In my former life as a high school music teacher, one of my most enjoyable activities was leading international student travel groups on performance tours. These tours were always hectic. We would hit the ground running and have very full days of visiting local schools and performance venues and touring the sites. Each time we visited Italy, there was a stop in Pisa. These visits, and another with Mady, were day trips giving just enough time to visit the main sites.
Pisa is an easy hour long train ride from Florence's Santa Maria Novella Station. Pisa has three train stations. Pisa Centrale is the closest, requiring a short walk to the gates, with the way clearly marked. Be wary of the street vendors, some can be quite aggressive and there is a high pickpocket and snatch & grab risk. There is also a bus that runs from the station, for those who wish to avoid the walk. The little souvenir market just outside the gates is run by official vendors. There are few public toilets on the site, so you might want to pay a fee to use the one in the McDonald's right near the gate. Yes, they charge a fee. This always caused initial outrage from my teenage students but once they saw the crowds, it made sense even to them.
The majority of things to do in Pisa are centrally located in the Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles, aka Piazza del Duomo). This includes the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Pisa Cathedral, the Pisa Baptistery, Opera del Duomo Museum, Sinopie Museum, and Il Camposanto Monumentale. Tickets to any attractions can be purchased onsite, but I recommend purchasing tickets online in advance. The tickets to climb the Leaning Tower are timed and limited. They sell out quickly during the busier seasons.
Pisa Cathedral (Duomo di Pisa)
Another one of the best places to visit in Pisa is the Pisa Cathedral. Any ticket includes entry to the cathedral but you do may need to register a timed ticket to enter at the ticket office, as they only permit a set amount of guests at a time.
The Pisa Cathedral began construction in 1063 and was the largest cathedral in Italy for many years. It has an impressive exterior made of intricately carved white marble. Inside the cathedral, there’s a highly decorative gold ceiling, as well as elaborate paintings. One of the main attractions within the cathedral is the carved marble pulpit by Giovanni Pisano.
Pisa Baptistery (Battistero di San Giovanni)
The Pisa Baptistery (Battistero di San Giovanni) is a circular building with two floors to explore. It was built prior to the Tower and it’s the largest baptistery in Italy. Similar to the Tower, the Baptistery has a slight lean.
Even more than the stunning architecture and decor, the Baptistery is famous for its incredible acoustics. Periodically through the day, a monk will sing a Gregorian chant using the vibrations and echoes of the space. Ask the door attendant for that day's times but they usually happen about every 30 minutes.
Il Camposanto Monumentale di Pisa
The Camposanto Monumentale is a lovely place to visit, especially on a hot summer day. This is the last of the buildings constructed in the square and is a cemetery dating back to 1278. It is also the home of displays of beautifully restored medieval and early Renaissance frescoes and a large collection of sarcophagi.
Leaning Tower of Pisa
The tower is, of course, the main attraction, whether you indulge in the cheesy photos or not (but you really should). Construction began on this bell tower in 1173, and it was completed 200 years later. It was intended to be a showpiece for the city but during construction it became apparent that the tower was leaning due to the loose and shifting subsoils of the area.
Over the years, there have been multiple unsuccessful attempts to straighten the tower, some causing the tower to tilt in different directions. At last, in 2001, engineers managed to stabilize the building and have said this fix will last for 200 years. To climb the tower, you must not take any bags with you (cameras are okay), so make a plan to use the ticket office lockers or have someone who is staying below hold them for you. It is a rather strange sensation climbing the 269 polished stairs of the tower as you circle around the tower but the view from the top makes it all worthwhile. After taking as many photos as you want, you'll make your way down a different staircase.
Before you leave Pisa, take time to watch the other tourists trying to get their shots with the Tower. Yes, you'll giggle and probably feel a little silly but it's a lot of fun to try. I think the best angle to take the photo is not from on the road/grass in front of the buildings but instead, from the far back corner near the ticket office. It will be much less crowded and you might actually get a shot without any other people in it. (I haven't managed that, yet!)
Whether you’re taking a day trip from Florence to Pisa, or stopping in Pisa on your way to another city, it’s a worthwhile stop on any trip to Italy. Have you been to Pisa? Which was your favourite building in the Piazza? Do you have any hints to share?
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