So, you are in Pisa. Go on, do it, you know you want to. Pose for a picture in which you are pushing the tower back upright or holding it between thumb and forefinger. Once you get that bit over with (and yes, we do that too), you will be free to explore one of the most beautiful cities in Italy. Just like Venice and Florence, Pisa is an incredibly popular destination, featuring on bucket lists from all corners of the world. This means it is not a particularly cheap destination and that you will need a great deal of inside knowledge in order to find reasonably priced accommodation. As an incentive travel destination, Pisa will prove highly efficient, abuzz with creatives and professionals, with the kind of artistic and intellectual vibe that you only get in cities with prestigious universities. As usual, we have a few tips to offer you, on things you might want to do and see when you are in town. For free, of course.
1. Visit Piazza dei Miracoli
Of course, it is well worth investing in tickets to see the magnificent buildings on this square from the inside, but if you are on a tight budget, the square itself is beautiful enough on its own. It is so beautiful in fact, that it has been declared a UNESCO heritage site in its own regard in 1987. The square owes its name to the writer and poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, who wrote about it calling the surrounding buildings “miracles”. Standing or sitting on the characteristic lawn that covers most of the square, you will have a stunning view of the surroundings, which make up one of the most impressive architectural complexes in the world. Take in the spectacular ensemble of the Cathedral, the Baptistry, the Monumental Cemetery and the Sinopie Museum. Another perk of lounging around on the lawn is that you will be able to take pictures of people holding ridiculous poses in order to be photographed supporting the tower.
2. Visit the St Matthew National Museum
This museum is not as popular as some of the other sights you will see in Pisa and yet it contains one of the most important collections of medieval paintings in the world. As most public museums in Italy, it can be visited for free on the first Sunday of every month. The museum is housed in a medieval monastery by the Arno river. It specialises in Tuscan artists, particularly artists from Pisa, with most of the permanent collection dating back to the XII up to the XVII Century. Paintings and sculptures, ceramics and gold-works, miniatures, ivory and bronze statues will offer you a complex and varied view of the Tuscan arts throughout the middle-ages, as the Italian school met the byzantine influences that dominated the central regions of the peninsula for a long time. Among others, in the permanent collection you will find works by Masaccio and Nicola Pisano. If you decide to visit the museum, keep an eye on the temporary exhibitions too, since they often provide unique and fascinating perspectives on other aspects of Italian art. Temporary exhibitions are not included in the free monthly tours of the museum.
3. Visit Piazza dei Cavalieri
Squares rank pretty high among the long list of things that pisa does incredibly well. Piazza dei Miracoli is the most famous by far, but Piazza dei Cavalieri is just as beautiful and worth a visit. Two remarkable features make this square unique and memorable: the church of S. Stefano dei Cavalieri and the so called Tower of Hunger or Count Ugolino’s Tower, named after the infamous character depicted in one of the most gruesome scenes of Dante’s inferno. Originally this square was meant to be the symbol of secular power, whereas Piazza dei Miracoli was the stronghold of the Church’s power in the city. In Piazza dei Cavalieri, the political life of the city unfolded under several governments and dominations. In the late XVI Century, this square was used, by order of granduca Cosimo I De’Medici, as the headquarters of the Order of St. Stephen’s Knights, earning it the name by which it is still known. Nowadays, it houses the main seat of the Scuola Normale, one of the most famous universities in the world, thus making it, once again, an iconic place for seekers of knowledge and culture.
4. Discover the heart and soul of Pisa along the banks of the Arno river
In Pisa, just like in Florence, you might come across addresses that do not contain the names of streets of squares, but are simply as identified by their “lungarno”. This word, which is just as common here as it is in Florence, describes both the actual bank of the river and the road running along it on either side. The Lungarni, just like the Lungotevere in Rome, are a mesmerising sight and they will show you the naked soul of the city you are visiting. Be obvious and tacky and walk down the river at times when the light is particularly beautiful, such as sunrise or sunset and take in the beauty of the pastel-coloured buildings reflected in the water and bathed in pink light. As a general rule, if a city has a river running through it, you should walk along its banks, in order to experience the true soul of that city. This is not simply due to a romantic tendency to identify the most pleasant sight with the most authentic essence of a place, but rather to the fact that early settlements often were built on the banks of rivers and lakes and most cities developed starting from those original waterside villages. By exploring the riverbanks of most cities you will be therefore getting a feel of the area from which the city originated.
5. Take a stroll through the Scotto Garden
This area has undergone several transformations, throughout the centuries, from Roman times to the early XX century. The middle ages saw it house workshops of various descriptions, where local craftsmen produced the artefacts for which Pisa was famous: pottery in the XIII century, bronze church bells in the XIV. It later became a fortress, a residential palace and a police headquarters at different times. Today, it is a beautiful garden, surrounded by the grandiose walls of the ancient fortification. This park currently houses a cinema and a multi-purpose venue, serving alternatively as a theatre and a concert hall. This is the ideal place to relax and engage in some serious people-watching: the whole of Pisa will pass through these beautiful lawns at one time or another and you will get a feel of the social and artistic life of the city. If you decide to go to the cinema, remember that international films are always dubbed in Italy: use it as an opportunity to practice your Italian! Or you can simply sit down with a cold drink and relax, before diving back into the city.