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With its abundance of beautiful baroque architecture, the city of Lecce on Puglia’s Salento Peninsula has fittingly been given the nickname of “The Florence of the South” – just without the same huge crowds and long lines as its Tuscan counterpart (well not quite yet anyway!)
Lecce is also a city that has a long and fascinating history, having been occupied by many civilizations over its almost 2,000 years. From the early Messapian and Roman empires to Saracen, Lombard, and Norman conquests, each group has left its mark on the small city. Something that can still very much be seen today.
Walking through the southern Italian city is like walking through a free open-air museum, with everything from ancient Roman ruins to beautiful baroque palaces and churches in every direction you look.
Lecce is a must-visit on any trip to Puglia and an excellent base for exploring more of the hidden gem that is the Salento Peninsula.
In this post, I’ll guide you through everything you need to know about visiting Lecce, including the best things to do, where to eat, where to drink, where to stay, and how to get to the city.
Lecce’s Baroque Architecture
Before I begin this Lecce guide properly, I thought I’d start with a quick note on Lecce’s unique style of baroque architecture.
Leccese baroque is a style of architecture that developed in Puglia around the 17th century due to growing wealth in the region. It was also a way for the church to re-establish its power and authority after several centuries of Turkish and Saracen invasions in southern Italy.
The style is similar to traditional baroque. But is uniquely characterized by its use of golden limestone from the surrounding area. Lecce limestone is soft enough to easily create the elaborate artistic masterpieces you find on most of the building’s facades, featuring sculptures of fruits, flowers, humans, animals, and mythological creatures.
Best things to do in Lecce
There’s certainly no shortage of fantastic things to do in Lecce, from the beautiful baroque churches and well-preserved Roman ruins to fascinating history museums and many lively piazzas.
This is what to do in Lecce…
Admire Lecce’s Beautiful Baroque Churches
While amazing baroque architecture can be found all over the city, none is quite as impressive as Lecce’s churches.
There are a whopping 22 churches in Lecce’s historic city center – impressive for a city of its size! Many of the churches are open to visitors, so you can admire their elaborate baroque interiors as well as the stunning facades.
Every church in Lecce is worth seeing in its own right. But you probably won’t want to visit them all. We tried to visit as many as possible in the space of a couple of days and quickly became very ‘churched out’.
So below are a few of my favorites to help you narrow down your own itinerary.
Baroque churches in Lecce you can’t miss:
- Basilica di Santa Croce – the crown jewel of Leccese baroque, this stunning church was designed by architect Giuseppe Zimbalo and took over 100 years to complete. It really is one of the most impressive buildings that you’ll ever see! Connected to the church you’ll also find the Convent of the Celestines Religious order, an equally as impressive baroque building that lines an entire edge of the small square.
- Chiese di San Matteo – hidden on a small side street in Lecce’s historic center, this church is famous for its unique curved baroque facade.
- Chiese di Santa Chiara – this church is particularly unique as its ceiling is made entirely of paper-mâché, which is an ancient tradition in Lecce.
- Basilica del Rosario e di San Giovanni Battista – this was the final baroque church built by famous local architect Giuseppe Zimbalo (who also designed Basilica di Santa Croce and the Cathedral) and certainly one of his finest. The intricate facade is the highlight of the church. Its interior is often closed to visitors, but if it does happen to be open during your visit, head inside to take a look at the unique stone pulpit and visit Zimbalo’s final resting place.
Explore Piazza del Duomo
Piazza del Duomo is the main hub of baroque architecture in the heart of Lecce’s historic city center.
It is also one of the most important and beautiful “closed” squares in Italy, meaning it’s surrounded by buildings on all four sides with only one entrance in and out.
The large Piazza del Duomo is home to:
- Cathedral of Santa Maria dell’Assunta – Lecce’s baroque cathedral was built in the 17th century and features stunning architecture both inside and out. Its TWO grand façades are adorned with countless statues and intricate carvings. While inside, you can admire the magnificent altars, frescoes, beautiful stained-glass windows, and the fascinating 12th-century crypt (the crypt was one of my favourite parts so don’t forget to go downstairs!).
- Campanile del Duomo di Lecce – sitting next to the Cathedral, the impressive Bell Tower is the tallest building in all of Lecce. It boasts spectacular panoramic views over the city’s rooftops and even as far out as the Adriatic Sea. Tickets to climb the tower are €12 per person and can be purchased online here or from the info and ticket office in Piazza del Duomo. Only 15 people can climb the tower every 20 minutes so you will need to pre-book a time slot.
- Palazzo di Antico Seminario – an 18th-century palace known for its beautiful baroque cloister and chapel. The palace’s central courtyard has a beautiful well watched over by two guardian angels. The historic building is also now home to Lecce’s Museo d’Arte Sacra (Museum of Sacred Art).
- Palazzo Arcivescovile (aka “L’Episcopio”) – a 15th-century palace that is currently the seat of the Archbishop’s Curia of Lecce and the home of the Archbishop himself. Unfortunately, visitors can’t enter this building, but you can still admire it from the outside.
Take a Lecce Walking Tour
Taking a guided walking tour in Lecce is a great way to fully appreciate the city’s beauty and learn about its history and culture. A knowledgeable guide can provide insight into the intricate details of the baroque architecture and point out hidden gems that may be missed on a self-guided tour.
The structured itinerary can also help you optimize your visit and make sure that you see the most important landmarks and attractions if you happen to be short on time.
Below are a few guided Lecce tours that I’d recommend:
Spend Some Time in Piazza Sant’Oronzo
While Piazza del Duomo is Lecce’s most beautiful historic square, the large Piazza Sant’Oronzo is the real heart of the Italian city.
The central piazza is surrounded by shops, restaurants, and cafes, many of which have large terraces jutting out into the busy square. It’s the perfect spot for people-watching with a coffee and croissant each morning.
But it’s the evening when the square really comes into its element, with both locals and tourists heading to the vibrant piazza to meet friends for a pre-dinner aperitif or evening stroll.
Street performers fill the entire area with loud music and dancing, while street vendors serve up tasty Nutella crepes and excite children with illuminated balloons and other fun nick-nacks.
Other than its lively atmosphere, Piazza Sant’Oronzo is also a great place to experience Lecce’s long and fascinating history through the square’s many historical remains.
In the centre of the square, you’ll find a towering 29-metre-high Roman column topped with a statue of the city’s Patron Saint, Sant’Oronzo, after whom the piazza is named.
The column itself once marked the end of the Appian Way in Brindisi – an important Roman road that connected Rome to Puglia. It was gifted to Lecce in the 17th century.
The bronze statue of Sant’Oronzo can be seen blessing the town, which according to legend saved the people of Lecce from the great plague of 1656.
It’s also impossible to miss the well-preserved remains of Lecce’s 2,000-year-old Roman Ampitheatre. First discovered in 1901, around one-third of the excavated amphitheatre can be seen in the square today and is completely free to visit.
It’s believed that the ancient amphitheatre once held as many as 15,000 spectators and was used to host gladiator fights, games, theatrical shows, and more.
Walk Down Lively Via Salvatore Trinchese
Via Salvatore Trinchese is Lecce’s long and lively main street. It runs from Piazza Sant’Oronzo in the historic city center right out to the neighborhood of Mazzini in the east.
Along the busy street, you’ll find everything from small cafes and luxury pastry shops to Salento’s only McDonald’s and a handful of international clothing brands such as Zara, Bershka, and more.
It’s also home to Lecce’s two elegant theatres; Teatro Apollo and Teatro Politeama Greco.
The street remains busy throughout the day and evening and is a fun place for browsing the shops or simply taking an afternoon stroll.
Step Back in Time at Castello Carlo V
Lecce’s Castello Carlo V was first built in the Middle Ages, then strengthened by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1539.
The huge fortification is Puglia’s largest castle and has been used as a prison, court, and military barracks over the centuries.
One of the most famous legends linked with Lecce’s castle is that the family who owned it in the 14th century, the noble Orsini del Balzo family, kept a white bear in its moat.
The castle is now the headquarters of Lecce’s cultural authorities and plays host to shows, art exhibitions, and cultural events.
The historic interiors are sometimes open for visits and guided tours. However, it is currently undergoing a lot of renovation and is largely closed off to the public.
You can still take a walk around the impressive walls and through the main gate to see some areas of the castle.
Find Lecce’s Three Ancient City Gates
Much like the large castle, Lecce’s ancient walls were built by Emperor Charles V in the 16th century to strengthen the city’s defenses.
The defensive walls originally had four main gates allowing people to enter and exit the city. These were Porta Rudiae, Porta Napoli, Porta San Biagio, and Porta San Martino.
Unfortunately, Porta San Martino was demolished. But the other three gates still remain today and have been restored and maintained over the years.
- Porta Napoli – this large gate once marked the start of the road to Naples, making it the most important in the city. The gate itself was built in honour of Emperor Charles V and features his Habsburg imperial coat of arms. It’s simple in design but impressive in size.
- Porta Rudiae – this was the oldest of Lecce’s city gates, but after being almost completely destroyed in the 17th century, it was rebuilt in neoclassical style with some baroque details. The intricate facade now features a statue of Sant’Oronzo, patron of Lecce, alongside other protectors of the city; Sant’Irene and Sant’Domenico. The columns also have stone busts of the founders of Lecce. If you only have time to see one gate, this is the one to pick.
- Porta San Biagio – located on the southern edge of the city, this baroque-style gate is dedicated to Saint Biagio, an esteemed doctor and bishop from 4th-century Armenia, who according to local tradition was born in Lecce before moving to the east to heal the sick.
Visit one of Lecce’s Museums
With an eventful history dating back over 2,000 years, it’s no surprise that Lecce is packed with countless museums and galleries.
But not all of Lecce’s museums were born equal. Some are great and well worth the entry fee (or are even free). And some, not so much.
The museums in Lecce you should definitely visit:
- Museo Faggiano – this unique museum is located inside a former private home. In 2001, owner Mr. Luciano Faggiano needed to change his sewer pipes when he began discovering archaeological finds. After 7 years of excavations, over 5,000 artifacts from Lecce’s two millennia of history were discovered underneath the property. Many of these artifacts are on display in the museum today. The entrance costs €5 for adults.
- Museo Sigismondo Castromediano – this fantastic free-to-visit history and art museum is the oldest of its kind in Puglia. It tells the story of Lecce and the Salento peninsula through its many interesting exhibitions and archaeological finds. The collection includes fossils, ceramics, and statues dating back to Messapian and Roman times, while the art gallery houses many artworks from the 14th to 18th centuries. The museum is a little off the usual tourist path, so isn’t always stumbled upon by those who haven’t done their research – which is a shame, as it’s one of the best museums in the city… and – once again – it’s free!
Museums not worth visiting in Lecce (in my opinion):
- MUST – the ‘Museo Storico Città di Lecce‘ calls itself a historical museum, but from our experience, this is a little misleading. While they do have a small display upstairs dedicated to the history of Lecce, we found it to be very information heavy with few actual artifacts. However, the ground floor is home to a great little modern and contemporary art gallery. So if art is your thing, give it a go. Just don’t come for the history part. Tickets cost €5 for adults.
- Museo del Teatro Romano – housed inside a 17th-century palace, this small museum displays artifacts found during the excavation of the adjacent Roman theatre (not the amphitheater). If you’re particularly curious about Roman life in Lecce, there are a few interesting displays. But it’s definitely not the best museum in town. And if you just want to catch a glimpse of the small Roman theatre, you can walk around the back (here on via del Teatro Romano) and see it for free from the street. Tickets cost €3 per adult.
Relax by the Fountain in Piazza Giuseppe Mazzini
Piazza Giuseppe Mazzini is a large(ish) square in Lecce’s eastern neighbourhood of Mazzini.
Several shops and restaurants surround the square (including the ultra-intsgrammable Jérôme Chocolat), while the middle of the piazza is made up of a lovely park surrounding an unusual fountain.
The park is a peaceful place to enjoy a picnic or gelato in the sun while embracing the refreshing spray of the fountain on a hot day in Lecce.
Shop for Bargains at the Weekend Market
Each Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday from Spring to Autumn, you’ll find a small clothing and homeware market in Piazza Giuseppe Libertini, hidden on the eastern edge of Castello Carlo V.
While you shouldn’t expect anything too fancy, the all-day market is a good place to pick up some cheap clothes, accessories, kid’s toys, and other general novelty items from local traders.
Keep an eye out for the signs on Via Salvatore Trinchese that will tell you whether the market is running.
Where to eat in Lecce
Like all towns and cities in Puglia, Lecce certainly isn’t short on fantastic places to eat.
From traditional osterias to contemporary restaurants, charming cafes to sweet-smelling pastry shops, there are countless places to choose from. Which can make deciding where to eat in Lecce a little overwhelming.
After spending a week in the city on my most recent trip and trying to eat at as many different places as possible, I’ve narrowed down this list of the best of the best…
- Dall’Antiquario – this traditional osteria was a recommendation from our accommodation host and ended up being one of the best meals I’ve ever had in Puglia! Its quirky and eclectic decor features bikes hanging from walls, antique road signs, and even a classic coca cola machine, while the menu features home-cooked Salento-style cuisine. The meatballs with sauce are a must-order, as well as the seasonal veggies. But don’t forget to book in advance as the restaurant is extremely popular!
- La Cucina di Mamma Elvira – for something a little more upmarket, this contemporary tavern is one of Lecce’s top restaurants. It serves innovative and seasonal dishes based on the cuisine of Salento in an elegant and modern setting. The pasta was out of this world!
- Natale Pasticceria – a fantastic pastry shop on Lecce’s main street that’s famous for its pasticciotto (traditional Lecce pastry). There’s also a huge variety of other pastries and desserts, as well as deliciously rich and creamy gelato – pistachio is the most popular flavour.
Where to drink in Lecce
Lecce is also a city that’s known for its exciting nightlife.
There may not be any huge nightclubs, but most of the city’s bars remain open until the early hours and people flood the streets and piazzas to enjoy a glass of wine with friends.
Note: Most bars in Lecce have predominantly outdoor seating and standing areas, which is lovely during the summer but can get pretty chilly throughout the rest of the year. Bars are still open during the winter and people do still go out. But just make sure to wrap up well and be prepared to sit/stand outside.
- Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II – this lively square is a hub of nightlife in Lecce, with multiple restaurants and bars surrounding a large al fresco dining area. Verso Sud, Urban Cafè, and Alibi Creative Club are all fun places to enjoy a few drinks on the square.
- Quanto Basta – awarded the title of ‘Best Cocktail Bar in Italy’ by the BarAwards in 2015, this exciting spot is one of the most popular drinking holes in the city. If you’re a cocktail fan, you NEED to try one of the creative concoctions served here.
- Prohibition – an underground speakeasy bar with a fantastic cocktail menu, quirky decor, and a cool atmosphere. It’s also one of the few bars with a good amount of indoor seating.
Where to stay in Lecce
While it may be one of the largest cities in Puglia, Lecce is still relatively compact. So you can’t go too wrong no matter where you decide to stay.
My top recommendation would be to stay either right in the historic city center or in the neighbourhood of Mazzini.
Lecce Centro Storico
Staying in the historic center will put you right in the heart of the city, with all of the main landmarks and attractions within just a few minutes walk. You’ll also have plenty of great restaurants, cafes, and bars right on your doorstep.
The historic center is also conveniently located for taking public transport, with the train station located just a 10-15 minute walk away.
Best places to stay in Lecce’s historic center:
- Gatto Bianco La Dimora Storica – A small guest house with modern and spacious rooms right in the heart of the historic city center, with loads of restaurants and attractions right on the doorstep. Each room has aircon, a TV, a coffee machine, a mini-fridge, and a hairdryer.
Tip: The guest house often lowers its price on booking.com for last-minute bookings. We needed a room for our final night in Lecce and managed to nab this for just €50 for a night!
- Dimora San Giuseppe – set inside a historic noble house, this hotel offers beautiful and spacious rooms, elegantly decorated with antique furnishings and traditional Salento-style tiled floors. The deluxe suites even have their own private jacuzzi spa. The hotel also has a lovely rooftop terrace where you can enjoy breakfast each morning or a nightcap after a long day of exploring.
- Apartment Don Giuliano Centro – a beautiful and amazing value-for-money studio apartment with a fully equipped kitchenette and private bathroom, just minutes from Lecce’s top sites and attractions.
Mazzini is sat just to the east of the historic city center, around a 5-10 minute walk away. It’s a slightly quieter and more residential neighbourhood, so it’s a cool place to base yourself if you want to experience more of local Lecce life.
Mazzini is a particularly good option if you’re visiting Lecce on a Puglia road trip. The neighbourhood is located outside of the ZLT (limited traffic zone), so you’ll be able to drive right up to your hotel. It’s also easier to find accommodation with private parking.
BUT it’s slightly less convenient if you plan to use Lecce as a base and take day trips to other parts of the region by public transport. Mazzini is located on the opposite side of the city to the train station – it’s around a 25-30 minute walk each way.
Although, I wouldn’t let this put you off staying there completely. We stayed in Mazzini for a week on our recent trip and still took some day trips by train. I quite enjoyed the peaceful walk through the historic city center each morning, grabbing a coffee and croissant en route.
Best places to stay in Mazzini:
- Dimi House – a modern and stylish guest house just seconds from central Piazza Giuseppe Mazzini. The rooms are contemporary yet cosy, and a fantastic buffet breakfast of local Lecce delicacies is served in the dining room each morning.
- B&B 95 a Lecce – one of the most affordable options in Mazzini, this charming B&B is set inside a traditional Lecce home with spacious rooms, high ceilings, and colourful decor. You can choose from an ensuite, private external bathroom, or shared bathroom, depending on your budget. There’s also a budget-friendly family room with a double bed and two singles.
Where NOT to stay in Lecce
The only area of Lecce I wouldn’t recommend staying is right next to the train station. Lecce as a whole is a pleasant and safe city. But the area around the station can feel a little sketchy late at night (as with many cities). Avoid staying in this area if possible.
How to get to Lecce
Being one of Puglia’s biggest and most important cities (it has the second-highest population in the region after Bari), Lecce is one of the easiest destinations to reach by both car and public transport.
Travelling to Lecce by train
Lecce is located on the main Trenitalia train route which runs along the region’s east coast and connects many of the major towns and cities, including Bari and Brindisi, home to Puglia’s two international airports.
Lecce is also fairly well connected to some other smaller towns on the Salento peninsula, such as Otrano and Gallipoli, via Ferrovie del Sud Est‘s regional train network. However, trains on these routes only run a few times a day and can be rather slow, so you’ll need to plan your journeys accordingly.
Check out my detailed guide to travelling around Puglia without a car.
Below are the travel times and approx. ticket prices (when booked in advance) for travelling to Lecce from other major cities in Puglia by train…
Bari to Lecce – 1 hour 40 minutes / €7.90.
Ostuni to Lecce – 50 minutes / €6.10.
Brindisi to Lecce – 25 minutes / €3.10.
Find the quickest routes and book cheap train tickets in Puglia through Omio.
Travelling to Lecce by car
If you want to explore more of the Solento Peninsula and the beautiful coastline around Lecce, hiring a car is your best bet. Puglia in general is a region which is most easily navigated by road as public transport is somewhat limited.
Find the best and most affordable car rental companies in Puglia here.
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