Pisa is mostly famous because of the architectural faux pas that is the Leaning Tower, found in Piazza dei Miracoli. The tower is usually surrounded by visitors taking comical pictures of themselves holding the tower in place. The photo op is irresistible, but Pisa is much more than just a funny bucket list item. This Italian city is also a college town, home to the prestigious Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies, Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa and Universitá di Pisa, three very competitive institutions of higher learning. Because of this, cafés and bars are everywhere, with exciting menus and tasty espresso. A river, called the Arno, carves up the old part of the city, the waters flowing past green, yellow and orange palazzos. The streets that travel along the river in Pisa are called lugarnos. These streets are flanked by palaces and charming hotels. Romantic bridges criss cross the bank. Lively markets pop up in the mornings near the river and inundate the lugarnos with cheerful chatter. Pisa is not just about a tilted tower, it’s a postcard into the heart of Italy.
Like Italians the country over, most locals in Pisa start their day with an espresso and a pastry or two. L’Ostellino on Piazza Felice Cavallotti is the premier place in town for a light breakfast. Expect coffee made to perfection and sweet or savory cakes and baked goods that will kickstart your day. The cafe also serves perfectly sized sandwiches filled to the brim with fresh veggies and salumi, which you can take away to enjoy as you tour the city by foot.
Tuscan flavors are at the heart of many dishes in Pisa. For a taste of what this region has to offer, places like Osteria dei Cavaliery are a must visit. Come for the low-lit and warm osteria vibes, stay for the flan cheese with cranberry bean sauce, osso buco with saffron rice, and pasta frita. The restaurant offers a wide range of wines, one of the favorites being the Chianti Classico from Il Poggio, a vineyard only two hours away from Pisa by car.
Numeroundici is a different kind of restaurant. It is completely self-service and visitors sit at long communal tables where striking up conversation with strangers is made easy and encouraged. The happy noise of satiated diners only adds to its charm. Numeroundici is stylish despite its relaxed vibe and convivial atmosphere. The interior is rustic, with wooden beams and tables dominating the space. Exposed brick and oval lanterns float over those eating below. The rules are easy to follow: Order from the chalkboard menu and when the food is ready, the staff will let you know so you can set up your own table as if you were at home. Diners bus their own tables to make way for the next guests. Numeroundici is a favorite among locals and tourists alike thanks to its pesto gnocchi, which are so good, they melt on the tongue. Vegans head here for the Vegan potato and black cabbage croquettes, which are flaky and seasoned to perfection.
As for bars, La Chupiteria, on Mediceo street, is famous for their psychedelic drinks and shot cocktails that feature neon colors in cool swirly shapes. The bar is right by the Arno river and makes for a great stop for a fun drink after dinner.
Of course, a visit to Pisa could never be complete without a fun picture next to the Leaning Tower, located inside Campo dei Miracoli. Next to the tower are two must-see attractions: the Duomo and the baptistery. Access to this location is free, but access to the tower requires a fee, which also includes access to the cathedral. Going up the steep steps of the leaning tower is exhilarating and a bit tiring—one can try to imagine what Galileo Galilei felt when he did the same so long ago. Once at the very top, however, the views of Pisa are worth it.
Mura di Pisa is the main entrance to Piazza dei Miracoli and provides wide views of the plaza and the Leaning Tower. Built in the 12th century, the wall has been carefully preserved to retain its original beauty. It’s a special perspective of Pisa, one rarely visited by tourists and a great alternative to the crowds that surround the Leaning Tower.
Another great stop is the Duomo cathedral, built in 1064. The Romanesque church is just another example of the style found throughout Tuscany. The Duomo’s facade was exquisitely constructed and features granite columns, a ceiling adorned with 24-carat gold and bronze doors. The inside is just as glorious with a 14th-century pulpit, nude sculptures and Gothic details.
Pisa quiets down at night but that doesn’t mean you should just head up after an early dinner. Locals flock to the riverbank, for romantic strolls or quiet contemplation. Couples buy gelato from Di Toto, one of the best ice creameries in the city, families frolic at the parks along the river and tourists snap pictures of the yellow palazzos that dot the shore.
The Hotel Pisa Tower is just 100 yards away from the Leaning Tower and it’s also luxurious and cheap, a rare find indeed. The hotel is classic in its decor, with pastel colors throughout. Rooms, spread across two buildings, feature cast iron beds and yellow walls. A lovely garden with a gazebo and statues of cherubs is the perfect place to decompress. Continental breakfast is included and guests can enjoy a cocktail or two at the on-site bar.
AC Hotel Pisa, though a bit removed from the city center, offers a modern alternative to the classic hotels in the area. Sleek furniture and muted colors create a contemporary look, while creature comforts such as flatscreen TVs, a 24-hour fitness area and buffet breakfast make for a pleasant stay.