Did you know that once upon a time, Pisa was a seaside city with a full on major port?
That’s right pals, nowadays the city of Pisa sits on the banks of the River Arno not too far from the Tuscan coast of Italy, although until the 15th Century it was actually fully by the seaside. Back in those days Pisa was an important maritime centre, and led by the Archbishop of Pisa, the city sent ships to conquer lands far away across the ocean, starting new colonies across North Africa and Sardinia with a marvellous success rate! But over time, silt from the river built up and cut the city off completely from the shore; spelling the end of Pisa’s days as a bigtime port city player. Poor little Pisa. These days it’s a whole six miles from the city to the sea, and Tuscany’s new big boss-port is Livorno, where my ship docked once a week. It’s a complete doddle to travel by train from Livorno to Pisa, so I was able to visit Pisa regularly over the time I spent in the Western Mediterranean, and get a true appreciation for this beautiful little city. But aside from the obvious, what should you do and see in Pisa?
Visit the Leaning Tower (People-Watching Hotspot)
I told myself this post would be about what to see in Pisa other than the Leaning Tower, but that would surely be impossible- you surely can’t visit this city without dropping by the Leaning Tower as well.
I first became intrigued by the Leaning Tower of Pisa when I started studying photography, and discovered a genius guy called Martin Parr who had taken a photo of people taking photos in front of the Leaning Tower. Small World, the book that it features in, is a pretty darn hilarious look at global tourism just as it was starting to become more accessible for normal people in the late eighties and nineties. Parr travelled all over the world to photograph tourists being tourists, and the result is just brilliant; when I first arrived at the Square of Miracles, I found myself watching the people ‘holding up the tower’ more than looking at the tower itself- because it is just full on hilarious.
Having said that pals, I don’t want to detract here from the beauty of the architecture here; The Square of Miracles really is a beaut. Even on a cloudy day the stark white arches of the tower, duomo, and the ginormous domed roof of the Baptistry look rather brilliant against the green grass outside. To be honest the word I think best describes them is ‘splendid!’ The Leaning Tower is actually the campanile- or bell tower- of Pisa Cathedral. Round these parts, it was once the fashion to contain your cathedral bells in a completely separate building to the rest of the cathedral, you see. Started in the 1100s, it took almost 200 years to successfully finish the tower’s construction, mainly because of the whole tilting issue; the ground is rather soft on one side of the tower, but by the time the builders realised this it was too late, and all they could really do was attempt to straighten it up in as best a way as possible. Poor dears. I doubt the tower would have been anywhere near as famous if it wasn’t for its laid back attitude, so maybe it worked out for the best?
It’s possible to climb the Leaning Tower if you’re brave enough- and convinced enough that it’s not going to tip over. (Don’t worry, it’s apparently 100% safe these days, and only forty people are allowed to climb the tower at one time just to avoid any further tilting or congestion on the stairs)
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Don’t Miss The Duomo and the Baptistery
Talking of the other buildings on this square; these are true marvels to behold as well, so don’t just click your camera at the tower then leave!
As an international maritime superpower of the Middle Ages, Pisa really wanted to show off about its success; so to prove just how fearless they were, they built the cathedral outside the city walls. Heavily influenced by the architecture of the Islamic countries that Pisa was gallivanting across in their crusades, this style of building was called ‘Pisan Romanesque,’ and there’s no denying that it’s rather spectacular to look at. The sculptures and frescos that decorate the exterior of the buildings are so intricately detailed that it’s sort of impossible to take it all in at once, you know?
The baptistery- the largest one in Italy- also has a bit of a problem with being able to stand up straight. Poor old chap. Although the tilt isn’t quite as visible as the tower’s, it’s still very much there, again down to that soft soil under the foundations. As a singer, I was intrigued to hear that this domed room is famous for its acoustics; and every half an hour someone comes in to sing a few notes and demonstrate just how wonderful those acoustics really are. What a treat!
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Eat the best sandwich ever
So what’s the best place to eat in Pisa? I’d visited a few times with not much success on the food front; most of the restaurants I could find were located within alarmingly close proximity to the Square of Miracles, and in my experience places to eat near tourist hotspots mean microwaved meals at extortionate prices. Get my drift? And aside from the obvious gelato, street food just didn’t seem like the done thing around here.
But Pisa is a university town, and not just that but an Italian university town; somewhere in the city there must surely be some decent-but-not-overpriced food. Luckily, on this visit my pal and me were walking through a little square not that far from the touristy centre of the city, when we spied a lad and a lass strolling by with some massive filled-ciabatta-looking-sandwiches. It didn’t take a genius for us to work out that they had just left the tiny sandwich shop at one corner of the square. L’Ostellino is a very unassuming little shop, which on that cold-but-sunny day in January had some slowly deflating metallic ‘2019’ buildings strung above the doorway; my point being that from the outside it didn’t look like much, but inside it was packed to the rafters.
The menu of sandwiches contained a string of intriguing combinations, featuring classic Italian cured meats (there was even horse meat in one, if you’re interested), although I chose a pear, cheese and walnut ciabatta filled ciabatta, wrapped in paper and roughly twice the size of my face. When my pal saw how red and juicy the tomatoes beneath the glass counter looked, he asked- ‘And one tomato please!’ The thing is guys- on the ship, tomatoes have no flavour. EVER. They tend to be pale and probably plucked off of the vine while they’re still green to make them last longer. So our number one thing to buy when outside- was always tomatoes.
The man behind the counter looked back at him in bafflement. ‘One tomato?? Just- one tomato?’
My pal nodded with an eager smile.
‘Ok- e uno pomodoro!!’ The guy called out to his colleague, who was prepping my sandwich as we eyed up the tomato in question.
‘Something to drink?’
Nah, we didn’t need anything to drink.
‘Maybe Bloody Mary!?’ His colleague suggested with a wry smile.
What brilliant people! We sat outside in the square eating the sandwich in PURE DELIGHT. Without a doubt, that’s the number one sandwich I’ve ever eaten in my life, better even that gigantic po’boy I had in New Orleans (and they really know how to make a good po’boy out there, I’m telling you.) I’m sure there are sit-down restaurants aplenty to be found, but I was overjoyed to have discovered the little gem that is L’Ostellino.
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Stroll along the river
The river Arno runs right through the heart of the city, and come rain or shine it’s worth a walk along here to soak in a bit of atmosphere. Plus, if you enter Pisa by train, you’ll have to cross the river in order to reach the Square of Miracles anyway.
The earthy tones of the palazzi that line the river are like something out of a painting, especially in the Autumn when they seem to reflect the leaves on the trees. The majority of the Autumnal-themed palazzi were built for wealthy families around the 14th and 15th centuries, although these days they house museums, bars and cafes, and university buildings also overlook the river banks.
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Marvel at the Piazza dei Cavalieri
I had never heard of the Piazza dei Cavalieri- or, Knights Square- until I stumbled across it on my first day in Pisa and was frankly blown away. Once home to a Roman Forum (you know, where all the politicians and people gathered to talk about their problems), in the Middle Ages it was once again the centre point of the city, filled with churches and palaces for the bigwigs of the city.
When the Florentines took over in the 15th century, they decided that things around here needed modernising, and set about making improvements to the city as a whole. The square was renamed ‘Piazza dei Cavalieri’ after the order of the Knights of St Steven, who were on a mission to battle the Ottoman Empire.
The most breathtaking building in the Square is the Palazzo della Caravona, which was built before the Renaissance days, but then updated in the Renaissance style when Florence- led by the Medicis- took over. Eventually the palazzo became home to Italy’s most prestigious university, founded by Napoleon in 1810: the Scuola Normale Superiore. This is a really beautiful place to go to school!!! I suppose it’s the Italian version of Oxford or Cambridge; if Hogwarts had an Italian rival school, it would surely be housed in a building like this one.
Over in one corner of the square is the Palazzo dell’Orologio; that’s the one with the clock over the archway. Rather awkwardly, and incredibly gruesomely, legend has it that a man called Count Ugolino was once discovered to be a big old traitor to the city (I’m not exactly sure on what he did, but it must’ve been pretty bad), and was locked up in here with his two sons to starve to death. Instead of face starvation, the Count decided to tuck into his own sons for dinner. Like, he actually full on ate them.
Hit the Markets
The walk from Pisa train station to the Leaning Tower will inevitable take you through the main shopping streets of the city, so if you’re after some casual high street shopping then there’s plenty to be found. But what I really appreciated is the odd market that would suddenly seemingly spring up from nowhere around a street corner.
There are so many markets in Pisa to choose from, on both sides of the river. My favourite was the fresh produce market filled with gigantic mushrooms and other Autumnal treats, mainly because I just appreciate the colours and textures of them all, but I would have loved to have been in Pisa at a weekend when the Piazza dei Cavalierei’s antique and flea market was being held. The market takes place on the second Saturday and Sunday of every month, all day long.
At Christmas-time, there are also several Christmas markets in Pisa to choose from, filled with local handmade goods, food and all the Christmas decorations you could wish for. It might be significantly colder than the Mediterranean Summertime, but Christmas in Italy is beautiful, and a great time to visit.
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Roam the streets and see what you can find
The old streets of Pisa are very compact and therefore easily walkable, so like many an Italian town, village or city, this makes Pisa the perfect place to get lost in. And I mean get lost in a good way, obv.
Very few cars try to get down these narrow streets (although I’ve seen a few brave attempts), and the fact that all the buildings look pretty much the same as they did several hundreds of years ago mean that Pisa is full of strange juxtapositions of old and new; antique buildings with a bin man emptying the bins outside or with a sudden out-of-place picture painted on the wall. I spent far more time wandering the streets of the city than I did marvelling at the tower and hanging out in the Square of Miracles, and I’m full on glad about it!
Although one section of the city is clearly geared towards tourists, outside of here you can still get a sense of local life carrying on, with university students hurrying to their next class, or with gatherings of people standing having an espresso in a little bar; and I loved just seeing what I would stumble across any time that I visited, whether it was a new favourite coffee place or a hidden botanical garden. (A bit chilly on the day I visited but still beautiful, the Orto Botanico di Pisa is just around the corner from the Leaning Tower; during summer it would be a thousand times more beautiful I’m sure, and a great idea for something ‘different’ to do in Pisa)
- I was able to visit Pisa so often over the course of about three months, because I was working on a cruise ship that docked in Livorno. The ship offered tours to Pisa for around €40- which was an absolute rip-off! If you find yourself doing something similar, either as a passenger or crew, don’t be sucked in by a tour.
- The train from Livorno to Pisa takes around 15-20 minutes, and costs €2.60 each way.
- The walk from Pisa Centrale to the Leaning Tower is around 25 minutes, across the river and through the streets of the old city. It’s rather pretty, I’ll tell you that for free.
- Pisa does have an airport- Galileo Galilei (he lived in Pisa, the clever old chap)- which is Tuscany’s main airport.
- Buses run from the airport to the city centre, taking about 10-15 minutes to go between the two.