Blessed with Italy’s finest cuisine, kissed by the sun, surrounded by azure Mediterranean waters and home to some of the country’s most unique towns.. Having travelled much of Italy, I dare say that Puglia is Italy’s finest region with that perfect balance of pleasures that make for a great holiday – without the enormous tourist crowds.

Add to this a longer season of warm weather stretching from April right through to late October and you’ve got an ideal option for an Easter break or a chance to enjoy a mini-summer in autumn. So if you’re looking for a more rugged hidden gem alternative to the likes of Amalfi Coast and Tuscany, come to Apulia! As it’s a fairly big region, I’ve created this guide to help you figure out where to visit in Puglia.

 

Where to visit in Puglia

Puglia Hidden Gem Itinerary Map

Alberobello & Itria Valley

Alberobello Street Trulli, Puglia

Let’s start with the crown jewel. A trip to Puglia is incomplete without a visit to Alberobello and the surrounding Itria Valley. With its surreal white-washed “Trulli” houses with conical roofs scattered across the region, this part of Puglia is really like no other in the world. There are a plethora of unconfirmed theories as to why they were built this way. Of the ones I heard the theory I enjoyed most is one about avoiding house taxes. It claims that when locals heard the taxman is coming, they’d quickly destroy the conical roofs so as to no longer count their home as a home. Once the easily fooled taxman is gone, the cones could (apparently!) be rebuilt quite easily.

OK, the compact Alberobello itself is starting to get touristy but for something as unique as this, it’s still 100% worth it especially outside of the peak summer months. For somewhere more tranquil, trulli houses are dotted around the rest of Puglia’s Itria Valley. Even better, you can find one on Airbnb to enjoy your very own trullo. In fact with the high ceilings, it’s very spacious and an experience like no other. We stayed in this one, but there are plenty of others dotted around. 

Ostuni

Ostuni Puglia

Also in Itria Valley is the so-called “White City” as it’s known in Puglia. Built on a hilltop, the white-washed town can be seen from many miles away, inviting you to explore it long before you’re there. 

We first caught Ostuni on one of its most special occasions, as what felt like the whole town took part in the Easter “Procession” (the carrying of papier mache statues through town representing the Passion of Christ). The procession followed up the narrow lanes past stately palaces, tiny back-alleys and cute piazzas until finally reaching the hilltop Ostuni Cathedral, absolutely worth the stroll up. Eventually as the town returned to its usual buzz, we realised just how much of a gastronomical gem it is. Offering a great variety of local farm produce, both meat and seafood from the nearby Adriatic, Ostuni is the sort of place you could spend a fortnight just trying its many restaurants. 

Martina Franca

Martina Franca - Hanged Quarantana
Don’t be alarmed, just another Puglian religious tradition

A lesser-known white-washed town in the Itria Valley, Martina Franca stands is a hidden gem town with a particularly local flavour. Somehow most tourists haven’t discovered its many charming squares, the elegant Palazzo Ducale and the local specialty sparkling wine. Martina Franca overlooks picturesque views of the surrounding countryside, scattered with trulli, fortified farmhouses and endless olive groves. If you want to capture the town at its most atmospheric moment, come here in late July / early August for the Valle d’Itria Festival.

Coming here during Holy Week, we were somewhat disturbed to find an old woman hung by neck on one of its streets. As it turned out, of course that’s just another of Puglia’s religious intricacies – that’s the old widow Quarantana, somehow loosely related to Jesus. 

 

Lecce

Lecce's baroque architecture

Down near the bottom of Italy’s “heel”, Puglia’s most charming city stands out for its atmosphere and baroque architecture. Lecce’s Centro Storico (the Old Town) is a labyrinth of narrow streets lined by the faint-yellow limestone houses. At some point you’ll probably get lost strolling through them, but eventually find your way to one of the bustling piazzas for a coffee break. Or perhaps you’ll come across the stunning Basilica di Santa Croce, one of the most intricate examples of baroque architecture anywhere in the world. And of course, as with any self-respecting Italian city, Lecce boasts its own amphitheatre, only discovered last century and hidden away on one of the city’s quieter streets. 

Lecce isn’t the most central base to explore the rest of Puglia, but if you prefer to enjoy the region’s Southern beaches, it’s only 20 minutes away from both the Adriatic Coast and another 10 minutes to the Ionian Sea on the other side.

Polignano al Mare

Polignano Al Mare Beach

Perched on limestone cliffs over the azure shores of the Adriatic Sea, Polignano is a postcard seaside destination. It’s small enough to easily explore by foot, to take it easy and just enjoy the simpler things in life. Polignano makes for an ideal option to enjoy Puglia’s seaside for a few days, especially if you can find one of the stunning sea view apartments. Just keep in mind that like with many coastal towns of Italy, if you’re visiting in July or especially August it tends to get busy and pricey especially with its compact beach.

Monopoli

Monopoli, Puglia

A charming, lesser-known alternative to Polignano al Mare is the nearby coastal town of Monopoli. Literally meaning “The Only City”, Monopoli certainly had a more slow-paced, local feel than its neighbour and is generally easier on the wallet. As you stroll along the Old Port you can still see local fishermen make their way back from the sea, just hours before the catch of the day makes it to the town’s numerous seafood ristorantes. 

The walled town boasts a small but extremely impressive old town with what felt like more churches and cathedrals per square metre than the Vatican itself. Without all the pilgrims! Monopoli can make a nice alternative base to explore Puglia from, given it’s only around 30 mins from the towns of Itria Valley.

 

Altamura

Altamura's famous bread

If you like your dough you won’t want to give this place a miss. Altamura is especially famed for what many call the best bread in the world. The walled town is home to Pane di Altamura, so special that it’s the only bread to have been classified DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) in Europe. Made from durum wheat from ancient recipes, the wonderfully soft, aromatic loaves taste heavenly simply with some quality olive oil and salt. No stop in Altamura is complete without a visit to one of its traditional bakeries offering some of the finest Pugliese focaccia, taralli, biscotti and much more. I recommend Panificio del Duomo (near Altamura Cathedral) for the ridiculous variety of freshly baked bread products, the likes of some you’ve probably never seen.

Once you’re stuffed with dough, the town itself has an interesting city centre to walk it off. Altamura sits nicely between Matera and Bari and is worth at least couple hours’ stopover. A scenic route from Bari will take you past more olive trees than you’d have seen in your life.

 

Matera

Matera Italy

So technically, Matera is in the neighbouring Basilicata. But it’s basically on the border with Puglia and closer to Bari than half of Puglia itself. And Matera is 100% worth adding to your Puglia trip itinerary.

Italy’s city of stone, Matera is like no other: its borders carved by deep canyons and the oldest parts of it are caves carved into rock (known as “sassi”). While most other cave homes are ancient relics of life many centuries ago, in Matera people lived in caves as late as the 1950’s. What’s most surprising is the city remained under-the-radar for so long despite being Italy’s oldest and despite its one-of-a-kind location. That is until 2019 until it saw its first ray of the limelight as European Capital of Culture. But there is still some time before it turns into a full tour-bus destination, so visit this one-of-a-kind gem soon!

Foodies will also love Matera. Influenced by centuries under different rule including Greeks, Normans and Aragonese, the city has developed its own culinary tradition. Its signature dishes include the vast use of dried sweet chillies and the crapiata – a rustic soup of grains and pulses.

For getting to Matera, driving time is 1 and 2 hours from Bari and Brindisi respectively.

 

Best time to visit Puglia

April to June and September to October are the best months to visit Puglia. Being in the far South of Italy, the region enjoys long warm seasons and HOT summers. Try to avoid August, as along with the heat the whole of Italy rushes on holiday and this especially includes any beach town. We visited early on in mid-April and were lucky to experience wall-to-wall sunshine, t-shirt afternoons (but chillier evenings). To enjoy swimming you might want to let the sea warm up and come from mid-May onwards.

Getting to Puglia

Puglia is served by 2 international airports – Bari and Brindisi (further South) Both are covered by low-cost airlines from across Europe as well as frequent flights to connect through Rome or Milan with the wider world.

Alternatively if say you want to catch a train from Rome, you’re looking at around 4 hours each way.

Getting around Puglia

Trains and buses are an option, but car is by far and away the easiest mode of transport in the Southern regions of Italy, including Puglia. Just about everything is within 2 hours’ drive if you base yourself centrally. And of course driving offers by far the most flexibility and especially the ease of reaching the region’s smaller nooks and crannies that you’d struggle to reach by bus or train. As for safety, driving even in the bigger Apulian cities somehow didn’t seem anything as hectic as the likes of Naples or Sicily’s Palermo despite the geographic proximity.

As far as trains, Puglia is served by the national Trenitalia and the local Ferrovie del Sud Est. You can certainly reach most bigger towns but plan your timing as the trains aren’t as frequent as in Northern Italy. Bari and Lecce would be wise bases if you plan to rely on public transport.

Itria Valley Countryside Puglia

 

Know of other hidden gems in Puglia worth discovering? I’d love to know (definitely coming back there) – so do leave a comment!

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