March 08 , 2024

Visit Puglia: Dive into Authentic Italian Charm

Discover the irresistible qualities of this quiet haven in the south of Italy.

Visit Puglia: Dive into Authentic Italian Charm


If Puglia were a person, it would be Brad Pitt – effortless charm, easy-going manner, bronzed good looks. While Mr. Pitt played the role of ‘Achilles of Troy’, Puglia plays the Achilles tendon of Italy. For now, the southern Italian region might not be as famous as the movie star, but that’s beginning to change.


Now is an excellent time to visit Puglia, so let’s find out why …


What is Puglia?


In the very south of Italy, running the length of the country’s geographic ‘heel’ up to the ‘boot spur’ of the Gargano Peninsula, the region of Puglia “pool-ya” (or Apulia in Latin) is far removed from the art cities of Rome, Florence and Venice. A sun-kissed region of olive groves and crystal-clear seas, Puglia has been popping up as Italy’s hot new destination for about a decade now.



Celebrities and foodies have long been attracted to the charming towns and wholesome country cuisine of this region. Both Dame Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep own vacation homes in Salento, the sub-region that forms the very southeastern tip of Italy that reaches out toward Albania across the Adriatic.



Being in this part of Italy, your stress melts away as you’re drenched in the warmth of the locals – isn’t that always the way of the south? – and you feel that you’ve been entrusted with some special secret. You’ll probably find that your money goes a little farther here than in Italy’s other hotspots, too.


The overwhelming appeal of Apulia is its everyday authenticity. It’s not about marble statues, glittering canals, or sleek fashions here – just a bona fide, sun-kissed southern charm.



How to get to Puglia


Puglia has two international airports – Bari and Brindisi – and visitors from North America usually fly through a European hub (like Istanbul or Rome) to connect to Bari. The coastal cities of Bari and Brindisi also have ferry connections across the Adriatic to Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, and Greece’s Ionian Islands.



Our favorite way to visit Puglia is to rent a car to experience the countryside and its slow-travel opportunities. You could even start off on the western Amalfi Coast and drive your way across the southern regions from Campania through Basilicata (visit the cave town of Matera) to the long strip of Puglia down the eastern coast. From Sorrento to Lecce, it’s only a 5-hour drive, so when you relax the pace and stretch it out over several days, adding day trips around the region, it equates to very manageable and pleasant daily drives.


You might also start off in Rome and then fly or take the train to Bari to begin your adventure.



What to do in Puglia


The beauty of Puglia is that there’s no trying too hard, it simply has that natural-born ‘it’ factor. For travelers seeking an authentic Italian experience, there’s no better place than Puglia. From its picturesque coastal towns to its rich cultural heritage and delectable cuisine, Puglia offers a tapestry of delights sure to enchant every visitor.


From the baroque to the beach, here’s a curated list of the best of Puglia …



1. Witness History & Culture:


Puglia is a treasure trove of unassuming historical and cultural landmarks, including several UNESCO World Heritage sites.


One of these is the uniquely octagonal Castel del Monte, built in the 13th century over a gentle plateau stretching out to the Adriatic.



Another singular spot is the Sanctuary of San Michele Arcangelo in Monte Sant’Angelo. This place of pilgrimage features an octagonal belltower (the shape influenced by the castle above), as well as a wonderful grotto, a real cave opening up in the center of the basilica.


Our favorite from the UNESCO list is Alberobello, home to an enchanting neighborhood of trulli – traditional Apulian dry stone huts with conical roofs. Wander through the streets lined with trulli houses and shops and step into a fairytale.



On a historic tour of Puglia, all roads lead deep into the Salento province to the city of Lecce, renowned for its Baroque architecture. Marvel at the intricately decorated facades of churches and palaces, like the Basilica di Santa Croce and the Piazza del Duomo. You can’t miss the great Roman amphitheater, a testament to Lecce’s rich history.



Though not technically in Puglia, the ancient cave city of Matera is a special place, a UNESCO wonder just an hour from Bari in the Basilicata region. Ramble the warren of streets and see inside rock-carved peasant dwellings and medieval churches. You’ll want to stay the night – taste the local dishes, sleep inside your own cave, and witness the magical panorama of the city lit up at night.



2. Pick Your Beach Paradise:


Puglia boasts some of Italy’s most stunning coastline, with spellbinding shades of blue and sandy or rocky coves. To the north of Bari is the Gargano Peninsula with Gargano National Park, where you can discover breathtaking beaches with white cliffs, sea arches, and transparent shallow waters, curving around from Mattinata to Peschici. Some of these beaches can be more of a challenge to reach, so good for a hiking adventure or a boat trip.



Midway in the region, the tiny cove of Lama Monachile below Polignano a Mare is quite spectacular – it will be crowded during swimming season, but it’s definitely worth a photo stop. Across the region, in the arch of Italy’s heel, you can find the beach of Marina di Ginosa, a fantastic stretch of white sand and aquamarine water in Taranto province.



For a more secluded beach experience, go further south to the pristine shores of the Salento region, where the Adriatic and Ionian Seas meet. From the fine white sands of Punta Prosciutto to the rugged, rocky setting of Porto Selvaggio or the unspoiled Baia dei Turchi, you can choose the beach experience that suits your mood. When you reach the shores of Pescoluse you might think you’ve reached the Maldives. No stepping on rocks and pebbles here, it’s a great beach for families, and also close to the nice resort town of Santa Maria di Leuca.



Like with most of the Mediterranean, you’re bound to encounter some rocks at the beaches, so bring water shoes with you. Explore hidden sea caves and secluded coves by boat, or simply unwind under the Mediterranean sun.



3. Indulge in Fresh Apulian Flavors:


No visit to Puglia is complete without savoring its mouthwatering cuisine! Sample the region’s famous burrata cheese, a creamy delicacy made with mozzarella and cow’s milk cream. Pair it with locally-grown tomatoes and a drizzle of prized Puglian extra virgin olive oil. Although the region’s widespread olive groves have been ravaged by a foreign bacteria over the last decade, Puglia remains the top olive-oil producing region of Italy. From the fields to the table, local dishes have the rustic appeal of the ‘cucina povera’, which takes humble home-grown ingredients and lets them shine with centuries of expertise.



Afternoons are sweetened with a caffè leccese, a shot of espresso with ice and a dash of almond syrup, or a dreamy custard-filled pasticciotto from Martinucci, a renowned pastry shop in Lecce and several other towns of the region.


Seafood lovers will delight in discovering the catch of the day. Feast on grilled octopus, fried calamari, or traditional fish stew, known as zuppa di pesce pugliese. You can’t escape Puglia without trying orecchiette, a local ear-shaped pasta specialty that is commonly served with broccoli rabe (cime di rapa) and spicy sausage.


When aperitivo time rolls around, order a glass of traditional Negroamaro or Primitivo wine and munch on savory taralli cracker rings (rather addictive thanks to that good olive oil)!



4. Discover Charming Seaside Villages:


Puglia is dotted with picturesque seaside villages that exude charm and tranquility. Explore these low-profile jewels to experience the authentic coastal lifestyle of the region.


Otranto: Situated on the easternmost tip of the Salento Peninsula, Otranto is a captivating seaside town steeped in history. Wander through the narrow alleyways of the medieval old town, where whitewashed buildings are made more striking by the azure sea out in the distance.



Polignano a Mare: Perched on limestone cliffs overlooking the Adriatic Sea, Polignano a Mare is a postcard-perfect village. Stroll along the panoramic promenade and marvel at the breathtaking views of the sea caves below. The Grotta Palazzese is a popular and unique restaurant set inside a limestone cave, offering unforgettable dining experiences.



Santa Maria di Leuca: Known as the "Finibus Terrae" (end of the land), Santa Maria di Leuca is a charming coastal town nestled between the Ionian and Adriatic Seas. Climb its iconic white lighthouse for panoramic views of the coastline. Explore the upscale harbor lined with colorful fishing boats and yachts and indulge in fresh seafood at a waterfront tavern.



Ostuni: Perched atop a hill overlooking the Adriatic coast, Ostuni is often referred to as the "White City" and one glance at photos will tell you why. Explore the enchanting old town with its maze of cobbled lanes and historic buildings, like the stunning cathedral. Admire panoramic views of the olive groves and sparkling sea from the city’s vantage points.



Monopoli: With its charming old town and picturesque harbor, Monopoli is another whitewashed gem waiting to be discovered. Explore the labyrinthine streets of the historic center, adorned with ivy-clad walls and colorful doorways. Relax on the sandy beaches of Cala Porta Vecchia and soak up the laid-back atmosphere of this quintessential Puglian village.



Gallipoli: Opposite Otranto, on the Salento Peninsula’s Ionian Coast, Gallipoli is another must-visit town. Not the same as the WWI Gallipoli you might be thinking of (that one is in Türkiye), although the strategic position of this town made sure its defensive fortifications were put to good use. Today the walls of the tiny historic quarter enclose an impressive collection of Baroque monuments. The seafront promenade affords wonderful views out to the lighthouse of Sant’Andrea Island. In the summertime, relax on the golden sands of Baia Verde or explore the rocky coves of Punta della Suina.



5. Stay in Truly Unique Lodgings:


Forget boring hotels – immerse yourself in the region’s authentic charms with a stay in a typical Puglian abode.


Trulli: Found primarily in the Itria Valley, trulli are traditional Apulian dwellings characterized by cone-shaped roofs and whitewashed walls. This architectural style dates back to the 15th century when the structures were built as temporary shelters or storage units. Today, many trulli have been lovingly restored and transformed into charming holiday homes. Book your own stay in a trullo and experience the simple pleasures of the original tiny house among the olive trees. Whether tucked away in the countryside or situated in a quaint village, staying in a trullo offers a truly authentic Puglian experience.



Masserie: Another distinctive accommodation option is a masseria. These fortified farmhouses date back to the 16th century and were originally built as rural estates for agricultural purposes. Today, you can find many masserie converted into boutique hotels or luxury retreats. Experience the rustic elegance of one of these farmhouses, typically with space to unwind amidst lush gardens or citrus orchards. Take a dip in the outdoor pool or savor farm-to-table cuisine made from the freshest ingredients. Like agriturismi in other parts of Italy, masserie often offer cooking classes, wine tastings, and guided tours of their olive groves or vineyards – an excellent opportunity to get acquainted with Puglia’s culinary traditions.



Sassi di Matera: Not technically in Puglia, but just a stone’s throw away, is the UNESCO World Heritage town of Matera, where you can spend the night in the prehistoric cave dwellings known as "Sassi". Carved out of the rugged limestone cliffs, you just have to wonder at what it was like for the families and their animals living all together in one rock-hewn shelter. These days, Matera is instead home to many converted luxury cave hotels where you can get a glimpse of what it was like for the cave dwellers, but with modern amenities and a dose of romance. After all, it was good enough for James Bond. Wake up to panoramic views of the surrounding hills and explore the winding streets of the Sassi, where ancient churches and hidden courtyards await around every corner.



There’s no better place to spend languid southern Italian days than the strip of paradise that is Puglia, sandwiched between two sparkling seas. The Pugliese are known for their warm hospitality and relaxed way of life, so whatever you do, don’t rush your stay. Get away from the crowded cities to a landscape of sun-bleached cliffs and silver-green fields by the sea.