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Top Ten Things To Do

Unlike most Tuscan cities, Pisa's religious centre is not inside the walls nor in the old town but marooned on the northern edge of town. Coaches decant day-trippers on the Campo Dei Miracoli, the `Field of Miracles,’ with selfies in front of the Leaning Tower the chief priority. Spare a thought for the rest of Pisa, which is full of intriguing corners.

Top Ten Things To Do

The Leaning Tower -wonder of the world

Pisa’s landmark really does lean to a frightening degree, though less than it used to. The Tower now slopes at an angle of 5° from the vertical and remains standing because its centre of gravity is inside the perimeter of its base. The unstable subsoil that underlies the Piazza dei Miracoli has caused all the buildings to tilt and subside to dizzying effect. Just to the right of the entrance to the Tower is a date stone standing for AD 1173, when building work started on the Campanile. But work stopped at the third stage because the building was already collapsing. A century later, three more stages were added, deliberately constructed to tilt in the opposite direction, so the Tower has a decided kink as well as a tilt. By 1989 the Tower was leaning to such a perilous degree that it was in danger of collapse. It was promptly closed, and an international team of engineers spent the next two decades in a battle to save it. During the first phase, completed in 2001, the tower was straightened by 40cms to avoid imminent collapse. In 1992 it was given a girdle of steel braces which were attached to a cunning counterweight system. A year later, the bells were silenced because of the damaging effect of vibration on the edifice. In 2011, the Leaning Tower was reopened but, given the complex challenges, it would be tempting fate to say that the Tower was safe forever. The best place to catch your first sight of the 12th-century Tower is through the archway of the Porta Santa Maria, also known as the Porta Nuova. When the sun is shining, the whiteness daz¬zles; when raining, it glistens.
Practicalities: visits are restricted to only 45 people at a time – children under eight are not allowed in while under-eighteens must be accompanied by an adult. Book in advance online or head straight to a ticket office when you arrive to book a 35-minute slot. It’s a steep climb of 251 steps. You can take up a camera but all bags must be left in the free left-luggage desk next to the main ticket office.

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Duomo – the prototype for Tuscan cathedrals

The candy-striped Duomo was the prototype for all Tuscan Romanesque cathedrals, with its contrasting bands of colour, blind arcading, colonnaded gallery and the geometry of inlaid marble. A hallmark of the Pisan style was its talent for selecting a theatrical space: in Pisa, the main buildings present a unified whole, as if they were placed there like chess pieces. The maritime republic of Pisa was an 11th-century power, trading with northern Europe and the Muslim world. As a result, the Pisan style is a glorious hybrid: austere Norman Romanesque inspired by a Moorish Sicilian aesthetic and the Tuscan taste for marble. Yet the colourful geometry of the multi-coloured marble is essentially Tuscan. The palette contrasts white marble from Carrara, rosy pink from Maremma and dark green from Prato. The Cathedral, built be-tween 1068 and 1118, is one of the major monuments in Italy. The beau¬ti¬ful white-marble façade is studded with mosaics, inlaid marble and glass stones. The 16th-century bronze doors are surrounded by frames enlivened by animals. The majesty of the interior is created by the forest of pillars rising to arches of banded white-and-grey stone, and the col¬ourful mix of altar paintings and Cimabue’s apsidal mosaic, from 1302. The magnificent marble pulpit by Giovanni Pisano (1301–11) is a masterpiece, supported by prophets and allegorical figures, with its dramatic panels depicting scenes from the Life of Christ. Hanging from the arch of the great dome is Galileo’s Lamp, so called because its pendulum movement is said to have inspired Galileo to discover the rotation of the earth (in reality, the lamp wasn’t here in Galileo’s day).
Practicalities: Even if admission is free you need a ticket from another attraction on the square to get in, or a fixed-time pas from the ticket offices behind the Leaning Tower.

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Battistero – Italy’s largest baptistery

Also on the Campo dei Miracoli, a veritable Square of Miracles, stands the Battistero, the largest baptistery in Italy. Begun in 1152, it was remodelled by Nicola and Giovanni Pisano a century later, built in the same Pisan Romanesque style as the Cathedral. This round, arcaded affair is richly decorated with niches and statues of saints. The interior is far plainer, but it has one great treasure: Nicola Pisano’s hexagonal ¬pulpit of 1260, carved with scenes from the Life of Christ. The masterpiece was clearly influenced by Ancient Roman art, notably by Roman sarcophagi in the Camposanto (see below). Mary, for example, has the long neck, veil and ringlets typical of middle-aged matrons in Roman portraiture. You may be lucky enough during your visit to hear one of the attendants demonstrate the Baptistery’s re¬markable acoustics. As four or more individual notes are sung, the long echo allows them to build up to a complete chord that rings eerily round the dome.

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Camposanto - the world’s loveliest cemetery?

The treasures on the Campo dei Miracoli culminate the Camposanto, a gorgeous white-marble cloister.  carved with the mythological scenes that inspired the pulpits of Nicola and Giovanni Pisano. The cloister is paved with the grave slabs of medieval Pisans, carved with coats of arms or tools of their trade. It was the fashion for Pisan merchants to ship home Roman sarcophagi from the Holy Land or North Africa to reuse as their own tombs. Inspired by the realistic battle scenes carved on these antique marble tombs, the Pisani created their own versions: great pulpits sculpted with crowded and dramatic scenes from the life of Christ, which can also be seen in the Cathedral, as in Sant’Andrea church in Pistoia. In addition, frescoes damaged by incendiary bombs during the Second World War have been restored to their original positions. They include a grim series of images (1360–80) inspired by the Black Death, on the themes of the Last Judgement and the Triumph of Death.

Learn more about the Camposanto frescoes by crossing the square to the Museo delle Sinopie. The frescoes were created by laying down a sketch on the plaster undercoat using red paint (called sinopia because the pigment came from Sinope on the Black Sea). When the final thin layer of white plaster was applied, the sinopia sketch showed through and guided the artists to complete the fresco in full colour. The fire which followed the bombing of the Camposanto destroyed or damaged some of the frescoes but the disaster had a silver lining. While salvaging the frescoes, rescuers found the huge sinopie (preliminary sketches) lying beneath the frescoes - and these are now restored.

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Museo dell’Opera del Duomo – the Cathedral Museum

The final piece of the jigsaw lies in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo – the Cathedral Museum. The museum attempts an overview of the Campo dei Miracoli, including a chronology, which begins in 1064 with the start of work on the Cathedral, followed by the Baptistery in 1154, the Campanile in 1173, and the Camposanto a century later, in 1277. This short burst of fireworks was followed by swift decline as the city’s harbour silted up. By 1406, the city had been conquered by Florence and was about to be eclipsed culturally by that city’s determin¬ation to build even bigger and bolder monuments. The museum is packed with 12th–15th-century sculptures and paintings. Giovanni Pisano’s ivory Virgin and Child (1299) is a highlight, using the natural shape of the ivory tusk to give the Virgin her naturalistic stance. There are models to show the construction techniques used to build the domed Baptistery, and to explain the marble-inlay technique used to give all the buildings their intricate exterior decoration. Best of all is the shady cloister, with a spectacular view of the Leaning Tower and the Cathedral.

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Borgo Stretto - for a taste of Pisan life

Pisa is not picturesque, and, beyond the `Field of miracles’, rarely tugs the heartstrings. But there is a warmer side to the city in backstreet Pisa. The Borgo Stretto district is a lively warren of alleyways and shopping streets between Piazza dei Cavallieri and the Arno riverbanks. Lined with cafes and shops, the arcaded Borgo Stretto opens out at Piazza Garibaldi and the Ponte di Mezzo bridge. It’s a perfect place for a wander in search of an ice cream, an afternoon coffee and cake, or a reasonably-priced meal. Call into the Pasticceria Federico Salza (Borgo Stretto 46), an old-fashioned bar and pastry shop, set under the porticoes. It makes a tempting place for an afternoon coffee and cake or evening cocktails. At turns, this pedestrianised street is shabby or chic, with a bohemian feel. Off its southern end, the arcaded Piazza delle Vettovaglie market area is the haunt of Pisa University students who are drawn to the reasonably priced bars. Just beyond, the Arno river is being touted as the Pisan `Left Bank’. Centred on the prestigious university, a large student presence brings energy to the area, as does the presence of Pisan cyclists.

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Piazza dei Cavalieri

Critics say that Pisa, unlike its Tuscan rivals, has no real centre. That’s not quite true: it’s simply that the centre isn’t where you most expect it, or that there are several centres. During the Pisan Republic, Piazza dei Cavallieri was the political and administrative heart. Now it’s back to being just a quietly beautiful square. After escaping the hordes by the Leaning Tower, get your bearings back in this deceptively peaceful Pisan square. Dante’s Inferno relates that it was in one of the towers of the Palazzo dell’Orologio (the building with a clock-face to the north of the square) that Count Ugolino, wrongly convicted of treason in 1284, was left to starve to death with his sons. The square is named after the order of knights (cavalieri) founded by Cosimo I (1561) to fight the Turks in the Mediterranean. The duke gave the knights Palazzo della Carovana, the former council chambers of the Pisan City State. The magnificent sgraffito decoration, complete with floral patterns and coats of arms, was based on plans by Vasari (1511–74), as was the next-door church of Santo Stefano. In 1606 Giovanni de’ Medici added the marble façade and the knights’ emblem above the doorway. Displayed inside are trophies and spoils of war from Pisan naval victories against the Ottomans.

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Banks of the Arno

The `Field of Miracles’ is set on the northern edge of the city, thus distorting the city geography. Pisans themselves prefer to treat the river Arno as a dividing line between different districts. With its steep, stone riverbanks, Pisa is split in two by the gently curving Arno. The riverbanks, known as the Lungarni, are essential Pisa. Depending on the light, the river is inviting or oppressive. On a dull day, the Lungarno presents a procession of blank, ochre facades that merge together, matched by a muddy-coloured river. But on a sunny day, or during a water festival, the Lungarni come into their own. It’s a place for wandering without an agenda, admiring facades and churches, rather than bridges. Ponte di Mezzo, faced with white Verona stone, was once Pisa’s oldest bridge but is now a shadow of its former self. Like most of Pisa’s bridges, it was rebuilt after its destruction by Allied bombing during the Second World War. During a heartfelt summer festival, it feels very different. In June, the Gioco del Ponte, a medieval tug-of-war fought on the bridge, reveals the Pisan sense of belonging. On the opposite bank, across Ponte Solferino, on Lungarno Gambacorti, stands the remarkable church of Santa Maria della Spina. Don’t worry if this Pisan-Gothic gem is closed. The vibrant exterior is what counts, a tour de force of Gothic pinnacles and niches, crowded with 13th-century statues of saints carved by members of the Pisano family. Back in the days when Pisa was a port, before the harbour silted up, seafarers came to pray here before setting sail.

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Bagni di Pisa

The charmingly faded spa town of San Giuliano Terme is set midway between Pisa and Lucca, at the foot of the Pisan mountains. Olives, chestnuts and pines grow nearby, while wild horses roam the hills. San Giuliano is renowned for the curative powers of its thermal springs. Here, Bagni di Pisa spa resort is the best place to try out a thermal spa treatment, or simply indulge in some pampering. In its heyday, this atmospheric spa resort played host to the Romantic poets but is still romantic without them. These spa waters have been celebrated since Roman times and are especially good for the treatment of rheumatism and arthritis. Montaigne, Byron and Shelley were famous Grand Tourists who swore by such treatments. Even without any ailments, come for a day spa experience. Wallow in the hot springs and indulge in a treatment or two, including in a grotto pool. The spa experiences include lunch or dinner at the romantic Dei Lorena restaurant, with a distant view of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

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The Pisan coast

The pretty road from Pisa to the coast follows the Arno to the sea. About 6 km (4 miles) southwest of Pisa, it passes San Piero a Grado, a fine basilica which would once have overlooked the sea. Legend has it that this is the spot where St Peter first set foot on Italian soil. Once at the coast, 12 km from Pisa, you can visit resort of Marina di Pisa, if only for a stroll along the café-lined promenade. If you’re, lucky, there are distant views of the islands of Gorgona and Capraia. Tirrenia, 5 km further down the coast, offers a stretch of pine forest but is still an underwhelming resort compared with the more upmarket Forte dei Marmi, Viareggio or Marina di Pietrasanta, Still, if you’re sated of art and architecture, this makes a pleasant day out, with a seafood lunch, probably involving pasta and clams.  From Pisa, the alternative coastal route, going north instead of south, takes in Viareggio and Torre del Lago. This drive best suits opera buffs as it’s a Puccini trail centred on the shores of Lake Massaciuccoli. (It’s covered in an itinerary from Viareggio).

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