By Rick Steves
Just an hour by train from Florence, Pisa lures the traveler with its tipsy tower. For many of us, the tower is one of our first childhood images of Europe. It's a cliche that needs to be seen — quickly. The tower is surrounded by what may be Italy's tackiest ring of souvenir stands. This spectacle is tourism at its most crass.
Pisa was a regional superpower in her medieval heyday (11th, 12th, and 13th centuries), rivaling Florence and Genoa. Its Mediterranean empire, which included Corsica and Sardinia, helped make it a wealthy republic. But the Pisa fleet was routed in battle by Genoa in 1284 and its port silted up, leaving the city high and dry. with only its Field of Miracles and its university keeping it on the map.
Pisa's three important sights — the Duomo, Baptistery, and the Leaning Tower — float regally on the best lawn in Italy. Even as the church was being built, the Piazza del Duomo was nicknamed the "Campo dei Miracoli," or Field of Miracles, for the grandness of the undertaking.
Yes, the Tower leans. Started in the 12th century, this most famous example of Pisan Romanesque architecture was leaning even before its completion. Notice how the architect, for lack of a better solution, kinked up the top section. The 294 tilting steps to the top were closed for years as engineers worked to keep the bell tower from toppling. The formerly clean and tidy area around the tower was turned into a construction zone as engineers used steam pipes to dry out the subsoil and huge weights to stabilize (but not straighten out) the tower Now 30 people an hour can clamber to the top.
Most Italian cathedrals come with a bell tower. In tipsy-turvy Pisa, it seems just the opposite. The huge Pisan Romanesque church (known as the Duomo), with its carved pulpit by Giovanni Pisano, is artistically more important than its more famous bell tower. Shorts are OK as long as they're not too short (although its not really enforced). Big backpacks are not allowed, nor is storage provided. If you have a daybag, carry it.
The Baptistery, the biggest in Italy, is interesting for its great acoustics (and is located in front of the cathedral). A priest standing at the baptismal font (or a security guard today) can sing three tones within the 10 seconds — "Ave Maria" — and make a chord, singing haunting harmonies with himself. The pulpit, by Nicolo Pisano, inspired Renaissance art to follow, but the same artist's pulpit and carvings in Siena were just as impressive to me — in a more enjoyable atmosphere. Notice that even the baptistery leans nearly five feet.
Pisa, of course, is more than the Field of Miracles. Walking from the train station to the Duomo shows you a classy Old World town much like its rival Florence upstream. But for most, Pisa is just a fun photo-op and a chance to see the Pisano pulpits. For more Pisan art, see the Duomo Museum (Museo dell' Opera del Duomo), displaying treasures of the cathedral, including sculptures (12th–14th century), paintings, silverware, and ancient Egyptian, Etruscan, and Roman artifacts (housed behind tower, Piazza Arcivescovado 18).
Skip the Camposanto Cemetery bordering the cathedral square, even if its "Holy Land dirt" does turn a body into a skeleton in a day.
The Museo delle Sinopie, housed in a 13th-century hospital, features the original sketches that were used to make the frescoes in the Camposanto Cemetery (hidden behind souvenir stands, across street from baptistery entrance). The much-advertised Panoramic Walk on the Wall, which includes just a small section of the medieval wall, isn't worth your time.
The Museo Nazionale di San Matteo, in a former convent, displays 12th- to 15th-century sculptures, illuminated manuscripts, and paintings by Martini, Ghirlandaio, Masaccio, and others.