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Pisa (Tuscany), Italy

Pisa travel guide for first-time visitors

Pisa travel guide for first-time visitors

Pisa is a city with aristocratic airs and rich in charm that, thanks to the nearby sea, emanates a special light.

Its most famous attraction is without doubt the Leaning Tower and yet, besides the wonders of Piazza dei Miracoli, the city contains numerous incredible surprises. Pisa is so ancient it doesn’t really have a birthdate but it’s been tied to the sea ever since its first days. It was founded in one of the great bays along the Arno River but it was above all the sea that would determine its destiny, and, over the course of centuries, Pisa became one of the great seafaring Republics and an invincible maritime power.

Its people became so wealthy and ingenious that they gathered much of the most beautiful things the Mediterranean had to offer; the city became a capital of fundamental cultural importance and gave birth to illustrious names in every age, names like Galileo, and the celebrated mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci. Everywhere you turn here, you’ll find stories if beauty and ability that have traveled the seas up to the present day.

1. Planning your travel in Pisa

Pisa is usually a day trip for most people but the city hides so many marvels that it really is worth spending a bit more time to discover them.

The best period to enjoy the city is during autumn; July and August are hot and muggy and springtime is often rainy. However, if you don’t want to miss the most intense and festive moment of the entire year, choose June. The whole month is filled with events pertaining to “Pisa in June”, such as the historic Regata and the Game of the Bridge; there’s also the festival of the city’s patron Saint Ranieri on the 17th.

The high point of the festival is the “Luminara”, when the streets that flank the river, are transformed by an infinite number of tiny candles along the edges of all the bridges and houses: the reflections in the water create an absolutely amazing effect!

2. Arriving in Pisa

If you’re already in Tuscany, Pisa is 20 km from Lucca, 80 km from Florence and 100 km from Siena. Arriving by car from Florence, you’ll follow the A11 highway and get off at Pisa Nord; from the Tyrrhenian coast, you’ll take the A12 highway.

On the other hand, if you choose the Great Communicating Road that connects Florence, Pisa and Livorno (SGC FI-PI-LI) be aware that there are frequent bottlenecks and slow traffic, especially during the summer months.

All the largest parking structures are outside the city walls. Driving in Pisa is not a good idea due to the many pedestrian areas and tortuous, winding streets. The best solution is to get there by train: the Pisa Central Station (www.trenitalia.com) is well connected to Rome and Milan and by what are called “regional trains” to the rest of Tuscany.

From the station, you can get to the Leaning Tower by foot, it’s a pleasant walk of about 15 minutes crossing the Arno river. You can also get to Pisa from the surrounding towns using various private bus companies (www.lazzi.it) (www.cpt.it).

If you come by air, “Pisa International Airport” is a destination of many low cost flights originating from many Italian and other European cities. It’s near the coast and is only 1 Km from the historic center (www.pisa-airport.com). From the airport, it’ll only take you a few minutes to come into the city by train or bus, or by taxi, which costs an average of about 10 euro one way. Taxis in the city can be found either in front of the Train Station or in Piazza Duomo (www.cotapi.it).

3. Sleeping in Pisa

Even though there are plenty of hotels all over town, during high season and periods of city festivals, it’s always a good idea to book way ahead of time; in any case, keep in mind that, just a little outside Piazza dei Miracoli, you’ll find all sorts of hotels and rooms for rent that offer gracious living and excellent value.

If you prefer life in the open air, the closest campsites are at Marina di Pisa, about 11 km from town.

4. Dining in Pisa

Besides the cultural experience, you certainly won’t want to miss the gastronomical one!

One of the classic dishes is the “navicellaia” soup made of pasta, beans and bread, just to make it even more nutritious. It was the preferred dish of the boatmen who required a seriously substantial meal! Eels, called Cèe alla Pisana, though somewhat difficult to find, are a typical dish but only in winter.

If you have the time and you’d like to spend some a little more calmly trying out other local dishes far from the madding crowd around Piazza dei Miracoli, make your way to the heart of the medieval city. In the San Martino quarter (between piazza Guerrazzi and Corso Italia), you’ll discover a relaxed atmosphere and lots of places that serve food of all kinds for all pocketbooks, from cheap and tasty trattorias to the most exclusive restaurants.

A truly delightful little nook in this quarter is Piazza Chiara Gambacorti, known also as “Piazza della Pera”, (“Pear Square”) due to the Etruscan standing stone at its entrance, a stone that does indeed resemble a pear. The square was done over recently and the bars that face onto it serve terrific aperitifs with boards of cheese and sausages. In summertime, the streets flanking the riverbanks offer lovely places to spend a pleasant evening enjoying fresh fish.

5. Exploring Pisa

Pisa is a city with a lively cultural atmosphere, above all thanks to the presence of one of the largest and most prestigious universities in Italy. It might seem strange but, according to the artists and more than 50,000 students that live here, the most popular monument in town isn’t the Leaning Tower but the giant mural painted by the famous American pop artist, Keith Haring.

Once you arrive at piazza dei Miracoli, you won’t want to lose precious time so you need to know that tickets for the Duomo, Leaning Tower and the Baptistry can be bought from the Museum of the Sinopie which you’ll find on the side of the piazza opposite the monuments. Don’t be discouraged if there’s a line; it might seem truly endless but it flows quickly! You can also book tickets ahead of time for the Leaning Tower on the website of the Opera Primaziale Pisana.

Inside the Duomo and numerous other churches, the rules are rigidly applied—particularly for women: they’re not permitted to enter wearing provocative clothing, not even sleeveless tops, no matter how hot it gets in summer. For this reason, free disposable smocks are available: they’re not the exactly hot fashion-wise but they will help follow the rules of this sacred spot. The city is almost completely surrounded by high walls and the winding via Santa Maria, which connects Piazza del Duomo with the Arno River—it’s one of Pisa’s most distinctive features.

Piazza dei Cavalieri also shouldn’t be missed, that’s where the University is based. If you’re looking for other small treasures, don’t forget the National Museum at Palazzo Reale, San Matteo and piazza Santa Caterina. For shopping lovers, Corso Italia is the main street full of shops—it will bring you to the arched loggia of Borgo Stretto: there, you’ll discover more original stores and extravagant objects. Where the two streets cross, on the second weekend of every month, there is the Antique Market that, besides antiques, offers modern and vintage objects as well.

For those who love good food and typical local products, a stop at the Mercato delle Vettovaglie is a must—you’ll find it nestled under the porticoes of the fascinating little medieval piazza of the same name. Here, every morning, you’ll find fruit, vegetables, salame, sausages, cheeses and local specialties. At night, this same area transforms into one of the centers of alternative nightlife.

Nature lovers absolutely cannot miss the Botanical Gardens, the largest university garden in Europe. Then there’s Viale delle Piagge, a large park that runs along the river, just outside the downtown area—it’s a good excuse for a stroll in a shady and relaxing oasis, a walk that leads to Pisa’s second leaning tower: the belltower of the Romanic church of San Michele degli Scalzi. In mid-May, the Sant‘Ubaldo fair takes place here and you can wander through lots of stands, events, winetastings and concerts.

The lungarni—the streets flanking the river—are ideal locations for enjoying romantic summer evenings. The picturesque riverboat rides (www.ilnavicello.it/cooperativa.php) will remind you of Paris—but they pass by a tower much, much more ancient! A little outside the city is the unforgettable park of Migliarino-San Rossore-Massaciuccoli (www.parcosanrossore.it): a huge greensward right where the Arno meets the sea; it’s set up for visits, excursions, activities for children and contact with nature.

Just 12 km away, the Certosa di Calci hosts a Natural History Museum with its Cetacean Gallery where your mouth will drop open in front of a giant sperm whale skeleton! One final note: when you visit Piazza dei Miracoli and you see tourists standing in strange positions, don’t be fooled into thinking they’re a bunch of tai chi entusiasts: you, too, might not resist the temptation of being photographed with your hands holding up the Leaning Tower!