If you are planning to go to Tuscany, do not forget to take a trip to Pisa, famous all over the world for its breathtaking Leaning Tower.
Pisa is only a one-hour train ride from Florence, and the ideal complement to a short trip to Tuscany, as it has a lot to offer besides the Tower.
I lived in Pisa for approximately 15 years and, to be honest, I got bored after a couple of years. It is a small city, and there is not a lot going on. That is essentially why I chose to leave, travel the world, and living abroad.
Anyway, I kind of reconsidered during my regular round of research before writing this article (like I usually do before each and every one of them). Not that I am considering returning to live there, but for the first time in nearly a decade, I thought to myself “Wow, I didn’t remember Pisa has such a charm!”. I suppose one grows used to anything, including beauty. Pisa is a lovely city, but I think I lived there for so long that I kind of forgot or took it for granted.
By the way, buckle up and let us start this new adventure with further ado!
Disclaimer: For the sake of exhaustiveness I spilt this “A 2-day walking itinerary of Pisa, Italy” into two parts. Click here to check out the second part!
Either you arrive in Pisa by plane or by train, I recommend starting your first day of this 2-day walking tour from Victor Emmanuel II Square, close to “Pisa Centrale” Railway Station.
1. Victor Emmanuel II Square
Victor Emmanuel II Square (Piazza Vittorio Emanuele) takes its name after the statue of Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of a united Italy, which stands in its very centre.
The square overlooks the Pisa Chamber of Commerce building, the neo-Gothic Post Office building, and the neo-medieval building of the former Province of Pisa.
The rear and bell tower of the Church of St. Anthony (Sant’Antonio) Abate, devastated during the horrific bombing on August 31, 1943, can be also seen from the square. This church, constructed in 1341 as a monastery, was utilized as a grain warehouse until the First World War. Only the lower section of the façade, with blind arches striped by white and grey marble bands, retains its medieval appearance.
Tuttomondo, Keith Haring’s iconic mural painted in 1989, may be found on the right side of the ancient monastery.
The “Pisa Centrale” train station, which opened in 1871, is now one of the busiest in Italy and can also be seen from the square.
An underground parking park was erected after nearly ten years of development, and the square was restored and refurbished, enhancing the pedestrian area.
2. “Tuttomondo” mural by Keith Haring
In 1989, after the fortuitous encounter in New York City with a Pisan student who invited him to visit his hometown, Haring found the ideal place to summarize his artistic experience in the 180 m² (1937 ft² ) of the south wall of the church of St. Anthony.
The idea of peace and harmony in the world may be read across each of the 30 characters represented in a particular symbolic position, dancing to the rhythm of African dance around the cross of Pisa in his last public work, “Tuttomondo” (“Allworld”). For example, a woman holding a baby represents maternity, human scissors cutting the head off a serpent reflects triumph over evil, men with dolphins represent humankind’s relationship with nature, three world’s concentric ethnic figures holding a heart in their hands represent the fight against racism, and a man forming the symbol of infinity with his body symbolizes the endless cycle of life. The yellow figure travelling toward the renowned Leaning Tower represents the viewer, or, as some have said, Keith Haring himself.
3. Corso Italia
This vibrant street, which is lined with a variety of local and international brands, restaurants, and small cafés located in gorgeous structures, can easily meet all of your needs. It also acts as a connection to the railway station, as it is primarily pedestrian.
Besides, Corso Italia looks out over a variety of beautiful structures in various architectural styles.
The Neo-classic Palazzo Mastiani Brunacci of the first 1900s can be found at No. 40. It has 118 rooms and 20 halls and was the first structure to obtain electricity. Within its walls are beautiful frescoes, and the Mastiani Brunacci family coat of arms can still be seen on the building’s façade. In the 19th century, it was home to the city’s most prominent political and literary salon, as well as the meeting place for the city’s and Europe’s most affluent elite.
In front of Palazzo Mastiani Brunacci, you can find Palazzo Simoneschi with its beautiful terrace with marble columns and front of windows framed by artistically carved stones.
Palazzo Vincenti, a medieval edifice once the seat of the Chamber of Commerce of Pisa in 1924 (today in Victor Emmanuel II Square) and now home to one of a clothing chain’s stores, is located at number 61. It houses a cycle of frescoes, the focal point of which is the Virgin watching over Pisa.
The Logge Dei Banchi (“Banchi Loggias”), erected in 1603 at the behest of Grand Duke Ferdinando I de Medici to house the grain market, can be found on your left just before the end of Corso Italia. Under the loggia, several types of markets alternated, from silk to wool to exchange counters, which earned the loggia its name. The upper level, accessible through the municipality’s headquarters, Palazzo Gambacorti, was enlarged in the 19th century to house the new State Archive (now in Palazzo Toscanelli), which was inaugurated in 1865. Beneath the Logge, you can find public restrooms built in 1925 as an underground daytime hotel featuring showers, bathtubs and various services for personal hygiene.
Palazzo Gambacorti is located at no. 58, on the corner of 20th September Square (Piazza XX Settembre), with a view of the homonymous Lungarno. At the behest of Pietro Gambacorta (sometimes Gambacorti), it was constructed in dark green stone in the Pisan Gothic style. Two layers of mullioned windows, adorned with coats of arms and inscriptions, flank the façade. The adjacent wing is collonaded and connected to the Logge dei Banchi arcade via a footbridge. The palace was home to public magistrates in the 14th century, including the Consoli del Mare, Pisan Customs, and finally the civic Priors. It was converted to house the State Archives, the fireguards’ barracks, and the public police in the 1800s. It is currently used as a Town Hall.
The Government building, or Palazzo Pretorio, which houses the offices of the Government Auditor and the Civil and Criminal Chancery, is located on the right side of Corso Italia. It is easy to spot thanks to its Clock Tower (Torre dell Orologio). In 1821, they opted to update the building’s medieval design with a new rusticated Tuscan stone façade that emphasized horizontal lines. Bombing in 1944 destroyed the bridge (Ponte di Mezzo) and almost demolished the building. In 1953 it was reconstructed partially based on Gherardesca’s design. The ground-floor loggia was extended the entire length of the structure, and the clock tower was raised in height.
4. Middle Bridge
The Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge), best known as Ponte di Mezzo (Middle Bridge) by locals, joins 20th September Square and Garibaldi’s Square (Piazza Garibaldi) with a white marble bridge. It is 89 meters (292 feet) long, features a single 12.5-meter(41-foot)-high arch, and is made of reinforced concrete and white Verona stone. Marble globes from the previous bridge can be found at each of the bridge’s four corners. The Pisan cross is put out in white stone paving in the centre of the bridge.
A wooden bridge spanned the river a little further upstream in Roman times. In 1035, a stone bridge was built in its place, and it was renovated in 1388. It was destroyed in 1635 and rebuilt in 1660. The “new” bridge was an elegant affair with three arches and carved balustrades, and it was named “Mezzo” since it was (roughly) in the centre of the city. During World War II, this bridge was bombed out and destroyed.
This bridge plays an essential role in the so-called “Game of the Bridge” (Gioco del Ponte) that emerged in medieval times with the name of “massa schudo“, or “Mazzascudo“, and took place in winter in the current Knights’ Square (Piazza Dei Cavalieri). It was like a battle, with shields and maces being used by the “gamers” from the two factions of the city.
The game was moved to the Ponte di Mezzo in the 16th century to simulate a naval battle. In 1935, after a century of hiatus, it was resurrected and entirely renovated: they added Spanish late Renaissance clothing and established six Magistracies on each side, “Tramontana” to the north, and “Mezzogiorno” to the south.
The Game of the Bridge has been held annually on the last Saturday in June since 1982, with a procession of up to 700 characters in the exhibition along the entire Pisan Lungarni and a simulated battle on the bridge using a cart set on tracks in the middle of the bridge and pushed by 20 fighters on each side. The game is won by the squad that can push the cart to the “enemy” camp.
The Ponte Mezzo will take you from the Gambacorti Lungarno on the Mezzogiorno bank of the River Arno to the Mediceo Lungarno on the Tramontana side.
The “Game of the Bridge”, though, is only one of the event highlights that take place in Pisa every year in June, as it is part of a series of historical reenactment events called “Pisan June” (Giugno Pisano). Being the other the Luminara of San Ranieri taking place every year on the evening of June 16. On the occasion, after sunset, all the buildings on both banks of the river are lighted with over 70000 candles, an atmospheric tradition dating back to 1688.
5. Garibaldi Square
After crossing the Ponte di Mezzo, you will arrive at Garibaldi Square (Piazza Garibaldi), surrounded on three sides by historically significant buildings that shaped the social and cultural life of the city until the Late Modern Age.
Directly over the bridge, you can find an edifice that served as the Casino dei Nobili from the mid-1700s. The other two buildings that flank the square are among the first hotels in Pisa. On the west, there was the “Locanda Delle Tre Donzelle,” which became the Grand Hotel dell’Arno after being extended in the 19th century, and where Van Lint kept his painting and photography laboratory and studio. In the same period, Hotel Europa was built across the street, making this square the most central and best-located (wide and facing south) in town. Until the end of the 19th century, when it was renamed Garibaldi Square, this hive of activity and hospitality was simply known as piazza di Ponte di Mezzo.
Slightly off-centre towards the west is the bronze statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi, an Italian general and patriot who contributed to the Italian unification and the creation of the Kingdom of Italy, known as the “Hero of the Two Worlds” because of his military enterprises in South America and Europe.
6. Borgo Stretto
Borgo Stretto is a good example of medieval Pisa’s tiny streets, in addition to being a shopping mile. On both sides of the street’s arcades, supported by Corinthian columns, you will discover some of the most well-known and pricey shops and boutiques. In the arcades, you will find also plenty of bars and restaurants. Over the arched entrance to the Café Settimelli, a sign proudly announces that this was once the house of the Galilei family and that Galileo was born there.
The Palazzo Poschi, located on the corner of via San Francesco, and the other two and three-story residences over the loggias on each side of the street were originally the homes of wealthy merchant families. Several little side alleys branch off Borgo Stretto, one of which leads to a charming arcaded square where an open-air market sells flowers, fresh fruit and vegetables, known as Piazza delle Vettovaglie (a popular place where to have “aperitivo” and drinks after dark). In Borgo Stretto, you will also locate the lovely Gothic-Romanesque church of San Michele in Borgo.
From here, take Via San Frediano as far as Piazza Dei Cavalieri (Knights’ Square).
7. Knights’ Square
In the amazing Knights’ Square (Piazza Dei Cavalieri), you can admire the Church of the Knights of the Holy and Military Order of St. Stephen; the Palazzo dei Cavalieri, o Palazzo della Carovana (Palace of the Convoy), the former seat of the Order of the Knights of Saint Stephen, created to defend the Tuscan and Mediterranean coast from Turkish fleets and pirates, which since 1810 has been the home of the elite school Scuola Normale Superiore founded by Napoleon Bonaparte to be based on the model of the Ecole in Paris; the Palazzo dell’Orologio (Clock Palace); the Oratory of San Rocco; the Collegio Puteano; the Palazzo del Consiglio dei Dodici; the Palazzo Della Canonica.
The Church of the Knights of the Holy and Military Order of St. Stephen, built in the second half of the 1500s in Renaissance style over the foundation of Saint Sebastian’s church, is a historic spot to visit, with both Ottoman and Saracen naval banners that were once captured by the Knights in ancient times. Look up when you enter the building, with the ceiling featuring an array of paintings of historical episodes such as the “Return of the Fleet” from the Battle of Lepanto.
In the centre of the piazza, there is a statue of Cosimo I de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Behind him is Palazzo Dei Cavalieri o Della Carovana transformed by Giorgio Vasari into its current appearance, and whose façade was completely covered over time by graffiti, drawings and busts of the Medici as they succeeded one another as the Grand Dukes of Tuscany.
Beyond the Palazzo dei Cavalieri, on the right, there is Palazzo dell’Orologio, rebuilt on the foundations of two historic towers of the Della Gherardesca family, which was used as a hospice and prison for the Order and is famous for being the place where Count Ugolino, head of the Ghibelline party, and his family were held prisoner and died.
On the left end of the square, next to the Oratory of San Rocco, there is the Collegio Puteano, established in 1605 by bishop Dal Pozzo to welcome students from Biella to the studio in Pisa.
On the left, almost in front of the Palazzo dei Cavalieri, you can see Palazzo del Consiglio dei Dodici, the former home of the Magistrature of the Republic, rebuilt to its current version around the early 17th century. Next to it is the rectory, built based on Vasari’s designs, which housed the chaplains of the Order.
Palazzo Della Canonica was constructed as a place where clergy of the Knights of the Order of St. Stephen could live in comfort while they ministered to their flock. Roman Catholic priests continued to live in the building up until the end of the 20th-century. Now it houses some university laboratories and is not open to the public.
Back in ancient times, Knights’ Square was once the political centre of Pisa. Used as the Roman Forum in this region. Later on in history, however, this square became the headquarters of the Order of the Knights, also known as the Knights of St. Stephen.
Via Corsica, to the west of the square, will lead you to Via Santa Maria past an array of shops targeted mainly at a student clientele. This will take you to the Piazza Dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles) and the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
8. Square of Miracles
The Square of Miracles, or Cathedral Square (Piazza del Duomo), included by UNESCO in the World Heritage List in 1987, is the symbol of the power of the Repubblica Marinara of Pisa, and what makes the city famous all over the world.
The square holds, on a vast stretch of a greenfield, four intense white works of art of medieval monumental art: the very famous Bell Tower (Campanile) or Leaning Tower, the Monumental Cemetery (Camposanto), the Baptistery of St. John the Baptist (Battistero di San Giovanni Battista), and the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption (Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta).
The complex, located in the city’s far north-western reaches, was erected long ago at a historic fluvial port on the banks of the Auser River, which no longer exists.
If you’re looking for a small-group guided tour of all the Square of Miracle’s monuments, I’d recommend having a look at this All-Inclusive Guided Tour, available in English, Spanish, German, or Italian.
9. Leaning Tower
The Leaning Tower is recognized worldwide as the symbol of Pisa. The structure, leaning because of sinking soil which halted its construction for a long time, was started in 1173, resumed in 1275 and completed in the second half of the 14th century.
It features a cylindrical structure with blind arches at the bottom that extend to the top with a series of six loggias that mimic the Cathedral’s theme. Inside, 294 spiral staircases lead to the top of one of the world’s most famous towers, where visitors may enjoy the bell chamber and the breathtaking scenery.
It stands 55 meters (180 feet) tall and is angled 5° degrees southward.
Admission fee: 20€/ 23.64$ (Tower + Cathedral), or 27€/ 32$ (Tower + Monumental Cemetery + Cathedral+ Baptistery).
10. Monumental Cemetery
The Monumental Cemetery (Camposanto), whose construction began in 1277 by the architect Giovanni de Simone, is located on the northern edge of the square and surrounded by an outer wall made of marble and with the internal structure of a monastery. This is where the word “Camposanto” (meaning “holy field”) comes from. After the Second Crusade, legend has it that “holy soil” from Palestine was spread in the central open-air area.
The structure is an operating museum of art and archaeology, with a large collection of Roman sarcophagi in which several famous Pisan inhabitants are interred. A fire in 1944 destroyed a huge portion of the frescoes that adorned the Camposanto, but thanks to laborious restoration, tourists can now admire the “The Triumph of Death” by Buonamico Buffalmacco, which contains a spectacular picture of the Last Judgement.
On the lawn between the Tower and the Monumental Cemetery, you can find two statues: the Fallen Angel, a bronze statue created by Polish artist Igor Mitoraj, and the Capitoline Wolf depicting a she-wolf suckling two human children, Romulus and Remus, twin brothers whose story tells the events that led to the founding of the city of Rome and the Roman Kingdom by Romulus.
Admission fee: 7€/ 8.3$ (Monumental Cemetery + Cathedral), or 27€/ 32$ (Tower + Monumental Cemetery + Cathedral+ Baptistery).
11. Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption
The Cathedral, dedicated to St. Mary of the Assumption, was built in 1064 to commemorate the prominence of Pisa as the powerful Maritime Republic at the time.
It includes five naves with a three-way transept, crowned with a beautiful dome encircled by an open gallery, and was designed by architect Buscheto in 1063-4. The construction’s uniqueness has spawned a new style known as “Pisan Romanesque“, which combines classic, Islamic, Lombard, and Byzantine features as a testament to the political and commercial ties that linked the Repubblica Marinara of Pisa to the Mediterranean.
Despite a fire in 1595 within the Cathedral, many important works are still preserved within, including the great mosaic of St. John the Evangelist in the apse (1302) by Cimabue; the pulpit (or “the Pergamo”) by Giovanni Pisano considered one of the greatest works of Italian Gothic art: and bas-reliefs executed by apprentices of Giambologna.
The door of San Ranieri is the main entrance of the Church. The whole doorway has 24 bronze doors and it is painted with Pisano’s frescos depicting prophets and stories of the New Testament.
One of Pisa’s customs was to host two New Year’s festivities, one on December 31st and the other on March 25th. Between the 10th century and 1749, it was indeed customary to celebrate a secondary New Year at the March equinox, when the newer New Year’s Day coincided with the Feast of the Annunciation, exactly nine months before Christmas Day (Anno Pisano ab Incarnatione Domini).
People still gather outside the Pisa Cathedral on March 25th to witness natural phenomena that occur at lunchtime. Through a circular window, a bright ray of sunlight enters the structure, and the light falls precisely on a marble egg, a symbol of new life and birth. The egg is displayed on a ledge that tops a column next to Giovanni Pisano’s pulpit.
The first official day of the new year was moved to January 1st in 1750, but the March celebrations are still held every year and are accompanied by solemn religious and civic events.
Admission fee: 20€/ 23.64$ (Tower + Cathedral), 7€/ 8.3$ (Monumental Cemetery + Cathedral), 7€/ 8.3$ (Baptistery + Cathedral), or 27€/ 32$ (Tower + Monumental Cemetery + Cathedral+ Baptistery).
12. Baptistery of St. John the Baptist
The Baptistery of St. John the Baptist, which is also in Romanesque style, was constructed in front of the Cathedral in 1153 by Diotisalvi and completed in the 14th century by Nicola Pisano and his son Giovanni, who added Gothic components (a lodge and a dome).
It is the world’s largest baptistery, with a circle of little more than 107 meters (351 feet) and a height of nearly 55 meters (180 feet). However, the amazing acoustics inside the towering cylinder of the Baptistery is undoubtedly the most remarkable feature.
The Baptismal Font by Guido Bigarelli is placed in the centre of the baptistery, with natural lighting coming from a hole in the ceiling, which is now covered by the Cupola.
The statue of Saint John the Baptist stands on top of the dome.
Fun fact: the exquisite pulpit next to the presbytery was designed by Giovanni’s father, Nicola Pisano, who also designed the Cathedral pulpit.
Admission fee: 7€/ 8.3$ (Baptistery + Cathedral), or 27€/ 32$ (Tower + Monumental Cemetery + Cathedral+ Baptistery).
From there, take Via Roma, which will take you to the Botanical Garden, the first university botanical garden in Europe.
13. Botanical Garden
Built to serve as an “office” for the legendary botanist Luca Ghini of Imola in 1543, it is home to Ghini’s herbarium, the first of its kind. The exciting new idea of drying plants and carefully illustrating them so they could be studied and used throughout the off-season was just one of the many innovations that took place within these garden walls.
The garden has moved twice, once in 1563 and again in 1591, and is now located via Luca Ghini 5. Due to these relocations, the title of “oldest botanical garden” has been split between Ghini’s garden and the Botanical Garden of Padua, which was founded a year later but is still thriving in its original position, making it the oldest botanical garden still in its original location. Regardless of minor quibbles, the Pisa garden is an excellent location to bury yourself in the delicate science and art of botany. The grounds, run by the University of Pisa, include fountains, ponds, a library, greenhouses, herb gardens, one of Italy’s oldest iron-framed hothouses, and the former seashell-adorned botany institute, in use from 1591 to 1595.
The botanical garden has been collecting drawings, paintings, seeds, rare and endangered specimens, and scholarly journals for decades. Some of the garden’s most impressive treasures, in addition to the 148 flower beds and ancient Ginkgo biloba trees planted in 1787, include their Pharaonic collection—examples of specimens found in ancient Egyptian tombs—and their impressive aquatic plant collection, some of which are so endangered that they are no longer found in any natural environment.
Admission fee: 4 €/ 4.73 $.
If you happen to be visiting Pisa during the weekend do not miss the chance to stroll through its ancient medieval walls and enjoy a wonderful and unusual view over the city from above. To get up to the walls from the Botanical Garden go back to the Square of Miracles.
14. City Walls
Look for Santa Marta Tower (one of the four points of access up to the walls) once you have returned to the Square of Miracles. It’s on the left side, directly behind the Monumental Cemetery. Every Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., the City Walls are open to the public (advanced booking is essential, but not mandatory as of July 1). You can also take a romantic night tour from 9 p.m. to 10.30 p.m. in July and August. The walkway on the walls is 11 meters (36 feet) high, with a total length of about 3 km /1.8 mi.
Thanks to this walkway you can discover some beauties or curiosities that not even the Pisans are aware of, starting from Piazza delle Gondole (Gondolas Square), which receives its name from a little dock that served small boats, similar to Venetian gondolas, that climbed up to the Monti Pisani along the canal. Or the so-called Bagni di Nerone, the ruins of a Roman bath plant (the only one still standing in the city). Some places of worship, such as the Church of San Francesco (where the Count Ugolino is buried), the Abbey of San Zeno (Benedictine and Camaldolese, now a wedding venue), and the Jewish cemetery, are located so close to the city walls that they overlook the most exciting and evocative point: the Square of Miracles.
Those are the oldest city walls in Italy which are almost totally preserved. Construction began in 1154 in the location that is now known as the Square of Miracles and was completed in 1161 with the erection of the seventh and last lot, which protected the city’s western side from the Portello to the Torre dell”Arno. The location was chosen strategically because the ramparts were intended to protect the cathedral and future baptistery, as well as defend the city’s most vulnerable spot: the bridge across the Auser River in Pisa’s northwest.
Other areas of Pisa were protected by more natural barriers, such as the Auser River and the marshes that surrounded the city. In both design and material, the wall in this zone differs from those in other zones: instead of the conventional longitudinal pattern with horizontal layers, a vertical construction approach was used. This wall was built with “panchina” stone, a type of tufa stone. The wall and its towers also have a lack of continuity.
Day tour: 3 € (+1.5 € reservation) / 3.5 $ (+1.7 $ reservation).
Night tour: 5 € (+1.5 € reservation) / 6 $ (+1.7 $ reservation).
If you want to have a true “aperitivo” experience, I recommend going to Piazza Delle Vettovaglie (a side square of Borgo Stretto) or Piazza Chiara Gambacorti ( a side square of Corso Italia), known as Piazza Della Pera by locals.
15. Piazza Delle Vettovaglie
As previously said, Piazza Delle Vettovaglie (Supply Square) hosts a local food market every morning, but it also has cafes, wine shops, bakeries, taverns, and small restaurants all around its porticos, which come alive especially after dusk.
The square was built during the Medici rule in the 16th century after the University of Pisa decided to use the historic Piazza del Grano (Grain Square) as its headquarters. It thrived in the new grain market, owing to its proximity to the port and capacity to ease commercial trading. The plaza is still characterized by historic houses and medieval towers originating from the 11th and 12th centuries. The piazza is centred around a fountain that connects to the aqueduct network of the Pisan Mountains.
Today, Piazza Delle Vettovaglie is the perfect spot for an outdoor “aperitivo” or dinner, sitting in front of one of the taverns and gazing at the porticos. The prices are reasonable, and the local cuisine is great.
16. Chiara Gambacorti Square
Due to an Etruscan votive stone fashioned like a pear that set at the entrance from Via San Martino, locals refer to Chiara Gambacorti Square as Piazza Della Pera (Pear Square), therefore make careful to mention it should you seek information.
Be as it may, this Square is a favourite gathering place for locals and another popular spot for an “aperitivo,” a drink, or a bite to eat.
With this Square, the first day of this “A 2-day walking itinerary of Pisa, Italy” comes to an end. Click here to go straight to the second part!
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