Three towns in Puglia, Italy Not to be Missed!

If you’ve been to Italy before, you know how crazy the tourist traffic can be, especially for the popular cities like Rome, Florence, and Venice and notable areas, like Tuscany and the Amalfi coast! Trust me, it can be really frustrating at times, when it feels like there’s nowhere to walk.

So when I read that southern Italy was becoming more and more popular, I worried. Was our upcoming vacation going to be elbow to elbow with everyone else’s vacation, too? And we were going in the heart of high season in Europe.

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What I found was that “busy” for southern Italy is all relative. Maybe busier that it’s been in the past? Busier than off-season? I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.

Image of people at the beach

This is the area of Puglia, the “heel” of the boot. It’s not on a lot of people’s radar when it comes to an Italian vacation. But I found that, even though I was booking 3-4 months out, there weren’t a lot of options for hotels, and the “masserie” (converted farmhouses) were often full. So be sure to look well in advance of your stay.

Here are three “Must See” towns, a few “Maybe pass” (sorry if I upset anyone), and a few I never got to, but wish I had.

Must see:

Lecce.

Far south in the heel, Lecce is often referred to as the “Florence of the South” due to the many Baroque churches (over 40!) and buildings. If you’re like me, after a while you can’t remember one from another, but they are still very beautiful and worth a visit.

The Duomo (Cathedral) in my book, is the most spectacular, along with the underground crypt. We took the elevator to the top of the tower, and while enjoyable, I didn’t think it was worth the cost. And as of my visit, the very top was off limits due to renovation.

Inside of the Duomo

The hotel I selected was Patria Palace, which was the most expensive of the three, but well worth it, with an amazing view of the Basilica di Santa Croce from our room. The box of chocolates and bottle of sparkling wine as a welcome gift didn’t hurt, either. Perfectly located, the hotel was within walking distance of all the major attractions of the city. As with all European hotels, I tend to judge them on their breakfast options, and Patria Palace did not disappoint!

The view of the Basilica from our room!

Lecce has a fun and lively “old town” at night, especially outside the Piazza del Duomo, with shops, restaurants, street vendors and gelaterias. Shops close up by 8:30 or 9pm, so plan accordingly.

A day trip to nearby Otranto is well worth the drive. Otranto is a beautiful town on the coast, and the most eastern city in Italy. If you’re looking for great boutiques and a gorgeous coastline with beaches, be sure to stop here.

The beach at Otranto, the eastern-most city in Italy.

Matera.

Ok, Matera isn’t technically in Puglia. But it’s just a few steps outside, in Basilicata, and so worth a visit! Driving up from Taranto along the west coast of the heel, flat and drab landscapes gave way to lush Tuscan-looking hillsides with miles and miles of olive trees and vineyards.

Matera is built on, or more precisely, into a cliff. Known as Sassi (rocks), Matera is thought to be the third oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Up until the 1950s, it was an area of shame and embarrassment for the government. People were living in squalor – whole families with their animals in one room. After WWII, residents were forcefully removed from the area to more modern quarters. Beginning in the 1980s, however, people slowly began to move back, to what is now a more developed area with hotels, restaurants and churches.

Stairwells and Alleyways of the Sassi of Matera

The Sassi are a maze of walkways, courtyards and stairs, and best explored with a tour guide. We were able to arrange one through our hotel the day we arrived. Word to the wise: have good walking shoes and be prepared for lots of stairs.

A view of our room inside a cave!

The hotel I selected here was Palazzo del Duca, an historic building built into the cliff, overlooking the Sassi from high. We marveled at how they could place modern amenities (Wifi, electricity, TV, etc) into original stone features, but they did! The location and view were spectacular. Dinner was outside on the terrace overlooking the Sassi and breakfast the next morning was inside a cave!

Tip: Parking is prohibited in the Sassi, and notoriously difficult to find elsewhere. We arranged to park at a nearby garage (WEGOTO Parking – arrange through the hotel) just outside of town, where they offered shuttle service near to/from our hotel.

Alberobello.

It seems that everyone knows of Alberobello these days, due to the trulli (conical shaped huts) that are associated with the town. In truth, they are all through the nearby countryside, but especially congregated here.

A walk around this small town and you’ll quickly find the tourist area in the upper part, where you’ll discover shops selling all sorts of crafts, olive oils and more. Continue on, though, to the Rione Aia Piccola on the eastern side. Many of the trulli here are family owned homes and less touristy.

Conical shaped trulli homes

The hotel I selected here, just outside of the town but within walking distance, was La Corte Dell’astore. Set on a hillside looking away from town, it had a lovely view with a pool. Our room was actually a renovated trullo (exactly what I wanted!). It came with a kitchenette and sofa, but an a/c unit that simply couldn’t keep up with the intense summer heat. Never mind, the evenings were cool and open windows made all the difference.

The beautiful homes in Locorotondo brightly adorned with flowers.

I thoroughly enjoyed this whole region, full of rolling hills, farmland and stone walls (similar to New England!) and the nearby towns of Locorotondo, Cisternino and Martina Franca only added to the pleasure. All towns are within easy driving distance, so take a day to explore, and plan to have lunch in Cisternino, known for “Fornelli pronto”. With this, you select your meat on a skewer at a butcher shop and they cook it for you while you wait. If you sit to eat, expect to pay a service charge; otherwise, do take-away and sit on a nearby bench. We had planned to eat at Trattoria Bere Vecchie, which came highly recommended, but we were too early. Instead, we went next door to Ristobraceria Fornello Pronto and had an amazing meal.

Be sure to stop for lunch in Cisternino!

Places to pass on:

  • I wasn’t all that impressed with Gallipoli. We vacationed just north of there in a house on the coast, which was wonderful. The nearby beaches are beautiful, but the town didn’t do all that much for me.
  • Santa Maria di Leuca, at the southernmost tip of the heel, didn’t impress me, either, although they did have a nice boat ride to the east and west of the tip to see natural caves carved by the sea.

A couple places I wished I’d had time for:

  • The Gargano Peninsula. An area with real mountains, and according to the Mini Rough Guide to Puglia, is “discovered but not wrecked with tourism.” The outskirts are dotted with towns, but there is an ancient forest and national park within the peninsula.
  • Bari & Polignano a Mare, two larger sea-side towns worth looking into!

Getting there:

You can fly into Brindisi (BDS), like I did, or further north, into Bari (BRI). At the time of the visit, I had a reservation for EasyJet out of Milan, but missed my connection (long story…). Determined to arrive that same night, we purchased a last-minute flight on ITA and all was well. Several airlines, big and small, fly there, so be sure to look around for best schedules and prices.

Recommendations for getting around:

You really do need to rent a car in this area of the country. It’s less populated and therefore, fewer options by train or bus, that are not convenient at all. But especially with a car, you’ll find that parking is challenging. And always look for the parking “meter” to pay for your spot, lest you end up pleading ignorance and begging forgiveness through ‘google translate’ with the parking attendant, like I did!

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