What do you do with one day in Pisa? On a recent trip to Tuscany, I found myself asking this exact question. You see, we had planned a 4 day trip to Cinque Terre, a place that has been on my bucket list for many years. We had our flight booked to Pisa, and had the whole weekend planned out. With Covid numbers started rising in the Liguria region, we were forced to rethink our trip. As opposed to canceling, we decided to move forward and just wing it. Before heading off into the hills of Tuscany, we spent a day wandering the streets of Pisa, and it really stole our hearts!
Morning: Explore the Square of Miracles
Many people come to the Leaning Tower, take some photos, and call it a day. Don’t make this mistake. You’ll miss out on a very special experience! Originally built as the bell tower for the Pisa Cathedral, the Leaning Tower is located in the Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square), otherwise called the Square of Miracles, which consists of four buildings. We purchased a combo ticket that included the Tower, Cathedral, Baptistry and Camposanto and were so happy that we did. We spent all morning here and absolutely loved it. There are also two museums on site which we did chose not to visit due to time.
We arrived at the Tower at opening time. I loved coming at this time of day, because the crowds are slightly smaller, and the lighting is really good for pictures. We were able to walk up to the ticket office with no line and buy tickets with just a short wait. This gave us time to take a few selfies and one of the classic Leaning Tower poses. If you come all the way here, it must be done!
Then came time to climb the tower. 273 steps of pure anticipation! I mean, it's one of the Seven Wonders of the World!!! The closer you get to the top, the more exciting it gets. With small windows every so often, you get sneak peeks of the square and the sprawling city below.
There are two viewing levels. The first of which has a decent amount of walking space, and a pretty solid looking metal rail with mesh wire so no one can fall through the spaces. For those of us who are afraid of heights, this is important. You have to walk all the way around this level in order to get to the steps that lead to the top level. Your group will wait here until the group in front of you all comes down. This is an efficient way to control the number of people on each level, but it can be scary just chillin' almost 200 feet in the air.
When you finally reach the top, the views are breathtaking! Worth conquering your fear of heights, the aching in your legs, and the burning in your lungs.
Let me just say here that if you're afraid of heights, I recommend that you immediately turn to your right when you walk out of the final doorway, so you can go straight up the steps to where the bells are. It feels much safer in here, and you can take a minute to get your bearings before venturing out onto the outer walkway; which by the way, is TERRIFYING. Unlike the previous level, the walkway is narrow, and the wire fencing does not seem sturdy enough to keep you from being blown off the top. But that's just me. My husband didn't have any problem walking around it, and we both made it off the tower safe and sound.
Spoiler Alert: the tower is leaning. I know it seems redundant to say. But the fact that the tower leans means that the steps are slanted. It can be a little freaky and mess with your mind if you aren't mentally prepared.
Tips for visiting the tower:
In normal non-Covid times, I HIGHLY recommend buying your tickets in advance. You can purchase tickets on their website up to 30 days ahead of time. This will allow you to choose your time and plan your day.
Arrive at the queue for the Tower 10 - 15 minutes before your time.
Leave all of your bags in your car or at your hotel, or be prepared to check them. This includes purses. I knew this from prior experience, but we saw many people who showed up to the queue at the last minute and had to sprint to the cloak room to check their bags so they wouldn’t miss their time.
Entrance to the Cathedral is included with the Tower ticket, so take advantage and check it out. It is truly one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen. You will get lost in the artwork, marble sculptures, baroque architecture, and stained glass windows.
I found myself wanting to take pictures of everything I saw! However, make sure you take a moment to put your camera down and sit in one of the pews to breathe it all in. Sometimes the quiet moments you take give the best rewards.
Baptistery of Saint John
The Baptistery is a simple structure, but yet so elegant. We found ourselves just standing quietly and looking around at the minute details of the design, the columns standing in a perfect inner circle, the single baptism pool in the center, the paintings and statues on the walls, even the tombs inlaid on the floor.
While you are here, walk up to the second floor for full views of the entire baptistery below. Walk all the way around, and look for the window that has a small section of wire cut out. This window gives an absolutely spectacular view of the Cathedral and Leaning Tower in the distance. You can even see the people at the top of the tower!
If you’re lucky, you’ll find yourself here in time to listen to the beautiful singing of the attendant on duty. Every thirty minutes, he walks to the center and demonstrates the breathtaking acoustics of the double domed design by singing just a few simple notes. The echo of his song fills the entire structure and seems to come from all around you. An example of how something so simple can give you a memory that will last a lifetime.
The Camposanto is the long marble building that runs along the back edge of the Square of Miracles, behind the Baptistery and Cathedral. It is, first and foremost, a cemetery. We almost didn’t go inside, but then I thought, a cemetery filled with monuments would be cool to see. Be still my heart! The treasures we found inside were such an incredible surprise!
While the other buildings in the square are Baroque in style, this has a more gothic feel. The long rectangular building was designed as a cloister, and surrounds a simple yet beautiful garden with views of the Cathedral and Baptistery domes through the columns on the north side. I've never seen anything quite like i!
As beautiful and haunting as the gothic architecture is, what we discovered inside was most fascinating. In what is essentially a monument to the dead, this unusual cemetery was built to house the tombs that had been previously scattered around the cathedral. Hundreds of years of tombs and graves rest here, some so old that time, weather, and the footsteps of those who have walked over them have worn away their markings. One thing I discovered here is that a place can be both creepy and beautiful at the same time.
With such an eclectic collection of statues and marble sculptures, tombs in the floor and in the walls that seem to tell sad and dark stories, and frescoes on the walls revealing biblical stories as well as representations of pagan symbolism, the Camposanto gives a unique perspective on the marriage of myth and religion.
After a full morning of exploring the Square of Miracles, the best thing to do is stop for lunch! There are quite a few food trucks in the immediate area of the Tower, as well as a few restaurants with spectacular views. While a meal with a view is nice, I always recommend wandering at least a few blocks from any major attraction before stopping to eat. In my experience, the food and service are both better, and you get more of an authentic meal than those geared towards tourists.
We walked about two blocks away from the tower on Via Santa Maria, and found a restaurant with a splendid outdoor seating area. We ordered an apperitivo, and to our delight, they arrived with a small bowl of snacks and a plate of bruschetta. So much for a light lunch! Don’t get me wrong, I’m never going to complain about getting free bruschetta. We then shared a pizza, and ate until our tummies were full and happy. We’ve lived in Italy for 2 months now and we both agree that the pizza in Pisa was our favorite so far!
Evening: Sunset and Street Food
During a much needed riposo, which gave me time to regroup and figure out what to do next, I came up with a short walking tour that included architecture, street art, and sunset over the Arno River. Our hotel was just down the street from the Square of Miracles, so we followed a path that loosely resembled a loop beginning and ending at the tower.
From the square, we headed to the Old Citadel and Guelph Tower. This ancient fortress, originally used for ship building during medieval times, was once part of the old city walls, of which you can still see remnants. Over the years, the Old Citadel was converted to use as military barracks and storage, but was badly damaged during World War II. It underwent restoration during the 1950’s and is now used for special events. If you’re spending more than one day in Pisa, you may also want to visit the The Republican Arsenal across the street or Museum of Ancient Boats nearby.
The Old Citadel is located right next to the Ponte della Cittadella, one of the many bridges that crosses the Arno River. As we walked across the bridge, the sun began to set. Sunset from anywhere along the river is spectacular, just take your pick of picturesque spots and enjoy!
There are remnants of the city walls on the other side of the bridge as well, called the Bastione Stampace. Whenever I see things like this, I try to picture how it all looked so many hundreds of years ago, and find it fascinating how the modern city was built up around it all.
After crossing the Ponte della Cittadella, we turned left and walked along the river. As dusk was upon us, the lights along the Arno began to turn on. This is a beautiful sight to see, with the reflection of the buildings and street lights on the water, and the sun casting its last rays golden over the city.
Along this section of the riverwalk, we passed two churches. The San Paolo a Ripa d’Arno, an impressive 11th century Romanesque church, and the Church of Santa Maria della Spina, an adorable little gothic church right on the banks of the Arno. As it was after closing time, we were not able to go in, but I do plan a return trip to follow this route again during daylight hours and explore inside these ancient buildings!
Our route led us away from the river at this point, down Via Francesco Crispi, towards the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II. There is a famous street art mural just off this square that I was keen on seeing, since I am slightly obsessed with finding street art wherever I can. An alternative to this would be to continue down along the river towards the Palazzo Blu.
From the square, we headed down Corso Italia, in the direction back towards the river. During the day, this is a major shopping district with every kind of high end store you can imagine. In the evenings, locals meet here for before-dinner cocktails and conversation. There were quite a few nice outdoor patios along the main street. We also wandered in and out of the side streets a bit and stumbled upon some small piazzas filled with people celebrating the end of the work week.
We chose a bar and settled in at a table along the street with the intention of having a drink, doing some people watching, and then finding a place for dinner. After the snack incident at lunch, we should have known what we were getting ourselves into. Along came our cocktails, with a full plate of snacky chips and sandwiches! And so began our progressive dinner in Pisa.
A quick stop at the Palazzo Blu to admire artists at work, and more views of the beautiful Arno River at night, and we crossed the Ponte di Mezzo.
Directly across the bridge from the Palazzo is a small square called the Piazza Garibaldi. It may be small, but it seemed to be the epicenter of Pisa's nightlife! Families stopping for gelato, couples walking hand in hand along the river, and groups of all ages meeting to begin their night out.
We felt that we had to be part of it! We grabbed a seat at the Pizzateca Pisa, ordered the second course of our self-guided walking dinner, and had the time of our lives. The slight language barrier with the waiter only made our evening more fun, as the three of us laughed our way through the evening. Pizza by the slice, local beer by the pint, and house-made sangria that was a little too easy on the palate. Speaking of things that make your mouth water, our final course was a double scoop of deliciousness at La Bottega del Gelato, right next door.
A stroll through the quiet streets of Pisa on the way back to our hotel ended with a view of the tower, leaning against the night sky with a backdrop of stars behind it. A perfect end to a perfect day in Pisa.
Read about my adventures in Sicily!