Discover Tuscany: Lean into Pisa

pisa tower on summer day
Photo by Shainee Fernando on

Today we’re continuing our Italian Adventures with a daytrip to the charming and beautiful seaside town of Pisa.

Known for its remarkable architectural wonder (or wonderful mistake), The Leaning Tower of Pisa, this city of rich history from The Etruscans to Romans and beyond is a Must-SEE in Tuscany.

If you are in Florence you can easily take a day trip to Pisa via train or pick up a guided tour. Or you can use Pisa as a main stop on your Tuscan tour. The city has an abundance of hotels, restaurants and places of interest to ensure an enjoyable Italian Adventure.

We’re in Pisa for a day and are going to ‘Lean In’ to Pisa’s gorgeous Square of Miracles, where we’ll explore the beautiful Duomo (church), Leaning Tower and Baptistery.

But first…a little history:

Situated in Northwestern Tuscany on the alluvial plain of the Arno River, six miles from the Ligurian Sea, in its prime Pisa was one of the most powerful seaports in Italy (outside of Venice and Genoa).

The ancient city was inhabited by the Ligurians and Etruscans before Roman control took root from 180 BCE, where it remained a Roman colony until 313 CE. At that time it became a Christian bishopric.

  • Fun history: 313 CE/AD was the year Constantine made Christianity legal with The Edict of Milan.
  • Milan was an important naval base for the Romans.

Pisa survived the collapse of The Western Roman Empire, continuing to be a key economic city in Tuscan. By the 11th century it was a flourishing commercial area.

In the 13th-century Pisa and Florence became bitter rivals (due to a division over central power – Rome or the Holy Roman Emperor)…It also warred with rival seaport Genoa as well.

  • A bit of Italian history is like an episode of Game of Thrones – you’ll never get bored and the action is always evolving like a real life soap opera.

The crown jewel of the city is it’s glorious cathedral and baptistery and while the tower never was supposed to lean, in an act of grace it has no doubt put Pisa on a must see map for travelers.

church building with a dome roof
Photo by Siegfried Poepperl on Pisa Baptistery

With a city as rich in history as Pisa there is tons to see and do. Like all of Italy, Pisans take food seriously and have a wonderful food and social culture steeped in wine, fresh fish and delicious entrees.

Today we’re ‘traveling by train’ on our virtual adventure and meeting with a guide at The Campo dei Miracoli (campo means field in Italian and is usually smaller than a Piazza, although the Campo in Pisa is also called a Piazza by some).

This public square is helmed by architectural gem The Cathedral of Pisa (Duomo), The Baptistery and Leaning Tower.

It is said that it dubbed The Square of Miracles because the architectural feats and beauty of the Cathedral are miraculous and no doubt evoke the faithful to a humble hope as they stand in the shadow (and light) of the Cathedral and nearby buildings.

Get to know the Pisa Cathedral:

What’s awesome about Italy is you can tour dozens of churches and never cease to be amazed because each is so unique and rises to new heights.

Pisa’s Duomo is uniquely Pisan – in fact it is built in a style known as Pisan Romanesque.

The cathedral’s foundations began in 1063 under the guidance of architect Buscheto. It was consecrated in 1118. It was built in the style of a Roman Basilica with a 320 ft. nave (longest in Italy when built), with 68 Corinthian Columns and 5 Aisles.

The Cathedral mixes the traditional Romanesque with Arabesque elements. While many Gothic and Romanesque churches have a fortress like quality to them, Pisa’s Cathedral is light and elegant in its tight rows of columns and striped marble.

  • The Arabesque and Moorish elements come from the fact Pisa fought off Moorish and Islamic Invaders and the church acquired some of the spoils from the victory. Learn more here.

As you enter on the southside, a bronze door built in 1180 by Bonanno Pisano welcomes you with biblical scenes.

Like many churches in the Medieval and Renaissance eras – the facade and interior continued to be embellished over the centuries (just like we would add on to our own churches today)

The exterior of the Duomo is adorned with mosaics that glitter in the sunlight.

The interior is stunning and features art and architecture by the beautiful columns and sculptures. It includes frescoes by Medieval artists and precursor to The Renaissance Cimabue

Arguably the most important work of art in the Cathedral is the pulpit, which was designed by Giovanni Pisano. Completed around 1300 AD, nearly 100 years before the main beginnings of The Italian Renaissance, this pulpit inspired Michelangelo – who studied it at length and marveled at it’s beauty.

The facade of the church

facade of gray concrete building
Photo by Krzysztof Biernat on

You can plan your visit to the Cathedral and it’s Opera dell’Duomo museum on their website or using a private tour guide that arranges the tickets and entry for you.

Perhaps even more marvelous than the Cathedral is The Baptistery.

  • In the Medieval era and early Renaissance you could not enter a church without being baptized, so the Baptistery was separate.

The Pisa Baptistery is the largest in Italy at 54.86 mi high and a diamter of 34.13 meters.

  • It is an example of the transition fro Romanesque to Gothic, while incorporating unique Pisan elements.
  • Construction started in 1152 to replace and older baptistery. It was not fully completed until 1363
  • The Baptistery was designed by Diotisalvi and you can see his signature inside the building – no doubt he was proud of this accomplishment in architecture.
  • The interior is mean to be a bit stark in decoration, except for the pulpit designed by Nicola Pisano (Giovanni’s father)
    • They were also charged with the bulding of The Siena Cathedral
  • Fun fact: Renowned scientist Galileo Gailei was baptized in the Pisa Baptistery
    • Galileo was inspired to by the Pisa Cathedral and Tower to conduct important scientific experiments.
      • In 1583, after observing a lamp sway in the Cathedral of Pisa, he began to investigate the reasoning behind this otherwise simple occurance. It led to his work to discover iscochronism of pendulums.
      • Between 1589-1592, Galileo also conducted a series test off the Leaning Tower about speed and descent. You can learn more here.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa – architecture’s best mistake

The tower was not meant to lean, and yet it’s leaning ways have captivated travelers for centuries.

So why does this tower lean? Poor craftsmanship? Not completely…

Pisa’s location near the sea makes it have a sandy and loose soil that actually makes most builds sag and lean a little bit. In fact it is said that Pisa comes from a word meaning marshy land.

The Tower had already started to lean when they built the first three stories, but pressed on and recruited the best engineering minds of the day to get it straight…it didn’t quite work, and yet it has remained and is safe to climb. A recent structural restoration has ensured you can climb this Leaning Tower safely for at least 200 more years.

Facts about The Leaning Tower:

  • The construction of the Tower began in 1173 and finished in 1399.
  • Multiple architects and engineers worked on the Tower including: Bonanno Pisano, Gherardo di Gherado, Giovanni Pisano, Giovanni di Simone
  • It is not the only tower that leans in Pisa, the shifting marshy ground have also caused the bell towers at the church of St. Michel dei Scalzi and St. Nicola to lean
  • It is 186 feet tall
  • More facts here

After touring the main sites in the Square of Miracles it’s time to enjoy a Tuscan meal.

Tuscany is known for its meat dishes and Wild Boar is a popular menu item in Pisa.

If you are in the mood for pasta try the local favorite Pici Pasta, an extra thick hand-rolled version of Spaghetti that has a doughy delicious texture. Learn more about Tuscan foods tips here

On our next Italian adventures we’re staying in the heart of Tuscan with a trip to San Gimignano.

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American Nomad is written by travel and history lover Adele Lassiter.

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