Since being in Italy I have visited both Pisa and Lucca twice. They are such an easy day trip from Florence, just a short train ride away, and both can be seen well enough in just one day.
Upon first arriving in Pisa, you would think that there isn’t a lot to see and do, but if you’re into Art history, you can easily spend an entire morning in the Piazza Di Miracoli. To get to the piazza I recommend taking a bus from the central train station, the walk is quite far! When you first enter the Piazza the first thing that catches your eye of course is the Leaning Tower, as it should. Crowds of tourists fill the street leading up to the tower, all of them leaning over the fence to get the famous picture of them pushing or leaning or touching or kicking the tower. Recently restored (there was a structural scare in recent years, which began a long process of brainstorming how to save the tower, on idea even included building another tower leaning the opposite direction and tying them together so they would balance each other out!), it is now possible to climb to the top of the tower. It does cost 18 Euros, so it is up to your budget to decide if that is the once-in-a lifetime experience for you.
Entrances to the other structures in the Piazza also cost an entrance fee, but are worth the cost. Inside the Romanesque Pisa Baptistery which was built in 12th century, you can see beautiful stained glass windows as well as the pulpit made by Nicola Pisano.
An important piece in gothic sculpture, this beautifully sculpted pulpit draws inspiration from classical sarcophagi and also features the first heroic male nude in sculpture in Tuscany. So it is an important stepping stone on the path to the renaissance in Italy. You can also hear a demonstration of the baptistery’s perfect acoustics. The cone-shaped dome on the inside of the Baptistery was built specifically to create perfect acoustics. It is hauntingly beautiful to listen to, as the demonstrators singing fills the building and echoes back down to all of the people below. When the demonstration is being a given, you get a little picture of what baptismal ceremonies must have been like when the building was still in use, it must have been a very mystical experience.
Finally, check out the Cathedral, in the heart of the Piazza. Done in a Pisan Romanesque style, it is covered in colored marbles and spoils from war, representing Pisa’s great power at influence at the time of the cathedral’s construction.
A lot of the outer decoration has intricate patterning that reminds of Moorish and Muslim influence, probably from textiles that Pisans traded as they were also the naval power at the time. Inside, there is an impressive mosaic located in the apse; however it is currently undergoing restoration. The coffered ceiling is equally beautiful, with the gilded edges catching the natural light from the windows and illuminating the deep blue coves. The real masterpiece to see however is another pulpit, sculpted by Giovanni Pisano, the son of Nicola Pisano. It shows 9 scenes from the life of Christ and also draws inspiration from classical sculpture, with the upper panels resembling ancient sarcophagi.
After Pisa, Lucca is just a short train away. Probably one of my most favorite towns in all of Italy, this adorable Tuscan town is still surrounded by medieval walls, that in modern times they have expanded and planted trees on.
It is possible to walk the entire 4 kilometers around the town on the walls. It is even better and very affordable to rent a bike and take a ride around the town. The trees are reminiscent of beautiful Parisian parks and the views of the town make great snapshots of quiet Italian life.
Inside the walls of Lucca there is a nice change of pace from the tourist craze in Pisa and Florence. You can feel the difference almost immediately. Lucca is quiet but still full of life. The tiny streets are cozy and adorable, and so Italian. They are full of local restaurants, wine bars, and fancy, unique boutiques, all with at least ten perfect and stylish bikes parked outside. Every Italian we passed was fabulous of course, wearing outfits us inferior Americans could only dream of pulling off. Tucked in between Romanesque churches there are dozens of piazzas that paint little snapshots of local life in Lucca. My favorite being the Piazza di Libri, or the Square of Book in English, that is quite literally overflowing with book markets. We happened upon it accidentally, and were met with the most wonderful smell of old books.