While many cities draw in tourists with just one or two world-famous sites, Pisa is perhaps unique in that its continuing success as a must-see destination is based solely on fortuitously bad architectural engineering. Thanks to a combination of inappropriately soft ground and a poor grasp of physics, the economy of this small and otherwise unremarkable Tuscan city can rely almost exclusively on a steady flow of tourists from around the world, who flock enthusiastically to its famous square where they stand grinning inanely with their arms at an angle, while the relative holding the camera says “left a bit…now down a bit…” in a quest for the perfect picture where they hilariously look as though they’re propping up the tower.
Of course, if anyone had ever succeeded in propping up the tower it would probably having damaged Pisa’s economy instantly and irreparably. There are lots of beautiful cities in Italy, and most who currently come on day-trips are staying in bigger and arguably more romantic Florence nearby. Would this university city of less than 500,000 people be worth the trip without it?
Well, we liked Pisa. We visited for an obscure conference, giving us (as I’ve often found) evenings and a single morning to snatch a glance at our host destination, and Pisa didn’t disappoint. The Cathedral square, as you’d expect, was a relentless, hot tangle of tourist groups so focused on their cameras and their tour guides holding aloft brightly-coloured umbrellas that they didn’t look where they were going. And the square, of course, is worth not only a visit, but a good couple of hours. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and aside from the tower itself the Duomo and baptistery are astounding examples of Romanesque architecture both inside and out, with their dazzling, wedding-cake facades and elaborate, intricate mosaics. You can go up the tower (for a fee) if you want, but there’s something more than a little disconcerting about standing at an angle and looking down, even though it isn’t really all that high.
But I’d recommend doing what many tourists do not: stay in Pisa. We watched as hot, sweaty crowds scrambled back onto their buses for onward/return trips to Florence, and where that city is undeniably worth a visit too, it’s a shame not to stick around in Pisa a little while longer. Like any city in Tuscany, Pisa is beautiful, with endless streets and alleyways of pink and orange buildings and crumbling belltowers. And once you’re a hundred yards or so from the square, it’s practically deserted. It’s one of those cities where you could eat in a new restaurant every night and never have a bad meal, where you can stumble upon an ancient church on almost any street corner, enjoy gelato in almost any flavour imaginable, and watch the sun set from a rooftop terrace (I recommend the bar at the Hotel Grand Duomo, though I wouldn’t recommend staying there unless you have a fetish for 1970s decor and amenities).
With budget flights taking just over two hours from a range of UK airports, compact, friendly Pisa is the perfect city for a weekend break, where you can feel you’ve seen everything and still had time to relax.