22km (14 miles) S of Lucca; 81km (50 miles) W of Florence; 334km (208 miles) NW of Rome
Pisa is the ultimate Tuscan day trip. Millions of people descend annually on the Leaning Tower and its neighboring architectural miracles on Campo dei Miracoli square. Few visitors, however, venture beyond this monumental grassy square into the rest of the city.
The city began as a seaside settlement around 1000 B.C. and was expanded into a naval trading port by the Romans in the 2nd century B.C. By the 11th century, Pisa had grown into one of the peninsula's most powerful maritime republics, along with Venice, Amalfi, and Genoa. Its extensive trading in the Middle East helped import advanced Arabic ideas (decorative and scientific), and its wars with the Saracens led it to create an offshore empire of Corsica, Sardegna, and the Balearics. It lay waste to rival Amalfi in 1135 and, riding a high tide of wealth in the late Middle Ages, created its monumental buildings. In 1284, Pisa's battle fleet was destroyed by Genoa at Meloria (off the Livorno coast), a staggering defeat allowing the Genoese to take control of the Tyrrhenian Sea and forcing Pisa's long slide into twilight. Its Ghibelline nature gave Florence the excuse it needed to take control in 1406. Despite a few small rebellions, Florence stayed in charge until Italian unification in the 1860s.
Pisa's main claim to fame since the end of its naval power has been its university, one of Italy's top schools, established in 1343. Pisa was also the birthplace of one of Western history's greatest physicists and astronomers, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), a man prone to dropping uneven weights from the Leaning Tower and making blasphemous statements about Earth revolving around the sun.