Florence is within easy striking distance of a number of great cities—as their fortifications attest. Along with Siena, Pisa and Lucca show that Florence wasn’t the only power and cultural star of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance.
Pisa’s Leaning Tower is touristy but worth a visit. Many tourists are surprised to see that the iconic tower is only a small part of a gleaming white architectural complex—featuring a massive cathedral and baptistery—that dominates the grand green square, the Field of Miracles. The rest of the city is virtually tourist-free and merits a wander for its rich history, architecture, and student vibe.
Lucca, contained within its fine Renaissance wall, lacks any blockbuster sights, but has a charm that causes many connoisseurs of Italy to claim it as a favorite stop. The town’s garden-topped city wall is perfect for a laid-back bike ride—the single must-do activity in this pleasant getaway.
The two towns are about 25 minutes apart by train and 50 minutes by bus. Each is about 1.5 hours (or less) by train from Florence and well-served by excellent highways.
Using public transportation, you could day-trip from Florence to both cities. But with more time, stay overnight in Lucca. Take the train to Pisa in the morning, do your sightseeing, catch the bus or train to Lucca late in the afternoon, enjoy the evening scene, and stay the night. Sightsee Lucca the next day, then move on to your next destination by train.
Famous for its tipsy Tower, Pisa (“PEE-zah”) is much more than its iconic landmark. This thriving midsize city has a wealth of history and architectural treasures, an unexpectedly fun-to-explore arcaded core, and a prestigious university. The tower and its companion buildings at the Field of Miracles are undoubtedly a must-see. But beyond that tourist-clogged zone, Pisa feels like a real-world antidote to all that Tuscan cutesiness…a humbler Florence.
Centuries ago, Pisa was a major power—rivaling Venice and Genoa for control of the seas. City leaders erected a passel of Pisan Romanesque landmarks—the Duomo, Baptistery, and Tower—that float regally on the best lawn in Italy. Even as the church was being built, Piazza del Duomo was nicknamed the “Campo dei Miracoli,” or Field of Miracles, for the grandness of the undertaking.
After its port silted up, Pisa was left high and dry, and eventually entered a period of steady decline…leaving those grand landmarks as reminders of its past glory. While Pisa is rewarding even on a short visit, lingering here helps you round out your Tuscan experience.
PLANNING YOUR TIME
For most visitors, Pisa is a touristy quickie—seeing the Tower, visiting the square, and wandering through the Duomo are 90 percent of their Pisan thrills. But it’s a shame to skip the rest of the city. Considering Pisa’s historic importance and the ambience created by its rich architectural heritage and vibrant student population, the city deserves a half-day visit. For many, the lack of tourists outside the Field of Miracles is both a surprise and a relief.
The Tower recently underwent a decade of restoration and topple-prevention. To ascend, you must get your ticket and book a time in advance online (no sooner than 20 days but at least one day beforehand) at www.opapisa.it. Otherwise, go straight to the ticket office upon arrival to snag an appointment—usually for a couple of hours later, especially in summer (for directions to the Field of Miracles, see “Arrival in Pisa,” later). If you’ll be seeing both the town and the Field of Miracles, plan on a six-hour stop. If just blitzing the Field of Miracles, three hours is the minimum. Spending the night lets you savor a youthful Italian city scene.
If you’re connecting Pisa and Lucca, note that a train runs at least hourly between Pisa’s San Rossore train station near the Field of Miracles and Lucca, and buses leave frequently from Piazza Manin at the Field of Miracles gate. This is so quick and easy that if you’re just planning on seeing the Field of Miracles sights, Pisa makes a good half-day side-trip from Lucca.
Orientation to Pisa
The city of Pisa is manageable, with just 100,000 people, but its 45,000 students keep it lively, especially at night. The city is framed on the north by the Field of Miracles (Leaning Tower) and on the south by Pisa Centrale train station. The Arno River flows east to west, bisecting the city. Walking from Pisa Centrale directly to the Tower takes about 30 minutes (allow an hour if you take my self-guided walk). The two main streets for tourists and shoppers are Via Santa Maria (running south from the Tower) and Corso Italia/Borgo Stretto (running north from the station). A thousand years ago the city was a fortified burg on the north side of the river between those two main streets.
The main TI is located on the Field of Miracles, next to the Duomo’s ticket office (daily 9:30-17:30, until 17:00 off-season, Piazza Duomo 7, tel. 050-550-100, www.turismo.pisa.it). It sells LAM bus tickets and offers video guide walking tours of the main sights and the city center (€5-8), as well as guided tours on weekends (Sat-Sun at 11:15, €10 and up). For those doing Pisa as a stopover, the TI offers baggage storage (€3-4). There’s another TI at the airport, in the arrivals hall.
ARRIVAL IN PISA
Most trains (and visitors) arrive at Pisa Centrale station, about a mile south of the Tower and Field of Miracles. A few trains, particularly those from Lucca or La Spezia, stop at the smaller Pisa San Rossore station, an easy five-minute walk from the Tower (not all trains stop here, but if yours does, hop off).
Pisa Centrale Station : This station has a baggage-check desk—look for deposito bagagli (daily 6:00-21:00). With the tracks to your back, it’s to the right at the far end of platform 1, just after the police station.
To get to the Field of Miracles, you can walk (30 minutes direct, one hour if you follow my self-guided walk), take a taxi (€10, tel. 050-541-600, taxi stand at station), or go by bus. At all bus stops in Pisa, be cautious of pickpockets, who take advantage of crowds to operate.
Bus LAM Rossa (“Red,” also marked L/R) stops in front of the train station (to the right when you exit). Buy a €1.45 bus ticket from the tobacco/magazine kiosk in the train station’s main hall or at any tobacco shop (€2 on board; bus usually departs every 10 minutes, less frequent off-season, runs until 20:45, 15-minute trip). The bus lets you off at Piazza Manin, in front of the gate to the Field of Miracles (stop : Torre).
To return to the train station from the Tower, catch bus LAM Rossa in front of the BNL bank, across the street from where you got off. You’ll also find a taxi stand 30 yards from the Tower (at Bar Duomo).
Pisa San Rossore Station : From this dreary little suburban station, it’s just a five-minute walk to the tower. Exit the underpass at platform 2L, and follow the exit signs to Torre Pendente. Once out of the station area, turn left and follow brown Torre Pendente sights—you’ll see the tower soon, straight ahead.
By Car :
Driving in the city center is stressful, time-consuming, and risky, as Pisa has several restricted areas that are monitored by camera and marked by ZTL signs (you could get a ticket by mail).
For a quick visit, try the Parcheggio di Piazza dei Miracoli lot, just northwest of the tower (€2/hour, enter from Via Giovanni Battista Niccolini). From here, the Tower is practically across the street.
For a longer visit—or if the Parcheggio lot is full—it’s best to leave your car at the big Pietrasantina parking lot, designed for tour buses (which pay to park) and tourists with cars (who park for free). From there, you can walk to the Field of Miracles or hop on a shuttle bus. To reach this parking lot, exit the autostrada at Pisa Nord and follow signs to Pisa (on the left), then Bus Parking. The parking lot has a cafeteria and WC. At the center of the lot is a high-roofed bus stop where you can catch the LAM Rossa bus to Piazza Manin at the gate of the Field of Miracles (€1.20 at the parking lot’s cafeteria, €2 on board, continues to central Pisa).
HELPFUL HINTS :
Markets : An open-air produce market attracts picnickers to Piazza delle Vettovaglie, one block north of the Arno River near Ponte di Mezzo, and nearby Piazza Sant’Uomobuono (Mon-Sat 8:00-18:00, main section closes at 13:00, closed Sun). A street market—with more practical goods than food—bustles on Wednesday and Saturday mornings between Via del Brennero and Via Paparrelli (8:00-13:00, just outside of wall, about 6 blocks east of the Tower).
Festivals: Noon on March 25 (also the Feast of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary) is the Capodanno Pisano, the end of the year according to the Pisan calendar used in the Middle Ages. In a tradition carried on from medieval times, the city hosts New Year’s festivities for several days.
June is a big month in Pisa, when some hotels raise their rates. The first half of June has many events, culminating in a celebration for Pisa’s patron saint (June 16-17). The last week in June is the Gioco del Ponte (“Game of the Bridge”) festival, where burly residents of the city’s four districts meet on the bridge for a game of tug-of-war with a big carriage.
Local Guides: Dottore Vincenzo Riolo is a great guide for Pisa and the surrounding area (€145/3 hours, mobile 338-211-2939, www.pisatour.it, [email protected]). Martina Manfredi happily guides visitors through the Field of Miracles, but her real passion is helping them discover Pisa’s other charms, from hidden gardens and piazzas to cuisine to artisans (3 hours-€140, 6 hours-€250, mobile 328-898-2927, www.tuscanyatheart.it, [email protected]).
Sleeping in Pisa :
Pisa is an easy side-trip from Florence or Lucca, either of which is a more all-around pleasant place to stay. But there’s more to Pisa than the Tower, and if you want time to experience it, consider a night here.
NORTH OF THE RIVER, NEAR THE TOWER :
$$ Hotel Royal Victoria, a classy place along the Arno River, has been run by the Piegaja family since 1837 (though it was a hotel for more than 400 years before that and is likely the oldest hotel in Italy). Its tiled hallways and 38 creaky, historical rooms filled with antiques and chipped plaster may not be for everybody. But with the elegant ambience of a bygone era, it’s ideal for romantics who missed out on the Grand Tour. The location—midway between the Tower and Pisa Centrale train station—is the most atmospheric of my listings (RS%, family rooms, air-con in most rooms, elevator, pay parking garage, bike rental, lush communal terrace, Lungarno Pacinotti 12, tel. 050-940-111, www.royalvictoria.it, [email protected], proud owner Nicola Piegaja).
$$ Hotel Pisa Tower provides a yesteryear elegance in a stately mansion with 14 rooms thoughtfully decorated with clean lines and graceful warmth. In good weather, enjoy the garden for breakfast or an aperitivo. The annex, with 12 similar rooms, overlooks the noisy, tacky-souvenir-stand square just outside the gate to the Field of Miracles, along a busy street. Three more rooms are in a nondescript apartment block across the street from the main building (family rooms, air-con, pay parking; a long block west of Piazza Manin at Via Andrea Pisano 23, tel. 050-520-0700, www.hotelpisatower.com, [email protected]).
$$ Hotel Villa Kinzica, a last resort, has 30 tired, worn rooms with high ceilings—and a prime location just steps from the Field of Miracles; ask for a room with a view of the Tower, ideally #75 (family rooms, air-con, elevator, Piazza Arcivescovado 2, tel. 050-560-419, www.hotelvillakinzica.com, [email protected]).
$ Casa San Tommaso has 22 classic-feeling, homey, reverent rooms on a quiet back lane about a five-minute walk from the Tower (air-con, Via San Tommaso 13, tel. 050-830-782, www.casasantommaso.it, [email protected]).
$ Pensione Helvetia, a friendly, no-frills, clean, and quiet inn just 100 yards from the Tower, rents 29 economical rooms over four floors. Ask them to show you the “biggest cactus in Tuscany” in their garden courtyard…it really is (cheaper rooms with shared bath, family suites, no breakfast, ceiling fans, no elevator, Via Don G. Boschi 31, tel. 050-553-084, www.pensionehelvetiapisa.com, [email protected], Micaele and Sandra).
$$$ Hotel Alessandro della Spina, run by Pio and family, has 16 elegant and colorful rooms, each named after a flower (RS%—use code “NEW GUEST,” air-con, elevator, pay parking; leaving the station, go right on Via Filippo Corridoni, take the third left on Via Alessandro della Spina, then find #5; tel. 050-502-777, www.hoteldellaspina.it, [email protected], Louisa).
Eating in Pisa :
A QUICK LUNCH CLOSE TO THE TOWER
The Via Santa Maria tourist strip is pedestrianized and lined with touristy eateries. They seem competitive, and you can get a quick sandwich, pizza, or salad at any number of places along this street.
$$ Pizzeria al Bagno di Nerone, a five-minute walk from the Tower, is particularly popular with students. Belly up to the bar and grab a slice to go, or sit in their small dining room for a whole pie. Try the cecina, a crêpe-like garbanzo-bean flatbread (Wed-Mon 12:00-14:30 & 17:45-22:30, closed Tue, Largo Carlo Fedeli 26, tel. 050-551-085).
REAL MEALS DEEPER IN THE TOWN CENTER
Make no mistake: Pisa is in Tuscany. And if you want to sample some famously delicious Tuscan cuisine, these restaurants make it easy. All are within about a 10- to 15-minute walk from the Tower, near the river, and several are within a few steps of the old Renaissance-style market loggia, Piazza delle Vettovaglie/
$$ La Vineria di Piazza is a quintessential little Tuscan trattoria tucked under the arcades of Piazza delle Vettovaglie. The chalkboard menu lists today’s seasonal choices: a few antipasti, a few primi (homemade pastas and soups), and a few secondi. Ask for a bis or even a tris to get a tasty sampling of two or three homemade pastas. English-fluent Claudia welcomes you to share dishes family-style, and she and her family make this place feel sophisticated, but without pretense. Sit in the elegantly simple interior or out at long tables facing the market. They typically serve lunch only, as the square can be a bit sketchy after dark (daily 12:30-15:00, Piazza delle Vettovaglie 14, tel. 050-382-0433).
$$ Antica Trattoria il Campano, just off the market square, has a typically Tuscan menu and a candlelit, stay-awhile atmosphere. The ground floor, surrounded by wine bottles, is cozier, while the upstairs—with high wood-beam ceilings—is classier (Thu-Tue 19:30-22:45, closed Wed, open Sat-Sun for lunch in high season, Via Cavalca 19, tel. 050-580-585, Giovanna).
$$ Il Vegusto is a reasonably priced, quality, vegan restaurant with elegant modern ambience. It sits all by its lonesome on a gloomy square a block off the river (Mon-Fri 12:30-14:30 & 19:30-22:00, Sat 19:30-22:00 only, closed Sun, Piazza dei Facchini 13, tel. 050-520-0667).
$$ Orzo Bruno—il birrifico artigiano (“the artisan brewpub”)—is a lively, rollicking brew hall filled with Pisans of all ages enjoying rock, jazz, and blues, with seven different microbrews (including a rotating tap) and a simple menu of sandwiches and salads (nightly 19:00-late, a block off Borgo Stretto at Via Case Dipinte 6, tel. 050-578-802).