Pisa: Piazza dei Miracoli
Pisa is home to one of Italy's most popular sights: the Leaning Tower. Located on the northwest coast of Italy, it's an easy day trip from Florence, a quick stop on your way to another city, or a doable (but more time consuming) journey from Milan or Rome.
Of course, there's plenty more to do in Pisa than just see the tower, like a number of old churches and a few palaces. However, I think Pisa is best done as a quick day trip from Florence to see the tower and Field of Miracles in which it's located. Besides, you don't want to reach your Looking at Old Churches threshold before you get to Rome! With proper planning, you can leave Florence early in the morning and be back by late afternoon. Here's how:
From Santa Maria Novella Station in Florence, get on one of the regional trains headed for Pisa. Trains to Pisa Centrale leave about every hour while the trains to Pisa San Rossore are less frequent, but you'll save time by getting of at San Rossore. From Centrale, it's a time-consuming walk or a taxi ride to the tower. From San Rossore, it's about a three minute walk. Regardless of which station you chose, you won't see either on the big "Departures" screen; only the final destination is displayed. Check the train number on your ticket to match with the number on the screen to find your platform and once there, double check that "Pisa C.LE" or "Pisa S. Rossore" are listed in the scrolling list of stops above the platform.
It's about an hour from Florence to Pisa. Assuming you get off at San Rossore, exit the tiny station by taking a left, then a right, then... you're there. Easy! You'll be able to see the top of the tower, the cathedral, the campostanto, and the baptistery just down the street. These are the main buildings that make up the Piazza dei Miracoli - Field of Miracles.
The cathedral is free to enter. The baptistery, campostanto, and tower require tickets, and entrance to the tower is timed and must be reserved ahead of time. You can do this online no sooner than 45 days and no later than 15 before your chosen date. A bit persnickety, but whatever. As visiting Pisa was somewhat of a last minute decision for us, we hadn't made a reservation. You can, of course, buy tickets on the spot, but an opening may not be guaranteed. We arrived around 1:30 and were luckily able to get a spot in the 3:45 time slot.
This will give you plenty of time to explore the other buildings and take those silly Leaning Tower photos.
The campostanto is an enclosed cemetery. It's said to be built around sacred soil brought back to Pisa from Calvary during the Fourth Crusade in the 12th century - believe that if you want.
The building itself is a large, Gothic enclosure began in the 13th century and completed some 200 years later. The interior is lined with Roman sculptures and sarcophagi, and the walls used to be covered in biblical frescoes until WWII bombs set the roof on fire, thus drenching the walls in molten lead.
The campostanto is certainly beautiful, but not a must-see if you're looking to save a few Euros.
The cathedral, Santa Maria Assunta was begun in 1064 and has a strange Romanesque-Byzantine style to it...
... this is more evident inside with the copious mosaics and gilded ceiling.
Art history buffs will want to see Giovanni Pisano's elaborately carved pulpit inside the cathedral - a good example of pre-Renaissance sculpture. I should have been in appreciative awe of it, but I distinctly recall the distress I experienced when confusing Giovanni's pulpit with the similar looking one of his father, Nicola Pisano, on an exam.
Don't forget t look up: the dome fresco is a spectacular work of art, as well.
The baptistery, began in 1153, is actually the largest in Italy, and surprisingly taller than the tower itself. The inside is rather bare but worth a visit anyway; it's said to have some of the best acoustics in Italy.
Not to mention that perfect shot of a skull and crossbones you've been looking for.
And then there is the Leaning Tower. It was the last of the structures in the Field of Miracles to be built, starting in 1173 and ending 177 years later. The long construction period and the tower's characteristic lean both result from an incident in 1178. The tower had already reached three stories high at this point when the south side began to sink into the weak subsoil below.
Construction halted for a century while the subsoil presumably stabilized itself, and when building resumed, architects did not try to fix the tilt; rather, they compensated for it by making the subsequent stories with one side slightly higher than the other. Thus, if the tower were ever set straight again, it would probably look stranger than it does now.
You'll want to gather at the base of the tower about ten minutes before your scheduled reservation time. If you have a large bag, make sure to get it checked in the yellow building to the right before you enter. Bring your ticket as validation.
After a short introduction in both Italian and English, you're ready to climb! It's not a difficult climb at all, though there is a distinct, tilting shift you can feel as you make your way up.
Assuming you arrive in Pisa mid-morning and have a ticket reserved around noon-time, you can feasibly give the other buildings the time the deserve and be ready to go by early to mid-afternoon. Like I said, a quick day trip. From the Field of Miracles, I suggest taking a taxi back to Pisa Centrale, regardless of whether or not it was your arrival station. Pisa Rossore really just a stop, not a station, and you won't be able to purchase a ticket back to Florence from there. It saves time to arrive at San Rossore, but you'll find yourself stranded if you try to return from there.
Oh, and if you have a dog... feel free to bring him along. In his stroller.