Last year, I had the somewhat unique opportunity to join two very different Mediterranean cruises; one with Azamara Club Cruises and the other with Viking Ocean. Both started in Barcelona and ended in Rome, but many of the ports of call and certainly the experiences were very different from one another. One of the commonalities though was spending time at the Tuscan cruise port in Livorno. It’s from this base where cruises launch excursions to visit the broader Tuscany region but especially Florence and Pisa. On both cruises I spent time in Pisa, although on different excursion styles and so, oddly enough, I have spent nearly a full day exploring what is ultimately a very small place. Along with thousands of other tourists I stood there in front of that famous leaning tower, taking silly photos, paying for over-priced espresso and enjoying the day. But I learned a couple of things on those visits, lessons I want to share today.
Pisa is so much more than the Tower
The Piazza dei Miracoli or Square of Miracles is so called because the three main buildings have long been considered architectural marvels or miracles. Just think about it for a second, the cathedral, baptistery and tower or campanile were built between the 11th and 14th centuries. That wasn’t a great time to be alive in Western Europe and these gleaming wonders must have seemed positively otherworldly. And they still are really. Sure people visit to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa and create terrible photos of themselves pretending to hold it up, but I find it hard to believe visitors don’t walk away entranced. From the perfectly manicured lawns to the style and symmetry of the buildings themselves, the eye is constantly attracted to new and wondrous sights.
It’s ok to be a corny tourist sometimes
I’ve said this before, I’m saying this now and I will most likely say it again – don’t be afraid to be a corny tourist. None of us are Anthony Bourdain or Rick Steves and we shouldn’t try to be. We’re on vacation, traveling and we need to make sure we enjoy the experience. This means that it is in fact OK to be a camera toting, crepe eating, attraction visiting tourist. Don’t let the hipsters and egocentric travelers tell you to always get off the beaten path and to only go local. Sure, this is good once in a while as I have written about, but on the whole don’t be afraid to embrace your inner tourist. There’s a reason why everyone who visits Paris goes to the Eiffel Tower, in London Westminster Abbey and in Rome the Forum. They’re awesome! They have always been awesome, they will always be awesome and you should see them. So ignore those nay-sayers and instead go, see the famous sites and enjoy yourself, especially when visiting a place like Pisa.
Let’s be clear, there is one thing of tourist interest in Pisa, it’s Miracle Square and that’s it. Even taking a guided tour, it doesn’t take very long to experience everything and in the process you will be one of those very corny tourists. There is no cool or avant-garde way to see Pisa and that’s fine. It’s ok to go, take those silly photos holding up the tower and head off to somewhere else. Pisa encapsulates the fun side of travel, and sometimes that’s enough.
How you visit is important
While Miracle Square isn’t large and it is crawling with fellow tourists, the two excursions I took to Pisa couldn’t have been more different in how I experienced this UNESCO World Heritage Site. To be clear, it’s not a slight against either cruise line, no, instead it’s about how I personally decided to experience Pisa. When presented with a variety of different tour options, when I sailed with Azamara I joined the On Your Own Florence and Pisa tour. A day out and about, guests are first transported to Florence, given a brief tour of the highlights before being set loose for some independent exploration. I much prefer doing things on my own and the tour was a great option. In Pisa we were once again left on our own, but here the experience really needs a tour guide to get the most out of the day. I realized that fact while on the Viking included tour of Pisa that provided us with a guided tour of the baptistery and cathedral. Thanks to that local expert, I learned a lot about the site, why it was built and why it’s so important. Pisa is about much more than a certain leaning tower, and the guide really emphasized that fact to me. Either way, I was able to enjoy what is a truly beautiful place and, luckily, on both visits I also experienced near perfect weather.
No matter how you decide to visit Pisa, Italy, visit you must. Although it’s corny, over-touristed, overpriced and a little hectic, there’s a reason for all of this – it’s a fun place to see in person. It’s ok to give in and be that uber-tourist sometimes. It’s the only way we get to experience some of the most famous places in the world that have become popular thanks to their inherent beauty and brilliance.