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.
What I found when visiting in June is that Puglia is 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.
Shit… I guess I really liked Puglia.
Why it’s best to rent a car
Are you planning a trip to Puglia (known as Apulia in Italian)? Then I have a couple of tips for you.
The first one is that you should get yourself a rental car. I did so at the advice of local friends and I’m glad I did!
Public transportation is simply not 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.
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 certainly witnessed a few eye-brow-raising maneuvers. Still, it’s not like this should stop you from hitting the road.
Admittedly I was navigating while my girlfriend was driving, though the roads did not seem too stressful to me. Most roads were light on traffic and those classic Italian driving shenanigans we only encountered sporadically.
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.
Other places are connected by bus or local rail, though services are said to be infrequent or slow.
If you don’t have your own transportation, you’ll probably want to limit the number of places you visit a bit more, while having a car will give you the most freedom.
Oh, and I didn’t have any images to use in this section, so I thought you might like to see some tuk-tuks. Aren’t they cute? Luckily, we drove around in a slightly bigger vehicle — a Fiat Panda.
Tip: some of the rental companies in Apulia are known for scammy behavior or bad service. Avoid the rental company Sicily By Car in particular, which has nothing but bad reviews. We rented with Europcar and had a trouble-free experience.
How to choose where to stay
Whenever I research a trip, I usually soon 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 hard.
That wasn’t because I didn’t like what I saw. It was the opposite: because nearly every village or city seemed really nice, I ended up feeling paralyzed by choice.
Then an Italian friend said I shouldn’t fuss so much about where to stay. He said almost all of Puglia is good — and if you have a car, you can get everywhere easily. His tip was to first look for some nice accommodation, then stay in whatever random village it is and then just explore from there.
I thought this was great advice. Using this approach worked like a charm!
Instead of researching towns or cities, I used Airbnb and Booking.com as my starting point. I soon found a fantastic place to stay somewhere in the countryside south of Ostuni. Then I stumbled upon an amazing apartment in the center of Leche that had its own balcony looking out over a lovely piazza. Both were in the 30 to 40 EUR per night range, which seemed like great value.
I booked both places for 3 nights each — et voila, now we had ourselves a two-base trip. Most of the interesting places to visit were within a 30 to 60-minute drive from each base in two different areas of the peninsula.
Puglia has such a wealth of charming villages and cities that you may feel unsure where to stay. If this happens, try looking at accommodation options and go from there. At least, this made planning the trip much easier for me.
Staying in a trullo
If you’re going to Puglia, then you have to know about the 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. Many of the surviving trulli are now used as B&Bs or second houses.
The most obvious place to stay in a trullo is surely in Alberobello, a town that has loads of them all packed together. But I found Alberobello quite touristy (the only place in Puglia where I felt this way) and 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.
By the way, our trullo was of a different type that doesn’t have a conical roof. But that made it a lot easier to sit on top of it!
Staying in the Puglian countryside let us enjoy the quiet atmosphere, go for some walks between the olive trees and orchards, and even sit on top of the stone roof to watch the sunset and the stars at night. During one of our dinners at the trullo, we were visited by a wandering fox.
After staying in the peaceful countryside for three days, we moved on the lively city of Lecce. I thought it was great to have two very different environments in one trip.
Some highlights in Puglia
Finally, let me share with you some of the places I most enjoyed in Puglia. Since we had a car, we made no firm plans on what to do each day and mostly went by our whims. This is not some definitive top-places-to-see list, just some personal highlights I thought were worth mentioning.
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 most visitors skip Lecce completely 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.
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. This natural pool reminded me a lot of the amazing pools you can find on the Azores islands. 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 source 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
The most obvious way is to fly to Bari or Brindisi, both of which have airports serving international flights.
I could not find a convenient or cheap flight to either airport, so I flew cheaply to Rome instead. From Rome, I traveled by high-speed rail to Bari, which took about 4 hours. You can easily book these tickets online via Loco2. It was nice to see the Italian landscapes gliding past and taking the train also helped us avoid a costly connecting flight.
If you’re traveling around Europe then an enticing option is to take the ferry to Puglia. Bari connects well by ferry to Albania, Montenegro, and to Dubrovnik in Croatia. The city of Brindisi has many ferry connections to Greece, among other destinations.