Pisa, a town on the coast in the west of Tuscany, is of course best known for its famous 'leaning tower of Pisa' - but there is much more to Pisa than just a leaning tower!
In the area immediately next to the tower you can see the cathedral and the baptistry which are also very impressive monuments, and then in the medieval town centre, often overlooked by visitors who leave as soon as they have seen these three principal monuments, there are several other buildings of interest, various museums and an attractive medieval town centre.
Visit Pisa: tourism and travel guide
Pisa was established as an important harbour town under the Ancient Romans. Later, the 10th - 13th centuries were a lucrative period for the town in all senses - economic, political and artistic - and much of the most important development of the city took place during this period. Pisa's fortunes started to change in 1284 when the city was defeated by the Genoese and lost control of much of its territories.
The Medicis in the 15th century restablished the city as a centre for the arts and learning, including the famous university which is still teaching today. The financial decline of the town was exacerbated by the river beconing silted up, so Pisa was no longer a port town. See also history of Pisa.
The medieval period can be seen not just in the famous monuments but also in the historical center of Pisa with its religious and civil buildings, open squares and the narrow streets running along the Arno river. We strongly suggest you find time to explore this historical centre! However, you are likely to start your visit with the 'famous' monuments that are grouped together with the 'leaning tower' slightly outside the historic town center.
The cathedral, baptistry and leaning tower of Pisa
These three buildings together make up one of the most beautiful and famous ensembles of 12th-13th century workmanship to be found anywhere in the world. This area as a whole is called the Campo dei Miracoli, or Field of Miracles.
Italy This Way comment: you need tickets to go up the tower (paid) or in to the cathedral (free). There are limited tickets available even for the cathedral so you might have to wait more than an hour (possibly a lot more than an hour) to get in after getting your tickets.
Therefore we recommend that you go to the ticket office just behind the Leaning Tower to get tickets as soon as you arrive, before looking around the outside buildings in Campo dei Miracoli or perhaps enjoying a picnic on the grass.
Construction in the Field of Miracles began in 1063 with Pisa cathedral (duomo) which was built under the direction of Buscheto (a native of Pisa, you can now see Buschetto's tomb in the facade of the cathedral)) on an open site just outside the ancient city walls.
As soon as you see the decorative romaesque style facade with its many columns you can see that it is an exceptional example of the local architecture of that period. Before entering the duomo be sure to take a look at the ornate bronze doors, also 12th century.
Inside Pisa cathedral the principal highlights are the carved pulpit by Giovanni Pisano, and several artworks and mosaics.
Construction of the baptistry was started in 1153 by Diotisalvi, the architect of the church of the Holy Sepulchre. The monument was only completed in 1278, as mentioned on an inscription between two pillars inside the Baptistry, which explains why the upper part is in the later gothic style (compared with the earlier romanesque style of the lower part).
The arches surrounding the Baptistry are decorated with heads and sculptures attributed to Nicola and Giovanni Pisano (1248-1315). At the center of the monument is the baptismal font* and, near the altar, stands the pulpit by Nicola Pisano (son of the Giovanni Pisano who carved the pulpit in the cathedral) which is decorated with carvings depicting various biblical stories.
* As was common in early medieval fonts, baptism here was by complete body immersion in water, hence the size of the font.
The campanile: the leaning tower of Pisa
The famous Leaning Tower of Pisa dates back to 1173, although subsidence started as early as 1185 in the basement and work on building the tower stopped for almost a century.
The continuation of the work was entrusted to Giovanni di Simone (died 1298), who at that time worked at Saint Francis. This artist managed with extraordinary ability and skill to limit the consequences of the tower's leaning and so the work continued until 1284, date of the naval defeat at Meloria.
The last ring of the bell tower, the seventh, used as a belfry, was conceived and created by Tommaso Pisano in the mid-14th century.
The building is actually a campanile, or belltower. Eight stories high, it is largely hollow inside except for the staircase that winds its way to the top. On the outside of the leaning tower, each level except the last has a series of detailed marble columns and arcades that give the tower its beauty.
Next to the ground floor entrance you can see some 12th century carved friezes showing some of the ships that were part of Pisa's navy.
Cemetery and gardens
Finallly as part of your visit to the Field of Miracles you can see The Monumental Cemetery of Pisa, founded in 1277, designed by Giovanni di Simone and completed in 1464, and the impressive botanical gardens.
Culture and art: museums and galleries
As well as the famous monuments Pisa also boasts numerous cultural institutions that hold works of exceptional artistic value:
The Museo Nazionale di San Matteo holds works from some major ecclesiastical buildings of Pisa and its territory. The sculpture collection includes works from the early Middle Ages to the 16th century, among which we mention considerable works by Nicola Pisano (1220-1284) and Donatello (1386-1466).
The Art Gallery is one of the most remarkable in the world. Among the most important are works by Berlinghiero Volterrano (died 1326), Giunta Pisano (died 1200), Simone Martini (1280-1344), and Francesco Traini (14th century).
From the 15th century we should mention in partuclar works by Masaccio (1401-1428), Fra’ Angelico (1395-1455), Benozzo di Lese (1420-1497) and Ghirlandaio (1449-1494). The museum also contains important examples of illuminated manuscripts from the 12th-14th centuries, a wooden sculpture (14th c.) and medieval pottery (15th c.) with Islamic ceramics and archaic tiles.
The Museum of the Opera del Duomo is also very interesting to visit and holds the "Treasure" of the Basilica with sculptures by A. Pisano (1290-1349) and Tino di Caimano (1285-.1336), wood inlays, choral miniatures, silver and vestments, paintings, graphic works and some smaller objects.
We should also mention the Museum of the Sinopia where you can see some frescoes that decorated the Monumental Cemetery before its destruction during the last war. The Domus Galileana collects manuscripts, documents, autographs, books of Galileo Galilein (1564-1642) and his pupils, and the Domus Mazzini keeps letters, documents of G. Mazzini (1805-1872).
Other notable monuments in and near Pisa historic centre
Head south from the Piazz dei Miracoli to reach Pisa historic centre, centred around the Piazza dei Cavalieri and its impressive palazzos, and Borgo Stretto.
The Church of Santo Stefano dei Cavalieri was built and designed by Giorgio Vasari in 1565-68 as a Church of the Knights of Santo Stefano. The bell tower, also designed by Vasari, dates back to 1570-1572 while the marble facade was designed by Giovanni de Medici (1567-1621) in 1602. The interior has a rich gilded wooden ceiling with paintings depicting the military Order.
Continuing towards the south you quickly reach the river Arno. Note that Pisa has a very attractive river frontage area so don't neglect this part of the town!
After exploring the north side of the river and walking along the banks of the Arno, you can cross the river to see the Church of Santa Maria della Spina, right next to the river and a remarkable example of Pisan Gothic style architecture. Its construction dates back to 1230, and it owes its name to the fact that since 1333 it has held a thorn from the crown of thorns from the head of Christ.
The Old Ship Yard, located just outside the medieval city walls, is very interesting to visit and contains ancient ship wrecks, both whole and partly preserved.
In via S. Giacomo there is an Etruscan tomb (called the "Tomb of the Prince") which is of a significant size and the main element of a vast necropolis, probably of the 7th-6th century BC and located in the suburb of Gagno next to St. James Street.
This site, along with other evidence of Etruscan times, confirms the antiquity of the earliest settlements in the territory of Pisa.
Finally, we should mention the Romanesque Basilica of San Piero a Grado. The church is outside the city center in the place where, according to tradition, Saint Peter landed. The Romanesque style Basilica is surrounded by pilasters and arches adorned with wall units and ceramic bowls. The interior is decorated with columns and classical capitals and 14th-century frescoes.
The Guelph Tower in the Old Citadel was where Pisa moved all its activities related to the arsenal in 1220. Inside the tower are some blasons that belonged to the families of the Florentine Captains.
Where is Pisa?
Pisa is on the Arno River (the same river that passes through Florence) a few kilometres from the coast in the Tuscany region of eastern-central Italy. It is about 75 kilometres west of Florence and about 20 kilometres south-west of Lucca.
You can find more local travel ideas in the Tuscany guide.