Visitors flock to Tuscany’s Pisa to share a fleeting moment with the famous Leaning Tower then leave – but Pisa is not all about the Tower.
Eager to explore gorgeous Tuscany over 12 days, Pisa offers cheaper accommodation than surrounding cities and also makes an excellent base for travel.
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A little background on Pisa
Pisa’s origins date back to the 5th-century as a trading city with the Gauls and Greeks, and the only ‘trading port between Genoa and Ostia’ in Italy’s west. It’s hard to believe that the sea was much closer to Pisa centuries ago than it is today.
Boasting ‘one of the most ancient universities in Europe’, which dates back to the 12th-century and also one of Italy’s best-approved schools Scuola Normale Superiore that Napoleon founded in 1810, Pisa is also renown as a university town.
Poets and writers such as Lord Byron and P.B. Shelley left inspired by this gorgeous city, which also produced brilliant mathematicians, sculptures, artists, and scientists – think Fibonacci, Pisanello, Redi, and Galileo.
What to see
Linger a while to experience the friendly Pisans whilst absorbing superb architecture, the historic Arno River, medieval palaces, and many elegant churches. And of course, you must see the Leaning Tower.
Open to the public since 2018, you can walk 3-kilometres of the 7-kilometre medieval walls surrounding the city, which pass the Square of Miracles and a great vantage point.
Constructed in sections in 1155 with the final piece in 1161, the ramparts protected the city’s people, monuments, and vulnerable spots from possible attacks.
If you’re on foot, you frequently bump into these ancient walls, which survived for centuries almost unscathed.
Fortezza di Sangallo
As we’re minutes from this striking fortress in the San Martino quarter, roaming its peaceful gardens makes a delightful change from the city’s tourist sites.
Also known as the Cittadella Nuova (New Citadel), the fortress was built in 1440, damaged in subsequent conquests, then restored as one of the first fortresses in Italy to withstand cannon forces.
From the fortress, gaze across the River Arno using the Porta Della Vittoria bridge or just enjoy the Lungarno Fibonacci side of the river.
Enjoy romantic strolls along a lungarno (street or road following the River Arno) as it’s pleasant and tranquil.
Centuries ago wealthy families chose this area of Pisa to live.
Many splendid buildings dating back to the Renaissance period and the Middle Ages still grace the riverfront, including numerous hotels. Remarkably, these buildings survived the bombings during WWII.
The 241-kilometre-long Fiume (river) Arno crosses Pisa and also nearby Florence.
With historical significance during WWII, the Arno Line was part of the forward defensive line of the Gothic Line (German defensive line), and where Allied and German forces fought battles.
Pisa and its ancient bridges crossing the Arno were heavily bombed to cut Pisa in two, with bridges reconstructed following WWII, however not in their original style.
During 1966, the Arno’s flooding badly damaged bridges and surrounding area once more, which resulted in a couple of bridges never being replaced.
Today, a far cry from its tumultuous history, the river’s serenity is captivating. Amble along the picturesque Arno and stop to visualise and remember what occurred in 1944.
Surrounded by Pisa’s ancient fortress built by the Florentines, unwind as you meander through the serene gardens with locals, whilst enjoying the open-air bronze sculptures.
Dating back to Roman times and not always a park, this area underwent many changes.
Visit during summer to catch a music festival or open-air cinema.
As one of the main shopping pedestrian streets, Corso Italia was built along a Roman road – Borgo Stretto and Borgo Largo are the other main shopping streets.
Crammed with clothing chains, boutiques, restaurants, bars, and cafes along this 500-metre-long paved shopper’s dream, there’s something for everyone.
Check out the very flashy Il Palazzo Reale di H&M. Forget about the shopping and admire the frescos, stunning ceilings…
…and contemporary art splashed around the walls.
Keith Haring’s “Tuttomondo”
Hidden away near Piazza Vittorio Emanuele is the huge vibrant mural left behind by Haring in 1989, just months before his death and his last public work.
Stop at the Keith Art Shop Cafè across from the mural to enjoy a refreshment and tasty snack, whilst admiring Haring’s artwork in comfort.
Porta a Lucca
The Florentines opened this northern door (gate) to the city whilst ruling in the 16th-century.
Bagni di Nerone
Next to the Porta a Lucca, stop at the Baths of Nero archaeological site where the remains of the entrance to the sudatio laconicum (dry sweating room) date back to the 1st-century BC, then re-built in the 2nd-century.
Piazza dei Miracoli
The Square of Miracles catapulted Pisa centuries ago to a favourite destination for global travellers to Italy.
Only spending an hour here as part of a 21-day TopDeck Europe tour back in 1985 when solo-backpacking around the world for 12 months, this time it’s much more relaxed. Spending half a day at this amazing iconic site with hundreds of other visitors, which is even busy in December.
The imposing Romanesque-style cathedral’s construction began in 1064. Built with a mixture of grey marble, white stone, coloured-marble discs, and adorned with enormous bronze doors, it’s truly magnificent.
Comprising the Pisa Cathedral, the Pisa Baptistry, the Campanile (bell/leaning tower), and the Camposanto Monumentale amongst grassed and paved areas, this complex is truly stunning.
Taking 177 years to build over three phases, the Leaning Tower was started in 1173. Although in its fifth year of construction with only three floors built, its poor foundation and subsoil caused a lean.
Construction stopped for a century to allow the soil to settle, until beginning again in 1272. To counteract the buildings collapse, floors four to seven are built with one side higher than the other.
Public toilets (€0.80) in the complex are manned, clean, and paper is provided.
Wander Pisa’s streets and it’s not long until you stumble on extraordinary sculptures…
…or colourful medieval stained glass joining residences.
There’s always alluring street art to transform even a garage door…
…or an intricate centrepiece carved into a door.
Sleepy narrow alleyways are a delight.
Day trips from Pisa
Pisa is a fantastic base for travel and day trips around Tuscany using its well-serviced, inexpensive public transport. I hope that in the future Cosenza’s transport operates as efficiently.
The last few times I’ve flown with RyanAir, which is not that often the plane is always late.
Today, my flight is 50 minutes late for a flight that’s only 1-hour and 20-minutes.
Tuscany’s Pisa International Airport – also known as Galileo Galilei Airport – is right in the city and it’s easy getting to and from the airport.
The efficient PisaMover shuttle bus – an electric tram (€2.70 one-way) – arrives every 5 minutes and is a brilliant hassle-free way to travel from the airport to the city centre.
The quick trip takes under 10-minutes until you arrive at the Central Train station, which opened in early 1871, although rebuilt following serious damage in WWII.
Commanding arches mark the station’s entry…
…as does the grand fountain, which is a rest stop for travellers and locals.
A first impression is that unlike the south, everything seems to run on time – see what happens over the next 12 days.
Where to stay
Opting for a self-contained apartment and booking the Marco Polo Apartment through AirBnb, pleasantly surprised as the apartment boasts everything needed – even a free bottle of Prosecco in the fridge.
Tucked away in a quiet area of San Martino in a great location on the southern side of the River Arno, this areas is a cheaper option than the Tower-side – 15-20-minute walk to the airport, 10-minutes to train station, and 10-15-minutes to the main street, shops, restaurants, and bars.
Michele (owner) is very friendly, accommodating, and provides excellent communication before and during the stay.
Where to eat
The apartment’s cosy great kitchen is well-equipped and also manage to cook a delicious Christmas dinner.
Although, there’s always time for a pizza and the obligatory coffee pastry-duo.
My favourite cafe in Pisa, check it out along Lungarno Mediceo 66. Staff are fun and friendly, a lovely ambience, and there’s a massive painting on the wall, which I love.
Stop for an excellent coffee (€1+), savoury (€1.50+), or a divine luscious gourmet cake (€3+).
Galileo Art Cafe
Hidden away on via Garofini 6, this trendy cafe offers great savouries, sweets, and coffees at reasonable prices.
Love the modern pallet furniture in this chic comfortable place with large comfy cushions strewn around and great contemporary wall art, it’s easy to rest here for a few hours.
Check out via Guglielmo Oberdan 54 for cheap but great coffee (€1.10+), delicious Focaccia (€2+), and great service.
Antico Caffè Toti
Along via San Martino 104, a little pricier but enjoy a good cappuccino (€2) and yummy savouries (€3) in lovely surrounds.
Dotted around Pisa you’ll bump into the occasional supermarket offering great food and groceries at decent prices.
This supermarket on via S. Giuseppe Cottolengo is quite large for its central location in Pisa and offers everything you need at reasonable prices.
On via Francesco da Buti, 40, this small supermarket is pricier than CONAD but very convenient as it’s just around the corner from the apartment.
Just in case you need a pharmacy, then the Farmacie Comunali on via G. B. Niccolini 6/A is well-priced with helpful staff.
Pisa airport food
The airport offers the usual food outlets at higher prices.
A relaxing place to enjoy an excellent coffee (€1+), delicious Panini (€4.50+), or a pastry (€1.80+) whilst waiting for your delayed flight.
So many places, so little time and only a lifetime to do it all in…
Hope that this post inspires you to visit sights other than the Leaning Tower, as this is a wonderful city enveloped in marvellous vistas.
Of course, you must visit the cathedral and Leaning Tower, but remember to also spend time exploring further afield.
After 12 fabulous days in Pisa and surrounding cities, it’s finally time to head south to Calabria – I could easily stay another 12 days.
Eager for the RyanAir flight to be on time, my hopes dwindle as it’s 1-hour late for the return 1-hour and 20-minute-flight. Seems as though airlines never stick to schedules these days.