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Pisa lies along the Arno River, about six miles from the Ligurian Sea and 20 miles from the port city of Livorno, where most cruise ships stop before visitors decide whether to head off to Pisa or Florence.
While Florence is more renowned than Pisa, it wasn't always that way. During the Middle Ages, Pisa was the most powerful city in all of Tuscany. Its power began to erode at about the same time as Florence began to flourish under the Medici family.
Of course, while the city may not be a world leader anymore, no one can deny that one of the most famous buildings in the entire world continues to bring visitors from all over to marvel at the perennially challenged Leaning Tower of Pisa. Designed by Bonnano Pisano in 1173, the building was already three stories high before it was discovered that the ground it was being built upon was soft clay, not solid stone. Construction ceased for a while, but eventually the listing building was completed.
Although the Leaning Tower overshadows everything in Pisa, there is more to see and do here. Pisa's history is aching to be discovered, and a series of fine museums and galleries recall the city's better days. So after you take your picture holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, be sure to stick around for a while and see what else the city has to offer.
Naturally, the first thing to do here is to see the world-famous Leaning Tower of Pisa (in Italian, Torre pendente di Pisa or Torre di Pisa). The tower was started by Bonnano Pisano in 1173. It was originally intended as a bell tower to complement the Duomo, which was already built. Unfortunately, construction was already well underway before it was discovered that the ground beneath the foundation was made of clay. Of course, a clay foundation is not very sturdy, and over time the tower has listed 14 feet.
Pisa's Duomo would be world renowned, if it wasn't perpetually overshadowed by its leaning neighbor. Designed in 1063, the Duomo is an example of magnificent architecture. Pay particular attention to the arches at the top, each arch decreasing in size as they ascend. Inside, the Duomo holds more treasures, including Galileo's lamp, reputed to have belonged to the world-famous astronomer, and an impressive mosaic, Christ Pancrator, dating back to the 1200s.
The nearby Museo delle Sinople (Piazza del Duomo, 050-560-547) houses priceless sketches from the 1300s. Artists such as Gaddi and Traini are represented here. Sculpture fans will be delighted at the Museo Nazionale di San Matteo (Piazzetta San Matteo 1, 050-541-865). Sculptures dating back almost one thousand years are housed here.
Pisa's shopping scene centers on the Leaning Tower. There are shops selling replicas and other assorted memorabilia all over town. For other shopping needs, try Piazza Vettovaglie, which holds an open-air market every day. If you happen to be in town during the second weekend of each month, you can catch the antique fair at Ponte di Mezzo. The locals come out to peddle their wares, and there is sure to be something there that catches your eye. Lastly, you can combine shopping with entertainment on Via Borgo Stretto, where street performers enchant you as you shop.
If you're lucky enough to be in Pisa on the last Sunday in June, you are definitely in for a treat! The Gioco del Ponte is a town-wide tug of war. The city divides itself into four parts for this annual competition, which evokes memories of Pisa's former prominence. After a festive parade, the competition begins. The rivalry is a healthy one, and everyone always goes home a winner!
La Grotta (Via San Francesco 103, 050-578-105) seems lifted from an Italian postcard. The ambience is matched by the high-quality Italian offerings on the menu. Reservations are essential, as the small dining room often fills up fast. La Polena (Piazza Belvedere 24, 050-384-125) specializes in seafood. The comfortable dining room provides a muted ambience that is much appreciated in a world of sensory overload.
L'Ostelleno (1 Piazza Cavallotti), favored by locals, is a traditional paninoteca specializing in varied sandwiches of meats, cheeses and vegetables. Within eyeshot of the tower, Ristorante Antonietta (179 Via Santa Maria) specializes in pizza and pasta.
La Artilafo (Via Volturno 38, 050-27-010) serves up Tuscan specialties. Al Ristoro dei Vecchi Macelli (Via Volturno 49, 050-20-424) is a Pisan staple. A favorite among the locals, this restaurant is sure to become one of your favorites, as well. Emilio (Via del Cammeo 44, 050-562-141) is a great place to stop for a bite to eat while visiting the Leaning Tower or the Duomo.
Pisa restaurants recommended by Cruise Travel magazine: Osteria del Porton Rosso (11 Via del Porton Rosso), Osteria Bernardo (1 Piazza San Paolo All'Orto) and Trattoria La Buca (171 Via Santa Maria).
Livorno is the starting point for excursions to more famous Pisa and Florence. If you're planning to travel to Pisa or Florence for the day, we recommend that you book an excursion. Excursions typically get to cut to the front of the line.
If you decide to stay in the port of Livorno, you can either take a walking tour around “Little Venice” (the historic quarter) or go on a downtown shopping trip. The water canals and warehouses, which were built in the 17th Century by the Medici family, were to support merchants’ trade in the city. To get an impression of the daily life in Tuscany, visit the Central Market. In this impressive building, which resembles Parisian architecture, you find a decent selection of seafood, fruits and vegetables. Take a coffee from one of the bars, and continue your shopping tour in downtown. There are many scenic waterfront restaurants to choose from.
Livorno museums include the 19th century Villa Mimbelli, which houses regional art in a beautiful setting. Villa Henderson, is another lovely museum that contains the natural history of the Mediterranean and its grounds include a botanical garden.
Pisa and Livorno can be hot and crowded in summer, especially in the tourist areas. In Pisa, many tourists come for the day only so if you're visiting in high season, you might want to spend the night and enjoy the sites in the morning or evening. Spring and fall are the most pleasant times to visit Pisa and Livorno.
Cruise ships dock in an industrial port in Livorno. To leave the port, you’ll need to take a bus that brings you to the Piazza Grande in the town center of Livorno.
Bus transportation: Cruise lines make it complicated to reach other destinations outside of Livorno. From the drop-off on the Piazza Grande, you’ll have to take the bus No. 1 to get to the central train station of Livorno to leave town.
Train transportation: Trains from the central station of Livorno leave for Pisa, Florence and Lucca. Pisa is 20 miles (30 kilometers) away. Florence is 55 miles (90 kilometers) away.
Many bars and restaurants offer free wi-fi. Look for a sign “Wi-fi - Internet Gratis” to find these spots.
Documents: U.S. and Canadian citizens will need a valid passport.
Tipping: As in most of Europe, tipping isn’t expected in Italy. A service charge is sometimes added to the bill. Some may also add an extra charge for the dinnerware and extras (tablecloth, silverware, plates, bread, etc.); this is normal.
Store hours: Stores are generally open Monday to Saturday from 10:30 am to 1 pm and from 4 to 7:30 pm. There are many smaller souvenir kiosks near the entrance to the port that remain open throughout the day.
Safety: Pisa and Livorno are not dangerous cities but always beware of pickpockets and purse snatchers. These are pretty common activities against tourists. We suggest you carry only what you need and keep the rest locked up on the ship.
How about you? Have you been to Pisa? What would you recommend to a day visitor? Share a photo or tip!
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“With less than 100,000 residents, Pisa is much smaller than Florence (home to about 375,000) and much more manageable to explore during a day in port. Plus, cruise-callers choosing to visit Pisa will spend about two hours less time on a bus than those heading off to Florence.”