Pisa is one of Tuscany’s most famous cities. Sitting on the banks of the River Arno just before it spills out into the Ligurian Sea, its location has meant that the city has had a long and rich maritime history. Today, its port still plays a major role in the city’s economy but tourism also plays a key role too as well.
I don’t think anyone would argue that Pisa’s most famous landmark is its Leaning Tower, but there is so much more to see and do in this city. A university town, Pisa is also home to a plethora of churches, plenty of interesting museums and a wealth of historical buildings that would pique anyone’s interest.
Here’s our guide to the top 10 things to do in Pisa.
1. Climb the Leaning Tower
We might as well start with Pisa’s most famous landmark. The tower is actually the bell tower (campanile) of the adjacent cathedral. Construction began in 1173 but it took until 1372, 199 years later, to complete. Unfortunately, the original foundations on which those first stones were laid proved to be unstable leading to the four degree lean you see today. Rest assured, due to remedial work which took place on the tower between 1993 and 2001, the structure is safe.
The tower measures 56.67 metres on its highest side and 55.86 metres on its lowest. It has 296 or 294 steps that take you up to the seventh floor and bell chamber where there are seven bells in total (one for each note of the musical scale). The reason for the difference in number of stairs is that the seventh floor has two fewer steps on the North facing staircase! It’s certainly worth climbing up them to enjoy the view over the Piazza dei Miracoli from the top.
2. Visit the Baptistery
You don’t have far to walk to get to the next of Pisa’s main attractions – the Baptistery – which also sits in the Piazza dei Miracoli. Like the more famous tower, this structure also leans but only by 0.6 degrees. After all, it was built on the same unstable ground as the taller tower.
This is the largest baptistery in Italy, standing 54.86 metres tall and with a diameter of 34.13 metres, it is a mix of Romanesque and Gothic styles. The exterior is stunning with an intricate series of arches, statues and other decoration. Inside, you’ll find this opulence continues with an octagonal font dating back to the mid 13th century as well as a bronze sculpture of St John the Baptist and a pulpit by Nicola Pisano.
3. Marvel at the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta
The Duomo is the third of the three monuments that sit within the Square of Miracles (Piazza dei Miracoli). Designed and built in a Romanesque style, the exterior is constructed from grey and white marble. Take a moment to admire the door of Saint Rainerius which is decorated with 24 bronze relief sculptures.
Inside, there is even more to admire. Again, you’ll find plenty of black and white marble and numerous grey marble columns topped with corinthian capitals. Look up to gaze at the incredible ceiling decorated with gold leaf. Also of note is the large mosaic by Cimabue showing ‘Christ enthroned between the Virgin and St John’ and the pulpit constructed by Giovanni Pisano, the son of Nicola who designed the pulpit in the baptistery. But there is so much more to see here including the relics of Saint Rainerius, patron saint of Pisa and the tomb of Henry VII, Holy Roman Emperor.
Yet again, the cathedral is also sinking though… look carefully and you can see a difference in floor levels in different parts of the building.
4. Stroll around the Campo Santo
The Campo Santo is Pisa’s cemetery. In fact, it was not originally intended to be a burial ground but instead was due to become a church but the project changed during the build.
Also known as Camposanto Monumentale (monumental cemertery) or Camposanto Vecchio, its name can be translated literally as ‘holy field’ due to the fact that it was supposedly built on a shipload of sacred soil from Golgotha, brought back to Pisa from the Third Crusade. Legend has it that a body buried here will rot in just 24 hours.
The outer walls of the building are made up of 43 arches with two doorways providing access to the inner lawn. The cemetery also has three chapels – the Chapel Ammannati, the Chapel Aulla and the Chapel Dal Pozzo. This is where you will find relics of eleven of the apostles, two fragments of the True Cross, a fragment of the Virgin Mary’s dress and a thorn from Christ’s Crown of Thorns. The Campo Santo also houses a collection of Roman sarcophagi.
5. Be at one with nature at the botanical gardens
Founded in the mid 16th century by Luca Ghini, the Botanical Garden in Pisa was the first ever university botanical garden anywhere in the world. It now sits in between the Piazza dei Miracoli and the Piazza dei Cavalieri. Covering an area of nearly 7.5 acres, it is home to thousands of plant species from all over the world.
6. Visit some of Pisa’s churches
The Duomo is not the only religious institution in Pisa. In fact, there are 20 churches in total in the city. Some of the others include the Santo Stefano dei Cavalieri, designed by Vasari, the Saint Sixtus church, the Church of San Frediano, the Church of San Nicola, Santa Maria della Spina and the Church of Saint Francis but there are many more to visit too.
7. Visit Pisa’s collection of museums
Pisa is home to a number of excellent museums. These include the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, home to some of the original sculptures of father and son, Nicola and Giovanni Pisano as well as other cathedral artefacts, and the Museo Nazionale di San Matteo, where you will find artworks from the 12th to 15th centuries. Again, there are works by Giovanni and Nicolo Pisano here along with works by Simone Martini and Masaccio.
Other museums worth exploring include the Museo delle Sinopie, the Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti per il Calcolo and the Museo di storia naturale dell’Università di Pisa which is the city’s natural history museum.
8. Admire the Palazzo della Cavalieri
Also known as the Palazzo della Carovana, the palace designed by Giorgio Vasari stands proudly in the Piazza dei Cavalieri. Now home to the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, a institution of higher education, the palace is a beautiful building whose exterior is decorated with sgraffiti representing allegorical figures and zodiacal signs.
9. Hit the shops!
Pisa boasts some excellent shops. If you’re looking to burn a hole in that wallet, then head to Borgo Stretto. This is where you’ll find a number of high end shops but for anyone that isn’t a fan of shopping, here you’ll also be able to delight in equal measure in the charm of the neighbourhood and its stunning architecture.
10. Climb the Guelph Tower
The Leaning Tower of Pisa isn’t the only tower you can climb in Pisa. Situated in the Cittadella Vecchia around Pisa’s dockyards, the Gelph Tower was constructed in the 15th century. Unfortunately the original tower was damaged by extensive bombing in WWII but was rebuilt in 1956. Now accessible to the public, it allows visitors to enjoy panoramic views over the city of Pisa
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