The sun-basking southern region of Puglia is much beloved by Italians, who love it for its fine white-sand beaches, its rustic cooking, its sense of a simpler life, and some handsome fortified towns.
There’s no shortage of things to do but these are some of our top picks:
1. Explore the quirky geometry of Castel del Monte
Crowning a hill like it’s landed there from another planet is the eerily perfect UNESCO World Heritage site Castel del Monte (top-image), an octagonal castle, with an octagonal tower on each corner. Built by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in the 13th century, it is shrouded in mystery. Just a few kilometres from the small town of Andria, it’s a unique, perfectly geometric design, and appears to have been a symbolic rather than defensive structure.
Photo © Franco Cappellari
2. Go jumping in the waves off Baia dei Turchia
Puglia’s long coastline has some beautiful white-sand beaches, but the wind-sculpted, pine-forest-backed Bay of Turks, a few kilometres south of Otranto, so named as the Ottoman Turks landed here to attack in the 17th century, is particularly lovely. Take the winding pathways through the pines, grab your swimsuit and dip a toe in the water.
BARI VECCHIA | PHOTO © GIORGIA ESPOSITO
3. See pasta being made in the streets of Bari Vecchia
Puglia’s largest town’s Bari Vecchia (Old Bari) is wonderfully preserved and atmospheric. Wander down the narrow lanes mid-morning to see local matriarchs rolling out pasta by hand in front of their houses, as they have for generations: they sell it to local restaurants and to passers-by.
ALBEROBELLO | PHOTO © CARLOS SOLITO
4. See the hobbit townscape of Alberobello
Peculiar to the local architecture are trulli – pointed gnomic drystone buildings. The UNESCO-listed Alberobello is the only town that is entirely trulli, and it’s an extraordinary sight to overlook the pointed skyline. Head to the viewpoints just off the main drag to get the best view.
BOAT TRIP AROUND ITALY’S HEEL © HELMUT BERTA
5. Take a boat trip around Italy’s heel
Open-topped boat trips run along the coast during the summer season and there’s arguably no better way to spend an afternoon. Take a boat from the port of Torre Vado, on the Ionic coast: there’s no need to book, just turn up and get a ticket from a local kiosk. You’ll get a fantastic views, culminating in the pilgrimage town of Santa Maria de Leuca.
6. Wander the streets of Gallipoli
The walled town of Gallipoli occupies an almost island-like peninsula, and its architecture reflects its heyday as a 17th-century centre exporting olive oil. Today its backstreets are charming, with locals playing cards and kids kicking footballs, and there are fabulous sea views at the end of practically every street. Aim to get here for late afternoon, when the sun is on its descent and the sky turning pink.
7. Get folky with the locals at a summer taranta festival
Taranta is the local folk music, said to have begun as a way to exorcise the sting of a tarantula bite. The female dancers dance barefoot, wear long flowing skirts and spin to the hypnotic beat. There are festivals all over the Salento area, to the south of Puglia, during the summer: check the local magazine Qui Salento for listings.
8. Try ricci (sea urchins)
Puglia is famous for its sea urchins. You can either eat them on their own – the black-spiked ricci a mare (riches from the sea) are split in half and the sweet-yet-salty orange roe scooped out with bread, or as a sauce with pasta. The ricci season runs from winter to early spring: try the kiosks along the sea road from Bari southwards.
9. Sip sparkling wine in Locorotondo
With its white-washed buildings beacon-bright on a hilltop in the rural Valle d’Itria, the town of Locorotondo is enchantingly pretty. Locals chat and lower baskets out of top windows, almost as if they’ve been hired from central casting. This area is known for its fresh, lightly sparkling white wine, and this is a great place to taste and buy a bottle. Head for the local cooperative Cantina Sociale del Locorotondo.
POLIGNANO A MARE © PAOLO PETRIGNANI
10. Take a clifftop walk in coastal Polignano al Mare
With blazing-white houses seeming almost to grow out of chalk-white seacliffs, Polignano is the buzziest town on the northern coast, attracting Northern Italians in hordes over the summer: join them for the early evening passeggiata (stroll). It’s not overtaken by tourism, however: you’ll still see the local women sweeping their steps and elderly men shooting the breeze in the town piazzas.
GARGANO FORESTA UMBRA | PHOTO © HELMUT BERTA
11. Discover the Gargano Peninsular
Puglia’s northeastern peninsular has a character and landscape all of its own, with thickly wooded forests and a coast that alternates between white-sand beaches and cliffs. The lovely Zagare Bay is the perfect place for a paddle.
MALDIVES OF PESCOLUSE | PHOTO © PAOLO LAKU
12. Bask in the sands in the Maldives of Puglia
The clue is in the name of the Maldives of Puglia: take a dip at this southern beach on the Ionian coast. It’s fabulously perfect, with silky white sand and translucent water. In July and August, it’s overtaken by crowds of sun-worshippers, but visit off-season and you’ll have it practically to yourself.
13. See the frescos in Galatina
Head inland to the handsome town of Galatina in Salento to see the incredible frescoed interior of its 14th-century Chiesa di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria. It’s the exquisite home of a relic of Santa Caterina’s finger, brought back from Alexandria by a local noble.
14. Savour a gelato during the passeggiata in Lecce
The university town of Lecce is famous for its elaborately carved, golden-stone Baroque churches. It’s the capital of the Salento region where during the balmy season, from April to October, there’s always a throng enjoying the early evening passeggiata, eating ice cream (try Natale, just off Piazza Sant’Oronzo).
MARTINA FRANCA | PHOTO © GIORGIO GAURINI
15. Wander the marble streets of Martina Franca
Don’t miss Martina Franca – another hilltop town in the Valle d’Itria. Its historic centre is one of the grandest in the region, with churches and ornate mansions constructed out of pale marble, set off with window-boxes of blazing-red geraniums.
TORRE LAPILLO | PHOTO © CARLOS SOLITO
16. Soak in the sun on the coast near Torre Lapillo
During the season, you’ll want to hire a sunbed for a space on the broad, pale sweep of Torre Lapillo, one of Puglia’s finest beaches, lapped by the calm Ionian sea, and overlooked by one of the coastline’s fortified towers. To the north are flat rocks ideal for basking or fishing off, at the gloriously named Punta Prosciutto (Ham Point).
L’ORECCHIETTA | PHOTO © ANDREA RUGGERI
17. Eat orecchiette at L’Orecchietta
The local speciality ‘little ear’ pasta is made from only flour and water, its firm shell shapes ideally paired with ragù sauce, tomato or bitter-tasting cime di rapa, which resembles fine broccoli. Find out why these are so adored at family-run pasta shop turned canteen L’Orecchietta
TARANTO MUSEUM | PHOTO © ANDREA RUGGERI
18. Visit the Taranto National Archaeological Museum
The historic centre of Taranto feels like you’ve stepped back in time, with crumbling 17th-century townhouses, and locals calling to each other from the balconies. However, the main reason to head to Taranto is to visit its wonderful, renovated, riches-packed museum, home to some fascinating Greek and Roman artefacts.
CASTELLANA CAVES | PHOTO © GIORGIA ESPOSITO
19. Explore the Castellana caves
Puglia’s biggest cave system, the Grotte di Castellana, close to Bari, is a subterranean, spiky wonderland of extraordinary organic rock formations. They’re visited via guided tour, either 50 minutes or two hours’ long, depending on how deep you want to go.
20. Have a spritz in Ostuni
The white city of Ostuni sits gleaming on a hilltop, visible from far and wide. Its polished stone streets are some of the most popular in the region. To get some bygone atmosphere, walk around the walls and duck into the backstreets, but to enjoy the summer cavalcade, park yourself on a piazza-side café and treat yourself to a sundowner.
TEXT: ABIGAIL BLASI