Puglia, Italy: the Ultimate Guide

Seabirds and swallows sing overhead, dancing in the golden light reflections upon historical buildings of white limestone as the sun begins to set. Sounds of waves crashing against rocks below echo through town, as the sweet and refreshing smell of salt from the vibrant blue-green Adriatic Sea penetrates your nostrils. Travelers navigate through narrow cobblestone streets, adorned in twinkling lights as the ambience of glasses clinking upon one another sets up an evening to remember. Platefuls of handmade pasta, tossed with seasonal ingredients accompanied by the freshest and creamiest local cheeses play the protagonist at every table. Puglia, Italy, occupying the “Heel of the Boot”, is one of the country's best regions and the gem of the Adriatic.
Prepared By:

Ryan Tingle

Because it’s ranked among the most-visited countries in the world each year, it can be challenging for travelers to find the less touristy destinations in Italy. Puglia, however, still remains authentic and, in a lot of circumstances, feels a bit untouched. Italians have known it for years, but the rest of the world is just starting to discover everything that Puglia has to offer. Here’s everything you need to know about visiting Puglia, Italy, including how to get around, what to eat, and the best towns to visit. 

Monopoli, Puglia, Italy

How to Get to Puglia

Getting to Puglia is actually quite simple, yet time-consuming. While there are flights into Bari and Brindisi, they can often be limited in availability and/or pricey, depending on the season. Although flights are much faster than most train rides, the simplest way to Puglia is via train. Traveling via train from northern Italy, such as Milan, to destinations like Bari and Lecce  in the southern portion of Italy’s “boot” takes about eight to ten hours. The train may take up half of your day, but slow travel options like trains offer a really unique and rewarding way to see the change of landscape and scenery from Northern to Southern Italy. Always plan for an extra day when traveling to Southern Italy, as it is never as easy as it seems to get there. Travelers should also be prepared for potential train and flight delays, which are very common especially during peak tourist seasons.

How to Get Around in Puglia

From Bari to Lecce, it is simple to travel via train. Stops along the coast in places like Monopoli, Polignano a Mare, Ostuni and Brindisi are easy and cheap. A ticket from Bari to Polignano, for example, is only €2.80 and trains run every thirty minutes. Other destinations that are more inland, like the famous trulli town of Alberobello, can be accessed by a mix of trains and buses, but it just isn’t worth it.

To truly explore Puglia at its best, a rental car is needed. The transportation in Puglia and the South in general is unreliable and only gets worse in the high tourist season. Driving a car in Puglia is very easy as the roads are flat and open. Having a car allows visits to many more places as nothing is ever that far off and you will be able to do it on your own time. You can explore multiple towns, wineries, olive groves, pristine beaches, cliff-side ocean views and excellent restaurants all in a day with a car. Relying on a train or bus schedule will have you spending the majority of your time in a station. Rent a car; it’s worth it.

Food in Puglia, Italy

Best Times to Visit Puglia

Puglia is one of those places that can be visited any time of the year, depending on what you’re looking for. The most popular and busiest season by far is the summer. Italians and other Europeans flock to Puglia for the summer atmosphere. The beaches are crowded, but the sunswept sands and crystal clear waters of the Adriatic play host to some of the best beaches in Italy.  Pugliese culture is on full display during the summer season. The streets are filled with live music, the beaches are busy, outdoor restaurants abound in every direction, and the nightlife is energetic. This makes for an extremely memorable summer vacation!

Keep in mind that every August in Italy is “Ferragosto”. The exact holiday is actually August 15th. However, Ferragosto is the time period when Italians all over the country close down their businesses and have time off of work to enjoy a summer holiday. During the mass exodus, a large number of Italians make their way directly to Puglia, so expect prices to go up and for it to be harder to find accommodation. With June, July, and August being the peak season in Puglia, September makes for a very nice time to visit as the weather is still warm and sunny with fewer tourists running around. For travelers seeking the quiet authenticity of Puglia, winter is the perfect time to visit. In contrast to the busy summer months, winter offers travelers a chance to experience Puglia’s charm without the crowds. Uncrowded streets provide opportunities to explore and embrace local culture. Getting lost in the back streets of a city is one of the best ways to understand the local way of life. In just a few minutes of wandering, you’ll easily be able to see how locals live. The majority of places are shut down for the season, but this gives the opportunity to explore the more hidden and local places.

Learn a little bit of Italian for a special experience with the locals as they can’t help themselves but show you around with their warm personality and hospitality. Prices of accommodation and food take a steep drop during the winter, making travel very affordable. Foodies will be rewarded with seasonal ingredients, as two of Puglia’s most famous dishes, Orecchitte Cime di Rapa and Fava e Cicorie, excell during the winter months.

Speaking Italian in Puglia

Language barriers are an important factor when visiting Puglia and Southern Italy in general. Some people speak English, especially in the very touristy areas like Alberobello. Although, for the most part, English is not a widely-spoken language. Learning a little bit of Italian before visiting Puglia will take you a very, very long way. It will allow you to get around easily, locals will respect you, and it gives you the opportunity to experience some true, authentic, Pugliese culture. Take the time before visiting a place like Puglia to learn some basic phrases in Italian.

Hats hang in Monopoli, Puglia, Italy

Best Places to Visit in Puglia, Italy


Italy’s Most Underrated City

Bari gets a weird reputation around Italy as it is mostly known as an industrial port, but it may be one of the most underrated cities in the entire country. The sunny weather, colorful buildings, seaside views, Old Town streets, and food culture make it a great weekend getaway or stop along any adventure through Puglia. Bari is every bit of the word “authentic.”

Speaking of the Old Town, the Bari Vecchia area is truly enchanting. The tiny and tight cobblestone streets twist through old, cream-colored buildings, draped in twinkling lights and laundry. I have never been able to find out what it is about laundry hanging out of windows in Southern Italy that makes it charming, but it just is. There’s nothing more authentic in Bari than watching a little grandma come out on her balcony with a cigarette hanging from her mouth while beating the water out of a sheet. This scene is in every direction in Bari Vecchia and it is simply magical.

orecchiette in Bari, Puglia, Italy

If you find laundry hanging in beautiful Italian streets to be weirdly romantic like me, then Bari’s most famous cultural identity will make you melt. Pasta Grandmas. Yeah, you heard that right. To be more precise, Orecchiete Nonnas. When it comes to food, Bari has a bit of everything that Puglia has to offer, but none is as special as the experience of Strada delle Orecchiette, located directly across from Castello Svevo di Bari. It’s amazing to watch how fast these beautiful ladies knead semolina before rapidly shaping it into the delicious ear-shaped pasta, orecchiette, like it’s nothing. They sit in front of their houses every morning for hours, making and selling fresh pasta as tourists pass by and watch. Their beautiful, wrinkled hands put on an absolute show as they crack jokes while cranking out massive amounts of orecchiete.

Not only do they excel in orecchiette making but also with Puglia’s most famous snack, taralli. These happy little crunchy snacks are the perfect pairing to an aperitivo and are made only with wine, olive oil and flour before boiling and baking. Each Nonna has their own special taralli with different flavors like onion or tomato that they claim to be the best, so I recommend trying them all! The only way to properly walk around Bari Vecchia is with multiple bags of taralli in your hands. If you’re looking for even more of a cultural and foodie experience, visit Nunzia, the most famous Nonna of Strada delle Orecchiette. You can make a reservation to eat her homemade pasta in her own house during a four-course meal. Is there any better street out there for fresh, homemade pasta and taralli? I don’t think so.

Outside of Bari Vecchia and Nonna Pasta Paradise, Bari is a very lively city. It is easy to find great restaurants and wine bars around every corner. Make sure to stop in Mastro Ciccio, one of the more unique sandwich shops out there. They are best known for the Octopus and Burrata panino, just as wild as it is delicious.


Puglia’s Seaside Paradise

Located about an hour’s train ride south of Bari, Monopoli is one of the best towns in Puglia. This ancient seaside port town is drowning in beauty and history. A lovely town for a stroll, Monopoli’s back streets are filled with cobblestones, white buildings, and splashes of color from miscellaneous decorations. The surrounding area is packed with hidden beaches and they are quickly reachable by walking along the pathway parallel to the shoreline. This town is perfect for a little afternoon Aperol Spritz followed by a refreshing soak in the crystal clear and blue Adriatic.

Boats in the harbor in Monopoli in Puglia, Italy

Down to its historical roots, Monopoli is ultimately a port town as its culture revolves around Porto Antico di Monopoli, or Ancient Port. The typical fishing boats of the area called “gozzi” call this port their home and assist in displaying a colorful scene in front of the old washed, historic city walls of the background. These beautiful little rowing boats range from three to five meters long and are always painted in a vibrant blue or red. Some of the gozzi still carry the historic lampara (lanterns) that once helped seafarers and fishermen navigate the waters in the dark. Exploring the port could feel a bit redundant as it is quite small, but the angles are seemingly endless.

Polignano a Mare

The Inspiration Behind “Volare

Nel blu dipinto di blu.” World famous lyrics by local legend, Domenico Modugno, from the song that most know as “Volare.” In English: “In the Blue, painted Blue.”

This is the perfect description of perhaps the most famous town of Puglia, Poligano a Mare. Perched upon some steep cliffs, the views of Polignano are breathtaking.

Polignano a Mare inspired the song

A walk through town is accompanied by the soothing sounds of waves crashing against the jagged rocks below. The narrow streets are picturesque and alluring, covered in words of poetry around every corner and painted onto buildings.”Questo luogo è stato creato prima del paradiso” – This place was created before heaven.

Overall, Poligano a Mare is quite touristy, but who is to blame? It’s worth it. The summer months are packed with travelers seeking gorgeous beaches, fluorescent blue waters, excellent seafood and, of course, cliff jumping. Polignano plays host every year to the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series.


As Seen on Instagram

While exploring the Itria Valley of Puglia, limestone, cone-shaped dwellings called trulli can be found just about everywhere. However, the highest concentration and best preserved trulli are found in the town of Alberobello, Puglia’s most touristic destination.

Let’s start with a disclaimer here: Social media has totally blown Alberobello out of proportion over the last few years, as the tiny UNESCO Heritage site just doesn’t handle the crowds so well. Furthermore, social media makes Alberobello look much bigger than it actually is. It only takes about 10-15 minutes to walk through the entire place. Is it one of a kind, interesting, and pretty? Yes. Is it worth pushing through a crowd of people to get that “perfect” insta photo? No. Not to say Alberobello is underwhelming, because it isn’t. It is very unique and worth seeing, but depending on what time of year you visit, maybe it is something to skip.

Trulli dwellings in Alberobello

In the winter, it is a ghost town, which allows you to truly understand the Trulli, but it also loses the charm a bit as nothing is open. What makes Alberobello fun is going into the actual Trulli to do some souvenir shopping or to enjoy a pastry. Unfortunately, the crowds during the busy season make it nearly impossible to walk through town. If you really want to enjoy Alberobello, get there as early as possible.

Dating back to as early as the 14th century, Trulli were constructed as shelters and storehouses for landowners and farmers. I like to think that they were either homes for hobbits or as a storage place for my favorite things from Puglia, wine and olives. Today, Alberobello is undoubtedly beautiful as many of the trulli have been transformed into store fronts, cafes, restaurants and even hotels. As mentioned before, it is very touristy compared to the rest of the area, but it is worth taking a stroll through to check out the historical architecture.

Gioia del Colle, Locorotondo & Martina Franca

Where the Foodies Flock

These destinations are only truly reachable by car, but if you’re a lover of cheese, meat, or wine, they’re worth it. The valley between these two towns is especially famous for its production of dairy, specifically the freshest Burrata you have ever laid eyes on. Local dairy farms and producers, known as “Caseficios”, are scattered all over this region as some of the best fresh cheeses from Italy are made here

A vineyard in Puglia, Italy

Every morning, fresh milk is transformed into pure happiness. Only open for a few hours at a time, locals make their way into their favorite Caseficio to grab the freshest of cheeses for the day. You can watch the cheesemongers work their magic as they shape milk into different shapes and sizes. There isn’t much more joy for a cheese addict than watching these magicians reveal a handmade ball of incomprehensible perfection from a bucket of wet, creamy brine. Burrata, Mozzarella, Caciocavallo, Stracciatella, Scamorza, Ricotta, fresh milk and yogurt are just some of the specialties you will find in any Caseficio around Gioia del Colle. Are you salivating yet?

Without wine, what is cheese? Puglia isn’t by any means the best region in Italy for wine, but it is well known for its incredible production of one of the most popular grapes in Italy, Primitivo. This full-bodied red wine thrives in a region full of sun and heat. The warmth of the region provides a wine with a high alcohol content, an intense deep ruby color with purple hues and beautiful aromas of dark fruit, berry jam, and violet. Primitivo is one of the most beloved Italian wines world wide, especially in the United States, for its ability as a great drinking wine with friends or a nice pairing to a special meal. Gioia del Colle is one of the best regions in Puglia for Primitivo thanks to its higher altitude, colder climate, and mineral-rich soils. These wines are a little more elegant than those further in the south around the Salento area, which are even more full-bodied. When visiting Puglia, it is easy to fall in love with Primitivo.

Italian food

Lastly, you need a little bit more to go with your fresh cheese and Primitivo. Martina Franca is a popular destination for its meats, especially the local butchers. For those carnivores out there, any local “Macellaio” will surely bring tears to your eyes. Different butchers in the area not only carve up a high quality piece of meat for you, but they take it to the extreme. The display case is open season as you choose each piece of meat that you would like to try and they cook it up on the spot. The most popular style from the region is the “Bombette,” piece of meat, pounded down onto a flat surface to then be stuffed with cheeses, seasonings, vegetables, etc. before it is rolled up and caramelized in a pan. If you enjoy the meat sweats, make your way to La Locanada del Macellaio for a unique experience.


Charming White-Walled Village

Ostuni is the place that too many people miss out on when visiting Puglia. This gorgeous hilltop town is known as “La Città Bianca,” or the White Town, for its beautiful white buildings. While driving down the highway or taking the train, you will be struck by the glowing buildings in the distance. The town is so white that it is nearly impossible to photograph in the middle of the day because of how bright it becomes.

Ostuni is known as the White Town in Puglia

Just a stone’s throw away from the sea and having a central location, Ostuni is a great base camp to explore Puglia. The hilltop position delivers gorgeous views of the surrounding valley and sea, influencing a cooler climate as it always receives a nice breeze from every direction. Puglia can get quite hot in the summer, but Ostuni is always home to refreshing nights. The alluring nightlife in Ostuni is one not to miss. Its tight, white streets sparkle with twinkling lights strung up in every direction.

The restaurant scene here is outstanding, as countless restaurants provide true, authentic Pugliese dishes. Nothing screams Puglia more than enjoying your evening outside in Ostuni, seated along the glimmering streets, voraciously savoring an Eggplant Parmesan and a bottle of Primitivo.


The Florence of the South

Known as “Florence of the South”, the enchanting town of Lecce attracts visitors every year for its close positioning to the sparkling blue sea and its spectacular Baroque architecture. This sunkissed city has a style unlike others with its history, swept streets of local stone, and an influence of multiple cultures. Travelers to Lecce are rewarded by sunbathing on the nearby beaches during the day, before exploring the timeless and elegant cobblestone streets in the evening to enjoy the lively wine bars and local dishes.

Considered by many as the cultural capital of Puglia, there is a vast significance of history in every direction. Thanks to its location at the bottom of Italy’s boot, Lecce is one of the most culturally diverse destinations in the country. The city was settled by numerous empires over thousands of years, including the Messapians, Arabs, Greeks, Romans, Normans and Spanish, all of whom are still seen today. Today’s majestic Barqoue architecture is much “newer”, only dating back to the 17th century restorations by the Spanish.

An aerial view of Lecce, the Florence of the South

Only a few kilometers away are the sun-drenched beaches of the Salento region. The most popular is the area around the town of Otranto, where the waters are crystal clear with vibrant shades of blue and green. Cliff jumping and cave swimming are popular activities here, as the area is littered with jagged rocks and sea caves, most notably, Grotta della Poesia. However, compared to the rocky beaches of the popular tourist destinations of the Amalfi Coast and Cinque Terre, this area is covered with soft sands and never ending areas for swimming. There is a good reason Italians rave about the beaches of Puglia, especially near Lecce, as the best place for an Italian summer vacation. Keep in mind though, a car is absolutely needed to explore these beaches due to the transportation around here being infamously unreliable.

Lecce in Puglia, Italy

The most popular treats from Lecce are pasticiotto. These incredible pastries are found throughout the city all day, but are mostly consumed for breakfast as they are the perfect companion to a cappuccino. The iconic pastry is made using a short crust, filled with pastry cream. Different bakeries may use other fillings such as nutella to add even more sweetness. Traditionally, the crust is made using lard rather than butter, so it’s  even softer than a regular crust. Pasticiotto are best consumed when fresh out of the oven, when they fall apart and melt in your mouth. I attempted to eat as many as I could one morning in Lecce to understand the different styles of pasticiotto, but after the third, I found that I could no longer move my body. These pastries are extremely tasty, but also very filling. If you’re looking to show off your summer body at the nearby beaches, maybe stick with one.


The Can’t-Miss Pit Stop

Matera isn’t actually part of Puglia, but rather the neighboring region of Basilicata. However, it is just over the border and is very easy to get to via car. It is reachable by bus from the Bari airport, but the schedule is very limited and hard to work around. If you have a car and are spending any amount of time in Puglia or the South in general, DO NOT MISS MATERA. Exploring this ancient city is unforgettable, and it’s one of the best destinations, not only in Italy, but in all of Europe.

Caves in Matera in Basilicata, Italy

Imagine yourself standing in a town about 9,000 years ago and you will find yourself in Matera. Of all the picturesque and famous towns in Europe, Matera might be the most stunning and magical of any of them. Incredibly, Matera has a history of being one of the oldest habitable cities in the world, dating back to the Palaeolithic era (10th millennium BC – the Old Stone Age).

Matera is considered the only place in the world where people still inhabit the same cliffside dwellings (known as Sassi) that their ancestors live in 9,000 years ago. Not much has changed over hundreds and thousands of years, and the caves are still in great condition. Today, they’re  used for shops, restaurants, inns, and hotels. Sleeping or enjoying an aperitivo in a cave in general is a unique experience, let alone one thousands of years old.

Nighttime skyline of Matera, Italy

Exploring the streets feels like walking back in time. Steep steps throughout town give sweeping panoramic views of the entire valley, while the more modern architecture of the tan-colored buildings is a masterpiece on its own. Matera is one of those places where each view is better than the next, as there is something jaw dropping around every corner. It’s hard to pinpoint the best view of Matera and a good look into the sassi as the incredible views are endless. But, one great spot is across the gorge to the opposing side of the city. For the adventure seeker, the hike down from Matera to the bottom of the gorge and back up to the opposite cliffs is an absolute blast. From here, not only do you have a panoramic view of the entire city, but you can enjoy it from inside – you guessed it – another cave!

After exploring and trekking through the spectacular and steep streets of Matera, a good meal is a well-deserved reward. Basilicata is actually the poorest region of Italy, but it has a rich food culture with simple, authentic recipes. Matera is home to some incredible restaurants with authentic Lucanian dishes that you won’t find anywhere else in Italy. Beans and legumes are some of the most common ingredients in Lucanian cuisine, while the region is considered to have the highest consumption of pasta. Be on the lookout for pepperoni cruschi, or dried peppers. They are sprinkled on top of a pasta or eaten as a snack with a glass of the popular wine from the region, Aglianico del Vulture. The salty and smoky crunch is addicting and makes potato chips seem boring.

Puglia, Italy, is no longer as hidden of a destination as it was years ago due in large part to social media algorithms, but for the most part, it still feels quite untouched. The culture here is as authentic as it can get and those vintage summer movie feels are in every direction. On your next trip to Italy, skip the busy destinations, learn some Italian, and explore your way around the rich, culture-filled region of Puglia.

All photos included in this article are courtesy of Ryan Tingle Photography.

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