I bet that almost everybody has heard about the Square of Miracles and leaning tower of Pisa, that every year attracts millions of tourists from every part of the globe. What most of them do not know is that out of the marvelous “Piazza dei Miracoli” there are many things to do in Pisa.
Pisa is much more than the “odd” famous tower, symbol and pride of the town. With this post about the things to do in Pisa, I tell a bit more about the city hoping to make you feel the desire to get out the Square exploring its historical center.
Pisa is a lively city of about seventy thousands people born at the time of the ancient Greeks. Historians tell that the founder could be a man called Pelope coming from the Greek city of Pisa after the fall of Troy, that build the new city on a land occupied by the Liguri.
Pisa was an important trade center during the Etruscans Age and one of the four Repubbliche Marinare (Maritime Republics) during the Middle Age together with Genoa, Venice, and Amalfi. From the tenth to the thirteen century, these city-states built big fleets to protect their land and to trade with cities along the Mediterranean Sea.
Pisa is synonym of scientific and experimental culture, thanks to the insights of Galileo Galilei, considered as the Father of the modern science. Pisa gave the birth to the Italian mathematics, astronomer, physicist, and philosopher, on 1564. Suspected and convicted of heresy by the Roman Inquisition, he spent many years of his life under arrest in a small village close to Florence. Today, the Cathedral of Santa Croce in Florence houses his grave close to many other important persons of the history.
Pisa is an important university campus and a relevant research district unique in Italy. It hosts the University, the CNR (national research council) institute and two exclusive Grand écoles, The Scuola Normale Superiore and Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies, reserved to the best students of all the country, and listed between the best institutes of Europe and of the entire world.
Pisa is crossed by the Arno River, the same that flows in Florence. It has ruins of tower houses and ancient walls that in the past protected the city by the enemies.
Pisa has a synagogue and other two leaning towers in addition to the famous one in the Square of Miracles: the church of San Nicola in Via Santa Maria and the church of San Michele agli Scalzi in the area of the Piagge along the river.
Pisa is well connected with Florence, Lucca, and the coast by bus and train, and the Galileo Galilei International Airport is the main airport of Tuscany and of central Italy. For more info about flights to Tuscany click here.
Things to do in Pisa beyond the tower
The historical center is divided into four districts where you can find narrow alleys, hidden corners, and squares that in the past hosted public buildings and small artisan botteghe.
Starting from the Square of Miracles, here are my suggestions about the things to do in Pisa beyond the leaning tower in an itinerary that could take you a day.
The Square of Miracles
Listed in the Tuscan UNESCO World Heritage sites since 1987, the Square of Miracles is the most known of the things to do in Pisa. The famous Piazza includes the main religious monuments like the Cathedral, the Baptistery, the Campo Santo and the leaning tower. The Italian writer Gabriele D’Annunzio called them miracles for their beauty and this is the reason for the name Square of Miracles. To reach the Piazza you can easily park your car out of the walls, or in case you come by train, use the station of Pisa San Rossore. The entrance to the Cathedral is free of charge. You just need to get the free ticket at the office located in the building in bricks on the right side of the Piazza.
The Botanic Gardens
Academic Botanic Gardens of Pisa – Photo Credits: Greg_Men
A small haven of rest just out of the Piazza is the academic botanic garden. You can get inside one of the world oldest academic botanical garden, founded in 1544, and walk between an arboretum, conifers, aquatic plants, medicinal plants, and into a relevant herbarium of about three hundred thousand species. The odd façade of the botany institute is completely decorated with seashells. The entrance is only 2,5 euros.
Piazza dei Cavalieri
Piazza dei Cavalieri, the Knight’s Square, is the second most important square in town. Throughout the history, it was, first, center of the political power, then the headquarter of the Military Order of Saint Stephen founded in 1561 by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I de’ Medici. Today, instead, it is the symbol of the academic excellence because the marvelous Palazzo della Carovana rebuilt by Giorgio Vasari in Renaissance style, hosts the Scuola Normale Superiore, one of the best istitute of Italy and all Europe for human science, literature and philosophy.
Piazza delle Vettovaglie
Piazza delle Vettovaglie – Photo Credits: A green steam
Piazza delle Vettovaglie has a decadent charm on me. Its name reveals the aim of the square. In fact, since the Medici ages, it was the place of the city markets. Meat and wheat markets in the past, today you can buy fruits and vegetables in the morning. Under the arcades, at night, bars and vinerie are nice places where having an Aperitivo or a glass of wine.
People walking along the arcades of Borgo Stretto – Photo Credits: Francisco Anzola
It is nice to walk under the arcades of this narrow street in the heart of Pisa, have a look at the shops or get an espresso or gelato in one of the many bars.
One of the best things to do in Pisa, in my opinion, is a walk along the Lungarni, the historical roads along the shores of the Arno River with their beautiful Renaissance buildings. The atmosphere and lights at sunset along Lungarni are something that worth a visit. At night, this is the center of the movida where locals and students meet for a drink or simply to chat sitting on the balustrades of the river (pay attention to do not fall down if you do it).
Every 16 June, the Luminaria of San Ranieri opens the celebrations of the Patron Saint, and thousands of candles light the Lungarni creating a unique wonderful atmosphere.
Ponte di Mezzo and Palazzo Pretorio at the beginning of Corso Italia
Through the Ponte di Mezzo, you reach the other shore of the Arno where Corso Italia starts. If you want to do some shopping this is the right place. Corso Italia is also the main road that connects the central rail station to the city center.
Along the southern Lungarno Gambacorti, this unique noble building of blue color belonged to important families of the Pisan aristocracy, houses a cultural center and important exhibits of modern art. In the last couple of years, they hosted artworks of international artist the likes of Kandinsky, Toulouse Lautrec, Salvador Dalì, Cornelis Escher. The new exhibit for the upcoming fall season, from the 11th October 2018 to the 17th February 2019, will be dedicated to the surrealist painters Magritte and Duchamp.
Church of Santa Maria della Spina along Lungarni
Church of Santa Maria della Spina – Photo Credits: CpaKmoi
Not too far from Palazzo Blu, there is a little tiny church build directly on the shore of the river. I have never seen something like the church of Santa Maria della Spina somewhere else. Fully made in marble, it is an extraordinary example of the Gothic style with cusps, pediments, tabernacles, and sculptures of amazing beauty, directly on the river.
Tuttomondo, the mural by Keith Haring
Tuttomondo – Photo Credits: Il_baro
At the end of Corso Italia, close to the train station, there is the biggest mural ever made in Europe (with a surface of 180 sqm). Its name is “Tuttomondo” and the artist is the American Keith Haring (May 4, 1958 – February 16, 1990) that painted the wall of the church of Sant’ Antonio Abate in only four days in 1989. Altogether, the thirty dynamic illustrations represent an idea of peace and harmony of the world.
Via San Martino
Via San Martino is a cross street of Corso Italia that brings you inside the suburb of San Martino. Being close to the water, during the Middle Age, it was an important place for trading with merchants coming from other cities and cultures. Today Via San Martino is a nice alley where you can find historical buildings and nice cafes. The distinctive feature of the suburb is still clear thanks to some nice ethnic restaurants where you can enjoy a different kind of cuisine.
Have lunch at Trattoria da Stelio
For a real local food experience, I highly recommend you to stop for lunch at the Trattoria da Stelio in the Piazza Dante, another hidden corner of Pisa where the historical palazzi of the department of law of the Università di Pisa, the public library overlook the square. It is open only for lunch from Monday to Friday. I recently tried the restaurant with a German friend and we were enthusiastic. As usual, it was always crowded with locals and students that we shared the table with another couple. The atmosphere is informal, the rooms very old style with pictures of the family on the walls. The food is simple but tasty with some dishes famous in the 80’s as Vitello Tonnato. We also had the luck to meet Stelio, the eighty years old owner that told us some nice memories of his life, and to get a ponce alla livornese sit at the table with an Italian storyteller politically involved during the late sixties.
The gardens of Giardino Scotto – Photo Credits: Elisabetta_81
The last of the things to do in Pisa that I suggest you is a visit to the Giardino Scotto, also named Cittadella Nuova to distinguish from the old Citadel on the other side of the city. Inside this ancient fortress, built by the Florentines in 1440 during the second occupation of the city, there is a peaceful garden where locals usually go for walking, studying or simply to rest in the sun. The entrance is free and during the summer the “Scotto” hosts an open-air cinema and music festivals.
Even if the leaning tower remains the biggest attraction of the city, I really hope to have you intrigued with this post about the things to do in Pisa and to see you around during your next visit in town.