Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
For many tourists, Pisa means just one thing – the Leaning Tower, which serves around the world as a shorthand image for Italy. It is indeed a freakishly beautiful building, a sight whose impact no amount of prior knowledge can blunt. Yet it is just a single component of Pisa’s breathtaking Campo dei Miracoli, or Field of Miracles, where the Duomo, Baptistry and Camposanto complete a dazzling architectural ensemble.
These amazing buildings belong to Pisa’s Golden Age, from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries when the city was one of the maritime powers of the Mediterranean.
Decline set in with defeat by the Genoese in 1284, followed by the silting-up of Pisa’s harbour.
From 1406, the city was governed by Florence, whose rulers re-established the University of Pisa.
As one of the great intellectual establishments of the Renaissance, Galileo was a teacher here.
Subsequent centuries saw Pisa fade into provinciality, though landmarks from its glory days now bring in hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.
The combination of tourism and a large student population gives the contemporary city a lively feel.
It has to be said that visiting the Campo in high season is not a calming experience – the tourist maelstrom here can be fierce.
Within a short radius of the Campo dei Miracoli, however, Pisa takes on a quite different character, because very few tourists bother to venture far from the shadow of the Leaning Tower.
RoughGuides tip: For more practical guidance that will help you make the most of your Italy trip, have a chat with our local experts, who can help you plan your dream trip or browse our Italy itineraries and find the best option to suit your tastes.
From the famous Leaning Tower to the unmissable Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, here are the best things to do in Pisa.
The Leaning Tower (Torre Pendente) has always tilted.
Begun in 1173, it started to subside when it had reached just three of its eight storeys, but it leaned in the opposite direction to the present one.
Odd-shaped stones were inserted to correct this deficiency, whereupon the tower lurched the other way.
Over the next 180 years, a succession of architects continued to extend the thing upwards, each one endeavouring to compensate for the angle.
The end result is that the main part of the tower is slightly bent.
Around 1350, Tommaso di Andrea da Pontedera completed the magnificent stack of marble and granite arcades by crowning it with a bell chamber, set closer to the perpendicular than the storeys below it, so that it looks like a hat set at a rakish angle.
A rescue operation was launched in 1990 to counterbalance the leaning stonework.
Pisa’s breathtaking Duomo was begun in 1064 and completed around a century later.
With its four levels of variegated colonnades, it features a subtle interplay of dark grey marble and white stone.
The building is the archetype of Pisan-Romanesque, a model often imitated in buildings across Tuscany, but never surpassed.
Much of the vast interior was redecorated, and some of the chapels remodelled, after a fire in 1595.
A notable survivor is the apse mosaic Christ in Majesty, completed by Cimabue in 1302.
And don’t miss the pulpit, which Giovanni Pisano began to sculpt in the same year.
The last of the great series of pulpits created in Tuscany by Giovanni and his father Nicola (the others are in Siena and Pistoia), it is a work of amazing virtuosity, its whole surface animated by figures almost wholly freed from the stone.
The Baptistry, the largest such building in Italy, was begun in 1152 by a certain Diotisalvi (“God Save You”), who left his name on a column to the left of the door.
It was continued in the thirteenth century by Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, and completed late in the fourteenth century.
Inside you’re immediately struck by the plainness of the vast interior (the acoustics are astonishing, as the guard will demonstrate).
Take time to admire Nicola Pisano’s beautiful pulpit, sculpted in 1260, half a century before his son’s work in the cathedral.
The screen of white marble running along the north edge of the Campo dei Miracoli is the perimeter wall of what has been called the most beautiful cemetery in the world – the Camposanto.
According to legend, Archbishop Ubaldo Lanfranchi had Pisan knights on the Fourth Crusade of 1203 bring a cargo of soil back to Pisa from the hill of Golgotha, in order that eminent Pisans might be buried in holy earth.
The building enclosing this sanctified site was completed almost a century later and takes the form of an enormous Gothic cloister.
However, when Ruskin described the Camposanto as one of the most precious buildings in Italy, it was the frescoes he was praising.
Paintings once covered more than two thousand square metres of cloister wall, but Allied bombs set the roof on fire, drenching them in molten lead.
One important survivor is the remarkable Triumph of Death cycle.
Re-opened in 2019 after a comprehensive restoration, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo is now unmissable.
It holds a vast array of statuary from the Duomo and Baptistry, plus ecclesiastical finery, paintings and other miscellaneous pieces.
Highlights include the extraordinary bronze doors made for the Duomo by Bonanno Pisano (first architect of the Leaning Tower) in 1180.
Giovanni Pisano’s affecting Madonna del Colloquio (Madonna of the Conversation) is good too.
It’s so-called because of the intensity of the gazes exchanged by the Madonna and Child.
On the south side of the Campo, the only gap in the souvenir stalls is for the Museo delle Sinopie.
After the bomb damage wreaked on the Camposanto, restorers removed its sinopie (the sketches over which frescoes are painted) and these great plates of plaster now hang from the walls of this high-tech museum.
If you have time for a wider exploration of the city, head first for Piazza dei Cavalieri, the central civic square of medieval Pisa, which opens unexpectedly from the narrow backstreets to the southeast of the Campo.
Covered in monochrome sgraffiti and topped with busts of the Medici, the Palazzo dei Cavalieri is next to the church of Santo Stefano, which still houses banners captured from Turkish ships by the Knights of St Stephen – a grand title for a gang of state-sponsored pirates.
From here Via Dini heads east to the arcaded Borgo Stretto, Pisa’s smartest street.
Pisa’s market area is west of here, on Piazza Vettovaglie and the narrow streets that surround it.
The Borgo meets the river at Piazza Garibaldi, at the foot of the Ponte di Mezzo.
East of Piazza Garibaldi, by the river, is the Museo Nazionale di San Matteo, where most of the major works of art from Pisa’s churches are now gathered.
Best of the paintings are polyptychs by Simone Martini and Francesco Traini, a panel of St Paul by Masaccio, Gentile da Fabriano’s Madonna of Humility and a trio of works by Gozzoli.
Among the sculptures, two masterpieces stand out – Donatello’s reliquary bust of the introspective St Rossore, and Andrea and Nino Pisano’s Madonna del Latte.
The latter is a touchingly crafted work showing Mary breastfeeding the baby Jesus.
The museum also has a stash of fine Middle Eastern ceramics pilfered by Pisan adventurers.
The Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Reale displays artefacts that once belonged to the Medici, Lorraine and Savoy rulers of the city, who successively occupied the house.
Lavish sixteenth-century Flemish tapestries share space with antique weaponry, ivory miniatures, porcelain and a largely undistinguished picture collection.
The best-known painting, a version of Bronzino’s portrait of Eleanora di Toledo, is displayed alongside a dress that belonged to her.
West along the river from the Palazzo Reale lies the Arsenale Mediceo.
Built by Cosimo I, it is being converted into the Museo delle Navi Romane, which will house the sixteen Roman ships that have been excavated since 1998 from the silt at nearby San Rossore.
Almost perfectly preserved in mud for two millennia, the cargo-laden fleet includes what experts believe could be the oldest Roman warship ever found.
On the south bank of the river, west of the Ponte di Mezzo, the line of palazzi is enlivened by the brightly-hued Palazzo Blu.
It holds a permanent collection of regional art from the fourteenth to the twentieth centuries, as well as occasional big-name exhibitions on the ground floor.
West from the Palazzo Blu, just before the Ponte Solferino, is the oratory of Santa Maria della Spina.
Founded in 1230 but rebuilt in the 1320s by a merchant who had acquired one of the thorns (spine) of Christ’s crown, this effervescent little church is the finest flourish of Pisan-Gothic.
Originally built closer to the water, it was moved here for fear of floods in 1871.
The single-naved interior has lost most of its furnishings, but contains a trio of statues by Andrea and Nino Pisano.
Nearly 30km long by some 20km wide, Elba is Italy’s third-largest island. Ever since Napoleon was exiled here, it has been captivating visitors.
It has exceptionally clear water, fine white-sand beaches, and a lush, wooded interior, superb for walking; almost everyone, including a surge of package tourists in July and August, comes for the beach resorts, so the inland villages remain largely quiet even in high season.
Historically, Elba has been well out of the mainstream. The principal industry until World War II was mining, especially of iron ore.
The Romans wrote of “the island of good wines” – a reputation Elban wines retain to this day – while control in later centuries passed from Pisa to Genoa and on to the Medici, Spain, Turkey and finally France.
That cosmopolitan mix has left its legacy on both architecture and cultivation. Most people know the island as the place of exile for Napoleon, who, after he was banished here in May 1814, revamped education and the legal system, built roads and modernized the economy before escaping back to France in February 1815.
No fewer than 156 beaches dot Elba’s rocky coast, from little-visited shingly coves to broad white sand stretches.
The island’s best-known beaches can become packed in high season, but if you don’t mind negotiating the ranks of baking bodies on sunloungers, they offer all the facilities you could wish for, from snack bars to diving centres.
The big five are fine-sand Procchio; Fetovaia, with its crystal-clear water; beautiful Cavoli, a sandy arc in a sheltered bay where you can swim well out of season; Marina di Campo, a full-blown resort; and Biodola, occupying an idyllic sweeping bay near Portoferraio.
To avoid the worst of the crowds, however, head to one of the beaches below.
Not far from Sansone, this shingly beach is backed by high rocks. The gently sloping seashore makes it a good spot for swimming, especially if you have kids in tow.
Reachable from the beach at Sant’Andrea, this small patch of sandy beach has a natural pool of clear, shallow water formed by two tongues of rock.
In the bay of Biodola, sandy Forno is less busy than Biodola beach itself, set in a lovely little bay, surrounded by villas and dense vegetation. There’s a restaurant here (though it’s the island’s most expensive), as well as snack bars.
Also known as La Polveraia, this sheltered shingly beach on the island’s western coast is always fairly quiet, even in high season. The dark rocks here plunge sheer to the transparent water below.
A dazzling stretch of shingle, enclosed by sheer white cliffs and lapped by clear water.
A lovely, fine sand beach, well set up with sun loungers, parasols and beach bars. A natural rocky barrier keeps the water shallow, and you can rent boats, windsurf and dive here too.
All seven Tuscan Islands, and the seas around them, form the Parco Nazionale dell’Arcipelago Toscano, the largest protected marine park in Europe.
You can take a ferry from Portoferraio or Porto Azzurro to various smaller islands, and from Marina di Campo in the south you can visit the beautiful island of Pianosa, an uninhabited former military base, with great beaches and abundant wildlife.
From the bustling Piazza dei Miracoli to the charming streets of Sant'Antonio and Borgo Stretto, Pisa offers a range of neighbourhoods to stay.
This is the heart of Pisa and home to the famous Leaning Tower, the Cathedral, and the Baptistery. This is where you’ll find the best properties.
Located just south of the Piazza dei Miracoli, Sant'Antonio offers a quieter and more residential atmosphere while still being within walking distance of the main sights.
Located southwest of the Piazza dei Miracoli, San Francesco is a neighbourhood with a relaxed atmosphere.
It's close to the Arno River and has some beautiful churches.
It's a bit removed from the tourist crowds but still within a reasonable walking distance from the main attractions.
Situated on the eastern side of the city centre, Santa Maria is known for its picturesque streets, charming squares, and local markets.
It offers a more authentic Pisan experience, with fewer tourists and some good guesthouses.
Browse the best hotels in Pisa.
Pisa’s proximity to the coast means that seafood is served in most restaurants, with baccalà alla Pisana (salt cod in tomato sauce) and pesce spada (swordfish) featuring prominently.
Nearly all menus have two sections, labelled “mare” (for fish) and “terra” (for meat).
Avoid the temptation to eat in the vicinity of the Campo dei Miracoli – aimed squarely at the tourist trade, these places are generally of poor quality.
Here’s where to eat.
Pisa’s lively student population means there are plenty of cheap eateries and bars around Piazza Dante and Piazza delle Vettovaglie.
There are plenty of good quality places to eat between Piazza Garibaldi and Piazza Cairoli.
From buses to bicycles, it is easy to get around Pisa. Here’s how to do it.
Pisa has an extensive bus network operated by the Compagnia Pisana Trasporti (CPT).
Buses serve both the city centre and the surrounding areas, including the airport.
Pisa is a compact city, and many of its popular attractions are located within a short distance of each other.
Pisa has excellent train connections, making it easy to explore other cities in Tuscany and beyond.
The main train station, Pisa Centrale, is centrally located and serves both regional and high-speed trains.
Pisa is a bike-friendly city, and renting a bicycle can be a fun and eco-friendly way to get around.
There are several bike rental shops in the city centre, and Pisa has dedicated bike lanes and paths to facilitate cycling.
Taxis are available throughout the city, and you can easily find them at designated taxi stands or hail one on the street. Taxis in Pisa operate on a metered system.
Spring (April to June) is a popular time to visit Pisa, as the weather is mild and pleasant. The temperatures are generally comfortable, ranging from 15°C to 25°C (59°F to 77°F).
It's a good time to visit if you want to avoid large crowds, although there may still be moderate tourist activity.
Summer (July to August) in Pisa can be hot, with temperatures ranging from 25°C to 35°C (77°F to 95°F).
This is the peak tourist season, with larger crowds and longer queues at popular attractions like the Leaning Tower.
Autumn (September to October) brings pleasant temperatures ranging from 15°C to 25°C (59°F to 77°F) and fewer tourists compared to the summer months.
Winter (November to February) in Pisa is relatively mild, with temperatures ranging from 5°C to 15°C (41°F to 59°F).
While it's the off-season, you can still enjoy the city's attractions without the crowds.
Find out more about the best time to visit Italy.
A day trip can be sufficient for Pisa. This allows you to see the iconic Leaning Tower, explore the Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles), visit the Cathedral and Baptistery, and stroll through the charming streets of the city centre.
If you have a couple of days, you can have a more leisurely experience here.
You'll have enough time to explore the main attractions, soak in the atmosphere of the city, and also venture beyond the Piazza dei Miracoli.
You can visit other notable sites like the Palazzo Blu, Museo di San Matteo, or take a walk along the River Arno.
Pisa’s Galileo Galilei airport lies about 3 km south of the city centre.
The drive to Florence is straightforward (a slip road takes you directly onto the motorway), but the road into Pisa is so confusing that, without directions from the car-rental desk, you may well end up getting lost.
The automated Pisa Mover rail shuttle to Pisa Centrale station runs every 5–8min, from 6 am to midnight every day; the journey takes little more than 5 min.
An alternative to the Pisa Mover is the cheaper but rather less frequent LAM Rossa city bus, which takes about 10 min to reach Pisa Centrale; it leaves from in front of the Arrivals Hall.
The Airport Bus Express runs regularly to Florence and takes an hour, if traffic is light; at busy times it can take 1hr 30min.
The ticket office and bus stand are to the right as you come out of arrival.
Pisa Centrale train station is about 1 km south of the River Arno; the Campo dei Miracoli is about a 30min walk north, or a 5 min ride on bus #1, which leaves from outside the station.
The main bus terminus is Piazza Sant’Antonio, in front of the train station
Find out the best ways to get to Italy.