It's one of the world's most famous towers. People come to the Italian city of Pisa in Tuscany to see the tower for only one reason – it looks like it's going to fall over. And people play around with that, posing for funny pictures, holding it up, and acting silly. If it were standing straight up, nobody would bother to come here to see it, but it is slanted, which makes it a fascinating object. Maybe it's going to fall down. Why is it tilting? People are fascinated.
But this tower is only the tip of the iceberg of things to see in Pisa. You'll discover this city has much more to offer. Set in a historic location with buildings going back to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, a fascinating mix for you to discover and enjoy.
The tower is one small part of a fascinating city that we are going to explore. We will get back to the tower later, but first we're going to take you on a walking tour through the beautiful town of Pisa, walking along the main pedestrian lanes, and ending up at the tower and the Cathedral. The buildings are old, but the population is young, with nearly half the people, students at one of Europe's oldest universities.
The pedestrian zone extends for about two kilometers from the train station through the heart of the old town up to the tower, a place to relax, sit back, have a drink and do some people watching – a truly magnificent area to explore on foot, as we'll show you now.
Many people visit Pisa on a daytrip from Florence, which is ideal because it's only one hour away by train, with frequent service.
In the Florence train station, the easiest way to buy your ticket is just go to the machine, put your credit card in there, punch the buttons – very simple –and your ticket comes right out at the bottom – much better than waiting online at the ticket window.
Find your platform, get on board, sit down anywhere in second-class, no seat reservations required, enjoy the scenery as you go along. It's mostly green hills and farmlands, quite pleasant, best to avoid rush-hour so you'll have plenty of seats available. Before you know it you will be rolling into Pisa.
It's so easy and cheap by train. You do not need to purchase an expensive tour to Pisa from Florence on a tour bus. Just do it yourself, and watch our videos for tips on how to explore.
The train station is right on the edge of the pedestrian zone, so it's so easy for you to get off the train and start walking, no taxi or bus connection required. There is a bus stop here, but don't bother, just walk – It's easier and just as quick, and a lot more fun.
After walking a block along viale Antonio Gramsci, the first site you'll come upon is Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele II. There is often a beautiful fleamarket going on with all kinds of things for sale, including some food. You might not always run into it, but maybe you'll get lucky. The Piazza is always a popular gathering spot, and underneath is a parking lot for almost 400 cars created after several years of reconstruction.
Now turn just around the corner to piazzetta Keith Haring to admire the mural by that dazzling artist, who visited Pisa and fell in love with the town, creating this amazing big mural. It is easy to miss, but conveniently adjacent to the piazza - a nice touch of contemporary art in this historic city. Along the north edge of the piazza you'll find a large popular gellateria with some of the most fresh and delicious gelato in town, La Borsa.
We've now entered the main street of Pisa, the Corso Italia, the place where all the locals come out to shop, have a drink, get something to eat and enjoy the passeggiata, the great strolling activity of Italy.
There are some historic buildings and sculptures along the way such as this statue of a Renaissance artist Nicola Pisano in front of S.M. Maria del Carmine church. We will see his work later in the Cathedral.
This street can get quite crowded in the late afternoon, which is when were strolling along, even on a Sunday like this when most shops are closed. Occasionally it was a little less crowded, if walking earlier in the day, but the crowds offer ideal subject for people-watching, with 50,000 students in a town population of 100,000.
As the Corso approaches the Arno River it gets a little more narrow, and curved, and then reaches the Logge di Banchi, constructed in the early 17th century as an open air, but sheltered, market.
Back in those old days, it was a place for selling wool, and silk, and grains , and miscellaneous items of all types, including some moneychangers. Now it's a very active community space.
We happened upon a wonderful food festival. So it's still functioning as a market, 400 years later. And all the merchants were cleverly giving out free samples to tempt you to buy something.
It's so charming to come across an authentic event like this with very few other tourists around, and mostly locals chatting, and eating, and creating this inviting atmosphere for you to join them.
The loggia is right on the Arno River, with a convenient bridge across the river that'll bring us to the north side, as we continue walking towards the tower. The Ponte Mezzo bridge offers wonderful viewpoints, so be sure to stop and enjoy the vista with palaces on both sides.
The views along the Arno River from the bridge are world-famous. It's called the Lungarno, and consists of long row of Renaissance palaces, beautifully preserved. It would make for a nice walk along both sides of the river, if you had the time. It's the same Arno that flows through Florence 80 kilometers away.
As we exit the bridge and cross the Longarno, we enter the lively square, Piazza Garibaldi, with several streets leading out from it, and a statue of that great national hero in the center, Garibaldi, the man who brought the country together.
Exiting the right corner of the square into the most picturesque lane in the city Borgo Stretto. This is the main street of old Pisa. It's a marvelous place with arcades along both sides, sheltering shops and cafés, and pedestrians out for a stroll. Chiesa San Michele was built a thousand years ago and has a 14th-century façade.
The Borgo was the commercial center during the Middle Ages and, from the 14th century, the rich merchants began to build their lodges here, opening shops and taverns to serve the public. These wealthy families competed to build the largest, most beautiful, and colorful buildings.
The lanes extending from the east side are not terribly interesting but to the west there is a wonderful neighborhood with more arcades and little piazzas, with street markets, especially the Mercato delle Vettovaglie which sells fruits, vegetables and flowers, daily except Sundays.
Along the way there are more kiosks selling books, scarves and handbags. Via Domenico Cavalca is one of those charming authentic local places. It's got some shops and apartments in a typical urban setting.
There's a medieval tower on this block. Back in the Middle Ages there were many, many of these high towers for household defense. The lanes lead towards the University, a nice place for a little detour through little lanes over to Piazza Dante and the University and then back around returning to Borgo Stretto.
Piazza Dante is in the University District of Pisa, in a university that is one of the oldest, and one of the best in all of Europe. The University was officially founded in 1343, although there had been lectures on law in Pisa ever since the 11th century. This neighborhood is well-worth seeing, easily missed by the tourist in a hurry to get to the big tower.
Back on Borgo Stretto to the charming section of the street with the porticos along both sides. It's only about 200 meters long, so it's the kind of place where you really want to slow down, do some browsing, maybe walk up along one side and back down the other, because it is so spectacularly beautiful.
It has a lot of character. In some parts it's a little shabby, other places it's sheik, with upscale shops, a perfect place to wander aimlessly, perhaps looking for a drink, or an ice cream, or something delicious like you will find at Pasticceria Federico Salza, one of the most popular places in town.
When you step inside you'll find a delicious aroma of freshly roasted coffee, pastries and chocolate. The bakery is on the right side, and the bar is on the left with a long sandwich counter serving nearly 40 types of sandwiches, savory tarts and snacks to eat at the bar or takeout.
They got started a long time ago as a bakery, but now have a variety of foods available including pasta, seafood, soups and salads. I always stop in with my groups for a refreshing break. There's also friendly waiter service indoors at their luncheonette in the back. Try a fruit salad or their calamari.
“Our bar is called Salza. It was born in 1898. Very old, old, old, old,” the bartender explains. You can have a glass of wine with your sandwich inside standing up at the bar, or have a seat outside on their large terrace.
The outdoor dining terrace is the perfect spot for a relaxing snack. You can just sit back and watch the people go by, enjoying this wonderful ambience. But remember, as you'll find in all Italian cafés, there are two different price lists. It's a little bit more expensive to sit down than it is to stand up at the bar for the same food. You're sitting down your paying rent on that chair and table, so it's probably worth it for you if you been walking all day and you're feeling a little tired. And there's a lot more to see on foot.
Or you could take a ride on the pedicab. It's that kind of neighborhood that's more for the locals rather than the tourists, which makes it a prime destination for the savvy traveler, a little off the beaten track.
We've reached the upper end of Borgo Stretto, and here it widens out – worth a quick look – then we return back and take a nice little side street heading over towards another major piazza.
It's such a shame that most tourists who come to Pisa never get to see this neighborhood, because they've only come to see the tower, and they miss everything else. Maybe they're on a half-day bus tour from Florence, and they don't have any time. They can't sit back at a café and enjoy a meal, have a glass of wine, take a leisurely stroll while looking around – and yet aren't those some of the greatest treasures of travel?
The little side lane of Via Ulisse Dini delivers you to Piazza dei Cavalieri, an important town square back in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, which was a center of government activities. And today there are many of those historical buildings still standing. There is a beautiful palace with a grand double staircase in front, a major church, the Palazzo dell'Orologio with a Clock Tower, arranged all around this beautiful piazza.
The main building is the Palazzo della Carovana, its façade decorated with scrafitto painting and busts of the grand Dukes of Tuscany. Now it's a college but, originally it was built in the mid-16th century by Cosimo, The First, as headquarters for his order of the Knights of St. Stephen.
On the right is the church of the Knights of St. Stephen. The Knights were a religious and military order founded to fight the Moorish pirates of the Mediterranean, to rescue their captives, and to convert these Moors to Christianity. Both the church and palace were designed by Renaissance architect Vasari. The building with the arch and the big clock above is the Palazzo dell'Orologio, also called the Hunger Tower, because a leader of Pisa was convicted of treason and locked up inside with his children and starved to death. Exit the piazza on that lane to the left.
Via Corsica continues out from the piazza with a whole series of arts, and crafts, and jewelry, and clothing, and paintings, little kiosks set up along the sidewalk area on this pedestrian lane – some antiques and some junk, and little knickknacks. Changing names to via dei Mille, it makes for a fun walk as you're heading further towards the tower.
Old books, paintings and old records areset up, with lots of people walking by, it's just marvelous. It's late afternoon and not crowded. Sidewalk restaurants available, people strolling along passing the time of day, and we are making our way along via Santa Maria to the great tower.
We get to the end of the street and reach our destination, the Campo dei Miracoli, the Field of Miracles, with our main goal, the Leaning Tower. It is a spectacular monument.
The best angle on your photo is of course in front of the tower, not on the side. You want to be in front, so that it is leaning, and especially if you're alongside the Cattedrale di Pisa, the Duomo. You'll find that sweet spot for your great shot.
Of course, everybody's favorite game here is getting that perfect pose, where you're holding the tower up, or some people try and push it over, with friends busy giving instructions about move your hand this way, no, move it back that way, up, over, a little lower.
It's all part of the goofy fun that makes this a photographic highlight of your vacation. There is no end to the creative poses that people can come up with. And be sure to get that basic portrait with the tower behind.
These three little babies are not angels – they're cupids that it's the Fountain of the Puti, carved in the mid-18th century in a playful Baroque style.
When you look up at the top of the tower, you'll notice there are some people up there. Well, that's because you can climb the tower.it is open to the public and we're going to take you up right now.
Going inside the tower is really a wonderful experience. This is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of activity. During the high season, you better make a reservation online, or if it's the off-season, you can just show up and probably get right in, in the wintertime.
And when you go in, you climb, and you climb. You go up these ancient steps. It's the original marble steps. And you just keep going around and around and around, and sure enough you will arrive at the top. Of course, you get a fantastic and splendid view looking out over the old town of Pisa.
There are some bells up there. After all, this was a belltower, campanile. The main function originally was to ring the bell. Of course, now the main function is to give Pisa its fame, because it's leaning. And from the tower, you have a beautiful view looking at the old town, looking down on the foliage, and you can see the Duomo. You're above the Cathedral. It's really a remarkable vista. We'll take you inside this wonderful building, coming up next.
A view back at the street we walked on getting here, and then you walk around the other side for a view of Camposanto, the burial grounds, and artistic treasures containing many important frescoes. There is no doubt you'll be completely satisfied with your climb up the tower. In fact, some people come to Pisa just for that reason.
And when you've had your fill, then you go back down. It's a spiral staircase at the very top, for the first section, quite narrow, a little precarious. There is no railing, so you just sorta hang on and balance yourself, and walk down and you will get right out.
Don't worry, it's not going to fall. They fixed it.
From Porta Nuova you get a classic view framed by the ancient gateway and the medieval wall around Pisa. Then we see the full ensemble of the three main buildings – the tower, the Cathedral and the Baptistery.
It's called Piazza del Duomo or Campo dei Miracoli, the Field of Miracles. It has been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in which they say that, "this square is a cultural heritage of exceptional, universal value...a magical quality pervades the site. This is one of the most renowned urban landscapes of the world."
This beautiful Cathedral was built in the Romanesque style that's earlier than the Gothic. It dates back to the 11th and 12th centuries. And you really want to go inside the Duomo. Too many people come to Pisa and just take a snapshot of the Leaning Tower, and then they depart without going inside this magnificent church.
Construction began back in the year 1063, making it nearly a thousand years old. Of course, many of the features that we see today were added a little bit later. Naturally the church grew over time, and it took a couple of hundred years to build it all.
The Duomo is truly huge with a colossal interior, 100 meters long, 50 meters wide and 50 meters high. The nave is flanked by two aisles on each side, with 68 monolithic columns, each one a single huge piece of stone. This interior design with a large nave and four aisles makes the building seem even larger than it is. It heightens that feeling of vastness and infinity, further enhanced by the majestic harmony of all of its details. The ceiling of the nave is flat, but coffered and made of gilded and sculpted wood, with a heavenly fresco on the cupola.
The large golden mosaic of Christ, over the apse is attributed to the great Byzantine artist Cimabue, and later Renaissance artists painted the scenes around the altar. In the middle of the church hangs the beautiful bronze lamp called Galileo's Lamp, because it suggested the movement of the pendulum to Galileo, who was a native of Pisa.
One of the most important works of art here is the pulpit designed by Giovanni Pisano, part of an artistic family that was native to the area. He worked for 10 years on the masterpiece, starting from 1302. Curiously, in later years it fell out of favor and was removed from the church. It wasn't until the 1920s that it was restored to its proper place.
It's a remarkable building, considered the first modern Cathedral of Italy. It became a pattern for many subsequent churches built later. It was a massive expense to build such a structure, and Pisa was able to pay for it because they were a great military power, and their Navy had just conquered the Muslims in Sicily and brought home six ships loaded with rich merchandise, which paid for the construction.
Return to train station
When you have finished your visit, you might be feeling a little tired by now so you could just take a taxi back to the train station, or you could even ride on the city bus to get back to the station, just as you could have taken a taxi or bus at the beginning to get to the tower, but you'd miss all those city sites. On the other hand, we're going to walk back and do a little more exploring.
Leaving the piazza you'll come across the Archbishops Palace (Palazzo dell'Arcivescovado). Continue for a couple more blocks along via Capponi, and you will reach the Piazza of the Martyrs of Liberty (Piazza Martiri della Libertà), one of the largest open space parks in the city. It was created back in the 1830s by the Grand Duke of Tuscany.
A few blocks further south you'll reach the Piazza San Francesco, with its church and a street leading back over to the Borgo.
The evening has arrived, and with it that beautiful atmosphere of twilight. This could be the best part of your day, walking back along the arcaded Street of Borgo Stretto. Rather than taking a bus tour to get here, you can enjoy the freedom of independent travel, browsing one of the old bookstores, keep strolling along these beautifully lit arcades in the evening. Perhaps stop and grab a snack, or some roasted chestnuts from a sidewalk vendor.
Piazza Garibaldi and the Arno River are also nicely lit at night. That alone makes an evening extension worthwhile.
Earlier, we saw a food market in the Logge di Banchi. Well, this evening there is some kind of political rally going on, with some enthusiastic speeches. Italians tend to get quite activated about politics, as they seem to be passionate about most things.
Early evening is one of the most enjoyable times to be out. The locals are here, they've got their dogs out for a walk, there's families. It's the real occasion of the passeggiata. and then sit down at a café, relax, wind down and end your trip with a nice glass of wine.
Or maybe you got back to the train station while it's still daylight. If you're traveling with your suitcase, they have the baggage deposit room, which is very handy for people who were passing through.
If you are visiting from Florence on a daytrip, as we usually do. It's a one-hour train ride. And then you'll need at least three hours, maybe four hours, to experience what we've just shown you, and then take a one-hour train back to Florence. So you can do this as an easy half-day trip. Then settle into a Florence restaurant for a leisurely dinner – a perfect way to spend your time.