Many people visit Pisa only to see “It” and miss some of the other interesting aspects of a town with a history as long and distinguished as its neighbour and rival, Florence. I’ll try to point out some features, although it will be impossible to avoid mentioning It.
Pisa’s Galileo Galilei aiport is the largest and busiest in Tuscany, and is often a starting point for tourists, so I’ll start there. The airport is very close to the town centre, which would be an easy walk if you didn’t have luggage.
As it is, there are two public transport methods. The airport’s own train station runs a shuttle service into Pisa Centrale (from where there are many onward connections) but even given the very short distance of the run, the frequency is low. If you happen to arrive near a departure time, it’s very quick and convenient, but usually you’ll get to town faster by bus. If you do decide to use the train, in one of those delightful jokes that airport designers like to play on passengers, the ticket office is exactly at the opposite end of the terminal from the train platform.
Buses depart from the front of the terminal and you can buy a ticket in the terminal or from the driver. The urban ones which will take you into town are orange, operated by CPT. If you were heading towards It, the destination to look out for is Pietrasantina.
If you are arriving in Pisa by train from either the Lucca and Florence direction or the coast at La Spezia, it’s worth knowing that the station one stop before Pisa Centrale, Pisa San Rossore, is closer to It than the central station. However, I’m going to make the main station my starting point.
In recent years there has been a lot of work to tidy up the area around the station and the route to the old city centre, which had previously been seedy in the traditional Italian manner. If you depart the station on foot by the main road facing it, Viale Antonio Gramsci, you quickly come to the newly-landscaped Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II. Admittedly, it’s basically a traffic roundabout with underground car park, but looks quite nice.
Once on the opposite side of the circle, you can depart via Corso Italia, which is probably Pisa’s most upmarket shopping street. (Including a branch of Feltrinelli, where you can buy English-language books.) By the time you’re about 500 metres from the station, you will have arrived at the river Arno, at the end of the “middle bridge”, the Ponte di Mezzo. To your left is the loggia of the post office where you can take a break in the shade.
Crossing the bridge, you’ll find yourself facing a statue of Garibaldi, hand camply on his hip. Carry on up the narrow street on the right side of him. It’s Borgo Stretto, literally “tight-fit village”, and it’s a very well-preserved medieval street, particularly atmospheric at night. (If you are there at night, there’s a very lively pub with microbrewery beers, Orzo Bruno, down one of the alleys to the right from Borgo Stretto. Go down Via Mercanti and look to your left at the first junction.)
Borgo Stretto itself becomes Via Gugliemo Oberdan (still pedestrianised) and reaches a junction (you’ll see a Deutsche Bank dead ahead) with Via Consoli del Mare going left. Go left. In a very short distance you’ll emerge on the open area of Piazza dei Cavalieri, with Pisa’s second-most important set of buildings, of the Knights of St. Stephen. The last time I was there, the piazza was being re-paved. I’m sure it’s very nice now. The intricate decoration of the Knights’ palazzo is unlike anything else I’ve seen.
Exit the square to the left of the building with the arch, up Via Corsica, and at the end of that bear slightly left into Via dei Mille. At this point, you have a choice. You can go straight ahead, down Via Luca Ghini for about 20 metres and visit the botanic gardens, or turn right onto Via Santa Maria. In that case, straight ahead you will first see the dome of the cathedral, and then you’ll emerge into the open with It dead ahead.
There is a complication if you want to ascend the leaning thing: you have to book your visit in advance, because the number of people on board is strictly controlled into separate time slots. In high season, you will probably have to wait at least three hours for a slot, but if you are super organized, you can book ahead on line, a maximum of 20 days prior at http://boxoffice.opapisa.it/Turisti/. It’s a pretty hefty €18 for the tower alone, and even 20 days ahead you might not get your preferred slot.
If you do have to wait around for your booked time, you can visit the cathedral, baptistery or the mausoleum, or the tourist market (which is surely one of the tackiest in Italy), or sit around on the grass and watch other tourists being photgraphed while pretending to “hold up” the thing. You can also buy a ticket to visit the museum on site, the Opera del Duomo, which has some interesting items (such as artefacts which show that some of the medieval builders were Muslim) but the best part is the museum’s cloister, which is peaceful and gives photogenic views of It which most tourists don’t see.
Once you’ve had your fill of the “Field of Miracles” (I’ve knever known if the name is something religious or just that it’s a miracle that the slanted thing is still standing) you could depart on the east side down Via Cardinale Pietro Maffi. When you arrive at the little square of Largo del Parlascio, there is a good view of the old city walls to your left, and the Roman remains of Nero’s bath dead ahead.
Bearing right, you can head back towards the Arno on Via Carlo Fedeli, but take a detour left onto Via Santa Caterina and then right through the park of Piazza Martiri della Liberta, after taking a peek at Santa Caterina’s church if you wish. Across the park, at Via San Lorenzo, you can take any of the streets toward the river. If you want to go back down Via Oberdan and Borgo Stretto, the junction is to your right.
The other antique sites in Pisa are mostly churches. Among my favourites are three which lie near the south bank of the Arno, Lungarno Galileo Galilei and Lungarno Gambacorti. If you cross Ponte di Mezzo, go left for about a hundred metres until you see an angular, pointy thing to your right. That’s Santo Sepolcro, which is octagonal and allegedly based on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, and may have links to the Knights Hospitallers. Inside you can see a bust of Santa Ubaldesca and her bucket.
Going back to the Lungarno, and back past Ponte di Mezzo, just before you reach the next bridge you will come to the spiky gothic Santa Maria della Spina (St Mary of the thorn) which holds an actual thorn from Jesus’s Crown of Thorns (supposedly). The whole church was lifted from the riverside onto the embankment in 1871.
Carrying on, the road becomes Lungarno Sidney Sonnino after the bridge, Ponte Solferino. About 150 metres ahead, you will see the trees around the church of San Paolo a Ripa d’Arno. The church once belonged to the Knights of St. Stephen. Behind the church is a little pointy building, the Sant’Agata Chapel.
From St Agata, you will be separated from the river by a high brick wall. Follow it for a few metres and then turn right down Via della Qualquonia. This becomes Via Venanzio Nisi and leads you to a bit of greenery where it meets Via Nino Bixio. Turning left on Bixio will lead you back to Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II near where you started. The railway station is off towards your right.