A visit to Tuscany gives a chance to explore ancient landmarks, fine food and glittering festivities
It may be seen by many as simply the gateway to Florence — 65km to the east — but the fine Tuscan city of Pisa has much to lure travellers: Renaissance landmarks delectable cuisine, a charming riverside location and one very famous leaning tower. What's more, next month marks its most magical celebration. The Luminara di San Ranieri festivities – during which more than 120,000 candles are floated down the River Arno – takes place on 16 June followed the next day by a regatta held in the name of San Ranieri, the city's patron saint.
Get your bearings
Divided in two by the River Arno, the heart of Pisa is the Santa Maria quarter on the north bank. Here, you'll find the Leaning Tower and Duomo (cathedral), both of which are part of the Unesco-protected Opera della Primaziale complex (www.opapisa.it). On the other bank is Sant Antonio, a district also worth attention for its striking architecture. In a previous life, Pisa ruled supreme in Tuscany.
For centuries a powerful naval base, it even overshadowed Venice. But the good times came to an end in 1284, when it was defeated by the rival maritime republic of Genoa in the Battle of Meloria. You can find a tourist information office (pisaunicaterra.it; 9.30am-9.30pm daily) tucked inside Centrale station.
Take a view
Where else but from the top of Europe's most iconic belltower? The Leaning Tower of Pisa on Piazza del Duomo (www.opapisa.it; 8.30am-8.30pm; €18) — built in the 12th and 13th centuries atop a shifting foundation of sand and clay — stands at 56m tall and currently tilts at an angle of four degrees.
The view encompasses the city's countless churches and medieval towers, the Port of Tuscany and the distant Apuan Alps. Only 45 people are permitted to the top every 15 minutes, so book ahead to secure your slot.
Take a hike
Don't rush away from Piazza del Duomo too hastily. Buy a €9 ticket for entry to all the monuments (except the Leaning Tower). Once you've marvelled at Buffalmacco's Triumph of Death mural in the Camposanto and roamed through the Duomo, which was once the largest in Europe, walk south along Via Santa Maria, a street lined with souvenir shops and pretty buildings painted yellow with green shutters. Turn left on Piazza Felice Cavallotti and stroll along Via dei Mille and on to Via Corsica, passing the 12th-century stone Chiesa di San Sisto on your right. You'll emerge on to the grand Piazza dei Cavalieri, or Square of the Knights, formerly the heart of the Pisan Republic. Today, many of its Renaissance buildings with decorative façades house the city's university. Watch out for students speeding by on their bicycles.
Lunch on the run
Discreetly tucked away nearby, the family-run restaurant Il Montino at Vicolo del Monte 1 (pizzeriailmontino.com; closed Sundays) claims to be Pisa's first pizzeria and dates back to the 1800s. The frittella di grano with salami and artichoke cooked in an old brick oven is not to be missed. Pizzas from €5.50.
Pedestrianised Corso Italia, south of the river, is Pisa's premier shopping strip with department stores and budget outlets. Across the Ponte di Mezzo are Borgo Stretto and Via Guglielmo Borgo Largo — both good shopping streets. The latter has interesting shops specialising in clothes, books and antiques, such as Antiquariato at No 49. Shops are closed on Sundays.
Amaltea at Lungarno Mediceo 49 (10am-2am daily) serves Tuscan wines and cocktails from €5 alongside a free aperitivo of croquettes and meatballs. Grab a seat outside overlooking the picture perfect Piazza Cairole.
Dining with the locals
Book a table at Pergoletta at Via della Belle Torri 36 (ristorantelapergoletta.com; 7pm-11.30pm, closed Mondays). Chatty owner, Daniela, will guide you through the menu, but you can't go wrong with the fish ragu served with homemade pappardelle (€10).
Elsewhere, dine on typical Tuscan dishes, such as roasted cod with chickpeas, while admiring the reportedly 1,000-year-old brick columns behind the bar at Osteria La Mescita at Via Cavalca 2 ( www.osteria amescitapisa.com; 7.30pm-11pm, closed Mondays). Mains start from €10.
Go to church
Beyond the large studded doors of the 11th-century Church of San Francesco on Piazza San Francesco (9am-1pm, 3.30-7pm Sunday; 7.30am-noon, 4-7pm Monday-Saturday) is a simple, cavernous interior that was once used as stables. Napoleon's troops destroyed the original windows but the replacements are bright and bold — one is even said to feature Mussolini (clutching a sword and shield). Also check out the original ceiling frescos and replica of the Turin Shroud. Sunday mass takes place at 10am and noon.
Out to brunch
Sit outside at Salza at Borgo Sretto 46 (www.salza.it; closed Mondays) and order one of the 11 speciality coffees. The most decadent is the signature Salza – served with chocolate, Chantilly cream and a base of sponge cake (€2.20). There are also tasty sandwiches, from €4.
If you've already spent enough time at Opera della Primaziale complex, head to the riverside Museo Nazionale di San Matteo at Piazza San Matteo (www.ambientepi.arti.beniculturali.it; 8am-2pm Sunday, to 7.30pm other days; €5). Part of a Benedictine nunnery from the 1200s, it houses medieval works and stars Donatello's bust of San Lussorio.
A walk in the park
Stroll through the Giardino Scotto on Lungarno Leonardo Fibonacci (9.30am-6pm daily; free), designed by Giovanni Caluri. The tall central plane tree is said to have been planted specifically for a 1930s theatrical performance by Italian playwright Charles Goldoni.
Take a ride
Consider a short jaunt to the glorious fortified city of Lucca, 26km north-east, a Roman colony in 180BC. Trains depart Pisa Centrale for Lucca roughly every half hour (5.25am-9.50pm), taking 30 minutes for a one-way fare of €3.30. Stroll the 4km of tall medieval walls and tackle the 207 steps to the top of the 13th-century Torre Civica delle Ore clocktower before relaxing with a strong espresso on Piazza Anfiteatro.
Icing on the cake
The domed Baptistery of St John, near the Leaning Tower on Piazza del Duomo (9am-6pm; €5, also included on combo tickets), is worth visiting not just for the intricate marble pulpit sculpted by Nicola Pisano but for the incredible acoustics. Every half hour, the keeper locks the door, requests silence and proceeds to sing. Each note echoes around the chamber for up to 12 seconds.