Puglia Travel Guide

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Stretching 400km from north to south, Puglia’s long, narrow peninsula forms the heel of Italy. For centuries it was a strategic province, colonized, invaded and conquered by just about every major power of the day – from the ancient Greeks through to the Spanish. These days clean seas and reliable sunshine are the draws for holiday-makers both Italian and foreign, and acres of campsite- and-bungalow-type tourist villages stud the shoreline, though there are still quiet spots to be found. Low-cost flights to Bari and Brindisi have opened up the area to British tourists, many of whom have been buying and doing up trulli – ancient storehouses – and masserie (farm estates) as holiday accommodation. There’s a brisk air of investment in many resorts, from the new top-of-the-range spa hotels in converted masserie to agriturismo places where you can holiday among olive groves and orchards. B&Bs continue to spring up everywhere, often in the historic centres of towns, some simple, some splendid, all of them better value for money than most hotels. Discover all you need to know before your trip with our Puglia travel guide.

What to see in Puglia

Puglia has plenty of architectural interest, as each ruling dynasty left its own distinctive mark on the landscape – the Romans their agricultural schemes and feudal lords their fortified medieval towns. Perhaps most distinctive are the kasbah-like quarters of many towns and cities, a vestige of the Saracen conquest of the ninth century – the one at Bari is the biggest and most atmospheric. The Normans endowed Puglia with splendidly ornate cathedrals, while the Baroque exuberance of towns like Lecce and Martina Franca are testament to the Spanish legacy. But if there’s one symbol of Puglia that stands out, it’s the imposing castles built by the Swabian Frederick II all over the province – foremost of which are the Castel del Monte (immortalized on the Italian 5 cent coin) and the remnants of the palace at Lucera.

Puglia’s cities also merit some exploration. Taranto and its surroundings have fought a losing battle with the local steel industry, but Lecce is worth a visit for its crazed confection of Baroque churches and laidback café life. Though Bari is not a traditional tourist destination, reinvestment in its maze-like old city is drawing visitors in-the-know for its ambience and excellent restaurants; while Brindisi, best known for its ferry connections with Greece, lies just 15km away from the dunes of the Torre Guaceto nature reserve.

Puglia is geographically diverse, though it has to be said that the Tavoliere (tableland) of the north with mile upon mile of wheatfields, is hardly the most exciting of landscapes. More alluring is the hilly, forested Gargano promontory jutting out to the east, fringed by gently shelving, sandy beaches, seaside hotels and campsite villages that make good places for a family holiday – though you’ll need to catch a ferry to the Tremiti islands for the clearest sea. The best escape is to the southernmost tip, the Salentine peninsula where the terrain is rocky and dry, more Greek than Italian, and there are some beautiful coves and sea caves to swim in.

Puglia Cultural attractions

Visit Puglia to experience our pick of the best cultural attractions the region has to offer.

  1. Vieste

    For sun and sea, head to this resort on the dramatic Gargano promontory, which also serves as a gateway to the remote Tremiti islands.

  2. Castel del Monte

    Puglia’s greatest Swabian castle is a testament to thirteenth-century engineering.

  3. Martina Franca

    This lively town with its Moorish feel makes a good base for exploring the surrounding area’s trulli – Puglia’s traditional conical whitewashed buildings.

  4. Ostuni

    One of the most stunning hilltop towns in southern Italy, with a sun-bleached old quarter and a sandy coastline 7km away.

  5. Lecce

    Dubbed the “Florence of the South”, Lecce is an exuberant city of Baroque architecture and opulent churches.

  6. Otranto

    Pressed against clear Adriatic waters at Italy’s easternmost point, Otranto’s whitewashed medieval core makes a great base for getting around Salento’s windswept coast.

How to get around Puglia

Getting around Puglia by public transport is fairly easy, by bus, although isolated village services can be infrequent at least as far as the main towns and cities go. FS trains connect nearly all the major places, while small, private lines head into more remote areas – in the Gargano and on the edges of Le Murge. Most other places can be reached by bus, although isolated village services can be infrequent or inconveniently early – a problem that can only really be solved by having your own transport. In July and August buses connect coastal towns.

The FSE line: Grotte di Castellana to Martina Franca

Meandering lazily down towards the Valle d’Itria, the Ferrovia Sud-Est (FSE) train passes through some of the prettiest of Puglia’s landscapes. Olives gradually lose ground to vineyards and cherry and peach orchards, neatly partitioned by dry-stone walls. The barren limestone terrain of Le Murge swallows rivers whole producing a landscape cut by deep ravines and pitted with caverns and grottoes.

Food and drink in Puglia

Puglia is known as the breadbasket of Italy. It’s the source of 80 percent of Europe’s pasta and much of Italy’s fish; it produces more wine than Germany and more olive oil than all the other regions of Italy combined. It’s famous for olives (from Cerignola), almonds (from Ruvo di Puglia), dark juicy tomatoes (often sun-dried), cime di rapa (turnip tops), fava beans, figs (fresh and dried), cotognata (a moulded jam made from quince) and for its melons, grapes and green cauliflower. The influence of Puglia’s former rulers is still evident in the region’s food. Like the Greeks, Pugliesi eat lamb and goat spit-roast over herb-scented fires and deep-fried doughnut-like cakes steeped in honey; and like the Spanish they drink almond milk, latte di mandorla.

Pasta

The most distinctive local pasta is orecchiette, ear-shaped pasta that you will still see women making in their doorways in the old part of Bari. Look out, too, for panzarotti alla barese, deep- fried pockets of dough stuffed with tomato or prosciutto and ricotta. Otherwise, there is a marked preference for short, stubby varieties of pasta, which you’ll find served with peppers, cauliflower and cime di rapa.

Fish

Not surprisingly, fish and shellfish dominate coastal menus. There are some good fish soups (zuppe di pesce) whose ingredients and style vary from place to place – the Brindisi version, for example, is dominated by eel.

Meat

A local meat dish is gnummerieddi: resembling haggis, it’s made by stuffing a lamb gut with minced offal, herbs and garlic – best grilled over an open fire. There is little beef or pork eaten in Puglia, and poultry is uncommon, aside from small game birds in season; as a result, horsemeat is popular, especially in the Salento area. To confound your prejudices, go for pezzetti di cavallo, bits of horse meat stewed in a rich tomato sauce.

Cheese

Cheeses are a strong point, including ricotta, cacioricotta, canestrato (sheep’s-milk cheese formed in baskets) and burrata. Pair these with the local durum-wheat breads, the most famous of which, pane di Altamura, carries the DOP seal of quality.

Burrata

In some of the fancy restaurants around Egnazia, you’ll see burrata on the menu, a local delicacy in which still-hot mozzarella is formed into a pouch, which is then filled with scraps of leftover mozzarella and fresh cream before closing. It seems to have been invented on a farm in Andria in the early twentieth century, as a way of using up the spare scraps of mozzarella at the end of the day’s cheese making. It’s at its best when eaten within 24 hours, which has led to its becoming a prestige food, with upmarket delis throughout Italy vying to have the cheese flown in fresh from Puglia.

Vegetarian options

Vegetarians are well catered for with a range of meat-free antipasti, and combining pasta and vegetables is a typically Pugliese trait.

Wine in Puglia

Puglia also produces some of Italy’s best-value wines, particularly its formidable reds – Primitivo di Manduria (aka red Zinfandel), Salice Salentino, and Negroamaro. Locorotondo is a straightforward, fresh white from Salento, a region known also for its rosati (rosé) called Salento Rosato and dessert wine called Aleatico.

The best restaurants in Puglia

A selection of the best places to eat across Puglia, and which local specialities to look out for on the menu.

Al Dragone, Vieste

Located in a once-inhabited cave, Al Dragone is good for fish dishes, such as the antipasto of marinated grey mullet, and twists on local dishes you won’t find anywhere else, such as orecchiette with turnip greens, salted anchovies scattered with bottarga and shards of thin crispy bread spiked with capers, parsley, basil, garlic and chilli. Tasting menus cost around €35 including drinks, and there are some unusual desserts too, such as mostazzuoli – made with almonds, wine must (the syrup made by boiling down what is left of the grapes after making wine) and egg white.

Osteria Piazzetta Cattedrale, Ostuni

Osteria Piazzetta Cattedrale is an elegant restaurant opposite the cathedral, which uses locally sourced ingredients to great creative effect – try the stunning cestino di crepe con crema di cavolfiori, pancetta crocante e vincotto di Primitivo, a crêpe basket filled with cauliflower purée and crisp bacon and drizzled with sweet wine must – on a constantly evolving seasonal menu.

Corte dei Pandolfi, Lecce

Corte dei Pandolfi is an intimate place in a charming piazza off Via Paladini, gaining a reputation for creative twists on traditional cuisine, using fresh ingredients, shown off to perfection in several raw fish dishes. Other meals worth trying are the mixed seasonal vegetables and handmade spaghetti with fresh anchovies, capers and tomato.

The best hotels in Puglia

Our pick of the best places to stay in Puglia from our travel guide.

Locanda Al Castello, Peschici

Perched at the far edge of the old town, down a narrow lane of whitewashed houses, Locanda Al Castello has very friendly staff and simple but well-kept rooms with some of Peschici’s best views. There’s also a restaurant offering five or six daily specials, and a neighbouring pizzeria with a pretty terrace.

Olive Tree Hostel, Bari

Olive Tree is a sparkling hostel situated about 5min walk from the central train station, with dormitories and private rooms, and welcoming, helpful staff. There’s wi-fi, lockers, a/c (at night), a laundry service, a communal kitchen and a nice shared patio.

Malìa, Lecce

Malìa is a fabulous TV-free boutique B&B designed by owner-architect Laura Aguglia – the huge, elegant sitting room has a star-vaulted ceiling, parquet floor, a vast calico sofa and an ample choice of art and design books and magazines to leaf through. There are only three rooms, but each is gorgeous, different, and imaginatively lit, especially the romantic double with a four-poster bed designed by Laura. Breakfast is served at the nearby trendy “00” Doppiozero Café.

Places to visit in Puglia

Discover the best places to visit in Puglia with our travel guide.

Bari

Southern Italy’s second city and a university town, Bari is a pleasant place to visit, and relatively undisturbed by mass tourism. The regenerated old city makes for good exploring, and thankfully petty thieving is not as common as you may have been led to believe.

Taranto

For excellent restaurants serving regional delicacies, idyllic views across the deep blue waters of the Ionian, and a beautiful old town to explore, Taranto is certainly worth visiting. It also makes a good base for visiting the nearby caves and grottoes of Massafra.

Brindisi

An ancient port town, the compact Brindisi has a lot to offer. The Duomo and the Archeological Museum are among the highlights.

Ostuni

North of Brindisi, and perched across three hills, is the “white city” of Ostuni; arguably Puglia’s most stunning small town.

Lecce

Often referred to as the “Florence of the South”, and with its sixteenth-century Baroque architecture, the town of Lecce is one of the best places to visit in Puglia.

The Tavoliere

The province of Foggia, known also as the Tavoliere (tableland), occupies a broad plain stretching from the foothills of the Apennines in the west and the Gargano massif in the east. Foggia, the capital and transport hub of the province, is not somewhere to linger – for more of an idea of what the Tavoliere is like, head for the walled town of Lucera or the little village of Troia.

Lucera

Lucera (pronounced Loosh-airer) makes a wonderful introduction to Puglia. A charming small town with a bright, bustling centre and a lively passeggiata on summer evenings, it was once the capital of the Tavoliere – a thriving Saracen hub.

The Gargano promontory

The Gargano promontory rises like an island from the flat plains of the Tavoliere. It has a remarkably diverse landscape: beaches and lagoons to the north, a rocky, indented eastern coast and a mountainous, green heartland of oak and beech trees. For centuries the promontory was extremely isolated, visited only by pilgrims making their way along the valley to Monte Sant’Angelo and its shrine. Tourism has taken off in a big way, especially around the seaside resort of Vieste, but in 1991 the whole peninsula became a national park, helping to protect it from overbearing development and ensuring that much of the interior remains supremely unspoiled and quiet.

It may seem as though the promontory is one long strip of private beach, but bear in mind that by Italian law everyone has access to the actual seashore, as well as the 50m length between the reserved areas.

Vieste and around

The best base on the Gargano peninsula is Vieste, jutting out into the Adriatic on two promontories. Fifty years ago there wasn’t even a proper road here, but today Vieste, with its excellent beaches, is the holiday capital of Gargano, and the streets and sands are packed in August. Despite the crowds, it is a lively and inviting town, with an interesting historic core and, in summer at least, a fairly lively nightlife.

Eating in Vieste

There are plenty of fish restaurants to choose in and around the old town. If you’re on a budget, try the pair of cheerful pizzerias in Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II. The terrace bar at Hotel Seggio is a perfect place to chill before dinner.

Day-trips from Vieste

  • Beaches

The most obvious day-trip is to the beaches. Head for the small one between the promontories; north to San Lorenzo, with fine, soft, gently shelving sand; or, just south of town, to sandy Pizzomunno. They all go in for the grill-pan variety of sunbathing with rows and rows of sunbeds. Slightly less crowded, if you’re lucky, is the marvellous Scialmarino beach, 4.5km up the coast towards Peschici. Nicest of all is the small Baia di San Felice, squeezed between two headlands and backed by pine trees, just before you get to the Testa del Gargano, several kilometres south of town.

  • Boat trips

If you want to swim away from the crowds, consider an organized boat trip to the grotto-ridden coastline around the headland of Testa del Gargano. Boats leave for the three-hour grotto excursion from next to San Francesco church. Alternatively, you can rent your own boat for the day from Noleggio Gommoni, at the port.

  • The interior

Inland, the Gargano promontory can make a cool break from its busy coast, although there’s not much public transport, apart from the odd bus from Vieste. The tourist office in Monte Sant’Angelo, however, can help organize bike rental, jeep safari and pony-trekking, and Noleggio Gommoni rents scooters.

The Tremiti islands

A small group of islands 40km off the Gargano coast, the Tremiti islands – Isole Tremiti – are almost entirely given over to tourism in the summer, when the tiny population is swamped by visitors. Despite this, they remain relatively unspoilt and the sea crystal clear. The main Tremiti group consists of three islands: San Nicola, San Domino – the biggest – and Capraia, of which only the first two are inhabited.

The islands were traditionally a place of exile and punishment. Augustus banished his granddaughter Julia to the islands, while Charlemagne packed his father-in-law off here (minus eyes and limbs) in the eighth century. Monks from Montecassino, on the mainland, first set about building a formidable fortress-abbey on one of the islands in the eleventh century, which managed to withstand frequent assault by the Turks. Later, during the eighteenth century, the islands returned to their old role as a place of confinement for political prisoners, though the Bourbons, concerned at the decline in the local population, shipped in two hundred single women from Naples to encourage a recovery.

Trani

The initial part of the coastal route south from Manfredonia is unremarkable, with flat lands given up to saline extraction. The first town of note down the coast is Trani, a beautiful stone-built port and fishing village with an unusually cosmopolitan air. One of the most important medieval Italian ports, it was a prosperous trading centre with a large mercantile and Jewish community, and rivalled Bari as a commercial port. A wander through the streets around the harbour gives an impression of the medieval city, not least in the names that echo the town’s mercantile and Jewish origins – Via Sinagoga, Via Doge Vecchia (the port had strong – not always amicable – links with Venice) and Via Cambio (Street of the Moneychangers).

Centrepiece of the town is the cream-coloured, eleventh-century Duomo, right on the sea at the edge of the old town. Dedicated to San Nicola Pellegrino, it consists of no fewer than three churches, stacked on top of each other like an inverted wedding cake – the facade austere but lightened by a pretty rose window. The interior has been restored to its original Norman state, the stark nave displaying a timbered ceiling.

Le Murge

Rising gently from the Adriatic coast, Le Murge – a low limestone plateau – dominates the landscape to the south and west of Bari. The towns in the region are not natural holiday destinations: the area is sparsely populated and the small settlements that exist are rural backwaters with a slow pace of life. But they do make an interesting day out or a good stopover if you’re heading for the region of Basilicata.

Castel del Monte

Despite its lack of appeal today, the town of Andria was a favourite haunt of Frederick II, who was responsible for the major local attraction, the Castel del Monte, 17km south – the most extraordinary of all Puglia’s castles and one of the finest surviving examples of Swabian architecture.

Down the coast from Bari

The coast south of Bari is a craggy stretch, with rock-hewn villages towering above tiny sandy coves, offering easy escapes from the city. In summer, and on hot weekends, expect beaches to be crowded.

Martina Franca

Trulli are still plentiful by the time you reach Martina Franca, a surprising town with a jubilant Baroque sensibility and a lively passeggiata at weekends. It is reputed to have been founded by settlers from Taranto fed up with constant Saracen attacks during the tenth century, but it was the Angevin prince of Taranto who bolstered the community in the early fourteenth century by granting it certain tax privileges. The town derives its name from this – franca meaning duty or stamp. Today its medieval core is adorned with some of the most subtle and least overbearing examples of architecture from the Baroque period you’ll find.

What to see in Martina Franca

Through the Porta di Santo Stefano, which marks the entrance to the old town, Piazza Roma is dominated by the hulking Palazzo Ducale, which dates from 1688, and is now the town hall. A handful of rooms are open to the public most mornings (Mon–Fri) – most of them smothered in classical eighteenth-century Arcadian murals. Just across the square, the narrow Via Vittorio Emanuele leads right into the old town and Piazza Plebiscito, fronted by the undulating Baroque facade of the Chiesa di San Martino, an eighteenth-century church built on the site of an earlier Romanesque structure, of which only the campanile survives. From adjacent Piazza Immacolata you can either bear left down Via Cavour, with its Baroque palazzi and balconied streets, or wander further into the old town; the roads running around the edge of the surviving fourteenth-century town walls offer an excellent panorama of the Valle d’Itria, with its neatly ordered fields dotted with trulli.

Trulli

Curious-looking trulli are dotted throughout the Murge area of Puglia. Cylindrical, whitewashed buildings with grey conical roofs tapering out to a point or sphere, they are often adorned with painted symbols. Unique to Puglia, their ancient origins are obscure, but are probably connected to feudal lords who made people working their land build their houses without mortar so they could easily be pulled down if tax inspectors came round. The thick walls insulate equally against the cold in winter and the summer heat, while local limestone is used to make the two-layered roofs water-tight. Most trulli have just one room but when more space was needed, a hole was simply knocked in the wall and an identical structure built next door. Although originally they were both dwellings and storehouses, these days they’re being snapped up as holiday homes, and some are rented out as self-catering or B&B accommodation. An organization called Trullidea, based in Alberobello, rents basic trulli in town and in the countryside for short- and long-term stays and can also arrange wine-tasting tours, cycling excursions and cooking courses.

The Festival della Valle d’Itria

Southern Italy’s top performing-arts festival, the annual Festival della Valle d’Itria, takes place in Martina Franca from mid-July to early August. On a par with the Maggio Musicale in Florence, the festival is mainly operatic, with performances – often of rarely performed works – in the appropriately grand Palazzo Ducale, as well as classical concerts and film screenings. It’s a congenial and unpretentious event, though tickets aren’t cheap; they’re available from the festival office in the Palazzo Ducale.

Salento

Some 40km south from Brindisi, Baroque Lecce makes a good starting-point for excursions around Salento, the name given to the very tip of Italy’s heel extending from just south of Ostuni to Santa Maria di Leuca. Here the landscape begins to take on a distinctive Greek flavour, a mildly undulating region planted with carob, prickly pear and tobacco. The Adriatic coast is pitted with cliffs topped with ruined watchtowers, and rugged coves and caves trail right the way down to the southern cape. The hinterland, by comparison, is more barren, although again there’s a Greek feel to it, with tiny, sun-blasted villages growing out of the dry, stony, red earth and flat-roofed houses painted in bright pastel colours.

Otranto

Otranto, a kasbah-like town nestling around a harbour, is only an hour by train from Lecce, set in an arid, rocky and windblown landscape, with translucent seas to swim in. The port overflows with tourists in August, when Otranto’s nightlife is at its peak and the town is most entertaining, but the picturesque location and slow pace will reward visitors year-round, even if the number of gaudy souvenir shops detracts a little from the charm of its winding whitewashed lanes. A variety of musical and theatrical events are held in Otranto throughout the summer, usually centred around the castle, among them a lively jazz festival in late July and the annual commemoration of the “800 Martyrs” on August 13–15.

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Rough Guides Editors
9/4/2020
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