Historic towns, golden beaches, brilliant food and plenty of sunshine. Puglia has it all. What’s more, unlike other parts of Italy, the country’s heel is not (yet) overrun by international tourists, giving it a wonderful authentic feel. However, with improved air and rail connections things are bound to change. So, if you want to get a taste of this unspoilt part of Italy, now is the time!
Having spent three summers in Puglia, I’m madly in love with this corner of Italy. The people are down to earth and friendly, the food is amazing (obvs), the beaches are busy but not overcrowded and the many photogenic seaside towns provide the ideal setting for a sunset aperitivo. If your wanderlust has not been stimulated after reading my top-10 guide of Puglia, then I don’t know what will…
- Get a first taste of Puglia in Bari’s old town
- Admire the incredible baroque architecture of Lecce
- Escape to paradise on the beaches of the Salento Coast
- Eat ‘little ears’ (orecchiette)
- Go for gelato in the fortified seaside towns of Gallipoli and Otranto
- Wander through the whitewashed streets of Ostuni
- Trulli galore
- Join the crowds in beautiful Polignano and Monopoli
- Visit Vieste and the hidden cove beaches of the Gargano Coast
- Complete the (octagonal) circle at the Castel del Monte
Get a first taste of Puglia in Bari’s Old Town
If you take the plane to Puglia, chances are you will fly into Bari, the region’s capital and gateway. At first sight, Bari looks a bit gritty and dirty. True, the city did not have a good name until recently. But the city council has invested lots of energy and money into renovation projects. Old buildings have been restored and motorised traffic has been barred from some inner-city streets, creating a much more liveable and enjoyable city centre. Bari’s old town (centro storico) in particular is a joy to walk through. It’s small, but lively, especially at night. Heart of the old town is the beautiful Piazza San Nicola, which is surrounded by church towers and a seaside fortress. At the nearby old port, local fishermen are selling their fresh fish and seafood, some of which can be eaten (raw!) on the spot.
For a great introduction to the regional cuisine, go to La Uascezze, a restaurant that’s not only situated in a picturesque little corner of the old town, but also serves brilliant local dishes. Although it’s mentioned in the Lonely Planet, I’d advise to avoid Vini e Cucina (this restaurant might be nearly 150 years old, but I had a terrible experience there with bland food and rude staff).
All in all, Bari makes for a lovely first introduction to Puglia.
Admire the incredible baroque architecture of Lecce
Lecce (pronounced: letshè, or like the Spanish word for milk, ‘leche’) is Puglia’s jewel. Dubbed the Florence of the South because of its marvellous architecture, this city is a real charmer, but without the crowds of the Tuscan capital. Although it can get busy in summer, Lecce still feels surprisingly authentic. With a Roman amphitheatre, a medieval castle, countless baroque churches and buildings, and plenty of beautiful squares and streets, this city has everything you could ask for and more. It’s also the best place to try a caffè leccese – espresso with ice cubes and almond syrup – accompanied by a pasticiotto, a local pastry filled with custard cream. Sugar overdose guaranteed!
A student town, Lecce is particularly lively at night. In recent years, many new wine and cocktail bars have sprung up. So, after you’ve had your plate of pasta head out and join the (other) youngsters at one of Lecce’s many bars – cheers!
Escape to paradise on the beaches of the Salento Coast
Salento is the southernmost part of Puglia. The heel of Italy is surrounded by the Adriatic and the Ionian Sea and is spoiled with some of the country’s most beautiful beaches. It’s popular mainly among Italian holiday-goers, but it won’t be long before the rest of Europe discovers this little sunny paradise (especially now that the airports of Bari and Brindisi are increasingly well-connected to the rest of the continent). The coastline is rocky, but interrupted by stretches of gorgeous sandy beaches with turquoise waters. There are plenty of public and private beaches to choose from, but two of my personal favourites are Pescoluse and Baia dei Turchi. The first one is better known as the Maldives of Puglia, which gives you a bit of an impression of what you can expect here. The latter is somewhat hidden (but therefore not less busy), only accessible via a sandy bath between the rocks. After a 10-minute scenic walk you will be rewarded with a small but lovely sandy beach with a beach bar and access to the incredibly clear sea water. Check out this blog post for more deets. You can thank me later 😉
Eat ‘little ears’ (orecchiette)
Little ears…? What?! Yes, you read that right, orecchiette – meaning ‘little ears’ – are Puglia’s regional delicacy. But don’t worry, they’re not actual ears, it’s simply the nickname of the local type of pasta. Orecchiette got their name because the shape of this pasta resembles that of little ears. If you’re lucky you can still see Italian grandmothers, seated on a chair in front of their doorstep, hand-rolling them and leaving them outside to dry. Orecchiette are traditionally served with a sauce of cime di rapa, a winter green (turnip tops, as it’s known in English). Moreover, like in the rest of southern Italy, pasta in Puglia is usually made without egg, so even veggies and vegans do not have an excuse not to indulge in this delicious carb fest.
Go for gelato in the fortified seaside towns of Gallipoli and Otranto
A typical summer night in Italy is not complete without a good old gelato, of course. Italian ice cream is one of my favourites (with a dot of whipped cream on top of it!) and is best enjoyed during an evening stroll – or passeggiata – in town. And the Salento seaside towns of Gallipoli and Otranto provide the perfect backdrops for this. Gallipoli, whose ancient Greek name literally means ‘beautiful city, is a real gem. Its historic centre sits on a small fortified island in the Ionian Sea connected to the mainland via a bridge. A stroll along the old city walls whilst watching the sun set in the sea is a perfect way to end the day here (with a gelato of course).
On the exact opposite side of the heel, on the Adriatic Sea, lies Otranto. It’s another incredibly beautiful fortified seaside town, best known for the Aragonese Castle, which dates back to times when this part of Italy was part of the Spanish Kingdom of Aragon. You also can’t miss the unique mosaic floors of the town’s cathedral. This place is a real eye catcher!
And do check out some of the other beautiful smaller towns and villages in Salento, such as Galatina, Nardò and Specchia.
Wander through the whitewashed streets of Ostuni
Ostuni is also known as the ‘White Town’, because it is a town that’s – you guessed it – white. Approaching the town from afar, you can already see it: a white dot on a hilltop. Wandering through its narrow whitewashed streets and admiring the views over the surrounding rolling hills is a real treat. Ostuni, and other nearby white towns, have a distinct look and feel that you won’t encounter anywhere else in Italy. It actually reminded me of the white towns you find in southern Spain. Of course, the food here is typically Italian and Apulian, though. For delicious local dishes check out Osteria del Tempo Perso, based in small street in the heart of the town in a beautiful old building. Whitewashed, naturally.
Puglia may have many unique regional traits – a spectacular coastline, whitewashed towns and orecchiette pasta – but if there’s one thing that kind of symbolises the entire region it’s the trulli. These traditional stone huts can only be found in this part of Italy, and in particular in the Itria Valley. Although the history of the trulli goes back as far as the prehistoric age, most of those still standing today date from the 14th century and after. Trulli have a circular shape, usually made of limestone, and are topped with a pointed roof which is often decorated with mysterious symbols, including religious or astrological ones. Interestingly, they’re made without mortar, supposedly so that they could be dissembled quickly to mislead tax inspectors or recalcitrant leaders.
The trulli epicentre is the town of Alberobello. Here, along tortuous cobblestone streets, you’ll find more than 1,000 trulli homes. Having stood the test of time, most of them are still inhabited, although many have turned into tourist homes or shops. Yes, Alberobello has firmly established itself on the tourist map, but for a reason. You can easily spend a day wandering around its alleys and trying to figure out the meaning behind the puzzling symbols painted on the roofs of the trulli.
Trulli can also be found scattered across the surrounding country side as well as in and around the beautiful nearby towns of Ceglie Messapica, Locorotondo, Martina Franca and Cisternino.
And if you’re in this corner of Puglia anyways, you might as well want to add a little trip to mesmerising Matera. This beautiful ancient city lies in neighbouring region Basilicata, but is only an hour drive away from the Itria Valley.
Join the crowds in beautiful Polignano and Monopoli
Polignano a Mare is a true tourist magnet. Built on the steep cliffs of Puglia’s rocky Adriatic Coast, there’s a reason why this place is attracting so many visitors (most of whom are Italians, but increasingly also French and other nationalities). The town’s historic centre is a network of narrow whitewashed streets leading up to a dramatic seafront, where cliffs drop down as much as 30 meters. What’s more, the rocks are home to several caves, the most spectacular one being the Grotta Palazzese, which is now an exorbitantly expensive al fresco restaurant. If you want to enjoy a similarly beautiful view for free, walk up to the seafront balcony at Vico Camelia, a tiny square overlooking parts of the cliffs and the town. From the Ponte di Polignano bridge you have breath-taking views of a cove with a small city beach.
Neighbouring Monopoli might not be just as crowded as Polignano, but with its old harbour, beautiful white houses and lovely piazzas filled with terraces it is equally appealing. I absolutely loved walking around here! It’s also a brilliant place for dinner or aperitivo after a day at one of the many gorgeous beaches just south of the town.
Oh, and don’t be surprised to hear the world famous Italian song ‘Volare’ here and there – Domenico Modugno, the man behind the international hit, was born and raised in Polignano. Volare, oh-oh! Cantare, oh-oh-oh-oh…!
Visit Vieste and the hidden cove beaches of the Gargano Coast
Salento may often claim to be Puglia’s most beautiful beach destination, but Gargano, on the northern tip of the region, is another strong contender for that title. This mountainous peninsula with rocky cliffs that plunge into the Adriatic Sea is blessed with the most incredible bays, coves and hidden beaches. It also offers a stunning play of colours and light, with limestone rocks, green pinewood trees, turquoise waters and a seemingly constant golden hue. Hush…
And in the midst of all of this natural beauty lies Vieste, a historic and incredibly charming port town. It has a medieval castle with stunning views of the bay, lots of Instagrammable narrow streets and plenty of al fresco dining options – we had a marvellous meal at Osteria al Duomo. From Vieste you can also take a boat to the Tremiti Islands, a chain of small islands that are ideal for diving, swimming and sunbathing. Does this make you dream of an Apulian holiday yet?
Complete the (octagonal) circle at Castel del Monte
You can already see it looming in the distance as you approach it: Castel del Monte. Located on a hilltop, this medieval citadel is one of Italy’s most iconic castles – it even appears on the Italian one Eurocent coin. The castle was built in the 13th century by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, who despite his German and Norman background had a very special affinity for southern Italy, and Puglia in particular. Castel del Monte is one of several castles he built here, but it’s perhaps the most impressive one. Not so much because of its size (it’s rather small for a castle), nor because of its interior (which is surprisingly sober these days), but mainly because of its unique geometric design. Everything here evolves around the number eight: the fortress has an octagonal shape with eight octagonal towers and each of the two floors has eight rooms surrounding an octagonal courtyard. The symbolism of Castel del Monte still intrigues visitors to this day.
Can’t get enough of this medieval splendour? Head to the nearby seaside town of Trani, where Frederick II built another beautiful castle. It provides the perfect backdrop for an evening aperitivo in this lively, historic town. Here’s to Puglia!
Puglia’s best… (IMHO):
- Coffee: caffè leccese in any café (south of Bari)
- Pastry: pasticiotto
- Regional food: I’ve had delicious regional dishes – including orecchiette and seafood pasta – at La Uascezze in Bari, Osteria del Tempo Perso in Ostuni or Osteria del Vico in Gallipoli
- Gelato: great ice cream is available in almost any town, but the best I’ve had so far was at Gelateria La Scimmietta in Trani. Just yummm!
- Beach: sooo many to pick from! My favourites include Baia Lido di San Felice near Vieste, Lido Colonia near Monopoli, Baia dei Turchi near Otranto and Maldive del Salento near Leuca (all partly public and private)
- Historic city sightseeing: Lecce