Viareggio today is a popular and busy summer beach town with a six mile stretch of sand that’s as much as 200 yards wide with sun loungers and people stacked fifteen rows deep. Seemingly its entire population of 60,000 spends each warm sunny weekend on the beach (and who can blame them) and trains from Lucca and Florence empty thousands more
youths there all summer long.
It all started in the late 19th century when Viareggio became one of the favorite holiday destinations of the Italian aristocracy, joined also by wealthy merchants from other parts of Tuscany and increasingly from further afield. The railway arrived in 1861 and the connection to Lucca and Florence in 1890 and with the new influx of summer residents there also arrived an entirely new type of architecture and architectural decoration.
The Art Nouveau movement, which was never a homogenous style internationally, incorporated both the Arts & Crafts movement in the UK and the Tiffany style in North America and by 1900 was already a decade old. In Italy it manifested itself as the Stile Liberty, taking its name from from the recently founded London store Liberty’s, which had quickly created a very distinctive style.
The Turin exhibition in 1902 gave this developing young style an important impetus at a time when newly wealthy industrialists and entrepreneurs were commissioning houses, offices and hotels. The Liberty style really flourished in Italy after 1902, subsequently adopting elements of Art Deco after the First World War, but whereas Art Deco elsewhere took off in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s, in Italy it was gradually stifled by the much more austere Fascist architecture which ultimately overpowered it and became dominant.
The most productive period for the Liberty style in Italy was between 1900 and 1920 and in addition to many surviving buildings in Milan and Rome you will stumble on good examples of the Liberty style all over Italy. Along the beachfront in Grottammare for example, a small resort in southern le Marche, there is a row of beautiful Liberty style villas standing in stark contrast to and shaming the modern hotel developments nearby. Florence and Lucca have many surviving private houses and public buildings in this lovely style and from the walls in Lucca there are some very good views of these looking outward across the surrounding meadows.
Viareggio was fortunate to begin its growth spurt at a time when the Liberty style was very much in fashion so it has larger examples than Lucca and Florence, including hotels and grander private residences. Two of the major contributors to the look of Viareggio were the
Florentine ceramicist Galileo Chini and the architect Alfredo Belluomini.
At the same time as the Liberty style architecture was flourishing in Viareggio, the new custom of recreational swimming in the sea was reaching a wider audience and new bathing establishments sprung up all along the Viareggio seafront. One of the first was Balena, open to both men and women together for the first time, dating back to the 1870s. Many of the early ones were wooden and were destroyed in a fire in 1917, to be replaced throughout the 1920s by sturdier and more elegant structures. Most of the buildings that survive today were constructed in the 1920s in a later Liberty Style drawing inspiration from the growing Art Deco movement. There are also some classic 1930s designs like the Principe di Piemonte building in the second photograph at the top of this article.
Giacomo Puccini lived just beyond the southern end of Viareggio in Torre del Lago from 1900 onwards and wrote his major works there at his house between the lake and the sea. He frequented the Gran Caffè Margherita, which is the iconic coffee house that has helped to define this area. There is a plaque on the wall outside the cafe that mentions Arturo Toscanini and Guglielmo Marconi as being two of Puccini's more famous companions at his regular table. For the first quarter of the 20th century these two accomplished Italians would often visit Viareggio in the summer and they would seek out Puccini at Gran Caffè Margherita.
The equally famous, if somewhat more controversial, Gabriele D’Annunzio was also fond of the Versilia coast and rented a house a few miles up the road in 1901, riding his horse on the beach every morning and writing his tragedy Francesca da Rimini in the afternoon.
The best way to see all of this fabulous historical architecture is to walk la Passeggiata Margherita, an easy stroll of not much more than a mile along the seafront esplanade taking in all manner of buildings in the Liberty and Art Deco stiles, everything from villas to massive hotels, cafes, shops and bathing establishments and the best time to do it is anytime except high summer. We took our walk on a pleasant sunny day in early January. The smaller structure to the left of the Gran Caffè Margherita below is the only remaining original wooden structure.
Our suggestion would be to start at the northern end at the intersection of Via Pietro Mascagni and the main boulevard called Viale Alfredo Belluomini and head south on the pedestrian walkway that runs parallel to the beach.
Right at the start you’ll see the beautiful and famous cafe and beach facility Principe di Piemonte and then if you walk slowly and pay attention you'll see every one of these buildings that we photographed and a few others as well. It's a fascinating walk through architectural history and on a par with the restored Art Deco Historical District in South Beach, Miami.
Even though young people now crowd Viareggio in the summer, the wealthy still retain their affection for this area and the grand hotels you will see on the walk remain very upmarket today with Michelin starred restaurants, rooftop pools and spacious rooms with marble bathrooms.
In addition to all the buildings and mostly squeezed in between them are the stabilimenti balneari, of which there are dozens in Viareggio, such is the popularity of the beach here.
For those unfamiliar with Italian beaches these bathing establishments typically cost about 15-20 Euros for two people for sun loungers and an umbrella for the day and all of them have bathroom facilities, showers, bars, restaurants and often play areas for children so there's absolutely no reason to leave until the sun sets. Many locals buy season tickets at their favorite establishment so very often the first few rows near the water are unobtainable and you can end up stuck somewhere in the 12th row with barely a view of the sea, which is why Viareggio is not somewhere we choose when we want some beach time in the summer.
At the end of the walk you will arrive at the harbor and yachting center. Viareggio remains today a very important and extremely busy builder of luxury ocean-going yachts and you will see the massive sheds where some of the biggest yachts in the world are under construction here. There are always quite a few foreign crews in town because newly constructed yachts come with free servicing for a couple of years and the crews sail back to Viareggio quite frequently for this purpose.
This is a fascinating and atmospheric part of Viareggio with interesting seafood restaurants and cafes tucked in among the many ship chandlers as well as a fair amount of moored boats on the Burlamacca canal and in the various water basins.
Viareggio also has an active fishing port and like many coastal towns in Italy the best place to buy the freshest fish is directly from the boats that dock with their catch every morning or at the small kiosks right on the harbor in front of their moorings, but don't expect everything to be gutted and filleted. The prices might be good but there's a bit of work still to be done. Viareggio has its own version of fish and chips and one of the best examples is to be found at the white boat, La Barchina, right in the mouth of the canal where the passeggiata ends. Order the fritto misto for a delicious combination of squid, shrimp and octopus, battered and deep fried.
In this area you will also find the oldest structure in Viareggio, the 16th century Tower Matilde, built in 1534 by the Lucchese government to protect its access to the sea from the increasing power of Florence under the Medici. Pope Leo X, himself a Medici being one of the sons of Lorenzo the Magnificent, had recently ruled against Lucca in various border disputes, favoring both Florence (which took Pietrasanta next door) and Ferrara (taking the Garfagnana). Consequently Lucca, feeling increasing beleaguered as its territory shrank precipitously, started construction of its own city walls and built the Tower Matilde to defend its boundaries.
In addition to being a summer destination there is one winter event during which Viareggio comes alive and massive crowds descend on the town. Second only to the famous Venice carnival, the Carnevale di Viareggio is the biggest February event in Italy and lasts for just about the entire month with parades, floats and costumes.
It first started in 1873 and has been going ever since, attracting half a million visitors annually to this corner of Tuscany. Whereas the distinguishing characteristic of the Venice carnival are the masks, at this event it is the giant papier mâché floats often lampooning political figures, that are up to fifty feet high and travel up and down the passeggiata every weekend.
The official mascot of the carnival is called Burlamacco and he wears red and white colors, which were the colors of many Tuscan towns including Lucca. Also, the canal's name is Burlamacca so it is likely but not certain that with both the mascot and the canal there is some connection to the Burlamacchi family of Lucca and the unfortunate Francesco whose story is related in our article on Piazza San Michele.
Continuing south in Viareggio past the harbor there is another half mile stretch of beach along Viale Europa with a few restaurants and bars but much less developed. This is an interesting area with dunes and natural vegetation giving much more open and unobstructed views of the sea. It's a short, much newer section that doesn't really feel part of Viareggio and it ends abruptly at the border with the San Rossore Park which we have written more about here. Much of San Rossore used to be the private property of the Italian kings after unification and the whole 60,000 acre park is now an important and accessible nature reserve that few people seem to know about and yet it covers more than 20 miles of coastline from Viareggio past Pisa to Livorno, encompassing just about everything west of the autostrada.