Pisa is full of tourists, but most of them seem to be clustered in one spot. In front of the Leaning Tower, capturing a selfie or photographing their friends as they pretend to prop up the tower. But, as I discovered during an autumn visit, there is much more to Pisa than this.
The Piazza Dei Miracoli
Of course Pisa’s belltower is spectacular, and not just for its less than perpendicular nature. A fine example of 12th century architecture, with a classic Tuscan backdrop of hills and trees, it is worth a photograph or two in its own right. But it is just one part of the Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles), a massive walled area that is regarded as one of the most important architectural complexes anywhere in the world.
The Leaning Tower is dwarfed by the buildings around it: the Cathedral, the Baptistry and the Campo Santo. The medieval Cathedral is ornate, full of paintings and arches, and with an elaborate marble pulpit. Then there is the Baptistry, a double domed structure with another marble pulpit and an “Islamic floor”. The shape of the building creates a “whispering gallery” effect, which is demonstrated to visitors every half hour. The final building is the Campo Santo, a 12th century cemetery full of sarcophogi and frescoes. (Tip: if you do choose to go up the Leaning Tower save time by booking a skip-the-line ticket.)
Collectively the buildings of the Piazza dei Miracoli are a World Heritage Site, one of several UNESCO sites in Tuscany.
If you come out of the Baptistry and turn right, through the medieval walls, you will find yourself among hordes of souvenir sellers and fast food stalls. But turn in the other direction, back past the Tower and along the Via Roma, and you will be plunged into the heart of medieval Pisa.
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The Medieval City Of Pisa
The centre of Pisa is compact enough to walk everywhere. There is everything here that you might expect of a medieval Italian city: churches, museums and palazzi, huddled into old streets brimming with bars and restaurants. You will eat better (and cheaper) here than in the restaurants closer to the Leaning Tower.
Visit the university area for the Botanic Garden, a medieval “Garden of Simples”, and cross the river for the picturesque Gothic church of Santa Maria della Spina. Every so often you will encounter fragments of the old city walls, a reminder of more turbulent times.
A Convenient Centre
Pisa has excellent train and bus connections. This means you could visit as a day trip from Florence, or use Pisa as a base for a Tuscan holiday.
I took the train to Lucca and Livorno, but if I’d stayed longer, I could have taken the bus to Siena or San Gimignano. Or I could have hired a car and explored some of those Tuscan hill towns. I’ll have to go again!