Guide to Visiting Puglia

Puglia is different from the Italy that most people typically visit.  You won’t find the grandeur of the Colosseum in Rome, the rich art history of Florence or the romance of the canals in Venice.  But what you will find are the natural forests and coastlines of the Gargano peninsula in the north, whitewashed hill towns and fertile planes in the central Valle d’Itria and the southernmost Salento area with its beautiful baroque architecture and some of Italy’s most desirable beaches.  Despite this, Italy’s so-called boot heel region has somehow managed to remain largely under the radar to most foreign tourists.

Life seems to slow down here and for good reason.  Long hot summer days and a temperate climate throughout the year make the land ripe for the agricultural bounty it produces and a magnet for sun-loving Italians.  Steeped in history, tradition, natural beauty and an abundance of fresh food, Puglia is authentic Italy at its finest.   After the events of 2020 brought the world to a stand-still (and forced me to postpone my travel plans by a year), Puglia was the perfect window back into the world.  Read on for an overview of highlights and basics for visiting the region to perhaps inspire you to seek out another side of Italy.

Getting There and Around
Puglia has 2 main airports that are served by a handful of airlines that offer direct flights from many European cities, Bari Karol Wojtyła Airport (BRI) in the north and the Brindisi Papola Casale Airport (BDS) in the south.  Both are great gateways to the region and give you options to choose from depending on where you plan to spend your time.  While there are train and bus connections between other parts of Italy, the best way to experience Puglia is by car since public transportation doesn’t go everywhere.  Having a car allows you to reach cities, beaches and other off the beaten path places on your own schedule, and driving in Italy is not as intimidating as you may think.

Driving is both scenic and the best way to get around in Puglia

Roundabouts are everywhere so you’ll want to get comfortable with how to navigate them, and it’s also a good idea to have a general familiarity with the meaning of street signs, especially those that tell you where you can (and can’t) park.  In Italy, white lines indicate free parking whereas blue lines indicate paid parking with meters nearby.  Pubic parking lots fill up quickly, especially during high season, and are not necessarily the easiest to exit when they are packed full of cars.  One thing we learned early was to avoid these all together and look for street parking a little further out.  Not only will this save you time and hassle but many cities have designated their historic centers as a zona traffico limitato or ZTL, which means traffic is restricted unless you have a special pass.  These areas are monitored by video surveillance and violators will be subject to a fine.  The good news is that most cities and towns in Puglia are fairly compact and walkable so parking on the outskirts is definitely manageable.

What to See and Do
One of the best things about Puglia is that the region offers a vast and varied landscape and the biggest challenge for visitors may be in deciding where to spend their time.  You’ll find an abundance of picturesque cities both large and small, from coastal spots like Bari, Polignano a Mare, Monopoli and Brindisi, the latter which marked the end of the ancient Appian Way trading route from Rome.

Monopoli (top), Polignano a Mare (bottom left) and Brindisi (bottom right)

The central inland Valle d’Itria is distinguished by fertile land that surrounds charming whitewashed hill towns like Ostuni, Locorotondo, Martina Franca, Cisternino and Ceglie Messapica among others, each with a maze-like centro storico that’s perfect for exploring, adorable doors and sun-dried laundry hanging from balconies.  These towns generally have a church or two (or more), a handful of shops selling the region’s trademark ceramics and quite streets that become alive at night with the evening passeggiata before locals and tourists alike settle into restaurants to enjoy delicious food and drink specialties.

The lovely town of Locorotondo in the Valle d’Itria

Another notable town in the Valle d’Itria is Alberobello, a UNESCO World Heritage Site distinguished by its unique conical houses called trulli.  These limestone structures fit for a community of gnomes date back to the 14th century and were built with dry-stone construction so that they could be easily disassembled to avoid paying taxes.  The trulli are divided into 2 different zones, the more popular Rione Monti on the southern side of town with more than 1,000 trulli (most of which are teeming with tourists and souvenir shops) and the Rione Aia Piccola on the eastern side with about 400 pleasant and less commercialized trulli.

Trulli houses in Alberobello

Further south in the Salento area of Puglia you’ll find architectural gems like Gallipoli, Otranto and most notably Lecce (the Florence of the south) with its overly ornate Basilica di Santa Croce and distinctive style of baroque architecture fittingly dubbed Barocco Leccese.

Basilica di Santa Croce in Lecce

Outdoor lovers should visit the natural forests, wetlands and beaches of the Parco Nazionale del Gargano in the northern part of Puglia near Foggia.  You’ll also find companies that offer a range of activities like bike tours and sea kayaking.  And with more than 800 kilometers of coastline, there’s certainly no shortage of beautiful beaches in Puglia.  There are way too many to list but some of the most picturesque ones include the Lama Monachile in Polignano a Mare, Grotta della Poesia and Torre Sant’Andrea between Lecce and Otranto, Spiaggia di Pescoluse (aka the Maldives of Salento) on the southernmost tip of the region, Spiaggia di Vignanotica near Vieste in the north and MANY more.  While these popular beaches (and their parking areas) tend to get crowed fast, especially during the height of the summer tourist season, it’s best to arrive early to claim your spot or seek out smaller beaches nearby instead.

Grotta della Poesia in the Salento peninsula

You can read more about the specific places we visited during our week in Puglia here.

Where to Eat and Drink
Eating locally and seasonally is easy to do in Puglia thanks to the region’s fertile soil, temperate climate and lots of sunshine, resulting in an agricultural abundance.  Rather than focusing on where to eat specifically, here are some highlights of the culinary delights typical of the region that you should be sure to try.  You also can read more about the places we ate and drank in Puglia here.

If Puglia had a pasta mascot it would be orecchiette.  These little ear-shaped pasta can be found on nearly every menu and you can even see them being handmade by women on the streets of Bari’s historic center.  The most classic Pugliese preparation is alle cime di rapa (with broccoli rabe or turnip greens) depending on the season, but you’ll also find other variations like orecchiette al pomodoro.  Besides fresh pasta and of course lots and lots of pizza, we also enjoyed other dishes like parmigiana di melanzane (eggplant parmesan) and fave e cicoria (fava bean puree with chicory greens).

Orecchiette pomodoro e cacio

Puglia is nothing short of a cheese lover’s paradise.  Yes, lots and lots of cheese, from stracciatella (stringy pieces of mozzarella mixed with cream) to burrata (stracciatella encased in a ball of mozzarella) and caciocavallo, which despite its name has little to do with a horse.  Rather, it’s a slightly soft and salty cheese that’s tied with a rope and hung to age, resembling a saddlebag slung on the side of a horse.  I will say from personal experience that the generally mild caciocavallo cheese pairs nicely with Martina Franca’s signature dry cured pork capicola.

Burrata, caciocavallo and capicola, oh my!

The bread in Puglia is also worth mentioning, especially the region’s DOP Pane di Altamura that’s made from drum wheat and had a crunchy crust with a soft and chewy inside.  I found that bread in general was surprisingly good in Puglia compared to the salt-less bread that’s typical of the Tuscan region (plus it’s perfect for scooping up the last of the delicious pasta sauce from your plate).  So too were other bread-based products like focaccia and tarralli.  The latter are crunchy little bread rings (sort of like a round breadstick) that can be found in both savory and sweet flavors and are best enjoyed with a cocktail during apertivo or dunked in wine.

Aperitivo hour with tarralli

Coffee culture is alive and well in the south of Italy.  If you’re looking to branch out beyond the traditional caffè or cappuccino, one option is caffè leccese (espresso and sweet almond milk served over ice, sometimes also called caffè salentino), which I found to be a bit too sweet but is cool and refreshing, especially during the warm summer months.  And speaking of sweets, while there is no shortage of gelato shops throughout Puglia, one treat that’s particularly popular in Lecce is pasticciotti.  Different variations exist around Italy, but in Puglia these pastry tartlets most commonly have a custard cream filling but can also be found with chocolate, nut or fruit-based fillings, and are sometimes served warm.

Breakfast with caffè leccese, pasticciotti and other local treats

From wine to olive oil and pretty much everything in between, you’d be hard pressed to find something that wasn’t wonderfully delicious in Puglia.  You can read more about the specific places where we ate and drank in Puglia here/coming soon!

Where to Stay
Perhaps more challenging than deciding where to spend our time in Puglia was where to stay.  It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the seemingly endless search results for adorable B&Bs and utterly idyllic masserie (former farmhouse estates that are popular throughout Puglia), each more charming than the one before.  With that, we managed to narrow our selection down to 2 places so that we could experience different sides of the region.

For the first part of our trip we made the Masseria Cervarolo our home away from home.  Located just outside of Ostuni in the heart of the Valle d’Itria, the masseria is in a more rural area but is within easy driving distance to explore many nearby towns.  Its gorgeous property is anchored by a large white stone building with trulli that’s like something out of anyone’s best-crafted Apulian dream (see the first photo at the top of this article).  An immaculately manicured lawn explodes with olive, fig and pomegranate trees, colorful bougainvillea, prickly fichi d’india and a plethora of succulents, cacti and other potted plants thoughtfully placed throughout the property.  After our long flight and drive from Rome it truly was paradise found.  There’s also a chapel, wellness room and an open-air restaurant where guests can dine on a fixed-price tasting menu of local specialties each night.  And perhaps most importantly, the masseria’s natural sinkhole pool proved to be the perfect place to relax and escape the mid-day heat.

Masseria Cervarolo near Ostuni

We stayed in a Standard Room with stone walls and high vaulted ceilings that were contrasted with warm furnishings.  The room had more than enough space and offered us every comfort we could have wanted and then some.   During our stay, hotels were unable to serve traditional buffet breakfasts due to Italy’s current COVID restrictions but the masseria adapted by setting up a beautiful display of baked goods, cheeses (stracchietella!), meats, eggs, fruits, cereal and yogurt behind a plexiglass barrier.  Guests pointed at their selection, which was happily plated and served along with fresh juices and coffee.  All of the staff that we encountered were warm, friendly and happy to help.  The Masseria Cervarolo was truly one of the most wonderful places I’ve stayed, ever, and needless to say we were sad to leave.

Later in our trip we stayed at Torre del Parco just outside of Lecce’s historic center.  This former medieval fortress turned mint turned prison is now a hotel and event space that oozes with historic charm.  Dating back to 1419, the stony property was once surrounded by a moat and even home to a family of bears!  Random tidbits like made it fun to explore, from the trademark tower to its lush gardens overflowing with flowers, palms and other plants and trees where breakfast is served.  We stayed in room Q, which was moderate in size but perfectly comfortable and featured a spacious bathroom and small patio overlooking the garden.

I would be remiss if I didn’t spend time describing the breakfast experience at Torre del Parco.  At check in we were given a card featuring several themed menus to choose from and return before turning in for the night.  For our first breakfast we fittingly chose the Salentino menu to share, adding a few additional à la carte items to round out our selection.  We were the first and only people to arrive at breakfast the next morning and were welcomed with a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice followed by a fanfare of beautiful pastries, cheeses and fruit – an entire platter of fresh figs, pineapple, nectarines and passion fruit – that made their procession plate by plate to our table.  It was a sort of elegant exuberance fit for a prince (or something reminiscent of the “Be Our Guest” scene from the animated Disney movie Beauty and the Beast).  This plus the more modest addition of cereal, yogurt and of course caffè leccese made it so that we would more than likely be skipping lunch.  The following day our selection was definitely smaller but nonetheless impressive.

Breakfast at Torre del Parco

What I loved most about Torre del Parco (besides the breakfast) was that it felt like an urban oasis, one capable of transporting you back in time, yet is a quick 10-minute walk to the center of Lecce.  There was also plenty of metered street parking nearby, as well as a fixed-rate parking lot behind the hotel, making it easy to come and go as we pleased.

Also Good to Know
Some of my biggest learnings and tips for visiting Puglia are about getting around by car (see above).  It’s also helpful to learn a bit of the language as English is not as automatic as you may experience in larger cities around Italy.  Also, if you visit in the summer be prepared for the heat and crowds that come with the season, and plan to start your days earlier to avoid the worst of both (especially if you want to find a place to park your car or beach towel).

Ciao Puglia

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