With its historic port cities, whitewashed hilltop towns, stretches of beautiful countryside and crystal clear waters, Puglia is a popular holiday destination for domestic tourism within Italy, yet surprisingly undiscovered by international tourists who tend to gravitate towards the north of the country instead.
But after spending two months getting to explore the best of this beautiful province and really getting to embrace its relaxed and light-hearted way of life, I couldn’t recommend it anymore as one of Italy’s real hidden gems and the perfect under-the-radar summer destination in Europe.
Before we get into the top places to visit in Puglia, let’s go through a couple of important things first;
Where is Puglia?
Puglia is Italy’s most south-easterly province, sometimes referred to as ‘the heel of the boot’ due to its geographical positioning, bordered by the Adriatic Sea and the Ionian Sea.
The region can easily be reached by flying into it’s two international airports; Karol Wojtyla Airport in Bari and the Airport of Salento in Brindisi.
What’s the best way to travel around Puglia?
While there is some public transport in Puglia, the trains and buses are irregular at best and don’t run between every town or attraction.
Travelling along the coast between some of the larger cities such Bari, Monopoli, Ostuni and Lecce is doable by train (just be sure to check the timetable ahead of time), but for many of the other destinations, you may well end up spending half of your day navigating multiple forms of transport just to get there.
Therefore, the easiest way to travel within Puglia is by car.
A road trip through Puglia is the best way to explore the area at a more leisurely pace (in true southern Italian style), have greater control over your destinations and timings, and be able to see more of the region’s natural beauty and off-the-beaten-path attractions.
Check out AutoEurope for high quality, affordable car rental in Puglia.
The best places to visit in Puglia Italy
So now on to what you really came here for, the top places to visit in Puglia…
Voted as one of Lonely Planet’s upcoming European destinations in 2019, the port city of Bari is really making a tourist comeback in recent years.
Once (long ago) known for its gangs and higher crime rate than other parts of the region, Bari has greatly cleaned up its act and is now one of the most popular cities to visit in Puglia.
It’s also home to the region’s largest airport, making it an obvious place to start a road trip.
Being the regional capital and largest city in Puglia, there are plenty of things to do in Bari, from exploring the historic old town to taking a shopping spree in the newer Murat district and enjoying a glass of wine on the long Lungomare Nazario Sauro promenade.
But the real charm of Bari lies with its many residents.
Watch elderly ladies making orecchiette on little tables placed outside the front of their houses, vibrant street performers singing their way through busy streets and groups of international students enjoying an aperitivo at small bars hidden down unsuspecting side-streets. Bari and its people have reached the perfect balance between lively metropolis and laid-back southern-Italian coastal town.
Best things to do in Bari:
- Explore Bari Vecchia (the old city) and admire the many historic buildings, including grand Castello Svevo, Basilica San Nicola and Romanesque Basilica Cattedrale di San Sabino.
- Watch the local women make Puglia’s characteristic ear-shaped pasta on Strada delle Orecchiette (Via Arco Basso); a small street in Bari dedicated entirely to making pasta. You can also take a pasta tour of Bari and try your hand at making it yourself.
- Stroll down the Lungomare Nazario Sauro at sunset to take in the scenic views and vibrant atmosphere of Bari’s large promenade.
- Visit the 19th century Murat district which has a number of elegant palaces and theatres, many of which now house shops, cinemas and entertainment complexes.
- Enjoy the city’s late-night bars and lively nightlife (Bari is a university city after all).
Where to eat in Bari:
- Lady Mastro – For the tastiest pizza in all of Bari.
- Panificio Fiore – Where you’ll find some of the best and most authentic (yet still extremely affordable) focaccia in town.
Where to stay in Bari:
- Palazzo Calò – Private studio apartments within a historic building ideally located between Bari old town and the Murat district, plus access to a beautiful rooftop terrace overlooking the city.
Polignano a Mare
Polignano a Mare is one of the most famous places to visit in Puglia thanks to the picturesque Cala Porto (aka Lama Monachile); a small pebble beach pleasingly tucked away underneath the city’s limestone cliffs and whitewashed houses.
You can walk down to the beach and take a swim in the cove’s crystal clear emerald waters or sit and watch the cliff jumpers dive from the town’s jagged coastline. However, the best thing about Cala Porto is not actually being on it but looking down on it from the several viewpoints in the town’s historic center – one of the most iconic views in all of Puglia.
Best things to do in Polignano a Mare:
- View the famous Cala Porto beach from the stunning Balconata sul Mare viewpoint.
- Go cliff jumping, a popular sport in Polignano, or if you’re not feeling that adventurous just sit and enjoy watching other people do it instead.
- Take a boat tour of the many caves which make up Polignano’s coastline.
- Discover the Vicolo della Poesia – aka the poetry steps – by Puglian poet Guido Il Flâneur.
Where to eat in Polignano a Mare:
- Grotta Palazzese Restaurant – Uniquely located in a natural cave carved into the cliff face with spectacular views over the sea below. One of the most exclusive restaurants in all of Puglia.
Where to stay in Polignano a Mare:
- Grotta Palazzese Hotel – Connected to the restaurant of the same name, this 5* hotel is located on a cliff overlooking the sea and offers the most luxurious accommodation in Polignano a Mare.
- Dimora Talenti – Charming and centrally located B&B with sea views, balconies and breakfast served on a large outdoor terrace.
While Polignano a Mare is home to one of the most famous beaches in Puglia, real sun-seekers should ditch the crowds and head just along the coast to the neighbouring city of Monopoli.
Monopoli is Puglia’s seaside city and is one of the most popular summer destinations amongst Puglian locals, yet surprisingly less visited by international tourists.
The city’s large port, dotted with bright blue and red fishing boats, and quaint historic center, with its large Baroque Cathedral, lead the way to a long stretch of coastline absolutely littered with small coves and beautiful sandy beaches.
Enjoy a leisurely lunch at one of Monopoli’s many outdoor cafes and restaurants, then grab a gelato and take a stroll past the old fortress walls to spend the afternoon relaxing on the beach and swimming in the area’s clear turquoise waters.
I may be slightly biased after using Monopoli as my base for 2 full months, but the charming seaside town is one of the most beautiful and certainly most underrated places to visit in Puglia.
Best things to do in Monopoli:
- Wander around the small cobblestone alleyways of the charming old town.
- Visit the large Baroque Cathedral and the archaeological museum within its crypt.
- Watch the traditional blue and red fishing boats (or ‘gonzo’) at Porto Antico.
- Soak up the sun on one of the city’s many beautiful beaches.
Where to eat in Monopoli:
- Porto Rosso – Beautiful restaurant overlooking the water and small sandy bay. Head inside for the main menu (top-notch seafood and pastas) or to the outdoor terrace for the pizza menu.
- Il Ritrovo – A 10 minute walk from the historic center and waterfront but worth it for some of the best panzarotti (traditional fried pizza turnovers) in all of Puglia. A local hotspot!
Where to stay in Monopoli:
- Hotel Don Ferrante – One of Monopoli’s most luxurious hotels uniquely located within the city’s fortified walls with balconies overlooking the water and an on-site SPA.
- Palazzo Murat – Stylish B&B in a historic building just a few minutes walk from the historic center and the city’s many beaches, with in-room hot tubs and a roof terrace.
Another must see in Puglia is the unusual historic town of Alberobello.
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996, Alberobello is the only town in the region still made up entirely of trulli; the mortarless limestone houses with domed roofs which are symbolic of the surrounding Valle d’Itria.
The unique trulli houses date back to the 16th century when the local rulers in the region wanted to avoid paying property taxes to the King (taxes were based on the number of rooftops) and ordered local peasants to build their houses without mortar so they could quickly be dismantled in case of a royal inspection.
Definitely one of the most touristy towns in Puglia and particularly popular with day-trippers, the best way to really experience Alberobello is to stay overnight so that you can explore the unique little town in the late evening and early morning without the crowds.
Best things to do in Alberobello:
- Explore the town’s two main trulli zones; Rione Monti and Rione Aia Piccola.
- Take a walking tour or better yet a segway tour of Alberobello.
- Visit the interesting heritage museum inside Trullo Sovrano.
- Admire the amazing panoramic views over Alberobello from Belvedere Santa Lucia, a free viewpoint next to Santa Lucia Church.
- Take a late evening stroll and see the quiet streets illuminated by rows of little fairy lights.
Where to eat in Alberobello:
- La Cantina – A local hotspot and one of my favourite restaurants in all of Puglia. Just far enough removed from the main trulli zone that it doesn’t get overcrowded with other tourists.
Where to stay in Alberobello:
- Trulli e Puglia Resort – Stay overnight in your very own trulli right in the heart of Alberobello. Plus, don’t miss aperitivo at the neighbouring wine bar.
Check out my full guide to Alberobello for a more comprehensive rundown of what to do and even more options for the best places to eat and stay.
Castellana Grotte is a small town located close to Alberobello and Monopoli, named after the underground cave system which lies beneath it.
Grotte di Castellana is a 90 million-year-old karst cave system located more than 60 meters underground and one of the most amazing natural wonders in Puglia.
You can explore the many stalagmites, stalactites, canyons and caves which characterise Castellana on a guided tour along a 3km pathway – with the proper safety equipment of course. Or if you’re feeling extra adventurous you can take a more intimate nighttime tour of the caves.
Grotte di Castellana is a world away from the historic port towns and beautiful beaches the region is more often associated with and certainly one of the most unique things to do in Puglia.
Castellana Grotte is best visited as a day trip from one of the other nearby towns as there isn’t much else to do in the town itself other than the caves.
Grab your walking shoes for this one.
Often referred to as Puglia’s ‘White City’ due to its whitewashed old town, Ostuni is an enchanting labyrinth of steep sloping staircases, narrow Medieval streets, historic archways and small squares perched on three hills in the Itria Valley.
The best way to explore Ostuni is to simply get lost in the city’s maze of winding alleyways, stopping every now and again at one of the cute little cafes substituting chairs and tables for decorative pillows placed on stairwells to enjoy a spritz and soak up the vibrant atmosphere of one of Puglia’s most magical cities.
Best things to do in Ostuni:
- Get lost in the labyrinth of streets that make up Ostuni’s old town.
- Take a guided walking tour with gelato tasting.
- Admire the 15th-century Romanesque-Gothic Cathedral.
- Step inside the fascinating Museum of pre-classical civilization of Southern Murgia.
- Enjoy an aperitivo in the large Piazza della Liberta.
- Take a sunset stroll along the city’s defensive walls with amazing panoramic views over the surrounding countryside.
Where to eat in Ostuni:
Where to stay in Ostuni:
- Palazzo Mascetti – Stylish, modern rooms in the heart of Ostuni with private in-room jacuzzis and a large sun terrace overlooking the city center.
- Paragon 700 Boutique Hotel & SPA – Luxury 5* hotel located in a grand historic building with an outdoor swimming pool and terrace.
- La Dama Bianca – An affordable B&B featuring rooms with private terraces and hottubs.
Alberobello, Castellana Grotte and Ostuni are all located in an area known as the Valle d’Itria, a scenic plateau in the center of Puglia.
The Valle d’Itria is an area rich in history, culture and culinary traditions, with large stretches of vineyards and olive groves punctuated by the distinctive cone-shaped roofs of the area’s many trulli and its historic hilltop towns.
While the three destinations mentioned above are among the most famous in the Valle d’Itria, there are a number of other charming little towns and expanses of beautiful countryside which shouldn’t be missed. Especially for those who enjoy more local and authentic destinations without any crowds.
The area is also known for its many Masseria; traditional 16th-century farmhouses, usually sitting within a larger country estate, which have been converted into luxury agriturismo hotels and B&B’s. A Masseria is a great place to sit back and relax for a couple of days while consuming your body weight in delicious local food made using fresh produce directly from the surrounding farms.
Other towns to visit in the Valle d’Itria:
- Putignano – Home to the biggest carnival in Europe from December to February.
- Locorotondo – A hilltop town which is known for its surrounding vineyards and DOC white wine.
- Martina Franca – Important 14th-century town with many historic palaces and churches.
- Cisternino – A small picturesque town with a maze of little alleyways.
Where to stay in the Valle d’Itria:
- Masseria Grieco – A charming B&B in a renovated farm building surrounded by olive trees close to Ostuni, with traditional rooms, an outdoor swimming pool and large garden, plus a restaurant serving homemade delicacies and its own bar and communal lounge area.
- Masseria Garrappa – Modern, luxury rooms in an old historic tower on the edge of the Valle d’Itria close to Monopoli and it’s many beaches. The Masseria has an on-site restaurant that prepares typical local dishes, as well as a cookery school and olive oil tastings from the surrounding grove.
- Masseria Rosa Trulli Relais – A traditional farm stay inside a series of stone cottages and trulli just a short distance from Alberobello.
Moving further south we come down to Puglia’s Salento Peninsula and its primary city of Lecce.
Nicknamed the ‘Florence of the South’ due to its many striking Baroque buildings, Lecce is one of the real architectural gems of the region and definitely a must see in Puglia.
Lecce’s long history dates back over 2,000 years, being founded by the Messapii before being conquered by the Romans then the Ostrogoths, as well as brief conquests by Saracens, Lombards, Hungarians and Slavs. All contributing to the city’s unique mix of architecture and culture.
Lecce is also a city with its own distinctive culinary traditions, such as the ‘Rustico Leccese’, a traditional puff pastry filled with tomato and mozzarella, the sweet dessert ‘Fruttone’, consisting of shortcrust pastry filled with pear or quince jam and almond paste with a dark chocolate glaze, and the ‘Lecce Coffee’, an espresso served with ice and sweet almond milk.
Best things to do in Lecce:
- Admire the city’s numerous Baroque masterpieces, including Basilica di Santa Croce and Cattedrale dell’Assunzione della Virgine.
- Wander through the grand squares of Piazza del Duomo and Piazza Sant’Oronzo.
- Explore the grounds of the 16th-century Castle of Charles V.
- Try the local specialties on a street food tasting and walking tour.
- See a performance at the unusual sunken Roman Amphitheater which still hosts shows today.
Where to eat in Lecce:
Corte dei Pandolfi – Wine bar and popular local restaurant with a charming outdoor seating area.
Where to stay in Lecce:
- Pollicastro Boutique Hotel – A beautiful and elegant 4* hotel in a recently renovated historic building, right in the heart of Lecce’s historic center.
Extending your trip to Puglia
Did you know that Bari’s large port is important for connecting Italy with the Balkans?
The port has daily ferries that connect the city with destinations including Durres in Albania, Dubrovnik in Croatia, Bar in Montenegro, Igoumenitsa and Patras in Greece and several Greek Islands.
This makes Puglia a great starting off point for a summer trip around some of southeast Europe’s prettiest coastal destinations.
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