Stretching 400km from north to south, the long, narrow Puglia peninsula forms the heel of Italy. For centuries it was a strategic province, colonised, 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. Acres of campsite-and-bungalow-type tourist villages stud the shoreline, though there are still quiet spots to be found.
The best travel tips for visiting Puglia
Each ruling dynasty left its mark on Puglia, whether it was the Romans’ agricultural schemes or feudal lords’ fortified medieval towns. Perhaps most distinctive are the kasbah-like quarters of many towns and cities, a vestige of the Saracen conquest of the 9th century. The one at Bari is the biggest and most atmospheric, as it is drawing visitors in the know for its ambience and excellent restaurants.
The Normans endowed Puglia with ornate cathedrals, while the Baroque exuberance of towns like Lecce and Martina Franca is a testament to the Spanish legacy. Lecce is definitely worth a visit for its crazed confection of Baroque churches and laidback café life.
But if there’s one legacy that stands out, it’s the imposing castles built by the Swabian Frederick II – foremost of which are the Castel del Monte and the remnants of the palace at Lucera.
The forested Gargano promontory, fringed by sandy beaches, seaside hotels and campsite villages, makes a good place for a family holiday. The best escape is to the dry and rocky Salentine peninsula, where there are beautiful coves and sea caves to swim in.
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What to do in Puglia
There's enough to do in this charming region nestled in the southern part of Italy. With its picturesque landscapes, rich history, and delectable cuisine, Puglia offers an array of captivating experiences for every traveler to indulge in.
#1 Swim at the beaches near Vieste
Vieste is a popular holiday town, but its charm, character and fun nightlife make it worth braving the August crowds for – or visiting out of season. 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. Nicest of all is the small Baia di San Felice, squeezed between two headlands and backed by pine trees.
If you want to swim away from the crowds, consider an organised boat trip to the grotto-ridden coastline around the headland of Testa del Gargano.
#2 Marvel at the mysterious Castel del Monte
Although it lacks appeal today, Andria was a favourite haunt of Frederick II, who built its major attraction nearby in the 1240s.
The most extraordinary of all Puglia’s castles, Castel del Monte is an isolated fortress built around an octagonal courtyard in two storeys of eight rooms. Its mathematical precision, and the preoccupation with the number eight, have intrigued writers for centuries. Some say it is in fact an enormous astrological calendar, or inspired by the octagonal Omar mosque in Jerusalem.
Mystery surrounds its intended purpose. Although there was once an iron gate that could be lowered over the entrance, there are no other visible signs of fortification, and the castle may have served merely as a hunting lodge.
There is only one record of its use. The defeat of Manfred, Frederick’s illegitimate son, in 1266 signalled the end of Swabian power, and Manfred’s sons and heirs were imprisoned in the castle for more than 30 years.
#3 Join in la dolce vita in Martina Franca
Martina Franca is a surprising town with a jubilant Baroque sensibility and a lively passeggiata at weekends. Southern Italy’s top performing arts festival, the annual Festival della Valle d’Itria, takes place here from mid-July to early August.
The main square, Piazza Roma, is dominated by the hulking 1688 Palazzo Ducale, now the town hall. A handful of rooms is open to the public on weekday mornings.
Across the square 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 18th-century church, of which only the campanile survives.
The roads running around the old town’s surviving 14th-century walls offer an excellent panorama of the Valle d’Itria and its neatly ordered fields dotted with trulli.
#4 Wander whitewashed Ostuni
Ostuni is one of southern Italy’s most stunning small towns. Known as the “white city”, it is situated on three hills and was an important Greco-Roman city in the first century AD. Seven kilometres away, the popular sandy coastline has Blue Flag beaches.
The old centre spreads across the highest of the hills, a gleaming splash of sun-bleached streets and cobbled alleyways that provide a fascinating amble, and exceptional views.
Bits of Baroque twist out of unexpected places, including an ornamented 18th-century, a 21m-high obelisk dedicated to St Oronzo in Piazza della Libertà. On summer Saturday nights hordes of people drive in from the countryside, meet their friends here and pack out the bars and cafés.
Chiesa di San Vito church houses the Museo di Civiltà Preclassiche della Murgia Meridionale – its highlight is “Delia”, the crouched skeleton of a young pregnant woman, her bones decorated before burial some 28,000 years ago.
#5 Linger in Lecce, the Florence of the South
Dubbed the “Florence of the South”, Lecce is a place to explore, with a wealth of fine architecture scattered about an appealing old town, as well as a few diverting Roman remains.
The exuberant building styles are the legacy of religious orders (Jesuits, the Teatini and Franciscans) who came to the region at the end of the 16th century, bringing an influx of wealth which paid for the opulent churches and palazzi that still pervade today’s city.
The flowery style of “Leccese Baroque” owed as much to the materials to hand as to the skills of the architects: the soft local sandstone could be intricately carved and then became hard with age.
For beaches, follow the Littoranea Otranto coast road through pinewoods where several paths lead to long stretches of dunes and rocky coves. Continue south to Roca Vecchia and Grotte Basiliane, a fascinating honeycomb of man-made caves carved into the soft sandstone. There’s a gorgeous natural sea pool here known as the Grotta della Poesia, a favourite spot for locals to launch themselves off the cliffs.
#6 Explore beautiful Otranto
Otranto, a kasbah-like town nestling around a harbour, is 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 its gaudy souvenir shops detract a little from the charm of its winding whitewashed lanes.
The Romanesque Cattedrale di Santa Maria Annunziata is worth a visit, its marble-columned nave adorned by an incredible multi-coloured mosaic. Not far from the cathedral, Aragonese Castello juts out into the bay, defending the harbour. Large parts of it have recently undergone renovation, and its hulking walls incorporate fragments of Roman and medieval inscriptions.
#7 Make the most of Puglia’s produce
Puglia is known as the breadbasket of Italy. It’s the source of 80 percent of Europe’s pasta – the most distinctive being ear-shaped orecchiette – and much of Italy’s fish. It produces more wine than Germany and more olive oil than all the other regions of Italy combined.
Puglia is 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 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.
#8 Island hop in the Tremiti islands
These rugged islands 40km off the Gargano coast 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
Only the first two are inhabited. San Nicola is barren and rocky with a fortress, tiny church and no beaches, although there is nude bathing on its east side and good swimming off the whole island.
From there, a regular ferry takes about a minute to cross to San Domino, whose pines offer welcome shade from the heat. Although there’s a sandy beach – Cala delle Arene – right where the ferry lands, it’s packed in the summer. Your best bet is to follow the signs for the Villaggio TCI and make for quieter coves such as Cala dello Spido.
#9 Bed down in a 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, 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 around.
The thick walls insulate equally against winter cold and summer heat, while local limestone is used to make the two-layered roofs watertight. Most trulli have just one room but when more space was needed, a hole was simply knocked in the wall and an identical structure was 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.
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Food and drink
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.
The region's sun-kissed landscapes yield a bounty of fresh ingredients that have shaped its unique gastronomy. From olive groves to vineyards, Puglia's cuisine is a celebration of the land's rich bounty.
Some iconic dishes not to miss include:
- Orecchiette con Cime di Rapa: Puglia's signature pasta, orecchiette, pairs perfectly with the bitterness of cime di rapa (broccoli rabe), garlic, and chili flakes.
- Burrata: A luscious cheese with a creamy interior, burrata is often served with ripe tomatoes and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil.
- Friselle: These twice-baked bread rounds are a staple, enjoyed soaked in water and topped with fresh tomatoes, olive oil, and oregano.
- Fava Bean Purée: Creamy and flavorful, this purée is served with bitter wild chicory or enjoyed as a spread.
- Sagne 'Ncannulate: Homemade pasta, typically served with a rich meat sauce, embodies the warmth of Puglian kitchens.
- Tiella: A layered dish of rice, potatoes, mussels, and saffron, slow-cooked to perfection.
- Pasticciotto: A delightful pastry filled with custard or chocolate, exemplifying Puglia's sweet side.
Best places to stay in Puglia
In Puglia, a land of ancient olive groves and charming villages, finding the perfect place to stay is an integral part of your unforgettable experience. From luxurious masserie amidst the countryside to stylish boutique hotels by the sea, discover the best accommodations that will add a touch of magic to your stay in this captivating region.
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.
Most accommodation is in the modern part of Bari although some small B&Bs are opening up in the old city. The most affordable hotels are found around the train station, though the area takes a turn for the worse after dark.
Dubbed the “Florence of the South”, Lecce is a place to linger, with a wealth of fine architecture scattered about an appealing old town, as well as a few diverting Roman remains. Expect high-end hotels and a restored palazzo.
If you intend to stay overnight, don’t count on finding anywhere to sleep at the last minute during the main festival times. For snacks, ignore the touristy places in the lower town and head instead for the bakery outside the castle.
The Tremiti islands
Accommodation on the islands is limited to San Domino and is largely full board in high season. Finding a place on spec in the low season won’t be a problem, though you’ll need to sail from Termoli in Abruzzo, in high season you should book in advance.
Browse the places to stay in Puglia.
How to get around
Navigating through the enchanting region of Puglia is a delightful adventure in itself. From its historic towns to its sun-kissed coastline, here's a guide on how to effortlessly explore the diverse beauty of Puglia and make the most of your journey.
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. In July and Aug buses connect coastal towns.
Most problems can only really be solved by having your own transport.
How many days do you need in Puglia?
Considering the diverse attractions and experiences Puglia offers, you will need at least 5-7 days here. That's enough time to visit a couple of main destinations, explore the coastal areas, and immerse yourself in the region's culture.
Allocate a couple of days to explore the main cities like Bari, Lecce, or Alberobello. Then set aside a few days to discover the coastal towns and beaches. Gallipoli, Otranto, Monopoli, and Santa Maria di Leuca offer picturesque beaches and crystal-clear waters.
You should only need a day in Alberobello, famous for its trulli houses, and a day at Matera, with its fascinating cave dwellings, which are both UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
What is the best time to visit Puglia?
If you’re planning to visit popular Puglia areas, especially beach resorts, avoid July and especially August when the weather can be too hot and the crowds at their most congested.
In August, when most Italians are on holiday, you can expect the crush to be especially bad in the resorts, and the scene in the major cities to be slightly artificial, as the only people around are fellow tourists.
The nicest time to visit, in terms of the weather and lack of crowds, is from April to June, and in September or October.
Find out more about the best time to visit Italy.
How to get here
Getting around Puglia by public transport is fairly easy, at least as far as the main towns and cities go.
Of the scheduled airlines flying to Italy, British Airways (Wba.com) has direct flights year-round to Brindisi, the region's main airport alongside Bari. The majority of the routes are from London, and flights from UK provincial airports have been severely cut back following the pandemic, but it is always worth checking to see if there are flights from your local airport.
Unless you book well in advance, flying between June and September will cost more than in the depths of winter (excluding Christmas and New Year).
The main train stations are located in Foggia, Bari, Brindisi, Lecce and Taranto.
It’s difficult to see why anyone would want to travel to Pugliua by bus from the UK. Book through operators like Eurolines and FlixBus and expect several changes
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