There’s more to Pisa than posing for a photo with your hand holding up the Leaning Tower. This ancient Tuscan town, the birthplace of Galileo, has cultural riches galore, with enough palaces, churches, bridges, squares and museums to make even the most jaded culture vulture sit up straight and take notice.
A famous university means there’s a large student contingent among Pisa’s 90,000 population, which translates to plenty of life in the cafes and bars, plus you’ve got access to the rest of Tuscany’s delights, including Florence and the vineyards and spectacular countryside of this stunning region.
The Piazza dei Miracoli, or Square of Miracles, is the number one reason to visit Pisa. This walled area, a World Heritage-listed site, is home to not only the Leaning Tower (which tilts due to shonky foundations on sinking ground, but has been shored up and is safe to climb) but three other architectural wonders: the stunning Pisa Cathedral, built in the mid 11th century, the imposing Baptistery, and the Camposanto, said to be the world’s most beautiful cemetery.
Other Pisan medieval wonders include the Santa Maria della Spina church, overlooking the River Arno, and the buildings and statues of Piazza del Cavalieri (Knights’ Square). The Tuscan Renaissance art of the Museo di San Matteo is among the museum highlights.
Eat and Drink
Built where the River Arno meets the Tyrrhenian Sea, Pisa includes seafood in many of its dishes, as well as local produce from the land, such as olives, pulses, pecorino cheese, game and mushrooms. Try spaghetti with clams, boar stew, or cecina, a flatbread made from chickpeas that is a Pisan street food staple.
There are plenty of eateries around the Piazza dei Miracoli, though a short walk away, in the centre of town, cafes and restaurants tend to be better value. Wherever you are, you won’t be far from a pizzeria.
For a drink and a bite to eat, try an osteria (a wine bar or tavern). Pre-dinner drinks are popular along the river. While Pisa isn’t best known for its nightclubs, the students (when they’re around) do a good job of revving up the nightlife.
Where to Stay
Pisa is small, and many hotels are within walking distance of the train station, food and wine along the river and tourist attractions such as the Piazza dei Miracoli. Small, three- to five-star boutique accommodation is plentiful, from traditional, family-run B&Bs to more modern, stylish hotels. In the hills around Pisa you’ll find spa resorts with thermal springs, as well as farm stays and classic Tuscan villas.
If you’re after a plastic souvenir of the Leaning Tower, the area around the Piazza dei Miracoli will not leave you short of options. At the other end of the shopping scale, take a stroll along Borgo Stretto, Pisa’s most glamorous street, which is home to the town’s most expensive boutiques.
The busiest of Pisa’s shopping streets is Corso Italia, where many well-known brands as well as independent stores can be found. Open-air markets (mercato) take place regularly in various squares and streets around town, offering everything from fresh produce to leathergoods to second-hand clothes.
Pisa Like a Local
In 1544 Pisa became home to the first university botanical garden in Europe, and students have been coming here to study (or snooze) under the shade of rustling leaves ever since. Just a short walk from the Leaning Tower, this is a serene spot for Pisans, and tourists, young and old, to get away from the crowds.
There are centuries-old trees, a bamboo garden, ponds, fountains and more. Lying down and listening to the birds is fun. Or you could always pretend to be holding up the old magnolia tree and get someone to take your picture…