Start Planning Your Next Trip to This Underrated Italian Region
Move over Amalfi. Puglia is Italy’s new southern hotspot for its laid back non-touristy vibe, and “very Italian” authenticity. Discover the best of Italy’s ‘heel’ with this Puglia road trip itinerary, taking in the region’s best beaches, historic towns, and of course, bellissimo food!
Our Puglia road trip begins in Bari (Puglia’s main airport), journeying right around the Salento peninsula – Italy’s heel – where the Adriatic and Ionian Seas meet. We’ve covered the very best of Puglia on this Puglia road trip. All you have to do is drive!
Polignano a Mare
Perched over the Adriatic coast, about 40 minutes south of Bari airport, Polignano a Mare feels like being in a white-washed fairytale village – within fort-like walls rising above the sea. This tiny old town is deemed the jewel of Puglia by locals, so it’s the perfect starting point for a Puglian adventure. Cala Porto beach is small but spectacular, dotted with pebbles, and rimmed with cavernous limestone cliffs over dazzling teal waters.
Narrow stone pathways are made for exploring on foot – be sure to follow the coastal walkway for spectacular views back towards the beach. Eat at Mint Cucina Fresca, or in a seaside cave at Grotta Palazzese, and have the best mojito outside Cuba at La Casa del Mojito. Tackle Polignano in a day, or spend a night or two in a chic Airbnb, but whatever you do, don’t skip this Italian treasure.
Famous for its curious Trulli houses is the tiny town of Alberobello – a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site that feels more like a magical village where Smurfs or Hobbits or other fantastical characters might dwell. You’ll know when you’ve arrived at Alberobello: hundreds of adjoining white-washed stone huts decorate the hillside with their grey cone roofs rising up above them. Trulli construction dates back to the 14th century, but as a modern must-stop on every tourist’s map, many of Alberobello’s buildings now house charming craft shops and restaurants.
Visit for an afternoon, a day, or stay in a Trullo of your very own! Stop in for a vino at Trulli e Puglia Wine Bar, and pick up some cheese, meats, and other local delights at Salumeria Gourmet. Alberobello is 30 minutes southwest of Polignano a Mare.
Known as “The White City,” Ostuni beautifully channels Mykonos, overlooking olive groves to the sea. Its neatly packed limestone buildings envelop a coastal hillside, like a bright white tiara that glows in the sunlight. One day in Ostuni is plenty to explore its monuments and medieval buildings which include the Sant’Oronzo Spire, Ostuni Town Hall, and Ostuni Cathedral.
Sit in the lively main square for aperitivo in the sinking sunlight. Meander up and down tiny alleyways for a trove of quaint restaurants, wine bars, and boutiques. Eat at Ristorante Taverna della Gelosia, and stay in a rural masseria (a fortified farmhouse), such as San Paolo Grande. Ostuni is a 40-minute drive south of both Polignano a Mare and Alberobello.
The old town of Lecce unfolds like a Baroque masterpiece of cathedrals and grand old buildings that transport you to another world. Mornings are lively with tourists, then things quieten down during siesta, and come alive again at around 5 pm when aperitivo kicks off and a buzzy nighttime scene ensues. Visitors and local university students spill into wine and mixology bars, and open-air theater plays out in ancient stone amphitheaters. Simply getting lost in Lecce’s ancient winding alleyways is the best way to soak up this spectacular history lesson, but be sure to check out Lecce Cathedral, Piazza Sant’Oronzo, and the Roman Amphitheater.
B & Bs (not hotels) are the done thing here – many are located inside the old town, immersing guests in the historic soul of Lecce. While parking can be tough, and lugging suitcases is hard to avoid, it’s all worth the effort. Have espresso and pastries at Caffè Alvino; dine at Le Zie Trattoria. Lecce is just under an hour south of Ostuni.
Grotta della Poesia, Torre dell’Orso & Torre Sant’Andrea
The coastal stretch between Lecce and Otranto is unmissable for its bevy of coastal wonders that begin in the teeny town of Roca. Here, Grotta della Poesia (Cave of Poetry), is a 100 foot-wide sinkhole (and glorious swim spot) nestled at the edge of the sea. About five minutes down the coast, Torre dell’Orso is deemed by many as boasting Puglia’s best beaches. They unfold along 800 sandy meters between high cliffs and sand dunes, gazing out at rock formation, Le Due Sorelle (The Two Sisters) – one of the most photographed in the region.
Next is Torre Sant’Andrea, where more giant rock formations protrude from the shimmering sea – evocative of Big Sur or Australia’s Great Ocean Road. Spend an afternoon or a couple of days exploring these coastal spots, with several resorts and plenty of beach clubs to choose from. Be sure to stop by Dentoni for some legendary gelato – poised right over the beach.
Next on this Puglia road trip is this historic port town, a popular escape for vacationing Italians. Deemed one of Puglia’s most charming and picturesque towns, Otranto is also Italy’s easternmost, gazing out across dazzling Adriatic waters towards the Balkans and Greece. The imposing 15th century Castle of Otranto, and thick fort-like perimeter walls surround narrow walkways filled with charming boutiques and open-air market stalls. A series of sea-front promenades and the spectacular turquoise beach are perfect for strolling, view-gazing, and splashing about.
You could rush your way around Otranto in a day, but given its size, beautiful long beach, and many dining, shopping and accommodation options, Otranto can make a great base from which to explore other parts of the region. Sip on an Aperol spritz looking right up the beach, at Borderline Cafe; eat uber-contemporary Puglian cuisine at LaltroBuffo. Otranto is 35 minutes southeast of Lecce.
The Beaches of Puglia
Other worthwhile beach stops stretching down the coast from Otranto, to Santa Maria di Leuca, and up to Gallipoli in the west include Santa Cesarea, Castro, Marina Serra, Marina do Pescoluse (The Maldives of Puglia), and Punta della Suina. Each beach comes in its own ombre of aquas and azures. Most feature beach clubs and each has its own chilled out vibe. Settle in at one, or beach hop to your heart’s content. Have seafood lunch right on the water in Santa Maria di Leuca’s Lido Azzurro; sip Aperol spritz on the waterfront deck at Punta della Suina’s super laid back beach bar.
In the southwest corner of Puglia lies the old island town of Gallipoli, meaning “beautiful city” in Greek (coastal towns of Gallipoli, Otranto, and Taranto were all founded by Greek colonists). This former maritime trading hub has evolved to more of a seaside summer escape adored by Europeans. The old town sits high, surrounded by fort-like walls, calm waters, and neat rows of blue-and-white fishing boats that prettily channel the region’s cultural past. This final stop on our Puglia road trip is a must-see.
Eating in Gallipoli is a must – and seafood (naturally) is a fixture on menus at both alfresco patio tables or inside ancient walls. Bask in a stunning sunset with aperitivo at La Riviera’s Cafe del Mar; eat Moorish seafood at La Puritate. Gallipoli is 13 minutes north Punta della Suina, 40 minutes north Santa Maria di Leuca and 50 minutes west of Otranto.
Photo Credits: Julia Ingall