Whenever I would tell an Italian friend that I was heading over to Pisa, the response I most often got was incredulity with the question, “Ma perché Pisa?” Certainly, after having visited the cultural richness of Florence, little Pisa, known primarily to the world for a building malfunction, seemed an odd place to spend several days. My friend living there assured me that there was more to Pisa than its iconic tower; she was right.
You’d have to be a cultural hermit if you’ve never heard of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Located in the Piazza dei Miracoli, alongside the Cattedrale di Pisa (the Duomo — on the side of which one finds the “Nails of the Devil,” with holes that change count with each person, so they say), the Battistero di San Giovanni Battista (inside which a staff member sings, creating a haunting sound), the Camposanto, the Museo delle Sinopie and another museum that wasn’t open when I visited, the stilted tower remains Pisa’s most popular attraction.
Like Florence, the River Arno splits the city. The Ponte di Mezzo is the city’s central bridge. During the last Saturday of June each year, a series of games are held here during a historic celebration known as the Gioco del Ponte, the competitors being Mezzogiorno (the city south of the Arno) versus Tramontana (the city north of the Arno). Ponte di Mezzo connects with the principal shopping street that leads south to Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II and Stazione Pisa Centrale. To the north, a walk into the city’s Centro Storico leads one directly to the Leaning Tower.
Pisa is full of churches, though ones smaller than those found in Italy’s bigger cities. A notable church is the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Spina, an interesting building located along the Arno (unfortunately it was under construction when I visited, so I couldn’t get a decent shot with all the scaffolding). Nearby, you’ll find Palazzo Blu, a historic building that houses exhibitions year round. When I visited, they were hosting a stunning exhibition on Pisa’s role in World War One, entitled “I segni della guerra.” It was an excellent visit, especially since it was free.
A local food specialty to try is the torta di ceci, a slow-cooked item of chickpeas into a sort of torta. You can get it with focaccia at Pizzeria Il Montino for under 3€. It may be a carb overload, but it’s a good one. Another great place for a quick bite is Il Crudo Panineria, where they serve huge freshly made sandwiches and wine. For dessert, La Bottega del Gelato, located near Ponte di Mezzo, is a popular spot for many. For a daytime aperitivo by the river, check out the mainstay Bar Salvini. And for dinner, the off-the-main-streets Lo Schiaccianoci is a great place for Ligurian family-made dishes (different region, I know, but still a cozy place). For some fun, visit Cantiere Sanbernardo, an old-church-turned-art-gallery that features exhibitions and music shows for the city’s hip citizens of all ages.
Diving deeper into the history of Pisa unveils a long list of Tuscan rivalries and accolades. The city’s Scuola Normale Superiore, with its stunning façade, is an elite university that faces the Palazzo dell’Orologio, a historic building referenced in Dante’s Divine Comedy. There’s also the Murale “Tuttomondo” di Keith Haring, a mural by the famous artist along a church wall. That’s just a sampling of interesting history one can find if they take the time to explore this small, yet historically relevant, Tuscan city.
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