Italy travel guide: How to spend 48 hours in Pisa?

Italy travel guide: How to spend 48 hours in Pisa? Photo/Getty Images

There’s a lot more to do in Pisa than just the leaning tower, and with lower prices than alternative Italian cities it’s a good destination for your wallet too, writes Kate Wickers

Most visitors don’t linger in Pisa, preferring to check out the famous Torre Pendente (leaning tower) and then quickly move on to elsewhere in Tuscany. However, this historic city is worth a visit and a much cheaper option than Lucca or Florence. Best of all, once the day trippers have left, you’ll have the city to yourself, and a wide choice of bars, cafes and restaurants to choose from, all thriving thanks to the great University of Pisa, and offering authentic food at excellent prices . value (no grazie to soggy pizza that costs €20 here!).

DAY ONE

MORNING

Start with a stroll along the banks of the Arno River to the three-story waterfront church of Chiesa di Santa Maria della Spina, a Gothic gem with towering spiers and statues. To eat breakfast like an Italian, cross the Ponte di Mezzo bridge to Borgo Stretto and one of the many cafes under ancient colonnades (covered walkways). A pastry with marmalada filling and espresso costs just €6 at Caffeteria Cellini. From here, my advice is to put your map away and merrily get lost among the stringed, ocher alleys of Pisa’s oldest neighborhoods (and don’t forget to look up to see the architectural details and beautiful balconies not to be missed). You’re spoiled for choice when it comes to simple museums to browse (most are in historic buildings). Visit the riverside Palazzo Blu – a pale blue 14th-century building housing Pisan art from the 14th to 20th centuries (entry costs just €6) – or the intriguing Gipsoteca di Arte Antica, with its collection of late 19th-century art plaster casts , kept in the former church of San Paolo all ‘Orto (free admission).

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The Arno River in Pisa with Chiesa di Santa Maria della Spina.  Photo/Getty Images
The Arno River in Pisa with Chiesa di Santa Maria della Spina. Photo/Getty Images

AFTERNOON

Book a traditional Pisan cooking class, which you can enjoy in a local’s home, and learn how to prepare nonna-style Tuscan recipes such as Cecina, a chickpea flatbread, or opt for a food and wine tour. Think focaccia, artisanal meats and cheese from Northern Italy, washed down with Chianti. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is one of Italy’s most striking landmarks and is located, along with the beautiful candy-striped duomo and baptistery, in the beautiful Piazza dei Miracoli. Save your visit to the tower until late afternoon/early evening (in the spring months it is open until 8 p.m.; from mid-June to the end of August until 10 p.m.; so the best advice is to book a ticket in advance in the evening the tour buses have left). To avoid the crowds again, save the cathedral and baptistery until early the next morning.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa is one of Italy's most striking landmarks.  Photo / Daryan Shamkhali on Unsplash
The Leaning Tower of Pisa is one of Italy’s most striking landmarks. Photo / Daryan Shamkhali on Unsplash

EVENING

Ristorante La Buca has been a fixture in Pisa’s dining scene since the 1980s. Standout dishes here include creamy burrata with anchovies, paccheri (large tubular pasta) with a seafood ragu, and not to be missed is their signature pistachio soufflé (a three-course meal with wine costs around €30 per person).

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DAY TWO

MORNING

Most accommodation in Pisa is on the old-fashioned side, so it’s worth staying at Palazzo Cini, an award-winning boutique hotel (if this were in Florence it would be double the price). Start the day with breakfast in their beautiful, flower-filled garden and then head straight to the Duomo (although entry is free, you still need a ticket and it’s best to book in advance). The oldest parts date from 1064, but the facade was completed in the 13th century. Not to be missed is the wooden ceiling decorated with 24-carat gold, and the 14th-century octagonal pulpit, sculpted from Carrara marble. Then head to the beautiful round baptistery next door, and the Camposanto, an attractive cemetery within an enclosed quadrangle. For a cheap student-style lunch, grab a slice of takeaway pizza from Pizzeria Rosemary and then relax on the central lawn of Piazza dei Miracoli with a view of the Leaning Tower – by now the marble will glow beautifully in the afternoon sun.

The oldest parts of the Duomo of Pisa date from 1064. Photo / Getty Images
The oldest parts of the Duomo of Pisa date from 1064. Photo / Getty Images

AFTERNOON

Far from the hustle and bustle, enjoy a stroll through the Orto e Museo Botanico – a walled garden oasis full of palms, ponds and antique greenhouses, home to Europe’s oldest university botanical collection, dating back to 1543. Another hidden gem is Centro Arte in Pisa. Moderna, dedicated mainly to Tuscan contemporary art and photography from the second half of the 20th century to the present (don’t miss the work of artists Franco Banti and Mario Meucci).

EVENING

At sunset, walk the newly restored city walls for dreamy light over the Leaning Tower and Piazza dei Miracoli. These medieval walls were built in the 12th century and have recently been restored. You reach them via the stairs in Torre Santa Maria (a round tower behind the baptistery). From the entrance, guided tours cost just €2, but must be booked in advance, or you can do them on your own. Stop for a Campari soft drink (which comes with complimentary garlic bread) at the cozy I’Antica Bottega, then stroll to Piazza dei Cavalieri, lined with impressive buildings such as the striking Palazzo dei Cavalieri, the most prestigious building of the University of Pisa , beautifully illuminated by night.

The city of Pisa, Italy at sunset.  Photo / Johan Mouchet on Unsplash
The city of Pisa, Italy at sunset. Photo / Johan Mouchet on Unsplash

STAY

Double rooms at Palazzo Cini, an Art Noveau villa with garden (a 20-minute walk from Piazza dei Miracoli), start at NZ$320. palazzocinilux.com

Checklist

PISA, ITALY

GET THERE

Fly from Auckland to Rome with Emirates, Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines with one stop. The driving time from Rome to Pisa is approx. 4 hours, or 2 hours and 40 minutes by train.

DETAILS

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