Rome, Venice or Tuscany are usually Italy’s highlights, but hiding down, in the heel of Italy, you find Puglia, one of the country’s unpolished gems.
While other Italy destinations have tended to steal the highlights, over the last years Puglia has finally made a push for inclusion as one of the must-see areas of this beautiful country.
Now after we visited Puglia region, I agree that it should rank very highly on Europe’s most desirable places to visit. Why?
Well, because it has everything that Italy can offer: unique places, food, wine, culture and history… and it is much cheaper than other Italian destinations.
Producing 80% of Europe’s pasta and a wide variety of food, especially fresh and delicious veggies, the region is a foodie heaven and everywhere you travel you find different dishes, specific to each town.
We stayed for three days in the region and we couldn’t be more pleased about the places, the atmosphere, the people and off course the food.
The best way to arrive in the region is by plane to Bari international airport, and here you can establish the starting point of your travel to any destination you want.
If you don’t rent a car, the best way to be in the middle of everything is to stay in Bari, of course. In Bari, you have all the train connection to the rest of the region.
If you rent a car, then, it doesn’t matter where you stay, you have the freedom of movement, plus that driving in Puglia can be a pleasure! Take into account that for a rental in Italy, you have to leave a deposit for about 1,000 Euro and that parking places are dangerous zones. We saw cars bumping the car in front and the car in the back many times, just to make some space to exit the parking spot. For all small damages of your car, you are going to be charged. So, pay attention!
We decided to stay in Alberobello because we wanted to sleep in a Trullo house so much. So, we rented a car and it was just perfect because it gave us the flexibility that we needed, this way we discovered many things.
Three days in Puglia…hmm… you can do so many things!!!
Of course, in three days you won’t be able to cover the entire region, not even the most important cities, but for sure you will enjoy it.
Below I will describe you our three days in Puglia.
DAY 1 (MATERA)
On the first day, we went to Matera straight from the airport.
Located in southern Italy, in the region of Basilicata, Matera is like a cradle of civilization.
It is that type of an old city where people are still living in the same houses of their ancestors of 9,000 years ago, in dwellings inside caves, known as Sassi.
This city was declared European Capital of culture in 2019. It looked like a prehistorical city with small houses carved into the gray mountains.
Its history goes way back in time to Palaeolithic. But the city was founded by the Romans in the 3rd century BC and was called Matheola, after the Roman Consul Lucius Caecilius Matellus.
In time, the city grew big. In the 30’s the caves were homes for more than 20,000 people. But because of the rough living conditions: the caves had no heat, no light or sanitation, families with all their belongings that were crammed into tiny spaces, they had problems with diseases such as cholera, typhoid, and malnutrition.
In the 50’s all these made the city to be considered an area of poverty and at this point in time the Italian Government relocated the inhabitants.
After some time, the city starts to be reborn and grew its beauty and reputation. Many famous movies that were made here also helped, like The Passion of the Christ directed by Mel Gibson.
This place grew to be spectacular, which is nothing compared to the feeling that this place gives you.
Matera is the second oldest continuously inhabited city in the world after Petra (Jordan).
Sassi of Matera (stones of Matera) were also included in UNESCO.
In the old city of Matera can’t go by car. The entire route is on foot.
How to reach it?
You can reach Matera from Bari:
- By train
The distance between the two cities can be done by train, in about an hour and a half.
The trains to Matera are operated by a private company –called Ferrovie APPULO Lucane. Both, the line and the ticket office are located in another building next to the central station of Bari.
Trains are clean and modern.
In Matera, there are 3 train stops: Matera Villa Longo, Matera Centrale and Matera Sud. When you arrive in Matera for a city tour you have to stop to Matera Centrale.
From the train station, you take the main street leading down to the old city. A train ticket cost up to 5 euro (4.90 euro).
Attention! There are no trains on Sunday but you can find a bus that can take you there.
- By bus
As an alternative to the train, there are some shuttles buses going from the airport to Matera: the problem is that there are very few on the route and you should be lucky to find a connecting ride.
- By rented car
You can rent a car directly from the airport. There are many rental companies available and the prices per day are not very high. It starts at 20 Euro/day.
In Italy, you have to pay a deposit for the rented car. In our case, they asked for 1,000 EUR.
But this is the best way to travel around Puglia region.
Things to do in Matera:
- Lose yourself in Sassi di Matera
The city center itself represents the heart. It is called Sassi di Matera which means “Matera’s stones”. The entire central area is unique and impressive, like no other city. The Sassi are a labyrinth of houses, winding streets, narrow up-and-down alleys, ancient rock churches and inhabited as well as abandoned cave houses.
Without a doubt, the Sassi are the main tourist attraction in Matera.
- Sleep in a cave hotel
Matera is like a honeycomb of caves, build by hand in volcanic rock, hundreds of years ago. The caves were used as dwellings, churches and now hotels. To sleep in a cave hotel, will definitely be one of the most exotic and unique experiences you can have, right in the middle of hundreds of years of history and an ancient landscape.
- See the Byzantine churches
The highlights of the Sassi tour are the ancient Byzantine churches carved in the rock. Santa Maria de Idris is carved into a huge rock pinnacle perched on a rock ledge overhanging the ravine. Another rock church, Santa Lucia alle Malve contains 10th-century frescoes. The small but dignified Church of San Pietro-Caveoso is free-standing and the only one of the churches not carved into the rock.
- Hike to the Murgia Materna Park
Murgia Materna covers 8000hc and you can get an idea about the nature diversity and discover abandoned caves and churches. Easily you can spend one day here.
- Do a tour of the city
It is the best way to know the city.
DAY 2 (ALBEROBELLO +POLIGNANO A MARE)
Our base camp was in Alberobello, because of the Trullo houses. So we spend 2 nights here, and during the day we wondered around the region of Puglia.
In order to see Alberobello, one day is enough.
The story of this place goes back in time, in the 15th century, when farmers were sent by a local Counts to settle here, but with no authorization to build, they made temporary houses that could be easy demolished when the tax collector came.
The houses called trulli are round stone-build houses with a pointy roof made from limestone. They are build using a prehistorical technique in which the stones are laid on top of another and no mortar is used. They had a stone that kept the balance of the house. When it has to be demolished only this stone was moved and the whole house was falling apart.
Now this houses became cafes, souvenir shops and accommodation for tourists.
Alberobello is a UNESCO World Heritage site and if you will visit it, you will understand why.
How to go?
The easiest way to reach Alberobello is via Bari.
- Car – Between the two cities, the distance is about 56 km, so by car you can reach it in about 1h.
1 h parking in Alberobello is about 2 Euro in the tourist area and 0.60 Euro in other places.
- Train – From Central Bari train Station. The trains are operated by FSE, a local transport company. The ride takes about 1h30min and costs € 4.50 per person (one way). The trains run almost every hour.
It is a modern train that departures at the last line.
Be sure to stamp your ticket in the machines before boarding
There’s no train connection on Sundays and public holidays. You can go by public bus instead.
- Bus – The local transportation company FSE is also responsible for the bus connection between Bari and Alberobello. A bus ride takes about 1h30min and costs € 3,90 per person (one way). During the week there is one bus a day around 2.00 pm. On Sundays and public holidays, the bus replaces the train and runs more frequently. It’s good to check the bus timetable in advance.
At the time of our departure, Sunday, there were only 3 buses/day
What to do?
Everything is in a walking distance here, so it is easy to enjoy the place.
- Sleep in a Trullo
It’s probably a very touristy thing to do, but I still think it is worth it!
There are plenty of agencies that rent Trullo for short or long stays and it’s definitely a nice experience.
Those have all been renovated to be habitable and in some cases, they are decorated in an ‘old’ style to recreate the original atmosphere.
Some also have swimming pools and other additional comforts.
We enjoyed it so much.
- Walk in Aia Piccola
You may find many Trulli located in the commercial area that have been converted into shops, restaurants or used for lodging. Despite the area being very pretty, it can also be very busy.
There are some Trulli that are still inhabited by locals and are situated in my favorite area called Aia Piccola which is quiet and very picturesque. You can’t skip it!
- Try a Panino
It’s the only place in the whole Italy where you can have Pasgualino panino. This kind of sandwich is typical in Alberobello. It was made for the first time back in 1966 by a shop owner called Pasquale.
It’s stuffed with salami, galbanino (a kind of sweet cheese), canned tuna, capers, pickled vegetables and mushrooms (the original recipe didn’t have pickled veggie and mushrooms though).
Simply walk in any ’alimentari’ and ask for a Pasqualino, and they will know exactly what you are after.
I tasted it and I was quite disappointed. My friend tried burrata and prosciutto which was amazing. I recommend it!
- Visit Trullo Sovrano
In the modern part of town, the 18th-century Trullo Sovrano is the only two-floor Trullo, built by a wealthy priest’s family. It’s a small museum providing an insight into Trullo life, with sweet, rounded rooms that include a recreated bakery, bedroom, and kitchen.
The interior is divided in 12 Trulli, arranged around the central space of the main dome. Inside the walls, there are built-in wardrobes and a masonry staircase of 23 stone steps, which allows access to the higher floor, and it was even possible to obtain a trapdoor, which was used as a secret hiding place, between the first and the second floor.
- Visit Trullo Church of St Antony
The church of Sant’Antonio, located in heart of Alberobello, is a Trullo shaped church with a façade of three wings adorned with a rose window and two round windows. The dome of the church is cone shaped and measures 19.80 meters and at the top of it a small dome.
- Have a coffee in a Trulli terrace
You know the expression “Coffee with a view”? Well, in Alberobello there are terraces where you pay for a coffee and get an amazing panorama. We sat on such terrace enjoying a coffee and the sun in an Italian way.
How to not love Italy!
Polignano a Mare
After a lovely breakfast and a tasty cappuccino in Alberobello, we headed over to Polignano a Mare.
It’s a medieval old town in the southern Italy, not far from Bari.
It’s that that kind of city with houses build into limestone cliffs and caves high above the deep blue waters of the Adriatic Sea.
The sea here has an amazing blue color.
The origins of this enchanting place date back to the 4th century BC when Greek settlers founded the city of Neapolis. It flourished under the Roman reign and it was important enough for Emperor Trajan to direct his Via Traiana, built between 108-110 AD, through the town. All these are gone now, only the Roman Gate, The Arco Marchesale, and bridge at Lama Monachile still stand.
Polignano a Mare is an old town with narrow streets, paved with stone-colored (slippery when it rains), several old but well-maintained churches, squares, and houses with entrance from the street. It’s funny that people sit with the door open, just a curtain (as those of us in the country against flies) separating the living room from the street. You hear them talk, but you don’t see them.
How to go?
The city is very close to Bari, so from here you can take:
- Train – which leaves from Bari Centrale directly to Polignano a Mare. The average journey time between them is 29 minutes. The journey may be longer on weekends and holidays. The cost of a ticket is about 2.5 Euro
- Car – the distance from Bari to Polignano a Mare is only 33 km, so, in about 30 min, you could reach the city.
What can you do?
Well, Polignano a Mare is that kind of town where you don’t see any touristic attractions. This area of Italy is beautiful to see and to feel. The city is spectacular because of the urban panoramas, walls and whitewashed houses that fall vertically into the sea.
- The 12 panoramic view over the Adriatic Sea
The main attractions of the city are the 12 panoramic points or “balcony Sul Mare”, places where the Adriatic Sea can be admired in all her splendor, both during the day and night.
From here you can also see a few caves dug into the rock by the sea waves.
In summer time, in Polignano a Mare, you can take boat trips, to visit some famous surroundings caves, like Ardito, Stalattitica and della Foca, in which presumably would have found traces of human existence dating Paleolithic.
- Spiaggia Cala Porto.
This beach is right in the center of Polignano a Mare and it is made of white pebbles instead of sand, making it sparkly and more interesting. It is also known as “Lama Monachile” from the bridge that you must walk across to reach it. It is picturesque, wedged between the white buildings of Polignano and the Azzure Sea. Convenient and easily accessible, with the services, cafes, and restaurants of the town just a few feet away.During the time that we went to the beach, there were many young people there having fun.
They were coming with same big brown paper bags containing food.
It looked like this is a way to spend some time in this parts.
- Have an amazing Italian ice-cream
We all know about Italian ice-cream, right?! It is really amazing.
You should try one, we surely couldn’t miss it.
- Try a charming cave restaurant
If you want a unique gastronomic experience you should definitely make a reservation at the Grotta Palazzese restaurant.
It is the main reason why I wanted to visit Polignano a Mare, but unfortunately, it was closed for renovation and it was opening on March 16.
The restaurant is in a limestone cave overlooking the sea and it is open only during the summer months. If you want to stay in a luxurious room in the heart of the old city, the hotel Grotta Palazzese, located above the restaurant, is available all year round.
The restaurant is an exclusive and romantic one. The bright and flickering lights reflected in the sea, the wooden floors and simple furnishings are perfectly framed in the textured limestone cave. Tables are positioned so that no matter where you stay, the view is spectacular.
It’s a must try place!
- Have a walk on LungoMare
Lungomare Domenico Modugno is a cliff named after the Italian songwriter famous for his “Volare” song. I’m sure you all know it. It’s a classic.
Since Polignano a Mare is the birthplace of Domenico Modugno, he became a symbol of the city and its bronze statue represents an interesting attraction by the sea.
DAY 3 (Bari)
Bari is a small city in the beautiful and charming Italy, part of Puglia region.
During our landing, the only thing that we could see was the green color of the olive trees. Puglia is very famous for its charming olive grovest.
Once we exited the airport, we went directly to rent a car and to visit the region. First, we went to Matera and in the evening we reached our base location which was Alberobello. The next day after visiting Polignano a Mare, we reached Bari for a few hours.
But the best way to visit Puglia region is to have accommodation in Bari because from here you can find most of the connections through the entire region.
It is a very small city. One day will be more than enough to see it.
From the central train station up to the sea, you can walk for about 25-30 min, passing the commercial area and the old city.
How to go?
Bari is not the museum type of city. It’s a city to be felt. You have to enjoy the Italian street life. To have a coffee in a plaza, to lose yourself on the narrow streets of the city or to enjoy the sea fresh air.
Bari airport si small and modern one and its named after Pope Ioan Paul II.
- Bus no 16 The cheapest way to reach the city (EUR 1) and it takes about 35-40 minutes
- Express bus- It cost EUR 4 and it takes about 30 minutes.
- Light metro- Leaves every 40 minutes, cost EUR 5 and it take about 20 minutes
What can you do in Bari?
Although we spent only a few hours in Bari, I tried to put together some interesting things that you can do while here.
- Stroll in Barivechhia
This is the city’s main point of interest.
There is a saying in Bari: “Se Parigi avesse il mare, sarebbe una picola Bari”, meaning “If Paris would have sea, it would have been a little Bari”. Well, I don’t know what to say about this saying, since the two are quite different.
Bari looks a little like Naples. Houses have no lobby, you enter directly from the street in the kitchen or living room, and most people keep their doors opened. Passing on the streets, you can see their entire home, you can smell cooked food or freshly washed clothes.
I especially loved the little courtyards between the houses, and they looked very cozy to me.
Bari is an old historic city having layers upon layers of history architecture resulting in a style that is a mix of Medieval, Byzantine, Romanesque and Baroque styles. The old city feels like a maze of winding streets, which reminded me of the medinas in Morocco, with religious reliquaries around every corner (the ones devoted to Mary have blue ceilings with stars). The building colors are warm and look up to see laundry drying. Many families have been living in these homes for generations, and you can tell just by strolling the streets that everyone is friends with their neighbors. There are even public ovens for baking your own bread without having to make your home too warm. It’s fascinating to think that not long ago this city was considered to be dangerous – I would never have guessed from my visit and clearly, the city has come a long way!
During our walk on Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, in the heart of the historic center, we were struck by the beautiful Palazzo Fizzarotti, a building that stands out for its neo-gothic Venetian style, one of the city’s jewels. The building, in fact, can’t be visited but it is the home to a multi-center. It is really fascinating building.
- Enjoy a cappuccino close to Lungomare
Almost every seaside city in Italy has a “lungomare”, which is a promenade close to the sea. Italians love their walks here. And we could enjoy it to if it wasn’t for the freezing wind, so the warm cappuccino was welcomed.
- Choose the best panini ever
On the way back to the car we accidently passed by a panini place and from just looking from the window we had to enter.
Mastro Ciccio has an industrial look and in general, it’s crowded with youngsters.
The real treasure here is represented by the panini. After looking for minute without knowing what to choose, we sow 3 people preparing some grey dough, there on the spot. I asked them why is it gray and the reason was because of the cuttlefish ink that they used for this Panini.
Finally we decided to order some panini, so we chose salmon and buratta panini, hamburger panini, prosciutto and buratta. They were ahh…maizing!!!!!
This is what we managed to see in our three days in Puglia, but of course, there are more cities ready to be explored.
Other cities to you to explore in the region
The soil is sooooo red in Puglia, and the olive trees are so old!! A beautiful place. It is a mix of Italy, Greece and Mexico and a lot of cities to discover.
Ostuni is another maze-like white city on a hilltop just 8 km from the Adriatic Sea where you’ll find some of Puglia’s most exclusive resorts. It’s a wonderful town to get lost wandering the alleys, climbing staircases, and dipping under archways; or browse the stalls of local fruit and vegetables at the Saturday market.
Lecce is known for its exuberant baroque architecture in the golden Leccese stone of the area, its churches lavishly decorated with cherubs, gargoyles and griffins, and delicately carved columns and cornices.
Lecce is one of Puglia’s larger cities but it’s still a walkable size, and it manages to be both lively and relaxed.
Otranto has a stunning coastal location where you can combine morning visits to churches with afternoon swimming in the clean, impossibly turquoise sea.
It’s just 72 km from Albania and its location has resulted in many invasions, and the worst was the Turkish siege in 1480 when they destroyed much of the city and tortured and killed its people.
Otranto’s principal attraction is the Cathedral with its mosaic floor built in 1163-1165— it survived the Turkish invasion, although parts of the Cathedral were destroyed. It’s one of the largest mosaics in Europe and covers the entire floor. Its central motif is the Tree of Life, supported at the base by elephants, a symbol of purity, with branches telling different pagan and biblical stories. Another tree near the front of the church depicts heaven on one side and grizzly scenes from hell on the other.
Martina Franca is a fair-sized town in the heart of Puglia, southern Italy. It has some ugly modern areas, but the town’s jewel is its lovely historic center, a memorable maze of winding alleys, where whitewashed simplicity sits side by side with baroque extravagance. The town is built on a hill in the green Valle d’Itria, the trulli area of Puglia, and it makes a good day trip if you are exploring the region or a pleasant stop-over on a tour. Martina Franca is an incredibly photogenic town, so come equipped to take lots of pictures: the narrow lanes that are so hard to photograph well in other Italian cities are here illuminated by whitewashed walls, pale stone and tiny open spaces.
Locorotondo is a labyrinth of white washed buildings, its quiet streets are kept pristine by residents who decorate their balconies and staircases with pink geraniums. There are no major sights and this means it doesn’t get many visitors so it’s a delightful place to enjoy a leisurely lunch and stroll the streets.
Comparisons between historical towns in different regions of Italy are not very meaningful, however, if Lecce is to be called the Florence of the South, certainly Trani could be named the Gubbio of Puglia. It is an immaculate medieval town with an attractive fishing port, lovely medieval quarters and, literally perched at the edge of the water, sits one of the most spectacular cathedrals of Italy, dedicated to San Nicola Pellegrino.
Gallipolli’s old town is on an island connected to the mainland by a causeway. It has a relaxed, elegant vibe, some stunning churches, a golden curve of sand right in the center of the town, plus many more along the surrounding coast. It was ruled by the Greeks for five centuries between 7th and 2nd century BC, but all signs of their existence were destroyed by the Romans and most of the architecture seen now is from the Middle Ages.
Other than leisurely walks along the city’s seafront walls, the most interesting thing to do in Gallipolli is to visit Frantoio Ipogeo in Granafei Palace, one of the 35 underground olive presses. It was first used in 1600, excavated by hand out of the soft rock, to make olive oil for lamps which was exported around the world. You can see the original equipment used for grinding and pressing the olives and get a sense of what it was like to work in this dark, damp cave. Blindfolded donkeys were used to work the olive mill and they lived down here with the workers who smoked weeds and carved little sculptures to distract themselves from the miserable conditions.
An atmospheric old town on the sea with remnants of its Venetian past.
What to eat?
Puglia is one of the best destinations in Italy for Italian food and wine lovers.
Many forums and tourist guide-books have already written about different itineraries to follow in Puglia. They described the beautiful old towns with baroque churches and monuments or the white-washed little towns with funny houses (Alberobello, Locorotondo, Ostuni, Cisternino); the incredible sandy beaches and coastline or the relaxing countryside with millenary olive trees and wheat fields.
However, I personally think that Puglia would not be the same without its unique food and wine. The beauty of Puglia is the variety of dishes, wines, and culinary traditions. Puglia is a very wide region and the many different dominations (from the Spanish, the French, the Turks, the Greeks etc.,) have influenced not just the architecture and language but also the cuisine and wines. From town to town, even just three miles apart, culinary traditions and wines can change completely.
In addition to that, in each specific area of Puglia, the cuisine is very seasonal and influenced by the different weather patterns and distance from the sea: there are seaside places such as Gallipoli or Otranto where it is impossible to find any meat course. Only the freshest seafood is available there. There are places far from the, such as Lecce (which is about five miles from the sea) where the traditional cuisine is based on meat, vegetables, and pasta.
This is an itinerary of the top ten places in Puglia that locals would consider as the best places to go because of the fantastic food and wines.
When to go to Puglia?
Puglia has a truly Mediterranean climate with mild winters and hot summers. An average of 300 sunny days per year makes summer (May – September) the most popular time to visit Puglia. In July and August, Italians that are on holiday flood Puglia and revelry abounds—food festivals, concerts, and other spectacular events pop up across the historic towns and beach villages.
The off-season is October to April when the water becomes too cold to swim in, and the days are chilly and rainy. But the countryside is still rich with cultural activities and outdoor pursuits like horseback riding and biking. With the fall harvests, Puglia cuisine is even more bountiful and delicious in the colder months.
Trains: Little Ferrovie del Sud Est (FSE) trains connect nearly all the major destinations in Puglia, including the likes of Lecce, Alberobello, and Otranto, with scenic routes through the countryside that are perfect for day-tripping. Smaller, private train lines head into the remoter areas of Le Murge and Gargano.
Buses: Buses connect Puglia’s coastal towns during the summer and have various routes across the region throughout the year. Services to the more isolated villages, however, are often infrequent or scheduled very early, and the latest timetables can be near impossible to get your hands on. It is worth persevering though, as many of Puglia’s top sights can be reached by public transport and taxis are generally quite rare and pretty expensive.
Hiring a car: The roads linking Puglia’s main towns, Brindisi, Bari and Lecce, are pretty good and renting a car for your trip gives you the freedom to explore the region at your own pace and on a schedule that suits you. Puglia is a much larger area than most people realize, and your own set of wheels puts all of its remote villages, coastal towns, and beaches at your fingertips. Most visitors arrive in Puglia via one of its two international airports, Bari and Brindisi, and car hire from numerous international companies is available at both.
By Bike: Puglia has a lot of beautiful bike routes, in fact, it’s one of the best ways to discover the region. With unspoiled coastlines, ruined castles and nearby villages, there’s never a dull moment in Puglia.