Santa Maria: Historical Quarter in Tramontana

The Quarter of Santa Maria is in the part of the city called Tramontana, and it is probably the most popular, because it hosts the most famous sights of Pisa: the Leaning Tower, the Duomo, Piazza dei Cavalieri.

What most people ignore, though, is that this quarter is not only a tourist location but it is the center of the prestigious University of Pisa, Scuola Normale Superiore and of the University Hospital Santa Chiara.

Tramontana Tramontana

You can start your walk from the Ponte della Cittadella.

What should you see in Santa Maria?

Following this itinerary...

A Walk in Santa Maria A Walk in Santa Maria should see:

  • Cittadella Medicea with its Torre Guelfa (Guelph Tower): this red brick building with the high tower (from which you can enjoy an amazing view over the centre of Pisa) is what remains of the old Republican Arsenal of Pisa originally called Tersanaia. This tower is lit on the day of the Luminara by a fall of red fireworks as if it was on fire to remember the Florentine assault. The white statue in the garden is called "La porta della Sapienza" (the Knowledge Gate) and was put there on the 650th anniversary of the founding of the University of Pisa.
Guelph Tower Guelph Tower
  • Arsenale Mediceo (the Medici shipyard): the Arsenal is the large red brick building on the Lungarno Pacinotti only few steps away from the Cittadella. It was built in the 16th century as a shipyard for the powerful Ordine di Santo Stefano. Now it hosts a permanent exhibition on the excavation of the Roman Ships of Pisa and it should become the Museum of the Roman Ships in 2009
  • Church of San Vito: continuing on the Lungarno Pacinotti, just past the Arsenali, a plaque indicates that this old building nowadays hosts a little church on the spot where on June 17th, 1161, San Ranieri, Patron Saint of Pisa, died
  • Palazzo Reale (the Royal Palace): this very simple but huge building is located on the Lungarno, between Piazza Carrara and Via Santa Maria, the street which leads to the Leaning Tower and home to many Humanistic Faculties. The palace was built between 1583 and 1587: Francesco I of the Medici family had it designed by Buontalenti for his family, who spent much time in Pisa to escape the hot weather in Florence. Since the Medicis spent so much time in Pisa, the Palace hosted many important events and famous people. This tradition continued under the Savoia family's reign. The Royal Palace has a tower, called Torre della Verga d'Oro. It is said that Galileo used this Tower to show the stars to the Granduchi. Nowadays the Royal Palace is home to the Soprintendenza dei Beni Culturali, the national institute responsible for the preservation of archaeological and artistic treasures but also for the preservation of the city structures and buildings. The Palace is also home to a beautiful gallery, which features important works of art including some paintings by Raffaello and works of art by Canova.
The Royal Palace The Royal Palace
  • Piazza Carrara: the square itself is just a large parking lot, but it is surrounded by many noble buildings built in the 18th and 19th centuries and a statue representing Ferdinando I of the Medici Family (1594) occupies the center of the square. In this square there is one of the oldest theatres of the city of Pisa, the Rossi Theatre built in 1770. It is presently undergoing renovations.
  • Palazzo Lanfranchi or Alla Giornata: this white marble building on the Lungarno, few steps after Piazza Carrara is the building of the "Rettorato", the building which houses the offices of the Rettore (the President) of the University of Pisa. This beautiful building belonged to the Lanfranchi family and is known as "Palazzo alla Giornata" (16th century) because of the mysterious writing on the façade "alla Giornata", literally "by the day", probably related to the payments made by the Lanfranchi family to the builders during the construction of the building: they were allegedly paid by the day
Palace Palace "Alla Giornata"
  • Church of the Madonna dei Galletti: this church breaks the regularity of the buildings of the Lungarno. It's a little church elaborately decorated, which is interesting because of the big Triumphal Arch leading to the Altar, which is believed to be the "Porta Aurea" from the original Roman wall of the city. The "Porta Aurea" was the city gate through which the Roman and Pisa military leaders passed on their departure and return from battle.
  • Palazzo Agostini: this red brick building is one of the oldest and best preserved in Pisa. This 14th century building is interesting for several reasons, among which the fact that is leaning. Visit the Caffè dell'Ussero founded in 1794 and very popular among the artists of the city. This bar was the meeting place of Italian patriots and intellectuals from the University of Pisa. Among the most famous of the frequent visitors were Giusti, Fucini, Guerrazzi, Montanelli, Abba, Panzacchi and Carducci
Palazzo Agostini Palazzo Agostini
  • Few steps away, the "historical memory" of Pisa, the Royal Hotel Victoria which over the centuries hosted many famous people including Dickens, Ruskin, Dumas, Pirandello and many others. On its façade there is a beautiful sundial built in 19th century and on the building next door, there is a plaque that commemorates the place in which Garibaldi was cured when he arrived wounded in Pisa on November 8th, 1862
Royal Hotel Victoria Royal Hotel Victoria
  • Piazza Garibaldi: this square is very popular. It is in the exact centre of the city, and in fact the bridge opposite the square is called Ponte di Mezzo, the "middle bridge". The statue in the square is of Garibaldi. The square is always very crowded and it is one of the gathering points in Pisa: from April to July it is packed with students going to the bars that open onto the square and sitting on the Lungarno walls. Moreover, in this square you can find the best ice-cream shop, La Bottega del Gelato: don't miss it! Here Borgo Stretto starts: this street is the continuation of Corso Italia on the Tramontana side of the river and which is shared by the historical quarters of Santa Maria and San Francesco. Don't let the beautiful wooden sculpture of the Holy Virgin at the beginning of Borgo Stretto go unnoticed. The light orange building is called Casino dei Nobili, and it was the place where nobles used to gather, "to kill time" in the 18th century
Piazza Garibaldi Piazza Garibaldi
The Excellent Ice-cream Shop The Excellent Ice-cream Shop
  • Ponte di Mezzo: this bridge is the place where the "Gioco del Ponte" takes place
Ponte di Mezzo Ponte di Mezzo
  • Borgo Stretto: it is the most elegant street in Pisa. The most expensive shops and boutiques are here, under its arches. There are some nice bars too, and the best pastry shop ever: Salza. Try it out!!! During the Christmas period, a little square in Borgo Stretto hosts a Christmas market where you can buy Christmas decorations and Statues for the Nativity Scene ("Presepe"). A plaque above Caffè Settimelli signals that the house above was the house where Galileo Galilei was born. At the end of Via dei Mercanti, found in the quarter of San Francesco, there is an amazing spaghetteria, Le Bandierine
Galileo's Birth House Galileo's Birth House
Borgo Stretto Borgo Stretto
  • Piazza delle Vettovaglie: from Borgo Stretto you can reach the medieval heart of Pisa, the part I prefer. Piazza delle Vettovaglie hosts many nice shops and the vegetable market, so colorful and lively!! There are many nice restaurants such as Il Campano and Osteria Santomobono, and look up! The buildings are amazing examples of real Middle Age architecture. The little streets suffocated by the tall buildings bear witness of the long history of Pisa. Continue towards Il Campano (the big bell) a high tower where there is a bell that used to mark the time of the University lessons
Bars and Cafés in Piazza delle Vettovaglie Bars and Cafés in Piazza delle Vettovaglie
The Vegetable Market in Piazza delle Vettovaglie The Vegetable Market in Piazza delle Vettovaglie
Medieval Buildings in Piazza delle Vettovaglie Medieval Buildings in Piazza delle Vettovaglie
The Medieval Heart of Pisa The Medieval Heart of Pisa
Il Campano Il Campano
  • Via Curtatone and Montanara - Via San Frediano: I give the name of the streets here, because there are several things to see. When you reach this street from Il Campano you can see on your left the huge, white building called La Sapienza, which is nowadays home to the Faculty of Law and to the University Library. On the right, you can see the Church of San Frediano (10th century). Via Curtatone and Montanara links Piazza dei Cavalieri to the Lungarno.
La Sapienza La Sapienza
  • Piazza Dante: this large open square is the heart of the University life in Pisa. Most students choose the bars opening on this square for their lunch break. Moreover on the day of the Luminara, this square becomes the heart of the Street Party after the fireworks
Piazza Dante Piazza Dante
  • From Piazza Dante, go back to Piazza Carrara and from there continue to Via Santa Maria walking under the bridge that connects the Royal Palace to the Church of San Nicola. This 14th century church is worth seeing. It leans heavily and it has a beautiful bell tower. You are now on Via Santa Maria
  • Via Santa Maria: this street leads from the Lungarno to the Field of the Miracles. On this street there are many noble buildings now occupied by the University. Enjoy the intentional surprise effect: it is built so as to make it impossible to see what comes next. What comes next is usually another amazing building. It is believed that Vasari had a role in the planning of the layout of this area
  • Piazza Cavallotti: on the left-hand side of this square is Palazzo Boileau (16th century), home of the Faculty of Foreign Languages and Literatures, and the entrance to the Botanic Garden
  • Botanic Garden: visit the oldest Botanic Garden in Europe!!! It's amazing and FREE!
  • Collegio Ferdinando: in Via Santa Maria, 102. This is a huge building from the 16th century wanted by Ferdinando I of the Medici family as college. The most interesting part is the entrance, by Vasari, also featuring the statue of Ferdinando I
  • Chiesa di San Giorgio dei Tedeschi and Ospizio dei Trovatelli: the church was built in 1317 and inside there is a very beautiful wooden Cross of the 13th century. Just few steps away from the Leaning Tower, which, I am sure, will have already absorbed all your attention at this point, there is this simple building called Ospizio dei Trovatelli ("the orphans' hospital"). This is one of the few original buildings of the 1400's. It is very beautiful. There is a door where once there was a wheel used by people who chose to abandon unwanted children. They put the child on the wheel, which was turned and the child was brought inside allowing the parents to remain anonymous
  • Piazza dei Miracoli: ok, at this point you will have already seen the Leaning Tower and you will have already started taking pictures! I will not say anything more about this square here. Just remember that you have to book tickets to climb up the Leaning Tower and that in this square there are also the Museums of Le Sinopie and of the Opera del Duomo. The Monumental Cemetery, the Duomo, the Baptistery and the Leaning Tower are the four big things to see, but the city walls with Porta Nuova and the Jewish Cemetery, the oldest one still in use in Europe, are well worth a visit
  • Behind the Museuo delle Sinopie there is the University Hospital Santa Chiara where the ruins of a piece of the city walls are preserved
  • On the square to the right of the Leaning Tower is the Palace of the Archbishop
  • Go back to Piazza Cavallotti through Via Santa Maria. Take Via dei Mille (stop at "Caffè della Panna" for the best "cappuccino" ever! And Osteria dei Mille is an excellent restaurant) and you will reach Piazza Corsica. Note that Via della Faggiola at the end of Via dei Mille on the left, is the street where you can find the the bike rental's. In Piazza Corsica there is the beautiful Church of San Sisto (11th century): this is one of the oldest churches in Pisa and inside a piece of the Koran is preserved.
  • Continue to Piazza dei Cavalieri. This is an amazing square, probably designed by Vasari. This is as worth visiting as Piazza dei Miracoli and home to the most prestigious University in Italy: Scuola Normale Superiore. Stand in the middle. This square was also known as "Piazza delle 7 Vie" ("Square of the 7 streets") because of the many streets conflating to this square. This was the location of the old Roman Forum and heart of the political power during the Pisan Republic. The square was renovated in the 16th century by the Medici family after the Order of the Knights of Saint Stephen was created. Cosimo I of the Medici family wanted this square to be wonderful and a symbol of strength and power. The statue in the middle (1596) represents him and it is located on the Fontana del Gobbo. The beautiful building behind the statue is called Palazzo della Carovana. It was built by Vasari in 1562 and it's home to the Scuola Normale Superiore created by Napoleon. The building with the arch on the left is Palazzo dell'Orologio (the "Palace of the Clock"). It is the library of the Scuola Normale Superiore, but it is interesting especially because it was built connecting two medieval towers, Torre della Giustizia and Torre dei Gualandi. This latter, on the right, is also know as Torre della fame ("Tower of hunger") or Tower of Count Ugolino. The legend says that he was left to starve here with his children, whom he ate. The building was built by the Vasari as hospital. On the right-hand side of Palazzo della Carovana there is the beautiful church of Santo Stefano dei Cavalieri. In the church there are several flags conquered during fights with pirates. Interesting also is a statue by Donatello. Opposite the church there is Palazzo della Canonica, which used to be the residence of the Knights and beside it is the Palazzo dell'Ordine dei Cavalieri. Next to this latter building there is the Collegio Puteano and the little church of the Oratorio di San Rocco. Take a look at the virtual tour of Piazza dei Cavalieri
Piazza dei Cavalieri Piazza dei Cavalieri
  • Continue to walk in Via Ulisse Dini. You will see on your right, a neo-gothic building home to a branch of Cassa di Risparmio di Pisa. There are some decorations of Roman origin, which are very beautiful
  • Opposite the bank, on the other side of the street there is the beautiful Via delle Sette Volte ("street of the seven vaults"), a little medieval street running under 7 vaults
  • Continue to Borgo Stretto. Via Ulisse Dini ends in Borgo Stretto. You will find yourself opposite Salza... it's definitely time for a hot chocolate! Turn left and continue along Borgo Largo, or Via Oberdan. This commercial street doesn't have porticoes. But take a look at the size of the windows of the building on the right! They are huge!
  • Continue until you reach a little church on the left, called Chiesa di San Giuseppe. Opposite there is the other important University in Pisa, the Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna. Continue to the city walls. You will see some ruins: those are the remains of the Roman Thermal Baths, known as Bagni di Nerone ("Nero's Baths"). The gate is called Porta a Lucca.

The historical Quarter of Santa Maria ends at thig City Gate. On the other side of Borgo Largo, the historical quarter of San Francesco begins.