Pisa: One of Italy’s Most Iconic Cities

Yes, it’s famous. In fact, it’s infamous; that inclined tower has become the symbol not just of Pisa but an iconic image of Italy itself. But Pisa proves it isn’t a one-trick pony; there is much more to the city than its tilted tower.

With 91,000 people, it’s vibrant and active—further enhanced by the university students who attend the trio of historic institutions there. With cultural events, concerts, and museums aplenty, there is much more to Pisa than most travelers realize.

Retire in Pisa

Retire-in-Pisa
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Lounging along the Arno River, the city was once closer to the sea and a mighty maritime republic in league with Genoa, Venice, and Amalfi. The sea retreated but is still easily accessible for beach days and summer fun, while the Arno provides placid riverside walks, similar to Florence further upstream. Sure, there’s no Ponte Vecchio, but the Ponte di Mezzo is a graceful arch that spans the two sides of the city, giving Pisa a Florentine type of “Oltrarno” district, too.

The Campo dei Miracoli is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for the leaning tower but also the architectural splendor of the cathedral and soaring rotund baptistery, which is the largest in Italy. (It also has astounding acoustics, so sing a few notes when you visit to try it out)

The city is home to the University of Pisa, founded in 1343 and one of the most prestigious in Italy. It brings in students from all parts of Italy as well as a hefty number of international students. Two others —the Scuola Normale Superiore was established by Napoleon and the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies are also well-noted and draw students from around Europe. The Pisa universities are especially known for the medical schools, giving the city’s hospitals an edge.

While Pisa’s immediate area is rather flat, this is still Tuscany and you don’t have to go far to reach hills, and mountains beyond. You’ll also have the region’s best cities in easy reach—you can hop a train and arrive in the center of Florence in an hour (one-way cost $9.60) or Lucca in a half-hour ($4), and seaside Viareggio in 15 minutes ($4). And, more great news is that the Pisa airport gives you a host of connections to all of Europe (and beyond).

The port at nearby Livorno offers ferries to Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily, while the beach zone closest to Pisa is swathed in nature parks, keeping the usual vast tracts of unsightly development to a minimum.

The weather is a typically Mediterranean climate with hot summers and cool winters. The effect of the close-by sea keeps it milder than Florence and more inland cities, with winter daytime highs averaging around 52 F, with nighttime temperatures dropping to around 37 F. Summers are pleasant, with highs generally around 79 F, a few degrees higher in July and August, but it tends to cool down at night into the 60s F.

Lifestyle in Pisa

Lifestyle in Pisa
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Pisa is a really pleasant and pretty city. The historic center has showy palazzi and distinctive “case-torri” (tower-houses) from the Middle Ages, similar to San Gimignano. Many were lopped off by order of the power-wielding Medici, but some remain, so keep your eyes open for them as you stroll around. There are also two other loftier towers that also lean slightly—San Michele and San Nicolo. The streets along the river offer boutiques, cafes, restaurants; the sunlight and pastel palaces not unlike those lining the same river in Florence.

You will eat well in Pisa with its terrific selection of restaurants in all price points, and you’ll drink well, too. The wines produced in the area don’t get the same attention as other Tuscan vintages but are no less noteworthy, and Pisa falls within one of the Chianti zones. A homey trattoria will serve a full three-course meal with wine for $24.50, per person, or get a hefty helping of pasta with a glass of vino for $12.30. Even the more refined dining at La Pergoletta is accessible—a Tuscan tasting menu runs $33, or a la carte items range from $15.60 to $22.30. The nightlife is hopping (all those college students), but not just disco clubs; there are jazz clubs, classy cocktail bars, and music venues, too. The city is also known to be gay-friendly.

Not far outside Pisa, the Alpi Apuane Mountains start to rise up, providing outdoors sports and activities, while the area’s golf clubs let you keep you game in practice. Of course, the shore lets boaters, fishing enthusiasts, and water sports lovers indulge their passions, too.

Around town, Pisa has a rich cultural life with more than 20 historic churches, many medieval palaces, and more than a dozen museums. The opulent Verdi theater is considered one of the most beautiful in Tuscany (if not all of Italy), with an annual calendar of opera, music, prose, and dance. There are modern art galleries, funky shops, upscale boutiques, and, in the periphery zones, shopping malls and bigger stores. In the centro storico, the daily produce market in Piazza Sant’Omobono is a joy, and weekly markets are held in the various districts around the city, too.

While Pisa and Lucca historically have been rivals, you don’t have to choose sides; you can enjoy a day in lovely Lucca, only a half-hour away. Enjoy Tuscany’s classic hill towns, or go soak in the soothing hot springs at Montecatini Terme. There’s plenty to see and do in the area. But a great pleasure will be in discovering all the beautiful nooks and crannies of Pisa’s old town center. There really is a lot of beauty at every turn, that most tourists ignore as they “hit and run” the famous tower.

June is the month to be here, known as Giugno Pisano, as the entire month is dedicated to celebrating the city’s patron saint, San Ranieri. There are medieval contests like the Battle on the Bridge, a boating regatta, and the delightful Luminara, where all the riverside buildings are illuminated with candles and the river erupts with fireworks.

Cost of Living in Pisa

Cost-of-Living-in-Pisa
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With home prices averaging $25.10 per square foot for buying and $1.07 per square foot for rentals, the city is in the mid-range and can be reasonably affordable. The rental market in the city center is tight, thanks to those universities, but upper-class places not furnished like dorm rooms can still be found, starting from $1,000 a month. The outer ring or smaller towns outside Pisa offer lower prices.

A few examples: A newly-restored apartment in the city center with two bedrooms and one bath, nicely renovated, with a courtyard garden is listed for $184,263, while a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home with 1,400 square feet that is perfectly habitable but needs some cosmetic updating is listed for $232,283. If you want to live in a palace, there’s one of those for sale, too—or at least one floor of a palazzo. It has four bedrooms, two bathrooms, some frescoed ceilings, and 1,937 square feet of space, for $469,032. Even more elegant is the apartment for sale inside the historic Palazzo Roncioni, right on the Arno River. The 1,400 square foot home has been stylishly renovated with two regal bedrooms and two bathrooms, in an enviable location. The price is $646,594.

The overall cost of living here is in line with the majority of Italy’s northern cities. The produce markets, local food shops, and supermarkets will give you plenty of options to keep your grocery bill around $300 a month or less for a couple. Wine is affordable, even cheap, and everyday costs, like a cappuccino and glass of wine, are on par with the rest of the country, unless you happen into the tourist traps surrounding the leaning tower. You can enjoy all the delicious pasta and Tuscan delicacies without breaking the budget. A plate of pasta and glass of wine in a trattoria will cost around $13, and a pizza and beer $10 to $12.

Aside from rent, electricity is usually the biggest home expense, and that, along with water and garbage bills, will cost on average about $200 a month.

ExpensesU.S. $
Rent (two-bedroom apartment)$900
Utilities$250
Cell phone plans$50
Groceries$300
Internet$30
Dining Out (two times a week)$150
Bus pass$37.60
Total$1,717

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Pisa, Italy: So Much More Than a Tower

Pisa-is-so-much-more-than-a-tower
©Gian Lorenzo Ferretti Photography/iStock

By Jim Santos

There are few structures on the planet that are as iconic as the bell tower that sits in the Piazza del Miracoli (Plaza of Miracles) in the city of Pisa on the Tuscany coast of Italy. While it is quite normal in Italy to have a piazza that consists of a cathedral, a baptistry, and a bell tower, a patch of soft ground, determined engineers, and a little luck have combined to define the whole region as the home of the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa.

It is certainly a beautiful and awe-inspiring sight; although currently leaning at only a 4-degree angle, it seems much more pronounced as you approach, exaggerated perhaps by the overcompensating angle of the bell chamber on top, which the tower appears to wear like a cocked hat. Up close, standing at the base of the column, it is hard to believe anything could stand so long tilted so sharply.

Leaning-Tower-of-Pisa
©Jim Santos

A wonder of the world, and something on the bucket list of many, but don’t let the tower, the souvenir stalls, or the hordes of tourists all posing for that “look at me, I’m holding up/pushing down the tower” photo blind you to the charm and rich history of one of the oldest cities in Italy.

How old? Well, authors and historians of Ancient Rome refer to Pisa as “an old city”. In fact, its origin and name are a bit of a mystery—historians are not sure which of the ancient indigenous peoples of the Aegean Sea area are responsible for the founding of the city, but ruins have been uncovered dating back to the 5th century BC. Much like Venice and Amalfi, Pisa rose to prominence and endured so long because of its strategic location on the sea. Over the centuries, the river Orno has deposited enough alluvial runoff to gradually move the shoreline west, while still providing Pisa with that important link to the sea and the interior of the Tuscany countryside.

River Arno
©Jim Santos

Today of course Pisa is a well-known tourist destination, but it is much more than that. Perhaps it is not surprising that the birthplace of famous astronomer, engineer, and polymath Galileo Galilei—considered by many to be the “father of modern physics and the scientific method”—is now home to three major universities. One of those, the University of Pisa, is one of the oldest in Italy, found in 1343. It is also the site of the oldest academic botanical gardens in all of Europe, which is open to the public.

In the rush to get to the famous Tower, it is easy to overlook the city itself. In fact, if you take a tour bus from Florence or other nearby cities, they are likely to take you directly to the Piazza and then whisk you away with only a passing glance at Pisa itself. Do yourself a favor, and plan on spending some time strolling the ancient streets of this city of over 90,000 people.

ancient streets of pisa
©Jim Santos

You will find a heady mix of modern streets and shops, and cobblestone roads alleys with quaint stores and cafés that have changed little in 500 years. There are at least 20 historic churches, a couple of medieval palaces, ornate bridges across the Orno, and stunning architecture from the city’s heyday as a major maritime power. One of those palaces, Palazzo Reale (“Royal Palace”), once belonged to the Caetani patrician family. Here Galileo Galilei showed to Grand Duke of Tuscany the planets he had discovered with his incredible device, the telescope. The palace is now a museum, one of no less than eight in Pisa.

Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta
©Jim Santos

Of the almost two dozen churches in town to admire, one in the don’t-miss category is the oldest of them all, the San Paolo a Ripa d’Arno (St. Paul on the bank of the Arno). This Roman Catholic church dates back to the year 925 and is a pre-eminent example of Tuscan Romanesque church architecture. The church is also locally known as Duomo vecchio (old cathedral) —and in a city as old as Pisa, that’s really saying something. You could also spend quite a few days just admiring the statues and fountains dedicated to saints and heroic figures of past, both real and legendary, that adorn the church plazas and city squares.

Of course, sooner or later you will find yourself at the center of it all, in the Piazza del Duomo. Looking at the Tower for the first time can be an almost dream-like experience. We all know what it looks like, we’ve seen it in countless pictures, movies, even in Bugs Bunny cartoons—but to actually see it with your own eyes, leaning there next to the Cathedral, is something entirely unique. The beautiful white marble columns and arches winding their way in a slow spiral up the seven layers of the edifice sparkle in the Tuscan sun. Your eyes try to make sense of the slight kink halfway up, and rebel at the sight of the top floor’s obvious angle.

The Tower, which weighs and estimated 16,000 tons, began sinking into the soft soil on one side during the construction of the second level in 1178, due to faulty planning of the foundation. If construction had continued, the structure would no doubt have toppled; however, near continuous battles with Genoa, Florence and Lucca for domination of the region halted work for almost a century, giving the underlying soil time to settle. The unusual shape is a result of attempts to correct the tilt (or at least, prevent it from becoming worse) once construction resumed.

In spite of its design flaws, intense engineering efforts and sometimes pure chance have conspired to keep the Tower Leaning since the bell tower was finally completed in 1372. For example, although the region has experienced four major earthquakes since its construction, the soft soil that caused the lean apparently also provides a measure of protection. Engineers have determined that the combination of the tower’s rigidity and height, combined with the softness of the ground, results in a dampening effect that prevents the tower from resonating with the quakes.

The Tower also narrowly escaped destruction during World War II, when it was reported to the Allies that German soldiers were using it as an observation platform. A U.S. Sergeant was dispatched to check it out, and to order in an airstrike if it was true. Fortunately, he was so impressed with the beauty of the cathedral and baptistry that he chose to commit troops to guard the site rather than destroy it.

That sergeant did the world a great service, as the cathedral and baptistry are just as impressive as the famous Tower and are worth a visit in their own right. The Cathedral of Pisa, which pre-dates the Tower by about a hundred years, is also slowly settling into the soft ground. The rich exterior decoration contains multicolored marble, mosaic, and numerous bronze objects from the spoils of war, among which is the griffin which was taken in Palermo in 1061 and later placed on the eastern part of the roof. In the early 19th century the original sculpture, which can now be seen in the cathedral museum, was removed from the roof and replaced with a copy.

The heavy bronze doors of Saint Rainerius is decorated with 24 bronze relief sculptures showing stories of the New Testament. This door is one of the first produced in Italy during the Middle Ages. Above the doors are four open galleries, with, at the top, the Madonna and Child and, in the angles, the four evangelists. The tomb of Buscheto (the architect) is found to the left of the north door of the facade.

Inside the cathedral, along with the incredibly detailed marble, bronze and gold carvings and a superbly ornate pulpit, are 27 paintings that cover the galleries behind the main altar, depicting stories of the Old Testament and stories of the life of Christ.

Tower-in-Pisa
©Jim Santos

The Baptistry by contrast, is quite bare in the interior, although the exterior blends wonderfully with the rest of the walled square. The Pisa Baptistry is the largest in Italy and is an example of the transition from the Romanesque style to the Gothic style: the lower section is in the Romanesque style, with rounded arches, while the upper sections are in the Gothic style, with pointed arches. The Baptistry is constructed of marble, as is common in Italian architecture. And yes, it too is slowly settling into the sandy soil, and has a slight lean of its own.

In 1987, the entire Plaza, including the walled Campo Santo (which is said to be built around a shipload of sacred soil from Calvary) was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you are planning a visit to Pisa (and you really should be), there is no need to hurry; after extensive engineering work where soil was removed from under the raised side of the Tower to restore it to a safer angle, engineers in May of 2008 announced that the slow tilt to the side had been halted, and that the Leaning Tower of Pisa should continue to stand for at least the next 200 years.