An Afternoon in Pisa, Italy
There was no other attraction my kids have wanted to see in Italy more than the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Although, when they were much younger, it was the “Leaning Tower of Pizza“. Maybe that’s when the appeal started. We finally had the opportunity to take them to Italy after a couple of days in Madrid last November and Pisa was our first stop. For centuries, there has been a fascination with one of the world’s most recognizable towers that seemed to defy gravity. Come along with us on our brief stop here to see if it lived up to the hype.
We took the red line bus from the airport, the LAM Rosso, to the Pisa Centrale Station. We left our luggage for storage at the train station since we were catching the train to Florence afterwards. We hopped on the bus again to get to the city’s most popular area which took 10-15 minutes. More about the logistics at the end of the post. It’s also walkable from the train station (about 1.5 km and 30 minutes) but we decided to save some time, energy amd our feet.
Piazza del Miracolo or Miracle Square greeted us as we entered past the souvenir stands and a walled entrance. The cathedral complex housed various stunning buildings that sat on a very well-maintained, green lawn. It included the Pisa Cathedral (il Duomo), the Baptistery, monumental Cemetery and of course, the famous leaning bell tower.
My kids were so excited of their first glimpse of the tower. My 9-year old son enthusiastically said, “It’s really leaning!” The lean seemed more pronounced in person than the pictures have shown it.
The tower was originally designed as a bell tower, stood upright at 197 ft (60 m) tall for five years. It started leaning after the third floor was built in 1178 due to its foundation built on the soft ground made of clay mixture. During the 1920s, cement grouting was poured on its foundation to stabilize it and in 1964, “leaden counterweight” was installed. So far, those fixes seemed to be working to prevent it from completely falling. Its height is currently 186 ft (56.67 m) on its highest side and 183 ft (55.86) on its lowest side.
The tower has 207 columns and is made of mostly white marble. It really is a glorious structure and so are the surrounding buildings. I was a bit skeptical coming here thinking it would be a big tourist trap and overcrowded. Maybe we would have a different experience in the summer but the crowds weren’t so bad in late November.
Of course, we joined the masses for fun tourist photos. We saw many variations of people propping the tower up and kissing or hugging it. It was entertaining and amusing to people watch here. It’s no wonder there were quite a few people selling the selfie sticks here.
My kids actually looked at an assortment of photos online before our trip to see which one they would do. They take funny poses and tacky tourist photos seriously. Here’s a sampling of some of the photos.
Lunch was at Pizzeria Toscana down one of the alleys. We had plans to explore further but it started to rain so we ended up here. It wasn’t as touristy as we expected considering its proximity to the square. This was the kids’ first pizza in Italy and it didn’t disappoint. Pizzas were an average of 7-8 euros. They thought it was so neat to be “eating pizza in Pisa”. It doesn’t take much to amuse my kids.
Of course, we had to have gelato after lunch. This was the first of many gelatos in Italy. We had at least one everyday despite the weather.
While many visitors are satisfied with seeing and posing with the tower from the outside, climbing the tower was a great experience that shouldn’t be missed. It isn’t free but revenues from the tickets are used to preserve and protect the tower. Our family was beyond excited to go inside and climb the tower.
Our designated time to go up the tower was at 3:00 PM. Backpacks and purses (even small ones) must be stored at the yellow-orange building across the field by the giant torso statue on the square’s north side. There were security personnel watching so it was completely safe to leave them there. Lockers with various sizes were free and fit normal sized backpacks too.
This was the entrance and bottom portion of the tower. The ground floor has 15 marble arches. Walking around the tower makes one really appreciate the efforts taken to keep it from falling after all these years.
There was a guard at the entrance so we couldn’t just go in but had to wait until our scheduled entrance time. Our group was first assembled at the ground floor of the tower. This was the view looking up. I didn’t expect it to be so hollow.
Walking into the tower was quite interesting. We saw and felt the tilting right away. Luckily there were seats along the wall to sit on while one of the workers gave us a brief history of the tower. Construction of the tower took over two hundred years and was finally completed in 1399. Its construction was interrupted by debt, wars and the leaning issues.
After our history brief, we were then free to climb eight stories and 297 spiral steps to the top. The climb wasn’t easy and I did feel off-balance. Though, my husband and kids didn’t notice anything. The steps weren’t even and the stairwell was narrow. Luckily, there weren’t that many people coming down which was probably why they timed the visits to avoid traffic on the stairwell.
It was very winding and I was dizzy after reaching the top. It took about ten minutes going up. I found descending the stairs even more of a dizzying experience . So, take it slow.
There were window openings along the way so it didn’t feel too claustrophobic.
The top section contained several bells and an outside deck for viewing the city. We never heard the bells ring during the few hours we were there. Going up here was not for anyone who suffers from vertigo or a fear of heights. Surprisingly, we didn’t feel the tilting up here.
But, what’s really impressive here were the views of the surrounding area. We loved seeing the rooftops of the Baptistery, the cathedral and the residential areas. The viewing deck was fenced in well which was a blessing for nervous moms like me who travel with a hyperactive and daring boy.
Visits to the tower were limited to about 40 minutes per group. Although, we didn’t get kicked out for staying longer than necessary at the top and after the new group had gone up. We weren’t about to rush the experience and relished the incredible thought of being on top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
It was a bit cloudy but still a beautiful day to take in the city from above so we stayed awhile. Think of an extended stay on top as a reward for climbing almost 300 steps.
There’s more to this UNESCO World Heritage Site complex beyond the leaning tower though. Our ticket also included a visit to the imposing cathedral. Don’t miss a visit here even if just to take a peek. This splendid Romanesque architecture was made of gray and white marble.
The cathedral’s first stone was laid out in 1093 and was the first structure built in the square. It was described as a “Pisan Romanesque style”. The interior was stunning with these gold leaf ceilings and many colorful frescoes through the cathedral.
This was the huge and grand altar. We’ve seen our share of European cathedrals and this was one of the biggest and one of the prettiest with many exquisite details.
The other impressive structure here was the Pisa Baptistery or Battistero di San Giovanni. This is Italy’s largest baptistery and is actually taller than the Leaning Tower. This was dedicated to St. John the Baptist and is known for its acoustics. It also has a slight lean due to the ground.
This was our last glimpse of the Miracle Square all lit up at dusk. There are some attractions that are worth seeing and experiencing in person and this cathedral complex was one of them. We enjoyed our brief, afternoon visit here and marveled at the engineering that’s keeping the leaning tower from staying in its place. No matter how short of a time you have in Pisa, it’s worth a stop and yes, it lived up to the hype for us.
Visiting Pisa Basics and Tips
- Buy round-trip tickets for the bus to the square on a machine right outside of the airport or at the information desk inside the airport. We also saw passengers buying them from the bus driver.
- Be sure to stamp/validate the tickets when you get on the bus. The “PisaMover” will open in December 2015 for connection between the airport and train station.
- Tickets were 1.10 euro (as of Jan 2015) one-way and were valid for an hour which was enough time. I didn’t see any age limits so we just bought tickets for the kids too. Use the LAM Rosso or Red Line and look at the front of the bus for signage. Buses run every 7-15 minutes. The bus stop to the square is Torre and can’t be missed. It was right across the street from a group of vendors in front of a huge wall.
- If you’re coming from the main train station (Pisa-Centrale), the buses to the Miracle Square were across the street and were right by the Pisa Jolly Hotel.
- Book tickets in advance online to go up the tower with minimum of one day and maximum of 20 days of your desired date. Times are in 30 minute increments. They can also be purchased onsite but queues may be long and your preferred times may be sold out.
- Prices are 18 euros for both kids and adults (as of Jan 2015). Children under 8 years old are not allowed to go up the tower.
- Prices for museums and other attractions on the Miracle Square vary. Kids 10 years old and under are free for other attractions with the tower exception.
- Since you have to leave your belongings to climb the tower, bring a jacket with pockets to hold a wallet or passport container. I felt better knowing I had these with me.
- Watch your belongings around the area especially when taking photos and on the bus. Elderly tourists in our bus were pick pocketed by gypsies.
- This is for anyone who mails a postcard home which is what we’ve let the kids do on international trips. Postcards could be purchased from souvenir stands. Tobacco shops (Tabachi) sold the stamps. There was even a mail slot outside the Tabachi by the orange G. Barsantiefigli building alley near the tower. We received them within two weeks.