The Leaning Tower of Pisa is one of the most famous structures in the world – not because of its gently rising series of arches, but because of its legendary tilt.
Constructed as the bell tower to accompany the cathedral, the tower began to shift on its foundations in 1178, before the architect, Bonanno Pisano, had completed the first three tiers.
Fortunately, the lean has now been halted, due to tricks with cables and counter-subsidence. The tower now leans on an angle of 4.1 meters (13 feet), rather than the previous 5 meters (16 feet).
It’s well worth paying the extra to climb the spiral stairs leading to the top of the Leaning Tower for views across Pisa. Make sure you book ahead as reservations are compulsory and numbers are limited.
Some of the finest gems of Western architecture are clustered on Pisa’s Piazza dei Miracoli, known locally as Piazza del Duomo.
Your first sight of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Duomo and the Baptistery is literally breathtaking, their white marble shining in the sunshine on a bed of emerald green lawn against a summer’s blue sky.
Apart from the glorious architecture – white, red and green marble, Romanesque curves, Tuscan arches and Gothic points – it’s the almost surreal spatial quality of the buildings that creates a sensation.
Come here during the day to see the buildings’ white marble shine in the sunlight, and return again at night when visitors are fewer and the buildings are beautifully floodlit.
Pisa’s marvelously striped marble cathedral is a textbook example of Pisan Romanesque architecture, dating back to 1064.
Roughly cross-shaped, the duomo features a galleried exterior topped with a small dome and completed with a rounded apse.
Inside, the building’s five naves create a sea of pillars rising to a golden coffered ceiling.
Much medieval detail was lost during a disastrous fire in 1595, but the mosaic by Cimabue surrounding the altar survived intact. Another highlight is the ornately carved pulpit by Giovanni Pisano.
The wedding cake white marble of the Pisa Baptistery, or Battistero, is one of the stunning collection of buildings on the Piazza dei Miracoli.
The Leaning Tower may be more famous, but the Baptistery captivates visitors with its ornate round shape and mix of architectural styles.
Rounded Romanesque arches make up the ground level, while pointed Gothic shapes take over on the remaining arches and the building’s cupcake dome.
Inside, there’s a beautifully carved pulpit by Nicola Pisano and a huge ornate marble font, used for total-immersion baptisms.
While you’re here, climb the stairs to the gallery for a bird’s-eye view, and discover the building’s remarkable acoustics by whispering sweet nothings beneath the dome.
Camposanto Cemetery is a monumental complex of buildings on Piazza dei Miracoli.
Constructed in a cloister design with wings sprouting from a central dome, the massive complex was built on hallowed earth brought to Pisa from Calvary in the Holy Land, during the Fourth Crusade.
According to legend, this soil is reputed to reduce bodies to skeletons within a day of burial.
The cemetery is also famous for its precious frescoes. Most of the artworks were destroyed during WWII, but those that remain are displayed in the Fresco Room. The most famous are the Triumph of Death and Last Judgment.
You’ll also see Roman sarcophagi, reused during the Middle Ages as the final resting place of prominent Pisans.
In Roman and medieval days, the Knights’ Square was Pisa’s central city square, a place for meetings and discussion.
The piazza was lavishly remodeled by the famous architect Vasari in the 16th century, creating a landmark example of spacious Renaissance town planning.
The grand space is gracefully lined with palatial palazzos and the church of the Knights of Santo Stefano dei Cavalieri. The church was also designed by Vasari, and named for the religious and military order founded by Cosimo de’ Medici.
A statue of Cosimo stands in front of the Palazzo dei Cavalieri, which features detailed monochromatic etchings on its facade known as sgraffiti, also contributed by Vasari.
The exquisite church of Santa Maria della Spina is one of the prettiest fairy-tale churches in the world.
Designed in classic Pisan Gothic style, the tiny striped marble church was built to house a thorn from the Crown of Thorns.
The building dates back to 1230, with Gothic enlargements in the 1350s. Originally, the building sat much closer to the river, and it was moved to its present site on the riverside walkway in 1871.
The interior is less ornate than the fanciful exterior, with many statues and details being lost during the relocation. However, a magnificent Madonna and Child remains, sculpted by Andrea and Nino Pisano in the mid-14th century.