The railway station is on the South side, just outside the city walls. Some arriving buses will also deposit you there, but some come in to Piazza Santa Maria, inside the walls on the North side of the old city. It should be obvious which stop you’re getting off at!
If you are driving, don’t even attempt to park inside the walls. There are car parks, but always very busy. Better for the blood pressure to park just outside the walls: there are car parks at the NW, NE, SW and SE corners of Lucca.
If you’ve come by bus and disembarked in Piazza Santa Maria, you’re right next to the main tourist office (WC available), but there is also a smaller one at the railway station. Departing the station on foot, you’ll see the city walls right away, and you have a choice of pedestrian access under the walls (you’ll see the paved paths), or the gate, Porta San Pietro, further to the left.
The heart of Lucca (although not dead centre) is Piazza Napoleone, yes, named after that Bonaparte, who conquered the Republic of Lucca in 1805 and installed his sister Elisa as ruler. The piazza is very large and regular and surrounded on three sides by shady trees. The fourth side is the Palazzo Ducale, which today is the provincial government office, so not accessible to the public. However, you can wander into the courtyards.
In July, the piazza hosts a music festival, with some big-name mainstream acts (2015 will have Robbie Williams, Bob Dylan, Snoop Dogg, Elton John and others) but unfortunately the seating and stage fill up the square and ruin the look in the daytime, and it’s all closed off except to ticket-holders in the evenings.
Continuous with Piazza Napoleone is Piazza del Giglio, facing on to the Teatro del Giglio. If you exit the piazza on the side opposite the theatre, theatre to your right, you are on Via del Duomo, leading to the Cathedral and Piazza San Martino. Take a look at the façade. It’s all wonky and asymmetrical.
In the portico of the Duomo is a nice Labyrinth carving, and inside is a famous wooden crucifix, Il Volto Santo, believed by some to be a genuine death-portrait of Jesus, brought to Lucca by mystical means in the eighth century. Actually, it’s mid-medieval.
In the crypt (admission fee) is a famous Renaissance tomb with a marble effigy of the young and beautiful Ilaria del Carretto, commissioned by her grieving husband.
Near the Duomo, or at least, in the nearby SE corner of the walled city, you’ll find the Botanic Gardens (admission fee) but just before you reach it you’ll cross over an ancient water-supply channel, Il Fosso. Remarkably for a city-centre water course, the water is clean and there are fish in it. Villa Bottini and its gardens lie alongside the water channel.
If you follow the water, you’ll eventually see an arch on your left, entrance to Via Fillungo, Lucca’s poshest shopping street (also the focus of the evening passaggiatta). About half-way down, it passes the Piazza Antifeatro. You can only see the Roman remains on the outside walls of the buildings, but of course, you have to go in as well.
On the opposite side of Via Fillungo to the amphitheatre is Piazza San Frediano and San Frediano church, the best feature of which is the gold mosaic on the façade. Although the church is dedicated to the Irishman Fridianus, who was an early bishop of Lucca, there is also a glass case holding the mummified body of Santa Zita, the city’s local saint. She is often appealed to in order to help find lost keys.
Passing the church on Via San Fred, and then taking a left at the end, onto Via Cesare Battisti, the first on your right is Via degli Asili where there’s the entrance to Palazzo Pfanner. (They usually have a billboard outside which you can spot from the end of the street.) Pfanner was a rich brewer from Austria who bought the former home of the Controni family. You can choose to buy a ticket either for the classical garden alone, or for house plus gardens.
When you come out, follow the Via degli Asili in the same direction you were going, taking a left bend, then stright on, and you’ll come to Piazza San Michele and the most striking church in Lucca, in my opinion, San Michele in Foro. It gets the “in Foro” epithet because it’s supposed to be the site of the Roman forum. The square is a nice place to idle in as well. (For more Latin lingo, there is another church called Santa Maria Foris Portam, Santa Maria Outside The Gate. It was outside the Roman walls, but is now enclosed in the later ones.)
From San Michele, follow the line of cafes to the left of the church and turn left up Via Santa Lucia. Take the first right, Via Buia, which becomes Via Sant’Andrea. You’ll come to the entrance to Palazzo Guinigi, which has the famous tower topped by oak trees. A lot of steps, and there is an admission fee.
I’ve not yet mentioned visiting the most conspicuous feature of Lucca: the city walls. At least they are easy to find. From anywhere in the city you’re near a gate with ramps or steps up to the “Passeggiata delle Mura”. It’s six kilometres round the complete circuit, so a walk will take around an hour. However, it’s very cheap to rent a bike for an hour, and you could zip round the walls and have extra time to explore elsewhere.
There are a couple of bike places on Piazza Santa Maria on the North side and one on Corso Garibaldi on the South. They take your passport or driving licence as security, and you pay on return. There is a variety of machines available as well as normal road bikes, including tandems and side-by-side designs.
Apart from the circuit of the walls, shaded by chestnut trees, there are arrow-shaped bastions every few hundred metres, which provided the defenders with vantage points to view (and shoot) along the line of the walls. They all follow the same basic design, but there are a couple of oddities. San Frediano, in the middle of the North side, was never finished, and is cut off short. You can see the foundations of the planned arrow-head in the grass opposite it. San Columbano (Columbanus, Irish saint) in the centre of the South wall still has its gun turret, which has been turned into an expensive restaurant.
Several of the bastions have pedestrian gates cut through, but San Martino, on the North, next to Piazza Santa Maria also gives access to that section of the defensive underground works within the walls. (The similar part of San Columbano bastion is sometimes open for special exhibitions.) From the litter and extensive graffiti, I guess there is an active underground night life, but it’s peaceful in day time.
What I’ve described so far would easily fill a day or more, and of course, you’ll be spoiled for choice for lunch or dinner, but I have a couple of suggestions if you have more time, or you just want to get out of the city, leave the people there behind.
Running from the South side of the city there is a substantial aqueduct, built in 1822 to supply fresh mountain water to Lucca. To find it, exit the city from Porta San Pietro and keep straight on until you reach a footbridge over the railway. On the far side of the tracks, bear left onto Via Lorenzo Nottolini (parallel with the railway). There’s an S-bend, but it’s still Via Nottolini. At the same junction as Via Porsicchi on your right, there’s another little road, Via Tempietto, at the end of which you will be able to see the “Tempietto” itself. It looks like a round Roman temple, but it’s actually the terminus of the aqueduct.
Unfortunately, the Tempietto is in bad repair and is boarded up and fenced off pending works, but you can still hear water running. The aqueduct itself is attached to the back, and there is a grassy footpath alongside. Very very soon, you’re among gardens and vineyards and it’s peaceful and quiet, even though you’re so close to the city.
I’ve followed that path twice, once on foot and once by rented bike, and I’d recommend the walking. On a bicycle, you have to follow a narrow tyre rut, or else concentrate hard on avoiding it. On both occasions, I only went as far as the A11/E76 motorway, where Mussolini’s engineers brutally chopped the acqueduct in two to allow the road through. There is an old footbridge, and you can rejoin the aqueduct and follow it all the way to Monte Pisano (where there’s another Tempietto, apparently).
The other way to get to the countryside is to go North from the city to find the river, the Serchio. This involves walking out of Porta Santa Maria and crossing the roundabout. The road, Borgo Gianotti, runs through an unremarkable modern part of Lucca, but once you’ve crossed the major junction you’ll see a car park to your left, which give motorists access to the river park (the big structure on the right side of the road is a farmers’ market). You might first want to carry on to the road bridge to get views up and down the river. It’s impressive; wider than the Arno in Florence.
Actually, you can walk along the river on either side, but access is easier on the South, Lucca, side. On the North bank is the village of Monte San Quirico and turning left at the end of the bridge, you can either find a gap between the riverside houses, or go beyond them to the official Via delle Piagge footpath.
If you wanted a longer walk, you could carry on down the river on the San Quirico side to the footbridge, which is about two kilometres away. At that point, you are West of the old city and would have to go South and East; about another two and a half kilometres. In my case, I simply retraced my steps, returned to civilization, and had a gelato.