Once a maritime powerhouse, Pisa now owes its spot on the well-trodden tourist trail of Italy to something else entirely: an unnervingly wonky tower, which cheerfully photobombs every photo you’ll attempt to snap in the Piazza dei Miracoli. The Leaning Tower of Pisa may draw in hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, but there’s arguably more to this city than its famous tilting tower.
Our time in the Cinque Terre flew by: a whirlwind of pastries, hiking and gelato. Ciao, Cinque Terre – Pisa, here we come! Having booked a late afternoon flight, we decided to squeeze in a half-day in Pisa en route to the airport. Greeted by bright blue skies and thermometer-popping temperatures, we quickly stripped off our coats, strapped them to our bags and beetled into the city centre.
Pastel-coloured, shuttered buildings bordered the River Arno; yet more lined the winding streets beyond it. Working our way from one piazza to the next, we slowly picked up signs to the Piazza dei Miracoli (also known as the Piazza del Duomo), which was filled with throngs of tourists and tradesmen selling tourist tat. (I don’t need nor want a Leaning Tower of Pisa-themed mug, magnet or keyring. Aaargh!)
The Leaning Tower of Pisa, known locally as the Torre Pendente di Pisa or simply the Torre di Pisa, is the freestanding bell tower of Pisa Cathedral. It owes its distinctive (and unintentional) tilt to the soft ground upon which it was built. Unable to support the weight of the tower, the soft ground caused the tower to tilt to one side. The tilt increased during construction and the tower once leaned at an angle of 5.5°; restorative work in recent years has reduced the tilt to 3.99°. Naturally, we took our fair share of cringeworthy photos with the tower. (They weren’t taken on my camera, hence they’re not in this post.) When in Pisa . . .
A few years back, the Leaning Tower of Pisa was an April Fools’ Day sensation, thanks to a piece by The Telegraph indicating that the tower was to be converted into a luxury, leaning hotel. While it hasn’t become the Leaning Hotel of Pisa, visitors can still pay a hefty sum to climb to the top of it. We opted not to, as we had limited time and felt that €18 was just a wee bit (read: very) steep for the novelty of ascending the tower.
Instead, I paid €7 to visit two other attractions in the Piazza dei Miracoli: the Baptistery of St. John (Battistero di San Giovanni) and the cemetery (Camposanto). Laurence sat these out and kindly looked after my bag for me while I explored.
The Baptistery of St. John is a beautifully ornate building, complete with a domed roof and incredibly detailed stone carvings. Be prepared to employ the zoom on your camera to really see the detail in the stonework, as there are no coin-operated binoculars around!
Inside, arched stained glass windows cast puddles of light onto the sculpted columns, and candles flicker in the gloom. Climb the stairs, and you’ll have a smashing view of the cathedral’s façade (complete with a certain tower in the background).
That said, hindsight is 20:20 (and far superior to my vision) and if you’re looking to save some cash, I’d skip the Baptistery of St. John as the exterior is vastly more impressive than the interior.
Aware that time wasn’t on our side, I moved on to the Camposanto. Legend has it that this cemetery was built on the very spot where the Crusaders placed the soil that they had brought back from the Holy Land. Colourful frescoes covered the walls of the cloisters and ornate tombs held the remains of prominent figures of bygone years.
Small doorways led off into adjoining chapels, which housed artefacts including relics of eleven of the twelve apostles, fragments of the True Cross and a thorn from the Crown of Thorns.
Regrouping outside Pisa Cathedral (Duomo di Pisa), we took it in turns to take a brief look inside. Pisa Cathedral is free to visit, though you’ll need to obtain a ticket for a specific time slot. We unanimously agreed that the crowning glory of this majestic place of worship was its no-expense-spared gold relief ceiling. (It reminded me a little of the fancy ceiling in Lyon’s Hôtel de Ville.)
With time marching on, we decided it was time to escape the crowds and head off in search of a bite to eat: a couple of slices of pizza in Laurence’s case and a massive wedge of focaccia in mine. Leaving Italy without slurping down one last gelato would have been a crime, so we stopped off at a gelateria before making our way over to Pisa Centrale to catch the shuttle to the airport.
- If you’re carrying large – or even hand-luggage sized – bags en route to the airport, you’ll likely be told you can’t take them into any of the attractions. There’s luggage storage available for those ascending the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but we weren’t aware of any facilities for the other attractions.
- Head over to the Museo delle Sinopie to buy tickets to any of the attractions in the Piazza dei Miracoli. Free, timed-entry tickets to Pisa Cathedral can also be obtained here.