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A popular day trip from Florence or Pisa, Tuscany’s third-largest city, Lucca, has a more relaxed pace away from the crowds. The historic centre is surrounded by immense defensive walls that date back to the Middle Ages and were designed by Leonardo da Vinci. The paths around the tops of the walls make a great 4km walking circuit. Inside the walls, the preserved city is filled with bustling plazas, 99 churches and plenty of places for a slice of pizza or cup of gelato.
You can soak up the local Tuscan lifestyle starting with free buffet breakfasts of artisan breads, jams and honey. Eat outside in sun-filled gardens as you make your plans for the day, or have an aperitif later in the afternoon at a Lucca hostel with an on-site bar where locals hang out. You'll find hostels in Lucca in 20th-century buildings with traditional features like wooden beam ceilings, or in the heart of the historic centre just steps from the Roman amphitheatre.
Once the site of gladiator fights, the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro is now the social hub of Lucca. The large, oval space is filled with typically Italian café and bar terraces shaded by umbrellas, and market stalls selling everything from ceramics to garden plants. The gates, or portas, in the city walls – Elisa in the east, San Pietro in the south and Santa Maria in the north – lead into the walled city from surrounding neighbourhoods. Traditional districts outside the walls offer a taste of local life, like Borgo Giannotti’s quaint restaurants, bakeries and florists.
A walk around the well-preserved Renaissance walls will help establish your bearings, before you get to exploring the old centre’s labyrinth of cobblestone streets. For a bird’s-eye view of the city, climb the 45-metre-tall Torre Guinigi, which is topped, unexpectedly, by oak trees. Music lovers can visit the house where composer Puccini was born, while art lovers should check out the rotating exhibits at LuCCA (Lucca Centre of Contemporary Art), which include photography, video and sculpture.
Unlike many Tuscan cities, Lucca is flat, making it a great place to explore on bike like the locals. Train lines connecting Florence to Pisa and Viareggio stop in Lucca. The train station is just outside the Porta San Pietro, a 5-minute walk from the city centre. The bus station is inside the city walls, on Piazzale Verdi, and has links to other major cities in Italy.