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.
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.
Wander 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!
Visit 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 in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Buying tickets: You can book tickets to the Leaning Tower (including the cathedral) here. You need to choose the date of visit and you can book up to 30 days in advance. You can even book on the day, but I wouldn’t recommend it as there is a limit to how many people can climb each day. You can also buy tickets on arrival at the tower but expect a queue/tickets to sell out, especially in summer.
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).
Explore 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 near the Leaning Tower of Pisa
The Cathedral (Duomo): If you’re not all cathedral-ed out (it 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 or 3 of the monuments. You can book your tickets here.
Fun fact: The elliptical dome of the Duomo was the first of its kind in Europe – clearly it became a popular style.
Visit an Italian food market
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.
Be wowed by 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.
Meander along 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.
Take a photo stop at 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.
Best Pisa Tours
Tours are the ideal option if you’re short on time, want to know a bit of history and local insight or simply can’t be bothered to get around on your own steam (usually me after a few days of independent exploring). These tours are some of the most popular/highest rated in Pisa.
Guided tour of Pisa Cathedral with Leaning Tower access – includes skip the line access to the tower.
As above but with wine tasting – get a tour of Pisa Cathedral, climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa and enjoy a local wine tasting.
Combining Pisa with another city
I do think there’s enough to do to justify one day in Pisa but I also understand the urge to cram as much into an itinerary as possible. If that’s the shape of your trip, these multi-city tours will work for you:
Pisa, Siena and San Gimignano from Florence – day trip to the Tuscan trio that should be on your must-see list. Includes Chianti tasting.
Pisa and Lucca from Florence – an 8-hour trip from Florence to explore Pisa and Lucca. This tour doesn’t include the tower climb.
Pisa and the Leaning Tower of Pisa from Florence – want to visit Pisa from Florence and get the chance to climb the tower, this tour is for you.
Pisa and Cinque Terre – see the sights of Pisa and go hiking in Italy’s most Cinque Terre on this epic 13-hour tour. Includes wine tasting and local produce.
Day trips from Livorno Cruise Port
Livorno Cruise Port to Pisa – want to explore Pisa independently, this round-trip transfer will get you there and provide a map so you can sightsee on your own time.
Livorno Cruise Port to Pisa and Florence – coming off a cruise and want to cram in two cities? This tour packs both into one trip and will get you back to the cruise terminal.
Livorno Cruise Port to Pisa and Lucca – saving Florence for a long trip or been before? Why not add Lucca to your day trip list. It’s one of my favourite under-rated cities.
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). Here are some much nice options to consider.
Luxury: Hotel Rellais dell’Orologio
For old-school charm (complete with limousine service and doorman), the Hotel Rellais dell’Orologio will leave you in now doubt that your laying your head down in one of the most romantic countries in the world.
Mid-range: NH Cavalieri
If you fancy a 21st century Italian twist, check out 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.
Mid-range: Grand Hotel Duomo
Feeling upscale and chasing views? Check out 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.
Budget: Hostel Pisa
A five minute walk from the central station and a short walk to the Leaning Tower, this hostel is large, bright and has great social areas (a cafe as well as outdoor space), which is probably what makes it one of the most popular choices in the city. Both dorm and private rooms are available.
Budget: Hostel Pisa Tower
If you want to be on top of the tower – ok, not quite, but within a two minute walk, you can’t beat Hostel Pisa Tower.
Want to take a gamble?
I often use Priceline’s Express Deals – I’ve had discounts over 50% (almost $100 saved a night) using this site.
Not sure how it works? Click here to read my article on How to Book Cheap Hotels Using Priceline Express Deals.
Best Italian Guide Books
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 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…
The Penguin Travel Phrasebook was both pretty enough to walk around with an actually well laid out and easy to use.
As for Italy guide books,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. I haven’t found a great Pisa specific guidebook but there’s a decent section in the Florence & Tuscany Lonely Planet guidebook.
I like the DK Eyewitness Guides for their images and 3D guides to major sites. The Italy version is excellent and you can buy it here.
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). Or you can do a quick search/book online, all in English (including place names) using GoEuro.
Want to visit the Prosecco region of Italy?
Only one hour from Venice, check out my ‘sister’ blog, Visit Prosecco Italy, which is bubbling (excuse the pun) with details of how to visit this special part of Italy to taste the local sparkling wine.
Pro travel tip – for popular or long distance routes, you can make a huge saving booking your trains as far in advance as possible.
Tips for booking flights 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.
More of my Italy blog posts
Planning a longer trip to Italy? You might be interested some of my other posts:
- 10 Things NOT To Do In Venice (And 10 TO DO Instead)
- Best Restaurants In Venice – Tried & Tested
- 40 Things To Do In Milan (That Aren’t Churches)
- 3 Days in Florence: The Itinerary I Give My Friends
- Where to Go in Sardinia – Self-Drive Itinerary
- How to Plan Your Own Prosecco Tour in Italy
- How to Order Coffee in Italy
- Is Naples Safe? The Answer From Someone Who’s Been
- Regional Food In Puglia: What and Where to Eat
- One Day in Lucca
Blog posts to help you plan your trip
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