Pisa is a delightful little city with loads of charm and history. Located in the picturesque Tuscany region of Italy, it attracts over five million visitors each year. While the city is best known for its leaning tower, there are many other awesome things to do in Pisa that are also well worth making the trip.
There is no denying that Pisa is a relatively small city. If you’re coming from Florence or Rome only to see the tower, you’ll likely end up underwhelmed. While most visitors drop in for a day trip, we think you’ll get more out of your visit if you stay for a few days or a weekend.
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How to get to Pisa
For a small city, Pisa is well connected. The Galileo Galilei International Airport links the city with other destinations, both domestic and international. The airport is also very close to the city centre, which makes it very convenient. To get to the city centre, you can take the PisaMover, which runs every 5-10 minutes. The journey is about 10 minutes and costs €2.70 per person.
Most visitors coming to Pisa arrive by train. The city is well connected by rail with other major Italian cities. There are two train station in Pisa – Pisa Centrale and Pisa San Rossore. You’re more likely to arrive at Pisa Centrale as it’s a bigger station. However, the Pisa San Rossore is closer to the Piazza del Duomo, where the Leaning Tower of Pisa is located. Make sure to check the Trenitalia schedule to see what station is more accessible from your location.
Once you arrive, you can easily access the historic centre on foot or by public transit. There are bike rentals and bus connections from Pisa Centrale. Pisa San Rossore is already close to the major attractions, which makes it easy to walk around.
Pisa, the small city with a mighty past
Today, Pisa lies on the banks of the Arno River and is about 10 km (6 miles) from the Ligurian Sea. Most visitors don’t realize that Pisa was once a powerful maritime republic with a wide reach and lots of power. It was one of the four powerful republics that played an important role in what eventually became a unified Italy.
The Republic of Pisa was an economic powerhouse and a commercial centre between the 11th and 15th centuries. Its traders dominated the Mediterranean, and the republic’s participation in the Crusades secured its position as a commercial centre.
Pisans conquered Jerusalem in 1099, plundered the Amalfi Republic in 1135 and fought against the Islamic expansions in Sicily, Sardinia and northern Africa. Pisa became a prominent ally of the Byzantine Empire, elevating its status against its rivals Genoa and Venice.
Now, you might wonder how a city this far from the sea became a maritime power. That’s because, until the 15th century, Pisa lay by the sea. Over time, silt deposits accumulated by the Arno River eventually cut the city off from the receding shoreline.
In 1284, Pisa fought against Genoa in the Battle of Meloria. Genoa’s victory marked the destruction of Pisa’s fleet and the loss of its territories. During the 15th century, Pisa was annexed by the Republic of Florence, and its power declined dramatically once the silting made trade almost impossible.
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Awesome things to do in Pisa
Whether you think of Pisa as an overrated destination or a hidden gem is totally up to you. We definitely think that there are many great things to do in Pisa for those willing to explore it. From the obvious to the hidden, here are some of our picks for what to see in Pisa.
Campo dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles)
For many, a visit to Pisa centers exclusively around the Piazza dei Miracoli. The square is where you’ll find Pisa’s most famous attraction – the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Duomo (Cathedral of Pisa), the Baptistery and the Camposanto Monumentale (sacred burial ground).
The Leaning Tower of Pisa is the city’s star attraction and tops many of the things to do in Pisa lists. Whether you want to snap a cheesy shot of holding up the tower is up to you, but we recommend climbing up the tower’s 294 steps. The tower has 207 columns arranged around eight stories. The construction started in 1173, and it took about 200 years to finish it up. The 185 feet high tower started leaning shortly after the construction started due to marshy land.
The Duomo, one of the finest Pisan-Romanesque style buildings in Tuscany, is a feast for the eyes. With its creamy colonnades and intricate arcades, the church’s exterior is decorated with multicoloured marble, mosaic and numerous bronze objects from the spoils of war. It was originally designed by Buscheto and consecrated in 1118.
The Baptistery of St. John is one of the oldest buildings in Pisa. Sitting opposite the cathedral, the octagonal building is clad in slabs of white Carrara and green Prato marble and is topped by a dome. The Baptistery was constructed between 1152 and 1363 to replace an older structure.
The Camposanto Monumentale is a historic sacred burial ground at the northern edge of the Piazza dei Maricoli. It was established during the 12th century, and it is said to have been built around a shipload of sacred soil from Golgotha, brought back to Pisa from the Third Crusade. Inside, you can visit a collection of ancient Roman sarcophaguses and frescoes of the Master of the Triumph of Death.
The 14th century Palazzo Agostini (aka Palazzo dell’Ussero or Palazzo Rosso) is considered one of the most beautiful buildings in Pisa. It belongs to the family of Pisan counts and patricians Agostini Fantini Venerosi della Seta. It is famous as the home of the “Caffè dell’Ussero,” which opened in 1775 and houses the National Academy of Ussero. At the back of the building is the “Cinema Lumière,” the oldest Italian cinema that has remained in operation for decades. It began its projections in the billiard room of the “Caffè dell’Ussero” in 1899.
Located in the centre of Pisa, Palazzo Blu is a contemporary exhibition and cultural arts centre. Formerly known as Palazzo Rosselmini Gualandi, the building dates to the 16th century. It was owned by several prominent families who remodelled it over the years. The current appearance that gives the place its name dates to the middle of the 19th century. During restorations, the striking blue colour façade was restored.
The museum hosts several temporary exhibitions. Some of the artists featured in the past include works by Duchamp, Kandinsky, Picasso, Warhol, Salvador Dalì, Amedeo Modigliani and Toulouse-Lautrec. Art lovers should definitely add this to their list of things to do in Pisa. There is also a cool café and bookshop at the back.
Palazzo della Carovana
Designed by Giorgio Vasari and built between 1562 and 1564, the Palazzo della Carovana served as the headquarters for the Knights of Saint Stephen. The order, founded by Cosimo de Medici in 1561 to fight Ottoman pirates, was abolished in 1859. Today the palazzo is home to the Ecole Normale Supérieure di Pisa.
The palazzo was constructed by restructuring the existing Palazzo degli Anziani. The building’s façade is decorated with zodiac signs and allegorical figures designed by Vasari and carved by Tommaso di Battista del Verrocchio and Alessandro Forzori. The busts of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany and the coat of arms of the Medici of Stoldo de Lorenzi (1563) are also incorporated into the design.
Chiesa di Santa Maria della Spina
The tiny church on the bank of the Arno River is an extraordinary example of Pisan Gothic architecture. Originally built as an orator in 1230, it was known as Santa Maria di Pontenovo for the bridge that existed nearby but collapsed in the 15th century.
In 1871, the church underwent renovations when it was dismantled and rebuilt higher up the river to keep it safe from flooding. The building was raised about three feet (one metre), and many of the sculptures were replaced by copies. Today, it is a lovely spot to visit, and you can explore inside.
Borgo Stretto and Corso Italia
Those who want to add shopping to their things to do in Pisa list should explore the main shopping drags – Borgo Stretto and the Corso Italia. Here you’ll find everything from luxury labels, street brands and souvenir shops. Both areas are made up of pedestrianized narrow paths that open to little squares and courtyards.
They stretch on either side of the Arno River and are connected by the Ponte di Mezzo. If shopping is not your thing, you can stroll around or stop at one of the little cafes and restaurants for a break from exploring.
National Museum of San Matteo
The National Museum of San Matteo is located in a medieval monastery overlooking the Arno River. Here you’ll find an extensive collection of Pisan and Florentine art from the 12th to the 17th centuries. Here you’ll find paintings, sculptures, manuscripts, wooden religious sculptures and ceramics.
If you’re into live performances, you’re going to love the Teatro Verdi in Pisa. This venue was built between 1865 and 1867 by the architect Andrea Scala. It was inaugurated in 1867 with the production of William Tell by Gioachino Rossini. Originally, it offered seating for 900 people; however, after various updates and revisions, it now seats about 750. Visit the official site for performance schedules and tickets.
Visit the Botanical Garden
Those looking for a little nature break from exploring Pisa can visit the oldest botanical gardens in Italy. The University of Pisa maintains the botanical gardens, and the entrance is free. Here you’ll find rare examples of plants and flowers that students use for research and study.
The garden was established in 1544 under Cosimo I de’ Medici as the first university botanical garden in Europe, under the watchful eye of the famous botanist Luca Ghini of Imola. This is the third location of the gardens, moved here in 1591.
Piazzas in Pisa
Like every other town and city in Italy, Pisa has several piazzas that are worth exploring. In addition to the Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral’s Square) also referred to as Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles) mentioned above, there are few others that you should add to your things to do in Pisa list.
Piazza dei Cavalieri (Knights’ Square) is the second main square of the city. During the Middle Ages, this was the political centre of medieval Pisa. During the middle of the 16th century, the square became the headquarters of the Order of the Knights of St. Stephen.
The Piazza delle Vettovaglie was built in the 16th century during the Medici rule. Its name translates to “supply square” and is home to a daily market. Here you can browse different stalls offering wine, fish, meat, baked good and spices. At night, this is the heart of the city’s nightlife, along with Piazza Garibaldi.
Piazza Garibaldi is the heart of Pisa’s nightlife. It’s a great place to meet up for drinks, socialize and admire the historically important buildings that defined social and cultural life in Pisa until the Late Modern Age.
Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II is an elliptical square near Pisa’s Central train station. It was inaugurated on 22 September 1892. In the centre is a bronze statue of the man it is named after. Here you’ll find a mix of architecture, including the neo-Gothic Palazzo delle Poste and the Palace of the Province. If you’re driving to Pisa, there is an underground parking garage under the square. On the right side of the former monastery, you’ll find Tuttomondo, Keith Haring’s iconic mural painted in 1989.
Additional thoughts on things to do in Pisa
There are many great things to do in Pisa as long as you know what to expect. We loved our time in Pisa when we stayed there many years ago. Once you get past the Piazza dei Miracoli, where the majority of tourists congregate, you’ll find a charming town where you can sit back and relax.
We stayed in a small hotel in a historical building overlooking the Arvo River. It was a great place to explore the city and all it has to offer. Unless you plan to use Pisa as a base for exploring the region, I wouldn’t recommend staying more than few days unless you want to kick back and chill.
Whether you stay for few days or come here for a day trip, we think Pisa has a lot to offer visitors looking for more than a silly tourist shot for their ‘gram.