Puglia has to be one of Italy’s prettiest regions, with its gleaming limestone towns, beautiful paradise beaches and verdant countryside of olive groves and vineyards. You could be here for months and still be discovering a new pretty little place to visit each day – Puglia definitely got the memo about how to pull off charm and good looks!
Italy does this thing called the I Borghi Piu Bella d’Italia (The Most Beautiful Villages Of Italy) : a yearly competition where towns compete for the title and honour. It comes as no surprise that Puglia has nailed it on several occasions and has 10 towns on the list already, and I’m sure with a helping of window boxes and a smidge of white paint several more could make it too. Puglia is going to need to get a bigger mantelpiece for all those trophies!
But it isn’t just the towns of Puglia that make you go ooo and aah, it’s home to some pretty incredible natural sites and sights too. From beaches and grotto’s to unused mines and abandoned places – Puglia has it all in terms of beauty spots. Read on for our collection of Puglia’s top things to see and do…
1. Visit Ostuni
You see Ostuni long before you reach the town, sitting there on its little hill all white and shiny. The Citta Bianca, or White City, was built as a fortress from invading Turks and as a result, the narrow alleyways inside the Centro Storico were an intruder’s worst nightmare. Today the white maze of streets is just the perfect excuse to get lost and linger for as long as you can in the pretty little town of Ostuni.
At the highest point is the Santa Maria Cathedral and probably the best marker to tell where you are, but after that it’s anybody’s guess! Turn left and you catch a glimpse of the turquoise Adriatic, turn right and you’re in a gorgeous dead-end courtyard of succulents and geraniums – quick get the camera out! The whole town is so good-looking, it hurts. Some bloke at the council cottoned on to the fact that Ostuni is a bit of a Puglia destination for tourists and now insists all the residents paint their houses every few years, he’s a good bloke though and pays for half of the paint.
- Avoid driving in the ‘ZTL’ zone (which is primarily the historic centre) or you’ll be in for a hefty fine on your return home.
- Take a seat on the town walls at Borgo Antico Bistrot for a beer with a view.
- Hit up the Saturday market between 8-1pm for local crafts and produce at great prices.
Stay In Ostuni
Ostuni would make the perfect base for a romantic short break in the Salento region of Puglia as there’s plenty going on during the day and in the evening with some great places to eat and drink. La Sommita Relais is a 5-star hotel deserving of its rating, nestled cosily in the old town with great views of the sea. Amazing value for money for the lap of luxury.
2. See Alberobello
The Famous Trulli houses of Alberobello may be the only point of reference people have of Puglia. And although, as you will discover, Puglia is much more than cute little round houses, it is a big part of the region of Salento (Southern Puglia). It would be impossible to visit the area and not wonder what those funny little trulli are doing in almost every field you pass. But if you want to see the largest collection of Trulli in all of Puglia, 1500 trulli to be precise, then you must visit the UNESCO world heritage site of Alberobello.
To say this is Puglia’s largest tourist attraction it almost comes as a surprise to see residents of Alberobello pegging their washing out and climbing the steep streets with their shopping bags amidst the hordes of visitors, yet life goes on.
According to some accounts, the reason these Trulli exist was for an elaborate tactic of tax evasion. A certain Count returned to Italy from battle against the Ottomans and was rewarded for his bravery with a piece of land, namely Salento. Unfortunately for him though, if he built property on this land it would have to be taxed. No problem : whilst he resided in his plush palazzo somewhere near Alberobello, his peasant farmers and their families were ordered to build these temporary trulli structures, without mortar, so that when the taxman came a riding into town their homes could be configured as ‘precarious buildings’ and easily demolished. It’s a shame each trullo took 6 months to rebuild though.
- Park in the Aia Piccola district of Alberobello for cheaper parking and a quieter introduction to the town, as this is a residential neighbourhood. There are still plenty of trulli here.
- Alberobello can be reached by train from the larger towns of Brindisi and Lecce.
3. Visit Lecce
36% of post-dinner accidents involve balconies – that puts Lecce as one of the most dangerous places to live in my books! I tell you, it’s a good job Juliette was from Verona because Romeo would have given up in Lecce – so many balconies and nowhere near enough romanticists. That said, it makes a visit to Lecce a most pleasant one. Known as the Florence of the South because of its Baroque style architecture, and balconies, just taking a stroll becomes an absolute pleasure. The limestone materials lend themselves nicely to intricate carvings, particularly of cherubs you might notice. And, it’s porous too so if you spot the interesting dissolved effect on some exteriors, you’re just looking at a few hundred years of wear and tear.
It is pretty and it is obviously good enough to score a place on my list but I will put it out there and say it’s not the most beautiful town in Puglia. However, what it lacks from being a lived-in Italian University town, it certainly makes up for in pure personality and an excitable buzz after-hours.
WHAT TO DO IN LECCE :
- Order yourself a locally thought up coffee called the caffe al latte di mandorla – espresso with ice and almond milk.
- Marvel at the contrasts in Italian historical architecture which contributes to the mismatched feel of Lecce. Between the 16th century castle, the Baroque churches and the 2000-year-old amphitheatre which was only discovered and dug up in 1929!
- Take in the wow factor of Basilica di Santa Croce, it’s the star of the show here in Lecce and the ultimate symbol of Lecce’s Baroque reputation. It would be impossible to fit any more animals, vegetables and minerals on one facade.
- Join the young professionals and University bunch after-hours on Via Umberto I at one of the many boho-cool wine bars.
- Puglian’s still go for the nap-time siesta, so if you’ve planned your visit to take in some shopping, be aware that most places are closed between 2-5pm.
- If you’ve read that Lecce has a beach, take note that it is actually San Cataldo they are talking about which is 6 miles out of town – Lecce is not on the coast.
4. Lake Of Bauxite Della Cava
If you find yourself at the bottom of the stiletto heel in Italy, maybe visiting the famous nearby Punta Palascia Lighthouse, then make sure you see the Lake of Bauxite too. I’d noticed early on during our trip to Salento that the earth was a deep orange colour and clearly a healthy source of nutrition for all of the olive groves and vineyards. But, when we turned the corner to the abandoned Bauxite mine it was something else! Where we on Mars?
The bright orange earth contrasting with the emerald lake is a little hidden gem you do not want to miss. Bauxite is mainly mined for aluminium but once it’s complete and turned over to the elements it becomes a thing of beauty. The crumbly substance can make it hard to climb and is a beggar to get off your clothes but the way the rain washes away the layers creates such an interesting landscape. It’s always great to come across a piece of nature you’ve never experienced before and this beautiful quarry not far from Otranto was a definite highlight for us.
- The car park costs €3 but is free out of season.
- If you fancy making a day trip of it, you could combine the Bauxite mine with a visit to an award-winning beach nearby; Baia delle Orte is a wild and unspoilt bay great for snorkelling and avoiding the north winds. Finish the day off in one of the many restaurants of beautiful Otranto.
Where To Stay In Puglia
Relais Masseria Le Cesine is one of the best all-inclusive hotels we have ever stayed in. If you are visiting Puglia and your main focus is sight-seeing and ticking off a bucket list of towns and tourist attractions then I would maybe suggest you choose a base hotel in the region of Alberobello as you are better located to all the main towns you would want to see. However, if like ourselves, you fancy a bit of relaxing and a bit of sight-seeing then Relais Masseria Le Cesine would be a great choice of hotel and location for some of the best beaches in Puglia.
Set amongst olive groves and 1 mile from the beach you have the best of both worlds in terms of beautiful surroundings. The hotel is ran by a lovely hospitality team who are so pleased to help and make your stay perfect. Puglia is known for it’s great food but an all-inclusive can sometimes be a bit disappointing at meal times, however Le Cesine went above and beyond. The food was so good; fresh fish and local meats, mozarella so fresh and a different selection of salads every day. And finally, the rooms were modern, well equipped and immaculate set in a garden setting of ornamental grasses and herbs to finish off the aesthetics perfectly. Oh, and a spa too! Click through for the best deals on this great all-inclusive hotel in Puglia.
5. Visit Otranto
The nearest town to the Lake of Bauxite and one of the nicest places this far south in Apulia is Otranto. Otranto is the most easterly town in Italy – a little fun fact that on face value might seem completely innocuous. However, the towns strategic position has left it with a rich, and sometimes gruesome history. Booking.com would have had a field day with all the guest houses in use for soldiers, knights and even emperor’s before they set off for wars and crusades! There are two stones built into a palace on Corso Garibaldi which started life as statue bases and usually unnoticed by passers-by, but they importantly show the veneration given to the Emperor’s Marcus and Lucius Aurelius as leaders who set sail from Otranto during the Roman Empire. There is a really good walking tour you can take that lets you explore Otranto in greater depth.
Nowadays Otranto is a seaside town packed with lively restaurants and many, many souvenir shops but as you navigate the cobbled alley-ways safely hidden behind the city walls, it still feels ancient and tied to bygone days.
WHAT TO SEE IN OTRANTO :
- Visit Otranto’s cathedral (Santa Maria Annunziata) to see the 12th-century mosaic floor. It’s vast (16 metres), ornate and a little bit crazy. Bible stories merge with fable and myths and even Alexander the Great makes an appearance. Nobody has quite deciphered its full meaning but I think perhaps the artist had a dodgy Sunday-school teacher.
- The Santa Maria Cathedral also hides a local hidden gem too! Check out the creepy altar of human skulls if you dare : definitely the strangest thing you will come across in all of Puglia. Legend has it that thousands lost their lives when the Turks invaded in 1480 and 800 martyr’s hiding in the church refused to convert to Islam and were all decapitated. Their skulls and bones were later built into the alter to remember the lost – a real must-see if you are in Otranto.
- The queue out of the door gives Gelateria Cavour away. You won’t have to wait long for the best ice cream of your life though and perfectly located to watch people from the city walls.
- Visit the Punta Palascia Lighthouse where the Adriatic Sea meets the Ionian, there aren’t many places in the world where you get to see this.
Gallipoli is the hub of the Italian beach scene. North of Gallipoli are several of the best beaches in Italy which seriously rival the Bahamas. So when the sun has set on the Ionian and holiday-makers are showered and dressed, the town of Gallipoli comes alive in the evening!
Meaning ‘beautiful city’ in Greek (Kalli-pollis), there are definitely more than a few aspects of this island town which make it worthy of its title but maybe not in ways that you immediately imagine. The castle and high city walls speak volumes about the type of past Gallipoli has had but nowadays what stands out are its immediate connections to the Ocean. If you arrive during the afternoon ‘riposo’ and the town is a bit sleepy, you’re more likely to notice the fishermen mending their nets or the large number of Baroque churches and palazzi which are a testament to the wealth that the sea brought to the area as a trading port. Otherwise, in the height of summer, you will probably find yourselves shoulder to shoulder with other Italian holiday-makers vying for a seat at one of the many restaurant terraces. Gallipoli appears to be stuck in another era, when supermarkets didn’t exist, people were friendly and the charm of life was its slow pace. Nowhere is a passeggiata (or pre-dinner stroll) around the old battlements more appropriate.
WHAT TO DO IN GALLIPOLI :
- The best sunsets in Puglia are obviously from this coastline so grab an evening Aperol Spritz at the Buena Vista Caffe overlooking the sea.
- Right near the bridge which connects the old island town to the new town of Gallipoli is the oldest fountain in Italy, or so some claim. Whether it is the only thing to remain from ancient Greece or whether it is, in fact, Renaissance, it’s pretty beautiful.
- If you’re self-catering in Puglia, visit the Fish Market for the freshest seafood around.
- The famous Cattedrale di Sant’Agata is not to be missed as you amble the narrow cobbled streets. You have to see the paintings that adorn the walls and were created by local artists in the 17th century.
Park for free on Corso Roma in the new town during riposo if you’re just visiting for a few hours. Alternatively, cross the bridge to the old town and follow the road around to the right for 2 car parks – one free, one pay and display, if you’re making Gallipoli a day trip from somewhere else in Puglia.
7. The Most Beautiful Beaches In Puglia
If you are looking for things to do in Puglia then make at least one of the days of your holiday a beach day. The coastline from Taranto to Gallipoli and beyond is famous for its white sandy beaches which rival the Maldives and many Italians would agree that Salento is home to some of the best beaches in Italy. Fabio from StayCiao tells us his 3 favourites are the shallow warm waters of Porto Cesareo, Torre Lapillo and Punta Prosciutto on the west coast of Puglia but I’m sure there are many more to discover and plenty of secret coves too to take shelter from those infamous Salento winds.
You may have seen pictures of the crowded cove at Polignano a Mare but apart from the middle of August beaches in Puglia are relatively quiet and this part of Italy still remains a bit of a beachy-secret from the rest of Europe.
8. Visit Locorotondo
If I had to narrow it down and tell you my favourite destination in all of Apulia I would have to say it’s Locorotondo. The old Italian guy who worked in the public toilet just outside of the city walls and collects foreign words and phrases for his chalk-board just so he can converse with his new friends perhaps sums up the whole town perfectly : quaintly Italian with a whole lotta passion and eccentricity! Locorotondo would make the perfect base for a romantic weekend away in Puglia because you could slowly meander through the narrow streets for hours and it not grow old. Occasionally stopping to peek in a little church or sample some local cuisine at one of the tiny restaurants.
Locorotondo is a borghi piu b’elli d’Italia but its gorgeousness has seeped out of the town walls, down the hill and into the surrounding countryside. And, if you take a seat at panoramic Bar Pavì (on Via Nardelli) and order a glass of Locorotondo wine you can take in birdseye views of endless vineyards, olive groves and the odd whitewashed trullo house dotting the landscape – perfezionare!
Locorondo is worth more than the sum of its parts, unless you count potted Geraniums and funny shaped roof’s (known as cummerse) as tourist attractions. But who needs specific reasons to visit a place when that place looks like it was born from an Italian fairytale.
- Locorotondo has a train station so if you’re staying elsewhere in Puglia it makes for an easy day trip.
- Locorotondo DOC is the most promising of Puglian wines if you’re interested in sampling a glass or two in its native surroundings.
- Many choose this area, the Valle d’Itria, for hiking holidays because the nearby towns of Alberobello, Cisternino and Martina Franca are also worth a visit for a few hours and are a leisurely trek of about 8km’s each way. Locorotondo would make the perfect central base for this kind of holiday.
9. Drive The Best Coast Road In Puglia
Driving in Puglia is an absolute joy! The roads are good and relatively quiet to say that the area is so beautiful and the list of things to do and see is long, very long. But you can’t take any more picturesque olive groves and fields of crumbling trulli… head to the coast.
The road from San Foca to Otranto on the Adriatic coast will have you jumping out of the car every kilometre to admire the limestone ledges and 16th century watchtowers. The kind of cliffs I would design if I ever acquired the tools to do so. Don’t miss the Grotta della Poesia between Roca and Torre dell’Orso where young men impress their ladies with summersaults into the blue natural pool.
After Otranto, take the less direct coastal route to Santa Cesarea Terme and admire the views before you arrive in a town which would look more at home in Morrocco or Moorish Spain. Palazzo Sticchi dominates the city-scape and reminds you that there are surprises around every corner in Salento. And seeing as you’ve made it this far, there’s no point overlooking the hidden gem of a beach at Porto Miggiano.
- The crepes from Zorbas in Santa Cesarea Terme are well worth queuing for.
10. Experience The Food Of Puglia
How could we write a post about things to do in Puglia without mentioning the reason you probably booked your trip here in the first place? Puglia is known internationally for its culinary contributions and staying at Relais Masseria Le Cesine was perfect for us because it had great reviews for its food, using mostly only local produce and specialising in local dishes – let me tell you, we were not disappointed. Still, if you’ve chosen to stay self-catering, here’s a list of all the local foods you should not miss when visiting Puglia…
- Orecchiette, or ‘little ears’ is a shape of pasta you will see in many Apulian restaurants and it holds onto its sauces perfectly. No pasta dish is complete now in the MyLifeLongHoliday household unless it’s made with orecchiette. You may even catch glimpses of old Italian mama’s making them in the streets of Puglia.
- Puglia produces more Olive Oil than any other region so if it’s on the table, put it on your dinner – you won’t taste a better quality olive oil.
- Burrata is known as Italy’s finest cheese but after sampling it on many occasions in Puglia we have named it the worlds finest cheese. Big words I know, but until you’ve tried this mozzarella-like ball of epicness you live a life incomplete.
- Taralli is Puglia’s answer to the bombay-mix : the bowl of nibbles put out with the wine which in their own right are a bit rubbish but somehow seem to be all gone by the end of the evening. Crunchy rings of baked dough, sometimes made a bit more palatable with fennel or poppy seeds if you’re lucky!
- And lastly, the food item you will dream most about upon your return, Calzone di Cipolla. A piece of pizza-pie made with anchovies, tomatoes, olives and onions – can somebody tell Greggs they’re missing a trick here!
I have created a interacive map so you can easily find all the places we recommend in this blog. Click on the arrow in the top left corner for a list of all the things you can do in Puglia…
So there you have it, our Top 10 list of Things To Do In Puglia – plenty to keep you busy whilst you visit this lovely little region of Italy. Enjoy!
If Puglia is part of an Italian road trip and you are planning to head north, make sure you check out our other Italian posts…
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