UPDATED SEPTEMBER 2015: I returned to Pisa in 2015 and I’ve updated this post to include a few more sights, a local market I stumbled upon and an amazing osteria (restaurant), which happened to be the find I was most happy about on this return visit. Because: Italian food.
I’ve spent one day in Pisa…on three occasions, and there’s a good reason for that. The most obvious reason is to see the leaning tower of Pisa, but the second and perhaps more compelling reason is that, for any person wanting to explore Tuscany, it is often cheaper to fly into Pisa rather than the more expensive option of Florence.
One day in Pisa
Having opted for a stay in Pisa, the next question is how much time do you need to explore the city. For the average tourist, the answer is not much – one day in Pisa in often enough. And, in its own way that it the nice thing about Pisa because most trips there are usually followed by a couple of days trying to cram in the sights of Florence, which can leave you desperately gasping for Tuscan air.
The reality is that apart from the tower, there is very little to see in Pisa (compared to nearby Florence) and the main tourist area can be trodden on foot in under an hour. However, don’t let that confuse you into thinking that there’s nothing to see or do in Pisa – there really is. And, without the coach loads that hit Florence, spending a day here eating, drinking espresso and wandering the streets will help you acclimatise to the Italian way of life.
Below, in pictures, is how I spent my day in Pisa. (I actually spent 2 days and 3 nights in Pisa – arriving late on day 1, spending day 2 in Pisa and then using Pisa as a base for a day trip to Lucca to listen to some opera before heading on to Florence).
On my most recent trip I literally had one day having arrived from Florence in the morning and with a flight out that evening. I was showing my brother around and I managed to squeeze in all of these activities.
Pisa’s Walking Street (Corso Italia)
Wait, what – you expected me to mention the Leaning Tower of Pisa first? Of course you did – and don’t worry, I’ll get to that, but I’ve mentioned the Walking Street as it’s likely to be the first ‘landmark’ that you hit after leaving the train station.
As I have mentioned, Pisa (for tourists) comprises a very small area and the Walking Street (its tourist name) provides a pedestrianised backbone from the train station towards the tower. Strolling down the Walking Street you’ll find with the usual bunch of shops and some impressive street performers. If you can figure out this trick, please share!
Useful places to shop on the Walking Street
Pisa is a pretty decent shopping destination and although it doesn’t hold nearly as many designer shops as Florence, there is also far fewer people to cut through, making Pisa a much more relaxed shopping destination. Leather bag anyone?
I’m not much into shopping but here are the two places I found useful.
Vodafone: if you’re looking for a SIM/data connection during your stay, I’d recommend Vodafone. A data SIM cost me 30 euro for a 2-month SIM (the shortest length they offer in Italy for tourists) including 5GB of data a month. Voice, (less) data and text deals are available for a cheaper price. There is often a queue but the staff will help you get your SIM set up.
PAM: no, not your mum’s friend, PAM is a pretty decent sized supermarket just off the Walking Street. It’s not obvious unless you know it is there – with the station behind you, go right at Tezenis (underwear shop) and PAM is less than a minute down that side street on your left. There is a fresh bakery, delicatessen, pre-packed meats and cheese as well as fruit, vegetables, olives and general supermarket goods. Perfect for a day-trip picnic. I bought bread, cheese, ham, avocado, fruit and yoghurt for under 10 euro that lasted for multiple meals. Yum!
The leaning tower of Pisa
See – told you I’d get to it!
Obviously, the main sight in the city is the leaning tower of Pisa. It really is the most peculiar and impressive structure – how it is still standing is beyond me. You can climb to the top (€18) if you want the best views.
Unlike most people, I didn’t do the funny ‘pretend you’re pushing against the tower pose’, which looks like this without the tower in the background.
If you’ve not seen this video before, it is hilarious – the Troll high-fiving photo posers.
Buying tickets: You can book tickets to the Leaning Tower here. You need to choose the date of visit. You have a booking window between 20 to 12 days before your visit and if you are visiting in peak season, you’d be advised to book online in advance. Otherwise you can buy them on arrival but expect a queue.
The link above is to the official tower website so there won’t be any agency/tout fees – don’t you hate the touts? Only 40 people at a time are allowed inside the tower and you need to be prepared to climb 300 (old) stairs. You also need to leave your bag, including small handbags, at the left-luggage before you can climb (it’s free).
Fun fact: Did you know the Leaning Tower has tilted an extra millimetre every year since construction and is currently 4.47 metres off where it should be (more than 5 degrees).
Piazza del Duomo and around the Tower
Pisa isn’t just about the Leaning Tower. Like most Italian cities there is also a Duomo (Cathedral) and Piazza del Duomo. And there lay the highlights of Pisa for me – a chance to sit on the grass (I’d not seen any for a while after so much time at the beaches of the Philippines), graze my Italian phrase book and nap like a nanna.
Lying on the grass behind the Duomo is the perfect way to spend an afternoon whether you’re a local or a visitor.
What to see
The Cathedral (Duomo): If you’re not all cathedral-ed out (ti can happen pretty quickly in Europe), the Duomo is substantial and stunning – it was the biggest in Europe at the time when it was built. Entry into the Cathedral is free.
The Baptistry (the circular building): As well as being very photogenic from the outside, stand inside and you’ll stand in the place where Galileo Galilei was baptised.
Camposanto (a monumental cemetery): this long building was constructed around a field of soil that was bought back from the Crusades and serves as a burial ground. Legend has it that a body will rot within the soil within 24 hours. My advice: not the kind of place to fall over and take a long, deep nap.
Museo dele sinópe: here lie the preserved original sketches of the Camposanto.
Museo dell’Opera del Duomo: you know what it’s like – you decide to have a make-over, but where do you put your old pictures and what-not? You and I sell them or give them to charity…or put them in the attic. In Pisa, all the old decor of the cathedral and baptistry make it into the Museo dell’Opera. Good stuff.
There is a combined ticket for the above sights. For €5, €7, €8 or €9 you can visit any 1, 2, 3 or 4 of the sights. You can book your tickets here (the same site for booking the Leaning Tower)
Fun fact: The elliptical dome of the Duomo was the first of it’s kind in Europe – clearly it became a popular style.
The Italians do many things well but food markets is something they excel at. This one, around Piazza delle Vettovaglie is a a great stop if you’re considering a picnic lunch or just to pretend for the briefest moment that you’re living the Italian way of life.
Planning your trip: I used the Italy Lonely Planet Guidebook. Although it’s not filled with pictures, it’s got all the details you need including train and bus routes and times as well as city maps. You can find it here. I haven’t found a great Pisa specific guidebook but there’s a decent section in the Florence & Tuscany Lonely Planet guidebook, which you can find it here.
I like the DK Eyewitness Guides for their images and 3D guides to major sites. The Italy version is excellent and you can find it here. If you’re looking for a Venice specific DK Eyewitness Guide, you can find it here.
Piazza Dei Cavalieri
Just a few streets west of the main route from the station to the tower, many tourists miss this Piazza, which is a real freakin’ shame. Were it not for the tower, this would most likely be the highlight of the city.
Known as the Knights’ Square, this piazza has served life as a political centre and has been home to a bunch of Knights (St Stephen’s). These days the students have taken over the main building (Palace of the Caravan) is part of the city’s university.
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The River Arno
There’s something magical about the Arno, especially on a sunny day. I love how it carves up the historic part of the city, how colourful the buildings are and how the locals use it as an everyday part of their city.
The river is a beautiful view to watch over while you’re on the phone.
Santa Maria della Spina
On the opposite side of the river from the Leaning Tower is Santa Maria della Spina, a Gothic Church that is quite the dramatic picture cast against the river, the buildings and the mountains. Sadly, it’s closed to us common folk.
But nothing can really compete with the view of the river at night, which is arguably the best way to end one day in Pisa.
Prefer to take a tour?
This low-cost walking tour with BellaItalia will give you a great introduction to Pisa. Note: Mon, Thur & Sat only.
If you whizz around the sights, you might have time to squeeze in this half-day Chianti tasting tour from Pisa.
This tour combines both Pisa and Lucca giving you twice the locations in the same day.
To explore a greater range of tours, check out the Pisa tours on the Ceetiz website: A booking place for activities all over the world.
And if you’re looking for a more planned trip to Italy, my favourite tour company is Intrepid travel – small groups, great prices and itineraries that will help you get closer to the local culture, often giving you those photo moments you won’t get on other tours. You can see Intrepid’s Italy tours here.
They have a sister website, Urban Adventures, for day tours. There aren’t any listed for Pisa yet but if you’re going elsewhere in Italy, it’s worth checking them out.
City Sightseeing used to run a bus tour in Pisa (from memory) but it’s no longer listed on their website. It may be worth checking in case they add it back in.
Where to Eat in Pisa
Mushroom focaccia may not your average breakfast but in my defence I was still on Asian time when I indulged. There are plenty of cafes serving snacks like this along the Walking Street (I say snack, but it was huge). For a better price compared to the tourist focused eateries, I took a short detour down a side-street and picked this up for 3.50 euros including coffee.
At night I again wandered the side streets (this time around Piazza Cairoli) and found a nice restaurant. The pasta looked too unimpressive to photograph, and I’m disappointed I didn’t take a snap because when I took my first bite of the perfectly al dente penne I realised that looks aren’t everything. By the time I was able to stop, there was little left to photograph, which was a great reminder that I was back in Italy.
My greatest find, however, was the perfect lunch spot – Osteria La Toscana. Within a short walk of the tower but far enough to avoid the set price tourist menus, loosen your belt and prepare for a wait…that will be absolutely worth it.
For the first time in a long time I was in Italy with travel friends so I was able to finally split a Florentine Beefsteak. Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s Pisa not Florence, but it didn’t taste any the less divine for it. If you know anything about me, you’ll know that beef is a big part of my world and this mammoth piece got top marks. If you’re the kind of person who demands five-star service, you might want to sip some camomile tea first: the service wasn’t great in the Osteria because the poor waitress was rushed off her feet. However, that was a sign of the popularity of the place, which was filled with locals (always a good sign). There is a cute patio at the front but good luck getting a table there. We were squeezed into a corner and couldn’t care less because the food was that good.
Where to stay in Pisa
Pisa is not short on accommodation so do your research before you book as not all rooms are created equally. I landed at 10pm and after travelling the short distance from the airport to the centre (5 minutes by train), I checked into a hostel called 50 Metres From the Station, which I chose for its location.
Despite the pretty room, which was a nice welcome to Tuscany and the nice (though very absent) owner, I wouldn’t recommend this hostel. Mainly because I was woken at 2.30am by my least favourite friends – bed bugs (5th time this year and counting). So, don’t stay there
The next day I moved. Here’s where I stayed (and where’s on my list for next time).
On a budget
I stayed at the Walking Street Hostel, which I believe has since closed down, which doesn’t upset me greatly it was clean but devoid of atmosphere). It was, however, in a great location on the Walking Street. There is B&B on the same street, which gets great reviews if you’re looking for a private room – Relais Centro Storico B&B.
Next time I visit, these three hostels are top of my list to check out:
Hostel Pisa Tower – two minutes’ walk from the tower – yes please.
Hostel Pisa wins for popularity and pretty decent reviews. It seems social and is well located for the station (and a 20 minute walk to the leaning tower).
If you’re looking for somewhere more upscale or with more ambience, you’ll find a the top 10 hotels in Pisa (according to Trip Advisor) here.
Feeling upscale and chasing views
When I return to Pisa I’m going to check out the Grand Hotel Duomo. For a 4-star hotel, it’s very reasonably priced (around $125 a night), it’s almost on top of the Duomo and has the best views from the roof terrace that you’ll probably get in all of Pisa. If you stay there, please let me know how it is…and send me some pictures from the roof terrace!
Looking for a 21st Century Italian twist
Another hotel that I’d like to try is NH Cavalieri. A bit further from the tower, but still only a 10 minute walk, this hotel seems to have pulled off contemporary but with enough of a nod to the beautiful Italian traditional style that many people flock to Italy for.
Want to take a gamble?
Check out Priceline’s Express Deals. I’ve had discounts over 50% (almost $100 saved a night) using this site.
You can find out more about how to get great deals in my related article: How to Book Cheap Hotels (Using Priceline Express Deals).
Given I planed to spend nearly a month in Italy, I decided it would be appropriate to learn some Italian. Fortunately, in most of the bigger cities the local people will usually speak an impressive amount of English (I was not only able to buy a data SIM in Vodafone for my Mi-Fi, all in English, but the lady was fluent enough to help me fix it when I couldn’t get it working).
However, being able to (or at least trying to) speak some of the local language is always appreciated. I didn’t realise how similar Italian and Spanish are until I opened my phrase book – perhaps romantic dreams of living under the Tuscan sun aren’t so outlandish afterall…
How to get from Pisa to Florence
If you’re taking advantage of a much cheaper flight price by landing in Pisa instead of Florence, don’t worry, it’s very simple to get between the two locations.
From Pisa Airport to Central Pisa: Pisa airport is incredibly close to the centre of Pisa. By taxi you’re looking at a 5-10 minute ride because the airport is only 2.5 km from the airport. If you prefer to take public transport, you can make the same journey for just €1,20 with Tren Italia. The train takes about 5 minutes and drops you off at Pisa Centrale, the central station in Pisa which is about a 15-20 minute walk to the tower.
Note: the train to the airport wasn’t running when I was there in 2015. I believe that might have been a temporary hitch because Tren Italia is showing the service on it’s website but do check. If there is no train, don’t worry – there is a bus – it just takes a bit longer.
From Pisa Airport and Central Pisa to Florence: Tren Italia offers a fast service from Pisa Airport, stopping at Pisa Central (where you’ll need to change train) and then on to Florence. The journey takes one hour, costs €9,30 and there are about 2 trains per hour depending on the time of day you travel.
Don’t forget, if you’re searching for trains on the Tren Italia website, you’re looking for the destinations in Italian. The stations you need are:
Pisa Airport: Pisa Fermata Aeroporto
Central Pisa: Pisa Centrale
Central Florence: Firenze S.M. Novella
You can find more information about trains between Pisa and Florence on the Tren Italia website (English version available).
Pro travel tips – booking your train tickets
You can book your ticket online with Tren Italia and opt to collect your ticket at the station. This is the cheapest way of planning your train ride.
However, you may find the Tren Italia website a bit intermittent (it once took me over an hour to book a train from Milan to Bologna because the site kept crashing).
If you’re a type-A planner or don’t want to suffer through the pain of the Tren Italia site, there is a decent alternative – Rail Europe. As well as having converted all of Italian place names into their English equivalent (Firenze-Florence, Roma-Rome etc.), the booking process is much more sleek. Of course, there is a booking fee for the smoother operation ($7.95 USD) but if you prefer speed and certainty over price, it’s a good option for all train bookings in Europe.
You can also pay to have your tickets pre-delivered to you in North America. Again, there’s an additional fee for that, too. If you want to avoid shipping costs, the train stations in Italy have a ticket machine where you can print your tickets. The machines have an English language option.
A final point on booking: for popular or long distance routes, you can make a huge saving booking your trains as far in advance as possible.
Getting to Italy
I flew direct from London to Pisa with RyanAir. They’re not my favourite airline, but they’re pretty hard to beat on price. If you’re flying in from further afield or want a more premium experience, Pisa Airport is served by a whole host of airlines and can be reached from dozens of destinations in Europe (more information here).
The airport name is Galilieo-Galilei and the airport code is PSA.
If you want to compare flight prices, I still find Skyscanner to be the best place to start.
Before you book, check out these related articles, particularly the second one:
Pro travel trip: It you’re arriving from outside Europe, it can be as cheap to fly into one of the hub airports like London Heathrow or Paris Charles de Gaulle and from there take a connecting flight with either a low-cost airline or one of the flagship carriers.
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