The ornate bell tower's dramatic flaw made it an engineering calamity, then a curiosity, and ultimately, an icon.
The tower started leaning shortly after construction began in 1173, and the tilt got worse as work on the building continued over two centuries, with several delays and attempts to correct the problem. Blame the marshy soil of coastal Tuscany.
Most people make Pisa a day trip from Florence; it's an hour-long $6 train ride away (trenitalia.com). After leaving the main exit of Pisa Centrale station, stop at the tourist office on the left for a free town map. The tower is a half-hour walk north. Alternately, three buses, the Navetta A, #3, and #4, run approximately every 10 minutes (25¢) and drop off passengers in front of the Field of Miracles, a piazza that's home to the tower, as well as to the Duomo and the Baptistry (both of which also tilt, but less obviously). A taxi from the train station costs about $9.
You made it
An 11-year, $27-million restoration that removed soil beneath one side and shifted the top of the tower closer to vertical by 16 inches, or half a degree, was completed in 2001. Tickets to get inside are $18 and are good for pre-set 30-minute visits; only 30 people can enter at a time. In the summer, it's wise to reserve tickets at opapisa.it for an additional $2.40 per person. Pickup is right next door to the tower at the Opera Museum.
Killing time while waiting for your time slot isn't difficult; souvenir stands sell leaning mugs, tower snow globes, and other kitsch. Waiting also gives you the opportunity to take the requisite watch-me-prop-up-the-tower photo. Most people pose behind the Duomo, on the southwestern side of the field, but a better spot is the northeastern corner, where there's less risk of someone stepping in the frame. Once inside the tower, ascending the off-kilter circular staircase feels somewhat like bobbing from side to side on wide waves. Guards are strict about the half-hour limit, so even if you climb the 294 steps fast, you'll still have only 20 minutes at the top to let your stomach settle and check out the view before they usher you back down.
For an excellent postclimb lunch, head beyond the tower to Osteria dei Cavalieri, a Slow Food-approved restaurant with pastas for $13 (Via San Frediano 16, 011-39/050-58-08-58). Alternately, Divincibo, a shoebox-size store on the Piazza delle Vettovaglie, sells sandwiches for $4 (011-39/050-573-952). Royal Victoria Hotel is an elegant family-run establishment with a roof garden and large rooms (011-39/050-940-111, royalvictoria.it, from $94).
Children age 8 and up pay full admission. Kids under 8 aren't allowed inside the tower.