I realized yesterday that somehow I haven’t ever posted about Italy. Which is crazy, because it’s one of my favorite places in the world, the home of my heart.
It’s where I’ve spent the most time abroad, by far. I could talk about it forever. In fact, I accidentally totally rearranged a work colleague’s trip for her the other night while we were talking, because I started to point out all the other cool things she could do, where she needed to spend a night instead, and then all of the sudden she had a different (and much better) trip planned.
But I think it’s exactly because I love it so much, and have spent so much time there, that I haven’t been able to post yet—because I have too much to say and I’m not sure where to start.
So we’re going to start with an easy one: Pisa
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Yes, Pisa is ultra touristy and crowded. It’s a tourist trap. It’s cheesy. But who cares?
I’ve visited on a few occasions, and while I’ll never (never!) tell you it’s one of my favorite places in Italy, it’s kind of an easy must-see on any itinerary that includes Florence. You can hop off the train, visit in a few hours, and get back on the train and to your destination.
OR, if you have the time, stay and wander the town for a while. Grab a bite to eat, walk along the Arno, and enjoy people watching in a cute Italian college town.
Pisa: More Than Just the Leaning Tower
The thing people forget is that there’s more to see than just the Tower. The Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles) houses not only the tower (campanile), but also the baptistery, cathedral, camposanto monumentale (Monumental Cemetery) and a few other beautiful buildings. In fact, the tower, while beautiful, isn’t the prettiest thing here.
The square is situated right by the old medieval city walls, and was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. Since it took a number of decades to build everything, the architectural style is a blend of Romanesque and Gothic, and is very harmonious.
While you can visit the buildings in any order, one of the very cool things to know is that the three main buildings represent the stages in a believer’s life—the baptistery is for birth, the cathedral (which includes the tower) for life, and the cemetery for death.
Exploring the Piazza dei Miracoli
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First you have the baptistery. Begun in 1153, it’s the largest in Italy and is dedicated to St. John the Baptist. If you’ve purchased a ticket to go inside, make sure to climb the stairs to the top for some great pics.
According to urban legend, if you’re a university student and you walk around the baptistery as an undergraduate, you won’t get your degree. Funny enough, we had a similar urban legend at the University of Kansas, but it was walking through the Campanile on campus.
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The heart of the piazza is the cathedral, begun in 1064, and it’s stunning inside and out.
Seriously, the inside of this cathedral would rival about any other in Italy except maybe St. Peter’s. Even if you’re cathedral-ed out from Europe, make sure to step inside for a few minutes.
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And then, of course, there’s the infamous gravity-challenged tower.
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The campanile (bell tower, now called the Leaning Tower) was the last of the buildings to be built, started in 1173 but not finished until 1372.
The reason that it took so long to finish is that the leaning started only 5 years after construction had begun (due to weak subsoil), so they let it rest for a century to stabilize so it wouldn’t collapse. Then once they resumed building, they made sure that one side of each floor was a little taller, to compensate for the slight lean (currently somewhere between 4 and 5 degrees).
Even if you’re allergic to super touristy places (I am!), I hope I’ve maybe convinced you to give Pisa a few hours of your time. The history and gorgeous architecture often get overshadowed by the gimmicky Leaning Tower, but don’t let that discourage you from exploring one of the more awe-inspiring and complete sites in Italy!
Tips for visiting Pisa
- Pisa is an easy stopover between Florence and Milan, Florence and Cinque Terre, a daytrip from Florence, etc. Train tickets from Florence are under 10 euros one-way most of the time.
- The Square of Miracles is only a few minutes’ walk from the train station, and you can easily follow signs and the crowd. It’s almost impossible to get lost (but it is on the outskirts of town, so don’t be worried if it seems like you’re heading away from the city center). The Pisa airport is also very close.
- If you’re visiting during peak season and your plans are pretty set, it’s worth buying your tickets online in advance. This way you don’t have to stand in long lines once you arrive.
- Entrance to the Cathedral is free; entrance to climb the Tower is 18 euros, and then if you want to go inside the Baptistery, Camposanto, and/or Sinopie Museum there are individual charges but a discount if you do multiple. See the official website for updates on ticket prices and what’s open.
Getting the most out of your visit
- There is usually a line to go up into the tower, so if you’re wanting to do that (I never have), make sure to plan enough extra time for it.
- Prepare for it to be super crowded, and watch out for pickpockets!
- Take water with you (and re-fill in the water fountains), the prices are definitely high
- If you’re not planning to do a sit-down lunch later, grab a ciabatta or sandwich from a shop before you head to the Piazza dei Miracoli…the gorgeous grass just begs you to sit down, rest your feet, and have a snack
- Look for alternate photo angles if you’re wanting to avoid tons of people (it depends on the angle of the sun as well). I also read a tip from Hand Luggage Only that the Baptistery (inside, at the top) has a great view of the Cathedral, so give that a try!
- But take one of the cliche “holding up the tower” photos—some things just have to be done! 🙂
What other tips would you add to make a Pisa day trip as smooth as possible? Let me know in the comments!
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