Enclosed into the perimeter of its wall, protected by the natural frame of the Apennines and the Tuscan hills, Pistoia is a town of Roman origin halfway between the more famous Florence and Lucca. Out of the classic itineraries of Tuscany, Pistoia holds a remarkable artistic and architectural heritage to reveal that has been designated Italian Capital of Culture for 2017. What a better reason to discover the best things to do in Pistoia?
The beauty of Pistoia is also to be quite a small, friendly, and provincial town. The quality of life is good, and residents know they are living in such a uniquely pleasant place that seems they want to keep it secret, as a precious gem, from the rest of the world and the mass tourism. The old buildings reveal the stories and the artistic soul of Pistoia, influenced by two different art movements as the Pisan Romanesque style of the 12th century, and the Florentine Renaissance of the 15th century.
Things to do in Pistoia: The Piazza Duomo
A brief history of Pistoia
Founded during the Roman Age, on the rests of an Etruscan settlement, Pistoia was a stronghold to defend the empire against the attacks of the Liguri people living on the Apennines and in northern Tuscany.
During the eleventh century, it becomes an independent Comune but only during the twelfth century, Pistoia lived the best period of its history. Thanks to its strategic position, it was a crossroad of the greatest commercial routes of that time. It was also situated in the middle of the pilgrim routes that connected the Holy Land with Rome and Compostela. Pistoia was crowded by artisans, merchants, artists, and pilgrims from all Europe. It is during these years of splendor that the Romanic and the Gothic styles come together as we can see for example in the architecture of door of the Baptistery.
The thirteenth century was a time of crisis and recession. Then, as happened to many other Tuscan cities, after these dark times, it is under the Medici Dynasty and with the Granducato di Toscana that Pistoia rose again becoming an important political and cultural center during the Renaissance.
From the second half of 1700, Pistoia benefits of the innovative ideas of the Grand Duke Leopoldo di Lorena, and begin its industrial development, especially with the construction of the railways.
Thanks to its micro climate, and its geographical position, on an alluvial plain with an abundance of water, which is protected by the mountains from the cold northern winds, Pistoia has an important role in plant nurseries since 1800. This tradition begins 150 years ago when fruit trees grew in the gardens between the walls to satisfy the always more needs of the inhabitants. Today the industry has been developing with the creation of new farming techniques and new varieties of plantations than Pistoia is one of the European city leaders in plants nurseries.
The Bishop Palace in the Piazza Duomo
Things to do in Pistoia: our itinerary
We visited Pistoia on a gloomy Sunday morning with the sun behind the thick covering of clouds. Although the role of Capital of the Culture, the atmosphere was quiet. Most of the shops were closed, only locals in the street enjoying the day off pottering around, going to the church, chatting in front of an espresso or seated on benches.
1. Fortress of Santa Barbara
Our tour of the best things to do in Pistoia started with a walk on top of the walls of the Medicean Fortress of Santa Barbara, one of the four bastions of the city walls, built during the sixteenth century at the time of the Granducato di Toscana. The Medici coat of arms above the gate welcome visitors in the fort. Some steps take you up on the path that brings on the perimeter of the walls, where guards defended the castle with bows and arrows from the invaders. The construction is well preserved but, to be honest, seems a bit neglected and not properly promoted. It is open only in the morning from 8.15 am to 1.30 pm from Tuesday to Sunday, and at the time of the visit, despite Pistoia is the Italian capital of culture, there was no events or exhibit inside (some musical events take place during summer). That’s a pity because it is one of the things to do in Pistoia we loved the most. Instead, we were lucky enough to have found a tournament of archery in costumes in the Piazza d’Armi just in front of the fortress.
Archers in costumes in front of the Fortress
2. The church of San Giovanni Fuoricivitas
The huge stripe wall of the church of San Giovanni Fuoricivitas appears to us just after having entered the pedestrian area of Pistoia. The church is one of the examples of Pistoian Romanesque architecture and one of the many zebra stripes buildings in town. Take note of the number of them you would have counted at the end of the day. Two facts of this church particularly intrigued me. The first is that in origin was out of the city walls (this is the reason of the adjective “Fuori-civitas” which, in a mix of Italian and Latin, means out of the city). The second is that the original main façade was on the western side of the church. But due to the bad decision of erect buildings too much closer to it, that side has never been used as the main entrance that nowadays you can find along the northern wall decorated in white and green marble.
3. Via degli Orafi
Keep walking along the pedestrian area discovering the best things to do in Pistoia, we reached the tiny little alley Via Degli Orafi that is of most ancient streets in town. In the past, it was a lively street plenty of studios and botteghe where artisans made and sold their precious handmade artworks. Along this way, the façade of the ex-theatre Eden in Liberty style caught my attention. I suggest taking a quick look before to go ahead to the Piazza Duomo.
4. Piazza Duomo
As in the past, the Piazza del Duomo is still the heart of Pistoia, the most suggestive place in town with a considerable historical heritage. It houses the most important buildings in town, symbols of the main authorities of a city:
- Judicial with Palazzo Pretorio (the courthouse) where you can enter to admire frescoes and the coat of arms of the magistrate families on the walls of the cloister.
- Political with the Town Hall that today houses the Civic Museum with canvas, panels, sculptures and other artworks that retrace the entire artistic history of Pistoia from 13th to 20th Century.
- Religious with the Cathedral and the bell tower, the ancient Bishop Palace, and the gothic Baptistry of San Giovanni in Corte. The Cathedral dedicated to San Zeno has a façade in Romanesque style and inside it hosts the silver altar, a wonderful artwork completely made in silver by the hands of local artists. If you like to admire Pistoia from a higher point, I suggest taking the tour of the bell tower that runs every day (for more info ask for it to the tourist office inside the Baptistry). The episcopal palace where once the Bishop and his canons lived, today hosts the archaeological museum.
5. Ospedale del Ceppo
Walking out of the Piazza Duomo from the street next to the town hall, we reached the old Ospedale del Ceppo founded on 1277 and opened to the patients until a few years ago.
The façade of the hospital is decorated with the interesting colored sixteenth-century terracotta frieze, covered by a layer of bright polychrome ceramic, depicting the Seven Works of Mercy and realized by the artists Santi Buglioni and Filippo Paladini. Underneath the frieze, between the arches of the loggia, there are some terracotta medallions made by Giovanni Della Robbia representing scenes of the life of the Virgin Mary, the coat of arms of the Medici Family, the symbols of Pistoia and of its two hospitals.
6. Pistoia underground
The hospital is also the starting point of the brand-new guided tour to the underground of Pistoia, the longest hypogeous path in Tuscany with more than 650 meters (0,4 miles) of length. The hospital was built above a stream called Brana that crossed the historical center of the town. During the tour we had the chance to enter into the world smallest anatomical amphitheater, to walk underneath the hospital where once the creek was flowing in the sun, passing under the different wards and see how the project of the hospital changed the cityscape englobing bridges, towers, and even the city walls.
7. Piazza della Sala e Piazza degli Ortaggi
We ended our day discovering the best things to do in Pistoia in the charming Piazza Della Sala. At the time when Pistoia was under the reign of Lombards, it was the center of Pistoia. Later it became a trade center and this feature still survives. In fact, Piazza della Sala and the adjoined Piazza degli Ortaggi everyday host the colored stalls of the farmer’s market where to buy fresh fruit and vegetables. At night, the two piazze turn into the most lively places in town for an aperitivo, dinner, or a drink in one of many nice little bars.
Other things to do in Pistoia
Our stay of Pistoia lasted only half a day. Right after lunch, a heavy shower interrupted our visit. We had the time to experience the best things to do in Pistoia, but you can easily spend an entire day in town adding a stop to one or more of these places:
- Palazzo Fabroni: an old medieval tower-house, renewed during the eighteenth century that today hosts the center of modern and contemporary visual arts.
- Church of Sant’Andrea: in front of Fabroni Palace, the Romanesque parish church houses the gothic style pulpit of Giovanni Pisano, a masterpiece of the son of that Niccola Pisano that was one of the masters of the gothic art in Europe.
- Basilica of Santa Maria dell’Umiltà: a splendid example of religious Renaissance architecture of which you can admire the sixteenth-century dome, built by Giorgio Vasari that took inspiration from the more famous Brunelleschi Dome in Florence.
- Church of Sant’Antonio Abate: the church, in the past dedicated to the Tau cross, today consecrated to Saint Anthony the Great, holds the greatest late gothic frescoes of Pistoia.
- Zoological Garden: Pistoia has one of the biggest zoos of all Italy. Every Tuscan child went at least once in his life here. Now that I am older I am not too much into zoo because I prefer to see animals in their own habitat, but the aims of the park are also to protect and preserve local habitat and its inhabitants (animals and vegetation), and to educate people to safeguard the Earth being more eco-friendly.
Did you know that…
- One of the traditional candy of Pistoia is a kind of confit named Birignoccoluto. In Italian, this word is a bit weird and it reminds us of something with an irregular shape. In fact, they look like big hailstones made coating anise or coriander seeds with layers of sugar syrup. Let melt the sugar in your mouth and then enjoy the explosion of the taste of anise and cilantro.
- The 25th July, Pistoia celebrates its Patron Saint, St Jacob the with the dressing ceremony of the statue dedicated to him over the Cathedral, and with the medieval Bear Jousting tournament in the main Piazza Duomo.
- Out of Pistoia, in the village of Collodi, there is a theme park dedicated to Pinocchio, the naughty wooden puppet famous all over the world, invented by the fantasy of the journalist Carlo Lorenzini also known as Carlo Collodi.
- Every summer the Piazza Duomo hosts the music festival Pistoia Blues, one of the biggest summer festival in Italy where is possible to listen to the concerts of International stars of the music system.
- During the winter, in just over an hour from Pistoia, you can spend a day skiing at the Abetone and Monte Cimone area, two of the main ski resorts of Tuscany and of all the Italian Apennines.
How to reach Pistoia
- By car: Take Pistoia exit on the A11 highway that connects Florence to Lucca, Pisa and the coastal Versilia. Both from Florence and Lucca you reach Pistoia in approx 40 minutes. We left our car at the Cavallotti Parking close by the Santa Barbara Fortress (it was free of charge being Sunday), otherwise, you can park at the Cellini parking which is always free of charge, and reach the center by walk or by paying shuttle.
- By train: You find Pistoia rail station on the line that connects Florence and Lucca. From Florence regional trains take about 30 – 50 minutes; from Lucca, they take about 40 minutes – 1 hour depending on the number of train stops. Read also how to travel in Tuscany by train.
Have you got other suggestions to add to this list of the best things to do in Pistoia? Leave a comment below.