The microscopic kinetics of ubiquitous solid–solid phase transitions remain poorly understood. Here, by using single-particle-resolution video microscopy of colloidal films of diameter-tunable microspheres, we show that transitions between square and triangular lattices occur via a two-step diffusive nucleation pathway involving liquid nuclei. The nucleation pathway is favoured over the direct one-step nucleation because the energy of the solid/liquid interface is lower than that between solid phases. We also observed that nucleation precursors are particle-swapping loops rather than newly generated structural defects, and that coherent and incoherent facets of the evolving nuclei exhibit different energies and growth rates that can markedly alter the nucleation kinetics. Our findings suggest that an intermediate liquid should exist in the nucleation processes of solid–solid transitions of most metals and alloys, and provide guidance for better control of the kinetics of the transition and for future refinements of solid–solid transition theory.