Pisa has always been synonymous with the leaning tower, but this bustling university town has so much more to offer in terms of sights and culture. For example, did you know that the leaning towers are actually three?
You may think that seeing the Leaning Tower of Pisa is one of those key things Italians do as part of their education. Well, not me. I’ve never really bothered about travelling to Pisa just to see a tower (I know…), especially with the much more exotic places I used to have on my bucket list. But early this year I decided to add it to my travel wishlist for 2018 and after spending a couple of days in the city last week, I must say that my perception of Pisa has completely changed. What a gem! The birthplace of Galileo Galilei is a fascinating combination of art, history and culture, with lots of things to see and do beyond the Leaning Tower.
Here are my top 8 picks.
#1 A square of miracles
Piazza dei Miracoli (literally ‘square of miracles’) is where you’ll find the Leaning Tower, but this beautiful piazza is also home to some stunning buildings that represent the key religious and artistic attractions of Pisa. So after the usual photos and selfies, do take some time to visit these treasures. The Cathedral, created as the symbol of the prestige of the maritime Republic of Pisa at the height of its power, is a feast of fine marbles, stunning bronze doors and beautiful paintings. It contains amazing works of art including a XIV-century mosaic of Christ with the Virgin and John the Baptist by Cimabue, as well as the tomb of San Ranieri, the patron saint of Pisa. Right in front of the Cathedral is the Baptistery dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the largest in Italy (fun fact: Galileo Galilei was baptized here). Also, if you climb on the upper floor you’ll find a tiny window that will present you with the most beautiful view over the Cathedral. And finally the Camposanto Monumentale, a holy place that is said to have been built on the sacred soil of the Holy Land brought to Pisa during the Crusades. It’s the resting place of many prominent Pisans, including members of the Medici family and prestigious teachers of the University of Pisa, and contains some remarkable frescos about life and death (fun fact: look for the Aulla chapel where you can see the lamp that inspired Galileo Galilei to formulate the theory of the pendulum!).
#2 The other leaning towers
Few people know that there are actually three leaning towers in Pisa. While the bell tower in Piazza dei Miracoli is certainly the most famous (and beautiful), there are other two sites in the city where bell towers don’t really stand perpendicular to the ground due to the soft and unstable soil. One is the bell tower of the XII-century Church of San Nicola, which boasts a slight slouch. The other one is the bell tower of the Church of San Michele degli Scalzi, just outside the historic center, with an incredible 5-degree slope.
#3 Piazza dei Cavalieri
A couple of minutes walk from the leaning tower is the stunning Piazza dei Cavalieri, the square created by Cosimo I de Medici and his architect Giorgio Vasari. Once the political heart of Pisa, the piazza is dominated by Palazzo della Carovana, home to the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, one of Italy’s top universities, and Palazzo dell’Orologio with the famous tower where the nobleman Ugolino della Gherardesca was imprisoned for treason in the XIII century (fun fact: this character features in Dante’s Inferno and is said to have eaten his children forced by hunger!).
Grab a gelato and head for a stroll along the Arno for some striking views of the multi-colored palazzi dotting the banks of the river (the “lungarni”). Look out for the Blue Palace, a blue-painted building that was the residence of a prominent local family and today houses excellent temporary exhibitions, and the tiny Church of Santa Maria della Spina, so called because it once housed a relic from the crown of thorns brought to Pisa from the Holy Land in the XIV century. One of my favorite viewpoints is the Solferino bridge at sunset, with the colorful buildings reflecting into the river and the mountains on the background – just like a painting!
#5 Borgo Stretto
The heart of Pisa’s life is Borgo Stretto, a lovely pedestrianized street lined with beautiful porticos, elegant cafes and stylish boutiques. Even if you’re not into shopping, don’t miss a stroll around the area for great views and some people watching (fun fact: look out for the plaque above Caffè Settimelli indicating the house where Galileo Galilei was born). Explore the side passages and tiny alleys branching off the main street and you’ll stumble upon charming corners and poetic glimpses into the local daily life. One of these is Piazza delle Vettovaglie, a cute little square that welcomes a bustling market by day and turns into a lively spot by night, with tables popping up around the arcades.
#6 Botanical Garden
Just a few minutes walk from the leaning tower, you’ll find this little oasis of peace away from the main tourist trail. It’s one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world, opened by Cosimo I de’ Medici in 1543, and the first university botanical garden in Europe. Covering an area of 3 hectares, the garden is home to a fascinating collection of trees and plants from fall over the world. It certainly makes for a pleasant escape from the crowds posing for selfies in Piazza dei Miracoli.
#7 Street art
There’s a lively street art scene in Pisa, with lots of cool graffiti popping up everywhere – trust me, you’ll find yourself with eyes wide open trying to spot them as you walk around the city. The most famous piece is “Tuttomondo”, the giant mural on the wall of the Church of St. Anthony created by Keith Haring back in 1989. There are also some great local artists like Exit Enter, with his cute little men holding a red heart or balloon, Blub, who depicts famous characters wearing a diving mask, and the captivating figures of James Boy.
#8 The Marina
If you have some extra time on hand and you’re up for a day at the beach or a nice seafood meal, then jump on bus no. 10 and head to Marina di Pisa. Located just 15 km from Pisa, the Marina is a very picturesque seaside village where you can take a relaxing walk and enjoy some great views , particularly at the Boccadarno, the area at the mouth of the Arno river where you can see the traditional fishing nets called “retoni”.
- From Pisa airport you can reach the city centre with Pisa Mover, the high-speed shuttle service that brings you to Pisa Central Station in just about five minutes. From there, it’s a 20-minute walk to Piazza dei Miracoli. Alternatively you can catch the LAM red bus that drops you off near the square (stop “Torre”).
- There’s another train station in Pisa, Pisa San Rossore, which is closer to the Tower (about 10-minute walk) and is mainly used for connections with Lucca and the coast.
- I stayed at Villa Tower Inn, an historical residence that proved to be a great base for exploring the city, being literally 2-minute walk from Piazza dei Miracoli
- Don’t miss Pizzeria Il Montino, a little place popular with locals, where they prepare sandwiches with cecina and pecorino cheese and a pizza pisana to die for!
- There are lots of interesting festivals taking place in Pisa, including a special celebration of the New Year on March 25 (to coincide with the Annunciation, exactly nine months before Christmas), the festivities in honor of San Ranieri in mid-June, and the Anima Mundi Festival over the last two weeks of September, with a series of concerts by world-class musicians in the Cathedral