Puglia is a region that occupies the ‘heel’ of southern Italy and is home to historic towns (many of which have histories that go back thousands of years), diverse landscapes, excellent food and some of the best beaches in southern Italy. The main entry points for most international visitors are Bari and Brindisi (both have airports and ports with international connections). From here, many adventures await for those who want to explore this diverse region. I’ve visited Puglia several times and explored the length and breadth of the region. Based on these trips, I’ve compiled this guide featuring the best places to visit in Puglia. These places can be visited on a comfortable 15-day self-drive itinerary or you can choose to focus on just 1-2 areas in a shorter space of time. You can also opt for an 8-day discovery tour of Puglia.
The Ultimate Guide to the Best of Puglia
This Puglia guide contains links to three services I often use myself and can recommend: Booking.com (for hotel bookings), Rentalcars.com (for car hire) and GetYourGuide (for easy-to-book tours). If you make a booking via one of these services, I will receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you). These commissions help me to maintain my blog and share more travel experiences with you.
Bari, the capital of Puglia, can trace its roots back more than 2,000 years when it was founded by the Peucetii tribe. These days, Bari is one of the most important economic centres in southern Italy and, due to its international airport and port, an important gateway to the region. Most visitors arrive in Bari but tend to skip the city, choosing instead to move on to another part of Puglia. I recommend spending 1-2 nights in Bari to wander around its Old Town and soaking up the authentic atmosphere.
Central Puglia consists of hilly landscapes, verdant valleys, mile after mile of olive groves, vineyards and fruit orchards, quaint whitewashed towns, dramatic coastal cliffs and beautiful beaches on both the Adriatic and Ionian coasts.
Central Puglia is also home to Valle d’Itria or Itria Valley, an area famous for its ‘trulli’ (whitewashed, cone-roofed houses), charming towns and agricultural products. I recommend spending at least 4-5 days in the Itria Valley. Of all the towns in this area, Alberobello (a UNESCO World Heritage town) is the biggest draw. You can opt to make Alberobello your base to explore the rest of the valley or you can choose one of the other towns such as Martina Franca, Locorotondo or Cisternino. I chose Martina Franca because of its strategic location on an intersection of major regional roads and discovered a lovely town that makes for a terrific base.
Alberobello is perhaps the most famous town in the Itria Valley due to its famous trulli houses. The conical rooftops coupled with charming cobblestone alleys and whitewashed houses are a simply magical sight. The old town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, consists of a maze of streets and steps lined by trulli; drystone dwellings that were built using prehistoric techniques.
Search for hotels in Alberobello (Booking.com).
Martina Franca is the largest town in the Itria Valley and can trace its roots back to the 10th century AD. Being in the heart of the valley, Martina Franca is a great base from which to explore the area but spend some time exploring its old centre which boasts beautiful Baroque architecture (like the Palazzo Ducale and the impressive Basilica di San Martino) and quaint streets. When you’re here, drop by for dinner at Osteria del Coco Pazzo, a charming restaurant in a vaulted space that serves excellent Puglian food and wines. Ask for the local specialty ‘capocollo’, a cured pork salami. Search for hotels in Martina Franca (Booking.com)
Locorotondo means ’round place’ and that’s what it is: a town in a circular form atop a hill. Its hilltop position means that you can see the town from miles around and once you’re up there, you’ll be treated to stunning views of the Itria Valley. The town centre is a labyrinth of white alleys punctuated by churches or piazzas. The houses have pitched roofs called ‘cummerse’, a feature typical of Locorotondo. Walking around the historic centre is like a step back in time. Don’t forget to stop at a café and sip on a famous Locorotondo DOC white wine! Search for hotels in Locorotondo (Booking.com).
Cisternino is often listed as one of the most beautiful towns in Italy. I beg to differ but this town, which dates back from medieval times, sure has a lot of charm to offer. It’s a delight to stroll around the picturesque lanes lined with the typical whitewashed houses and their external staircases. Search for hotels in Cisternino (Booking.com).
As you drive along the SS379 motorway that skirts the coast near Fasano, your attention will be drawn to the gleaming white appearance of Ostuni, also known as the ‘white city’. It’s an impressive sight that acts as a magnet for travellers. With its ancient cobblestone streets, grand churches and quaint white houses, Ostuni truly is stunning. The town boasts a remarkable history that goes back to the Stone Ages! The Cathedral and the Bishop’s Palace are especially striking but there are many other architectural gems to be found, including the old homes of the nobles.
The Adriatic Coast
The Adriatic coast is characterised by ancient clifftop towns, rocky coves and sandy beaches. Coastal towns I can definitely recommend for a visit or a short stay include Polignano a Mare and Monopoli.
Polignano a Mare can trace its origins back to the 4th century BC when Greek settlers founded the settlement of Neapolis. These days, the town is popular amongst tourists who come to visit its historic centre, perched precariously on the cliffs overlooking the Adriatic Sea, and enjoy its beaches. Make sure to make a reservation if you plan to eat at the town’s world-famous Grotta Palazzese, a spectacular cave restaurant. Search for hotels in Polignano a Mare (Booking.com).
Monopoli has a charming historic centre (don’t miss the Baroque-style Monopoli Cathedral) with a beautiful seafront promenade. In addition to its 16th century castle and defensive walls, the seafront also features a lovely sandy beach, perfect for a dip after a wander around the town. Search for hotels in Monopoli.
The coastline towards Bari is quite rocky, with a sprinkling of sandy beaches and little villages such as Cozze and Mola di Bari.
The Ionian coast
The largest town on the Ionian coast of Central Puglia is Taranto. The city’s history goes back to 700 BC (!) and these days, it’s one of the biggest commercial centres in southern Italy as well as an important base for the Italian Navy. There are several attractions along its long waterfront such as the 15th century Aragon Castle. You can spend a few hours wandering around the ancient Old Town (Citta Vecchia), which basically has the same layout as in the time it was built in the 1st century by the Byzantines, to enjoy the atmosphere of its maze of streets and lanes. There are also some Greek ruins to be seen such as the Doric columns on Piazza Castello.
Head inland from Taranto to the town of Massafra. This historic town straddles both sides of the San Marco ravine and is worth a stop for lunch and a wander. The town is most famous for its cliff dwellings comprised of homes and cave churches in the ravine. You can also visit the imposing Massafra Castle. For a delicious meal, I recommend Ristorante Vecchie Storie in Via Giuseppe Pisanelli.
The area to the southeast of the Taranto-Brindisi axis is dominated by the province of Lecce with its capital of the same name. Its long coastline stretches from the Adriatic Sea around the ‘heel’ of Italy to the Ionian Sea, and boasts historic towns, sandy beaches and crystal-clear water. Most visitors choose to stay in this region for their beach holidays, and rightfully so. However, look further and you’ll discover charming towns with many historic and artistic treasures, and an addictive laid-back lifestyle.
The capital of the province of Lecce, the city of Lecce is often called the ‘Florence of the South’ due to the abundance of Baroque architecture in its historic centre. The city can trace its history back to the 2nd century AD – remnants from this age include the Roman amphitheatre. The other attractions in the city include the Cathedral (Duomo), Basilica di Santa Croce, Porta Napoli and Church of San Giovanni Battista.
You can choose to stay along the coast to enjoy the province’s stunning beaches and visit Lecce on a day trip, or you can stay in Lecce for 1-2 nights to truly appreciate its historic gems. Search for hotels in Lecce (Booking.com).
Gallipoli is believed to have been founded by the Greeks and through the centuries, the town was conquered by a succession of powers including the Byzantines and the Normans. In the 18th century, Gallipoli was home to the largest olive oil market in the Mediterranean. From its ports, ships laden with olive oil sailed to major European cities where the oil was used for lighting. It is said that olive oil from Gallipoli lit the streets of London before the advent of the electric bulb.
The old town is situated on a little island and is connected to the mainland by a 16th century bridge. This part of town features an impressive castle (built by the Byzantines in the 13th century) and equally impressive fortification walls and towers. Behind the castle lies a maze of picturesque streets filled with quaint shops, cafés and restaurants, as well as historic churches, convents and palaces. Despite its small size, Gallipoli is packed with historic and cultural treasures, and it has a dazzling sandy beach right at its doorstep. Important sights include the Sant Agata Cathedral and the Santa Maria della Purità church. You can easily spend a few days here while you explore the town and enjoy the nearby beaches. Search for hotels in Gallipoli (Booking.com).
This spectacular clifftop town overlooks the stunning turquoise waters of the Adriatic Sea. Explore the historic promenade and discover the town’s rich history that was shaped by the Romans, Greeks and Byzantines. Be sure to visit the Cathedral and the Aragonese Castle. Search for hotels in Otranto (Booking.com).
Southern Puglia has some of the best beaches in southern Italy. Here, you’ll find long stretches of fine, white or golden sand, lapped by crystal-clear turquoise water. Some of the best beaches can be found at or near Torre dell’Orso/Sant’Andrea, Otranto, Maldive del Salento and Porto Cesareo. Search for hotels in Porto Cesareo (Booking.com).
The rocky cliffs along the east coast also feature some beautiful natural rock formations such as Le Due Sorelle (the ‘Two Sisters’), the sea stacks of Torre Sant’Andrea and the sea caves near Castrignano del Capo/Leuca.
The Gargano peninsula in northern Puglia sticks out into the Adriatic Sea and consists of a mountainous massif, sandy beaches, limestone cliffs and ancient forests. A large part of the peninsula is occupied by the Gargano National Park (the most extensive national park in Italy), where visitors can enjoy hikes through the beautiful forests. The 140km coastline, lapped by crystalline waters, has dramatic cliffs interspersed with white, sandy beaches and charming fishing towns.
The first town visitors encounter as they approach Gargano is Manfredonia. From here, it’s a short drive to the expansive beaches of Mattinata, a great place to base yourself. I stayed at Hotel Residence Il Porto, which I absolutely loved! The rooms were comfortable and offered stunning views of the coast and sea below. Search for hotels in Mattinata (Booking.com).
I recommend spending a few days on the peninsula to explore the flora and fauna of the national park, as well as to enjoy the beaches, charming towns and two UNESCO World Heritage sites: Vico del Gargano and the Sanctuary of San Michele in Monte Sant’Angelo.
As you drive along the northern coast, look out for the trabucchi, wooden structures used by fishermen which are now protected historical monuments. Some of them have been converted into restaurants, making it an unforgettable seaside lunch experience.
Towns which shouldn’t be missed include Vieste (built on a rocky promontory and flanked by two sandy beaches), Vico del Gargano (a UNESCO World Heritage listed medieval town bursting with charm) and Peschici (a little town perched on rocky cliffs above the blue sea). Search for hotels in Vieste (Booking.com).
Places to visit on the way to Gargano
If you’re heading to Gargano from southern/central Puglia, consider a stop at the historic Castel del Monte, an imposing 13th century citadel, and a lunch stop at Trani, a quaint fishing village with a lively promenade.
Another town I can recommend for a (lunch) stop is Altamura. Located near Matera, Altamura is a bustling walled town with an impressive Cathedral. If you’re looking for a lunch spot, check out Ristorante Tre Archi! And ask for Pane di Altamura (a bread that the town is famous for).
Matera is situated in the adjacent region of Basilicata and if you’re visiting central Puglia, I highly recommend spending a few days in this extraordinary city. Wedged between the ‘heel’ and the ‘foot’ of southern Italy, Matera is one of the oldest continuously-inhabited human settlements in the world, with a history that goes back (perhaps) 7,000 years! The cityscape is somewhat ‘Biblical’ and strolling around its cobblestone streets is like taking a step back in time. Despite its age, or maybe because of it, there are many things to do and see in Matera, making any visit a wondrous experience. Read more about things to do in Matera (including places to stay, restaurants and cafés).
I suggest a stay of at least two nights to truly appreciate this enchanting city. Search for hotels in Matera (Booking.com).
15-day ‘Best of Puglia’ itinerary (including Matera)
This 14 night/15 day self-drive itinerary takes you past the best places to visit in Puglia as described above. You can start the trip in Bari or Brindisi and follow the entire itinerary or concentrate on 1-2 areas, depending on your interests or the length of your stay. I’ve included a suggested length of stay per place/area. The itinerary is as follows:
1 night: Bari
4 nights: Central Puglia which includes the Itria Valley and the Adriatic coast. Suggested base: Martina Franca or Alberobello.
4 nights: Southern Puglia which includes the city of Lecce and the towns/beaches of Otranto, Gallipoli and Porto Cesareo. Suggested base: Lecce, Otranto and/or Gallipoli.
2 nights: Matera
3 nights: Gargano peninsula. Suggested base: Mattinata and/or Vieste.
Day 15: back to Bari Airport
Find your accommodations in Puglia
More information on Puglia
Visit the website of Puglia Tourism for more information.