Set at the confluence of the Arno and Serchio rivers as they reach their end in the Ligurian Sea, Pisa's history has always been attached to the water. No one is quite sure when Pisa was founded, but Virgil mentioned it as a city of antiquity in his Aeneid and Etruscan remains have been discovered here as well.
The Romans colonised Pisa in 180 BCE. The city soon rose to prominence as a port, continuing to grow even after the fall of the Roman Empire. Pisa passed peacefully through the hands of the Byzantines and the Lombards as it went about its commercial business. In the 11th century, the power of Pisa was such that it began to look outside its borders, conquering Carthage and Corsica, and defeating Genoa to become a real force in the Mediterranean.
In the 15th century, Pisa fell under the control of Florence and the powerful Medici family, and subquently the arts and sciences flourished here thanks to heavy investment, particularly at the university. Galileo Galilei was born here in 1564. Although his family moved to Florence while he was still a child, the philosopher, physicist, and mathematician returned to his home city in 1589 to become head of mathematics at the prestigious University of Pisa. It was during his time there that he is rumoured to have conducted his famous gravitational experiments by dropping objects from the leaning tower.
Despite heavy bomb damage in the Second World War, the city’s main attraction, the Piazza del Miracoli, survived almost completely intact as visitors today can see for themselves.
It is easy to think of Pisa as nothing more than the home of the leaning tower, but this Tuscan city offers a lot more than just a glimpse of the askew architectural masterpiece. So take a flight to Pisa and enjoy the Romanesque architecture, green parks, luxury shops, and food and wine fit for the Medici. Also with a holiday in Pisa, if you ever bore of the city’s charms, you can explore the beautiful Tuscan countryside, visit the artistic mecca of Florence or take in the wine region of Chianti.
There is no getting away from it – Pisa is a city defined by its major landmark, the Leaning Tower. And no matter how many pictures you see of this monument that tilts to the side, the real thing never fails to surprise and impress in equal measure. Pisa's most famous son, Galileo, made his early experiments with gravity here and the tower has been poking fun at that most universal of forces since it was completed in the 14th century. Major restoration work in the 1990s has given it a helping hand, arresting the tower's slowly increasing tilt. It now stands at an angle of around four degrees. Be aware that the work has also raised awareness about the need to preserve the tower and limit visitor numbers. Tourists are taken up in 30-strong groups and you must book in advance. You will be given a time slot for your 35 minutes to climb the 300+ steps to the top. It is not the easiest trek, but the views of the rolling Tuscan hills when you get to the top make it well worth it.
The Duomo di Pisa is overshadowed—literally as well as in terms of visitor numbers—by the more famous Leaning Tower, but it is a sight not to be missed. Just yards from the tower in Pisa's resplendent Piazza del Miracoli or square of miracles, the cathedral was begun as long ago as the 11th century. Built in the Romanesque style, it was almost destroyed by fire in the 16th century, which ended up heralding a new birth for the building, as the best Renaissance artists of the time were charged with restoring it. Inside, visitors will enjoy works by Andrea del Sarto, Giambologna, and a famous pulpit by Giovanni Pisano.
As well as being great patrons of the arts, the famous and some might say infamous Medici family were strong supporters of both botany and education. In the 16th century, Cosimo I de'Medici combined both of these when he moved the city's botanical gardens to a site beside the University of Pisa. As a result, Pisa became the first university to have botanical gardens and the students were given the chance to experiment with the exotic species Medici was keen to see planted. Now the gardens are a great spot for a peaceful stroll and boast trees planted more than 200 years ago.
The Abitalia Tower Plaza Hotel is a modern hotel that boasts fantastic views of the city's best-known attraction, the leaning tower. This five-star establishment sits alongside the idyllic San Rossore nature reserve. Centuries ago, the Medici hunted here, but now the area is a protected zone for a wide variety of flora and fauna. The hotel’s 121 rooms come complete with satellite television, air conditioning, and wi-fi Internet access. Amenities include a Turkish bath and spa as well as an outdoor swimming pool. The terrace bar is the best place to enjoy the view of the tower, which is within walking distance.
If you are planning to rent a car for your stay in Pisa, the Bologna Hotel is the place for you. Not only are guests allowed to park in the hotel's inner courtyard, they also have the privilege of a pass that allows them to access streets in the centre of Pisa where traffic is restricted for most vehicles. The Piazza del Miracoli, the city's other central landmarks and the main train station can be reached on foot.
A charming period property in the heart of Pisa, the Hotel Relais Dell'Orologio offers more than 20 luxurious rooms. A family-run hotel, its emphasis is on great service as well as faultless decor, with a wonderful secluded garden perfect for breakfast al fresco.
Set in the picturesque Tuscan countryside, the Orchidea B&B Palaia Hotel is an ideal rural retreat. And for those wanting to sample some city life, Pisa and Florence are both within an hour's drive of the historic villa.
Galileo Galilei Airport serves Pisa and lies just outside the city, so catching a flight to Pisa is a breeze. Although it’s possible to walk into town in less than half an hour, if you don’t want to trudge in with your luggage in tow, buses, taxis and trains are on hand to transport you the short distance. By bus the journey should take 15 minutes and tickets can be bought at the airport information desk.
If you are combining your trip to Pisa with a tour of other Italian cities, you may want to make use of the country’s excellent train service. Pisa is on the Rome—La Spezia line, and trains run throughout the day to Livorno, Lucca, and Florence, which is just over an hour away. Services to Rome and Genoa are also frequent and all services leave from the city's main station, Pisa Centrale.
Pick up a cab from a rank outside one of the main tourist attractions or ask your hotel in Pisa to book one on your behalf. Taxis are metered but are not cheap, so thankfully a shared service is offered between the airport and the city centre.
Kiosks and train stations sell tickets for the useful and economical bus service, run by the CPT company, which covers Pisa. From the CPT terminal in Piazza Sant’Antonio you can get longer distance buses; it will take you 45 minutes to get to Livorno, but for further afield you should stick to the train.
Consider Pisa car hire to explore the beautiful Tuscan countryside and nearby cities like Florence. Although there are traffic restrictions in the city's historic centre, it is small enough to get around on foot and, if not, a park and ride system also operates.
If it’s no-nonsense Pisan cuisine that you’re after, you’ll find it in abundance at Trattoria San Omobono (Piazza S. Omobono 6). In a unique location surrounding a column that dates back to Roman times, this Pisan favourite serves delicious home-cooked dishes at excellent prices, including smoked fish, roast beef, and tagliatelle.
The name of this great little place—Vineria di Piazza (Piazza delle Vettovaglie 12/14)— gives you a clue as to what the speciality is. The wine list is at least as important as the menu, and the restaurant’s ambience creates a great atmosphere for a relaxed meal.
Despite the similar sounding names, Pisa cannot be claim to be the birthplace of pizza, but Pizzeria Il Montino (Vicolo del Monte 1) certainly provide diners with an authentic feel for one of Italy's best-known exports. The chickpea pizza or cecina is always a favourite, and the ramshackle appearance just adds to the restaurant’s charm.
The wonderfully atmospheric dining room of La Mescita (Via D. Cavalca 2), is always busy, a tribute to the standard of the food it serves up. Though the menu changes monthly, diners can count on the quality of the pasta, fish and meat dishes on offer, as well as a good range of beers and wines.
Like a green artery flowing out of central Pisa, Le Piagge takes you along the Arno River, away from the crowds of the city. This tree-lined avenue runs for over a mile from Ponte della Vittoria to Ponte delle Bocchette. A popular route for joggers and dog-walkers, as you walk Le Piagge make sure to pop in to the Church of San Michele degli Scalzi, home of the city's second leaning tower. After the walk, you will be pleased to see the park as you reach the end of the path and, better still, there is a bar at the entrance with a terrace overlooking the river, the perfect spot to recharge the batteries.
Gelato is a Tuscan institution, believed to have been invented by the Florentine Bernardo Buontaleni, a chef working for the court of the Medici. While Florence has a huge number of ice cream shops, the Pisa locals are always happy to proclaim their own superiority when it comes to this refreshing treat. Made slightly differently than regular ice cream, gelato contains less sugar, but this certainly doesn’t mean less taste. Ice cream parlours abounding with brightly coloured tubs of gelato are not hard to find, so travel away from the hordes around the tower, specifically on Piazza Garibaldi, to enjoy your Italian ice cream in peace.
Shopping in Pisa is not limited to the eye-boggling amount of leaning tower-related souvenirs hawked in the Piazza del Miracoli. The main thoroughfare for commerce is Borgo Stretto, which starts from Piazza Garibaldi. A wooden statue of the Holy Virgin marks the beginning of this pretty street lined with arches whose history stretches as far back as the Middle Ages. Originally home to humble merchants, it steadily built up to what it is today: an upmarket shopping area complete with lavish arcades leading off the central street. There are bars and cafes too, as well as pastry shops offering biscotti, the biscuits for which Piso is famous. In winter Borgo Stretto hosts a Christmas market, and it was on this street that Galileo Galilei himself was born.
There are no obligatory vaccinations for a trip to Pisa. Recommended vaccinations include boosters in the vaccination schedule, such as polio, tetanus, pertussis, measles, and diphtheria. If bitten by an animal you deem suspect, particularly in the north-east of the country near the Austrian and Slovenian borders, seek treatment for rabies. Tick-borne encephalitis is also a risk in the countryside between spring and autumn. For children, it is advisable that the MMR injection be administered before travelling.
The water is drinkable. The health infrastructure is excellent, but before departing from home make sure you secure a European Health Insurance Card.
Petty crime does exist in tourist areas, so keep in mind the following:
- Be discreet with valuable items like electronics or jewellery
- Do not leave any important documents or valuables (like mobile phones) in vehicles
- Refrain from walking unaccompanied at night or in darkened areas
- Refrain from accepting drinks or food offered in bars.