Park in the Piazza Carrara. Leave the square by one of the little streets at the northern end, towards the Piazza Dante. Before leaving Piazza Carrara note the 18C and 19C buildings; in the centre is a statue of Ferdinando I of the Medici Family (1594). On the west side of the square is the Palazzo Reale, which now houses a collection of 16C-18C art and furnishings, and the 13C Church of San Nicola, with one of Pisa's three leaning bell towers (!). The Piazza Dante is the social centre of the University of Pisa, with the Faculty of Law to one side. Two of our recommended restaurants are within a 200m/200 yard walk.
After lunch take Via Santa Maria to Piazza dei Miracoli. The winding course of Via Santa Maria was contrived to bring the buildings into view one at a time. The older ones are, for the most part, occupied by university faculties, including 16C Palazzo Boileau, opposite the Piazza Cavalotti, which houses the Faculty of Foreign Languages and Literatures, with the entrance to the university's Giardino Botanico nearby, the oldest botanic garden in Europe. At #102 is the 16C Collegio Ferdinando designed by Vasari with a statue of Ferdinando I Medici in front. Look above the door of at #108, the Ospizio dei Trovatelli (Foundlings' Hospital), for a bas-relief of a swaddled baby, advertising the hospital's role as a refuge for unwanted infants. This was such a common occurrence that there was a mechanical device to facilitate it: a door or window on the outside of a building was fitted with a grate scaled so that only newborn babies could fit through. On the other side of the grate was a metal crib attached to a large, heavy disk. The 'donor' reached through the grate to place the infant in the crib, then rang a bell and fled. Inside, a nun would turn the disk, and retrieve the child without knowing who had left it there. The device is still inside the building but has been moved out of range. The same symbol of a swaddled baby appears outside #56 and #60.
In addition to the three 'important' buildings in the Piazza dei Miracoli, there is also a cemetery and two museums. The Leaning Tower was designed as a campanile, a bell tower, and accordingly contains seven bells which are tuned to musical scale. There are 296 steps to the top level and the climb is not for the faint-hearted. The Battisteria ('Baptistery'), as its name implies, was used for baptisms and is best known for its outstanding acoustics - an unfortunate feature, one would think, for a place frequented by infants. The Camposanto ('Holy Field') has been called the most beautiful cemetery in the world. It is so named because, as legend has it, it contains soil transported from Jerusalem by 35 Pisan ships returning from the Crusades. Allied bombs during WW2 scorched the frescoes which once decorated the arcades around the burial ground; only a few patches have survived intact but the under-drawings survived and are in the Museo delle Sinopie, below.
The Duomo predates the tower by a century although most of the interior details are much newer as a result of a 16C fire. An interesting feature is a round window on the left side of the building positioned so that the light streaming through it at noon on March 25th each year falls precisely on a plaque held up by a marble egg on the right side. This marked the beginning of a new year in the old Pisan calendar, which remained in use until 1749. Many people skip the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo because it sounds dry. But, like the museums of the same name all over Italy, it contains the Duomo's most precious or fragile artefacts, removed because they would have deteriorated without climate control. The Museo delle Sinopie is in the tall building behind the souvenir stalls, surmounted by an arch and metal flag. Look carefully: the 'clock' below the arch is, in fact, a wind rose, and the flag is a weather vane. 'MEZZ', standing for mezzogiorno, doesn't refer to noon but to the south wind (that is, the wind blowing from the south); 'TRAM' is short for tramontana, or literally 'through the mountains' - the north wind. If the dial is pointing to 'SCIR', find an umbrella for this is the scirocco, which blows from the coast of Africa and brings cold, wet weather. The word for sinopie in English is 'under-drawings' or, more correctly, 'cartoons.' The contemporary museum within an ancient building displays the powerful, full-scale drawings that were exposed on the walls of the Camposanto after the frescoes were destroyed.
Leave Piazza dei Miracoli the same way you came, along Via Santa Maria. Turn left at Piazza Cavalotti into Via dei Mille and follow it to Piazza dei Cavalieri; there are plenty of places for a breather on the way. The Piazza dei Cavalieri (the 'Square of Knights') was transformed by the Medici in the 16C when they added several buildings, including the Palazzo dei Cavalieri, headquarters of the crusading Order of the Knights of St. Stephen (covered in incised sgraffito; now occupied by a high school founded by Napoleon). Both the palazzo and the adjoining church of Santo Stefano dei Cavalieri (hung with banners captured from the Saracens) were designed by Vasari, whose work is sprinkled around Florence. The clock tower of the Palazzo dell'Orologio, opposite, replaced the tower in which the Gherardescas were imprisoned.
Take Borgo Stretto at the southern end of Piazza dei Cavalieri though the medieval quarter to Piazza Garibaldi on the river. The arched and arcaded Borgo Stretto ('Narrow Street'), and the alleyways leading from it, forms Pisa's oldest district. You'll pass Il Campano ('the Big Bell Tower'), which once summoned students to classes at the University. At #46 is Pasticceria Salza, a Pisan institution for its pastries. Galileo Galilei was born in the house now occupied by the Bar Settimelli (#34). Detour into Piazza delle Vettovaglie for its shops, restaurants and open-air market. At #15 is a 19C weights and measures conversion chart: this was posted to help shoppers in the old marketplace since, until Unification in 1871, different systems were in use in the states that joined to form Italy. A glass panel in the ground to the right of the chart gives a view into the city's old grain storage. Piazza Garibaldi and its statue, at the southern end of Borgo Stretto, pay tribute to the national hero. Students flock here for breaks by the river and the best gelati in town from La Bottega del Gelato. The pale orange building is the Casino dei Nobili, a meeting place for nobles in the 18C.
Turn left from Piazza Garibaldi onto Lungarno Pacinotti and continue until you regain the parking lot on Piazza Carrara. A short distance along the Lungarno Pacinotti is the 15C Palazzo Agostini (#28-25). Its brick façade is covered in medallions and shields, with two rows of Gothic windows. The Caffè dell'Ussero at street level dates from 1794 was a meeting place of Risorgimento supporters and intellectuals from the University. A little further is the white marble 17C Palazzo Lanfranchi, also known as 'Alla Giornata' ('Day by Day') because of the inscription over its door. Look carefully and you'll see a short length of chain hanging just beneath the writing. The more prosaic explanations for the inscription and chain involve the daily payments made to tradesmen, and the incorporation of an old church called San Biagio della Catena (catena means chain) into the building. Much more interesting is the story of a Pisan knight captured by Saracens and held prisoner in Algiers. The condition for release was that the man renounce Christianity, but in keeping with his faith he continued every Friday to refuse the meat offered to tantalize him. At long last, months into the imprisonment, the meat was accepted: unbeknownst to the Saracens, Christmas that year fell on a Friday, thereby setting aside the ban. Released and restored to Pisa, the knight built himself the palazzo, inscribing Alla Giornata above the door referring to the virtue of patience and affixing the chain in allusion to his imprisonment. Ahead of you, across the river, you'll notice a spiky little white church, Santa Maria della Spina. Spina does mean 'spike' or 'thorn;' the church is so named because until 1871 it housed a thorn from Christ's crown. Turn right into Piazza Carrara.