It was the night before our final day in Florence, and we were left with the task of deciding how we should spend it.
We’d already ticked off all the most important sites on our bucket list: the Duomo, Palazzo Vecchio, Piazzale Michaelangelo. And I had been tossing the idea around in my head for a while that, maybe, if we had time, we might try to explore another Tuscan city while we were there.
And so, at 7 PM, I found myself searching Rail Europe‘s website and booking some last minute train tickets for Tuscan day trip from Florence that would bring us to two new cities: Pisa and Lucca!
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There are numerous different routes you can take to get to Pisa or Lucca from Florence, and the train ride to both cities is relatively easy at about an hour for each. Since the two cities are pretty close to each other and we didn’t have a strong desire to spend an entire day is Pisa, we decided to combine them both in one trip.
Pisa was up first on the journey. We left Florence’s Santa Maria Novella station by regional train at 8:30 am, arriving at Pisa Centrale by 9:30. From there, we could have either walked 30 minutes to the leaning tower, or changed trains to another regional train that went on to Pisa San Rossore, the train station closest to the tower. Being that we had a toddler in tow, that seemed like the better option. So after waiting about 15 minutes for our connection, we took the 2 minute ride around to the other side of Pisa. From there, it was just a 10 minute walk to the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
After spending a few hours in Pisa, we hopped back on a regional train at 12:55 which took us from Pisa San Rossore to Lucca’s main (and only) station. The train ride is only about 20 minutes and takes you to the edge of Lucca so you can walk right into town.
After exploring Lucca, it was back on yet another regional train at 4:30 which headed back to Florence’s Santa Maria Novella, an hour and 20 minute journey thanks to a few extra stops along the way. We were back in Florence by 6 in time for dinner at Mercado Centrale.
In hindsight, I would have budgeted less time in Pisa and spent more time in Lucca. 2 hours is more than enough of time to see the Leaning Tower and get moving on to Lucca. But because we booked our tickets in advance (which I do recommend doing via the Rail Europe website) we went with the flow and still enjoyed the two cities to the fullest with the time we had.
Stop 1: Pisa
The Leaning Tower
While Pisa itself is a lovely city, as you can imagine, it’s terribly flooded with tourists. So we chose the “get in and get out” method recommended by many others, arriving at 9:30 am. We made the 10 or so minute walk from the train station to the Leaning Tower of Pisa and although it was still relatively early, the square was filling up fast.
We took a few of those famous photos holding up the tower (along with the thousands of other tourists doing the exact same thing), and then sat for a brief while at the base of the tower while Evelyn tripped up and down the marble steps of the cathedral. We decided against going up in the tower after seeing the nice long line. Plus, we figured, what was the point? The tower isn’t really that tall and there’s not much to see from inside is there?
If you do wish to go up in the Leaning Tower, I highly recommend buying tickets as soon as you arrive. You’ll then be assigned an entry time based on how busy it is at the moment. Keep in mind children under 8 years old are not allowed to climb the tower.
Orto & Museo Botanico
After stopping for some overpriced gelato that Evelyn certainly didn’t deserve given her cranky demeanor, we decided to walk away from the tourist-filled areas and head more into the center of town. On the way, we stumbled upon the Botanical Garden of Pisa and decided to check it out while we had some time to kill.
From what I could gather, the botanical garden is operated by the local university. There was a small fee to get in (something like 4 Euros maybe), and once inside the walls we were greeted by towering bamboo trees, a few pathways to stroll, and a large working garden in the back.
Evelyn was still feeling cranky though. So after a few tantrums in the dirt, it was time to say arrivederci!
Stop 2: Lucca
Hopping back on the train, it was about 20 minutes before we arrived at our next stop: Lucca! A small Tuscan city that packs a ton of charm inside its walls (and I do mean that literally) the town is still surrounded by the medieval walls that once protected it. Finding your way inside is not too tough though, as there are several entry points visible from the main train station.
At the particular time of our arrival, though, there was something going on in town. I say “something” because, well…we didn’t really know what it was. But a ton of the entry points and streets into the city were blocked off and there were police officers everywhere. As we tried to find a street that would allow us to get further into the center of the walled city, we kept finding more barriers. We tried to ask some of the police officers what was going on. “Scusi, parla inglese?” All we got was a “No” and a chuckle. 🙁 Hungry and confused, we didn’t find it quite as funny.
Finally we figured it out as we saw a few people clad in full running gear with numbers pinned to their stomachs. A race was just finishing up and the barriers were slowly being pulled down. Whew!
We didn’t really have a plan for Lucca except lunch, and I found this rather large looking oval piazza on Google Maps that seemed like a sure bet for finding some food. So, we meandered our way there one tiny street at a time. These “streets” were more or less narrow walkways that never went straight for more than 20 feet before you had to decide to turn left or right again. And after doing that about 50 times in a row, you can imagine how easy it was to get our directions mixed up, constantly referring back to our map!
Finally, we emerged at Piazza dell’Anfiteatro (thank goodness for my Skyroam wi-fi coverage and Google Maps or we may have been lost in the city forever!) I was losing Matt’s patience quickly, so I was never so happy to redeem myself and find a huge square filled with restaurants on every corner, with cute outdoor seating under a shade of umbrellas. It was exactly what I’d pictured for our quiet Tuscan lunch in Lucca.
We sat and enjoyed dishes we’d ordered from our waitress who hardly spoke English. She had a tough time understanding us, and one of the dishes came out completely different from what we’d ordered…a salad with grilled octopus. What a surprise! But I have to say, that octopus salad (I’m sure there’s a much nicer name for it in Italian), was pretty darn tasty! It paired perfectly with our Aperol spritzes.
After finishing up lunch and waiting for our check (a process that can take forever in Italy), I let Evelyn have a run through the square to chase the pigeons. It’d become a new favorite pastime of hers by now.
There were plenty of times where she’d get going so fast that her little legs couldn’t keep up and she’d faceplant on the pavement. But no worries, she just got right back up and kept going. She even tried to make new friends, but it can be hard when the little local children don’t quite understand why you won’t respond to their questions in Italian. 🙂
After lunch we made our way back to the train station, but I had one last pit stop I wanted to make. The Tower Guinigi sits not far from Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, and is one of several towers still standing in Lucca. It is most notable for it’s “garden” at the top: several oak trees sprawl out from the top of the 45 meter tall tower.
Children under 6 aren’t allowed to climb it, so I went up by myself (and after doing so, I can see why children are prohibited – it’s a little scary taking the narrow stairs towards the top!) There is only a very small viewing deck (in between those trees), but if you have the patience to shimmy past fellow visitors, you’ll be rewarded with some pretty spectacular views. Red Tuscan roofs are far as the eye can see, with rolling hills surrounding the city. It was the perfect way to end the day.
The best part about Lucca was that it was so quiet there. It was unlike any other city we’d yet visited in Italy…not yet overrun by tourists. I adored the city and would return in a heartbeat. I’d only wished we’d had more time to take it all in.
But alas, we had a train to catch. And so heading back over the city walls, we hopped our train to Florence, back to the city life.
Where to Stay
If you’re wanting to extend your trip to the Tuscan countryside, I’d highly recommend an overnight stay in Lucca. These lovely hotel options are in the center of the quaint city:
Hotel Ilaria & Residenza dell’Alba | Situated between Torre Guinigi and Villa Bottini, Hotel Ilaria is a modern hotel (by Lucca standards) and has several suite-style rooms with lofts for extra space. Compare Prices at: Hotels.com | Agoda | Booking.com
Have you been to Pisa or Lucca? What did you think?
Read Next: Travel Guide: Florence with Kids
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