Pisa is of course, most famously known for its tower, which is certainly a must-see. No matter how many photos of it you may have seen, it really does still make you stop in your tracks when you see the real thing. The phrase “it really does lean” reverberates continuously in a host of different languages and accents around the Piazza dei Miracoli where it is to be found. The piazza is also known as the Piazza del Duomo, as it also plays host to the Duomo, the beautiful white cathedral and its immense domed Baptistery, the largest in Italy.

Pisa isn’t necessarily the place where you come to spend hours in museums and visiting famous palaces or monuments. Rather it is where you will quickly be able to feel like a local, discovering “your” café for your morning cappuccino (of course the locals never touch the frothy, milky beverage themselves after around 11am - that would be a travesty!) or finding a rustic trattoria hidden away in one of the endless little alleys that weave off the main thoroughfares. The lovely thing for visitors is that because for most of the year Pisa is very much a university town, it abounds with restaurants which offer authentic Tuscan food at very reasonable prices. And, apart from the understandably busy area around the Leaning Tower, it is a surprisingly un-touristy town meaning as a visitor you get a real sense of authentic day-to-day Italian life.

Having said that, however, there are some wonderful hidden gems missed by the many visitors who drop in to Pisa for a half day with an itinerary that only involves seeing the tower. One of these treasures is the Church of Santa Maria della Spina which is on the banks of the river Arno and appears, as you approach it, almost like a doll’s house version of a cathedral. The interior is tiny, but you don’t begrudge the €2 charge to help maintain it. For hundreds of years it managed to survive many floods, but finally in 1871 it was dismantled and rebuilt one and a half metres higher to ensure its ongoing survival.

A few hundred metres along the same part of the Arno is the Palazzo Blu or Blue Palace, named for its conspicuously coloured exterior. It is now a museum with a permanent exhibition of rooms belonging to an aristocratic Pisan family home from two centuries ago, with the highlight being the dining room, boasting an immense and stunning Murano chandelier.

An obscure but fascinating treasure that will appeal to art lovers is the Sinopie museum which exists in spite of, or perhaps thanks to a stray wartime bomb. A sinopia (named for the reddish earth from Sinope in Turkey which is used) is an outline of a future fresco usually drawn by the master himself and which will later be “coloured in” in layman’s terms by his pupils or other lesser artists. It can therefore be said to represent more truly the real work of a master. These sinopie came to light when the aforementioned bomb in caused lead from the roof to drip down and ruin the frescoes. During the process of trying to restore them, the sinopie were discovered underneath.

There is also the Museum of San Matteo, housed in the ancient convent of San Matteo. Here you can view Tuscan art treasures from the 12th to 15th centuries close up in a tranquil and beautiful setting.
The Verdi Theatre (Teatro Verdi) is classified as one of Italy’s 30 historic theatres and therefore is on a protected list. It offers dance, opera and theatre and even if your Italian isn’t quite up to the task of following every word in an Italian play, it’s a wonderful way of combining a cultural experience with an evening spent in beautiful surroundings.

And, with lessons finishing by 1pm, Pisa is a fantastic gateway to a multitude of wonderful afternoon trips, enabling you to sample a diverse array of the region’s best spots, each with their own distinctive personality.


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Viareggio, Camaiore, Pietrasanta, Forte dei Marmi

Versilia is the collective name for the four towns that stretch along the Tyrrhenian Sea on the west coast north of Pisa. It is to Versilia that the Milanese and Florentines flock in July and August where they will have their favourite beach establishment to which they have been returning for years. This stretch of coast is fascinating just for the chance to see at first hand the beach culture that is so particular to Italy. The lungomare (seafront) stretches for 20 kilometres and is lined with stabilimenti balneari run by different proprietors, each with a restaurant and rows of impeccably laid out umbrellas and deckchairs. Going to the beach here is a fulltime activity – you arrive early in the morning, make yourself comfortable on the sunlounger in your allocated spot, browse the wares available from the omnipresent but surprisingly discreet venditori ambulanti who will offer you anything from designer bags and sunglasses to summer frocks and toys for the kids, and then you disappear for two hours to enjoy a leisurely lunch. In the evening, many of the establishments become full blown restaurants, offering a beautiful environment in which to enjoy supper by the sea. The beaches themselves tend to be exceptionally clean, the water is warm and make for safe swimming, and behind you have a stunning view of the rugged Apuan Alps. It’s also a great stretch for exploring by bicycle.

Another popular Italian pastime, no matter the season, is the passeggiata when locals and tourists alike dress up in their finery and promenade during the evening. The lungomare in Viareggio (less than 20 minutes by train from Pisa) is the perfect place to participate in this quintessential Italian activity.

Alternatively you could head to Forte dei Marmi which is generally considered the chicest resort in the area. It’s an elegantly laid out small town by the sea where immaculately clad Italians stroll the beautifully paved streets, admiring the wares in Prada, Vuitton and every other designer boutique imaginable. There are no particular monuments or buildings of significance, it is certainly not a typical picturesque Tuscan village but nevertheless, Forte dei Marmi is well worth visiting for a taste of the chic seaside resorts which were at the height of fashion in the 60’s. It also has a wonderful market every Wednesday and Sunday morning during the summer.

Pietrasanta is a small jewel of a town which is famed for being an artists’ centre, with many sculptors from around the world learning their trade there, drawn by the opportunity to work with the renowned Carrara marble from the nearby caves. It’s a small picturesque town with a beautiful central piazza, fringed with plenty of outdoor cafes which afford wonderful opportunities for people watching. It’s a mere 30 minutes from Pisa, there are two trains an hour and the station is literally 100 yards from the centre, making Pietrasanta an ideal destination for an afternoon or early evening visit.

Nearby is Lake Massaciuccoli which is an absolute must-visit for Puccini lovers. Here you will find the outdoor theatre which plays host each summer to a world-renowned Puccini season. Right on the edge of the lake, it is a truly beautiful setting in which to enjoy his operas.


LUCCA and Garfagnana

Lucca, 30 minutes by train from Pisa, is a charming and elegant walled town surrounded by hills and which many consider rivals Florence and Siena for beauty. Having not yet been hit by mass tourism it retains its character and is the perfect place to spend a half-day strolling the narrow streets which can suddenly broaden out into spectacular sun-drenched piazzas, browsing the excellent local shops and savouring the unhurried pace of life. Lucca is also known as La Citta’ delle 100 Chiese (the Town of 100 Churches), is the birthplace of Puccini and has a great antique street market the third Saturday and Sunday of every month.

The Garfagnana is an undiscovered area of Tuscany to the north of Lucca composed of a string of small and authentic Tuscan towns. Surrounded by mountains, with many of the villages themselves situated on the slopes, the area is characterised by rich thick woods which offer wonderful hiking opportunities and beautiful unspoilt countryside. Here you will discover a less developed but nevertheless charming Tuscany as you explore its numerous characteristic villages, with the most known being mediaeval Barga, Castiglione and Castelnuovo.



Ancient Volterra sits high on a hill and as you approach it the town can seem somewhat remote and forbidding. Once inside its walls however, you discover an atmospheric town with a lovely blend of narrow, almost hidden streets and beautiful spacious open spaces. It’s also famed for its alabaster and you will also find some of the best restaurants and enticing bars in the region.




Firenze surely needs no introduction so we shall merely say that the home of the famed Medici family and of Italy’s arguably foremost poet Dante Alighieri is justly deserving of its reputation as a city dripping with stunning historic buildings and incredible art.


Bolgheri is a tiny picturesque town which is reached by the spectacular Viale dei Cipressi, a seemingly never ending avenue lined with cypresses. Once parked outside the walls, you enter the town through its main arch and feel as though you have been transported onto a film set, so perfectly redolent of an Italian village it seems. It is very difficult to leave Bolgheri without having succumbed to purchasing some edible reminder of your visit, be that locally made olive oil, cheeses, salami or one of its famous wines. If you are a wine lover, Bolgheri is a must-visit because this is the home of the so-called Super Tuscan Wines such as the famed Sassicaia and Ornellaia.


For something completely different, there are also the marble caves of carrara. The famed white marble is excavated in the rugged mountains behind Massa Carrara, 40 minutes north of Pisa. It’s an awe-inspiring sight from the coast, looking eastwards and seeing the huge gouges cut out of the mountain, giving the impression of snow covered slopes. It’s possible to look down into a quarry and see at first hand the magnitude of the work involved in extracting the immense marble blocks. Whilst there, we also recommend a visit to the nearby town of Colonnata which for over a hundred years has served as the home of the quarry workers. It’s not what you would call your typical picturesque Tuscan village, but it’s a chance to see an authentic workers’ town and sample its speciality – lardo. Essentially, it’s the fat off the back of a pig which is then cured in a marble (what else?) vat with garlic, salt and herbs where it remains for a period of months before being ready to eat either on its own or in a sandwich. A lardo sandwich served to get the quarrymen through a rigorous day in the caves, but the flavour is actually surprisingly delicate and far more appetising than one might think!



The five villages that make up the Cinque Terre (Five Lands) each possess their own look and personality. Many argue that Vernazza is the jewel, but we at the British School are divided, each of us having our own particular favourite. We recommend a day or even overnight trip to truly enjoy this glorious area which is actually just over the Tuscan border in the region of Liguria. You can choose to visit each town by train, boat or, for truly spectacular scenery combined with great exercise, foot. It is possible to walk the entire trail in a day if you are fit and determined, and you will certainly be rewarded by breathtaking scenery if you do so. You take the train from Pisa and choose from which point you would like to start your exploration, usually Monterosso or Riomaggiore. It’s no more than 5 minutes by train between each village so you can easily mix and match your modes of getting from one to the other, making sure to plan time for a lunch stop of fritto misto and the local wine at some point.


Beautiful Siena is the embodiment of a visitor’s idea of a typical Tuscan town with its orange rooftops, picturesque narrow streets and glorious Duomo. Little wonder that in 1995 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. The extraordinary Piazza del Campo is an expansive fan-shaped open space that is the heart of the town and it is here that the famous palio horse race takes place in June and August.











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