48 Hours In: Pisa

The gateway to Tuscany is worth a visit in its own right, to explore ancient landmarks, fine food and glittering festivities, says Nick Boulos

Travel essentials

Why go now?

It may be seen by many as simply the gateway to Florence – 65km to the east – but the fine Tuscan city of Pisa has much to lure travellers: Renaissance landmarks delectable cuisine, a charming riverside location and one very famous leaning tower.

What's more, next month marks its most magical celebration. The Luminara di San Ranieri festivities – during which more than 120,000 candles are floated down the River Arno – takes place on 16 June followed the next day by a regatta held in the name of San Ranieri, the city's patron saint.

The Independent Travel Offers: Our favourite Pisa holiday

Touch down

Pisa has good links from the UK: easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) flies from Bristol, Gatwick and Luton; British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow and Gatwick; Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Bournemouth, Edinburgh, Leeds/Bradford, Liverpool, Stansted and East Midlands; and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) from Leeds/Bradford, Manchester, Newcastle and East Midlands.

Pisa's Galileo Galilei airport is just 1km south of the city centre. The Rossa airport bus departs from outside the arrivals hall every 10 minutes from 7.25am to midnight (cpt.pisa.it). It stops at Pisa Centrale station (1), travels along the Arno and up to Via Bonanno Pisano (2). A one-way fare is €1.20. A taxi to anywhere in the city should cost a maximum of €10.

Other travellers may arrive by train from Florence, a journey of about an hour. Services terminate at Pisa Centrale (1) on Piazza della Stazione.

Get your bearings

Divided in two by the River Arno, the heart of Pisa is the Santa Maria quarter on the north bank. Here, you'll find the Leaning Tower (3) and Duomo (4) (cathedral), both of which are part of the Unesco-protected Opera della Primaziale complex (www.opapisa.it).

On the other bank is Sant Antonio, a district also worth attention for its striking architecture. In a previous life, Pisa ruled supreme in Tuscany. For centuries a powerful naval base, it even overshadowed Venice. But the good times came to an end in 1284, when it was defeated by the rival maritime republic of Genoa in the Battle of Meloria. You can find a tourist information office (00 39 050 502 518; pisaunicaterra.it; 9.30am-9.30pm daily) tucked inside Centrale station (1).

Check in

The views don't get much better than from the Relais I Miracoli (5) at Via Santa Maria 187 (00 39 050 560 572; relaisimiracoli.it). Some of the stylish rooms overlook the Leaning Tower. The original 12th-century frescos add character. Doubles from €151, including breakfast.

On the other side of the river is the Hotel Bologna (6) at Via Giuseppe Mazzini 57 (0039 050 502120; hotelbologna.pisa.it). Rooms are spacious and pleasant, and there's a free shuttle bus to the airport. Doubles from €118, including breakfast.

The 160-year-old Royal Victoria Hotel (7) at Lungarno Pacinotti 12 (00 39 050 940 111; royalvictoria.it), is a good budget option. Doubles from €60, with breakfast.

A river runs through it: the Arno splits Pisa in two A river runs through it: the Arno splits Pisa in two (Getty) Day One

Take a view

Where else but from the top of Europe's most iconic belltower? The Leaning Tower of Pisa (3) on Piazza del Duomo (www.opapisa.it; 8.30am-8.30pm; €18) – built in the 12th and 13th centuries atop a shifting foundation of sand and clay – stands at 56m tall and currently tilts at an angle of four degrees. The view encompasses the city's countless churches and medieval towers, the Port of Tuscany and the distant Apuan Alps.

Only 45 people are permitted to the top every 15 minutes, so book ahead to secure your slot.

Take a hike

Don't rush away from Piazza del Duomo too hastily. Buy a €9 ticket for entry to all the monuments (except the Leaning Tower). Once you've marvelled at Buffalmacco's Triumph of Death mural in the Camposanto (8) and roamed through the Duomo (4), which was once the largest in Europe, walk south along Via Santa Maria, a street lined with souvenir shops and pretty buildings painted yellow with green shutters.

Turn left on Piazza Felice Cavallotti and stroll along Via dei Mille and on to Via Corsica, passing the 12th-century stone Chiesa di San Sisto (9) on your right.

You'll emerge on to the grand Piazza dei Cavalieri (10), or Square of the Knights, formerly the heart of the Pisan Republic. Today, many of its Renaissance buildings with decorative façades house the city's university. Watch out for students speeding by on their bicycles.

Lunch on the run

Discreetly tucked away nearby, the family-run restaurant Il Montino (11) at Vicolo del Monte 1 (00 39 050 598 695; pizzeriailmontino.com; closed Sundays) claims to be Pisa's first pizzeria and dates back to the 1800s. The frittella di grano with salami and artichoke cooked in an old brick oven is not to be missed. Pizzas from €5.50.

Window shopping

Pedestrianised Corso Italia (12), south of the river, is Pisa's premier shopping strip with department stores and budget outlets. Across the Ponte di Mezzo are Borgo Stretto and Via Guglielmo Borgo Largo (13) – both good shopping streets. The latter has interesting shops specialising in clothes, books and antiques, such as Antiquariato at No 49. Shops are closed on Sundays.

An aperitif

Amaltea (14) at Lungarno Mediceo 49 (00 39 328 054 6994; 10am-2am daily) serves Tuscan wines and cocktails from €5 alongside a free aperitivo of croquettes and meatballs. Grab a seat outside overlooking the picture perfect Piazza Cairole.

Dining with the locals

Book a table at Pergoletta (15) at Via della Belle Torri 36 (00 39 050 542458; ristorantelapergoletta.com; 7pm-11.30pm, closed Mondays). Chatty owner, Daniela, will guide you through the menu, but you can't go wrong with the fish ragu served with homemade pappardelle (€10).

Elsewhere, dine on typical Tuscan dishes, such as roasted cod with chickpeas, while admiring the reportedly 1,000-year-old brick columns behind the bar at Osteria La Mescita (16) at Via Cavalca 2 (00 39 050 957 019; www.osteria amescitapisa.com; 7.30pm-11pm, closed Mondays). Mains start from €10.

Day Two

Sunday morning: go to church

Beyond the large studded doors of the 11th-century Church of San Francesco (17) on Piazza San Francesco (9am-1pm, 3.30-7pm Sunday; 7.30am-noon, 4-7pm Monday-Saturday) is a simple, cavernous interior that was once used as stables. Napoleon's troops destroyed the original windows but the replacements are bright and bold – one is even said to feature Mussolini (clutching a sword and shield). Also check out the original ceiling frescos and replica of the Turin Shroud. Sunday mass takes place at 10am and noon.

Out to brunch

Sit outside at Salza (18) at Borgo Sretto 46 (00 39 050 580144; www.salza.it; closed Mondays) and order one of the 11 speciality coffees. The most decadent is the signature Salza – served with chocolate, Chantilly cream and a base of sponge cake (€2.20). There are also tasty sandwiches, from €4.

Cultural afternoon

If you've already spent enough time at Opera della Primaziale complex, head to the riverside Museo Nazionale di San Matteo (19) at Piazza San Matteo (00 39 050 541865; www.ambientepi.arti.beniculturali.it; 8am-2pm Sunday, to 7.30pm other days; €5). Part of a Benedictine nunnery from the 1200s, it houses medieval works and stars Donatello's bust of San Lussorio.

A walk in the park

Stroll through the Giardino Scotto (20) on Lungarno Leonardo Fibonacci (9.30am-6pm daily; free), designed by Giovanni Caluri. The tall central plane tree is said to have been planted specifically for a 1930s theatrical performance by Italian playwright Charles Goldoni.

Take a ride

Consider a short jaunt to the glorious fortified city of Lucca, 26km north-east, a Roman colony in 180BC. Trains depart Pisa Centrale (1) for Lucca roughly every half hour (5.25am-9.50pm), taking 30 minutes for a one-way fare of €3.30.

Stroll the 4km of tall medieval walls and tackle the 207 steps to the top of the 13th-century Torre Civica delle Ore clocktower before relaxing with a strong espresso on Piazza Anfiteatro.

Icing on the cake

The domed Baptistery of St John (21), near the Leaning Tower on Piazza del Duomo (9am-6pm; €5, also included on combo tickets), is worth visiting not just for the intricate marble pulpit sculpted by Nicola Pisano but for the incredible acoustics. Every half hour, the keeper locks the door, requests silence and proceeds to sing. Each note echoes around the chamber for up to 12 seconds.

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