Pisa has a claim that not even the best marketing campaign could improve, its leaning tower. This is because when neither marketing nor tourist promotion existed as such, the Tower of the Cathedral of Pisa was already beginning to be known to the whole world without wanting it.
For many tourists on the grand tour of Italy, Pisa and its tower are such an emblematic place that they cannot be left out of the itinerary, so it is common to see groups arriving from Rome, Florence or Milan, just to spend a few hours in Pisa and set off again. We encourage you to get to know the city a little better by spending at least a whole day there.
After Rome and Venice, Pisa is perhaps the place with the largest concentration of souvenir shops in all of Italy. The Cathedral Square is a real souk where millions of miniature leaning towers are reproduced to the delight of compulsive shoppers.
When we see the current location of Pisa, we find it curious to think that the city was at the seashore, but we must understand that being a delta of the rivers Serchia and Arno, the mouth has receded nine kilometers from the coast.
Etruscan in its origins and Romanized in 180 BC, it was from the creation of the independent Republic in 888 when its weight as a defensive city against Berber attacks gave it importance to the point that by the 11th century it controlled the islands of Corsica and Sardinia, and even circumstantially the Balearic Islands. The legions of Crusaders that left for the Near East served as a link for its merchants who knew how to take advantage of the context to weave a network of supplies appreciated as spices or materials for textile production such as cotton. Faced with Lucca and Florence in their dispute for territories, the total decline of their maritime power came with the humiliating defeat of the Battle of Meloria before Genoa in 1284. First in their hands and then in Florence’s in 1406, it was this time the Medicis that pushed for Pisa’s revival.
What to see in Pisa
It goes without saying that Piazza dei Miracoli and, of course, the Leaning Tower are the most photographed spots in Pisa, because the monumental complex formed by the tower itself, the cathedral, the cemetery and the Baptistery, is a concentration of buildings so beautiful that few places in the world could match it. Here is the complete list of Things To Do in Pisa.
Moreover, the fact that they are in the open field, without buildings that enclose it, makes it a place with a thousand perspectives that allow the tourist to play. In fact, it will be difficult not to fall into the temptation of taking a picture of us holding the tower.
The Piazza dei Miracolli complex is the most beautiful example of Pisan Romanesque, a style that already preludes the Gothic without being so and the Renaissance.
The inscription on the façade is a reminder of how the citizens paid for the construction of the cathedral with the spoils of the victorious expedition in Palermo against the Arabs. It was started by the architect Buscheto in 1963, who combined elements of classical tradition with Paleochristians, Byzantines, Lombards, Arabs and Normans, achieving an appreciable mestizo result.
In 1118 it was consecrated although the facade was still to be completed at the end of the century by Rainaldo. This facade rests on three levels with blind marble arches of various types. The right door of the transept, known as San Rainieri, is made of bronze with scenes from the New Testament, created by Pisano in 1180. Much of the original decoration was lost in the fire of the 16th century and the frescoes in the dome date back to that period. The pulpit was sculpted by Pisano at the beginning of the 14th century and is considered a jewel of Gothic
The visit to the cathedral is free on public holidays from 10 am to 12:45 pm, entering through the right door on the facade.
Its large circular floor plan follows the Romanesque lines with the decoration of the incipient Gothic on the second and third levels of the exterior. The same cathedral decoration is repeated with the loggias of arches in this building that began in 1152, could only be finished in 1358 when the dome was completed.
Behind the cemetery we can follow Via Contessa Matilde and then along the Strada Statale del Brennero the line of medieval walls that bordered on the north of Pisa.
Going up the Leaning Tower
Before saying walk on the leaning tower a note, it is not really a tower, but the bell tower of the Duomo, external as in many examples of Tuscany, among them the Cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiori in Florence.
A symbol of Pisa, its 58 metres high has a 5 metres slope in relation to the perpendicular axis. Its six floors were erected with tremendous effort in two hundred years, Bonanno Pisano being the one who in 173 already when the first floor was finished started to give way, although he was not given much attention. When the third floor was being built a new displacement of the base forced to stop the works in 1185, suspended until 1275 by Giovanni di Simone, although it was not until the mid-14th century that it could be completed when Tomasso Pisano finished it.
Year after year the tower was heeling a couple of millimetres per year so that by the mid-21st century it could collapse. All attempts were in vain, some even made it worse like the stubbornness of the dictator Benito Mussolini who, despite his stubbornness, was sterile.
The progressive slope was only successfully dealt with when the danger of collapse forced intervention, so in 1992 it was closed until 2001, with a project to compact the land to prevent water infiltration and which recovered 40 cm of slope.
The best option to visit the tower is to buy the ticket previously by internet to avoid the queues that can be endless, and thus access at the scheduled time.
There are several legends and stories that accompany the Leaning Tower, the best known is that the scientist Gaileo Galilei carried out the tests from above launching several cannon balls of different weight that allowed him to prove that mass is important in speed.
Two hundred and ninety-four spiral-shaped steps – more than circular – are decorated with a facade of a columned loggia, in line with the ornamentation of the apse of the Duomo. When we go up we can see the stairs, so worn out by the footprints of millions of tourists that they have deformed the stone into an undulating shape. For those who have doubts that the tower may fall down while they are climbing, they should know that the inclination of the tower is perfectly observed and controlled with the most modern technologies, and the tensiometers on the stairs are reminiscent of the past.
From the top the view of Pisa, especially of the Cathedral is sublime, with a panoramic view of the Latin cross plan of the temple where the huge dome stands out.
The cemetery is a monumental work by Giovanni di Simone which was started in 1278 and was not completed until 1464 because of the frequent wars the city was involved in. It is the noble rectangular building that served as the tomb of the illustrious people of the city, and which had the frescoes of the most famous artists of the Tuscany medieval. The 1944 bombings by the Allies damaged the walls and so efforts have been made to recover the pictorial decoration since then.
Walking around inside gives us the feeling of being in a large landscaped cloister, with tombs and sarcophagi in a large airy and regal cemetery. In the west gallery we can still see the chains that used to stretch from one end of the medieval port to the other to defend the city from sea attacks.
In Piazza dei Miracoli you can also visit two museums: the Museo delle Sinopie and the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.
And what else is there in Pisa?
Despite the sceptics who have only made a quick tour of Pisa, there is another series of attractions in the city starting with the Church of Santa Maria della Spina, a 14th century Gothic temple on the banks of the river, the chapel of the sailors who guarded the relic of the thorn of Christ’s crown at the Crucifixion. Although we now find it next to the Solferino bridge, it was once closer to the flow of the river, but the floods damaged it so much that it was rebuilt further up in 1871.
To see the real Pisa, the university city, just walk to the river. You will discover a lively city full of young students, bars, restaurants, shops and boutiques of all kinds. We will find a real city, much more real and authentic, although a little less beautiful than Florence.
But first, after leaving the Tower behind us and continuing along Via Cardinal Pietro Malffi, we arrive at Piazza Martiri della Libertá. There is another beautiful example of Pisan architecture, the Church of Santa Caterina.
Then southwards we go down Via Carducci and Borgo Stretto, passing through almost pedestrian streets with arcades full of shops. Nearby is the university area with two very interesting squares. The first is Piazza dei Cavalieri with several religious and university buildings and a square whose only defect is that cars pass by.
Continuing our way towards the river another immense square, Dante’s, takes us to the main buildings of the University of Pisa, one of the main universities in Italy. The lively atmosphere reminds us of times gone by and a healthy envy makes us listen to conversations where everything is possible. While having a cappuccino, some pasta or a snack, why not? Piazza Dante Alighieri, is ideal for tasting the great coffees that Italy has to offer. Several towers (Lanfreducci, Hotel Vittoria, Dell Campano and Verga d’Oro) surround the university area, look up.
And so, without realizing it, we arrive at the Arno. The Arno in Pisa is very similar to the Arno in Florence, with less people but still a lot of pictures. Several bridges cross the river, the most beautiful being the Ponte di Mezzo. On the other side, after the corresponding photos, we find a lively shopping area that continues along Corso Italia street to Vittorio Emanuele square and the train station. In Corso Italia we find a multitude of shops of the brands we find all over Europe.
In the past, near the Ponte di Mezzo, there were many small squares with many cafes and shops with more crafts, design etc. An ideal area to drink a few beers, for example.
And then, at 8 o’clock come back to the bars, it’s time for the last appetizer and coin in the many bars that offer free or very low price tapas. Perfect for dinner on a budget.
If we have accommodation in Pisa and we want to see the surroundings we can put in the agenda the itinerary to the 11th century Romanesque church of San Pietro a Grado dedicated to the Saint where it is said that he landed in Italy, right where the coast line was at that time. Not far from there is the Villa Medicea in Coltano, which is now the centre of the natural park.
To the west, near the town of Calci is the Certosa of Pisa, a monastic centre founded in 1366 and home to several museums; and if we continue north to San Giuliano Terme, its name already indicates the thermal properties of its waters, appreciated since Roman times when Pliny mentioned them.
Still in the province of Pisa, we cannot leave without visiting two Tuscan villages such as San Miniato and Pontedera, two stops on the way to Empoli.
How to get to Pisa
Flights to Pisa arrive at the Galileo Galilei international airport which operates with different companies that connect it to many points in Italy, Europe and Spain. Flights between Spain and Pisa depart from Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, Valencia, Girona, Ibiza, Palma de Mallorca, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria and Tenerife, mostly with low-cost companies such as Ryanair.
From the airport, and given the proximity to the centre of Pisa, it is best to take a bus just outside the airport, from the company LAM ROSSA which will drop you off at the Via Cammeo/Piazza Manin stop
When we travel by train, the journey leaves us at the Pisa Centrale Autobus station. From here we pass Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, taking Via Crispi. Going straight on you will reach the Pote Solferino which crosses the river to become Via Roma, which flows into Piazza dei Miracoli and the tower.