Poor Pisa. One of Tuscany’s most popular daytrip destinations, this compact city is generally touted by travelers as being worth nothing more than a quickie. Each morning, visitors are shuttled in by bus and train, flooding the Piazza dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles) where the city’s most famous historic buildings (the most noteworthy of which is, of course, the Leaning Tower) are found. They poke around and take their pleasure for a few hours (which generally amounts to taking goofy photos and enjoying a “traditional” Tuscan lunch somewhere), before returning to Florence or Siena—cities with a little more on offer than a wonky tower. Hardly anyone sticks around for more than half a day. Indeed, most visitors opine that there isn’t much more to Pisa than her listing edifice and is otherwise so banal that she doesn’t even rate a one-night stand.
Truth be told, we would have happily skipped Pisa altogether. The city was never really on our radar, as we had little to no interest in seeing its most famous landmark, both of us certain it was one of those things that was gimmicky, overhyped, and probably more impressive in photos. We were confident the city would be the quintessential tourist trap, filled with stores and restaurants devoted to wooing unsuspecting and undiscerning one-time visitors. We didn’t want to be part of the crowds.
It seemed, however, that the universe had other plans for us. It turns out that Pisa is one of the cheapest gateways to Italy when flying from Paris: Our tickets only set us back €50/~$62US each, INCLUDING one checked bag. Although perhaps more romantic, a train ride across France into Italy would cost far more than this (seriously, train ticket prices in France are best described as “heart-attack inducing”) and take far longer than 2 hours, so kicking off our two weeks in Italy with a stop-over in Pisa was really a no-brainer from a logistical and budgetary standpoint. Once we purchased the tickets, it seemed foolish to arrive in Pisa and not bother to see any of the sights, so we hopped online to see if we could find a CouchSurfing host who might be a good fit for us and be willing to show us the town. When Irene, an awesome post-doctoral student at the local university, opened her home (and her futon) to us and said she could host us for a couple of nights, we suddenly found ourselves scheduling in a two-night visit to “Love It & Leave It” Pisa.
I have often found that Happenstance is a way better trip planner than I am, and Pisa was no exception. Far be it for a travel writer to denigrate other guides and blogs, but if I had listened to the popular wisdom found on the internet, we would have given Pisa a pass, or possibly only allotted it half a day of our time. Both of these options would have been a mistake for us because, quite simply, we found Pisa to be a delight. Far from finding the city crowded and overly concerned with catering to tourists, we found most of Pisa to be refreshingly down-to-earth and really pretty tranquil and chill. Most ironically given that it’s the reining queen of quickie visits, I know part of why we enjoyed our visit so much is because we spent more time than the average visitor in Pisa, not less.
Let me explain: As I said earlier, most people race to Pisa in the morning and depart by early afternoon. They make a beeline to the Leaning Tower, which is nestled alongside the city’s main cathedral, the ornately carved Baptistry, and an expansive Roman cemetery filled with sculptures and art. Between the hours of 9 am and 2 pm, this area of the city is, unsurprisingly, swarming with masses of your stereotypical tourists.
All of these buildings are beautiful, by the way, so I don’t fault anyone for wanting to visit them. It’s just that it can sometimes be a bit much, and it can be easy to overlook the attractions for the tourism circus that engulfs them during the day.
Visit later in the afternoon or—even better—late in the evening when there is little more than moonlight and a sky blanketed with stars to light the cobbled streets and the ancient buildings, and it’s a completely different experience. The busiest part of the city is now as silent as the grave, and the stark white structures feel ghostly against the velvet black night. Removed from the clamor of the crowds and the sale pitches of the vendors and touts, the structures can work their magic on you. As you stand in the shadows and gaze up, you feel the full force of their history, and their majesty slams into you in a way that the harsh light at noon would otherwise blind you too.
One common report from tourists is that they are surprised by how small the Leaning Tower truly is, that it seems so much bigger in pictures. This is true. In reality, the Leaning Tower is not so much lean and elegant as it is stocky and kind of chunky. But when viewed at night, as it looms up out of the darkness, it really does seem larger than life. To get so close, with no one around feels like you’ve stumbled somewhere you’re not meant to be, like you’ve discovered a secret no one else knows about. Surely, the day-trippers will never know this feeling. Pisa’s Field of Miracles is impressive during the day, but it is at night that you really appreciate why this area is named as it is; at night it is nothing short of miraculous.
I’m glad we gave Pisa more than a few hours, but I do understand why bucketlisters pop by Pisa and leave just as fast. It’s a small city that even the people who live there admit is really just a university town; Irene even recommended that rather than spend the whole day in Pisa, we might want to hop the train and check out neighboring Lucca for a couple of hours lest we get bored.
Pisa may be little more than a quintessential working-class Italian village (albeit, a big one), but that was part of its charm for us (not to mention the fact that it’s actually a very pretty city). We loved that even at peak visiting hours, you could wander away from the Field of Miracles and the main drag with all the tourist shops and restaurants with menus in four different languages, and within five minutes, the crowds would drop to nothing and you’d find yourself in a largely local neighborhood where you’re greeted in Italian rather than whatever language the shopkeeper suspects you speak. Pisans might argue that their city is nice but unremarkable, however we personally reveled in how Italian everything was. Having failed to fall in love with Paris, we traipsed through the back streets of Pisa with an added bounce in our step, luxuriating in the golden Tuscan sunshine and breezes that smelled downright crisp and sweet compared to the urine-tinged aromas of Paris. Traveling has taught us that even the mundane can be beautiful when it’s played out on a foreign stage. That sense of “otherness” makes the familiar fascinating.
Our time in Pisa was spent strolling alongside the Arno and getting lost in the twisting maze of alleyways that snake from the center of town.
We browsed a local vegetable market, and then went to a popular haunt for penny-pinching students at lunch time and ordered one of the city’s few culinary specialties: chick pea fritters (a bit like polenta) snuggled into a chewy bun.
We shared gelato in a large green square, where we watched Italian lovers sunbathe and pack on the PDA.
We rambled around town from the main train station out to the fringes of the center of town, our laughs echoing off the old stone buildings, until we stumbled into a quiet community garden (quiet, that is, until some kids joined us and began practicing their breakdancing!).
There was more gelato (the line outside the gelateria—along with the perplexing flavor of the day “Zuppa Inglese” which we translated (correctly, but no more informatively) as “English Soup”—was too long for us to resist! Clearly it had to be good… and it was! Also, apparently Zuppa Inglese is an Italian dessert that, to our palates, tasted like egg nog.), and late night visits to the best pizzeria in town (Pizzeria la Piccola Capri) that serves up Naples-style pies (or, in our case, a pizza/calzone hybrid), and crash courses at Irene’s apartment in cooking the proper risotto (garnished with olives from Irene’s home village down in the south of the country).
Our day and a half in Pisa was the kind you could probably have in any city—Italian or otherwise—but in places like Rome or Florence that are chockablock with “must see” attractions, you’re far less likely to indulge in the Italian specialty of dolce far niente. In Pisa, you’ll probably run out of obvious things to do by noon—we certainly did, and so we gave ourselves over to delicious idleness instead, and it was very sweet indeed. We never planned to visit Pisa, but on the road, often times things work out better than you plan them.
Pisa’s a great quickie, no doubt, but she’s an even better one-night stand. Her charms and attractions may not be obvious during a jam-packed race through the city on a deadline, but if you give yourself a little time to uncover her secrets, I think you’ll find a visit to Pisa can be one of extended pleasures.
Now it’s your turn: Are there any popular day-trip cities that you believe are better appreciated with a longer visit? Have we convinced you that Pisa is worth more time than it normally gets?