Italy is a dream destination for many, as it was for me. I spent a week in Rome on my first trip to Italy. Roamed around Naples, the Amalfi Coast, and Sicily on my second trip. But my third trip to Italy, to Florence, was when I finally got to visit Pisa and also discovered two other beautiful Italian towns (Orvieto gets a post all its own). These towns retain their old world charm and authentic Italian ways, seemingly unfazed by the countless tourists that visit every year.
I love that the Italians keep it real. Real Italian. They don’t give in to tourists who come and say things like, “Why is there no cheese on my pizza?” or “Don’t you have ice?” Italians don’t care. In Italy, you do it their way or you don’t do it. I despise standing up to drink my coffee like it’s a quick shot of tequila at the bar, but when in Rome… Or Lucca and Pisa… I drink my coffee standing up if I have to. It’s worth it.
Pisa is known all over the world for one thing. But it has more to offer than a quick visit to the infamous Leaning Tower of Pisa. Not far away is the charming little hillside town of Lucca, which is a lot less famous, but it’s not exactly undiscovered. Both are just a short train ride from Florence, and an even shorter train ride from each other. I visited both in one rainy, grey, winter day, but I fell in love with them anyway.
I actually don’t recommend seeing them both in one day, although it is very doable. Go to Pisa, but stay overnight in Lucca. I love this town and would’ve loved to wake up there, have a shot of espresso while standing at the bar, and stroll the streets. But alas, I didn’t know what awaited me there and I had a room in Florence.
Here’s a list of reasons why you should visit both of these Italian towns.
Why I Love Pisa
Since I was a child I dreamed of seeing this leaning tower. How is it possible? How could it not fall over? Surely no one could climb to the top without falling off. As I got older I understood why it leaned, sort of, and that it is indeed possible to climb to the top. That made me even more curious and more determined to see it and climb it. I learned that it leans about 5 degrees, which didn’t mean much to me, until I saw it. Wow, what a difference 5 degrees makes! It is seriously noticeable and I could even feel it when I climbed the 394 steps to the top.
I took the train from Florence to Pisa at 7:00am and arrived at 7:50. I had about a mile to walk to the infamous leaning tower from the train station, and I wanted some time to take pictures before the ticket sales began at 8:30. This worked out great for two reasons. No one was around, even at the tower, and ticket sales didn’t start until 9:15. This somewhat random time was decided upon at around 8:30. Very Italian indeed.
I ended up being first in line for tickets, which was a first for me. Reservations are recommended for the leaning tower, which I did not know, because only a certain number of people are allowed up at any one time. Different sources give different numbers, but it’s about 40. On this day, it was raining and early, so there weren’t many people there at all, so I had the top of the tower almost all to myself. Amazing views even in the rain. However, I think in the summer arriving very early or definitely having a reservation might still mean that you wait in a line.
Was it worth all the excitement and getting up early and buying an umbrella at the train station? Yes! There is more to Pisa than a leaning tower. A lot of buildings in Pisa lean! I didn’t know this. None lean as noticeably as the bell tower though. The leaning tower is actually the campanile, or bell tower, for the main cathedral in Pisa.
There is also a baptistery constructed in 1152 which is well worth a visit, and apparently it leans too, but I couldn’t really see the lean, nor did I feel it inside. The acoustics inside are amazing. The campanile, baptistery, and former cemetery all require you to buy a ticket. The cathedral itself is free, but you still need a ticket even if you aren’t visiting any of the other sites.
A ticket to climb the tower and see everything else was 23 euros. To only climb the tower and see the cathedral is 18 euros, so I think it is worth is to pay a bit more and see it all. The frescoes the line all four walls of the cemetery are incredible, even though sections are not visible because of restoration. Whatever you do, don’t try to enter the cathedral without the highly-prized ‘free pass’. Not even the Italians were allowed in without it, but they sure did hold up the line while trying.
Most everything near the leaning tower was open by the time I left. I decided to walk through Pisa because the shops and restaurants near the tower were very touristy, but the rest of Pisa doesn’t seem to be affected so much by tourism. The town seemed kind of deserted. A few restaurants and cafes were open in the town, so I stopped to have coffee and since I was the only one there, I got great service from about four different waiters.
I explored Piazza de Cavalieri, a stately and photogenic piazza where Scuola Normale is found. What’s this, you ask, and why do I care? This is where Enrico Fermi, who created the first nuclear reactor, and Carlo Rubbia studied. There is also a beautiful historic clock tower that no longer keeps time, but it is famous because it is supposedly where Count Ugolino della Gherardesca and his children were starved to death after he was accused of treason. At least, that’s what Dante reports in his Divine Comedy. Many people walk through this square not realizing its significance, and I would have too had I not had a guidebook.
One thing I sort of missed, even though I had a guidebook, was Chiesa di Santa Maria della Spina, a small but extraordinary church right on the river. I saw it, took a picture, but because I saw the front and not the side view of it, I didn’t realize its significance.
I continued through town to the train station because so many things were closed. I decided to go on to Lucca which is only a 25-minute train ride away. As I walked back to the train station, I had a sense of satisfaction and bliss knowing I finally saw the tower I dreamed of seeing for so many years and I loved it. I love the lean.
Why I Love Lucca
I saw this Tuscan hill town on a television program and just had to see it for myself. It’s a 25 minute train ride from Pisa, or about 1.5 hours from Florence, maybe less. Its historic center has remained unchanged for centuries as it was never bombed during WWII. This, along with its heavily fortified Renaissance walls, also unchanged, make Lucca a favorite destination for tourists and locals alike. Most locals use bicycles, most windows have flower boxes, and the architecture makes you feel like you have gone back in time.
I think I had two strikes against me when I went to Lucca. There aren’t many tourists here in winter, so a lot of shops, restaurants, and other businesses were actually closed during my visit. Strike two was that I was also in Lucca during the ‘siesta’ time. I went to Pisa in the morning, so I didn’t arrive in Lucca until about 1:00. In winter especially, afternoons are time to close up shop and take a break, although I didn’t see anything to take a break from when I was there. But walking around with no tourists was pretty rewarding anyway.
Lucca has the most famous attraction in any hill town of Tuscany. The city’s 12m high walls were built in the 16th and 17th centuries and are thick enough to stop cannon fire. So thick, in fact, that a wonderful 4km walking and biking path tops the entire wall. Locals come out to exercise on the wall, and I saw a lot of them. The top of the wall is a happening place!
A ride around the top of the walls on a bicycle is one of the highlights of visiting Lucca. Unfortunately, the bike shops I saw were closed, but I thoroughly enjoyed my leisurely stroll with the locals and their dogs.
Supposedly Lucca has amazing restaurants, but many were closed because it was winter. I did experience some of the best gelato I’ve ever had on Lucca’s town square though. Above is a picture of Piazza Napoleone. When I first entered the square, I felt like I had gone back in time to the 1930’s. Maybe it was the light, the cold, the clouds, I don’t know. Here in the square I experienced dark chocolate orange gelato, which I never found anywhere else on all of my trips to Italy. It was divine.
The Cathedral di San Martino is Lucca’s Duomo. The outside was beautiful. Pictures of the inside prove that it is much larger than it appears from outside, but it was so dark I couldn’t really get a good picture of the inside. Lucca has several churches and a museum that showcases Roman ruins from the city. San Michele in Foro is a church built in the 1100s that is often referred to as having a ‘wedding-cake’ exterior. Guess what? It was closed, too.
Casa di Puccini, home of the famous opera composer, is now a museum and I’m sure it is worth a visit, but it was yet another thing that was closed when I visited Lucca. By this time, I was a little frustrated and more than a little disappointed. I even considered coming back the next day in the morning to see if more attractions were open. Then I wandered, kind of by accident, into Piazza dell’Anfiteatro. This Piazza is like no other. You can probably guess why from its name. It’s round! It is surrounded by medieval homes that have been converted into shops and restaurants. And guess what? Some of them were open! Know what that means? More gelato! Cinnamon this time. Oh my…
This hill town is exceptional because of its location, architecture and its charm. I hope to return and use Lucca as a home base so I can explore the nearby Apuane Alps and other small towns. To find out more about Lucca and its attractions, here’s a link to their tourist info page which is excellent. Lucca Info
Lucca, Italy was never on my radar when I started researching Tuscany. Rick Steves’ Europe had a great episode about Lucca, so when I saw how easy it was to get there from Florence, I decided to go. I’m so glad I did. Remember, dark chocolate orange gelato in a small eatery on Piazza Napoleone. That’s as good a reason as any to go to Lucca.