An essential feature in every EuroTrip-style movie, the Leaning Tower of Pisa is one of those famous landmarks that tend to overshadow the city or, in some cases, even the country where they are located. With the immediacy of its mental image, the Leaning Tower tends to pop up whenever the name Pisa is mentioned. But what about the city behind the landmark? Are there any other things to do in Pisa apart from taking photos with your hands stretched out, keeping the tower from falling over?
While Pisa’s Piazza dei Miracoli has always been an indispensable stop on any trip to Tuscany, the city does have some other claims to fame. Galileo Galilei was born in Pisa, which was once a major maritime power with thousands of years of history, dating back to the Etruscan age. The city’s influence and wealth during the age of the Maritime Republic filled the city with priceless artistic and architectural marvels, especially the peerless Romanesque and Gothic churches towering over the city’s age-old squares.
Wandering through the city center along the quaint riverside streets (lungarni), you will notice that Pisa has a vibrant café and bar scene, fueled by students attending the elite University of Pisa, one of the most prestigious universities in the world, whose importance hasn’t been shaken since it was founded in 1343. If you decide to do a tour of Pisa, don’t restrict your visit to Piazza dei Miracoli alone. Rather, take a chance and explore the lively narrow streets frequented by locals and filled with authentic charm that shows that Pisa lives a life of its own, behind the curtain of other people’s impressions and vacuous, commonplace bucket lists.
WHAT’S THE BEST TIME TO VISIT PISA?
Italy in general has a pretty mild climate, perfect for sightseeing and exploring narrow city streets during any time of the year. The university plays a crucial role in the city’s economy. The fact that Pisa is a university city means that a lot of the bars, restaurants and night-clubs stay open year-round. That said, most guides agree that June is the best time to visit Pisa, with high temperatures, but not as unbearable as during July and August, the city’s hottest months. There are plenty of festivals in June, such as Luminara (June 16th), when the whole city is illuminated by 70,000 wax candles, followed by spectacular fireworks later in the evening. The following day (June 17th) is San Ranieri Day, honoring the patron saint of Pisa, with an exciting regatta. May has a beautiful flower festival, and December is special because of the Christmas market in the city center. No matter when you decide to visit Pisa, keep in mind that one of the largest antique markets in Italy takes place in the city on the first Sunday of each month. If you get a chance, check it out, as exploring the market is one of the more unusual things to do in Pisa.
Italy in general has a pretty mild climate, perfect for sightseeing and exploring narrow city streets during any time of the year. The university plays a crucial role in the city’s economy. The fact that Pisa is a university city means that a lot of the bars, restaurants and night-clubs stay open year-round. That said, most guides agree that June is the best time to visit Pisa, with high temperatures, but not as unbearable as during July and August, the city’s hottest months. There are plenty of festivals in June, such as Luminara (June 16th), when the whole city is illuminated by 70,000 wax candles, followed by spectacular fireworks later in the evening. The following day (June 17th) is San Ranieri Day, honoring the patron saint of Pisa, with an exciting regatta.
May has a beautiful flower festival, and December is special because of the Christmas market in the city center. No matter when you decide to visit Pisa, keep in mind that one of the largest antique markets in Italy takes place in the city on the first Sunday of each month. If you get a chance, check it out, as exploring the market is one of the more unusual things to do in Pisa.
A FEW FACTS ABOUT PISA
Religion has always played an important role in the cultural and political life of Pisa. And no wonder! In the church of Santa Maria della Spina, a thorn allegedly plucked from Christ’s crown has been preserved in a shrine ever since it was brought from the Holy Land in 1333. However, the history of the city predates Christianity by a few thousand years. In ancient times, “Pisae” was inhabited by the Ligurians before becoming a Roman naval base. After the Roman Empire collapsed, Pisa’s power and influence steadily increased, and it became Tuscany’s main urban center.
Especially during the 11th century, the city became a flourishing commercial and maritime power, frequently clashing with Muslim raiders and even driving the Saracens from Sardinia in 1016 with the help of Genoa. Later on, Pisa participated in the Crusades, securing important commercial positions in Syria. In the coming centuries, the city came to blows with its rivals, especially Genoa, Lucca, and Florence. In spite of several defeats, the city’s prosperity produced numerous architectural treasures as well as the University of Pisa, which now defines Pisa as a quiet provincial university town.
ONE DAY IN PISA ITINERARY
Follow this guide and make the most of your trip even if you’re short on time. These are the top sights and things to do on your one day in Pisa.
Start Your Tour of Pisa at the Piazza Dei Miracoli
In Pisa, there is no need to rush things. If you start your tour of Pisa around 9 AM, it should still give you plenty of time to see everything. Besides, there is no point in trying to get to some of the attractions before it gets crowded. The area around the Leaning Tower will be filled with people anyway. The Piazza dei Miracoli (meaning the Square of Miracles) is formally known as Piazza del Duomo or Cathedral Square, referring to the Pisa Cathedral dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.
The name Piazza dei Miracoli caught on after the famous Italian writer and poet Gabriele d’Annunzio wrote a passage describing the square as the “prato dei Miracoli,” literally translated as “meadow of miracles”. This “meadow” has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987.
Take a Good Look at the Whole Complex from Afar
Unlike many other similar squares, the Piazza dei Miracoli is not located smack dab in the center of the city. Instead, it is pressed against the Ancient Walls of Pisa along the northern edge of the old city center, in an area where space was available in 1094 when construction commenced. As you enter the square, you are met with a large open space that is partially paved, but mostly just a large green lawn with three monumental white structures standing out against the green background.
The three structures are the Pisa Baptistery, the Pisa Cathedral, and the Camposanto Monumentale (Monumental Cemetery). The Leaning Tower of Pisa is also there, but it is considered a part of the cathedral since it is in fact the cathedral’s bell tower. When you first arrive at the square, take the time to admire the whole complex from afar. The three structures are considered sacred by the Catholic Church. They symbolize the three main stages of human life: birth (the baptistery), life (the cathedral), and death (the cemetery). The square is widely acknowledged as a momentous example of European medieval art and one of the most exceptional architectural complexes in the world.
Try out the Great Acoustics Inside the Baptistery
If you stand on the southern side of the square, the Pisa Baptistery of Saint John is the first building on the left. The Cathedral and the Leaning Tower are to the right, with the Camposanto in the back against the wall. You can visit and explore the individual buildings in any order that you like, although starting with the Baptistery and following the metaphorical journey that the structures represent does add a special, spiritual dimension to the whole experience.
The Baptistery as we see it today replaced an older baptistery that occupied the same spot. Construction began in 1153 in the Romanesque style by architect Diotisalvi. In the 1200, Nicola and Giovanni Pisano continued the project, but switched to the Gothic style. The Baptistery’s majestic Gothic dome was added by Cellino di Nese when construction was completed in 1363. The Pisa Baptistery is the largest baptistery in all of Italy, reaching a height 54.86 meters, which is almost as high as the nearby Leaning Tower (55.86 metres).
The entire building is made of marble, with stunning features such as the gorgeous reliefs on the main door and the pulpit, made by Nicola Pisano himself. The baptistery is also famous for its amazing acoustics, which is why there are frequent choir concerts inside. Amateur singers also perform there daily.
Visit the Pisa Cathedral Next
After the Baptistery, take a short walk to the Pisa Cathedral, whose full name in Italian reads as Cattedrale Metropolitana Primaziale di Santa Maria Assunta. Dominating the city’s skyline, the massive cathedral is the 4th-largest Gothic structure in the world, although it is also recognized as a prime example of Romanesque architecture.
Much like the Baptistery, the Cathedral was also built on the ruins of an earlier structure. The remains of this structure, the 7th century Santa Reparata Church, can be seen in the cathedral’s crypt. Some of the cathedral’s standout features include the decorative pink, white, and green marble patterns adorning the exterior, as well as the magnificent mosaic floor inside. You should take some time to appreciate the masterful pulpit, made by Giovanni Pisano, or the gorgeous façade, a later addition by Rainaldo.
If you can muster the strength, definitely try and climb the 463 steps to the top of the Brunelleschi cupola to enjoy the spectacular view of the city from above.
Move on to the Main Attraction – the Leaning Tower
Iconic, monumental, and instantly recognizable, the leaning “Torre di Pisa” is an elaborately adorned freestanding bell tower whose construction began in 1173 and dragged on for two centuries due to frequent local wars and conflicts at the time. Ironically, the delay caused by the wars may have saved the tower from collapsing entirely since it gave the tower’s foundation enough time to settle and stabilize. The money for the tower came from Pisa’s commercial and military successes, such as the sacking of Palermo in 1063.
The ambitious project was doomed from the start because of the soft subsoil, which was not taken into account in spite of the city’s name (Pisa) being derived from the Greek word for “marshy land”. In recent years, the tower was subjected to painstaking corrective reconstruction and stabilization efforts which lasted for more than a decade between January 7, 1990 and December 15, 2001. In 2008, it was announced that the tower has stopped moving for the first time in its history and that it would remain stable for another 200-300 years. Today, more than 1,000,000 visitors come to admire the Leaning Tower of Pisa each year.
You can climb the 297 steps to the top of the tower for some great views across the city. Make sure to take a closer look at the tower’s 207 columns topped with Corinthian capitals and the gorgeous marble arches adorning the eight floors that lead to the bell chamber at the top.
Take a Moment to Acknowledge the Tower’s Significance
When you climb the tower, ask yourself why you chose to visit Pisa of all places. What makes the Leaning Tower of Pisa so special? Where does the appeal come from? Is it remarkable primarily for documenting man’s capacity not just for monumental successes, but also monumental failures; or rather, the inherent unattainability of our ideals?
In reality, if the tower were perfectly straight and ideal in every single way, it wouldn’t be as famous as it is today. It lays bare our ability to achieve recognition and greatness in spite of setbacks, as well as our unlimited propensity for overreaching. Perhaps that is why it is so famous – because it is so human, so stubborn, so in-your-face, such a glorious achievement in spite of the odds, leaning and sinking for centuries, seemingly on the verge of collapse, and yet, still standing tall and proud.
Visit Camposanto Monumentale
The last of the four major attractions in the Piazza dei Miracoli, Camposanto Monumentale is the final resting place of Pisa’s most notable citizens, established in 1277 and completed in 1464. The burial area is quite atypical, as it is not an open graveyard but a patch of holy land surrounded by cloister buildings. The ground was supposedly brought over from Golgotha, the hill where Jesus was crucified.
The surrounding buildings were initially supposed to be a church built on top of the former baptistery of Santa Reparata Church. The plans changed midway during construction, and what remains now are graceful arcades over the burial tombs and amazing early frescoes adorning the walls.
Spend Some Time at the Cathedral Museum
Before leaving the Piazza del Duomo, also check out the Cathedral Museum, located right next to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The museum’s exhibition halls are home to the cathedral’s immense art treasury, with numerous medieval statues testifying to the skill and mastery of Nicola and Giovanni Pisano.
Some other artifacts include architectural fragments such as capitals and bas reliefs, as well as ancient liturgical furnishings, medieval parchment rolls, and priceless reliquaries adorned with gold and silver and set with precious gemstones.
Take a Short Walk to Piazza Dei Cavalieri
Once you’re done exploring the museum, take a short walk to Piazza dei Cavalieri or Knights’ Square, located approximately 650 m southeast of the Piazza dei Miracoli (7 minutes on foot). Piazza dei Cavalieri is Pisa’s second main square, surrounded by old palaces with gorgeous ornate façades, including the palace of Cosimo I, the first of the Medici. In the Middle Ages, the square was a major political hub and a popular meeting point.
The Order of the Knights of Saint Stephen made the square their headquarters, building the Church of Santo Stefano dei Cavalieri, the only Renaissance church in the city. The Knights’ Palace is the most impressive landmark, dominating the square, with other points of interest including the statue of Cosimo I de Medici and the gorgeous fountain by Pietro Francavilla. You can actually visit the Knights’ Palace, now known as Palazzo della Carovana, which is home to the Scuola Normale Superiore, a part of the University of Pisa.
Sit down for Lunch
After spending some time at the Knights’ Square, go for a walk south on Via S. Frediano until you reach the Osteria dei Cavalieri, a gorgeous little tavern with great food and a welcoming atmosphere. It is only a few steps away from Piazza dei Cavalieri, standing out with its authentic Tuscan classics and innovative dishes inspired by traditional Italian cuisine. With an extensive wine list to perfectly complement the restaurant’s original recipes, Osteria dei Cavalieri is one of the best places in Pisa if you want to try the best of local Italian food.
Plan everything in advance and try not to spend more than three to four hours at the at the Piazza Dei Miracoli. That way, it should be around 1 PM by the time when you get to the restaurant, giving you plenty of time for lunch and all the other things to do in Pisa.
Relax at the Botanical Garden
After lunch, return to Knights’ Square and then head west on Via Corsica and Via dei Mille in a straight line for about four minutes until you reach a lush, green garden surrounded by a low wall. This is the famed Botanical Garden of Pisa (L’Orto Botanico dell’Università di Pisa), the oldest university botanical garden in Europe.
It was established in 1544 by Luca Ghini of Imola, a veritable Renaissance man who worked as a physician, but was primarily a naturalist and a botanist. He created the unique garden with the intention of using it as his office, which is the reason why it looks like a secret retreat with small fountains, ponds, and a historical greenhouse. Ghini’s immense collection of rare specimens forms one part of the on-site museum’s valuable collection. The rest are old scientific journals, plant illustrations, and botanical models in wax and plaster dating back to the 19th century.
Continue Your Tour of Pisa on Borgo Stretto
While certainly interesting, the Botanical Garden is relatively small, so you shouldn’t spend much more than an hour there before moving on. Navigate the narrow streets back east until you reach the city’s main pedestrian street/shopping area called Borgo Stretto. It is a very elegant and expensive shopping street with top boutiques underneath the covered arcades on either side.
Galileo Galilei was born nearby, literally just 350 meters from Chiesa di San Michele in Borgo, in a historic building on Via Giuseppe Giusti. The Church of San Michele in Borgo is worth a visit in and of itself, however. It was constructed during the 10th and 11th centuries over an ancient Roman temple dedicated to the god Mars. The impressive arcaded façade is 14th -century addition, inspired by the Pisa Cathedral.
Cross Ponte Di Mezzo to Get to Palazzo Blu
After a few minutes at the Chiesa di San Michele in Borgo, keep walking south on Borgo Stretto towards the Arno River. Piazza Garibaldi is just 50 meters south of the church. Points of interest on the square include the bronze statue of Garibaldi, the carved wooden statue of Madonna, and the nearby Ponte Di Mezzo, a relatively simple bridge that serves as a popular meeting point. You can watch the tranquil, clean river Arno, lined by gorgeous, well-preserved medieval houses. Among them is Palazzo Blu, a restored 14th-century home now housing the Museum of Art and Culture.
The beautiful mansion was once the home of the Doge Giovanni Dell’Agnello. The museum’s collection consists mainly of paintings, from the 14th to the 20th century, with approximately 200 exciting archeological artefacts to boot. The museum is open until 7 PM, so feel free to speed up some of the earlier stops if you are a big fan of art, doubly so in case of temporary visiting exhibitions by some of the world’s most renowned artists.
Check out Tuttomondo Before Dinner
You can never have enough of great, inspiring art. Luckily, there are plenty of things to see in Pisa in that regard. Not far from Palazzo Blu, there is a colorful example of contemporary art out in the open, painted on the side of a church (Chiesa di San Antonio Abate). It is a large mural with the theme of world peace and harmony, painted in 1989 by Keith Haring.
If you want to see the iconic mural, famous for challenging the traditional notion of displaying art only in museums, you can easily find it by going south on Via Giuseppe Mazzini until you reach the Square of Vittorio Emanuele II. The Tuttomondo mural by Keith Haring will be to your right. It shouldn’t take more than 8 minutes to get there.
Pick One of the Nearby Restaurants
The area around the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II is great for dining, with a large number of great restaurants. If you are tired of Italian cuisine, you will love Gandhi, Ristorante tipico Indiano Pisa. This beloved restaurant’s cozy environment provides the perfect setting for typical Indian food with a unique twist: the distinctive Indian flavors are combined with great Italian wines, bringing you the best of both worlds in a quite unexpected way.
However, if Italian food is all you want and you can never get enough, then San Domenico Italian Bistrot has everything you need. Just off Corso Italia, the second most-popular shopping street in the city, this charming restaurant meets even the highest expectations with its attention to detail and commitment to make customers feel welcome. If you want to have a few drinks and party after dinner, go back across the river and check out Borderline Club, a great historic music pub with amazing live music, primarily blues and rock, but occasionally other genres as well.
WHERE TO STAY IN PISA?
Bagni Di Pisa – The Leading Hotels of the World
Largo Shelley 18, 56017 San Giuliano Terme
Have you ever wondered what life was like for 18th-century Italian aristocrats? Well, this is your chance to find out. Set in the former spa residence of the grand duke of Tuscany, Bagni Di Pisa – The Leading Hotels of the World brings this remarkable historic property in San Giuliano Terme back to life. The gorgeous air-conditioned rooms feature marble or parquet floors and hideaway flat-screen TVs, some with preserved original frescoed ceilings or views of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The state-of-the-art spa center is an additional highlight, and a pretty major one – with an indoor pool, steam bath and sauna, managed by a team of certified health professionals who offer a number of exclusive programs and nutrition consultations.
Via Giuseppe Mazzini 57, 56125 Pisa
With a supreme location in the historic center of Pisa, the curiously named Hotel Bologna boasts gorgeous, well-appointed rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows, flat-screen TVs, and hardwood floors. Select rooms also have frescoes. Although the lively Piazza dei Miracoli is only a 12-minute walk from the property, Hotel Bologna is still an oasis of peace and quiet, with a charming small terrace and garden where you can enjoy the hotel’s varied buffet breakfast surrounded by fragrant green cypresses.
Hotel Pisa Tower
Via Andrea Pisano, 23, 56122 Pisa
Comfortable, charming, and conveniently located, Hotel Pisa Tower is the perfect choice for travelers who want to experience only the best the city has to offer. The property’s location (50 m from Pisa’s Piazza dei Miracoli) is unsurpassable, providing its guests with the ideal starting point for sightseeing, shopping, and exploring the city’s museums, galleries, restaurants, and cafés. For those rare moments of repose, Hotel Pisa Tower has a gorgeous garden with a gazebo where you can sit down at one of the tables and relax with a cold drink or a cup of coffee.
Hostel Pisa Tower
Via Piave 4, 56123 Pisa
Warm and homey, yet eclectic, modern, and colorful at the same time, Hostel Pisa Tower is one of the most beloved and highly rated properties in Pisa. With a small back garden filled with flower pots and a view of the Leaning Tower from the entrance and select rooms, this charming hostel couldn’t be any better. The hostel’s room design was inspired by Pop Art, and the atmosphere is charged with positivity and good vibrations.
DAY TRIPS FROM PISA
In spite of the large number of churches, piazzas, iconic streets, and palaces, touring Pisa in a day should still prove pretty manageable. And after that, who knows? You may find yourself yearning for more – be it more things to do in Pisa or in Tuscany in general. With Pisa as your base, you can embark on a day trip to a nearby city like Bologna or you can discover small towns and villages like the Cinque Terre, occupying a remarkably rugged stretch of the irresistible Italian Riviera. Of course, there are also numerous organized tours available, such as the magical day trip to Siena and San Gimignano with wine tasting. If you want to visit the aforementioned Cinque Terre on a full-day excursion with a knowledgeable tour guide, you can do that as well. Other options include an excursion along the river Serchio to the charming medieval town of Lucca and the picturesque village of Barga. Alternatively, you can explore the historic sites in Pistoia with several breaks for food and wine tasting. If you would like to find out more about these options, make sure to read this article, with a complete overview of the best day trips from Pisa.
EXTRA TIPS FOR VISITING PISA
Finding a place to park can be quite the tall order in Pisa. Since most of the landmarks are relatively close to each other, exploring the city on foot is the best option.
Renting a bike is a good alternative, at approx. 10 EUR for a day.
PIN FOR LATER!
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Anca is a travel writer and the founder of One Day Itinerary - the biggest collection of travel itineraries for those who are time-limited or just want to maximize their time while traveling. Although she easily becomes homesick for Croatia, she thinks travel is essential to her happiness. She has traveled to more countries than she is years old and doesn’t plan on changing that fact. In her travel guides she aims to inspire people to travel whenever they have a spare day (or two).