Pisa holiday guide

The city is also close to several sandy beaches, and only a short drive from one of Italy's truffle capitals. June here is festival month. Lamps light up the Arno banks after dark for the Luminara di San Ranieri on the 16th, which celebrates the city's patron saint. On the final weekend of June, teams from rival city quarters compete in the Medieval Gioco del Ponte, on the Ponte di Mezzo bridge across the river.

Written by Donald Strachan, Italy specialist and Travel Writer for The Guardian.

Art & architecture

Nowhere in Tuscany had such a profound influence on Italian Romanesque architecture than Pisa. Its seafaring traders had long fostered links with the eastern Mediterranean and Arab world. The design influences they brought home with them shaped architecture way beyond Pisa's city limits.

The list of 'cathedral bell towers that had a starring role in a Superman film' is pretty short (see Superman III, 1983). At the top of it is architecture's most celebrated botched job, the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Construction on the campanile (bell tower) of Pisa's cathedral began in 1173. The subsoil was unsuitable for such a heavy building, however, and the Tower quickly developed a lean. After several unsuccessful attempts to straighten it—including changing its shape to the current 'banana' form—it was finished during the 13th century. It is now kept upright by a system of counter-weights and strong steel cables. Climbing to the roof is a disorienting experience; at times you will feel like you are walking downhill, even as you climb the steps to the summit terrace.

If you are visiting in high season, you should book Leaning Tower tickets online ahead of arrival or, failing that, go directly to the booking office (behind the Tower and Duomo) and book your slot, before beginning your sightseeing around the 'Field of Miracles'.

Pisa's other great Romanesque monument is its cathedral, the Duomo, which dates to 1064. The influence of Arab design and motifs is clear, especially on its façade of multicoloured marble, arches, arcades, and columns. Stand back and take it all in before you go inside.

The cathedral's interior was destroyed by a fire in 1595, but it still houses the tomb of Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII, a Gothic pulpit that narrates scenes from the New Testament, by Giovanni Pisano (1310), and 'Galileo's lamp'. The great Pisan scientist dreamed up his laws of pendulum motion after watching it swing… or so the story goes.

The city's Baptistery was started in 1152, under architect Diotisalvi, and work continued as architectural fashion was changing. The lower half of the building has rounded arches typical of Romanesque architecture, before rising to the pinnacles and dome that is typically Gothic. Inside is one of great sculptures of the Tuscan Gothic, a pulpit by Nicola Pisano (1260).

The northern side of the Campo is marked by the Camposanto, a monumental cemetery which for centuries was the burial place of noble Pisans. The walls around its massive quadrangle were once covered in frescoes, until the building was hit by mistake by an American World War II bomb. The lead roof melted and the frescoes were irreparably damaged. It is still a fascinating spot to wander, though (and fresco fragments remain)—plus a good place to escape the chaos of the Campo's busier attractions.

Well away from the Campo, the tiny church of Santa Maria della Spina sits like a spiky, perfect little Gothic box beside the River Arno—facing the sea, like all Pisa's ancient churches. Legend says it got its name from one thorn from Jesus' crown.

Of a slightly more recent vintage, the city has one of the last works by American painter and activist Keith Haring. His Tuttomondo (1989) mural features his trademark stylized figures and is packed with political allegory. Painted onto the side of Sant'Antonio church without any preparatory sketches, it was one of Haring's last works before he died in 1990

Just outside of Pisa, Calci is a quiet little place that is home to Italy's biggest Carthusian monastery, the Certosa di Pisa. The monastery was founded for a closed order in 1366, but most of the surviving building work is in the elaborate baroque style of the 17th and 18th centuries, packed with decorative marble and elaborate stucco work. The quiet simplicity of the monks' cells is a complete contrast. Admission is by a one-hour guided tour.

  • Don't miss

  • The divine geometry and iconic architecture of the Campo dei Miracoli, Pisa's 'Field of Miracles'

    Climbing to the top of one of the world's most famous buildings, the Leaning Tower of Pisa

    A visit to the ancient fortified truffle town of San Miniato

    Campo dei Miracoli, Piazza Duomo, tel. 050/835011, www.opapisa.it; one ticket covers everything in the Campo except the Leaning Tower, for which you need to book a timed, half-hour slot (it is expensive, at €18, but worth it)

    Santa Maria della Spina, Lungarno Gambacorti

    Tuttomondo, by Keith Haring, Via Zandonai

    Certosa di Pisa, Via Roma 79, Calci, tel. 050/938430; closed Mondays

Eating and drinking

Like elsewhere in Tuscany, Pisan cooking is simple and hearty. It also looks seawards. Until the River Arno silted up in Medieval times, Pisa was a major port, and Pisan merchants and navy ships docked all over the Mediterranean Sea. You will find squid and cuttlefish in peasant stews, and baccalà alla pisana (salt cod cooked with olives) is another traditional favourite.

The artichokes of nearby San Miniato (carciofi sanminiatesi) are a delicacy, as are its white truffles.

Pisa's best restaurants are away from the Campo dei Miracoli—but you only need walk for five or ten minutes to escape the cookie-cutter pizza and pasta joints. At Osteria dei Cavalieri, the menu incorporates Tuscan classics like tagliata (grilled and sliced beef) alongside daily fresh fish and typical Pisan ingredients such as totani (baby squid).

Just south of the Arno, Da Cucciolo is a simple and traditional Pisan trattoria. You won't spot many tourists in here: the vibe (and prices) are totally local.

As in North Africa and the Middle East—ancient trading partners—ceci, or chickpeas, are a staple ingredient of Pisan cooking. Stop in at pizza take-away Il Montino for a slice of cecina, a pizza-like flatbread made from chickpea flour.

There is always a queue at the centre's busiest gelateria, La Botttega del Gelato.

Pisa's produce market runs every day except Sunday around Piazza delle Vettovaglie and Piazza San Omobono.

Seafood lovers should also consider a day-trip—perhaps 'pilgrimage' would be a better word—south to the restaurants of Livorno, Tuscany's largest port and its second-largest city, after Florence. Livorno's signature dish is cacciucco, a spicy soup-stew made with pretty much anything plucked from the sea that morning—a little like Marseille's bouillabaisse. The seafood at Cantina Senese is never a letdown, though it is just one of many great, affordable restaurants around the centre.

  • Don't miss

    Osteria dei Cavalieri, Via San Frediano 16, tel. 050/580858, www.osteriacavalieri.pisa.it; closed Saturday lunchtime and all-day Sunday

    Da Cucciolo, Via Rosselmini 9, tel. 050/26086, www.trattoriadacucciolo.it

    Il Montino, Piazza Signorelli 27, tel. 0575/631010, www.pane-vino.it; closed Mondays

    La Bottega del Gelato, Piazza Garibaldi 11, tel. 050/575467

    Cantina Senese, Borgo dei Cappuccini 95, tel. 0586/890239, www.ristorantecantinaseneselivorno.com

Local towns and villages

Livorno, 24km south-west of Pisa, is Tuscany's main cruise port. It was badly damaged during World War II and sights are few and far between—tourists usually skip it for long day-trips to Florence or San Gimignano.

Livorno, however, was home to the 19th-cebtury art movement known as the Macchiaioli whose works mixed realism with impressionistic painting techniques and romanticism about rural life. The movement's leading painter was Giovanni Fattori, after whom Livorno's Museo Civico is named. Inside a handsome Liberty building just south of the centre, it has Italy's best collection of Macchiaioli panels.

San Miniato, 50km inland from Pisa along the Arno Valley, is one of Tuscany's best known truffle towns. It also has long links with the Holy Roman Empire: Otto I built the town's Castle, high on a ridge above the Arno Valley, in the 900s. Frederick II added the distinctive 30m Torre Federiciana in 1223 (you can still climb it), around the same time as the town's cathedral was built.

Over three weekends every November San Miniato's White Truffle Fair celebrates hunting season, and you'll find the pungent fungus on the menu of many local restaurants and trattorias.

Lucca, 20km north-east of Pisa, is Tuscany at its most genteel. Shop along and around Via Fillungo, and discover churches in the hybrid Luccan-Romanesque style hidden away in several city piazzas. The prettiest route between these rival cities is along the SS12, through the olive groves of the Monte Pisano.

  • Don't miss

    Museo Civico Giovanni Fattori, Via San Jacopo in Aquaviva, Livorno, tel. 0586/808001; closed Mondays

    San Miniato, tel. 0571/42745, www.sanminiatopromozione.it; Torre Federiciana closed Mondays all year and Monday to Thursday between October and March

The ourdoors

Pisa's Orto Botanico is an oasis of calm and greenery just a couple of streets away from the scrum around the Leaning Tower. Founded in the 16th century, it is one of the world's oldest botanical gardens, and plays a role in the university's research into biodiversity. It's also a lovely place to stroll for an hour, in any season.

Wedged between the city and the sea, the Parco Regionale Migliarino San Rossore Massaciuccoli covers 93 square miles of coastal scrubland—known as macchia or maquis throughout the Mediterranean. The northern stretch includes the lake and marshland of Massaciuccoli. Its flat waters and reed beds are ideal terrain for birdwatchers: black tern and osprey are resident, and the lake is a key stop for several migratory species.

Also within the park's boundaries, the former ducal lands further south were once organized into estates or tenute but are now criss-crossed with cycling, horse riding and walking trails. Most are open weekends only, and the best are only visitable with a guide—they take the conservation of one of coastal Italy's last untouched stretches very seriously. Book ahead by emailing visitesr@tin.it.

Some of best beaches along Tuscany's Tyrrhenian Sea coast are just north of Pisa, close to Torre del Lago and especially Viareggio, where the sea front is lined with pay-to-visit beach clubs. At Marina di Vecchiano, there is a wilder feel to the long strip of unmanicured sands, coastal scrub, and dunes that stretches north from the mouth of the River Serchio. South of Livorno, the Etruscan Coast begins its sweep southwards at Castiglioncello beach.

  • Don't miss

    Orto Botanico, Via Luca Ghini 5, tel. 050/2211310, www.biologia.unipi.it/ortobotanico; closed Saturday afternoons and all day Sundays

    Parco Regionale Migliarino San Rossore Massaciuccoli, www.parcosanrossore.it; main visitor centre at Cascine Vecchie, tel. 050/539111; for birdwatching at Lake Massaciuccoli, see www.oasilipumassaciuccoli.org

Shopping

The handsome arcades of Borgo Stretto are Pisa's best shopping spot. Pause for sustenance at Salza; more than just a caffè and pastry shop, it has been a local institution since the 1920s.

Foodies should spend some time in and around Piazza delle Vettovaglie. As well as the daily market, there are food shops of every kind under the square's porticoes.

  • Don't miss

    Salza, Borgo Stretto 46, tel. 050/580144, www.salza.it

Museums

Right on Pisa's Campo dei Miracoli, the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo houses the two remaining original bronze doors from the cathedral. Cast by Bonanno Pisano in 1180, they survived the catastrophic fire of 1595. Hidden away on the top floor is a set of 19th-century engravings by Carlo Lasinio that faithfully record the frescoes from the walls of the Camposanto. See them and weep at the effects of one misdirected bomb in 1944.

The riverside Museo Nazionale di San Matteo is home to 'the best of the rest' of the city's art collection. Displays are a little haphazard, but there's no questioning the quality and range of what's on show, which spans everything from the sculpture of the 1200s to Medieval codices. Highlights include a polyptych (multi-panel painting) by Sienese Gothic painter Simone Martini, and St. Paul by Florentine Renaissance painter Masaccio, the only piece of his 1426 Pisa Altarpiece that is still in the city. It's one for the art fanatics only, possibly, which has an added bonus: the museum is always much quieter than everything around the Campo.

You can't really miss the Palazzo Blu, on the southern bank of the River Arno—the clue is in the name, a very unusual colour for a Renaissance palace. The art is split between two gallery spaces. Upstairs, rooms in the old palace are hung with paintings by artists who worked in Pisa over the centuries, including father and daughter Orazio and Artemesia Gentileschi. Downstairs is a modern and contemporary art space populated by a series of short-run shows. During 2013, both Kandinsky and Andy Warhol were subjects of solo exhibitions.

You might not have heard of Piaggio… but you will certainly have heard of their most famous creation, the Vespa motorbike. The company museum, the Museo Piaggio, is in Pontedera, just east of Pisa, where the Vespa has been made since it first rolled off the production line as the 'Paperino' in 1943. The company's collection includes several vintage Vespa models that you are unlikely to see anywhere else. It also includes exhibits on modern industrial design and other machines from the Piaggio stable, including Gilera motorized bikes and a 1936 train—from the era when Italy's dictator Mussolini supposedly 'made the trains run on time'.

  • Don't miss

    Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Piazza Arcivescovado, tel. 050/835011, www.opapisa.it

    Museo Nazionale di San Matteo, Piazza San Matteo in Soarta 1, tel. 050/541865; closed Sunday afternoons and all-day Mondays

    Palazzo Blu, Lungarno Gambacorti 9, tel. 050/2204650, www.palazzoblu.it; closed Mondays

    Museo Piaggio, Viale Rinaldo Piaggio 7, Pontedera, tel. 0587/27171, www.museopiaggio.it; closed Sundays and Mondays

Pisa Pisa Pisa

Key contacts

Pisa's main tourist office is slightly away from the major sights, at Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II 16, tel. 050/42291, www.pisaunicaterra.it, e. piazzavittorioturismo@provincia.pisa.it. Hours chop and change, and you should arrive before 1pm to be sure to find it open. For anyone flying into Pisa, there is a convenient information desk in the airport arrivals hall (tel. 050/502518, e. aeroportoturismo@provincia.pisa.it).

San Miniato's tourist office is at Piazza del Popolo 1, tel. 0571/42745, e. ufficio.turismo@sanminiatopromozione.it. It is closed on Monday afternoons.

Airports

Pisa (PSA - Galileo Galilei) is Tuscany´s international airport, located about 40 minutes´drive west of Florence. Florence (FRL - Peretola), north-west of the city, is a smaller airport receiving domestic and European flights.

If your villa is in southern or eastern Tuscany, one of Rome´s two airports may be a more practical option: Fiumicino (FCO) is the larger, for international flights; Ciampino (CIA) has a fewer facilities and caters to the discounters and smaller European airlines. Both are just off Rome´s ring road, the GRA, and convenient to all the motorways.

The little airport at Perugia (PEG - Sant´Egidio), in Umbria, is convenient fr eastern Tuscany and receives domestic italian flights and discout airlines from UK.

Insider tip

Away from the Campo, Pisa is very much a locals' city—a pleasing mix of trade, commerce, and a large number of students, who attend one of Italy's oldest and most famous universities. As a result, the centre is very quiet in August: expect to find the best restaurants closed and shopping streets deserted. It is business as usual close to the Leaning Tower, however, 364 days a year.

Best & Finds

  • For the appetite. Tanacca, Capannori 'Highly recommended.' 2010
  • For the memories. The Leaning Tower, Pisa
  • For the kids. The Pinocchio Park, Collodi or the water park at Castagneto Carducci
  • For the ears. Puccini Opera Festival, Torre del Lago, outside Lucca
  • For the appetite. The food market, Livorno