How to spend six days in Puglia, Italy

With its glistening-white trulli, eccentric castles and wild peninsulas, Italy’s ‘heel’ never ceases to surprise visitors…

Dana Facaros
23 March 2024

Puglia, the heel of the great Italian boot, packs in just about everything we love about Italy: olive groves and vineyards, picturesque hill towns, extraordinary art and architecture, superb food and wine. But it all comes with a Puglian twist and a host of unexpected influences. This region was, after all, once the stomping ground of the ancient Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Angevins and Spaniards, whose legacy is still keenly felt in the architecture of its churches and towns. Add to that 800km of beaches fringing Italy’s easternmost coastline, and you have a region that is forever upending expectations.

Take, for example, the geography north of Puglia, where the limestone cliffs, sea grottoes and woodlands of the Gargano peninsula (now a national park) are the setting for the uncanny Monte Sant’Angelo pilgrimage site. Yet, just inland from here, lies Tavoliere delle Puglie, Italy’s second-largest plain after the Po valley.

Edge south and you will see another national park, the Alta Murgia, whose rocky Apennine foothills are pierced by canyons and dolines. Lower down lie the masserie (Puglia’s old fortified farmhouses), set amid olive and almond groves. There is also a truly one-off landmark: the eccentric Castel del Monte, built in the 13th century AD by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.

It seems almost inconceivable that Lecce’s Roman amphitheatre remained undiscovered beneath the city centre until 1901, when construction workers digging the foundations of a bank stumbled on its remains (Alamy)

Gargano peninsula is where you’ll find white cliffs and naturally formed arches (Shutterstock)

Puglia’s cities are no less compelling. Regional capital Bari once competed with Italy’s other great medieval maritime republics. In 1087 AD, Barese sailors even one-upped the body-snatching Venetians in the race to steal the relics of St Nicholas of Myra – aka ‘Santa Claus’ – to place in their Basilica di San Nicola, one of Puglia’s most remarkable Romanesque churches.

South of Bari, the Valle d’Itria is Puglia at its most original. Here, rolling hills of ancient olive groves are dotted with one of the most charming and ancient styles of Mediterranean architecture: trulli. These whitewashed dry-stone houses are typically topped with corbelled, pointed domes. The beautiful town of Alberobello has such a dense concentration of them that UNESCO even designated it a World Heritage site.

Further south lies the ancient Spartan city that became Taranto; then comes the Salento, Puglia’s stiletto-shaped peninsula that divides the Adriatic and Ionian seas. From there it’s only a short hop to lavishly Baroque Lecce (the ‘Florence of the South’), at the heart of the peninsula, followed by the clear turquoise waters that lap the Salento’s beautiful beaches and fishing villages. Here Gallipoli (from the Greek for ‘beautiful town’), Santa María di Leuca and Otranto, home to a remarkable 11th-century Byzantine-Norman mosaic in its Romanesque cathedral, await.

How to explore Puglia in six days

Trani’s magnificent waterfront cathedral is dedicated to the 11th-century pilgrim St Nicholas, who wandered Puglia pleading, ‘Lord, have mercy’ (Alamy)

Day 1: Bari and Trani

Start in Bari by visiting the Centro Storico neighbourhood, watching the nonnas roll out their pasta in the narrow lanes leading off it and exploring the Romanesque Basilica di San Nicola and Cattedrale di San Sabino. Next, head to the seaport town of Trani, whose waterfront cathedral is a masterpiece of Pugliese Romanesque.

Day 2: Gargano peninsula

Aim for the whitewashed town of Vieste, where you can take a boat tour of the Gargano’s dramatic coast. Spare some time to visit the pre-Christian dream cave that became the pilgrim site of Monte Sant’Angelo.

Day 3: Castel del Monte and the trulli of Valle d’Itria

Make a beeline to the most peculiar castle in Italy: Castel del Monte. Then, after a beach break at Polignano a Mare – known for its cliff-diving competitions – tour the Valle d’Itria and its bright-white villages of trulli houses, spending the night in the UNESCO-listed Alberobello.

Day 4: Salento peninsula

Taranto gave its name to tarantula spiders and tarantella music, but it also has a fascinating archaeological museum and a lively fish market. Stop by the ceramics town of Grottaglie later, then stroll the pines or swim at Porto Selvaggio Natural Park before spending the night in Gallipoli.

Day 5: Santa María di Leuca and Otranto

There’s an end of the world feel to Santa María di Leuca, which hangs off the tip of the Salento. It’s a town that lives up to its name (‘luminous’), as you explore long beaches before heading up to the Basilica de Finibus Terrae (‘Church at the End of the Earth’), which was consecrated in 343 AD. Finish with a visit to Otranto to see its unique Byzantine-Norman mosaic.

Day 6: Lecce

Spend a day in Puglia’s most beautiful city, taking in Lecce’s lavishly ornate churches and palazzi. Its Roman amphitheatre and the Greek vases found in the Museo Sigismondo Castromediano are unmissable.

Outdoors

At the centre of Lecce’s Piazza Sant’Oronzo is a column crowned with a statue of the city’s patron saint, Oronzo, who is said to have rescued Puglia from a plague in 1656 (Alamy)

Gargano National Park
Better known as the ‘spur’ on Italy’s boot, Gargano NP has beaches lined with white cliffs, sea stacks and natural arches, as well as the Foresta Umbra (‘Forest of Shadows’), a mass of primeval beech and oak. Look out for one of Europe’s oldest pilgrimage shrines at Monte Sant’Angelo, where archangel Michael appeared to a bishop in the 5th century AD.

Valle d’Itria
The Valle d’Itria consists of gently rolling hills and olive groves dotted with gleaming villages filled with trulli. Pay visits to Ostuni (known as the ‘White City’ for its expanse of whitewashed buildings), Ceglie Messapica, Locorotondo, Martina Franca, Cisternino and the UNESCO-listed Alberobello, whose streets of brilliant-white trulli resemble a kind of Mediterranean version of Hobbiton.

Strolling through Lecce
Largely built in the 17th century, Lecce has grown into an outdoor museum of intricately carved Baroque buildings, thanks to the use of a soft limestone that can be chiselled into elaborate decorations before hardening. Make sure to stroll the Piazza del Duomo and the extraordinary Basilica di Santa Croce – its façade alone took about a century to sculpt.

Indoors

The perfectly octagonal Castle del Monte remains a conundrum to historians, as it defended little that was of interest and has no traditional defence (Alamy)

Castel del Monte
The Castel del Monte was erected by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in the mid-13th century AD on a hill overlooking the town of Andria. This mysterious building is shaped like an octagon, has octagonal rooms, an octagonal courtyard and eight octagonal towers. Scholars have puzzled over the significance of this for centuries.

Otranto Mosaic
Begun in the 11th century by the Normans, Otranto’s Romanesque cathedral is home to one of the largest and best-preserved Medieval floor mosaics in Europe. The travel writer HV Morton once compared a visit here to ‘walking on the Bayeux Tapestry’, except these days you can’t walk on it.

National Archaeology Museum of Taranto
Taranto – founded by the Spartans in 706 BC – boasts one of the world’s largest collections of ancient Greek terracotta votive figures. Its array of vases, mosaics and gold jewellery includes a unique 4th-century BC nutcracker that is shaped like an elegant woman’s hands. It all hints at Puglia’s ancient wealth and sophistication.

Where to stay in Puglia

La Fiermontina – Palazzo Bozzi Corso, Lecce
Elegant, art-filled rooms await in this 18th-century Baroque palazzo, along with plenty of Beatles memorabilia (the owners are friends with Yoko Ono), exceptional service and a panoramic roof garden.

Astra B&B, Aberobello
Grab your chance to stay in a genuine 16th-century trullo that is set within a romantic garden shaded by ancient olive trees. The hostess also serves a superb breakfast.

Borgo Egnazia, Savelletri di Fasano
South of Bari, chic design meets traditional Pugliese style at this luxury beach resort with a golf course, gorgeous spa and Michelin restaurant. Its castle-like interior is especially dreamy in candelight.

Agriturismo La Palascia, Punta Palascìa
On the Salento peninsula, Italy’s easternmost point, you’ll find rustic, charming rooms set within a working 18th-century farm. The surrounding Costa Otranto regional nature park also has excellent birdwatching, hiking and cycling.

Top four things to do in Puglia

1. CYCLE the Alta Murgia National Park, where a local company offers mountain-bike and e-bike hire as well as half-day guided tours of the area’s dolines (karstic sinkholes), blazing-red bauxite mines, ancient masserie and almond groves, from which the locals make vegan cheese.

2. SAIL to the Tremiti Islands, off the Gargano peninsula, and take a boat tour of their cave-pocked coasts. San Nicola has a fortress-monastery and a beautiful sandy beach, whereas San Domino, the largest of the Tremitis, is famous for its breeding falcons and a cave that was used in the 1961 film The Guns of Navarone.

3. LEARN how to create the classics of Puglian cuisine. With the Lecce-based Awaiting Table cookery school, you’ll visit the local fish market and prepare homemade orecchiette (the region’s ‘little ears’ pasta), antipasto, two courses, four vegetable side dishes and a dessert, accompanied by rosé wines from the Salento peninsula. awaitingtable.com

4. HIKE the ‘Forest of Shadows’ in Gargano National Park, either on the family-friendly 5km Laghetto d’Umbra-Falascone loop near Vico del Gargano, which passes a lake where you can spot turtles, or on the more difficult 9.3km Area Baccone via Laghetto d’Umbra walk.

Ask a local

“From the Gargano and Salento to passing through the Tavoliere plain and Valle d’Itria, Puglia is a state of mind. Nardò is the city where I was born and raised, surrounded by the crystal-clear sea and the Mediterranean scrub of the Porto Selvaggio Natural Park. I like getting lost in its historic centre, among the Baroque churches, restaurants and alleys that smell of delicious food from the early hours of the morning.”

– Antonietta Martignano, archaeologist and guide

Essential travel information for Puglia

One of the bastions of the Angevine-Aragonese castle of Gallipoli, whose walled Old Town lies on the Salento coast (Alamy)

Getting there: EasyJet and Ryanair regularly fly to Bari from London Gatwick and Stansted respectively. Ryanair also flies nonstop to Brindisi from Stansted and operates seasonal flights from Manchester in the summer. Flights take just under three hours.
Getting around: If you are sticking to Puglia’s cities and towns, it’s easy to get around by train and bus. But if time is short, you’ll want to hire a car at a major train station or airport. Do book early in summer to avoid disappointment.
Weather: Summers are hot and dry, making the area perfect for coastal escapes (do all your touring in the morning, before the afternoon siesta). Spring and autumn are ideal for walking, cycling and even swimming. The rainy season runs from November to March.
Further info: viaggiareinpuglia.it

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