Chi orienterà le mie vele in mezze al mare?
Who will orient my sails in the middle of the sea?Ovidius, Fasti, 1.466
AFTER living in Pisa for nearly 3 months during my first job as an Au Pair last summer I’m proud to say I’m no tourist to the city. Out of all the places in Italy I’ve visited; tiny Tuscan towns, mountainous trails by the sea, pizza in Naples and navigating my way through narrow Genoan and Venetian streets, in the end Pisa sits at the top of my favorite places in Italy.
Perhaps it’s because of the warm welcome I received from the family I lived with, or perhaps it’s the city’s balance: less than an hour from the sea – from which you are still able to see the mountains. Perhaps it’s the city’s size: small and quiet, yet home to one of the best Italian universities, easily reachable from other metropolitan areas (less than an hour from Florence, and 2-3 hours from Rome). It gets a good amount of tourists, yet you’ll primarily find them around the tower, and certain parts of the city center. Perhaps what gives Pisa its charm is the river that runs through the city’s heart, carrying a history that dates back several millennia.
Pisa rivals Florence in its beauty, is home to the oldest botanical garden in the world, birthplace and home of Galileo Galilei and although it is located further North, it still carries a relaxed feeling that you’ll find in Central and Southern Italy. Pisa lies in the region of Tuscany, it has an international airport, a bus route to the sea, a city center small enough to explore by foot, and numerous hostels, Airbnbs, bed and breakfasts, and hotels. Because of it’s university and airport, you may find it a fairly international city.
Where to stay
B&B Villa Liberty II Lauro
At 65 euro a night, Villa Liberty II Lauro is a short 15 minute walk from the train station. The B&B is a perfectly romantic home located in a residential area of Pisa. Although it is a bit far from the tower (about a 40 minute walk) it is in a nice neighborhood with a post office, beautiful church, cafes and a delicious pizzeria on the same street. I never actually stayed here, but I remember passing it by several times and feeling a bit envious of the guests
I highly recommend checking on Airbnb for a place to stay. I stayed in Pisa for a weekend with my boyfriend and we found a wonderful stay where we were served a large breakfast located in a lovely ‘600s building with frescoes in the city center about 15 minute walk from the leaning tower. Depending on the room you find on Airbnb, the typical pricing for one night will probably be between 30-100 euro.
Within a few steps of the train station, you’ll find Pisa’s Safestay hostel welcoming you with flags from all over the world. It costs around 25 euro a night, and has a lot to offer such as large indoor and outdoor spaces, game tables, and bar & restaurant.
What to see
I. The Arno River
Life as an Au Pair at points could be extremely exhausting. Chasing two kids around, constantly being flooded with a new language. Whenever I had free time on weekends or after a day of work, I would find myself on the viale delle piagge, a beautiful wooded walkway along the Arno. You’ll feel like you’re one of the locals, and it’s the perfect place to gather inspiration for a story…
II. Chiesa di San Michele degli Scalzi
Along the viale delle piagge you’ll find another leaning building, dating back to 1178. It’s worth seeing as it’s out of the tourist area and in a beautiful location along the Arno river. You might even see a wedding take place if you’re lucky!
III. The Museum of Ancient Ships
As someone who is interested in anthropology, and loves learning about ancient cultures and how/ why people in a certain place reacted to and created their environment, my visit to the Museum of Ancient Ships provided me an incredible learning experience. Not often does one find a museum with all the archaeological objects still existing in the place where they originated (Pisa). The museum had lots of interactives and thoughtful design elements that made the history of such an important city easily comprehensible. The museum was created not only for adults in mind, but children as well. It probably ended up being one of the most well done and interesting museums I’ve visited. There’s lots of information, but don’t feel bad if you can’t see it all.
IV. Corso Italia
Corso Italia is the main shopping street in Pisa. It’s beautiful buildings are filled with high end boutique clothing, bookshops to spend hours reading in, restaurants, and gelato. It’s super easy to reach, as you just go directly straight from the train station in Pisa Centrale, across Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele II onto the cobblestone street with no cars. You may find yourself people watching in a cafe, walking by a fountain, or smelling a delicious pizza from the somewhat hidden L’Arciere. If you continue straight down the street you’ll reach the Ponte di mezzo, a beautiful bridge that crosses the river. On the opposite side of the river you will find even more quaint shops as well.
V. Teatro Verdi and Free Concerts at the Sapienza University Concert Hall
Follow your ears and you’ll find music. One night as I walked down a street, I came across the sound of music, so I walked up the steps of the unknown building and came into the entrance of a grand music hall. I asked the man that awaited me for entry to the concert, and he offered me a free ticket. After looking all over google maps for the building and what I found was Pisa’s Sapienza university Orchestra, so I assume they offer free concerts! I also recommend Teatro Verdi for Operas, Concerts, and many more shows.
VI. Keith Haring’s Tuttomondo and other street art
A little known fact that I discovered while living here is that Pisa has a lot of great street art, and graffiti. Spend an afternoon walking through the streets and see what you can find.
VII. The Marina di Pisa
Lose yourself on a beautiful white marble beach in crystal clear water, and you’ll wind up asking yourself are you dreaming? The answer is no. In less than an hour for a cheap bus ticket you’ll arrive on the rocky Marina di Pisa. Walking further down, you’ll eventually reach sand. You may be surprised to hear that the beach is completely free, all you need is a towel and suit.
VIII. The World’s Oldest Botanical Garden
Connected to the University of Pisa, and just a few steps from the leaning tower, the world’s oldest botanical garden is an oasis from the tourists. I found it to be surprisingly quiet. For a 2 euro fee, you can view a beautiful garden, walk along ponds, pass through a greenhouse, and even step inside a small museum. I spent an entire afternoon here, exploring and drawing.
IX. Instituto Linguistico Mediterraneo
Learn Italian above the city’s central Piazza, Vittorio Emmanuele II. After 4 weeks of class, I felt much more confident speaking in Italian. The school also offers activities outside of class such as wine tastings, trips to a pizzeria, among other activities. The class is four hours every morning with a coffee break halfway through.
X. Chiesa di Santa Maria della Spina
XI. Piazza dei Miracoli
You can visit Pisa’s famous Piazza dei Miracoli for free or pay the entrance fee to view inside the historic buildings, and learn more of the history. One of my favorite buildings was the baptistery of Saint John, because of it’s view from the window across from the cathedral, and it’s echo; a tour guide had demonstrated this by singing separated notes that (with the acoustics of the building) were layered on top of each other in such a way that I had thought multiple voices were singing.
XII. Giardino Scotto
A serene park located along the banks of the Arno river, Giardino Scotto houses sculptures, a small playground, and an outside theater used for showing films, music, dance and performances. It resides in the heart of the city center, and is a great place to relax after walking through city streets. Connected to Pisa’s Teatro Verdi, the daily shows begin after 9:30 pm and cost 5 euro or less.
XIII. Luminara Festival
One night a year Pisa has it’s Luminara Festival. On June 16th, all the houses along the Arno river turn out their lights and put candles in the window, the Leaning Tower of Pisa lights up for the only night the entire year, and people gather along the banks of the river. The festivities celebrate the eve of San Ranieri, the city’s patron saint.