western Tuscany with my wife, daughter and son-in-law, I had my opportunity. Driving north from Pisa we turned eastward towards Lucca in search of the subject of Bittman’s column.
In addition to wonderful food, I also discovered a feast of medieval streets and buildings, all scattered about the city. In fact, the street grid still follows the pattern laid out by the Romans in 180 BC.
Lucca’s Renaissance Ramparts
Lucca, Italy lies in the hills near the Ligurian Sea west of Florence, just a bit north of Pisa.
Lucca is a beautiful little city, completely encircled by walls built during the Renaissance. It’s one of the few, or perhaps the only, Italian city with such intact ramparts.
The broad huge walls, made into a park in the 19th century, still provide a place to stroll. They also provide the place to enjoy beautiful views of the city.
More importantly, they also keep traffic out of the old city. It makes Lucca not only exceptionally peaceful but also a great city to explore on foot.
Many people, in fact, consider walking on the ramparts one of the very pleasant things to do in Lucca.
Exploring the Old Renaissance City
After parking our rental in a small lot outside the Porta Vittorio Emanuele, we passed through the gate and followed Via Emanuele deeper into the old city of Lucca. A large map of the old city posted by the gate let us plot our walk.
Via Emanuele is colorful and quiet. You find many people either slipping in and out of myriad shops or relaxing in a gaggle of outdoor cafés.
It was all so La Dolce Vita-ish that we wanted to join Lucca’s little café society. But being short on time we continued onward to see what awaited.
San Michele in Foro
What we found in Lucca was a marvelous old city that was a feast for our eyes. It’s all centered about San Michele in Foro, a basilica built over the Roman Forum (thus the “in Foro”).
The church is famous for the numerous twisted and carved columns on its Pisan-Romanesque façade, each different from one another.
If we wanted, we could have visited the birthplace of the composer Giacomo Puccini that was across from the basilica. But we opted instead to wander through the small market adjacent to the church on Piazza San Michele. After that we headed down a half dozen of the old side streets.
Wandering a Maze of Streets
As often happens in many old Italian cities such as Lucca, we soon found ourselves wandering aimlessly along a warren of narrow lanes that abruptly opened into little piazzas, every so often revealing a little church or a clutch of cafes and shops.
We were in and out of several of Lucca’s shops, but not the most historic buildings and churches, since we were continually drawn along by the sensuality of the little streets.
In one tree-coiffed piazza, we came across a small merry-go-round surrounded by children playing in the square, it apparently being part of a little carnival that had moved into town for a few days.
Although Lucca, Italy once also boasted an old Roman amphitheater, today it’s nearly invisible due to it being sacked for centuries for its marble and stone, all repurposed to build the city’s churches and palaces.
As the sun slowly set, we began our search for a restaurant, to me always one of the most pleasant aspects of a day in any Italian city. Lucca, I knew, would be special.
Moseying along the old streets beyond the pedestrian-only zone we finally found one that satisfied our aggregated palates and chose an outdoor table on the sidewalk.
Only a block or so away from the old city’s oasis of quiet, we had an excellent meal, despite the serenade of motor scooters and cars roaring by our little sliver of sidewalk.
Nevertheless, we enjoyed a delicious meal, appropriately capped off with a passeggiata atop Lucca’s ancient ramparts as we sauntered back to Porta Vittorio Emanuele.
If You Go:
Italian Government Tourist Office