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Finding Pisa rather quiet? Then you must have arrived during term break. Students account for almost half the population of Pisa, a city long renowned for its universities and elite schools. The student scene is at the heart of what makes Pisa so vibrant and unique. Not all the façades here are polished to a high touristic gloss; instead, you can immerse yourself in the authentic bustle of the city.
The centre of Pisa is easy to explore on foot. From the Cathedral Square (Piazza del Duomo) near the outskirts and the Leaning Tower, you can wander along the magnificent Via Santa Maria as far as the banks of the Arno river. Take a detour, if you fancy, down a small side street to see the botanical garden. Reaching the Arno at the end of Via Santa Maria, you will see the patrician houses along the busy riverside street of Lungarno Antonio Pacinotti. Now you are at the heart of what was formerly one of the most noble quarters of the city. Despite the mostly limited opening times, we recommend a visit to the Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Reale (National Museum of the Royal Palace) with its collections of art, weapons, costumes and furniture from the 16th and 17th centuries. The expert knowledge of the museum staff is almost inexhaustible, giving you not only wonderful insights into life at the time but also some background information on the Medici family. Walk east from Palazzo Reale and you will soon find the Borgo Stretto line of shops to your left, level with the Ponte di Mezzo bridge.
The pedestrian zone of Borgo Stretto, which translates as “narrow district”, is perfect for strolling and shopping. Enjoy an espresso or an ice cream and drift through the maze of side streets with other like-minded souls. The Borgo Stretto is sometimes very chic, sometimes less so, but always authentic.
A passageway from Borgo Stretto leads to the northern part of Pisa’s historic centre. Don’t miss the fruit and vegetable market on Piazza delle Vettovaglie! From here, take Via Domenico Cavalca and cross the pedestrianised Piazza Dante Alighieri dotted with palm trees to reach the university quarter. Immerse yourself in the city’s student life, take a breather, or continue exploring the district further along Via San Frediano as far as Piazza dei Cavalieri (Knights’ Square). Here you will find a palace of the same name, Palazzo dei Cavalieri, the former seat of the Knights of Saint Stephen which since 1810 has been the home of the elite school Scuola Normale Superiore founded by Napoleon. On Piazza dei Cavalieri, the signs of the Order of Saint Stephen are unmistakable: its emblem, a red Maltese cross, can be found on the façades of the Palazzo dell’Orologio and the Church of Santo Stefano, for instance. Via Corsica, to the west of the square, will lead you back to Via Santa Maria past an array of shops targeted mainly at a student clientele. This will take you back to where you started: the Leaning Tower of Pisa.