Pisa is certainly one of those towns that every visitor who sets foot in Italy should see at one time or another. The city’s infamous leaning tower is probably one of the most recognized symbols of Italy, so it makes perfect sense that it’s on the top of most every visitors’ bucket list.
The problem is that for many tourists, Pisa is barely more than a quick two-hour lunch stop between one town and another. Most visitors stash their luggage at the station and head directly to the tower, take some photos, climb to the leaning top, and split (I know – I’veam guilty of doing this). As a result, the immediate area surrounding the tower is often terribly over-crowded, and the cafes and stores that line the beautiful piazza are clearly overpriced.
But if you have time to dig a bit below the surface, you will discover that Pisa is really a very normal and beautiful Italian town.
Beyond the magnificent and huge piazza surrounding the cathedral and adjacent leaning tower, Pisa is also home to a famous university. Having this massive student population gives the Pisa a lively quality. If you find yourself anywhere around the university you will be encircled by activities whether you encounter student crowds or not.
On the plus side, students necessitate affordable food and housing options. So as you escape the tourist crowds trying to push up the leaning tower, you will stand a better chance of discovering some downright surprising deals in the sleeping and dining departments.
Where to Stay in Pisa
As mentioned, most people visiting Pisa do so for a few hours and then high-tail it onto their next destination. But as is the case with every other popular day trip location in Italy, Pisa improves if you stay the night. You’ll get to see the city without the tourist crowds, both later in the evening and early in the morning, and will be able to appreciate that it’s more than just a few hundred square meters of flawless grass and a cock-eyed tower.
Things to Do in Pisa
Okay, yes – I know that most of you are just going to make a beeline for the tower and then leave, and I don’t blame you. I’ve done the same thing. But on the off-chance that you’re spending a night in Pisa, or even just staying more than an hour or two, there are a few other things you might consider adding to the itinerary.
- The Leaning Tower of Pisa – While this is what we all call this tower, it was really just the bell tower for the big cathedral (the one that never seems to get any attention) next to it. Sometimes you can climb it, sometimes it’s structurally unsound. It’s kind of a coin toss. And FYI, buying tickets to climb the leaning tower before you go is a good idea.
- Duomo – The cathedral next to the leaning tower is beautiful both inside and out, and it’s surrounded by some of the greenest grass you’ll ever see. The piazza, incidentally, is called the Campo dei Miracoli – or Field of Miracles.
- Baptistery – On the opposite side of the cathedral from the tower, this is the largest baptistery in the entire country. The acoustics inside are amazing, and if the folks working there are in a good mood they might demonstrate for you with a song.
- Museo dell’Opera del Duomo – This is the museum where most of the art goodies once housed in the Duomo itself are now kept.
- Santa Maria della Spina – This church was named for what was said to be a thorn from Jesus’ crown (the thorn has since been moved to the Church of Santa Chiara).
- Chiesa del Santo Sepolcro – If rectangular churches bore you, check out this octagonal church dating from the 12th century.
- Keith Haring Mural – Tired of ancient art? The late artist Keith Haring had a fondness for Pisa, and left his mark in the form of an oversized mural.
The first time I visited Pisa was for the usual day-trip. Most people stay in another city, like Florence, Siena or Lucca and just catch a train into Pisa to see the Leaning Tower, stop by for half a day and then leave. I was staying in Florence. We got on a train, and upon arriving walked along Corso Italia where there are many shops, crossed the river Arno and reached Borgo Stretto, the historic center, to walk in direction to the main square, called “Piazza dei Miracoli”. It was a half day trip only, so by the time we arrived it was already sunset when we reached the Tower, and the scene was very beautiful. At that moment I remember wishing I had more time to take it in and just breath the beauty and history of the site. When I left, I had no idea how many times or if ever I would see it again.
On my second trip I knew I wanted to spend more time in Pisa and enjoy it just a bit more. And this second trip was when I really discovered this charming city. I stayed in a room with a view of the Tower. Everyday I crossed the square to reach Piazza Martiri della Libertà. I can’t tell you in one visit how many times I saw all those tourists taking pictures like if they were holding up the Tower. I did it myself of course as did my wife in the picture above. It is kind of obligatory. We are collectively willing the tower to stay for future generations to enjoy. But I did find myself wishing that just a few of them would skip getting back on their busses and go further… It’s enough to just take a gentle walk a little bit further, leave the immediate surroundings of Piazza dei Miracoli, to discover what else Pisa has to offer. Not just amazing sights but especially to eat all the incredible food!
Where to Eat in Pisa
This is the best advice I can give you now… don’t stop and eat right beside the Tower in one of the many restaurants and pizzerias which offer a touristic level menu! Especially for the PIZZA, it is to be avoided at all costs! You will pay so much more and receive low quality food. Sadly you might go back home wrongly thinking how terrible is the pizza in Italy. It’s simply because you ate tourist food when eating at the right place down the street would have set your taste buds dancing.
My tip for you is this: save your money by avoiding the pricey tourist restaurants so that you will have the cash to spend (if you want) to climb the Leaning Tower. You may have picked up on it, yeah, it’s very expensive! The ticket costs 15 Euro per person just to climb the Tower and if you book in advance (according to the season, it’s recommended), there is additional 2 Euro of booking fee. You can buy your tickets on-line on the Official On-Line Ticket Office of the Leaning Tower.
The best advice i can give you for saving money and yet at the same time, taste a delicious pizza (or if you prefer a “focaccia” with jam, mozzarella or, even better, taste a local specialty called “cecina” – a kind of pie made with chickpea flour and extra virgin olive oil) all cooked in a traditional wood fired oven. There is a long established spot well known by the locals and students in Pisa. Owned by an elder couple that make you feel as though you stepped back in time, called Pizzeria Al Bagno di Nerone. Actually there are no tables, it is just take-out or you can sit on a few benches inside if you can find space. Usually they are closed on Mondays and sometimes for other reasons (tradition is a double edged sword) with no warning, but in the end that is what being family owned is all about. You can find this pizzeria if you walk along Via Carlo Fedeli, the street behind the Tower (right behind the Cathedral) which leads to the city center. You will reach a Roman bath (the Bagni di Nerone) and in the opposite side of the street you see this pizzeria. Send me a comment after you taste it and tell me if I was right!
For desert I propose the Gelateria Yogurteria Bagni di Nerone, close to the pizzeria, at civic number 7 which makes one of the best gelatos I have ever tasted. Not only in Tuscany, but in the world! I’ll have said this before and will say it again: Italian gelato is what I enjoy the most as I work on my bucket list in Italy! I recommend you eat gelato twice a day! The gelateria is closed on Wednesdays. They also make delicious yogurt, all recipes are traditional and home-made.
I think only after you have stuffed yourself in those two places, can you even leave Pisa. Though both of these shops are very simple, not for those who are looking for a refined restaurant, they give a glimpse into the ordinary but sublime nature of everyday life in Pisa. Those who choose to bypass such delights in favor of fancier digs don’t even know what they’re missing.