Pisa Attractions - Whale Watching with Dinosaurs.

The World's Oldest Natural History Museum is a Hidden Gem.

The Answer to: What to Do in Tuscany with Children or on a Rainy Day in Pisa.


A Top Attraction for a Visit Around Pisa - Surrounded by Tuscan Countryside.


Civilization made a giant leap one day in 1591 when a light bulb glowed in the head of Grand Duke Ferdinado I de' Medici of Tuscany. Like a parent teaching a child, this Medici ruler had the noble idea to help ordinary citizens learn about the world while fostering the advance of knowledge. So bright was his light bulb, that it shines still as the Museo Storia Naturale (Museum of Natural History) just 10 km. outside Pisa in Calci.

Pisa Museum of Natural History Mammalian Department diorama of Early Man
Mammalian Department diorama at the Pisa Museum of Natural History. Strutting your stuff never gets old. 
This excellent museum primarily uses the good old tried-and-true, get-up-close-to-the-glass-case method, and it still works wonderfully. There are a some dioramas for the nostalgic, and a few interactive displays for the moderns, but most of the collections wait patiently for your curiosity. The museum is divided into twelve departments so there are too many attractions for our humble article – we'll just try to motivate you to see for yourself.

ABOUT THE MUSEUM
This Museum is one of the hidden places of Pisa. You won't be crowded and it offers a nice change of pace and subject if your feet are protesting and Renaissance paintings are all starting to look alike. FYI, it's so unknown that only 5% of TripAdvisor reviews are in English yet all the reviews are Good or Excellent. The surrounding countryside is beautiful, the town of Calci is pleasant and has a knockout Romanesque church (see below).

Charterhouse (Certosa) of Calci.
CC by Marco Botta Chinnici
The Museum of Natural History was organized by 1595 from diverse existing Medici collections, making it one of the world's oldest museums. It was created as part of the University of Pisa and located at the even older Pisa Botanical Garden – which also still exists near the Leaning Tower. In 1981, the Museum was moved to a wing of the gigantic Carthusian monastery building in Calci, 10 km away.

The Museum has two separately ticketed sections – 1.) The Core Natural History Exhibits and 2.) The Aquarium & Special Exhibits. Our story describes our visit to some departments in both sections. We saved some sections for our next visit.

The Museum's displays are generally English friendly, and the building is quite well adapted for visitors with mobility issues.  Below are sections on TICKETS  and GETTING THERE .

The Carthusian Monastery (a Charterhouse in English, Certosa in Italian) is a separate and interesting Museum well worth a visit. Website: Museo Nazionale della Certosa Calci (IT)  or @certosadicalci on Facebook.  You can download an app named MusAR (IT) to guide you. Even though the app is in Italian, there are a lot of graphics which makes it helpful if you don't parla bene.


WHALE WATCHING


The Whale Gallery at the historic Pisa Natural History Museum
The Whale Gallery at the historic Pisa Natural History Museum. One of Europe's largest collection of whale skeletons.

This is Italy's largest collection of whale skeletons. Many are displayed full-sized in a long purpose-built hall, and they are really impressive. You can walk right up to some of them, under some others, and actually inside one. There are collateral displays to help advance your understanding of our blubbery brothers. You will never take whales for granted again.


Model of Pakicetus, progenitor of whales and dolphins. Pisa Natural History Museum.
Pakicetus, progenitor of whales and dolphins from the Indian subcontinent.
 Seldom confused with Flipper.                       Pisa Natural History Museum.
Near the whale models and skeletons, you can also learn lots about the 50 million years of whale evolution, and it's fascinating. They even have an amazing model of the land-mammal ancestor of today's whales and dolphins. (Do not show this photo to your dog before his nap.)

This is Pakicetus who began the seagoing change by getting good at fishing around the Indian subcontinent. Notice the webbed feet, almost no external ears, the nostrils that have begun the move to a blowhole location...and the teeth!



Pinocchio figure in the belly of an ex-whale. Pisa Museum of Natural History.
Pinocchio figure in the belly of an ex-whale.


Near one end of the gallery, there's a wooden Pinocchio figure sitting inside the belly of a whale skeleton. He looks like he's waiting politely for the Fox and the Cat to bring the spaghetti. It's nice to imagine all the kids entertained by this, but don't you adults succumb to the duplicity of cultural appropriation!

Carlo Collodi – the author of the original 1882 Pinocchio book set in Tuscany – came from the town of Collodi, just 15 miles away as the Fox limps. In his book, first Geppetto, then Pinocchio were swallowed by a gigantic shark 1 km. long (pescecane) not a whale.

The 1940 Disney pasteurized version of Pinocchio changed the story significantly, including substituting a whale for the shark. Now children everywhere - even most Italian kids - think it was a whale and so some history is lost. Only you parents can decide the right time to confront your child with this disturbing truth.





MAMMALS & BIRDS

Mounted hedgehog family. Pisa Museum of Natural History
Mounted hedgehog family. Pisa Museum of Natural History.
Of course, an historic natural history museum has lots of animals presented in historical fashion, and that would be stuffed. They are really life-like and you can get really close and they really won't bite. There are all kinds of animals both familiar and strange, and you'll marvel at how much you don't know. Did you ever consider how a hedgehog could nurse without mom or children getting prickly? Would your torso actually fit inside a Bengal tiger? Here's your chance to investigate.

The mammalian section was renovated in 2018, and there are more than 200 animals on display with improved lighting and information. We're going again soon to show mammalian solidarity.

Italian school girl photographs a stuffed tiger. Pisa Museum of Natural History.
Italian school girl photographs a stuffed tiger. He smiled too.
There are a large number of birds on display, and it's only a sampling of the Museum's total collection. You might come across a condor from the Andes, or a now-extinct passenger pigeon from North America, or you can decide which species of penguin is the funniest without worrying about offending one, if that's even possible. 

If you visit during the school year, you may also enjoy groups of cute elementary aged Italian kids earnestly taking notes, as we did.




MINERALS & THE BIG METEOR


Amethyst geode with inclusions. Mineral Dept. Museum of Natural History
Amethyst geode with inclusions. Mineral Dept. Museum of Natural History
Minerals are natural so they must be in a natural history museum, and the world's oldest natural history museum is no exception. Those chosen to exhibit here clearly have something on their C.V. to be worth these special glass cases. They can be rare or pretty or both. They can be valuable. They can have special attributes or special uses. Other rocks need not apply. Successful candidates receive special lighting, heat commensurate with need, and suitable explanatory information.

We particularly liked seeing the 2nd largest meteor ever found in Italy, even though it looks like a Christmas roast forgotten in the oven. Like all dorky travellers, we liked it because we've been there! It landed in the charming town of Bagnone (which we wrote about! Sigh a Dream of Love) in the Lunigiana region of northern Tuscany – not so far from Cinque Terre. Found in 1904 because it exasperated some local farmers trying to plow, it weighs about 105 pounds.


DINOSAUR COURT (SPECIAL EXHIBIT SECTION)


Scary dinosaur models at the Dinosaur Court. Special Exhibition Section. Pisa Museum of Natural History.
Scary dinosaur models at the Dinosaur Court. Special Exhibition Section. Pisa Museum of Natural History.

Every parent of a male child knows this exhibit is not optional. There are scary models here of tyrannosaurus, gigantisaurus, and toothasaurus (some names changed to protect our ignorance). They are big and lifelike and realistic enough to scare the daylights out of Jackson and Emma, but not Luca, dammit. The Museum has gone to some effort to impress the pint-sized viewers, including baby dinosaurs fresh from the egg, and adding environmental elements to convince the gullible. However, you and I know that static reality can't compete with a Jurassic Park movie, so today's designated cheerleader-parent should be prepared.

Baby dinosaurs newly hatched. Pisa Museum of Natural History.
Baby dinosaurs newly hatched. Museum of Natural History.
Note: the special exhibits are 'temporary' and seem to be on offer for nearly a year each. Your experience will be different, but we think you can count on a kid-friendly offering as the museum is very popular for class visits.

There was a dinosaur exhibit when we visited in 2016 and another different one as we write this article in 2018.  Yes, we procrastinate terribly but we compensate with equally terrible guilt.





AQUARIUM SECTION (FISH UP CLOSE )


Red Petenia       Native to the Caribbean     Pisa Museum of Natural History
Red Petenia       Native to the Caribbean     Pisa Museum of Natural History
This is the largest fresh water aquarium in Italy and it has examples of fish from around the world, as well as some related animals – several types of tortoises, several amphibians, etc.

The koi (carp) collection is extensive with beautiful multi-colored examples. From Brazil there are piranha with scary teeth, as well as an arapaima - one of the largest fresh water fish in the world. If you do crossword puzzles, you can finally meet an axolotl.

Tilapia. Acquarium at Pisa Museum of Natural History
Tilapia. Pisa Museum of Natural History
                          Photo: Tatiana Di Sacco




This is a personalized aquatic experience, mostly with tanks containing one species or related species, rather than a giant multi-species experience as at Genoa Aquarium. The advantage at Pisa is you can get quite close and the lighting is good. Many of the fish will pose for pictures, although some move too fast to capture, and some introverts are content to glare at you from under a rock.

TICKETS & HOURS

The Museum has two separately ticketed sections – 1.) The Core Natural History Exhibits and 2.) The Aquarium & Special Exhibits. You can get a ticket to either section or a combo for the two together. In 2018, an adult ticket was 8€ per section, and 14€ for the combo. An adult can include one kid for that price, and humans from 6 to 18 or over 65 years are half price. We saw and recommend both sections, but if you have limited time, go for The Core Exhibits. Link to full ticket info: TICKETS.

The Museum is open every day except December 25. The hours are:
Winter  (1 October – 31 May):     Monday to Saturday: 9.00 – 19.00      Sunday: 9.00 – 20.00
Summer  (1 June – 30 September):    Every day: 10.00 – 20.00
Link to double check:  HOURS

GETTING THERE

This Google Map Link will orient you. The directions box can yield either auto or public transit information.

The easiest mode is by car. If you're not using a GPS navigator, there is Museum signage on the roads around Calci. It's a rural area so the roads may seem unlikely, but they worked for us. There is a free parking lot on the left if facing the Certosa building.

By public transport it's about 45 minutes from Pisa Centrale train station including an 8 minute walk on both ends. It uses Bus 160 leaving from Piazza Guerrazzi. Be mindful of the scheduled times as the bus frequency is limited.


BIG BONUS - PEERLESS PISAN ROMANESQUE


The Parish Church of Calci.   (Pieve dei Santi Giovanni and Ermolao)  Examplary Pisan Romanesque Architecture.
The Parish Church of Calci.   (Pieve dei Santi Giovanni and Ermolao)  Examplary Pisan Romanesque Architecture.

The Parish Church of Calci (Pieve dei Santi Giovanni and Ermolao) is a dramatic and unspoiled display of early Pisan Romanesque architecture. Pisan Romanesque is a milestone in architecture starting with the Pisa Duomo (Cathedral) in 1060 AD. from which the style spread and evolved. Though this church was started only 20 years later, it displays a distinct difference from the strong classical features of the Pisa Duomo. Here the classical features are restrained and subservient to the bold colors and shapes which are attributed to Byzantine influences as befits a maritime power. To us, this building demonstrates the strong influence of Pisan architecture on that of Renaissance architecture.

Inside there's a notable 11th C. baptismal font decorated with an expressive relief. It's carved from a single gigantic block of Carrara marble. There's is a reliquary of Saint Ermolao of Constantinople origin, and scant remains of a painted wooden crucifix from the 12th Century. There are a two paintings by Aurelio Lomi, and a Madonna and Child by Cecco di Pietrolso.

The Pieve di Calci is a quick drive or 15 min. walk from the Museum straight along Via Roma through Calci. We'd guess the interior of the church will probably be closed from about 12:30 to 3:30 PM.  If you are smitten by this church, there are suggested driving tours of parish churches in Pisan Romanesque style here: Visit Tuscany.com and Vicopisano Turismo


Photos are copyright by us unless credited. Tatiana Di Sacco photo is courtesy Museo Storia Naturale.
Photos captioned 'CC By' are used through a Creative Commons license and can be found on Flickr.