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They say location is everything. Unfortunately for Pisa, being located 100km from Florence means it often gets overlooked for longer stays. As the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence is one of the world’s greatest cities.
Thankfully, some shoddy workmanship on the foundation of a certain tower sees millions flock to Pisa every year. A compact historic city centre makes Pisa possible to do as a day trip from Florence and other Tuscany destinations.
This post outlines what to see in Pisa on a day trip plus practical information to make your trip a smooth one.
For further information on Italy, have a look at my Solo Travel in Italy post.
WHAT TO SEE IN PISA
The Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square) is better known as the Campo dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles) and is where the main sites of Pisa are located: The Leaning Tower, Cathedral, Baptistry, and Camposanto Cemetary. The whole square is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
THE LEANING TOWER
Pisa’s marshy soil was underestimated when construction began on this site in 1173. Constructed beside the Cathedral as its free-standing bell tower, the tower began to lean when the third level was reached. Yet more levels were piled on until the tower reached seven floors high. The tower was completed in 1372, just in time for the Renaissance.
The scale of its lean took me by surprise so I didn’t climb it. However, the details of the tower’s white marble balconies are stunning, if you’re willing to crane your neck. It is a truly iconic landmark and worth the day trip to Pisa. For such a busy site, it goes without saying that prior booking is best for indoor access. The surrounding external area is free to access.
This glorious building is overshadowed by its neighbouring campanile. Construction of this Roman Catholic cathedral began in 1064 and it took 29 years to complete it. Its external angles contrast with the Leaning Tower’s cylindrical shape. A small fee, payable at the ticket office, will get access to the exquisite interior. Classical Roman columns and arches divide the central aisle from the sides.
Baptisteries are usually located within a church or cathedral but a few free-standing constructs can be found in Italy. Construction began on Pisa’s Baptistery in 1153 with white marble as the main stone on the façade. It sports a more Gothic look that the neighbouring cathedral and has an entirely domed roof. An entrance fee is payable on admission.
PIAZZA DEI CAVALIERI
I discovered this beautiful square on my way to Campo dei Miracoli. Initially founded as a Roman forum, it got its modern name (Knight’s Square) from hosting the headquarters of the Knights of St. Stephen in the Palazzo della Carovana. This palace now houses an educational institute.
While Pisa’s historic centre has many quaint artisan shops dotted on smaller streets, those looking for a continuous retail fix will get it on Borgo Stretto and the adjacent Via Oberdan. These streets also have an abundance of cafes and restaurants but prices are higher than those on neighbouring streets.
Pisa celebrates notable public figures. A statue of Cosimo I de’ Medici, of the famous Florentine family, stands in Piazza dei Cavalieri. A bronze statue of Galileo Galilei is temporarily in the Via Oberdan/Borgo Stretto area.
Giuseppe Garibaldi, who led the charge to unify Italy in the 19th century, has his own piazza as does writer Dante Alighieri. On the south side of the Arno, Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II celebrates the first king of unified Italy.
PISA TRAVEL ESSENTIALS
Pisa is best reached from the rest of Italy by train. Pisa Centrale station has direct connections to Florence (Firenze SMN – 1 hour) and Genoa (Genova approx. 2 hours). Pisa Centrale is located on the south side of the River Arno. If passing through Pisa, Pisa Centrale has a reasonably priced left luggage facility near platform 1.
Pisa Airport is located a few kilometres south of the city. It is easily reached in 8 minutes from Pisa Centrale by an automated shuttle service (PisaMover) running from nearby platform 14.
As the majority of sites listed here are on the historic north side of the city, I recommend staying in that area. Check out booking.com for a comprehensive selection of listings. While accommodation near Pisa Centrale may be more suitable for those with early morning flights or trains, the historic north side is nicer.
Pisa is a compact city and is easily walked. I travelled to Pisa solo and felt safe there.