There are many wonderful things to do in Pisa. The Tuscany city provides the perfect place to ponder the past. While you might be drawn to this world-famous city for its namesake tower, there’s much more to this former city-state to discover. Indeed, this is one of the best cities in Italy.
From its groundbreaking Medieval art and architecture, charming chapels, exciting narrow lanes of streets, and even modern art you won’t have shortage of things to do in Pisa. And while you can see most of Pisa in one day, you won’t be disappointed by spending a little more time digging under the surface of this Tuscan timewarp.
Curious to find out more about this charming city? Continue reading for a selection of the things to do in Pisa you really can’t miss.
The Best Things To Do In Pisa
Climb Pisa Tower
A post about the best things to in Pisa is bound to mention Pisa Tower!
Better known as the Leaning Tower of Pisa (that’s the Torre Pendente di Pisa in Italian), visiting this iconic landmark is a must for anyone, and that’s even if you only plan to see Pisa in one day. Construction started on this striking piece of architecture in 1173 and was completed in three different stages over the course of 199 years. Finally finished in 1372, the tower is actually a campanile, a free-standing bell tower, for the use of the nearby Pisa Cathedral.
The tower is famously leaning, at an angle of 3.97 degrees, to be exact. But it’s also had a lot thrown at it over the years, including (at least) four strong earthquakes that have struck the region since 1280, and two world wars. Today it’s recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Though admiring the tower from afar, and up close, and taking some classic tourist pictures of you attempting to hold the tower up, is standard, you should also climb the tower. Ascend to the top via its 300 spiraling steps and you’ll be treated to a view of the city below, and a glimpse inside a marvel of Medieval engineering.
Access to the tower is subjected to time slots – each allowing no more than 45 visitors to climb. A combined ticket to access the cathedral and the Leaning Tower costs €20. If you want to climb the tower and visit all other monuments in Piazza dei Miracoli you’ll pay €27. You can get tickets on the official site here or via GetYourGuide here.
Another option to visit the Leaning Tower of Pisa is a guided tour of the city. This way, you’d have a knowledgeable local guide take you around the impressive historic center of Pisa and tickets to the leaning tower would be included. You can opt for this all inclusive tour of Pisa that lasts two hours.
Make sure to also read my post How To Get Tickets To Pisa Tower.
Visit the Baptisterium
The Baptistry of San Giovanni started life on the 15th of August 1152. As you can tell from the name, it’s in this building that baptisms under the auspices of Pisa Cathedral take place.
It needed to be a building worthy of the cathedral, both in terms of its size and decoration, in order to match the importance of Pisa’s premier religious structure. Its large octagonal basin, where adults and children are baptized, mirrors the larger octagonal footprint of the Baptistry’s interior.
Though the front appears as a cylindrical building. Inside you’ll find some important sculptures considered a herald of the Renaissance, completed by Nicola Pisano and, later, his son Giovanni Pisano. This marks a momentous crossroads in the art world when emotionless Medieval imagery shifted to the modern drama of Renaissance ideals.
One of the most amazing things about the Baptistry is its acoustics. Due to the double dome, one a hemispherical shape and the other a truncated cone, as well as the octagonal interior walls, the Baptistry can actually be thought of as one giant musical instrument. In fact, every half an hour visitors here will be treated to a demonstration of the Baptistry’s acoustic credential as the attendant on duty will sing a few notes and allow the incredible reverberations of the building to work their magic.
Tickets for the Baptistery are included in the Duomo Complex combined ticket (€10 without the tower or €27 for all sites). Otherwise, the ticket for the Baptystery and the Cathedral is €7.
Check out Pisa Cathedral
The landmark Pisa Cathedral may sit in the shadow of its more famous bell tower, but it is no less important in the history of art and architecture. Work on this religious building began in 1063, funded by the Pisa Republic’s recent victory against the Emirate of Sicily.
The building is a reflection of not only wealth from war, but also the maritime republic’s riches accrued from its vast trading network. This network can also be seen reflected in the mixed-up architecture of Pisa Cathedral. It includes a variety of international influences from Byzantine and Armenian, to Islamic and Norman.
Although the cathedral underwent much damage following a destructive fire in 1595, a number of important architectural and artistic elements can still be found in the interior of the building. Most famously, there’s the octagonal marble pulpit made by Giovanni Pisano. The intricate carvings covering almost every inch of the eight curved faces of the pulpit indicate a shift towards Renaissance ideals in art, though still showcasing ornate details of Gothic aesthetics.
Also notable is the coffered ceiling, with its gold leaf and Medici family crest, as well as the granite columns, which were carted off from the Mosque of Palermo in 1063. The giant 16th-century bronze doors of the cathedral will enthrall viewers with their otherworldly scenes and Biblical narratives.
Make sure to actually go inside the Cathedral. A combined ticket for the Leaning Tower and the Cathedral costs €20; if you want to visit the remaining sites of Piazza dei Miracoli the ticket is €27. A ticket for just the Cathedral and the Baptistery is €7.
Another option to visit would be to join a guided tour, which is actually very budget friendly – there even is the possibility of adding the Leaning Tower of Pisa to the visit. I recommend this guided tour of the Cathedral as one of the best options you can book online.
Make sure to also read my post A Useful Guide To Visiting Pisa Cathedral.
Visit the Piazza dei Miracoli
Hanging out in the Piazza dei Miracoli definitely is one of the unmissable things to do in Pisa.
The Leaning Tower, Baptistry, and Pisa Cathedral itself are all located within the Piazza dei Miracoli: the Square of Miracles. Also known as Piazza del Duomo, this part-grassy, part-paved square is deemed sacred by the Catholic church (who own it) and is considered, by many, to be the most exceptional collection of architecture in the world.
Clocking in at an area of nine hectares, this veritable center of Medieval art is also the location of the Camposanto, a monumental cemetery. It’s also here that you’ll find the Ospedale Nuovo di Santo Spirito, which was built in 1257 as a hospital for pilgrims, orphans, and the poor.
On the southeast corner of the square, there’s also the Palazzo del Opera, which originally housed those who worked on the cathedral complex, including gardeners, bell-ringers, and stone masons. With all this going on, it’s no wonder that the whole square itself has been inscribed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Hang out in the Camposanto
Literally meaning “Holy Field” in Italian, the Camposanto is a beautiful cemetery located in Piazza dei Miracoli. It gets its name from a story which claims that the cemetery was constructed around a mass of sacred soil taken from Golgotha (the location of the Crucifixion), during the Third Crusade, which was led by the Archbishop of Pisa in the 12th century.
Legend has it that any bodies buried here would decompose within 24 hours. The “Holy Field” itself is almost a courtyard garden and is surrounded by a portico with 43 arches. It was never intended to be a cemetery, and instead was meant to be a church, but during construction, the purpose changed.
Completed in 1464, it was the fourth and last structure to be built in the Piazza dei Miracoli. Nevertheless, it’s a beautiful spot to enjoy the gleaming white marble against the bright green of the grass; the interiors feature numerous sarcophagi and frescoes.
You can visit the entire Duomo Complex for €10 (without the Leaning Tower). An individual ticket to the Camposanto is €7.
Admire the Palazzo della Carovana
Palazzo della Carovana can be found in Piazza dei Cavalieri (“Knights’ Square”), the name of this large building comes from the three-year training undertaken by knights called “la Carovana”. It was built between 1562 and 1564 by the Italian Renaissance architect and painter, Giorgio Vasari, for the Knights of St Stephen.
The facade is a mix of sgraffito (a decoration technique of applying tinted plaster to a wet surface) that depicts mythological creatures and zodiac signs, as well as sculpture by Alessandro Forzori and Tommaso di Battista del Verrocchio. One of the sculptures is of the Medici family crest, signifying that this wealthy family was now in a powerful position in this portion of Italy.
Today it’s home to the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, a university in Pisa founded in 1810 by none other than Napoleon Bonaparte.
Take a stroll along the river
A stroll along the river Arno is one of the best things to do in Pisa, especially at sunset when the views are magical.
The name of Pisa itself is intrinsically connected with the River Arno; “pisa” is believed to derive from the Etruscan word for mouth, and Pisa is the location where the mouth of the Arno is located. This famous river has helped to shape the history of the city, aiding in its defense during the final years of the Western Roman Empire, and helping to transform the city’s fortunes as it rose to a powerful maritime republic from the 11th to the 16th century.
Walking along the riverside area of Pisa offers not just a pleasant stroll, but a chance to glimpse some of the city’s beautiful medieval architecture with an unobstructed view.
You’ll pass the earth tones of the University of Pisa, established in the 14th century, as well as the Palazzo alla Giornata, which was built in the 17th century for a Knight of Malta (it’s now home to university offices). There’s also the National Museum of Art and Culture nearby, situated in the 16th-century Palazzo Reale.
Pop inside Santa Maria della Spina
Although Pisa Cathedral may take the limelight in terms of religious buildings in the city, the much smaller but no less elegant Chiesa di Santa Maria della Spina should not be overlooked even when visiting Pisa in one day. Situated on the banks of the Arno River, the church was erected in 1230 and is a gem of the Pisan Gothic style of architecture.
The small church used to be known as Santa Maria di Ponte Novo, due to the bridge that once spanned the Arno River nearby. The name “della Spina” (meaning “of the thorn”) is a reference to a relic that was housed here from 1333. It’s said that this was a thorn from the famed crown of thorns that Jesus wore during the Passion and Crucifixion.
However, the thorn is no longer housed in the church. It can now be found elsewhere in Pisa, namely in the Chiesa di Santa Chiara on Via Roma.
A number of artists and architects from Pisa were involved in the ornate decoration of its exterior, which includes dozens of soaring spires and intricately carved statues. However, the interior of Santa Maria della Spina is noticeably simple in comparison to the exterior. Made up of one single room and, unlike almost all churches, not built in the shape of a cross, here you’ll see simple black-and-white striped walls, Byzantine-influenced arches, and an elegant wooden ceiling.
At the center of the presbytery in the church is the Madonna of the Rose, the work of Andrea and Nino Pisano, which is considered one of the “highest masterpieces” of Gothic sculpture.
Take a walk along Borgo Stretto
A walk along the Borgo Stretto is one of the nicest things to do in Pisa!
Literally meaning “Narrow Village”, Borgo Stretto is a fascinating place to get lost in the historic center of Pisa. Sandwiched between the Piazza dei Cavalieri and the banks of the Arno River, here you’ll find this bustling portion of Pisa.
It’s lined with covered arcades, strewn with old-fashioned shops and cafes, all interlinked by a web of narrow lanes. It’s the perfect place to stop off for a refreshment in the afternoon, or to start the day in this lively area with a coffee to up your energy levels.
Don’t miss out on a visit to the fantastic Pasticceria Federico Salza. This venerable spot for pastries and coffee opened its doors in 1898 and is resplendent inside period fittings and fixtures fit for a film set. It’s not just about caffeine, however, as come evening it becomes better known for its cocktails.
Just off this warren of streets is the Chiesa di San Michele in Borgo. Built between the 10th and 11th centuries, this storied church actually stands on the spot where a temple dedicated to Mars once stood. The facade itself, reminiscent of Pisan Gothic with its multiple levels and porticoes, dates to the 14th century.
And Corso Italia
The Corso Italia is Pisa’s main thoroughfare. It connects Pisa Central Train Station with the historic center of town. It’s also pleasantly pedestrianized, meaning you can safely wander without worrying about the noise of traffic hounding your every step.
There’s also a selection of shopping opportunities and sights along this famous road. For example, there’s the 14th-century San Domenico church, the 17th-century Palazzo Simoneschi, and the Palazzo Gambocorti, to name just a few.
As late afternoon sets in, Corso Italia becomes a popular gathering spot for young people in Pisa, who stroll around, diving in and out of chain stores and eateries. It’s a nice idea to join them, as you’ll find a collection of more affordable restaurants away from the touristed center of town.
Visit Keith Haring House
Those looking for lesser known things to do in Pisa, worlds away from the Leaning Tower and the gleaming cathedral, should visit the Keith Haring House. The iconic New York artist himself, Keith Haring, painted the side of an apartment building in the historic center of Pisa. Haring died in 1989, shortly after the mural was completed.
The bold and colorful yet simple artwork is unmistakably Haring. It overlooks a children’s playground and makes for an interesting detour for fans of the late artist and modern art in general.
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