Pisa Travel Guide

Overview

Pisa is a lively medieval university town in the Tuscan region of Italy. Although the Leaning Tower (known as the Torre Pendente by locals) is one of the main attractions and the symbol of the city, it is only one of the many beautiful treasures of Pisa.

The tower is one of the monuments on the Campo dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles). The square is situated right by the oldest early-medieval city walls, built in 1155 and still perfectly preserved. The medieval buildings of the Duomo di Pisa, the Baptistery of San Giovanni and the Camposanto are all constructed completely from white marble, forming a beautiful, thematic whole in the square.

Pisa is very compact, with many narrow streets and a great ambience. To make the most of your trip, take a walk along the Arno River promenade, taking in the towers, bridges and buildings dating from the Middle Ages, or along the Ponte della Fortezza.

Pisa is only 40 mi/65 km (an hour by train) from Florence, making an easy day trip, but it is worthwhile to spend at least two days exploring Pisa's sights. Other towns in the area that are well worth a visit are the medieval walled hill-town of Lucca, just 20 minutes north of Pisa, as well as the hill towns of Volterra and San Gimignano (about an hour south) with their Etruscan ruins, castles and towers.

Geography

Pisa is located in the western part of the Italian province of Tuscany, between Monte Pisano to the east and the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west. Pisa is divided in two halves by the Arno River, the same river that flows through Florence and into the Tyrrhenian Sea at Marina di Pisa. Centuries ago, Pisa was a coastal town, but nowadays the coast is actually 8 mi/12 km away, as debris from the river has shifted access to the coast during the course of time.

Pisa's city center is divided into two major areas and four historical quarters (Quartieri Storici), located in the area enclosed by the 12th-century city walls, which are considered among the longest walls built in the Middle Ages. The city expanded outside these walls only at the beginning of the 20th century.

The part of the city that is situated south of the Arno River is called Mezzogiorno, and the northern part is called Tramontana. The historical quarters of Sant'Antonio and San Martino are in Mezzogiorno, and Santa Maria and San Francesco are the two historical quarters in Tramontana.

History

Likely of Phoenician origin, Pisa was first settled by the Ligurians and then inhabited by the Etruscans, who left many signs of their passage. The real development of the city occurred in the Roman era, with the present layout of the most ancient part of the city clearly indicating the presence of the Romans. At that time in history, Pisa was a coastal town and a major Roman naval base. In the early Middle Ages, Pisa continued as a lively port and a rich commercial center, and was one of the four Maritime Republics alongside Genoa, Venice and Amalfi, which each fought for control of the very important waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

In the 13th century, after its defeat by Genoa, the city of Pisa started to decline in power and wealth, culminating with the Florentine occupation in the 15th century. Revived to a new splendor under the Medicis and the Dukes of Lorraine, Pisa later was annexed to Italy in 1861. During World War II, Pisa suffered serious damage from Allied bombing (particularly in the area directly north of the central train station) but has slowly been restored and brought back to its original grandeur.

The University of Pisa was founded in 1343, and during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, it became one of the most celebrated and prestigious universities in Europe (with 60,000 students in a city then of barely 100,000 inhabitants). Today Pisa is an active center of culture and advanced scientific research with a good number of industrial and service businesses.

Sightseeing

Pisa's most visited area is undoubtedly the Campo dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles), and for good reason. The old city walls at Porta Nuova and the Jewish Cemetery are also well worth seeing on the west side of the Piazza.

Nightlife

Pisa isn't generally known for a bustling nightlife. The student population keeps the drinks flowing in the city's bars, but weekends can be quiet as students tend to go home. As a result, Thursday ends up being one of the liveliest evenings of the week. There are also stretches in July and August when the city is particularly quiet.

The Lungarni District and the area around Piazza Garibaldi are good places to get your evening started. There are also good spots for cocktails along the Borgo Stretto and Piazza Cairoli. Many of the larger pubs turn into miniclubs as the night wears down, but the closing times are generally earlier than in other European cities, often between 1 and 2 am.

Dining

Dining in Pisa is a delight, with a large number of regional Tuscan restaurants offering classic, traditional cuisine as well as innovative dishes. Avoid the tourist restaurants near the Piazza dei Miracoli, but there are a few osterias not too far from the main sights in the square that are worth visiting.

Some of the typical Pisan cuisine includes ribollita, white-bean soup made with San Michele beans; ragu di coniglio, a red pasta sauce made with wild hare; or cinghiale (wild boar) stewed with olives. The tagliatelle or risotto con porcini is a classic in many traditional osterias.

Seafood is abundant and fresh in Pisa. Try bronzino, a Mediterranean sea bass either grilled or baked; seafood pasta with mussels, clams and shrimp; or baccala, a salt cod baked in the oven with peppers and onions.

For sweets, you can't go wrong with gelato at one of the numerous stands, the chocolate at DeBondt, or the Pisan specialty torta co'bischeri, a cake made with chestnuts, pine nuts and chocolate.

Expect to pay the following for dinner for one, excluding drinks and tip: $ = less than 15 euros; $$ = 15 euros-30 euros; $$$ = 31 euros-40 euros; $$$$ = more than 40 euros.

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