Like many destinations that are famous for a single attraction, Pisa in Tuscany is a place where few people know what else there is to do. Get the scoop on why you should visit from Evelien Vleeshouwers, who lived in the Italian city for years.
If you are looking for day trips from Florence, make sure to include Pisa in your travel plans. Although mainly famous for its leaning tower, there is much more to see in this Tuscan city.
Pisa is divided in two by the Arno river. Although most people only visit the northern part of town, where Piazza dei Miracoli (“Square of Miracles”) with the Leaning Tower is located, the southern half is also well worth a visit.
Tuttomondo by Keith Haring
If you arrive by train, walk straight ahead when leaving Pisa central station. The street will lead you to Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, named after the first king of Italy whose statue is located in the middle of the square. The street on the right side will take you to the shopping area; but before going there, walk into Via Massimo D’Azeglio (on the left) and take the first street to the left. Be ready to be surprised; against the side of the church of Sant’Antonio Abate, the American street artist Keith Haring painted one of his last works before passing away in 1990.
The mural is called Tuttomondo, which translates into “All World” and depicts peace and tolerance. The mural doesn’t have Haring’s characteristic vibrant colors; he adjusted them to make it fit in better with the colors of the city.
Wine Straight From the Barrel
If you continue onto Via Massimo D’Azeglio, you will find a typical Italian shop at the corner with Via S. Giuseppe Cottolengo: Gli Sfusi di Pisa. ‘Sfusi’ is Italian for “bulk” and it refers to wine: vino sfuso. In this shop you don’t buy wine in a bottle, but you get it straight from the barrel. You can even taste the different wines before deciding which one to go for. If you want you can purchase an empty bottle at the store, but you can also use any refillable bottle you already have.
If you continue the Via S. Giuseppe Cottolengo and take the first street to the left, you end up at the main shopping street, which will continue on the other side of the river. This first part is where the chain stores are located; on the other side of the river, the more luxurious shops can be found in the Borgo Stretto area. The arches give it a feeling of grandeur (and are very convenient during one of the many downpours Pisa experiences).
Tuscan Candles and Fireworks
To get to Borgo Stretto, you have to cross Ponte di Mezzo (“middle bridge”). It is around this part of the Arno river that the Festival Luminara di San Ranieri takes place, in the evening of June 16th, to celebrate the patron of Pisa (Saint Rainerius). If you happen to be around, it is definitely worth a visit. Over 70,000 candles (lumini in Italian) are being lit up in the houses on the banks on the river and on the river itself. Make sure to bring some drinks and snacks, and enjoy the magical setting together with the inhabitants of Pisa. The evening ends with a spectacular fireworks show.
Before crossing over to the northern part of town, there is one last thing to see on the southern bank: the church of Santa Maria della Spina. You have the best view from Ponte Solferino, at the end of the afternoon when the sun is in the west. The picturesque little church next to the wide Arno river makes for a beautiful photo.
Once on the other side of the Arno, make sure to pass by Piazza Vettovaglia. During the day you can find a food market here; in the evening the many students of Pisa gather here for drinks and chats. The porticos surrounding the piazza give it a cozy feeling and protect you against the rain.
Continue in Piazza S. Omobono where you can find a couple of nice bars, and then go left into Via Ulisse Dini. This street will take you to one of the most important places of Pisa: Piazza dei Cavalieri. What immediately caughts the eye is the beautiful Palazzo della Carovana, which houses Scuola Normale Superiore, one of the three universities that Pisa harbors. This prestigious institute was established by Napoleon Bonaparte and attracts some of the brightest students from around the world.
Next to it you find the Palazzo dell’Orologio and the Muda Tower. Its lurid history is recorded by Dante Aligieri in his famous work Divine Comedy. In the thirteenth century, the Italian politician Ugolino della Gherardesca was convicted for treason, locked up in this tower together with his children, and the key was thrown into the Arno. Dante writes about the hunger they experience; and on the fourth day the first child died:
“And there he died; and just as you see me,
I saw the other three fall one by one
between the fifth day and the sixth; at which,
now blind, I started groping over each;
and after they were dead, I called them for
two days; then fasting had more force than grief.”
There are some discussions about what Dante meant with the last sentence; by many it is interpreted that Ugolino ate his own children. It did not help; he still died of hunger.
Piazza dei Miracoli
If you take the street left of the tower, Via Corsica, you will eventually reach the Via Santa Maria. As you are nearing the Leaning Tower, you will notice it is becoming more touristy. Continue straight and soon you will see what attracts so many of them to Pisa each year. Who would have thought that an error in construction could turn out to be so beneficial?
The climb to the top will hurt your wallet more than it does your legs; but the view over the cathedral and the city is worth the 18 euros. Besides, who wouldn’t want to stand on the place where Pisa’s most famous inhabitant, Galileo Galilei, supposedly did his gravity experiment? He let two different size masses fall at the same time, proving that – in contrary to what Aristotels had thought – size doesn’t matter when it comes to speed of falling.
With your ticket for the Leaning Tower you get free access to the Cathedral as well. It was built in the 11th century and re-used a lot of Roman materials. Its style has Lombadian, Byzantian and Arabic influences; the latter can be seen in the black and white stripes. The inside of the cathedral is made completely out of marble.
The other two monuments at the Piazza dei Miracoli, the Baptistry and the Campo Santo or Cemetery, are also worth a visit, but make sure to enjoy the surroundings as well. Apart from the mandatory photo pushing the leaning tower (or check out some other original ideas), it is a lovely place to take a rest, sit in the grass and enjoy the view of the monuments.
If you still have some energy left then take a look at the Cimitero Ebraico, or Jewish Cemetery, where you can escape the crowds and walk through hundreds of years of history.
Restaurants in Pisa
Don’t jump on the train back to Florence just yet. Pisa is full with great restaurants. If you are looking for something close to the Piazza dei Miracoli, pay a visit to Ristorante Enoteca Il Toscano. Their mixed starter plate comes with a portion of cheese fondue, and if you have been wanting to try out tagliata di manzo (cut beef) with parmesan cheese or rucola, this is the place to do it.
For those looking for something with a more historical feel to it, Il Colonnino is worth making a detour for. You can savor a great meal while enjoying the Etruscan colons that are embedded in the walls. For something more casual, try Ristorante Alle Bandierine, a spaghetteria, or Sottobosco, a book cafe.
You can easily go from Florence to Pisa by train, bus or car. For an authentic Italian experience, take the train. It is convenient, inexpensive and fast, plus the train station in Pisa is a good starting point for your day trip.
Article by former Pisa resident and freelance travel writer Evelien Vleeshouwers. See more at her portfolio site here.