10 of the best things to do in Pisa

The Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy. PHOTO: CHAN BROTHERS

(GUARDIAN)

1. Leaning tower and Campo dei Miracoli

The leaning tower, duomo and baptistery are must-sees. It costs nothing to wander the green lawns (with crowds picnicking and taking silly photographs), admiring the centuries-old white marble and 5.5-degree lean on the Torre Pendente.  

Entry to the tower is pricey (€18 or S$30 a person), but includes the cathedral. It is a thrill to climb the steep, narrow steps once trodden by Galileo Galilei and the view of the city is superb.

From this year, 2km of the city walls are open (first weekend of the month, 10am to 6pm, admission: free), providing views also of Camposanto cemetery and of the huge weights used to pull the tower 45cm closer to vertical in 2007, after it was closed amid safety fears.  

2. Piazza dei Cavalieri

Once away from the tower, the tour guides and coach parties give way to the real Pisa – of business and academia.

A facelift finished this spring has added a pleasant, stone-flagged pedestrian route from the cathedral to the station. It passes through what was the political heart of mediaeval Pisa, Piazza dei Cavalieri – a wide, elegant space dominated by Palazzo della Carovana, lavishly decorated by Giorgio Vasari and now home to the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, Italy’s top university.

3. Torre Guelfa

The redevelopment that saw the city walls reopened also includes turning the 800-year-old republican arsenal west of the centre into an arts and events space, and a revamp of nearby Torre Guelfa, built in 1406 to control the river route into the city.

The coats of arms of leading Pisan families inside are perhaps a niche interest, but there are great views towards the coast and San Rossore natural park from the top (climbing this tower only costs €2).

A museum of 30 ancient ships (some from the fifth century BC) excavated nearby is under construction.

4. Riverside art gallery

Among the earthy tones of Pisa’s riverside buildings, 14th-century Palazzo Blu (closed on Mondays, admission: free, go to palazzoblu.it) stands out for its delicate azure colour and is Pisa’s most exciting art gallery. Recent shows have included Salvador Dali and Toulouse-Lautrec, and the Virtual Man show, in collaboration with the university’s physics department, which received great reviews.

There is also a cool blue cafe and bookshop at the back.

5. Riverside walk

By evening, the tower area is quiet (great for a night-time wander, with the monuments illuminated) and the action shifts to the riverbanks, a 10-minute walk to the south.

The river is wide here, close to its mouth, so there is a sense of space, and the old mustard and terracotta palazzi that line it glow in the setting sun, streetlamps reflected in the water.

Buy a gelato from Di Toto and join the crowd.

6. La Scaletta

Pisa’s roots lie on the coast and, though the city is now several kilometres inland, its seafaring legacy is evident in its excellent fish restaurants.

Ten minutes’ walk north of the busy tower area, Ristorante La Scaletta (go to ristorantelascalettapisa.com) has been serving seafood specialities for more than 150 years. And while classic platters of the freshest oysters and crustaceans are a popular choice, chef-owner Dino Ricci’s passion is for innovative twists: octopus cooked sous-vide is meltingly sweet, set off by an earthy celeriac puree, while barely cooked pink tuna comes with ground pistachios and a bitter hit from a blob of coffee foam. Expect to pay from €35 for three courses.

7. La Pergoletta

For a more traditional meal, this city-centre spot, with tables around a tree in a courtyard illuminated by fairy lights, is hard to beat.

Mother-and-daughter team Emma Forte and Daniela Petralia at La Pergoletta (go to ristorantelapergoletta.com) offer typical regional dishes – such as baked cheese and artichokes, and tagliatelle with rabbit, lemon and olive ragu – and tempting mains, such as cubes of fish wrapped in silky lardo on chickpea cream, or sliced beef with radicchio and walnuts. A meal of three courses can cost from €30.

8. Bars and bites to savour

The Arno’s banks throng with revellers every summer weekend and bars stay open until 3am.

A good starting point is Piazza Garibaldi by the Ponte di Mezzo, where Bazeel offers a substantial aperitivo buffet (€10 with first drink) and DJ sets or themed evenings in the basement. Those who prefer a more intimate venue will enjoy cocktails at Baribaldi a few doors up.

Bars on Piazza Delle Vettovaglie, immediately to the north, have outside tables giving good views of the crowds. Cecco Rivolta at No. 4 has a good wine list as well as beer and cocktails.

Or there are budget beers (€2 for 660ml) at La Volta , a minute’s walk away on via Domenico Cavalca.

Of Pisa’s several microbreweries, the coolest is organic social enterprise La Staffetta .

9. Hotel Alessandro della Spina

Famous for its location and tower views from bedrooms is Hotel Villa Kinzica, but it trades on its position and interiors are tired and dated.

There is much better value south of the river, which also benefits from being near the station. For modern Italian chic, try Hotel Alessandro della Spina (go to hoteldellaspina.it). In a low-rise building, it has dark-wood furniture in cool, pale rooms and a generous buffet breakfast. Rates for a double room start at €64.

10. For those on a budget: Hotel La Pace

Do not be put off by the entrance inside a shopping arcade because Hotel La Pace is a friendly, cheap billet, handy for the station. It has single, double, triple and quad rooms, furnished in vintage solid wood and marble.

Those taking crack-of-dawn flights appreciate the “light” breakfast (€4 a person) available from 4am. A more substantial €7 breakfast includes several hot options. Rates for a double room (no breakfast) start at 50 room,