The Top 10 Reasons to Visit Puglia, Italy (Take It From a Local!)
The Puglia (pronounced pool-ya) region—or Apulia, as it is known in English—is one of Italy's loveliest undiscovered gems. Among Italy's 20 different regions, Puglia is easily identified on the map, as it runs down the east coast of the country from the Gargano Peninsula all the way into the “heel of the boot”.
Puglia borders the Adriatic Sea and the Ionian Sea, and in the south, it kisses the Gulf of Taranto and the Strait of Otranto. It has a population of just over 4 million within an area of 19,345 square kilometres.
Interestingly, Puglia is one of the largest and most populated of the 20 regions, yet it remains an enigma to many outside of Italy. The region is divided into 6 different communes, all of which harbor many reasons to visit. This made selecting just 10 reasons to visit quite difficult for this writer whose love affair with the area began 5 years ago.
The area saw increased interest from foreign buyers worldwide starting in the 1990s, and the percentage of foreign residents now equates to approximately 2% of the population.
The 10 Best Reasons to Visit Puglia
In no particular order of preference, here are 10 of my favorite reasons to visit Puglia.
- The Gargano Peninsula Is Stunning
- It's Less Touristy and Less Commercial
- Bari, the Capital of Puglia, Has It All
- The Trulli of Puglia Are Beautiful and Unique
- Lecce, Pearl of the Baroque, Is an Architectural Wonder
- The Rustic Food Can't Be Beat
- Puglia's Beaches Are Breathtaking
- The People Are Vibrant and Hospitable
- Ostuni, the White City, Is a Historical Treasure
- Otranto Is Perfect for Sun and Sightseeing
1. The Gargano Peninsula Is Stunning
One of the lesser-known places in the region, this peninsula is one of the most important, interesting and varied areas in Puglia; it also boasts the area's most stunning vistas. Within the commune of Foggia, this sub-region is the most northerly part of Puglia.
A Paradise for Nature Lovers
With something for everyone, particularly the nature lovers, the peninsula includes the Gargano National Park (Parco Nazionale del Gargano), the Umbra Forrest (Foresta Umbra) and the Tremiti Islands.
The Gargano peninsula has lakes, hiking tracks, protected wildlife, medieval towns, historic sites, stunning beaches, caves and wonderful traditional food. The aroma of citrus is one you will not be able to avoid, as hundreds of lemon trees grow in abundance alongside the olive tree groves. Spending a week here is easy, and even then, you still may not see everything.
This is heaven for orchid lovers, with the largest amount of species growing in one place in all of Europe. Many varieties are unknown—such is the extraordinary number of these beautiful flowers here.
This area is, without a doubt, a must-see spot in my opinion. A visit to this former island is sure to be a highlight of your trip.
2. It's Less Touristy and Less Commercial
My reasons to visit here have to include it being less commercial. Yes, it has a tourism industry and gets busy in summer, but I still find Puglia to be so much more relaxed, friendlier and less commercialized than a vast many places I have seen in Italy.
Everyone is different and wants different things from travelling, but I find stepping outside my comfort zone refreshing and so much more beneficial. Puglia has unspoilt, beautiful beaches free of commercial businesses such as restaurants, shops, towering hotels and sun loungers.
Be Sure to Learn a Little Italian Before Visiting Puglia
Very few Italians in this region speak English. The bigger cities and towns will have more English speakers, but still not as many as you might expect.
My biggest tip is to be prepared and learn some basics; I know I did, and my pocket phrasebook was permanently in my handbag as I explored the region and certainly looks well used! My choice was the Lonely Planet phrasebook, and I find their books on Italy are excellent—a must for getting to know the place you are visiting.
3. Bari, the Capital of Puglia, Has It All
Bari is the largest city in Puglia, with an international airport, a major port and a wealth of reasons to visit. Situated in the commune of Bari, the city is a seaside gem that boasts an interesting historic centre which is constantly busy with visitors.
Within the historic centre (identified by its ancient city walls) lies a wealth of churches, monuments, piazzas, theaters and narrow cobble-stoned streets.
Architecture, History, Shopping, and More
A highlight includes Basilica di San Nicola, or The Church of Saint Nicolas. Regarded to be the resting home for Santa Claus, this is Bari’s top attraction. Built in 1087 to house the remains of the saint, the church features many different architectural styles, beautiful artwork and mosaics.
For shopping enthusiasts, head to Corso Cavour, Via Sparano and Via Manzoni.
A Great Home Base From Which to Explore the Rest of Italy
Bari makes a great base from which to explore the Gargano or venture further south down the coast to Lecce or Taranto.
It also has a busy train network which makes connecting with all parts of Italy very easy. A mere 4-hour train journey west will have you in Rome if you fancy a day trip or want to divide your holiday time between the east and west.
Being a port, travel to nearby Greece, Turkey and The Balkans is an ideal opportunity to avail of visiting a new country, so keep it in mind.
4. The Trulli of Puglia Are Totally Unique
These conical-roofed stone dwellings are unique to Puglia. Originating in the town of Alberobello in the 16 century BC, the trulli spread throughout the nearby towns of Martina Franca, Conversano, Locorotondo and Cisternino.
Alberobello is known as the capital of these unusual and interesting limestone dwellings, with over 1,000 in existence, making it a must-see destination.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site
In 1996, it was designated a world heritage site by UNESCO. I have been inside a variety of trulli, and it is amazing to think entire families would have lived inside these tiny stone houses. Today many are restored and added to in order to make them more functional for modern living.
Properties may have a single cone or be multi-coned, with up to 10 "turrets". We looked at different properties to purchase in a trullo style, as we love their quirkiness, uniqueness and structure.
You Can Stay in a Trullo!
If you are visiting Puglia, you should avail of the opportunity of staying in one or renting one out. The experience will be unlike anything you'll find anywhere else in the world.
History of the Trulli in Alberobello
5. Lecce, Pearl of the Baroque, Is an Architectural Wonder
Another favorite place is the town of Lecce in the south, part of the Salento peninsula. Lecce is often referred to as the Pearl of the Baroque or the Florence of the South due to its staggering amounts of spectacular baroque-style architecture.
The beauty with Lecce is that it has everything—unparalleled history, architecture, great food and shopping. It is also near an international airport and port in Brindisi, making it a great base to explore the southern parts of Puglia.
Some of the best beaches in Puglia are located around Lecce, and where else can you enjoy a leisurely cappuccino within arm’s reach of an ancient Amphitheater, still partially buried?
Lecce is a popular holiday destination for many celebrities; Dame Helen Mirren even owns a property here.
6. The Rustic Food Can't Be Beat
The Puglia region is predominantly agricultural, and many of the locals continue to produce their own food and live off the land. They take a lot of pride in their traditional recipes.
40% of Italy’s olive oil production comes from Puglia, and the region is one of the main wine-producing areas of Italy. We have 15 mature olive trees that produce the olives suited for olive oil production which I cannot wait to use. My very own beautiful product homegrown and an essential cooking ingredient! We even have some grape vines growing on trellises. I would be more than happy with having some grapes to eat, never mind a bottle of vino.
An Abundance of Fresh Produce, Meat, and Seafood
With the amount of produce available, most of the cooking is good, rustic country food, with many recipes handed down through the generations. Ingredients such as tomatoes, onions, fava beans, durum wheat, courgettes, artichokes, chilies, peppers, beans, fennel, herbs, lamb and beef are commonly used.
Being a coastal region, the fishing industry is big in Puglia, and seafood comprises an important part of the diet here. Cuttlefish, mussels, anchovies, sea bream, red mullet and sea bass are regularly featured in recipes.
Orecchiette—A Point of Pride
Pasta is naturally a big favorite, but in Puglia, they take particular pride in their orecchiette pasta. These small, ear-shaped shells are made daily by hand by the Italian ladies and can often be found on a table outside their home in the towns.
If you wander up a side street in the morning, you are bound to see this. Why not stop and have a go? Many of these signoras will be only too delighted to show the art of making them. Traditional Puglia pasta is made with water, salt and durum wheat flour. No eggs are used.
Homemade Bread Worthy of a DoP Classification
Homemade bread is another favourite in Puglia. In remote villages, communal wood-burning ovens are still used by the locals for making bread; it comes in many shapes, sizes and varieties and accompanies every meal here.
Altamura, a town in the west of Puglia was the first place in Europe to be granted the prestigious DoP classification (Denomination of Origin of production) for its bread.
When McDonald's opened in Puglia, the locals—preferring to eat their own bread in dishes—did not visit the mighty chain and subsequently forced the burger joint to close and move on! McDonald's is not something you will find easily in Puglia!
Rosticceria and Local Vino
Another speciality in Puglia, particularly in the town of Cisternino, is a tradition performed by rosticceria butchers. You pick out the cut of meat and watch while the butcher cooks it immediately on a charcoal grill or in a wood-burning stove. This dish is definitely worth trying, and it's an ideal time to try one of the locally produced wines.
Wine and Desserts of Puglia With Antonio Carluccio
The Almond- and Ricotta-Based Desserts Are Irresistible
Desserts feature strongly in Puglia. Friends of ours who are Irish and Welsh get up early to go to town and buy fresh pastries for breakfast. We have been to their home for coffee, and the delicious, fresh-from-the-bakery pastries are hard to resist.
Almond-based deserts are common, as almonds are widely grown here. Ricotta cheese is another ingredient featuring heavily in sweets.
Puglia Is the Place to Sample Real Italian Cooking
The food in Puglia has opened up our eyes to truly authentic Italian cooking. It may not be the most famous throughout Italy, but it is full of natural goodness, quality ingredients and age-old traditions.
The friendliness we have received has been one of the most charming reasons we love this area. You have not tasted real Italian cuisine until you eat in Puglia.
Learn About Puglia's Burrata Cheese
7. Puglia's Beaches Are Breathtaking
Running along the east coast, it should be no surprise to hear that beaches in Puglia are numerous and beautiful. No matter where in Puglia you find yourself, you are never far from a beach, which is a big advantage of this region.
The weather here is hot in summer and often still warm and sunny up until November and even December. We have been in November expecting it to be more like our own weather in Ireland and have been pleasantly surprised by how warm it was.
In between Casalabate and San Cataldo down in the south of Puglia lies a stretch of beach which is rarely busy. Turquoise waters gently lap the golden sands, and this beach hides a special secret in the dunes. Hidden in the water 50m from shore is a shipwreck. The ship was sunk by the British Navy in 1941.
How cool would it be to take a deep breath and dive down to wander around the hull and beams? The water is not too deep, so it's a great opportunity to do something different and make a lasting memory.
On the map below are more great beaches highlighted and some places I have found; they were so small and deserted that I have no idea what they are called.
Puglia's Best Beaches
8. The People Are Vibrant and Hospitable
Italian people are passionate, warm, hospitable, family-oriented and very serious about their food. The Pugliese people are no different and love celebrations and socializing, which for them usually is done around the table at home or in a local restaurant.
When a family goes out to eat, what I love is to see the entire family, all the generations from small children to elderly grandparents included. No matter the time, children are always welcomed and never turned away.
Meals are a family affair. Whether you're eating at home or dining out, food is a very important part of Italian life. Puglia is no exception, and at lunchtime, you will see a mass exodus from businesses while things shut down for at least 2 hours (often longer).
The piazzas (or squares) in the villages, towns and cities are the focal point for many Italians to meet, socialize, and go for their age-old Italian custom and tradition of la passeggiata.
The pub culture many of us are familiar with does not exist in Puglia. It is replaced by cafes and restaurants, and I don’t remember seeing one person rowdy, aggressive and stumbling around the streets from too much alcohol.
Our Neighbor Grazia: A Wonderfully Kind and Friendly Person
I love the cafe scene, and a Saturday night in Puglia is very different from one spent in Dublin. An example of the local hospitality is the first time we met our new neighbor Grazia (Grat – zee – ah).
As with many rural properties in this area, families own a large amount of land that has been sub-divided into separate properties for the children over the years. Our property was owned by a guy whose sister owned the adjoining property.
One morning as we were cleaning the place, I heard someone calling “Ciao”. I looked outside to see a small middle-aged lady waving energetically at me. I waved back and walked towards her across our land into hers. She wanted us to come for coffee, which she conveyed in charade-like gestures and Italian as she spoke no English. So off we went—phrasebook in hand—into her small, traditional house, which turned out to be her “summer house”. She lived 10 kilometers away!
That was to be the first of many memorable coffees and lunches we would share with Grazia and her elderly brother. The meals were always freshly prepared with produce she grew or made, and watching her whip up pasta from scratch was very special.
We would often find bags or plates of fresh vegetables, fruits and nuts—all homegrown—that she had left for us. It has truly been an eye-opener into the culture and traditions of Puglia, and seeing Grazia is one of the things we most looked forward to as we prepared to move permanently.
Did You Know?
Puglia produces more olive oil than any other region of Italy.
As the south is referred to as the heel, The Gargano Peninsula is known as the spur.
Silent-film star Rudolph Valentino was from Puglia.
9. Ostuni, the White City, Is a Historical Treasure
Ostuni—known as The White City—lies high up in the hills and is an awesome sight from the coastal road. A mere 11 kilometers from where we live, it is a place we love visiting, with a wonderful mix of sights, shops and restaurants.
We have been in the winter months when tourists are sparse, and it is a delight to wander around the ancient cobblestone mazes and stumble upon some unexpected and very memorable moments.
Keep an Eye Out for "Hidden" Restaurants in Ostuni
Ostuni is popular with tourists and a favorite bus-trip venue to stop at. With its hilltop location, it provides breathtaking views across to the Adriatic. The old, historic center is full of beautiful churches and buildings. In my opinion, it is a very artistic place. Wonderful craft shops with locally made crafts are there and well worth a visit.
We prefer eating off the beaten track, so we go where the locals eat in Ostuni. Often, they do not appear to be restaurants to the untrained eye, which we found to be interesting. Once inside, though, these restaurants are a hive of activity with wonderfully rustic cooking, friendly faces, no English spoken and sometimes no menu!
We just say si grazie (or yes thank you) and see what appears! Sometimes we have no idea what we are eating, and sometimes it may not be to our taste, but you know what? It is still amazing, and course after course will appear in Italian fashion (up to nine courses is not unheard of).
10. Otranto Is Perfect for Sun and Sightseeing
In the commune of Lecce in the south of Puglia, Otranto boasts 10 kilometers of beautiful beaches with turquoise blue waters and well-known diving rocks. This town is extremely popular with Italian tourists and a sprinkling of foreign visitors annually, looking for sun, sea and a bit of sightseeing and nightlife.
Originally known for its breed of horse, Otranto is also a historic port town which was originally busier and more important than the closeby port of Brindisi.
The cathedral is worth visiting to see the amazing mosaic floor, and like every Italian town, Otranto has a castle. The Castello Aragonese was rebuilt in the late 15th century.
Capa Palascia—or Capo d’Otranto, as it is known—is the most easterly point in Italy and home to a lighthouse that is one of five Mediterranean lighthouses protected by the European Commission.
More on the Best of Puglia
- Readers' Tips: The best of Puglia | Travel | The Guardian
Down in Puglia, the heel of Italy's boot, readers recommend hotels and restaurants in caves, ancient towns, deserted beaches and to-die-for agriturismos
Have you ever been to Puglia?
Must-See Places in Puglia
© 2013 Suzanne Ridgeway