Of course we’re all familiar with Pisa’s most famous monument – the Leaning Tower of Pisa is one of Italy’s most visited tourist attractions. Most people who check Pisa off their must-see list do so after a couple of hours en route from one city to another, or as a brief day trip from nearby Florence. There is, however, much more to see and do in Pisa than just the tower.
Here are some things to do in Pisa – besides the famous tower.
Often overlooked in our focus on the tower is the enormous cathedral that is right next to it. Indeed, that leaning tower was built to be the Duomo’s bell tower, although it has since eclipsed the church in its fame. A fire in 1595 destroyed some of the 11th century Duomo’s interior decorations, and renovations after the fire destroyed even more, but the church is still gorgeous inside (pay particular attention to the intricate carvings on the pulpit made by Pisano) and well worth a visit. Learn more on a tour of the beautiful Pisa Duomo.
The other structure besides the tower and the Duomo on the so-called “Campo dei Miracoli,” or “field of miracles,” is the huge Baptistery. It dates from the 12th century, and it’s the biggest Baptistery in Italy. One of the Baptistery’s notable interior features is the incredible acoustics afforded by the immense dome. If you’re lucky, you may get to hear a demonstration of these acoustics by one of the porters – they can sing harmonies with themselves, as their voice bounces back to them a few moments after they’ve sung a note.
Chiesa di Santa Maria della Spina
This small 13th century Gothic gem of a church was once the home of a reliquary said to hold a thorn from Jesus’ crown. In the late 19th century, the entire church was dismantled and then rebuilt in order to raise the whole church up by one meter. It now sits alongside the Arno River. You can visit the Church of Santa Maria della Spina as part of some Pisa tours.
The 15th century facade of this palazzo is attached to a building that contains remnants of Pisa’s 12th century city walls. The palazzo itself was created by combining several different medieval buildings – including a tower – and the facade was built to unify the patchwork of structures. Decorations on the red clay facade include plants, heralds, and human figures. There is a cafe on the ground floor of the building that’s been in operation since 1775. The cafe is also the meeting place of the Accademia Nazionale dell’Ussero (associated with the university), which started holding reglar meetings there in 1839.
Pisa is home to a large and old university, and also the oldest university botanic gardens in Europe. The Orto Botanico was created in 1544 by Cosimo I de’Medici, although the location of the garden has changed over the years. The garden has been in its current location since 1590. There’s a Botanical Museum on the grounds of the garden, with a pretty 18th century facade. The Orto Botanico is not far from the Leaning Tower, and it’s free to go in and enjoy.
Piazza dei Cavalieri
This was once Pisa’s main square, and it was remodeled to the beautiful piazza you see today by Vasari in the 16th century. The Italian name of the piazza translates to “Knights’ Square.” Find the Piazza dei Cavalieri in Pisa’s university district.
If you’ve come to Italy to shop, then head for the elegant street called Borgo Stretto, where the fashionable Italian boutiques are located. The street is an extension of the Corso Italia, which changes its name to Borgo Stretto on the other side of the river. Start your shopping (or walking) tour of the Borgo Stretto at the Piazza Garibaldi, and keep an eye out for the Caffè Settimelli – this building is the house where Galileo was born.
Museo dell’Opera del Duomo
To see some of the artwork that was once inside the Duomo, including work by Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, you’ll need to visit this museum. The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (Museum of Duomo Artwork) opened in 1986, collecting many of the pieces of Duomo artwork that had been removed from the church over the years during different restoration projects. The collection includes statues that once adorned buildings in the Campo dei Miracoli, silver from the church, religious vestments, and historic books. The museum is near the Duomo, and occupies a 12th century former convent. Don’t miss it on a tour of the Piazza dei Miracoli.
Old Citadel and Guelph Tower
The Guelph tower and the Citadella Vecchia (Old Citadel) to which it is attached sit on Pisa’s riverbank. The citadel dates from the 13th century, and the tower from the early 15th century. The tower was destroyed during World War II, but then completely rebuilt in its original form after the war. The buildings have been used over the years for storage and by the military, but now the area is a public park. It’s the views from the top of the tower – views that include Pisa’s decidedly more famous tower – that make this worth a stop.
Perhaps the most overlooked attraction on the Campo dei Miracoli is the 13th century Camposanto Cemetery, although it’s quite large. It’s a building that doesn’t resemble a cemetery, due to its high walls, but it is worth checking out for the frescoes on its walls alone. Many of the cemetery’s historic artwork was damaged or destroyed during World War II, but some were saved and are now on display in the Fresco Room. There are also some ancient Roman sarcophagi that wealthy Pisan citizens claimed for their own burials during the Middle Ages.
Keith Haring Mural
For all that’s centuries old in Pisa, there’s also some notable modern art, too. The late artist Keith Haring liked Pisa so much that he visited in 1989 to paint a big mural on the side of the Chiesa di Sant’Antonio. It was the last public painting he would do before he died in 1990. The mural, called “Tuttomondo” (“The Whole World”), covers one whole side of the church with his signature colorful figures.