Italy is filled with favorites and must-sees (hello, Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Duomo in Florence), but traveling to the lesser known regions often yields the biggest rewards. For us that is—and for you it should be—Puglia.
Puglia is home to just one of Italy’s 10 most populous cities, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to see and do throughout the region. For years this has been a seasonal hangout for Italians on holiday, and now it’s popping up on more travelers’ radar throughout the year. With its fascinating locales, incredible culinary culture, storied history, and diverse geography, this Italian hidden gem should be on your travel list. We’ll look at a few of our favorite spots to visit throughout the region on our tours of Italy, but first, here’s a little about this treasure on the coast.
Where is Puglia, Italy?
As the southernmost region of mainland Italy, Puglia is the heel of the boot-shaped nation. Bordered on the east by the Adriatic Sea and on the south by the Ionian Sea, Puglia has the rocky cliffs and sandy beaches of the Italian Riviera and the whitewashed villages of the Greek Islands. Puglia is bordered to the west by both the Basilicata and Campania regions. Home to ancient vineyards, Roman ruins, medieval castles, and Baroque cities, Puglia has the very best of every Italian region wrapped into one stunning location.
How do you pronounce it?
Visiting Puglia means you’ll have to tell people where you’re going. It’s a soft “g” and the “l” comes after, so while you might unintentionally say pulgia ("pul-ghee-a") or “pug-lee-a”, the proper pronunciation is “poo-lee-uh”. Things from the Puglia region can be referred to as either Pugliese (the Italian version) or Apulian (the English version).
What is Puglia, Italy, famous for?
The region of Puglia is nicknamed the breadbasket of Italy. The hot, dry Mediterranean climate and the fertile soil make it one of the leading producers of wheat in the country. As a result, bread and pasta are staples of the Apulian diet. There is nothing better to eat with the fresh bread of the region than Puglia’s other famous product, olive oil. The region produces about 40% of Italy’s olive oil each year. With bread, olive oil, and plenty of hearty dishes throughout the region, you might think visiting Puglia is all about eating, and you’d be partially right.
Puglia is also known for its coastline, the longest of any mainland Italian region. With incredible cliffs along the beach in Polignano a Mare, the natural cave pool of Roca, and the Beach of Purity in Gallipoli, the soft sands and gentle waves of the Apulian coastline are among the best in Italy. Long favored by locals as their August vacation spot, it is only recently that international tourists have started to enjoy the refreshing waters off the coast of Puglia’s shores. If you’re going to visit Puglia, know that the months of June to September are busiest. The warmth of the summer sun means that when shoulder season arrives in October it’s still warm enough to swim. And as an added bonus, you can explore the cultural and natural wonder of the region without the summer crowds.
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Where to go in Puglia
Every visit to Italy should be a mix of big cities and charming villages, art and aperitivo, castle wineries and coastal towns—you get the idea. If you’re asking yourself where to visit in Puglia on our tours of Italy, here are a few of our favorite places to explore.
As the region’s capital and the ninth most populous city in Italy, the port city of Bari is one of those places where culture has quite literally built up over time. Exploring the city on our Food & Wine: Campania, Puglia & the Amalfi Coast tour will take you to the Bari Cathedral, which is built atop the ruins of an Imperial Byzantine church that was destroyed in 1156. Castles, medieval courts, and Piazza del Ferrarese—the charming town square surrounded by Roman arches and leading to the sea—are all on the agenda during a walking food tour of Bari.
When visiting Puglia on our Italy tours you’ll step inside the Basilica of San Nicola to learn about a Bari tradition that has a global impact. The basilica is one of the most significant pilgrimage sites in Europe and home of the relics of Saint Nicholas (yes, that Saint Nick), the bishop whose penchant for gift-giving inspired the legend of Santa Claus. Sounds like Bari made the nice list.
Often called “the Florence of the South” because of its abundant art and architecture, Lecce is a can’t-miss on any of our Puglia, Italy tours. People have been living on the grounds of what is now modern-day Lecce since at least the time of the Trojan War. This has created a unique mix of architectural styles throughout the town, which is located at the tip of the boot heel on the Salento Peninsula.
One of the city’s numerous gems is the large, sunken Roman amphitheater in the main square, Piazza Sant’Oronzo. The amphitheater once sat up to 14,000 people, but now only the lower tier remains intact. Sometimes the city still allows concerts to be played in the amphitheater, especially during the summer. Across the square from the ancient theater is the Column of Sant’Oronzo, a beautiful Roman column topped with a bronze statue of the city’s patron saint.
Whether in the cuisine of the artwork, Lecce has a culture of craftsmanship honed by artisans over the centuries. While wandering through the quaint alleyways in town, you’ll see workshops where sculptors create beautiful stone carvings with pietra leccese—a local limestone. You’ll also come across pastry shops where chefs craft local custard cream delicacies, and, of course, ristorantes making rustico (a savory pie with mozzarella and tomato sauce). If you are wondering “is Puglia worth visiting?”, Lecce replies with a resounding “ovviamente” (that’s “obviously” in Italian).
One of the Puglia’s most picture-perfect towns, Ostuni overlooks the olive groves and vineyards of the Itria Valley from its spot perched atop a hill. Known as “the White City,” you might confuse this small town in Italy with a village in Greece because of its whitewashed homes. The medieval charm of the town continues throughout the narrow streets, which lead to small, hidden courtyards, terraces overlooking the nearby vineyards, and local landmarks, like the 15th-century Ostuni Cathedral.
Ostuni is also a popular base for exploring the beaches of Puglia, thanks to its proximity to the sea and easily accessible 12 miles of coastline. Every beachgoer will find something to love on a day trip to Rosa Marina or Torre Pozzella, where you can dip in the crystal blue waters. The small town around Rosa Marina is home to local beach bars and shops that line the main road next to the soft, sandy beaches, while the rocky shore of Torre Pozzella is perfect for a quick jump into the water and a swim to the sandy beach.
If history is one of your primary reasons for traveling on one of our Italy tours, then you have to head to Alberobello. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most iconic sites in Southern Italy, the town is worthy of a stop when you visit Puglia. The recognition is for the unique homes of the city, called trulli, which are conical shaped and have symbols painted on the roofs to bring luck to the inhabitants. On our Food & Wine: Campania, Puglia & the Amalfi Coast tour, you’ll visit the famous homes, which date back to the 16th century, and were built without mortar so the residents could avoid taxes.
Today, you can visit several of the more than 1,000 trulli in two areas of the city: Rione Monti and Rione Aia Piccola. Rione Monti has become the more touristy part of the city, with souvenir shops and restaurants, but it’s where several of the trulli have opened their doors as small museums highlighting this unique architectural style. During your guided tour of town, you’ll stop at a local shop to taste a puccia sandwich, a concoction of pizza dough stuffed with local cold cuts, cheese, and fresh vegetables that is renowned throughout Puglia, but is especially famous in Alberobello.
If Puglia, Italy, is the heel of the “boot”, and if that “boot” were cowboy style, Gargano would be the shiny spur. It’s a natural paradise that features mountains, lush forests, and quaint seaside vistas. A large portion of the sub-region is covered by old growth forest, providing scenery for a beautiful bike, drive, or hike past ancient villages and numerous caves. You’ll spend two nights in the region on our Food & Wine: Campania, Puglia & the Amalfi Coast tour, a highlight of which is an evening wine tasting with a sommelier over a multi-course dinner at a local agriturismo.
If beaches are at the top of your “what to visit in Puglia” list, the seaside towns of Gargano are among the best in Europe. On our Iconic Sites & Towns of the Gargano Peninsula excursion, you’ll head to picturesque Vieste and enjoy a guided walking tour of the seaside town, strolling along the Adriatic Sea. Admire the wooden fishing platforms that jut out into the sea along the rocky shores of Punta San Francesco before popping into a local restaurant for local delicacies. After you’ve filled up on food and wine at lunch, head to the Foresta Umbra nature reserve where you’ll enjoy the most Italian of traditions: the passeggiata. This leisurely, post-meal stroll is the perfect way to experience the Forest of Shadows, which takes you past Puglia’s ancient forest of pine, oak, and beech trees. These trees are the final remnants of the old growth forest in Italy which Latin poet Horace wrote about around 20 B.C.
Castel del Monte
Situated on a small hill in Andria, inland from the coastal town of Barletta, is the 13th-century citadel of Castel del Monte. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is such a remarkable example of medieval Italian architecture that it is emblazoned on every Italian version of the one cent Euro coin. Created by Frederick II, Castel del Monte was built using advanced mathematical and astronomical precision. It also combines elements of Islamic art and Gothic style. Surrounded by mystery and symbolism, theories suggest that it served as a hunting lodge, prison, secret temple to alchemy and numerology, or heavily guarded fortress. You’ll visit Castel del Monte on our Puglia, Italy, tours and explore the medieval masterpiece with a guide. From the rooftop terrace you’ll enjoy a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside and decide for yourself why you think the ancient structure was built.
Santa Maria di Leuca
There’s a place at the southernmost tip of Puglia’s heel, where sailors once pulled into port and people believed the border between Europe and Asia existed. Santa Maria de Leuca is known as both the “end of Italy” and the “end of the world” and where the Adriatic Sea meets the Ionian Sea.
Long a signal to sailors, the lighthouse of Santa Maria di Leuca was built in 1864 and is the second tallest in Italy, standing on a cliff and rising 330 feet above sea level. A climb up the 254 steps provides a unique and stunning view of the coast. You’ll have the option to make the ascent on our Salento Peninsula Towns: Wine Tasting & Lunch excursion, which is part of our Food & Wine: Campania, Puglia & the Amalfi Coast tour. Not to be missed on the excursion is the Monumental Waterfall, a fountain built in the 1930s. It marks the end of the Apulian Aqueduct and the location of the Grotta del Diavolo, a natural cave where legend says the entrance to hell lies.
Itria Valley Countryside
Filled with vineyards, orchards, and olive trees, the Valle d’Itria is known for its gastronomy, producing some of the best cheeses, wines, and almonds in all of Puglia. Founded in the 14th century, the town of Salice Salentino owes its name to the willow trees that used to grow nearby. It is the center of production for Salice Salentino wine, produced from the negroamaro grape which thrives in the muddy, clay soil of the region.
On our Food & Wine: Campania, Puglia & the Amalfi Coast tour, you’ll visit a local winery and sit down for an included lunch in Salice Salentino, where you’ll taste several local wines under the guidance of an expert from the region. The town is home to the Mother Church of Santa Maria Assunta, which was built in the 16th century and is home to holiday celebrations and festivals throughout the year.
While not technically within the borders of the region, no tour to visit Puglia would be complete without a stop in Matera. Located in the Basilicata region, about 12.5 miles from the Pugliese border, Matera is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on the planet. Once nearly forgotten by the world, Matera is now experiencing a rejuvenation of interest and investment. Named a European Capital of Culture in 2019 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, the once-dilapidated caves have been updated and renovated for the world to enjoy.
Admire the cave city as you stroll through the Old Town before stepping into the Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario, a preserved cave dwelling typical of how the inhabitants of the “Sassi” would have lived for generations. Connected by level after level of stone stairways, paths, and corridors, the ancient city clings to the edge of the canyon, providing incredible views from nearly every vantage point. A visit to the Belvedere di Piazza Giovanni Pascoli is worth the trek, overlooking the duomo’s bell tower, the rock church, and the ravine below. Stop at several of the luxury cave resort hotels for an aperitivo before watching the sun set over this magical city during your Italy tour.
If you’ve ever asked the question “Is Puglia worth visiting?” know this: When it comes to everything we love about Italy—culture, beaches, scenery, and food—Puglia has it in spades. We’ll see you there.