I’ve been to Pisa about a dozen times. Over the years, I’ve taken students with my study abroad program, as well as family, and friends to Pisa because it’s a place of interest and often associated with Italy itself. When people think of Italy, Rome comes to mind first, then perhaps Venice, and most likely, Pisa next. And associating images with places is natural. The Coliseum represents Rome, gondolas, Venice, and the Leaning Tower, Pisa.
Often, however, these places become an item on a punch list. Go there, see it, snap a pic, and leave. And while this is the way we travel sometimes—to see the most possible in the time we have, I’ve learned to slow it down a little and have a look around. What I’ve observed, especially in Pisa, is that people get off of the bus, push through the gates of the Piazza dei Miracoli and head straight for the tower. Swarms of people take pictures in front of the leaning tower, arm out, as if holding it up. I get it—it’s iconic. And yes, I’ve done it too at one time. It’s fun and funny and our friends and family at home love to see these pics of us. But there’s more to Pisa than the tower!
One of my favorite things to do in Pisa is to spend time in the other buildings. The cathedral, for instance, is one of Italy’s most beautiful, I believe, and one often missed because the Tower completely overshadows everything in this Piazza. Once people take a picture by the Tower and the tour to walk up and around it, they do a little shopping at the booths that line one side of the square and leave. Wait, you’re missing it! I want to tell them as I sit on the lush grass outside. I only discovered the Cathedral, Baptistery, and Cemetery myself, after taking students on a tour there. Then, after the first year, I opted out of the tower and hung out in these other places while they explored and took pics.
Besides being a cool sanctuary on hot summer days, the Cathedral is really breathtaking. I’ve seen a lot of churches and cathedrals in Italy, and this one with its Romanesque architecture is most definitely high on the list, as far as I’m concerned. It’s not overwhelmingly large, so it feels real, accessible. Moorish-inspired arches line the sides of the cathedral, and there are more arches as you walk toward the altar. Black and white striped marble—characteristic of the Tuscan region architecture—can be found on high columns. A wooden roof with concentric square carvings is a recent addition, after a fire there, warms the space.
The Cathedral was started in 1093 by Buscheto (who is buried by the last arch in the cathedral). A fire in 1595 brought interesting restorations, so that some of the art work is from the original time period while other work is in the style of the Renaissance artists. An interesting mix. I really love the apse, which is of Christ Pancrator, a 13th century mosaic completed by Cimabue.
Once you’ve spent some time in the Cathedral, you should wander over to the Baptistery. Started in 1152 and completed in 1363, it is the largest baptistery in Italy and is a good example of the transition from the Romanesque to the Gothic style. It is simple in design but what makes it unique is the acoustics. The interior is octagonal and has a font in the center. Designed with a cupola at the top by Nicola Pisano, the baptistery is the pitch perfect place for music or singing, a resonating chamber of sorts. Check it out here.
The cemetery, or Camposanto Monumentale, contains many blind arches and three chapels. It was built with soil brought back from the Crusades to Golgotha. There are sarcophagi throughout the building, some of the sculpted monuments on the floors are roped off but many can be easily seen up close. Several frescoes remain, and one of the most interesting is the Triumph of Death. A bombing and subsequent fire by Allied forces in 1944 destroyed much of the wood and some of the artwork in the Camposanto, but it was later restored to a degree. It’s a very peaceful place, and worth spending some time there.
Sitting outside on the grass, looking around the Piazza, especially further back from the Tower, is a nice way to take a break from the hustle and bustle the Tower brings. Also, wandering the streets that lead away from the Piazza is interesting as well. And I’ve only really talked about the Piazza and its immediate surroundings. The rest of Pisa is worth exploring as well. The University of Pisa, the 10th oldest university in Italy, is here and definitely a place to check out. There are also events going on in this city that are interesting and make it a fun place to spend more than just an hour or two than are generally spent. I’d definitely recommend planning several hours when visiting Pisa. If you want to go in the Tower, there may be a waiting list, so you’ll need to plan for that. More importantly, try to spend time in the places around the Tower—the Cathedral, Baptistery, and Cemetery. They’re really beautiful and unique places that you’ll be hard pressed to find elsewhere.