If you mentioned the word Monopoli to most people they’d almost definitely think you were talking about the popular board game rather than the small coastal city of Monopoli in Italy’s Puglia region.
I must admit, up until a few months ago I’d never heard of the place either.
When a friend and I were deciding which town to use as a base for two months while exploring the Puglia region, the larger and better-known cities of Bari, Brindisi and Lecce seemed like the top contenders from our online research.
But after a little more looking around, the seaside town of Monopoli caught our eye instead. A pretty-looking spot surrounded by beaches and well connected by train to other cities in the region.
So just three days before arriving in the south of Italy we decided to take the jump and rent an apartment in Monopoli for two whole months with pretty much no idea what to expect.
And what a fantastic choice it turned out to be!
What we discovered was a dreamy white-washed old town, majestic churches drenched in history, a busy working fisherman’s port, beautiful sandy beaches, fantastic local food, little bars looking over crystal clear turquoise waters and some of the friendliest locals I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.
Monopoli ticked all of the boxes for the perfect Italian seaside destination and the ideal base for exploring the rest of the Puglia region.
It’s safe to say I fell completely in love with Monopoli after just a few days, and after two months I knew it was somewhere I’d definitely be returning to time and time again – my new home away from home in the south of Italy.
Important things to know before visiting Monopoli
Siesta time is taken very seriously. In true southern Italian style, all of the shops, museums and even churches in Monopoli shut between around 1:30pm – 4:30pm for the daily siesta. This is a great time to grab a long lunch or sit on the beach and enjoy the sun for a while.
Not everyone speaks English. Like most of the Puglia region, English isn’t particularly widely spoken in Monopoli. We did meet quite a few younger people who were pleasantly conversational in English, however, most of the older residents didn’t speak a word. Having Google translate ready on your phone or knowing some basic words and phrases in Italian might come in handy.
You have to pay to use a lido. You’ll notice that some (not all) of the beaches along Monopoli’s coast are ‘lidos’. A lido means that all or most of the beach is privately owned. All this means is that you’ll need to pay a small fee to use the sunbeds and parasols.
Restaurants stop serving lunch at around 3pm. Coming from London where a lot of restaurants remain open all day, this took a little getting used to. Don’t wait to have a ‘late lunch’ or you’ll end up not being able to find anywhere to eat at all.
Then reopen for dinner at 7:30-8pm. Another thing that took some adjusting to is how late Italians eat their evening meal. Don’t expect any good restaurants in Monopoli to open for dinner until at least 7:30pm.
The best things to do in Monopoli Italy
Spend a day relaxing on the beach
Nicknamed Puglia’s ‘seaside city’. it’s unsurprising that one of the best things to do in Monopoli is spending the day (or a couple of hours if you’re limited on time) relaxing on one of the city’s gorgeous sandy beaches and swimming in the inviting turquoise waters.
Rather than one long stretch of beach, Monopoli is known for its many sheltered coves which stretch along the entire coastline and range from large privately run lidos to tiny hidden bays that fit no more than a handful of sunbathers at a time.
Grab a gelato and your speedos (in true Italian style) and make the most of Puglia’s year-round sun and warm Mediterranean climate.
Check out my full article on the best beaches in Monopoli.
Walk along the coast to Castello di Santo Stefano
Even if you’re not the type of person who enjoys spending hours laying sunbathing on a beach, the beautiful coastline surrounding Monopoli is certainly still worth seeing and is all too often overlooked by non-sunseekers.
From Porta Veccia on the edge of the Centro Storico, follow the coastline south for a stunning walk along the cliffs, past the many beaches and bays and on to Castello di Santo Stefano (St Stephen’s Castle).
The route makes for a lovely walk on a long summer’s afternoon. Don’t forget a picnic and bottle of wine to enjoy mid-way – this became a regular Sunday activity during my time living in Monopoli.
The full walk will take you around an hour without stops, but really you can turn back whenever you feel like it. You’ll get the best views back towards the city from Grotta di Porto Verde about 15-20 minutes in if you’re limited on time.
Take a luxury boat trip
You can also admire Monopoli’s coastline from a different perspective on a luxury boat excursion.
While the port of Monopoli is still a working fisherman’s port, there are also a handful of companies that offer boat tours and rentals too, either heading north along the coast to take in the rocky cliffs and caves of Polignano a Mare or south to see the crystal clear waters and sandy beaches between Monopoli’s historic center and the Capitolo district.
What better way could there be to spend a day of your holiday in Puglia than sipping a spritz on a luxury catamaran while taking in views of the region’s beautiful coastline!?
Get active with some water sports
If you’re the type of person who would rather be in the water than on it, there are a few places around Monopoli where you can take part in a number of water sports and activities;
- Take a guided snorkeling tour around the Monopoli coastline.
- Or for the braver among you, try a scuba diving experience to see the banks, walls, reefs and wrecks of Monopoli and the surrounding areas instead.
- Try jet skiing, kneeboarding, stand up paddleboarding, kite surfing, kayaking, banana boat rides and more fun water-based activities with WaterGames in the Capitolo district of Monopoli.
Enjoy a spritz overlooking Porta Vecchia
The promenade lining Cala Porta Vecchia on the edge of the old town is one of the prettiest and most popular places in Monopoli to stop for an afternoon spritz overlooking the sea.
Head to MezzoPieno for a tasty seafood lunch and a few glasses of wine on the large outdoor terrace overlooking the beach and water, or for something quicker grab a spritz to go from Kambusa Rock Bar and take a walk along the busy seafront and straight into the historic center.
You can also stop for a gelato from the colourful little gelateria and dessert bar Il Gelato per Passione, just a stone throw away from the beach and seafront.
Stop by the Il Bastione del Molino Ruins
An interesting place to visit in Monopoli for those interested in the city’s rich history is the Il Bastione del Molino Ruins.
Located just a few minutes walk away from Porta Vecchia, the large stone structure is the remains of the old defensive wall which once protected the historic city center from invaders.
You can walk along the pathway on top of the rampart and see the multiple canons and the view out to the water, or head down to the green area below which is now home to a slightly oddly placed park and children’s play area.
Get lost in the narrow alleyways of Monopoli’s historic center
Although Monopoli is much larger than just the historic center (Centro Storico), this is the area most visitors and tourists are drawn to, and rightly so.
Monopoli’s Centro Storico is a maze of charming little alleyways lined with white stone buildings, meandering their way between pretty piazzas, historic churches and the bustling waterfront area.
Away from the few main streets filled with shops, cafes and restaurants, large parts of Monopoli’s old town have remained completely residential, with people still living in their historic family homes across the generations.
Stroll under ancient stone arches and discover tiny hidden courtyards where laundry hangs outside to dry, listen for the old ladies standing on their balconies shouting across to their neighbours (they really do like to shout a lot) and take in the delicious smells of home-cooked food flowing out through emerald green shutters.
Getting lost wandering around the narrow streets of the old town is one of the best things to do in Monopoli and a great way to really experience authentic Puglian life.
Step inside the impressive Baroque cathedral
The Basilica of the Madonna della Madia is Monopoli’s large Roman Catholic cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary (under the title of the Madonna della Maria).
Not only is the cathedral extremely impressive both inside and out, with its large Baroque facade, imposing bell tower and ornate marble interior, but it also has a unique and interesting history.
The story goes that when the cathedral was first being built in the 12th century, work had to be stopped due to a lack of roof beams. A few years later a miracle occurred when a raft carrying an image of the Madonna washed up in Monopoli’s harbour. The raft’s 33 beams were used to construct the roof.
In fact, the cathedral’s name ‘madia’ comes from the Spanish word ‘al-madia’ which means raft.
In the 1700s, the original Romanesque cathedral with the wooden beams was almost totally demolished and the new cathedral in Baroque style took its place. Inside of the current cathedral you can still find a relic of the beams as well as historic paintings that recount the Miracle of the Raft.
The cathedral is open daily between 08:30-12:00 and 16:30-20:30.
Take a guided tour of the Cripta Romanica
Located underneath the cathedral in its Romanesque crypt you’ll find one of Monopoli’s most interesting museums; Museo e Sito Archeologico Cripta Romanica.
The archaeological museum is a fascinating way to take a step back into Monopoli’s history with the chance to walk through the excavated remains of previous buildings on the site which date from the Bronze Age all the way up to the construction of the current cathedral in the 1700s.
You can also see some of the items uncovered during excavations of the site, including ancient tombs, Greek pottery and some rather spooky Gothic artworks and funerary statues.
The best way to visit the museum is on a guided tour in order to access all of the rooms.
The museum is usually open for a few hours a couple of days a week. You can check the opening days and times and book a guided tour on the website here.
See 18th-century mummies in The Church of Purgatory
Among the most interesting of the many churches in Monopoli has to be the 17th-century Santa Maria del Suffragio (aka Church of Purgatory), located right next to Basilica of the Madonna della Madia.
While not as large and grand as the neighbouring cathedral, this church is worth visiting for very different reasons and is one of my favourite places in Monopoli.
Santa Maria del Suffragio is one of southern Italy’s unique ‘Purgatory churches‘; a Catholic counter-reformation concept in which mass was celebrated to pray for the souls of those in limbo.
The churches large wooden doorway is intricately decorated with macabre images including two mirrored skeletons, as well as a stone doorway carved with skulls. The symbolism shows that we all are all equal in death and acts as a warning of the suffering that awaits anyone who sins without repentance.
But go inside and you’ll find something even more unusual than this somber warning. Standing in a glass cabinet are the mummified remains of eight founding members of the church and local administrators from the city, all dressed in black and red cloaks to represent the flames of purgatory.
Considering the relatively small size of the city, Monopoli has over 20 churches in the center alone. A number of which are worth passing by or popping into when out exploring.
Other than the Cathdral and Santa Maria del Suffragio, some others worth seeing are;
Chiesa S. Domenico Con Rosone – a jewel of Renaissance architecture that was once attached to the former historically-important Dominican monastery.
Chiesa A. Maria della Zaffara – an unusual tiny 17th-century stone church close to the city’s defensive walls.
Admire the architecture in Piazza Palmieri
Piazza Palmieri is the oldest square in Monopoli’s Centro Storico and was the location of one of the city’s first government offices.
The square was originally called Piazza San Pietro e Paolo after the Medieval church nearby, however, the name was changed in the 1700s to match the newly-built palace owned by the noble Palmieri family.
As well as the beautiful baroque Palazzo Palmieri (which you can go inside of an evening), the large square houses 17th-century Chiesa San Teresa as well as several other historically important buildings.
It’s also home to one of Monopoli’s best restaurants – Ristorante Piazza Palmieri – which is a great place to sit outside to admire the impressive piazza.
Climb to the top of Castello di Carlo V
Monopoli’s Castello di Carlo V is set on a promontory jutting out into the sea and was a part of the coastal fortifications built in the 16th-century during the Spanish domination of the city.
The castle now plays host to private events including weddings and conferences, as well as a number of cultural events throughout the year such as art exhibitions.
Even if there’s not a public event happening during your visit, you can still head inside and climb up to the viewing platform on the castle’s roof for great views back over the city and water.
Walk the length of the Lungomare Santa Maria
Monopoli’s Lungomare Santa Maria is a paved walkway that runs between Castello di Carlo V and Porta Vecchia beach along the city’s 16th-century fortified walls, skirting the edge of the Centro Storico.
The short seafront promenade makes a pleasant walk on a sunny afternoon in Monopoli, with lovely views over the Adriatic sea and a couple of cosy little restaurants where you can stop for an aperitif while enjoying the gentle sea breeze.
Along the route don’t miss Il Bastione Santa Maria, an old defensive tower that you can climb up to gain a better view back down the coast and to see its two well-preserved canons.
Watch the fishermen at Porto Antico di Monopoli
Providing a splash of colour in an otherwise sea of white, Porto Antico di Monopoli is the city’s working fishing harbour situated on the water’s edge of the historic centre. The picturesque little port is filled with traditional ‘gozzo‘ – blue and red boats that are iconic of the Puglia region.
There are a few benches around the port where you can sit for a while and take in the peaceful view.
Visit at the right time of day and you may even be lucky enough to spot some fishermen coming in to shore and unloading the day’s catch or mending their nets. A real glimpse into local Puglian life.
Porto Antico di Monopoli is just one of a few harbours which make up Monopoli’s large port, however, the others are more industrial and far less pretty so aren’t particularly worth visiting.
People watch in Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi
While far from winning the title of the largest or most architecturally impressive square in Monopoli, Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi is certainly the most lively and one of the more popular spots in the city to grab dinner.
The real heart of Monopoli’s Centro Storico, this charming little square is the place to be in Monopoli, especially at lunchtime and of an evening.
Several restaurants, cafes and gelaterias line the square, boasting large fairy-lit terraces filled with groups enjoying an alfresco aperitif or long leisurely dinners while soaking in the magical atmosphere and watching the world pass by in the bustling piazza.
Spending an evening indulging in delicious food, great local wine and friendly company in Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi is one of my favourite things to do in Monopoli.
Check out my full post on the best restaurants in Monopoli.
Enjoy an afternoon aperitif or late-night cocktail
Sitting just around the corner from Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi and Porto Antico di Monopoli are two of the best places to stop for an afternoon aperitif while exploring the historic center; Tuttoapposto, a cool wine and cocktail bar with a busy outdoor seating area spreading into the street outside, and Sottocoperta, a cosy little pub with a lovely covered terrace overlooking the port.
Both bars are open until 2am so you can also come back after dinner for some late evening drinks if you’re staying in Monopoli overnight.
Pass through Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II by night
Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, commonly referred to as the ‘Borgo’, is the central piazza of Monopoli, located in the newer part of the city directly between the train station and the historic center.
At 18,000 sq meters, Monopoli’s town square isn’t only one the largest in Puglia but also in all of Italy.
The large tree-lined piazza is surrounded by numerous shops, plus a few restaurants and cafes, while in the middle sits two structures; a monument dedicated to the 300 Monopolitans who died in the First World War on one side and a large fountain on the other.
While you can visit Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II at any time of day, it’s after dark that you’ll really see it come alive. Shops reopen following the afternoon siesta and the city’s residents both young and old congregate on benches to chat with friends while children run around the large pedestrianised square.
Though there’s not a large amount to do for tourists in Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, it is still a great place to take a wander through to see the authentic local life of Monopoli in action.
How to get to Monopoli
Monopoli is located on the Adriatic Sea in the Bari district of Puglia and makes a convenient base for getting around the Puglia region.
Travelling to Monopoli by train
While some parts of Puglia are much easier to explore by car, Monopoli is conveniently located on the direct Trenitalia train route which runs along the east coast of the region and stops at a number of other popular cities including Bari, Polignano a Mare, Ostuni, Brindisi and Lecce.
Puglia’s two international airports can be found in Bari and Brindisi, meaning Monopoli is also easy to reach by train for those flying into the region.
Below are the travel times and ticket prices (when booked in advance) for travelling between Monopoli and other cities in Puglia by train…
Bari to Monopoli – 30 minutes / €3.30.
Polignano a Mare to Monopoli – 5 minutes / €1.10.
Ostuni to Monopoli – 20 minutes / €2.50.
Brindisi to Monopoli – 45 minutes / €5.80.
Lecce to Monopoli – 1hr 15 / €8.
Travelling to Monopoli by car
If you’re wanting to see more of Puglia than just these coastal cities, renting your own car is the best option. Puglia is a region which is most easily navigated by road as public transport is somewhat limited.
Some of the best places to visit in Puglia such as the Valle d’Itria, which is home to the famous Trulli town of Alberobello and the ancient whitewashed towns of Locorotondo, Cisternino and Martina Franca, are only a 20-30 minute drive from Monopoli by car. However, by public transport, the route can end up taking a couple of hours of switching between trains and slow regional buses.
Where to eat in Monopoli
I think it’s safe to say that one of my favourite things to do in Monopoli was eating my way around the city’s many fantastic local restaurants, cafes and gelaterias.
So much so that I’ve written a whole article about the best places to eat in Monopoli.
But for a quick overview, these are a few of my favourites…
Porto Rosso – a fantastic seafront restaurant overlooking the water and two of the city’s more central beaches, serving a selection of seafood, pasta, pizza and other local dishes.
MezzoPieno – another lovely sea-facing restaurant serving a small menu of fresh seafood dishes.
Panini & Vini – with a large outdoor terrace in bustling Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi, this is the perfect spot for a light lunch of sandwiches and antipasto (plus a glass of wine of course) in the heart of Monopoli’s historic center.
Locanda Indelli – an elegant and romantic spot inside a historic palace for a special evening meal of delicious dishes in keeping with the local culinary traditions of Puglia.
Bella Blu – the tastiest and most indulgent gelato in Monopoli.
Now you know where to eat, also learn what to eat in my ultimate Puglia Food Guide which features all of the local Apulian foods and dishes you need to try.
Where to stay in Monopoli
There are so many great places to stay in Monopoli, from luxury hotels with private hot tubs to quaint little apartments with sea views. Plus, in a small city where most of the main points of interest are within walking distance from each other, you really can’t go too wrong with accommodation in Monopoli.
But to help you narrow down the choices, here are a few of my favourite hotels in Monopoli…
Hotel Don Ferrante – one of the most luxurious hotels in Monopoli. 5* Don Ferrante can be found uniquely located inside the city’s 16th-century fortified walls, with a rooftop pool and terrace with a sea view, an on-site restaurant and spacious and elegant rooms with balconies overlooking the water.
Palazzo Murat B&B – a beautiful B&B inside a historic building just a few minutes walk from the old town and beach. Palazzo Murat has stylish rooms, some of which have their own in-room hot tub, as well as a rooftop terrace to enjoy the daily breakfast. Has the personal touch of its friendly local owners.
Santa Maria 24 – chic and modern apartments right in the heart of the historic center, with city or sea views from small private balconies. Linked with neighbouring wine bar.
Other Puglia posts you may find useful:
- The best places to visit in Puglia
- The ultimate guide to Alberobello – Puglia’s trulli town
- A complete guide to Polignano a Mare
- A complete guide to Ostuni
- Why you should visit Puglia in winter
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