Maybe you’ve heard of Puglia or Apulia, the region in the “heel of the boot” of Italy. This region intrigued me for years because I didn’t know many who had visited. It’s not exactly a secret but it’s definitely not as touristed as northern Italy or the Amalfi Coast. I’m here to tell you that you need to bump this region WAY up on your travel bucket list. I have now visited 9 regions in Italy (out of 21 ) and Puglia is my favorite. Here are my tips for your own Puglia Road Trip Itinerary
The beauty of the region is that it is small and you can arrange your itinerary in many different formats. Don’t let the small size fool you into thinking you only need a few days here. It is packed with interesting and beautiful places to see. I spent two weeks here which is a perfect amount of time. I will share the itinerary I followed with suggestions for alternatives in case you have less time.
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I tend to plan my trips with a few bases and then do day trips because I dislike moving around too much, checking in and checking out, packing and unpacking. I decided to pick a base in northern Puglia and visit that area and then pick a base in southern Puglia (Salento) and explore around there. My base for the north was Monopoli, which I really loved, but you could easily choose Polignano as well if you really want more beach time and small beach town vibes. In the south, I was based in Lecce and absolutely loved it. I kind of wish I had visited one of the famous beaches near Polignano rather than staying in Bari. Next time! I got lazy while in Lecce and decided to just hang there rather than do many day trips. I spent a half day in Otranto which gave me plenty of time in Lecce.
All my day trips were an hour or less away which is super convenient.
Matera is not technically in Puglia (It is in the Basilicata region) but it is so close to Bari, thus many include it in a Puglia trip. Matera is NOT to be missed in my opinion.
Another option for this itinerary is to arrive in Bari and immediately head out to Polignano and then come back and stay on your last night to be closer to the airport for your morning flight the next day. This is what I originally wanted to do but a friend wanted me to meet her in Bari so I changed the plan.
The largest airport in the region is here and thus the natural place to begin and end your trip. In total there are 86 airports around the world that have direct flights to Bari, spread around 78 cities in 26 countries. Currently, there are 18 domestic flights to Bari. Bari was cool but not my favorite of the places I visited. It is the largest city in Puglia and the 2nd largest in southern Italy. It has an old charming historic center with a castle (a fortification along the water which many cities here have). One of the things Bari is known for is the Barese orecchiette pasta. Orecchiette means “little ear”. The pasta is in the shape of a little ear and is everywhere in all of Puglia. I ate it almost every day. It is handmade by the nonnas in the streets of the old town. You can watch this process and even take classes.
This is a charming beach town and the whitewashed buildings give Greek Island vibes. The famous beach that is right in the city is called Cala Monachile and there are also beaches just outside the city. You can take a boat tour to see the caves and maybe dine in the fancy Instagram famous restaurant in a cave overlooking the sea called Grotto Palazzese.
I only stopped here for a couple of hours, had a nice stroll through the town and along the lungomare and took in the gorgeous sea view. I ate a delicious lunch at a little place called Zanzi. However, I can easily see why many would want to stay here for a few nights.
Monopoli is larger than Polignano but has an old historic center where most tourists stay. It’s just 40 km (25 miles) from Bari. Monopoli was just small enough to have seaside village charm but also big enough to keep me interested for a few days. There is a beach here although not as pretty as the one in Polignano. Monopoli to me was the perfect mix of being a “real” town where local people work in areas other than tourism yet still having enough “tourist appeal”, if that makes sense. It seemed really authentic whereas Polignano really had a resort town feel. I truly enjoyed spending 5 nights here and feel it was a perfect “base”. The food scene was really great.
I lucked out by finding this serviced apartment called Palazzo Mulini. It was a studio apartment, very clean and modern overlooking the Chiesetta di S. Maria del Suffragio cathedral right on a main street. The location couldn’t be better. Just a 5 min walk to Piazza Guiseppe in the center, 2 minutes walk to the beach, and just 5 to 10 minutes to the new part of the city including where I parked. Parking wasn’t included here and you can’t drive into the old part of the city (you’ll see ZTL signs which mean “limited driving zone”), but I was able to find parking nearby fairly easily once I understood the system. You can park for free in the white-lined spaces on the street and there are also paid spaces. If you ever stay here and drive, message me for the areas where I found parking. This was like an Airbnb except they had housekeeping service every day and provided a breakfast every morning that you ordered the night before via what’s app. I highly suggest the pistachio cornetto if you ever come. OMG
In Piazzetta Ristorante Pizzeria This is in Piazza Guiseppe and one of best pizzas I’ve ever had
Locanda Indelli Nice restaurant attached to a hotel in Piazza Guiseppe
Tamborr-Legend Bar and Restaurant on largo Castello near the Castle and water
Trattoria La Locanda Dei Mercanti Small popular local restaurant that you must have a reservation for
Vini e Panini for aperitivo
Gelateria Bella Blu for gelato in Piazza Guiseppe
Porta Vecchia Terrazza for drinks or lite eats on a terrace looking over the ocean
Alberobello is the place you see in all the tourist brochures for Puglia. Those iconic and odd conical thatched roof white homes. Because it is so unique, it is probably the most touristy town in the region. I usually tend to dislike places like this but Alberobello is unique and well worth a visit. There are ways to visit and avoid large crowds. Ready for the secret? Go EARLY and off-season (I sound like such a broken record because I say this in every post I write). I was there in late September which is still a popular time although not the height of the season. I arrived around 730-8 am and had it to myself for about an hour before the busloads arrived. By 10 am it was popping.
Tip if you’re driving, there are several paid parking lots just outside the Trulli Zone. They are easy to find on Google Maps. I used the Parcheggio Centro Storico via Monte San Gabriele. If you go early enough you may find free street parking. You will be a 5 min walk from the center. I suggest roaming around and gawking at all the adorable homes and I recommend two places for great views. There is a panoramic view terrace near the Chiesetta SS Sacramento and also good views looking over all the rooftops at the Villa Comunale Belevedere Parco. Both are probably better in the morning because of the lighting and the sun and all that.
Ok I didn’t stay here but if I was going to it would be at this place: B&B Suite Curcuma
I am hardly an expert after two short visits here but I really enjoyed this cafe for breakfast. Così Com’era
I also had a great focaccia at a very local place run by a sweet nonna. It was kind of cool to be the only tourist in there although it was right on a main street. On Via Monte S Marco Casa Della Focaccia
Alberobello, Locorotondo, Martina Franco, and a few others are among Italy’s citta bianche (white cities) They are small, close together, and easy to visit. After I spent the morning in Alberobello I drove to Locorotondo for lunch and tasted some wine (just one glass since I was driving…so sad). They are famous for their local Verdeca wine. Locorotondo has about 1/3 of the visitors of Alberobello and some consider it the most beautiful of all the villages. After a couple of hours here I drove to Martina Franco, walked around, and had a gelato. Overall it is a lovely day trip from Monopoli to see all these places. Each one was only 10-15 min or so from the other so you have minimal driving.
This is Locorotondo
This is Martina Franco:
Ostuni is another white city, this one near the sea. I’ve seen it referred to as THE White City. I’m very confused by the whole white city thing because they were basically all white cities. Monopoli was pretty white too. Anyhoo… Ostuni apparently has some pretty beaches as well but I did not visit them. One of the highlights here is the Duomo di Ostuni, the large Gothic Cathedral.
I just spent a few hours here walking around and had a nice lunch in a scenic alley at L’Arco Dei Sapori Ristorante.
Lecce is in the southern part of Puglia, which is known as the sub-region of Salento. Salento is the “heel of the boot” geographically. I used Lecce as my base for Salento and stayed 5 nights. I absolutely loved Lecce. It is known as “The Florence of the South” for its plethora of baroque buildings. It is small but large enough that you’re not bored. I definitely recommend this walking food and history tour . I had a blast and was very full at the end!
I stayed at a hotel right on the border of the historic city center called Arryvo. I was really happy with this hotel. The room was very comfortable. They had a nice rooftop terrace. There is a bar in the lobby that was a lively scene at night. The breakfast was wonderful and the lobby bar has a cafe with yummy pastries and sandwiches. The staff could not have been nicer. It was easy to park here because the parking lot was just one minute’s walk away. I easily walked to all parts of the city within 15 minutes.
If you are looking for something a bit more luxurious and charming, a friend recommended a place called Palazzo Sant’Anna but it wasn’t available for my stay but looks incredible.
Lecce has many B&Bs in old stately villas and I would love to stay in one sometime.
Many places are only open for dinner but some serve both lunch and dinner. I would make reservations since most places are small and fill up quickly.
Mamma Elvira This was a wine bar I kept coming back to. I loved the waiters and they really knew their wine. I enjoyed a nice chees plate here before dinner one night.
La Strada Del Vino Wine Bistrot. Great wine tasting with food here (great for lunch). You can also just have a regular lunch here or do a wine-tasting and pasta-making class. Great vibes all around here.
Gelato places: Natale and Gelateria La Romana
Pittule Freetfood This was also on my food tour. Great place for various street foods and snacks like Pittule which are little pieces of fried pizza dough with different flavors. Also the potato crocchettes were yummy.
400 Gradi Listed as one of best Pizzas in the world. A local took me here. It is outside the city center.
Betty’s Great little cafe. Perfect for lunch, a snack, or aperitivo. The crostini with caramelized onion and stracciatella cheese was so good.
Osteria Da Angiulino open for lunch or dinner. Suggest reservations
Mamma Lupa Good local food
Astoria Cafe Great place to start your day with coffee (or beer) and try some traditional food like Rustico and Frise. We went here on the food tour. It is just outside the Porta San Blaise.
The Rustico is a delicious pastry filled with mozzarella, tomato, and bechamel sauce. You can see French origins to this from the pastry and bechamel. There are more modern takes on it with other fillings.
Another food you will eat constantly here are the circular bread sticks called taralli. They are delicious and quite addictive. They come in many flavors. Many stores sell them. I bought a bag of pepperoncino flavor and they were the perfect car snack, plane snack, sitting in my hotel room snack…the gift that kept on giving.
Otranto is yet another gorgeous white city on the coast. If I was looking to spend more time at a beachy place I would probably choose Otranto to stay for a few days. Unfortunately, I was there in mid-October way past “Lido” season so I didn’t get to have the Italian beach club experience. However, it was still warm enough that the beaches were packed. I was told to check out Lido La Castellana beach club but it was closed.
I had every intention of taking a day trip to Gallipoli from Lecce but I got lazy and decided to just spend more time in Lecce instead. Gallipoli is only 23 miles (37km) from Lecce so a very easy day or half-day trip. It is a beautiful seaside town on the west Ionian coast of Salento. The historic center is on a small island connected to the mainland by a 17th-century bridge. It is surrounded by fortifications and defensive walls which tell the story of a past city constantly under siege because of its strategic location. I think it would be a great place to see.
Matera was one of my favorite places I’ve ever visited. Yes, it was THAT cool. First of all, it just looks amazing but then you learn the history and it’s even more amazing. It’s technically in the Basilicata region, not Puglia, but since it’s only an hour from Bari it’s often part of Puglia itineraries. Matera is an ancient city built into caves. The cave area is known as the Sassi. You can stay in cozy cave hotels and dine in cave restaurants.
Since the unification of Italy in 1870, the region has a sad history of a community that sunk into extreme poverty and was literally forgotten by the world, including the rest of Italy. In 1945, Italian artist and author Carlo Levi published his memoir Christ Stopped at Eboli, about his year of political exile in Basilicata under the Fascists. He detailed the horrifying poverty, of dark homes riddled with filth and disease, where barnyard animals were kept in corners, and infant mortality rates were horrendous. Matera became known as “the shame of Italy”.
The Italian government stepped in relocated the entire community to government housing and condemned the cave dwellings. In the late 1950s, descendants of the community embarked on a plan to save the city. They looked for conservation funds and by the 1980’s the tide turned. Government archaeologists arrived and in 1993, Unesco listed the Sassi as a World Heritage site, calling it “the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region, perfectly adapted to its terrain and ecosystem. Eventually, the first cave hotels were built. Several big Hollywood movies were filmed here including the 2021 James Bond film.
Archeologic studies show that Matera is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. There are over 150 cave churches now designated as a Unesco Heritage site. Visitors can still enjoy the cave ambiance and eat the traditional simple “peasant” food of the area.
I stayed at Il Palazzotto Residence & Winery. It is a cave hotel with its own winery. I absolutely loved it. The breakfast was fantastic and it was in a great location. You cannot park a car in the old sassi (the cave-dwelling part of the city) but there is a parking garage just outside that is a short walk. They offer a shuttle service from the parking if you can’t carry your luggage (there are steps and ancient hilly streets to contend with)
I’d recommend making as many reservations as you can because the restaurants are tiny and fill up quickly and Italians tend to take their time at dinner. There aren’t quick table turnovers like we are used to in the USA.
Radino Wine Bistrot They also have food here and it’s fantastic. The restaurant is almost like a museum with a wine cellar and old wine-making equipment.
Keiv Ristorante Great for lunch or dinner. I came early for lunch so didn’t need a reservation but it is recommended to have one.
Baccanti Ristorante This is a more upscale restaurant in a gorgeous cave setting
Monkey Drink House This place is the cutest. Come for aperitivo or after-dinner drinks.
I didn’t get a chance to go but many people recommended Ristorante Soul Kitchen.
The cuisine in the region is considered a cucina povera (cuisine of poverty) since this was one of the poorest regions in Italy. The pasta is made without eggs since eggs were unaffordable at one point in history for most people here and the eggless pasta tradition remains. Fave e cicoria (Chicory and fava bean puree) are a classic dish and is delicious. Because of poverty, vegetarian dishes thrived. Orecchiette Cime de Rape is everywhere. It’s the regional ear shaped pasta with turnip greens (broccolli rabe).
In Salento, the cuisine is even more specific with the foods I mentioned above under Lecca. The Rustico pasty, Frise bread, taralle crackers and the very yummy sweet pastry called pasticciotto. It’s a shortcrust pastry on the outside (I think it’s something in between a cake and cookie) with a creamy custard lemon scented filling.
I highly recommend a food tour to learn about these things. I did it in Lecce but Bari offers them also. Do one in both places if you can!
English is not as well spoken here as in some other western European countries so I’d recommend learning a little Italian. It helps plus it’s really fun. I bought a little handbook I carried and did the DuoLingo app. I became “transactional” in a relatively short period and could make dinner reservations over the phone (yes sometime you actually have to call…some places have on-line reservations systems but this is the exception, not the rule). I could pop in and ask a waiter what time the restaurant opened for dinner or when a shop closed. Very handy to have these basic language skills and took very little time to learn a few phrases.
They use the Euro in Italy. ATMs are widely available but as always be careful when taking money from ATMs and look out for the DCC (dynamic currency conversion) scam. I recommend having cash at all times. I found many small vendors only took cash and many restaurants were cash only. For credit cards typically MasterCard and Visa are your best bet. Amex is not widely accepted in Europe in general. I have a whole post about how to access and spend money overseas.
Car rental is the easiest way to get around. Ask for a small car because streets and parking garages/parking lots are tiny. Italian drivers have a bad reputation but they are slightly more chill here than in other parts of the country. They are generally impatient drivers. If you are lost or driving slowly, they will honk or ride your tail. Best stay to the right and even allow faster drivers to pass you on small roads. I joked with the Italian people I met that they are the loveliest people but something changes the second they get behind the wheel of a car. If you are nervous about driving in another country here are my tips for international car rentals.
If you don’t want to bother with a car, and I would hardly blame you because parking in some places was trying, you CAN get around by train and bus. I came across this post about how to travel in Puglia without a car and tons of good info in it. I rented in the fall of 2022 and this was around the time post-covid travel was getting into full swing, rental cars were in short supply and high demand and therefore, crazy prices. I originally was looking at paying $2500 for 2 weeks. I then got a tip for a car rental website called Autoslash and I was able to find a more reasonable option for around $1400.
Puglia can be visited any time of year but I’d say fall and spring are the most ideal. If you are focused on beach time then you probably don’t want to come too early in the spring or too late in the fall. In Mid October when I was there it was still warm enough for the beach but many beach clubs are closed. THe winters are mild but many restaurants close. he temperatures of the cities along the coast usually never fall below 0 degrees C (32 ° F).
Spring weather is the ideal time for bike tours which are popular in the region. There is a maximum average of 20 ° C (68.2 ° F) and a minimum average never drops below 10 ° C (44.6 ° F)
The summers are very hot and temps often reach 35 C (95 F) although it is a dry heat. August is the month to avoid because it will the most crowded and chaotic.
Autumn is extremely pleasant with average maximum of 20 ° C (68 ° F) and minimum average of about 10 ° C (53.6 ° F)
So I hope this will help you plan your future trip to Puglia and I’m sure you will love this region as much as I did. It has so much to offer packed into a small geographic region. It is easy to get from place to place and you will see one gorgeous city after the next plus get to appreciate the region’s unique culture and history.
What questions do you have? Have you been to Puglia?