So, will it be Pisa or Florence? Both of these Italiano towns are up there with Italy’s bucket-list locations, there’s no doubt about that. They each host eye-watering sights, from leaning towers to great cathedrals. They both ooze charm and character, offering cobbled alleys brimming with trattoria and cafes, along with age-old churches and bustling piazzas.
There’s actually history here. Florence and Pisa had beef for much of the 14th century, when they fought bloody skirmishes like the Battle of Cascina (famously painted by a certain Michelangelo). Later, Pisa was joined into the Republic of Florence, cementing one’s status as the first city of Tuscany and the other as a largely cultural hub with a prestigious university.
Truth be told, we think both towns should be on any list of must-sees in Italy. They’re enthralling bouts of history and art that sum up the riches of the Tuscan region. This guide is for those who only have time for one. It picks out five key aspects of each to weigh up which is best for you this year. Benvenuto!
Pisa or Florence for sightseeing?
City breaks in Italy and sightseeing are a match made in heaven. Even the uglier towns on The Boot are hardly ugly at all. Most come loaded with some sort of 500-year-old palazzo or intriguing church. And when it comes to Pisa and Florence, you’re talking two of the most famous, most iconic, most stunning cities there are in the whole country.
Let’s begin in the Tuscan capital. Florence spreads over the Arno River from a hilly district of botanical gardens into a downtown UNESCO site: The Historic Centre of Florence. That’s a sightseer’s dream come true. At its center is the hulking Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, a 13th-century duomo that’s regularly hailed as the most perfect in the country (a country that’s riddled with duomos, that is!).
Check the roof, which is topped by the glimmering outline of Brunelleschi’s Dome. Or look west to the octagonal Baptistery of St. John, a Lombard-style shrine with mosaic interiors and a 1,000-year story to tell. From there, a jaunt to the Arno River is a must, taking you through the narrow streets to the Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s iconic jeweler’s bridge. That’s also where you’ll find the immense Uffizi Gallery. One of the finest art collections in the world resides within, including works by Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli.
Pisa certainly isn’t short on sights but there’s really one that stands out from the crowd: The Leaning Tower of Pisa. That slightly sloping campanile is much more than just a crooked belltower. It’s become the veritable symbol of the city and one of the most iconic sights in the whole of Europe. The good news is that it rises smack dab in the middle of the Piazza del Duomo, another UNESCO World Heritage Site and the main nerve center of sightseeing here.
So, after you’re done with the compulsory keeping-up-the-tower pic, be sure to turn your gaze towards the stunning cathedral and baptistry, both of which were built between the 1000s and 1300s! The old town area spreads south and east of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, through grand lanes of bistros. Head that way and you should eventually come to the big Piazza dei Cavalieri, where mighty Renaissance palaces and equestrian statues loom on high. Also don’t miss Pisa’s premier museum, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, which chronicles the artistry of the mighty church and its belfry.
Winner: Florence. Pisa has no shortage of sights, but Florence is the cultural capital of Italy, so it’s got to win here.
Pisa or Florence for ease of travel?
Pisa and Florence are both in the same region: Tuscany. They’re both tucked under the Apennine Mountains north of Rome, close to the very heart of the country. But most important for travelers who are yet to arrive in the land of pizza and pasta? They both have their own airports.
Despite Florence being the regional capital, Pisa International Airport is actually the busier of the two arrival points. It’s the 10th busiest airport in Italy as a whole, with connections that come in from all over Europe, along with some long-haul links to Doha (connecting to the Far East) and one or two going south to Africa. However, by far the most prolific carrier here is Ryanair. That budget option runs year-round connections to major hubs like London Stansted and Brussels, bolstered by oodles of seasonal links to the likes of Frankfurt, Fez, Ibiza, and Warsaw.
The airport in Pisa is located on the south side of the city, close to the entrance to the main E80 motorway that runs up the Italian west coast. Pisa isn’t directly on Italy’s high-speed train line, so you’ll need to link via Florence if you want to ride the 300km/h locomotives from the Eternal City. That said, there are some direct Regionale or Frecciabianca trains that complete the route in a couple of hours.
Florence has a smaller airport than Pisa. It sits about four miles to the north-west of the historic center of the city, just on the cusp of the mountains. It misses out on the most famous names in the low-cost industry (namely Ryanair and easyJet) but does have some budget arrivals thanks to Vueling. Other popular connections in include the hop from Heathrow with BA and the link to Schiphol with KLM.
Generally speaking, though, there are fewer summertime flight arrivals into Florence than its compadre to the west. On the flip side, Florence is a major kingpin on the Italian rail network. The uber-fast Frecciarossa trains pass through here from Milan, Venice, and Rome, so there are links to the capital and other awesome Italian towns basically every hour of every day. Oh, and Florence lies on the course of the main E35 motorway, too. That’s the backbone of Italy that goes south to Naples and north to Milan.
Winner: Draw. Pisa has more flight arrivals for sure, but Florence is easier to get to by train and car.
Pisa or Florence for food?
It’s no secret that food is concern numero uno for lots of travelers bound for The Boot of southern Europe. Hey, this is the home of pizza and pasta, after all! Thankfully, neither Pisa nor Florence will disappoint on that count. Both of these cities are Tuscan to the core. And that means Tuscan food and all the rich red wines and earthy dishes that goes with it.
Florentine cooking is heavily influenced by the fertile valleys and the rugged Arezzo hills that surround the city. They’re a figurative breadbasket of mushroom-filled forests, winelands, organic farms, and tomato plantations. Already tempted? Just wait until you see the stacked stalls of the Sant’Ambrogio Market and the Mercato Centrale, where butchers hang smoked porchetta meats and vibrant courgetti flowers are piled high. There are also some key dishes that everyone visiting Florence should try:
- Bistecca alla Fiorentina – One of the thickest-cut steaks you’ll ever see, simply grilled with wild herbs like rosemary and always served with a compulsory glass of Chianti.
- Lampredotto – Bear with us here, because this meat-packed sandwich is made from the fourth stomach of a cow, stewed in broth, and mixed with herbs. It might not sound great, but you’ll be queuing for more!
- The wine – Florence is much closer to the heart of the Tuscan wine regions than Pisa. Head south to enter the protected growing area of Chianti (arguably the most famous in the country). Keep going and you’ll come to the stunning Val d’Orcia.
Pisa is further west and closer to the coast. It’s also nearer the wooded hills of the Apuan Alps. The upshot? There’s a real intermingling of influences in the cuisine, coming from different terrains and farms and growing techniques. There’s still a touch of the hearty cucina povera of Florence, only here the menus are infused with Ligurian seafood and shellfish, truffles from Barga and Lucca, freshwater fish from the Arno valley, rich Tuscan wines – the list goes on and on. Some local specialities include:
- Sullo scio – A mix of chopped tagliatelle pasta, rosemary-infused tomato sauce, chickpeas, and garlic. Very tasty and very local.
- Stuffed eels – Not our cup of tea at all, but hey, if you like garlic-filled eels fresh out of the Arno River, be our guest!
- Pisan beef skillet – Heavy beef cuts in thick tomato, red wine, and spiced sauce, often served with parmesan cheese and truffle.
Winner: Florence, but only because it’s nearer to the wine regions. Basically, you’ll eat well ANYWHERE in Tuscany.
Pisa or Florence for day trips?
Unless you’re planning on a straight city break to either Pisa or Florence, the chances are you’re going to want to see a little bit of the Italy that surrounds these cities. Or let’s put it this way – if you’re not yet planning a day trip out to the countryside during your trip but do have the time, what are you thinking!? Some of the most stunning portions of The Boot are on the doorstep here.
Pisa is best situated for explorations throughout western and northern Tuscany. That’s a very intriguing region; very different to the rolling farms and fields that appears on the postcards. There are soaring mountains in one direction, sparkling seas in another, and rustic hill towns to the south, so you’ve got plenty of options. We should also mention that Florence is one of the most popular daytrip destinations from Pisa. A quick train that takes just a whisker over an hour links the two multiple times per day. Of course, that also works in the other direction. Other options for excursions from Pisa include:
- Lucca (30-minute drive) – An absolutely stunning medieval city that’s encircled by high walls and has big central towers, Lucca was once a very powerful state to rival both Pisa and Florence.
- Apuan Alps (1-hour drive) – Prepare to be stunned by the mountains that dominate the far northern reaches of Tuscany. Called the Apuan Alps, they often look like the Alps proper, offering jagged marble bluffs, ancient quarries, and wooded hiking trails that always seem to be empty.
- Cinque Terre (1.5-hour drive) – See the iconic pastel villages of the Ligurian coast. Pure romance.
Outings from Florence are really all about experiencing the rustic landscapes of inland Tuscany. The region extends only a little to the north and east from here, where it creeps into the depths of the wild Apennines. To the south is wine country par excellence. We’d say both directions have their draws, including:
- San Gimignano (1-hour drive) – Arguably the most enchanting hill town in Tuscany, San Gimignano is a series of towers and terracotta-hued houses clustered on a cypress-ringed hill. You won’t want to leave.
- Chianti (1.2-hour drive) – Calling all wine lovers, Chianti stretches south from Florence. Offering endless wineries and agrotourism B&Bs, it’s perhaps the premier wine valley in the country.
- Siena (1.5-hour drive) – Some say Siena is the most stunning city in the world, let alone just Italy. We love the bustle of it, especially in August when the Palio is in full swing.
Winner: For us it’s Pisa because of the variety you get with the mountains and the coast.
Pisa or Florence for price?
There’s not really that much in it when it comes down to the cost of a vacation in Florence compared to the cost of a vacation in Pisa. That’s mainly because these cities are so close together, and both are big tourist draws. Neither is cheap. In fact, they are among the priciest destinations in Italy, with only Rome, Milan, and Venice topping them. Most estimations put the average cost of a seven-day trip somewhere in the region of between $1,600-2,000 per person.
Hotels in Florence are notorious for costing a packet. You’re probably looking at around €85-200 ($99-230) for something in the midrange category in the high season summer months if you want to stay in the historic quarter or nearby. It’s close to that in Pisa, but you can score boutique B&Bs in the center starting at about €70 ($81) per night, so just a touch cheaper perhaps.
Food wise, you can expect to pay a whole load more when eating in the main tourist areas (that’s around the Piazza del Duomo in Pisa and in the historic center in Florence). The problem is that Florence’s tourist center covers pretty much the whole city, so you’ll need to move to areas like Santo Spirito or San Marco to catch the budget eats there.
Winner: Pisa, but only just.
Florence and Pisa are two of the most fascinating cities in Italy. They’re also super close together, so we’d say try to visit both – a train links them in just over an hour, you know? If that’s not doable, then it’s really 50/50. Pisa has the leaning tower and a more chilled town vibe, and it’s close to mountains and the sea. Florence is better for entering the Tuscan winelands and is much more of a full-on city. It really comes down to what you’re after.