Lean on Pisa and the field of miracles

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An easy day trip from Florence, and famous only for being home to a drunken tower, Pisa is largely ignored by its hordes of visitors. But if you have time for more than a tourist quickie, stay to savor Pisa’s rich architectural heritage and the fun energy of a university town.

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Understandably, any first-time visitor heads straight for the Leaning Tower of Pisa, one of the most iconic structures in the world. It is located, more or less, close to other important places in the city, the cathedral and the Baptistery of Pisa. This creamy white trio floats majestically above a plaza largely covered in lush grass. Every time I’m there, I like to pretend that I arrive in Pisa as a sailor in the 11th century, when the sea reached just outside the surrounding walls and Pisa Cathedral was the largest church in the world. Seeing this array of gleaming white marble spread out before you is impressive, no matter when and how you arrive. Even full of market stalls, probably then and certainly now, the square still lives up to its name: the Field of Miracles.

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Shortly after construction of the bell tower began in 1173, someone said, “Is it just me or does it look crooked?” The builders continued anyway, using every trick imaginable to stop the tilt. But the top of the 200-foot tower ended up leaning 15 feet from its base. In 1990, the tower was deemed dangerous and the city sealed it off and spent the next decade straightening it about six inches. All that work turned back the clock a few centuries, and the tower now leans as much as it did when Galileo supposedly conducted his gravity experiments from the tower 400 years ago.

Climbing to the top of the tower is an unforgettable experience, offering magnificent views… and vertigo. As only 50 people can board every 15 minutes, reserve a time slot when purchasing your ticket (it’s smart to book in advance online). If you arrive in Pisa without a reservation, please go directly to the ticket office upon arrival, as there may not be any places available in the next few hours, especially in summer. (If you’re seeing both the city and the Field of Miracles, plan a six-hour stop. If you’re simply touring the Field of Miracles and have already reserved time to climb the tower, your visit will still last at least less three hours.)

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With its ornate facade glistening in the sun, Pisa’s huge, richly decorated cathedral is artistically more important than the tower. The highlight of its interior, Giovanni Pisano’s exquisitely carved pulpit, is overwhelmingly filled with figures depicting the story of Jesus’ life. Next to the cathedral, the baptistery has such extraordinary acoustics that the echoes last long enough to allow you to sing in three-part harmony, alone.

For most visitors, the Pisan excitement ends here. But when I’m in Pisa, I take the time to escape the crowds of tourists by taking a walk around the city.

Leaning Tower'
Climb the 294 steps of the Leaning Tower for a stunning view of Pisa Cathedral and beyond. Photo by Rick Steves

Pisa straddles the Arno River, just six miles from the coast; When the wind blows well, you can smell the sea air. Centuries ago, Pisa was an important commercial power that competed with Venice and Genoa for control of the seas. Long rows of elegant mansions line the banks of the river in the heart of the city, reminiscent of Venice’s Grand Canal.

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After its port silted up, Pisa ran dry and eventually entered a period of steady decline…leaving its great monuments as reminders of its past glory.

For many, the lack of tourists outside the Field of Miracles is both a surprise and a relief. Almost half of Pisa’s 100,000 residents are students, which keeps the city lively, especially at night. The university of Pisa, one of the oldest in Europe, was where Galileo studied the solar system and Andrea Bocelli attended law school before embarking on his musical career. Young Pisans strut their stuff along Corso Italia, Pisa’s main street, where children make the scene. Some are also kissing like thieves: keep an eye out for young pickpockets, often dressed as tourists.

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A church in Corso Italia sports some graffiti from the 16th century. Chances are you’ll see some modern graffiti nearby. Students have been pushing their causes here – or just defacing things – for five centuries. Near the train station, a mural covering the wall of a church vibrates with life. Painted in 1989 by American graffiti artist Keith Haring, this colorful set of figures celebrates the diversity, chaos and liveliness of our world.

Considering the historical importance of Pisa and the atmosphere created by its rich architectural heritage and vibrant student population, the city is worth at least half a day. While Pisa is rewarding even on a shorter visit, staying here and exploring the medieval city center will help round out your Tuscan experience.

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