Why should I visit Pisa Cathedral?Most people come to Pisa to get a photo with the Leaning Tower, or to make the trek up to the top of the iconic belltower, but you really shouldn’t skip the chance to see the cathedral at the heart of it all. The cathedral was constructed between 1063 and 1118 on a site outside the medieval walls, an alleged statement to the city’s neighbors that Pisa wasn’t afraid of being attacked. The construction work used material from ancient Roman ruins, parts of which can still be seen on the facade. The church was damaged by fire in 1595 and some of the features, including the three bronze doors. Several of the medieval artworks inside the building survived the fire, including a fresco of the Madonna with Child and the geometric marble floor. The pulpit also predates the fire and the elaborate sculpture-work features images from the life of Christ. The cathedral also suffers from being built on the same soft ground as the Leaning Tower - although the subsidence isn’t so obvious, the parts of the church which were built later have a different floor level to the older areas. Visitors should watch their step! The cathedral is also the final resting place of Pope Gregory VIII, who died in Pisa after holding the papacy for only 57 days.
What does the cathedral have to do with the Leaning Tower of Pisa?The Leaning Tower of Pisa (also known as the Torre di Pisa or Torre pendente) is the freestanding bell tower (or campanile) of the Duomo di Pisa. Freestanding belltowers can also be seen in Venice at St. Mark’s Basilica, and are relatively common in Italian churches from this era. The bell tower was built over a 200-year period after a local widow, Donna Berta di Bernardo, left money to the cathedral with the express wish that it should be used to build a bell tower. Construction took a long time due to financial troubles and battles against Florence, Genoa, and Lucca, and it was clear early on that the shallow foundations and unstable subsoil of the area. The tower still houses bells that ring daily to announce masses in the Cathedral. Tickets to climb the tower also include a flexible ticket to enter the cathedral, so you can easily visit them both on your trip.
What’s inside the other parts of the Cathedral complex?There are several other buildings that make up the cathedral complex in the Piazza dei Miracoli, each of which requires a ticket to enter. The Baptistery is particularly worth a visit, as it’s the largest baptistery in Italy, standing 180 feet (nearly 55m high). Baptisteries were once necessary as unbaptized people weren’t allowed inside the main building of the church, so baptismal fonts were either in separate buildings or found in the entrance to churches so that new members of the faith could be safely baptized before entering. The baptistery of Pisa is one of the few still in use for its original purpose but don’t worry, today you can visit the cathedral building without needing to be a baptized Christian. The Campo Santo (or Camposanto Monumentale) is a Gothic cloister allegedly built around sacred soil from Golgotha, brought to Pisa after the Third Crusade. Although it was not initially intended to be a cemetery, that’s what the space was eventually used for. Today visitors can explore the beautiful and calm arcades and chapels, see the Roman sarcophagi, and admire the restored frescoes. The Sinopie Museum is inside the Ospedale Nuovo di Santo Spirito and features sinopia, the drawings that artists use to prepare for painting frescoes. The artworks, which were mostly rescued from the Camposanto during World War II, date back to the 14th and 15th centuries and have been vital in helping art historians figure out which artists worked on which frescoes inside the Camposanto. The museum provides an interesting opportunity to learn more about the process of creating a fresco.
Should I take a guided tour?There is no official guided tour of the cathedral complex. However, private tour companies offer guided tours of the Piazza dei Miracoli, it’s buildings and other parts of the city of Pisa. The tours generally take around two hours but make sure you’ve hired a reputable guide, and to check that tickets to the monuments are definitely included in the price. There aren’t any official audio guides either, but there are plenty of free options available online which you might be able to download onto your smartphone.
How long does a visit to Pisa Cathedral take?Depending on how interesting you find religious architecture, you’ll probably want to spend between 20 minutes and an hour exploring the cathedral. If you’re intending to climb the Leaning Tower, then that trip takes about 30 minutes. All in all, you can probably visit every building in the Piazza dei Miracoli within about 4 hours, allowing time for queuing and walking between the monuments.
What else is there to do in Pisa?Although Pisa is a small town, there’s plenty to occupy you. You can walk through the town and admire the beautiful palazzos, or stroll along the banks of the Arno river. There’s also the chance to visit the city’s other churches like Santa Maria della Spina, which is far smaller than the cathedral but still extremely beautiful. The University of Pisa also has lush botanical gardens which nature-lovers will enjoy exploring. There are also a host of small museums such as the Museum of San Matteo and the National Museum of Palazzo Reale. And of course, like all towns in Italy, there are plenty of opportunities to discover delicious local food, drinks, and gelato.