Updated: 27th July 2019
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There are countless reasons Italy has become my favourite country to travel, and the diversity between the North and South is the prime one. Puglia, sitting in the ‘heel’ of Italy’s boot feels a world away from the famous tourist city’s such as Rome, Milan or Venice, and provides an entirely different holiday destination to the North of the country.
It’s more than just geography that provides a change of scenery; historical and economic differences are defined, from the food (olive oil v’s butter) to the architecture. Italy is one of the most visited countries in the world, but somewhat surprisingly the North still takes the bulk of the share of tourists.
But if you are looking for what many would call a more ‘authentic’ Italian experience, then you can’t go wrong with Puglia. With more and more international flights to Bari and Brindisi airports cropping up, it has also never been easier to visit.
As a visitor, this dazzling region of Italy could keep you entertained for weeks, if not months, with a seemingly never-ending list of things to do in Puglia.
Gentle cerulean waters lap at rocky beaches and contrast with dramatic rocky coastlines crowned with lighthouses. Grandmas hand-cut orecchiette pasta on squares in Bari, and Buratta, an extra creamy type of Mozzarella, hails from the region.
Olive tree-filled valleys littered with UNESCO listed conical white buildings are broken up by white-washed towns lifted straight from a postcard. In the Foggia mountains, a slower pace of life takes place in hill-top towns where locals meet on squares to share stories and coffee.
Puglia as a region offers something for everyone; and if you are like me, you’ll want to try everything it offers!
Here is a list of must-visit places in Puglia, and the top things to do in Puglia to help you plan your trip, tried and tested by yours truly.
Polignano a Mare
If you are thinking of Puglia, or indeed the south-coast of Italy, then rocky cliffs with white-washed houses perched over cyan waters might be the image that comes to mind.
If it is, then you’d be thinking of Polignano a Mare, the poster-child for this region and coastline. In fact, if you have seen the (rather expensive) grotto-like restaurant built into the cliff on Instagram, then that is indeed here.
Polignano a Mare is rightly one of the most famous destinations in Puglia. The main beach might be crowded in the summer months, but when I also visited in March, it was basically empty. The main draw, of course, is these viewpoints, which are best enjoyed with a Spritz if you ask me. There are plenty of dramatic spots to take in Polignano a Mare from, but perhaps the best is on the rocky outpost just beyond the town proper.
Inside the town which is often missed on the striking coastal photographs, is a maze of white-washed streets behind the main walls. Gelato parlours are decorated with colourful flower pots, and squares offering alfresco dining dish out Puglian specialities. A train connects Polignano a Mare to Bari Airport, which also makes it one of the most accessible towns to visit on your Puglia trip.
Inscribed on the UNESCO world heritage list, Alberobello is another famous town to visit in Puglia.
I’ve been here in winter and summer, and it was just as busy both times, so I highly recommend spending at least one night here so you can rise early. Not only are the historic streets quieter, but the gorgeous golden light on the white-washed round homes truly brings them to life.
The Trulli houses, Trullo for plural, can be found all across Puglia, with their conical roofs and white-washed exteriors, although many also still have their stonework displayed and have not been painted.
With the highest concentrated density of Trullo in the region, Alberobello is a sure-fire bet to see them though, and the towns many tourist facilities, restaurants and visiting tour buses are a testament to that.
The Trulli part of the town is surrounded by a more modern, contemporary setting of typical shops and restaurants. In the historic centre, you can see a split between the more touristed side, where little shops and restaurants live in most the Trulli, and across where they are more residential.
It’s incredible to think these low ceiling buildings are actual homes, and there are some you can venture in to see the set-up of how they were traditionally lived in. There are a few stories about why the Trulli became so popular, and the tax one due to not being permanent structures seems the most likely to me.
Linking together Albebello with some of the other top places to visit in Puglia, such as Locorotondo and Martina Franca, is the Itria Valley.
Embracing the natural beauty of this inland valley is the name of the game here; whether through hiking, or taking a bike with Puglia cycling tours.
A Karstic depression, rather than a valley proper, this stunning area is awash with vines and olive trees, with Trulli houses dotted throughout it.
If you are looking for the quintessential Puglian sleeping place, then you can actually book into more modern and upgraded conical style Trulli accommodation here in the valley. Many of these are set amongst ancient Olive Trees and with swimming pools to escape the summer heat.
Sant’Agata di Puglia
While the coastline and Trulli homes are rightly celebrated on most must-visit Puglia lists, head to the hills and mountains of the region for a completely different experience.
One of those towns which just takes you back in time, Sant’Agata di Puglia is a few hours drive from Bari, but you’ll feel transported not to just a different setting, but a different time.
In the Foggia province, popular for slow-travel and agritourism, you’ll find yourself in the hills and mountains, often with views to neighbouring regions of Italy. To the Apennines, these medieval villages provided strong visual outposts, and most have a castle or fortress sitting at their highest point.
Towns such as Sant’Agata di Puglia aren’t the kind of places you come to tick off a long list of must-visit attractions, but rather to relax into an authentic pace of life.
On the square, bordered by a few cafes, locals sit on benches and plastic chairs drinking espressos or beers and catching up. Small restaurants serve up traditional Cucina Povera, the peasant food of Southern Italy; an unfortunate name for such delicious cuisine, which may be simple in ingredients but not taste. Behind closed doors of the town, of which young and passionate archaeological staff hold the keys, old watermills and ancient underground wine cellars hide.
Another hill town in the Foggia province, Bovina is a second must-visit place in Puglia’s hills.
From the top of the Norman castle, you can see rolling hills of farmland, broken by the wooded areas of the Daunian Mountains. I learnt in Italy there is an official society for the ‘Most beautiful villages of Italy’ and Bovino is proudly on that list.
Even in the late weeks of June, this town was quiet and felt very different from Bari where we had spent the night before.
Knocking on a local door, we enquire to use the bathroom and are greeted by a broad smile and a look at the traditional crochet stitching going on in the living room. A large trophy for this ladies work sat in pride of place on the mantle.
San Pietro Church is adorned by detailed artwork, and throughout the 2000-years plus historical centre, you’ll be lost in small streets and back alleys, occasionally stumbling upon a tiny cafe or restaurants with a handful of outside seats.
The ‘white city’ of Puglia, Ostuni gracefully grows up from its prime position slightly inland from the coast, and the drive towards the white-washed exterior gives you some stunning viewpoints to admire it from.
Given the location of Ostuni and the number of things to do here, it would make quite an excellent base for exploring Puglia from if you don’t want to stay on the coast.
The historical centre is dreamy, a running theme in Puglia, and you’ll be blown away the second you step through an old medieval gate into the centre. A mix of Gothic, Byzantine and Roman elements are combined in the Cathedral, while the labyrinth of alleyways brings never-ending photo opportunities.
You’ll quickly realise in Puglia that the number one thing is to wander aimlessly. Each corner and new street bring more delicious views, or delicious gelato and Ostuni and Locorotondo are perhaps the two places this is most true.
When Janet and I were picking up our rental car in Brindisi Airport, I saw an image of this blissful looking craggy bathing spot on the back wall of the hire office. I made Janet promise me there and then we would find time to drive there, she didn’t need much convincing.
Given it was a large print in the airport, I don’t know why I had it in my head we would be stumbling upon a hidden gem as we arrived at Torre ‘ Sant’Andrea a few days later, but clearly, I’d got stuck on the wrong idea.
This spot is stunning, and on a late afternoon in June, everyone in Puglia seemed to agree with me. The car park was over-flowing, and the yellow-hued rugged rocks were crowded with locals cliff jumping into the sparkling and refreshing waters below. Even with a mass of visitors, it is still a super attractive place, and one well worth stopping off at between Otranto and Lecce, but perhaps try and visit earlier, or later, in the day.
Most visitors to Puglia tend not to visit the south-west part of the heel, and we were also guilty of this. So while I haven’t visit Gallipoli myself, I’ve heard a few people say ‘skip it, tourist trap’ but far more crying out we were crazy for not including it on our road trip.
Either way, it’s on my list for when I return.
The historic part of the city actually sits on a kind of island, jutting out from the mainland, and with some still looking sheltered bays for bathing, white-washed walls, and your common cathedrals, churches and castles that are found throughout Puglia, it has all the main ingredients of a Puglian town. Can’t say much more than that firsthand, but will add an update after my next visit.
We had no intention of stopping here during my first road trip in Puglia last November, but I was in desperate need of a toilet break.
The hunt for a bathroom quickly turned into a maze-like operation, getting lost in the labyrinth of white streets that were strangely deserted in November, and I mean empty, we didn’t see a single soul for around an hour.
On the main square, which is flanked by a towering Cathedral and has a curved portico style area, we enjoyed one of the best lunches of the trip, simple and delicious and washed down with plenty of wine for the non-designated drivers.
Martina Franca is a short drive from Alberobello but had very few tourists, at least on the day I visited, which places it firmly on the Italy hidden gems list. In summer it hosts an opera festival which sees its visitor numbers grow.
The town used to be completely walled off, and the large squares, little restaurants and spotless setting make this an ideal lunch stop if nothing else. While here be sure to sample Capocollo, one of the best cured meats in Italy. In fact, most of Puglia’s most celebrated cured offerings come from Martina Franca.
On first glance at the photos on Google, Otranto might seem like any other Puglian coastal town: with perfect coloured waters and plenty of white-washed buildings.
Otranto however, has quite a few surprises to enjoy. We started our day by jumping on a Piaggio Ape, a three-wheeler similar to a tuk-tuk or auto-rickshaw, and heading to the most easterly point of mainland Italy, a short drive from Otranto centre.
Walking along the windswept coast, with wild herbs at our feet in the national park, we arrived at the Punta Palascia Lighthouse, where strong waves were battering the unique rock formations and caves along the coastline.
On the return to the city, we stopped at the Laghetto Cave di Bauxite, where bright red soil, which reminded me of the red-centre in Australia, surrounded the human-made lake, now home to turtles and where birds come to drink. Once a quarry, but then abandoned, it’s new purposes as a nature park is far more appealing.
Inside Otranto, beyond the bathing opportunities and the massive castle complex, the Otranto Cathedral is well worth a visit, even if you are feeling a bit over Cathedrals. The floor is laid out with incredible mosaics depicting heaven and hell, and in the back Chapel sits the bones of Christian martyrs who passed away here. The history and mosaics are worth learning more about inside.
Often called the Florence of the South, due to the Baroque buildings that garnish the city, Lecce is a spot you’ll want to spend at least a night.
Coffee culture is strong here, with a particular focus on almond milk iced coffee, and there are plenty of cool bars for both coffee, and cocktails, as well as an abundance of fantastic restaurants on little streets, and central squares with live music.
With bell towers sprouting out of cathedrals, and a Roman amphitheatre, Lecce brings it with the architecture too. Some of the buildings are so old and constructed with such fine sandstone, there are places you can rub the walls, and they basically crumble, so try not to do that! We even saw part of windowsill fall while we were there, but happily heard that isn’t a common occurrence — a stunning city and a must-visit in Puglia.
If you are looking for things to do in Puglia, then a date with Locorotondo is a must!
I’ll admit, when we finally parked up (parking not always being the easiest in Puglia) I was a bit dubious about Locorotondo, as the modern part of the town isn’t anything special. Take the short walk up the hill through to the old town, and you’ll be transported to a magical maze of white streets, decorated with hanging flower baskets and outside restaurant tables.
I’m not really sure why Locorotondon became one of my favourite places in Puglia, but I absolutely fell in love with it. The coffee gave more of a kick here, the gelato felt sweeter here, and every time I turned a corner, my camera would start working overtime again. The name of the town comes from the circular shape it was built in, although this isn’t obvious from ground level. Be sure to add Locorotondo to your things to do in Puglia list!
Gargano National Park
This vast national park, over 120,000 hectares, is another place I simply haven’t had time yet to visit on my three trips to Puglia.
Jutting out into the east-coast above Bari, and across from Foggia, this protected area is packed with unique flora and fauna, and the white cliffs and caves along the coast make the perfect compliment.
If you love hiking and nature on your holidays, then be sure to include Gargano on your Puglia plans. You can hike or cycle through the remains of the historic Umbra Forest, or hit up the Tremiti Islands in the marine reserve to admire the caves. It looks a spectacular slice of nature, and I’m looking forward to returning to Puglia and finally making it here.
Another unplanned stop on my first Puglia road trip, mainly because I found a really grand looking hotel room last minute, and the prices were more favourable than staying in Alberobello.
Massafra is a small town, slightly raised up and most known for its castle and aqueduct. There isn’t a whole heap to do here, but we did enjoy a criminally cheap meal here, It was less than €10 a head for three courses, wine, water and coffee, and lapped up the local vibes.
Nannas shouted out of windows, card-games were underway in cafes, and there were very few tourists around. If you want to slip into a town that feels off the tourist path, Massafra is a gem.
Pasta making in an old windmill (and all the food!)
You can’t write a list of the top things to do in Puglia, without considering the food.
As I’ve said, the cuisine of the region has historically been made of simple ingredients, but truly delicious. This was due to the south of Italy having not just less money, but also one of the most apparent differences; the abundance of Olive Trees to make oil with, while the North of Italy would rely more on butter.
It’s also an excellent place for Vegetarians and Vegans due to this, as oil is still most commonly used. Cheeses such as Buratta, a mozzarella style ball packed with cream, is everywhere and should be eaten at least once a day during your holiday if you ask me – not official diet advice at all ahha. Puccia, a type of sandwich based around pizza dough, is another must to eat in Puglia, as well as the orecchiette, ear-shaped pasta the region is famed for.
One of the most interesting foodie experiences I had in Puglia was in Foggia, between my visits to Bovino and Sant Agata’ di Puglia.
In an old watermill, dating back to the 1600s, which looked slightly in disrepair from outside, but fully working inside, the grain to make the pasta is still ground by the power of water and hard work.
Olga and Massimo guided us through how to cut and roll the pasta to make the ear shapes most known in the region, and while I’ll undoubtedly win no awards for my contributions to pasta making, the delicious lunch they served us afterwards was thankfully not made by me!
You can contact them on firstname.lastname@example.org or call 3278223255 / 3356148912.
We didn’t spend much time in Brindisi, other than a quick pit-stop after our late night flight arrival.
I took a short stroll around the town in the morning, as the streets were starting to come to life and waiters ran espressos to outside tables.
A port city, Brindisi doesn’t have quite the same photographic appeal as some of the other must-visit places in Puglia, but there are still a few things to do here, such as visitors the tall standing Monumento al Marinaio ‘d’Italia, the 13th-century castle, and taking in the Roman Columns on the square atop a grand staircase.
The capital of Puglia, Bari, is a port-city undergoing a sort of reinvention.
For a long time, Bari was regarded as a slightly unsavoury destination, but it has been making a tourist comeback in recent years, and in 2019 Lonely Planet even named it one of the best upcoming destinations in Europe.
It’s a city that you might have to work a little harder to start to feel the true essence of. As my first visit here seemed a little dull, I joined a tour with Veloservice to really get to know the city better.
Bari is a city of people, stories and food over attractions I’d say. Sure, the Casino is cool if you want a flutter and the Cathedral as grand as any other, but it was in the little alleys, small shops, and family living squares that I found the charm of Bari.
Whether it was sampling delicious fried polenta out of a grandmas front room, while others on the square hand-cut pasta while chatting, or diving into a delightful Foccacia or cheese platter in a small local shop, while the owner talked us through with pride the production methods, Bari quickly warmed on me a lot more with a local hand to understand it.
Parco Naturale e Regionale delle Dune Costiere
This windswept natural park along the coast is home to sand dunes, wild herbs, and a long stretch of sand.
While there are beach clubs set up here, and small towns to eat in, when we visited the winds were far too strong to sun lounge in. Windsurfing was in full swing though, and it’s no surprise that makes it a popular destination in Puglia for those who want to get airborne. Not far from Ostuni, the small peninsula resort town of Torre Canne is a sweet lunch spot.
Manduria & Museum of Primitivo wine
In the unassuming city of Manduria, which stretches from the coast to the quiet streets inland during the summer, you’ll find one of the most unique wineries I’ve visited.
Walking into the Museum of Primitivo wine, we were greeted with what looked like a petrol pump station and, indeed it was, but with a difference.
These pumps weren’t dishing out fuel, but wine, and a loyal line of locals were having their bottles filled with the good stuff at about the same price, or less, than a litre of fuel.
A unique set up can be found in the underground rooms, of which there are many, and it was in these rooms that the wine used to be stored before the conversion into a museum. You can actually see the stains on the wall of where the deep red wine colour has left its mark.
Of course, you have to do a tasting after any wine tour, and the delicious mix of reds, whites and roses all went down a treat, even at ten in the morning. Great wine at great prices, so follow my lead and pop a few bottles in the car boot to enjoy later in the trip.
This unspoilt stretch of coastline runs from the very south of Puglia, in Leuca, and up and beyond Gallipoli.
If you like your beaches golden, and your waters azure, then this stretch of coastline is the perfect place in Puglia to spend a few days kicking back before or after enjoying everything else the region has to offer.
Have any questions about Puglia, or suggestions of other must-visit places in Puglia to add to this list? Leave them in the comments, and have an amazing time in beautiful Puglia!
How to get to Puglia: If visiting by air, then flying into Bari is the most obvious option, although Brindisi airport further south also provides international flights and is a good starting point for a road-trip. We began our journey in Brindisi, and then dropped our car off in Bari.
Where to go after Puglia: Check out my guide on things to do in Lombardy to plan the rest of your trip and Double Your Journey in Italy. A short flight from Bari will take you to Northern Italy.
More information on Puglia can be found on the Puglia tourism website.
*I visited Puglia as part of a campaign with Lombardy and Puglia tourism boards, highlighting how easy it is to #DoubleYourJourney through Italy and see two different sides of the country in one trip.