Trying to decide the best places to visit in Puglia? Paolo Maragliulo, an experienced local guide based in Lecce and Matera, shares some ideas with the readers of More Time To Travel.
You’ve already chosen a spectacular region to explore!
Located in Southern Italy in the heel of the boot, Puglia was largely undiscovered until the last 15 years. While it is best known for its stunning coastline, baroque architecture, and bucolic villages, it’s also a place of ancient traditions carried on today, welcoming people, and of course the cibo – our food, distinct from anything else you’ll find in Italy.
It is extremely hard to name only seven best places to visit in Puglia because there are so many wonderful towns and villages. Ma proviamoci, let’s try!
Before we get into them, I want to share a few tips and recommendations for a visit here.
Some Practical Tips
The Best Way To Get Around in Puglia
To get the most out of Puglia you should really rent a car. This is still southern Italy, so remember that public transport can be unreliable and lots of places are poorly connected. If you choose to go by bus and train, make sure you pack some patience – it will certainly be an adventure!
The Best Time of Year to Visit Puglia
The best time to visit is late spring/early summer or after the second week of September. By late spring, it’s warm enough to swim and you can trade-in your pants for shorts. You’ll be here before the worst of the heat and the chaos of the summer crowds.
Puglia can become stiflingly hot in July and August and Italians, as well as foreigners, take their vacations this time of year. Big bus tours and day-trippers from cruise ships are also now commonplace.
In late September the weather is still excellent, the crowds will have largely departed, and the bambini (kids) are back at school so no more family holidays.
Now, let’s have a look at the best towns to visit!
Best Places to Visit in Puglia
In the southern part of Puglia, in a peninsula called Salento, you’ll find a real gem. Simply walking around and admiring its beautiful center is enough to recommend a visit, but what makes Lecce such a charming place is the atmosphere and its people.
Lecce has only 100,000 inhabitants and that means that you won’t feel the stress and the traffic of a bigger place. The city’s baroque and rococo architecture, pedestrianized center, elegant avenues, and countless squares make it a wonderful city to visit leisurely.
Local people love to stroll around and sit outdoors in any of the city’s myriad cafes, pastry shops, gelaterias, or open-air bistros. In the early evening, you might feel as if every resident is outside somewhere having a pre-dinner Aperol Spritz. You should too! If you fancy a casual, but very informative tasting of Puglia wines, a visit to local sommelier Enrico’s stylish enoteca Crianza is a must.
Be sure to catch a glimpse of the lovely historical gates to the city, Porta Rudiae, Porta San Biaggio, and Porta Napoli as well as the beautifully renovated Basilica di Santa Croce and the stunning Duomo.
Lecce also makes an ideal base from which to visit the nearby coastal towns of Otranto and Gallipoli. If you have a car, the best way to visit both is a drive from Lecce through Gallipoli before hitting the coast road SP 308 at Santa Maria di Leuca, where the Ionian and Adriatic seas meet. The route hugs the cliffs for 60 km and affords sea views the entire way to Otranto. It is one of Italy’s most beautiful drives.
Otranto is a historic port in the Salento region that is most famously the site of a massacre of 800 Christian martyrs at the hands of Ottoman invaders during the 15th century.
Today, it’s a lovely little town with a festive summer atmosphere, good beaches, and a gorgeous Cathedral housing a marvelous floor mosaic from the 1100s. Don’t make the same mistake as most – note that the church only opens after 3 pm so be sure to visit in the afternoon.
If you find yourself here at lunchtime, a good option is L’altro baffo where seafood, no surprise, is the specialty. If you’re willing to trade culinary excellence for a sea view, I Villani D’Aragona sits directly on the water.
Many of the beaches in this part of Salento are rocky or paved jetties, but just a few minutes from Otranto you have sandy Torre dell’Orso beach. Relaxing in the sand is the perfect way to unwind after a day of exploring. And for anyone traveling with children, there are lots of options for watersport activities and rentals right on the beach.
While Matera isn’t technically in Puglia, it is located only a few miles over the border into neighboring Basilicata and every visit to Puglia should include a stop here.
Driving to Matera you will see the landscape change and move from the sea to olive orchards, then to wide extensions of durum wheat fields before suddenly, like a slash in the earth, a majestic canyon appears with a city on its edge.
Matera is an experience; a jump back into time with thousands of years of history made by people that managed to carve the rocky side of this canyon into nearly 5,000 caves used for living well into the 1950s.
If you are more a slow traveler than just a tourist you won’t miss the opportunity to live the experience at its best by choosing one of the many cave hotels as your base. While in town, you’ll have the chance to discover Matera’s stunning treasures, as well as the canyon and the practically untouched rocky dwellings, cut into its side.
The cave dwellings, or Sassi as we call them, are Matera’s main draw. However, the whole city is magical and you will love simply meandering through its streets. Matera is full of staircases, alleyways, lovely churches, and lookout points, and wandering around with no particular direction is one of its biggest charms. At dawn and dusk, the light cast over the Sassi and the deep ravine feel out of a fairytale.
The most famous of Matera’s architectural wonders are two fresco-adorned rupestrian churches, Chiesa di Santa Maria di Idris and Chiesa di Santa Lucia alla Malve from the 12th and 13th centuries. They are unmistakable from anywhere in town and should be one of your first stops. However, to avoid the crowds and have a more unique experience, I recommend a visit to the Cripta del Peccato Originale. The church, from the 8th century, was carved out of the side of a cliff overlooking a gulley and has stunning frescoes.
The fertile core of Puglia is a valley called the Valle D’Itria where the soil is deep red and the little fields are enclosed by perfectly stacked stone walls. It’s the land of the “trulli,” the canonical stone roofed houses most well-known in nearby Alberobello.
This is definitely the most famous part of Puglia with Alberobello the star attraction. However, while Alberobello is a cute town and worth a short visit, it has become extremely touristy over the years so I wouldn’t recommend staying for long. The countryside between Alberobello and Ostuni has countless Trulli houses dotting the hillsides and a more authentic environment.
Instead of Alberobello, plan to spend more time in Cisternino along with Ostuni, Martina Franca, and Locorotondo. Each of these villages has its own charm, but Cisternino, where the typical whitewashed walls are enhanced by elegant rococo decorations, stands out.
Cisternino’s centro storico was elected one of the most charming borghi or neighborhoods of Italy. While here, be sure to visit the Chiesa Matrice and Torre Civica before a walk down Via Basilioni to Vittorio Emanuele square.
The town is famous for butcher shops which offer the option of purchasing your meat and having it cooked on the spot in a fornello, a special wood-fired oven that uses a technique borrowed from the Arabs. For anyone feeling daring, gnumnarid is extremely typical and is lung, heart, or liver usually of a goat or sheep that is wrapped with the intestine and then grilled. It’s an adventure! A good and traditional place to try these local specialties is Bére Vecchia.
Whitewashed Ostuni, rising out of a plain and perched atop a hill overlooking the Adriatic, is a mesmerizing sight. Also known as the white city, it’s just a few miles from Cisternino, but the land changes dramatically between them. Rolling hills give way to a flat plain as you approach the sea. Visible from all directions and surrounded by thousand-year-old olive groves, Ostuni is unmissable.
The city is often used as a base to explore the entire peninsula because of its proximity to both the sea and many lovely villages, as well as its strategic location half-way between the two major airports. Ostuni was built in the Middle Ages and has become very trendy due to its whitewashed buildings with colorful green and blue doors.
At the very top of the hill in the old quarter, you’ll find an exquisitely ornate cathedral with Romanesque and Gothic decorations. As you wind your way up to the Cathedral from Piazza della Libertá, be sure to make time to wander down the many alleyways that connect off the main street. One of the best gelato’s that you’ll find in Puglia is right in the centro storico at Cremeria La Scala where everything is produced in-house with fresh local ingredients.
No trip to Puglia would be complete without a few days relaxing by the seaside. You should plan to spend a few days around Monopoli which is in the Savelletri area. This part of Puglia is famous for sandy beaches, silky waters, and Masseria-style accommodation, which are fortified farmhouses from the 1800’s that have been stylishly renovated and turned into hotels.
You’ll find that most are midrange or luxury and they often have fabulous restaurants and the option of half-board bookings where your dinner is included in the price. Many have their own little gardens and farms and the food is often produced on-site. I would recommend that you stay outside of town so that you can enjoy the rural environment and easy access to great beaches.
Monopoli was traditionally a fishing village and is now a nice sized town with a lively atmosphere. It has a cute little port, a lovely promenade, and a pleasant center. The Cathedral is beautiful and you can also visit the Grotto Churches which house exquisite frescoes. It’s a good place for anyone who wants a little bit of nightlife without being overly party-oriented.
For dining, fresh seafood is always your best option and the ricci (sea urchins) are a particular delicacy when in season. If you’re happy with something very casual (think plastic tables in the sand right on the water), make sure to visit Il Principe del Mare where the fishermen will clean the urchin in front of you and serve you a heaping portion at a price you won’t believe.
Polignano a Mare
Polignano juts into the sea on a rocky promontory above a bay whose cliffs are full of caves. There are no major sites in town, but it’s charming and atmospheric. The houses are built directly into the cliff face and look as if they’re about to fall into the sea.
Every year Red Bull sponsors a cliff diving contest where you will find residents and visitors alike diving from walls, out of house windows, and off of bridges. If you’re crazy enough you join them -don’t worry it’s only 100 feet!
If you want to go for a boat ride, there are many agencies offering everything from speedboats to catamarans and short tours to overnight sailing trips. You should also stop at a caffè for a Speciale which is an espresso with cream and lemon zest. It is unique to Polignano and you won’t find it anywhere else.
While you’re in the area, just outside of town a great spot for seafood dinner is La Locanda di Felisiano. It can be a bit hard to find, but the food is excellent, the price fair, and the atmosphere welcoming and festive. You can order shared small plates of seafood to start and anything from an unusual pasta with pesto and mussels to whole grilled fish for mains. The owner, Felice, will be able to recommend fabulous local wines to pair with your meal. It’s the perfect way to end a day in Polignano.
**This article is a sponsored post written by Paolo Maragliulo, a local guide based in Lecce and Matera. He offers Zoom trip planning consultations and guided tours at Go Ask A Local.
If you use the code MORETIME when you book a tour or consultation with Paolo, you will receive a $15 discount on your booking and we will receive a small commission.
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