Rome, Florence, Venice, the Amalfi coast… only in a country with so many world-famous places is it even possible for a beautiful region like Puglia to go so unnoticed!
Puglia — also known as the heel of the boot — is where Italians themselves like to go on holiday. And it’s a region still undiscovered by the masses.
Or at least, that’s how it was pitched to me by several Italian friends.
Well, they were right. I found Puglia just as compelling as other parts of Italy — just with far fewer (international) tourists.
Even though it’s less known, Puglia will give you all you would want from a trip to Italy. It’s chock-full of cute towns with chalk-white houses, gentle olive grove landscapes, windy streets strewn with Vespas and Fiat 500’s, tons of toe-tinglingly good beaches, food that will caress your taste buds, and even some ancient Roman history that’s almost casually thrown into the mix.
If you can’t already tell, I loved my time in Puglia — and now I can’t stop raving about it. In this Puglia travel guide, I’ll share how to best plan your trip in this delightful southern slice of Italy.
Plan your Puglia trip
Puglia travel tips
Why it’s best to rent a car
If you’re planning a trip to Puglia (known as Apulia in Italian) then my most important tip is to definitely get yourself a rental car. I did so at the advice of local friends and I’m glad I did.
Public transportation just isn’t that great in Puglia, so you’ll get around faster with your own transportation.
Having a car also lets you easily visit the beaches, the off-the-beaten-track towns, and drive along beautiful coastal roads.
You can search here for affordable rental cars with a pickup in Bari, which is the main city in the region where you’re most likely to start your trip.
They do say Italians are some of the worst drivers in Europe. Whether that’s true I’ll leave for you to decide, though my girlfriend and I did witness a couple of eye-brow-raising maneuvers.
Still, it’s not like this should stop you from hitting the road. Most roads were quite light on traffic and we only encountered some of those classic Italian driving shenanigans a couple of times. If you’re not in a rush and you drive carefully, there is nothing to fear.
I didn’t have any images to use in this particular section, so I thought you might like to look at this tuk-tuk. Aren’t they cute? Luckily, we drove around in a slightly bigger vehicle — a Fiat Panda. Don’t worry if you can only get a mini as small cars are definitely fashionable in Italy.
Puglia without a car
If you don’t have a car then it’s still possible to enjoy Puglia. Key cities like Bari and Leche are well connected with high-speed rail, so these are two obvious places to hit up. We took the high-speed railway from Rome to Bari and it was fast and comfortable.
You can book your train trips via RailEurope.
Lecce is a lovely city to stay a few days, though the smaller towns are real highlights of the region. Luckily, a string of coastal towns between Bari and Brindisi are connected by rail. You can read more on another blog about Puglia by public transport or on the official website.
While a good number of places in Puglia are connected by bus or local rail, services are said to be often slow or infrequent. Without a car, you’ll definitely miss the chance to see many small authentic towns.
Alternatively, you can take this organized day tour from Lecce with driver which will take you to Ostuni, Alberobello, and Polignano a Mare.
How to choose where to stay
Creating my itinerary for Puglia proved to be a challenge. When I research a trip, I usually find a town or city that stands out as the obvious spot to stay, but this didn’t happen for me with Puglia.
Somehow, deciding where to stay was very difficult.
That wasn’t because I didn’t like what I saw. It was quite the opposite: because nearly every village or city seemed really nice, I ended up feeling paralyzed by choice. Every Puglia travel guide I looked at seemed to mention even more options.
Then an Italian friend said I shouldn’t fuss so much about where to stay. He said almost all of Puglia is good — most of the villages are very charming and if you have a car, you can get everywhere easily.
His tip was to look for some nice accommodation first, then stay in whatever village it is and explore from there. This proved to be great advice.
I soon found this fantastic place to stay in the “white city” of Ostuni with whitewashed arched rooms and a garden with a pool. Then I stumbled upon a lovely apartment in the center of Leche that had its own balcony looking out over a lovely piazza within the city walls.
I booked both places for 3 nights each — et voila (or should I say ecco qua?), now we had ourselves two bases from which to explore.
Everything else then clicked into place. Since our hotels were in two different areas of the peninsula, we could now get anywhere within a 30 to 60-minute drive. This meant we no longer had to fuss over our plans as we could just do everything we wanted on day trips. It was easy to decide our exact plans just on a day-to-day basis.
(By the way, we also spent a few nights in a traditional trullo house. More about this below.)
If you’re wondering where to stay in Puglia as a base, then just finding a good hotel deal can help make the decision for you. At least, it made the trip planning a lot easier for us.
Staying in a trullo
No travel guide to Puglia would be complete without mentioning the wonderful trulli.
These white dry-stone buildings with conical roofs are typical to the region. They’re found especially in the west of Puglia in the Valle d’Itria.
Fun fact: these trulli exist because of tax evasion!
Well, that’s the theory anyway. Historians think it was property taxes that originally got people to build these unusual houses. It let them avoid paying taxes or easily dismantle and reconstruct their house.
Today the trulli still lend a unique character to the landscapes in Apulia. They are definitely a fun sight to see and — if you can appreciate the cozy “tiny home” vibe — they are fun to stay in too. Many of the surviving trulli are now used as B&Bs or second houses.
The most obvious place to stay in a trullo is in Alberobello, a town that has loads of them all packed together. I did find Alberobello quite touristy (the only place in Puglia where I felt this way) so perhaps better suited for a shorter visit. Instead, we booked a trullo in the middle of the countryside and absolutely loved it.
Trulli are quite small so you can count on them being a little basic. Ours had just a tiny bathroom and a cramped bedroom that also doubled as a kitchen with a small 2-stove furnace. It made our stay feel almost like a cozy camping trip.
Unfortunately, we got the idea to stay in a trullo quite late, so a lot of them were already booked out. Hence our trullo was of a different type that doesn’t have a conical roof. It did make it possible to sit on the roof and watch the stars at night.
The quiet atmosphere in the Puglian countryside was delightful and rather different from the town and city where we had stayed. We could go for walks between the olive trees and orchards and cook our own pastas and salads at the house using amazingly ripe tomatoes from the market. During one of our dinners at the trullo, we were even visited by a wandering fox.
We loved having the more buzzing city of Lecce in our itinerary where we could go to cocktail bars and such, as well as having more solitude in the countryside.
As I mentioned, the trulli are a popular accommodation and since they are a traditional type of building they aren’t unlimited. So, even if you normally play things by ear it’s worth booking at least a trullo ahead of time.
This trullo near Ostuni is a bit more rustic (like the one we stayed) and more budget-friendly, while this trullo near Ceglie Messapica is more luxury-style with a swimming pool and hotel-like amenities.
Many properties on Booking.com offer free cancellation until a certain date, so you can book a trullo just to have it at the current price, even if the rest of your itinerary is still undecided.
Destinations in Puglia
The following are some of the places I most enjoyed in Puglia. Mind you, I didn’t set out to make some definitive top-places-to-see list, but here are some personal favorites after spending 10 days in Puglia.
Since we had a rental car, we made no firm plans on what to do each day and mostly went by our whims. I definitely recommend taking this approach as the whole region is just such a delight.
Our first stop was the seaside town of Monopoli on the Adriatic coast. We only stopped for lunch and a stroll here, but I loved the atmosphere and the old castle walls. I thought it would have made for a great base to explore the west of Puglia.
Moving a bit further east, the pearly white city of Ostuni left a big impression on me. As we approached through the valley, it appeared glistening atop a pinnacle like some smaller real-life version of Minas Tirith from Lord of the Rings.
Inside its walls, Ostuni quickly pulls you into an intriguing maze of little streets, vine-covered patios, and narrow stairs. When visiting in June, there was a wonderful sense of calm and solitude in the old city.
Not far from Ostuni are the sandy beaches of Pilone. Honestly, it seemed like you could find some fine beaches anywhere along the coast — this one just happened to be close to Ostuni, letting us enjoy some warm Mediterranian waters and grab drinks and lunch at one of the beach clubs.
Just south of Ostuni is the town of Ceglie Messapica. While it has little to see or do compared to Ostuni, I felt almost equally charmed by its chalk-white buildings and cute piazzas. I enjoyed just watching normal life unfold in this low-key town, where fruit deliveries come in little tuk-tuks and people drink their espressos on the main square.
Moving further east, the city of Lecce somehow has a more Roman feel, as the white-washed plaster walls make way for many more limestone block buildings.
I was surprised to learn that many visitors skip Lecce just because it’s not on the coast. But I think its lively atmosphere and cultural heritage make this a highly worthwhile stop, and the coast is only 30 to 45 minutes away.
In fact, Lecce was probably my favorite place in Puglia and I’m glad to have stayed there for several days. Lecce is often promoted as “the Florence of the south” and I can see a certain resemblance. I also loved staying in an apartment in a central piazza in the old town — and probably for a 3x or 4x lower price than similar accommodation in actual Florence.
We took a free walking tour booked through GetYourGuide, which gave a ton of insight into the city’s ancient history. There were just four people in our group, making it feel like a private tour.
My favorite discovery in Lecce was the Museo Faggiano, the story behind which is simply delightful.
Three brothers bought a building intending to start a restaurant, but the toilet kept backing up. Attempts to repair the plumbing led them to excavate some ancient ruins underneath the house. They kept digging, uncovering layer upon layer of history, opening up a whole treasure trove of ancient tunnels and hidden basements.
The site was once a Templar hide-out and a convent of Franciscan Nuns, and more than 5,000 artifacts were found during the years-long dig. The brothers soon realized they got themselves not a restaurant, but a museum, which quite clearly became a passion project of theirs. (They’ll still open a restaurant across the street in the future.)
Heading to the coast from Lecce is the seaside town of Otranto, another Puglian gem. Similar to Monopoli, it has city walls and fortifications, a marina from where boat tours depart, and an ancient cathedral. It’s a small place, but we liked it so much we came back a second time just to have dinner there.
Another real highlight was driving down the southern coast of Puglia. It’s varied in topography, ranging from wide sandy beaches to gnarly karst cliffs that reminded me of Portugal’s Algarve. There are a number of fun watering holes all around the coast where you can spend an afternoon lazing in the sun or jumping from cliffs into the sea. We had the chance to see three such places on our trip…
The Cave of Poetry or Grotta Della Poesia [map] is a magical natural swimming pool located on the east coast of Puglia. Local friends informed us that in August the place is overflowing with people, but in June the cave was just a delightful place to spend some time. From time to time, people would jump off the cave’s arch into the swimming hole, creating a sense of anticipation whenever the next person lines up to jump.
A similar atmosphere exists at the Ciolo Bay or Baia del Ciolo [map], a fjord-like cove underneath a very tall bridge where people come to swim or jump off the cliffs.
Finally, thanks to randomly poking around on Maps.me, we stumbled upon the Beach and Natural Pool of Marina Serra [map]. These rocky beaches and naturally-formed pools are great for a swim and a quick cool-down after a hot day. You’ll have views of the blue sea and an ancient guard tower further down the coast. Again, reviews online do complain it’s too full in August, so you’re best off visiting this outside of the peak month.
Finally, we made a stop in the town of Gallipoli, which one friend had described to me as ‘the Ibiza of Puglia’. It’s filled with beach resorts and clubs that draw Italians during the summer, though this again seemed like a seasonal thing, as it was only moderately busy in the shoulder season.
Even though Gallipoli is mainly known as a party hotspot and beach resort, it does have cultural and historical attractions — and it can manage, at many times, to be just as cute as other places I’ve already mentioned. Gallipoli is also unique in that the old town is built on an island, connected to the mainland only by a single bridge.
In Gallipoli, I enjoyed visiting the Castello Angioino di Gallipoli, a fortress dating back to the 13th century. The exhibitions inside the fortress provide some good insight into the founding of Gallipoli by the Greeks (originally naming it Kallipolis, or Beautiful City) as well as the olive oil trade for which it was a major center through the ages, once fueling street lights as far away as St. Petersburg.
There are no doubt many more highlights in Puglia — and I felt strongly motivated to go on a second trip there in the future.
I traveled Puglia on a road trip holiday, but if you’re going as a backpacker then Lecce and Bari are probably the most enticing places to go. These are the only cities where you might find hostels, and taking organized day trips should be a little easier from these two cities.
How to get to Puglia
Rome to Puglia
You can either fly or take the train. We took the high-speed train from Rome to Bari and loved traveling in this way. The journey took only about 4 hours and the views of the Italian countryside are highly rewarding. It’s also more environmentally friendly than flying.
The high-speed trains are branded Frecciargento. You can easily book the journey at RailEurope.com. Tickets can be under €30 if you book them on time.
To Puglia by air
To Puglia by boat
Bari has ferry connections across the Adriatic Sea to the Balkans. You can take ferries to Puglia from Albania, Montenegro, or Dubrovnik in Croatia. The city of Brindisi has many ferry connections to Greece, among other destinations.
If you’re travelling around Europe, then taking the ferry can be a fun option. It will also enable you to combine Puglia with other highly underrated destinations such as Albania.