Puglia, the region in the heel of Italy’s boot, is dotted with beautiful small towns in shades of white and gold, with unique architecture like the conical trulli of Alberobello and the extravagant Baroque of Lecce. Rich in churches and palaces, hidden piazzas and winding alleyways, markets and slow food trattorias, Puglia’s towns are a highlight of a visit to the region and reason to entice you away from the endless coastline. In some towns you can even combine visits to cathedrals and castles with dips in the sea just steps from the historic centre.
These are our recommendations of Puglia towns to visit, focused on the two main areas of interest to tourists, the Valle d’Itria and the Salento (there is also the Gargano further north, but we haven’t been there yet). A good strategy is to choose a base for each of these areas—masserie or fortified farmhouses that have guest accommodation or Airbnb apartments are a great option—and visit the other towns on day trips. Ostuni (or the nearby countryside) and Lecce are ideal places to base yourself, but you can’t really go wrong. If you have the time, consider a side trip to spectacular Matera in neighbouring Basilicata.
- Bari & The Valle d’Itria
- The Salento
- Map of our Top 8 Puglia Towns
- Resources for Planning a Trip to Puglia
Bari & The Valle d’Itria
Bari is the main gateway to Puglia (the other airport is at Brindisi further south). The nearby Valle d’Itria, a rustic valley of olive trees, vineyards, and hill towns, is one of the most popular destinations in the region, known for its iconic trulli, circular stone huts found dotted around the countryside.
Although we flew into Bari on our first trip to Puglia four years ago, we heard that it wasn’t worth visiting so we drove straight from the airport up the coast to the elegant small town Trani. This time we spent a night here and although the newer part of town is fairly nondescript, the atmospheric, maze-like old town is definitely worth a visit.
Bari Vecchia is a walled city crowded on a peninsula jutting into the sea. There was no room for expansion and the resulting overcrowding has meant that life is lived on the streets. As we wandered down the narrow alleyways on our first evening we felt like we were walking through someone’s living room, or well, everyone’s living room. Entire families from grandparents to babies sat outside their homes chatting, playing, napping, while washing dangled from balconies and scooters whizzed past.
It’s not just relaxing and socialising that takes place in the streets. In the mornings they become a pasta factory as women sit at tables outside their homes making the typical Puglian pasta orecchiette. These “little ears” are made by rolling the dough into thin logs, cutting off a chunk with a knife and shaping it by hand—all at an impressively rapid pace. Later in our trip we tried making them ourselves, and it’s not easy.
If you get lost in Bari Vecchia, look down. The black stone pavement was laid to help visiting merchants navigate their way out after market day; the white limestone paving will take you deeper into the maze.
If the characterful tourist-free old town wasn’t enough reason to visit, the focaccia is really really good here, smeared with roasted cherry tomatoes, olives and glistening with local olive oil.
Alberobello is another town we skipped on our first trip as we heard it was too touristy. And it is, but it’s such a unique and enchanting place (it’s not a UNESCO World Heritage site for nothing) that it’s worth a few hours.
Trulli or conical stone huts are found amongst the olive trees all over the countryside of the Valle d’Itria, but Alberobello is the only entire town of trulli—1500 of them. You half expect to see a hobbit emerge from these stubby homes of whitewashed walls and pointy roofs stacked with grey limestone.
One side of town is full of tourists and souvenir shop trulli, but head across the road to Aia Piccola and you’ll find trulli that are real homes without the crowds. See our trulli photo essay for more information and photos of these unusual dwellings.
Locorotondo is a labyrinth of whitewashed buildings; its quiet streets kept pristine by residents who decorate their balconies and staircases with pink geraniums. There are no major sights, but this means it doesn’t get many visitors, so it’s a delightful place to enjoy a leisurely lunch and stroll the streets.
Ostuni is another maze-like white city on a hilltop just 8km from the Adriatic Sea where you’ll find some of Puglia’s most exclusive resorts. It’s a wonderful town to get lost wandering the alleys, climbing staircases, and dipping under archways; or browse the stalls of local fruit and vegetables at the Saturday market. See our Ostuni post for more photos.
The Salento is a hot, dry peninsula at the southern tip of Puglia. Its geographical isolation has meant that it has developed a strong identity with its own cuisine, traditions and music, influenced by its Greek past. Along with some of Italy’s best beaches, there are many fascinating towns to explore.
Lecce is known for its exuberant Baroque architecture in the golden Leccese stone of the area, its churches lavishly decorated with cherubs, gargoyles and griffins, and delicately carved columns and cornices.
Lecce is one of Puglia’s larger cities but it’s still a walkable size, and it manages to be both lively and relaxed. One of my strongest memories is from after a cooking class with Cooking Experience when we had a long leisurely meal that lasted until nearly midnight. As we walked back to our B&B, the streets were alive with young people drinking in pavement cafes but also families out for a stroll, groups of friends licking cones of gelato or eating crepes from one of the street stands. The atmosphere was festive and friendly, such a contrast to the negative energy in a British town at pub kicking out time, and we found ourselves thinking, we could live here.
Otranto is just 72 km from Albania and its location has resulted in many invasions, the worst of which was the Turkish siege in 1480 when they destroyed much of the city and tortured and killed its people.
Otranto’s principal attraction is the Cathedral with its mosaic floor built in 1163-1165—it survived the Turkish invasion although parts of the Cathedral were destroyed. It’s one of the largest mosaics in Europe and covers the entire floor. Its central motif is the Tree of Life, supported at the base by elephants, a symbol of purity, with branches telling pagan and biblical stories. Another tree near the front of the church depicts heaven on one side and grizzly scenes from hell on the other.
In the chapel you can see the human remains of the 800 martyrs who resisted the Turkish invasion and refused to convert to Islam. The empty sockets of hundreds of skulls stare down at you in stark contrast to the beauty of the mosaic floor.
Gallipoli’s old town is on an island connected by a causeway to the mainland. It has a relaxed, elegant vibe, stunning churches, and a golden curve of sand right in the centre of town, plus many more along the surrounding coast. It was ruled by the Greeks for five centuries between 7th and 2nd century BC, but all signs of their existence were destroyed by the Romans, and most of the architecture seen now is from the Middle Ages.
Other than leisurely walks along the city’s seafront walls, the most interesting thing to do in Gallipoli is visit Frantoio Ipogeo in Granafei Palace, one of the 35 underground olive presses. It was first used in 1600, excavated by hand out of the soft rock, to make olive oil for lamps which was exported around the world. You can see the original equipment used for grinding and pressing the olives and get a sense of what it was like to work in this dark, damp cave. Blindfolded donkeys were used to work the olive mill and they lived down here with the workers who smoked weeds and carved little sculptures to distract themselves from the miserable conditions.
Corigliano d’Otranto is one of the 11 towns of the Grecia Salentina that have retained their Greek heritage from the Byzantine period including the Griko dialect. It’s a small untouristy town with an interesting medieval castle that you’ll likely have to yourself. De’Monti Castle actually consists of two castles. The medieval castle was built in 1465 with four rectangular towers and was strong enough to resist the Turkish invasion when they came here after destroying Otranto. The castle was fortified further in the 17th century with four round towers and a moat that encircles the inner castle. Later a rich family transformed it from a fortress into a luxurious Ducal palace and added Baroque details to the facade.
Map of our Top 8 Puglia Towns
Resources for Planning a Trip to Puglia
- To find accommodation look on Booking.com (hotels, B&Bs, farmstays and apartments) and Airbnb (rooms and apartments—get $38 off here). Read more about masserie in Puglia.
- For flights to Puglia (Bari or Brindisi) look on Kiwi.com, which offers a lot of flexibility to help you find the best deals (choose a date range to find the cheapest day to fly).
- For advice on travelling by train in Italy, see The Man in Seat 61 and read our post on travelling from Italy to London by train.
- Budget airlines in Europe charge for checking in luggage. To avoid these fees, pack light and travel with just carry-on luggage. My book, The Carry-On Traveller: The Ultimate Guide to Packing Light, shows you how (available on Amazon US and Amazon UK).
- Don’t forget travel insurance—the best we’ve found is True Traveller (UK/EU citizens), which we’ve been using for the last six years. World Nomads (worldwide) is another reliable option.
- See our travel resources page for more tools and gear recommendations to help you plan your trip.
We hope we’ve inspired you to head south and explore the towns of Puglia. These are just some of the possibilities, pick a town at random and you’ll likely to find a fascinating history, beautiful architecture, friendly people, and delicious food.
If you enjoyed this post, pin it!
Thank you to Puglia Promozione, the region’s tourism board, who hosted us in Puglia, and to Dionisio our guide who showed us around a number of these towns.
Are you planning a trip in 2017? See our Gear and Resources page for our favourite tools to help you plan the perfect trip.
Enter your email to sign up for our monthly newsletter and free ebook South America Highlights.