Pisa is a popular Italian tourist hotspot that many people will visit at least once in their lifetime. Located on the river Arno in Tuscany, millions of tourists each year walk through Pisa’s streets to see one of the most iconic structures in Europe. The city is full of rich history. Much of the architecture you see when roaming the streets of this Tuscan city was built during the period of Maritime Republics, when the Republic of Pisa was at the height of its power.
The Republic of Pisa was an independent state during the 10th and 11th centuries. It was a powerful trading port where merchants sold goods all over the Mediterranean.
Today Pisa is a metropolitan city that has more to offer than most travellers would believe.
Pisa has its own airport, which is cheaper to fly to than Florence, so it is a great place to visit before making your way to Florence.
Pisa is also easy to get to on the Italian train network. It will take you an hour from Florence, so it is perfect for a day trip if you are staying in the heart of Tuscany.
Being Italy, of course it has many historic churches. Pisa has over 20 churches within its city limits. A great one to start with is Santa Maria della Spina. This tiny church can be found right by the Arno river, and was built in 1230 in the Gothic style. The roofing exterior has a thorn-like design, which links with its name and Christ’s crown of thrones. Its design really looks like those large gothic cathedrals across Europe, but ‘fun sized’.
Another church to visit along the river is Santo Sepolcro (Not to be confused with the one in Jerusalem), which was built around 1113 and is octagonal. Inside it has some amazing arch work that really shows the styles of that period. These are only two of the many churches (outside the ones by the tower), and if you are a fan of visiting historic churches you could walk around the city for hours and find many more.
By this church you have a great opportunity to take a stroll along Arno river. This walk has so many picturesque opportunities, especially of Ponte di Mezzo bridge, which gives you the opportunity to take some great shots over the river, catching all the landmarks on either side.
Further down the east of the river is the Museo Nazionale. This medieval museum contains artefacts from the medieval period up to the 16th century and is a great spot for history fans to take a tour.
Nearby is Borgo Stretto. This one is for the shoppers and the architecture fans. You can check out high-end Italian designers with amazing shop fronts. For those non shoppers, there are cafes and restaurants in this district for you to sit down and people watch over some fresh food and coffee.
Next you can stop by Palazzo dei Cavalieri. This area used to be the centre of all life in Pisa during the medieval period and used to be a Roman forum. Translated into “The Knights Square”, it once was the headquarters of the Order of the Knights of St. Stephen, which was a holy military order that existed from the 1500s till the mid-1800s.
Now it is the centre for university students, but as a traveller it is a great place to get some shots, especially of the Palazzo della Carovana – an ornate façade that is beautiful.
Parts of the city of Pisa fall within a medieval wall. Some of these sections date back to 1155. One north-western section just by the Arno river is the Guelph Tower. This fortification was unfortunately destroyed in WWII, however they have tried to rebuild it to its original state.
The black outlined section on the map marks where you can find sections of the Medieval wall today.
A section of this wall in north-west Pisa is what most tourists and travellers encounter when they visit the city. This area outside the gate is filled with small merchants selling tourist trinkets of many items made in China.
Why are they all located here? Well, once you walk through the gate you’ll certainly know why.
This is gate is known as Porta Santa Maria (Pisa), and is the entrance to one of Italy’s most iconic landmarks, The Leaning Tower of Pisa. Unlike the rest of the town, this area is full of tourists (especially in peak season) trying to get the stereotypical shot holding up the tower.
Some people get creative with these shots and can be quite funny to watch. I have ‘held up the tower’ both times I’ve visited Pisa.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa is a free-standing bell tower that is only 55 meters high, however it’s the four degrees of lean that make it so popular. This lean was not intentional. In the 12th century the ground they constructed the tower on was so soft it could not support it, so with great construction sense they continued to build it anyway, and by the time of its completion in the 14th century the lean was obvious. In the 1990s the lean reached its maximum tilt at 5.5 degrees.
A ticket to go up the tower is €18, and you purchase your ticket for a particular time slot, as they only allow a certain number of visitors up at a time due to the weight capacity and to ensure the structure doesn’t get damaged or lean further.
The climb is certainly a weird one. Spiral stairs all the way up, but because of the tilt your body doesn’t know where its going as you go around and around, up and up. So, make sure you hold on to the rail for caution.
Once you reach the top you get some beautiful views over the northern section of Pisa, and of Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta (Cattedrale di Pisa) as it is right next to the tower.
It is also weird again to see all the people below performing weird positions trying to hold up the very building you are on top of.
The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta is often shown in photos of the tower in travel brochures. As the oldest building in this section of Pisa, the Cathedral dates to 1092 and was funded by the spoils received for defeating the Muslims in Sicily in 1063.
Built in a Pisan Romanesque style, this cathedral is stunning to look at and entrance is free when you get a ticket to go up the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
The Cathedral’s dome is considered the second most important church in Tuscany (Behind the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence), and it is in the shape of a cross when viewed from above (i.e. on tourist posters or via drone, which I don’t believe are allowed to fly in this area).
Right by Porta Santa Maria is the Baptistery of St. John. The ticket will cost you €5, the style and design of the interior is great, and you can get to some elevation and look out at all the tourists again.
This Baptistery is the largest in the world and was built in 1363.
One final stop with your trip to Pisa is Camposanto Monumentale (Campo Santo). Campo Santo is a cemetery and was completed in 1464. It has quite a simple design, with a large open space in the middle and statues and monuments along the walkway under covered arches If you get a multiple attraction ticket with the Baptistery this will cost €8 to enter both.
And there you have it, Pisa! Most people only think of the Leaning Tower and the Cathedral right by it. However, even on just a day trip there is so much more to see in this historic city, and make sure you don’t forget to try the gelato and pizza/pasta anywhere you go because who doesn’t love Italian food!
Loved reading this! I’ve been to Pisa once for a short couple of hours so didn’t see much else but the tower. This gives me reason to go back!
Thanks for taking the time to read my post.
You aren’t alone, many travellers only stay for a couple of hours and see one area.
I hope you get the opportunity soon to go back 🙂