Pisa is a city I have visited twice now and although it is quite small in comparison to the likes of Florence or Rome, it is definitely somewhere I will visit for a third time. This is a city that you can see in just a couple of days but for me it was a place where, on my second visit, I spent days wandering around quiet streets, sitting in almost empty restaurants and drinking coffee for hours on end writing some of my best work.
This is a peaceful city, a place where I had the chance to think, to write and to photograph some of the most beautiful buildings I have seen across Italy. This is also a place where I made a lifelong friend, the most interesting, endearing and complicated person I’ve possibly ever met, but that just makes Pisa all the more special.
So what is there to do in such a place? How about a bit of history?
The Leaning Tower of Pisa
Pisa is most famous for its leaning tower, which stands at 56 metres tall. The construction of the tower started in the 12th century and due to its soft foundations it started to lean almost immediately. The building of the tower halted for 200 years because of this but after time the foundations hardened so by the 14th century it was finally completed.
The tower was built as a free standing bell tower for the cathedral and there are 7 bells within it; if you want to get to the top you need to climb the 296 steps up a winding staircase. The view from the top is unimaginable, I almost don’t want to spoil it for you.
The day I visited the tower it was extremely hot and very busy with tourists. The stairway was overcrowded and rather steep, but you cannot go to Pisa and not climb its leaning tower.
When Piazza dei Miracoli is at its busiest you will see many tourists taking photos of their friends holding the tower up with one finger or pushing it over with a hand. Yes, I was one of those tourists. I also photographed other people doing this, which amused me to no end.
Piazza dei Miracoli
This Square of Miracles was previously known as Piazza del Duomo; Cathedral Square, but I think being a square of miracles is a much better fit. The square has four large religious buildings; the Pisa Cathedral, the Campanile (the Leaning Tower), the Pisa Baptistry and the Camposanto Monumental (a Monumental Cemetery). It truly is a beautiful, world renowned, architecture’s dream.
The piazza is surrounded by walls and although it opens up onto a very popular eating area and has an archway that leads to a large street market, it still has times of the day where you can walk peacefully around the buildings admiring their grandeur. I have visited in August and in January and even though it rained a little, I would advise going in the winter, it’s much quieter and really allows you to take in the sights.
Pisa cathedral took over 100 years to build and was consecrated in the 12th century, at the time it was built it was the largest cathedral in the whole of Europe. Upon approaching the large bronze doors I was completely taken aback by its overwhelming splendour. Internally the cathedral consists of 5 aisles and the sculptures and paintings were just magnificent. Just know that if you visit during the summer months take a scarf to cover your shoulders before you enter. What I liked most about this cathedral was that it dominated the square, it was a real centrepiece to the square of miracles!
This dome shaped baptistry, dedicated to St John, is the largest baptistry in Italy and stands only a fraction taller that the Leaning Tower. Inside the baptistry there are 12 columns which represent the 12 apostles and a large octagonal font sitting on three steps, which represent the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. An interesting fact I discovered about the baptistry is that the pulpit dates back to 1260; the year that artists mark as the beginning of the Italian Renaissance, I found a great book on the Italian Renaissance if you want to scratch up on your art history!
It is said that the soil of the cemetery’s courtyard comes from the Golgotha, a place just outside Jerusalem where the Roman soldiers crucified Jesus. In the 13th century crusaders brought back the soil to lay on this ‘holy field’. The cemetery is walled by 43 gothic style arches, has 3 chapels and once had walls upon walls of beautiful religious frescoes. After being damaged in WW2 a few frescoes were salvaged, removed from the walls and restored. This sacred place is home to some of the most famous medieval and renaissance artwork and should definitely be on the ‘visit list’. If ever there is a one place to admire such art, history and architecture it is Piazza dei Miracoli.
Beyond the walls of Piazza dei Miracoli sits a stretch of market stalls where you can find an array of souvenirs and art. Markets such as this reminds me of what I love about Italy; the hustle and bustle and vibrancy of a street filled with colour, chatter and music. My favourite memory of walking through this market was listening to Ed Sheeran and Andrea Bocelli‘s version of Perfect Symphony on the radio. I was singing along in my head as I wandered around the market and then out of nowhere a stall holder started to sing Andrea Bocelli‘s part at the top of his lungs! It was like having a front row ticket to my very own opera!
When you are done with the sights of Pisa the train station is just a stones throw away from the centre and for 8 euros you can jump on a train to Florence. Just remember get off at Firenze Santa Maria – there are two Florence stops and I almost ended up at the wrong one! More about Florence in my next post!
Pisa is filled with friendly locals, some of the nicest restaurants I’ve visited in Italy and by far the best wine!
Tuscan vineyards are my favourite!
This is an ideal place for a solo traveller; it is not somewhere to go for partying or beach life (although there is a beach you can visit), but is somewhere to go to enjoy art, architecture and your own company. The hotels are situated very close to the main tourist attractions and if you don’t really like tourists too much then visit Pisa in Winter, it’s still as beautiful just much quieter.
Thanks for reading!