One of the best day trips from Florence is to the lovely town of Lucca. Known as a Città d’Arte (city of art), Lucca is one of the most beloved towns in all of Tuscany for its beauty, charm, historical treasures, and extraordinarily well-preserved city walls.
For such a small city, Lucca is jam-packed with attractions and has a tremendous amount to see in a day. That is why it is best to see Lucca like a local- that is through the eyes of an experienced, knowledgeable tour guide. Thanks to Debra Kolkka of Bagni di Lucca and Beyond, I learned of Lucca-based Tour Guide, Paola Moschini who ended up being the highlight of our visit.
Always laughing and smiling while she purveys some of the most magical stories and legends of the past, Paola seems to know everything about Lucca. I enjoyed my tour with Paola so much that I invited her to do an interview about what makes Lucca so special. Here is what she had to say.
Lucca like a Local – with Paola Moschini
“What she doesn’t know about Lucca, you could put on the back of a postage stamp,” says her friend Andrea in an interview on Life in Lucca.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and your background. When did you become a tour guide?
I was born in Valparaiso, Chile but my Sardinian mom and Lucchese dad immediately brought me back to Italy. I moved to Lucca “inside the walls” about ten years ago after some traveling and job experiences here and there, I came to realize it ticked all the right boxes: work, love, and personal life. I became a tour guide 10 years ago (I have a T-shirt to celebrate the accomplishment!) it just felt like the right and natural step after a beginning in tourism as a tour leader and a not such rewarding office experience.
How did you learn so incredibly much about Lucca?
I had good art and history teachers at the school I attended to become a qualified tour guide, but continue to keep studying, read books, and attend lectures. I also write down the questions people ask me during a tour and research the answers if I don’t know them. I have a deep curiosity about everything which often drives my quest for knowledge. Friends say that everything I don’t know about Lucca can be fit on a postage stamp!
What are the top highlights to see in Lucca and why?
I have an obsession with the city walls, that’s on top of my list. I don’t want to disappoint visitors who come to Lucca and when they see the walls, simply think that it is just an old military fortification turned into an elevated park. It is more than that, at least the meaning for the locals. For us, the wall is a way of life and it is a part of our identity. The walls are part of our daily routine as we use them to walk, bike, and relax. I always recommend that visitors rent bikes for an afternoon or just simply walk the walls.
For us Lucchese, there are two Luccas: The historical part of the city inside the walls and the newer, modern Lucca outside of the walls.
I also love Lucca’s piazzas, they will simply surprise you with the life and the architecture and their unique features. There are three main ones: Saint Michael, Napoleon, and the Amphitheater. The Amphitheater is very unique as it was turned into apartments. If you look close enough, you can see the mismatched windows. These apartments are quite unique as they still have the original Roman staircases running through them!
The Guingi Tower is another favorite. I love climbing to the top as the view is magical. You can see countless rooftops and gardens which makes me wonder about who lives there and what their lives are like. When it comes to churches it is very hard to choose but even if it may be predictable, you can never get tired of Saint Michael’s facade or of the mosaic of Saint Frediano.
What are some of your favorite local legends?
I love legends! I like those where the Devil is involved to explain unusual facts and events. But even more the miracles of Saints (everything is named after a Saint in Italy!) and in this case, the list can be quite long.
How did famous historical women like Elisa Bonaparte shape the future of Lucca?
Very often this fact goes unnoticed, but in Lucca’s history, women have played an important role: Zita, Ilaria del Carretto, Mary Louise of Bourbon, Lucida Mansi, and Lucrezia Buonvisi. Elisa (sister of Napoleon Bonaparte), in my opinion, is an example of women’s empowerment. Such a young woman and so determined to make Lucca more modern. She did not rule that long but her print is much more visible than those of many former male rulers.
What are some of the most interesting festivals?
Oh, it seems that for the Lucchese people each month is good to celebrate something. Let’s stick to the most famous two festivals. First, is the Lucca Summer Festival, which is a series of outdoor concerts of national and international artists every July. The second is the Lucca Comics and Games, which is at the end of October and turns the city into cosplayers, superheroes, manga, and fantasy world celebrators. It is one of the largest Comicon in the world! After these two festivals, there are the more traditional ones that occur during the fall and holidays such as the Luminara night on September 13th which is a candlelight festival and procession to celebrate the crucifix preserved in the cathedral. There is also the Carnival in Viareggio in February.
What makes the city so unique?
I don’t think it is just a single thing, like a monument or a place. It is a combination, like a recipe. On top of the art, history, food, entertainment, and safety, I believe that Lucca offers a special atmosphere where people kind of unwind and slow down the pace. That’s why I often find a place to sit down, relax and just take it all in. Do some people-watching and enjoy Lucca’s spellbinding beauty.
What are some of the pleasures of living in Lucca?
I always say here, like generally in Italy, every day you just make compromises with the past. Moving and having furniture delivered can be a unique challenge given Lucca’s old, narrow apartments and streets. Once when I got a new bed, I needed to have it delivered by crane! Buildings like the famous amphitheater were never meant to be converted into apartments and climbing up thousands of year-old steps each day is not for the faint at heart. But Lucca’s uniqueness is what makes me love living here even more. For me, one of the pleasures is that everything is so close and can be reached by bike or within walking distance. I rarely have to drive to go shopping!
What are a few of your favorite restaurants and why?
This answer might have an expiry date because the restaurant scene is very lively for such a small city and it keeps changing. Here you can go from homemade food to Michelin-starred restaurants. I like the Trattoria da Gigi, Osteria dal Manzo, Buca di Sant’antonio, Orti di via Elisa, and Cantine Bernardini. These are places where I usually go with my friends. I am a big fan of Ciacco, not a proper restaurant, only the best sandwiches, charcuterie platters, and big bowls of salads in town.
Favorite places to grab an aperitif? A coffee? Gelato? Why?
For an aperitif, if I feel like for something easy I just go to the far end of Via Fillungo and there are 2-3 bars with wine and beer on tap and so many people standing in the street chatting and drinking. It is a very popular spot for the locals. The bars along Corso Garibaldi are famous for their happy hours with some food to share with a drink. Even though I absolutely love coffee I do not really have a favorite place. I usually go to the closest bar on my way around town. So usually it is Bar Pacini in Piazza Napoleone, Dianda in Via San Paolino.
Gelato is so complicated! For fruit flavors, I would say Veneta, (great popsicles!), for the gelato with nuts and different flavors De’ Coltelli.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I enjoy that I can be moving and outdoors almost all day. I love the interaction with the locals, visitors, and also store owners. The people I meet change every day and each time I challenge myself to find those things in common or even to spot the differences. I find my job extremely enriching and it opens my mind a lot. I like that although I may only be with guests for a few hours, we can connect. Thanks to social media, and my newsletters, we can stay in touch and I can update them on what’s happening in the city.
What is the best time to visit Lucca?
Spring and fall are hands down the best. Summer is beautiful but you should consider the heat when planning activities and day trips. It is also the most crowded.
Contact Paola for a Tour