From the snow-capped Alps in the north, to rolling hills and olive groves reaching right down through the Mediterranean, it’s not hard to see why Italy attracts millions of visitors every year. Wanting to fit as much as possible into a weekend in Tuscany, we visited both the world-renowned city of Pisa and the Tuscan capital Florence – effectively doing 2 day trips back-to-back. After returning home, I couldn’t decide which of these incredible cities I wanted to write about more… and after learning cruise passengers often combine both cities into a single day, decided not to choose and wrote about them both!
At a glance:
Italian Republic / Repubblica Italiana
Capital: Rome (Roma in Italian)
Currency: Euro (EUR)
Area: 301,340 km2
National Day: June 2nd
National Anthem: Il Canto Degli Italiani – The Song of the Italians
Highest Point: Monte Bianco – 4,808 metres (15,774ft)
Famous for: fine artwork, football, pizza
- Leonardo Da Vinci (polymath)
- Sophia Loren (actress)
- Bruno Tonioli (choreographer and dancer)
- Giacomo Casanova (traveller, author and legendary lover)
- The 3 most active volcanoes in Europe are all found in Italy. Stromboli has been erupting almost constantly for the last 2,000 years, while the infamous eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD completely decimated the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Mount Etna on the other hand ranks as the second most active volcano on the planet!
- With some 140 varieties to choose from, there’s evidence to suggest that pasta has been cooked in Italy since Ancient Roman times. It still seems to be incredibly popular too, as it’s estimated the average Italian consumes 25kg of pasta a year!
- Prior to unifying into a single state in 1871, the area Italy now covers was a patchwork of small kingdoms and duchies. Given the relatively late unification, even today many Italians feel a greater sense of identity connected to their region or town rather than to Italy as a whole.
- Italian style and fashion has long been celebrated and many of the world’s leading fashion houses are Italian in origin. Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Prada, Giorgio Armani and Versace are all Italian while Milan is hailed as one of the world’s leading fashion centres.
- Italy won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1964, 1990 and 2021, but it’s their 3rd placing entry from 1958 that ranks as the most commercially successful Eurovision entry ever. ‘Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu’ by Domenico Modugno – more commonly known as ‘Volare’ – has sold over 22 million copies worldwide and is also the only Eurovision song to ever win a Grammy!
Italy’s sole official language is Italian but some sources argue that more than 30 languages are spoken across the country on a daily basis, including German, Albanian and Slovene. Many others, such as Sardinian, Sicilian, Venetian and Friulian, are all Romance languages closely related to Italian. With nearly 65 million native speakers, Standard Italian is based on the dialect spoken in Florence and thanks to the city’s role in the Renaissance, it quickly became the language of culture throughout Italy. Here are some Italian phrases for you to try out, which will help you communicate not only in Italy but also San Marino, Switzerland, Vatican City and even parts of Croatia and Slovenia.
|Please||Per favore||per fah-vor-rey|
|How much does this cost?||Quanto costa?||kwan-to kos-tah|
|Do you speak English?||Parla inglese?||par-lah in-gley-sey|
|I don’t understand||Non capisco||non kah-pee-sko|
|A little music, Countess?||Un po di musica, contessa?||un poe dee moo-si-kah kon-teh-sa|
Pisa International airport is 3km from the city centre and is the largest airport in Tuscany. An automated shuttle train connects the airport to Pisa Centrale in just 6 minutes and from there it’s 25 minutes on foot to the Leaning Tower. Although Florence has its own airport at Peretola, flying into Pisa can be a more cost effective option especially considering it’s only an hour between the two cities by train.
What to do:
Though Pisa is a relatively small city by modern standards,in the 11th century it was a maritime power that rivalled Venice and Genoa in prestige. Even today, Pisa’s one-time glory is evident from the fine architecture found throughout the city, such as the ornate turrets of the Santa Maria della Spina. Considered to be among the finest examples of Gothic style on the continent, the church was built to house a holy relic from the Crown of Thorns in the early 13th century. It was dismantled in the 1800s and rebuilt several metres higher to protect it from the floods of the River Arno. If you want to look around inside the church, bear in mind it’s not open to the public every day. Heading across the river and through the winding narrow streets, Piazza dei Cavalieri was once the site of Pisa’s Roman forum. Though small, the square is overlooked by many grand buildings, including the clock face of the Palazzo dell’Orologio and the detailed grey façade of the Palazzo della Carovana. Built in the late 1500s as the headquarters of the Knights of St. Stephen, the palace is now the main building of the Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa’s university.
About 10 minutes away on foot, Piazza dei Miracoli or the Field of Miracles is thought to be one of the finest architectural complexes anywhere in the world. At the centre of this large green square, the grand Romanesque Duomo di Pisa was consecrated in 1118, its grandiose marble façade financed by the spoils of war. Inside you’ll find an array of impressive artworks including paintings, frescos and the lavishly detailed pulpit, held up on columns and sculpted Giovanni Pisano in the early 14th century. Despite the splendour of the cathedral and the fact that its ornate domed Battistero is the largest baptistery in Italy, both sites are often overlooked as most travellers come solely to see the iconic Leaning Tower of Pisa. Just 5 years after construction began in 1173, the tower began to slant as its white marble is too heavy for the sandy soil on which it stands. Over the years, several attempts have been made to keep the tower from falling and in 2008 it stopped moving for the first time in its 800 year history. You can now climb the 284 steps up to the top for a remarkable view over Pisa, just remember that tickets are strictly timed and if you miss your slot, you won’t be allowed up.
About 85km east of Pisa, Florence might have only briefly been capital of Italy but it’s still regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful cities thanks to its striking Renaissance architecture. Towering over central Florence, the pink and green marble façade of Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, known simply as Il Duomo is easily one of the city’s grandest and most recognisable landmarks. Construction started on the awe-inspiring cathedral in 1296, though the exterior remained unfinished until the early 19th century. The huge orange cupola has been the world’s largest brick dome ever since it was completed in 1469. A short walk away, Piazza di San Firenze is surrounded by several different architectural styles. With construction starting in 1255, the brown stone Bargello is among the oldest public buildings in the city. Once housing a prison, the fortified medieval tower is now an art museum. Across the square, the elaborate Baroque façade of the San Firenze Complex houses a museum dedicated to director Franco Zeffirelli, while the more austere Renaissance Palazzo Gondi opposite has a rooftop terrace where you can relax and admire the Florentine skyline.
Just around the corner, Piazza della Signoria has long been an important meeting place in the city, presided over by the battlements of fortress-like Palazzo Vecchio. Designed as a monument to the city’s greatness at the turn of the 14th century, the imposing building still serves as Florence’s city hall. As well as being a great place to soak up the city’s illustrious past, the square is also fantastic for art lovers thanks to the numerous statues on display here. As well as the classical sculptures on display in the Loggia dei Lanzi, the small colonnade on the south side of the square, a replica of Michelangelo’s David stands where the original stood for almost 370 years, right next to the entrance of Palazzo Vecchio. A short walk away on the banks of the River Arno, a bridge has stood on the site of the Ponte Vecchio since Roman times. Lined with many shops and jewellers, locals are quick to tell you that the popular landmark was the only bridge in Florence to survive the Second World War. While some argue the bridge was deliberately saved for its beauty and historical value, others say bomb damage from surrounding buildings just prevented the Nazis from getting close enough to destroy it…
Combining history, culture, and fine art, both Pisa and Florence exemplify the very best of what Italy has to offer. Although the tower is easily the main draw to the city, Pisa is a thoroughly charming place to explore with plenty of other attractions, while magnificent Florence breaths grandeur and beauty everywhere you turn. A day spent exploring either of these fine cities makes for a wonderful introduction to Italy!
A big thank you to Isabella and Accord Smart Tours for taking us on an exceptional trip around Florence and helping us make the most of time in this stunning city – grazie mille!
For a more in-depth guide to planning day trips, as well as sightseeing tips and trivia for 30 European countries, Europe in a Day – Day Trips to the Continent is available exclusively on Amazon for Kindle and also smartphones, tablets and computers with the free Kindle Reading App.
Want to discover more of Europe? Check out more day trips below!