Leaning Tower of Pisa ★★★

The arcades of the campanile, Leaning Tower, Pisa, Italy (Photo by Frans-Banja Mulder)
The arcades of the campanile

The Leaning Tower of Pisa is world's most famous bell tower, and an icon of pizza boxes everywhere

The fact is, most medieval towers still standing in Italy haven't been able to keep perpendicular over the centuries. Bologna's mismatched twins bend toward each other in conversation, none of San Gimignano's skyscrapers can find plumb anymore, and Rome's imperial forums are downright menaced by the pendant Torre delle Milizie.

But it’s the Leaning Tower of Pisa that has captured the world’s fascination and become international shorthand for Italy itself.

Perhaps this is because the campanile of Pisa's Duomo, in addition to it's freakishly fascinating lean, also happens to be one of the most beautiful bell towers in the peninsula, a fanciful Romanesque pile of gleaming white marble columns and thin terraces that people would flock to see no matter which way it pointed.

The tower’s problem—that which has been the bane of Pisan engineers trying to overcome it for more than 800 years—is you can’t stack that much heavy marble on top of a shifting subsoil foundation and keep it all on the up and up. It was started in 1173—the date on the wall of 1174 owes to an old Pisan quirk of starting the year with the date of the Virgin’s conception—by Guglielmo and Bonnano Pisano (who also sculpted the Duomo’s original bronze doors).

They got as far as the third level in 1185 when they noticed the lean, at that point only about 3.8 centimeters, but enough to worry them. Everyone was at a loss as to what to do, so work stopped for almost a century and wasn’t resumed again until 1275 under the direction of Giovanni di Simone (who also designed the Camposanto). He tried to correct the tilt by intentionally curving the structure back toward the perpendicular, giving the tower its slight banana profile. (The mismatched stones he used to achieve this gave rise in the late 19th century to the rather lame idea that the lean was purposeful.)

In 1284, Pisa had major problems with the Genoese to worry about (they were soundly trounced in a naval battle, from which the city would never truly recover) and work stopped yet again just before the belfry.

In 1360, Tomasso di Andrea da Pontedera capped it all off at about 170 feet (51m) with a slightly Gothic belfry that tilts jauntily to the side, striving even harder thatnthe rest of the structure to stick straight up.

The only major blip in the tower’s long career as a world-famous Italian freak show attraction came in 1590, when a hometown scientist named Galileo Galilei dropped some mismatched wooden balls off the leaning side to prove to an incredulous world his theory that gravity exerted the same force on two falling objects no matter what their relative weights. Many people at the time thought he was kooky, and the church even excommunicated (and nearly executed) him for the blasphemy of suggesting the Earth wasn't the center of the universe, but today we know Galileo as one of the fathers of modern physics.

In the early 19th century, someone got it into his head to dig out around the base of the tower in order to see how the foundations were laid and perhaps find a way to correct the slipping lean, but all he accomplished was to remove what little stability the tower had acquired over the centuries, and it started falling faster than ever before (not that it was all that fast:—about 1 mm a year).

For several decades, a series of complicated and delicate projects has been directed at stabilizing the alluvial subsoil. In 1989, more than a million people climbed the tower, but by 1990 the lean was at about 15 feet out of plumb and, by order of a mayor’s office concerned for safety, the tower was closed to the public. At 3:25pm on January 7, 1990, with the tower’s bells sounding a death knell, the doors were closed indefinitely.

In 1992, steel cables were belted around the base to prevent shear forces from ripping apart the masonry. In 1993, even the bells and their dangerous vibrations were silenced, and the same year a series of lead weights was rather unaesthetically stacked on the high side to try to correct the list. In 1997, engineers took a chance on excavating around the base again—this time carefully removing more than 70 tons of soil from the foundation of the high side so the tower could gradually, oh-so gradually, tip back. 

In December 2001, righted to its more stable lean of 1838 (when it was a mere 13.5 feet off its center), the tower reopened to the public.

How to visit the Leaning Tower

Now, however, the number of visitors is strictly controlled via compulsory 35- to 40-minute guided tours—and a massive admission charge. However, if you expect to get in and climb to the top, you'd be wise to book ahead. When I checked ticket availability in June, tours were sold out a full 16 days in advance. If you just show up in Pisa without reservations, you will not be able to get into the tower. You can book ahead a maximum of 20 days in advance and a minimum of 1 day.

The climb is a bit strange, since that famous tilt means none of the slick stone steps are really flat. Half the time, they're progressively tilting downward, then they start progressively tilting upwards again, then it reverses yet again.

I find it exhilarating, but it is also slightly disconcerting—and a good reason to take it slowly, especially coming back down when you get some speed behind you.

(At least since the reopening, they've blocked off the open archways to the outside colonnades. When I was a kid living in Rome—and insisting we climb the tower every visit to Pisa—you could have run right out of one and plummeted to the ground. Scared my parents half to death.)

The Leaning Everything of Pisa

The campanile, by the way, isn’t the only edifice out of whack on the piazza.

The same water-saturated and unsteady sandy soil under the Field of Miracles that causes the bell tower’s poor posture has taken its toll on the other buildings as well.

The baptistery lurches toward the north, and if you catch the Duomo’s facade at the correct angle, you’ll see it, too, is a few feet shy of straight.

The nature of Pisa’s alluvial plain has caused many of its older buildings to shift and settle in this manner, and a couple of other campanile about town have been nicknamed Pisa’s “other leaning towers” (San Michele dei Scalzi is, if anything, even more weirdly askew than its more famous cousin).

Photo gallery
  • The arcades of the campanile, Leaning Tower, Italy (Photo by Frans-Banja Mulder)
  • Yes, it really does lean, Leaning Tower, Italy (Photo by Saffron Blaze)
  • Classic Pisan-Romanesque architecture, Leaning Tower, Italy (Photo by FunkUgly)
  • You can this photo of the long, winding staircase up the Leaning Tower is on the downhill side, because the steps are worn toward the outside edge rather than in the middle, as they normally would be, Leaning Tower, Italy (Photo by Tangopaso)
  • Scheme and measurements of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Leaning Tower, Italy (Photo by F l a n k e r)
  • The open belfry at the top, Leaning Tower, Italy (Photo by Joanbanjo)
  • It would be famous for its beauty even if it didn
  • Capital with monkeys, Leaning Tower, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • A plaque commemorating Galileo
  • The view over the Field of Miracles (Duomo and Baptistery) from the top, Leaning Tower, Italy (Photo by Alexmart)
  • The lead weights stacked up on the high side to help right the tilt, Leaning Tower, Italy (Photo by Eckhard Henkel)
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How long does the Leaning Tower of Pisa take?

You only get 30 minutes to climb the tower, take in the view form the top, and climb back down—but that's pretty much enough time.

Note that you must pick up your tickets to the tower 30 minutes before your entry time—so, all told, a visit here takes at least an hour.

Book your tickets ahead of time!!!

Think about how famous the Leaning Tower of Pisa is. Now imagine every tour group from Columbus, Ohio, to Tokyo, Japan, booking up visiting times in blocks of 50 and 60 tickets to accommodate their giant bus groups. Yeah, this is one sight you definitely want to reserve in advance:

You can also do just tower tickets online at www.opapisa.it (they no longer take telephone bookings—though you can call for information at tel. +39- 050-835-011).

When you book your ticket, you pick an entry time to climb the tower (you get 30 minutes inside; children under 8 not allowed). To this you can add 1, 2, or 3 of the other sights around the Campo to your ticket. You just pick the total number of sights you want, not the sights themselves; when you arrive, you can visit any of your choice of 2 or 3 or whatever, and can do so at any time (since you have to pick up your tickets at least 30 minutes before your Leaning Tower time slot, this makes a good way to kill time while you wait).

Look it sounds complicated, but here's what you do: buy everything. Book the Leaning Tower ticket, and then go ahead and buy the ticket for all the other sights. It's just not worth troubling over—especially not for a mere €8—and they're all worth popping into.

Note that you have a specific window in which you can book online: starting 20 days before your visit, and the day before your visit. 

That said, you could get lucky. Last time I visited Pisa, in the fall of 2009, I lucked into a last-minute cancellation and was able to get into the Leaning Tower with just two-hour's wait (which was perfect, since I spent those two hours seeing some of the other sights on the Field of Miracles). Again, I got extremely lucky.

Hint: to avoid waiting in the regular Leaning Tower line, while booking tick the box that you want to pick up your tickets either at the Central Ticket Office or the Museo delle Sinopie.

Get your tickets at the Museo delle Sinopie

There is a single ticket for entry into all the sights on the Campo dei Miracoli.

if you didn't book it ahead of time, make sure you buy it at the Museo dell Sinopie, which has the largest ticketing desk and the shortest lines.

How to get to the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Unfortunately, the Campo dei Miracoli and Leaning Tower are a stiff 20– to 30-minute walk north of the main Pisa-Centrale train station.

To get to the Leaning Tower from the main Pisa train station (Pisa-Centrale), first buy two bus tickets—due biglietti autobus—from a newsstand inside the station (one for each way).

Exit the station, cross the little piazza out front, and cross the street to stand on the far side, a bit to the right of center—you need to do this because the city bus (www.cpt.pisa.it) you are catching goes both ways, and you want the one headed to the left (west)—otherwise, you're on your way to the airport!

The bus you want is called LAM Rosso (the high speed red line, also abbreviated L/R). This will take you to the "Torre 1" stop at Pizza Daniele Manin (whicuh is along Via Bonanno Pisano) just beyond the western edge of Piazza del Duomo (a.k.a. Campo dei Miracoli).

Follow the crowds through the thicket of souvenir stands and the Porta Santa Maria gate in the city walls and you're on Campo dei Miracoli. Walk to the far end and look for a bunch of people posing as if they're holding it up. You're there. 

If you happen to get off a train at the secondary Pisa-San Rossore station, you're in luck: it's just a five-minute stroll west of the Field of Miracles. Exit using the underpass of Piazza Fancelli. Walk straight ahead to Via Andrea Pisano and turn left. Walk three blocks. You can't miss it.

If you arrive in Pisa by car, there's an amazingly convenient public parking lot just a block up from the western edge of the Campo dei Miracoli on Via Cammeo Carlo Salomone, on your left just past the Vecchia di Barbaricina.

Check your bags!

You cannot take even a tiny backpack up the tower, so pack accordingly for the day or check your bags at the main tourist office (it shares space with the Museo dell Sinopie on the S side of the piazza).

Left luggage cost €3–€4 per day, depending on the size.

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah

* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).