One of the least visited cities in Tuscany, Pistoia has been ignored for far too long. Nestled at the foot of the Apennino mountains, the Pistoia’s walled old-town is packed full of art and archaeology, though eerily empty of people. It is hard to believe this quiet, graceful place has a blood-soaked history, but its population was once torn apart by a long lasting and bitter medieval feud between two family factions (no, not the Montagues and Capulets; the Neris and Bianchis.) The city’s people soon acquired a violent reputation, and Michelangelo once proclaimed all Pistoians the “enemies of heaven.” Appropriately, the world’s first pistols were made here in the 16th century, and were named after the city that created them.

Although there is little to do here beyond admiring the beautiful churches and wandering the dark, dusty streets, Pistoia’s slow pace is a relief after the bustle of tourist-packed Florence and Lucca. Enjoy the quiet satisfaction of discovering a gem your fellow tourists have overlooked.


Pistoia’s main attractions are its buildings and the artefacts they house. Many of the best are concentrated around the expansive Piazza del Duomo, beginning with the city’s black and white striped marble cathedral. Within the Cattedrale di San Zeno is the remarkable silver altarpiece of San Jacopo, begun in the 13th century. On seeing the silver panels, friezes and 628 intricate figures (the altarpiece literally weighs a ton) you will understand why it took over 200 years to complete. Track down a church attendant and ask them to take you to the altarpiece, which for some reason is locked away in a gloomy side chapel.

Other buildings of note in the Piazza del Duomo include the Palazzo dei Vescovi, which you can explore on the proviso you let a tour guide lead you. It houses bits and bobs from Pistoia’s early history, including pre-Roman Etruscan artefacts. The square’s other palazzo is the venue for Pistoia’s Museo Civico where you can admire the works of Tuscan artists. Opposite is the lovely green and white striped marble façade of the 14th century baptistery.

Don’t miss the Ospedale del Ceppo (Hospital of the Tree Stump.) Underneath its impressive portico is a unique painted terracotta frieze by Giovanni della Robbia, picturing lively scenes of peasants and pilgrims, along with images of the sick and the dead.

For one day each year, the vast Piazza del Duomo fills with people, gathered to watch the Giostra dell’Orso. This bizarre but entertaining custom has taken place on the 25th July each year since 1947, when it was revived from medieval times. To commemorate a duel in 1300 between the city’s knights and a bear, the piazza is transformed into a jousting ring, where 8 armoured knights on horseback (four pairs representing the city’s four districts) take turns to joust at a stylised “bear.” The pair that gains the most points wins glory for its district. If your visit is going to coincide with the Giostra, make sure you don’t miss the spectacle. Tickets sell out fast, so contact the tourist office at least a month in advance to book yours.

If, however, you’re not in Pistoia on the 25th July, and the churches and museums are boring the kids rigid, take them to the Giardino Zoologico. A twenty minute drive from Pistoia’s centre, the zoo boasts 600 animals from jaguars to polar bears, and is one of Italy’s best. What with the playground, snack bar and restaurant, you could probably make a day of it.


Pistoia doesn’t have much to offer in the way of shops, but it does host bustling markets on Wednesday and Saturday mornings where you can buy ripe fruit, local embroidery and other trinkets. On Wednesdays a flea-market also comes to town, providing bargain-hunters with great piles of old clothes, shoes and junk to pick through.

Nightlife and Eating Out

Pistoia has a good selection of small restaurants offering local fare – try the short Via del Lestrone which is stuffed full of such places. Local culinary specialities combine Tuscan traditions with ingredients from the nearby mountains and forests. Mushroom pappardelli is a great favourite, as is polenta with porcini mushrooms. Carcerato Pistoiese is a soup made from meat broth, stale bread, and pecorino cheese, whilst Necci is also popular: a kind of crepe made from chestnut flour and filled with ricotta cheese, cooked on a piping hot slab.

Unless you’re in Pistoia in July, nightlife is limited to cosy bars in the old-town streets. The city is transformed, however, when July’s Pistoia Festival rolls in, bringing with it theatre, music and participatory events on a daily basis. Part of the festival is the famous /> Pistoia Blues three-day music event, which has over the years attracted artists Bob Dylan, Santana and B.B. King to play to thronging crowds.

Tourist Information

Tourist OfficePiazza del Duomo 4Telephone: (+44) 573.21.622Email: info@commune.pistoia.itWebsite: www.commune.pistoia.it


The closest airports are at Pisa or Florence. Easyjet, Ryanair and British Airways will take you to Pisa from almost any UK airport, whilst if you want to fly to Florence you’ll have to go with Meridiana from London Gatwick. Excellent rail links in the region mean the train will get you to Pistoia from Florence in under an hour and from Pisa in just over an hour. If you’re driving, take the A11 from either city.

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