Pisa | The Infamous City
Yes, it’s famous. In fact, it’s infamous; that inclined tower has become the symbol not just of Pisa but an iconic image of Italy itself. But Pisa proves it isn’t a one-trick pony; there is much more to the city than its tilted tower.
With 91,000 people, it’s vibrant and active—further enhanced by the university students who attend the trio of historic institutions there. With cultural events, concerts, and museums aplenty, there is much more to Pisa than most travelers realize.
Lounging along the Arno River, the city was once closer to the sea and a mighty maritime republic in league with Genoa, Venice, and Amalfi. The sea retreated but is still easily accessible for beach days and summer fun, while the Arno provides placid riverside walks, similar to Florence further upstream. Sure, there’s no Ponte Vecchio, but the Ponte di Mezzo is a graceful arch that spans the two sides of the city, giving Pisa a Florentine type of “Oltrarno” district, too.
The Campo dei Miracoli is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for the leaning tower but also the architectural splendor of the cathedral and soaring rotund baptistery, which is the largest in Italy. (It also has astounding acoustics, so sing a few notes when you visit to try it out)
The city is home to the University of Pisa, founded in 1343 and one of the most prestigious in Italy. It brings in students from all parts of Italy as well as a hefty number of international students. Two others —the Scuola Normale Superiore was established by Napoleon and the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies are also well-noted and draw students from around Europe. The Pisa universities are especially known for the medical schools, giving the city’s hospitals an edge.
While Pisa’s immediate area is rather flat, this is still Tuscany and you don’t have to go far to reach hills, and mountains beyond. You’ll also have the region’s best cities in easy reach—you can hop a train and arrive in the center of Florence in an hour (one-way cost $9.60) or Lucca in a half-hour ($4), and seaside Viareggio in 15 minutes ($4). And, more great news is that the Pisa airport gives you a host of connections to all of Europe (and beyond).
The port at nearby Livorno offers ferries to Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily, while the beach zone closest to Pisa is swathed in nature parks, keeping the usual vast tracts of unsightly development to a minimum.
Lifestyle in Pisa
Pisa is a really pleasant and pretty city. The historic center has showy palazzi and distinctive “case-torri” (tower-houses) from the Middle Ages, similar to San Gimignano. Many were lopped off by order of the power-wielding Medici, but some remain, so keep your eyes open for them as you stroll around. There are also two other loftier towers that also lean slightly—San Michele and San Nicolo. The streets along the river offer boutiques, cafes, restaurants; the sunlight and pastel palaces not unlike those lining the same river in Florence.
Not far outside Pisa, the Alpi Apuane Mountains start to rise up, providing outdoors sports and activities, while the area’s golf clubs let you keep you game in practice. Of course, the shore lets boaters, fishing enthusiasts, and water sports lovers indulge their passions, too.
Around town, Pisa has a rich cultural life with more than 20 historic churches, many medieval palaces, and more than a dozen museums. The opulent Verdi theater is considered one of the most beautiful in Tuscany (if not all of Italy), with an annual calendar of opera, music, prose, and dance. There are modern art galleries, funky shops, upscale boutiques, and, in the periphery zones, shopping malls and bigger stores. In the centro storico, the daily produce market in Piazza Sant’Omobono is a joy, and weekly markets are held in the various districts around the city, too.
While Pisa and Lucca historically have been rivals, you don’t have to choose sides; you can enjoy a day in lovely Lucca, only a half-hour away. Enjoy Tuscany’s classic hill towns, or go soak in the soothing hot springs at Montecatini Terme. There’s plenty to see and do in the area. But a great pleasure will be in discovering all the beautiful nooks and crannies of Pisa’s old town center. There really is a lot of beauty at every turn, that most tourists ignore as they “hit and run” the famous tower.
There are few structures on the planet that are as iconic as the bell tower that sits in the Piazza del Miracoli (Plaza of Miracles) in the city of Pisa on the Tuscany coast of Italy. While it is quite normal in Italy to have a piazza that consists of a cathedral, a baptistry, and a bell tower, a patch of soft ground, determined engineers, and a little luck have combined to define the whole region as the home of the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa.
It is certainly a beautiful and awe-inspiring sight; although currently leaning at only a 4-degree angle, it seems much more pronounced as you approach, exaggerated perhaps by the overcompensating angle of the bell chamber on top, which the tower appears to wear like a cocked hat. Up close, standing at the base of the column, it is hard to believe anything could stand so long tilted so sharply.