The Most Beautiful Places In Puglia, Italy
Deep in the south east of Italy, making up the ‘heel’ of Italy’s boot, Puglia, or Apulia as it’s also know, is a fascinating melange of diverse historical and cultural influences, all coming together to create a wonderfully harmonious whole. Being one of the hottest, driest regions of Italy, Puglia is a rich archaeological area, with strong evidence suggesting some of its earliest settlers were from the Palaeolithic era. Since that time, due to its location and having over 800km of coastline, it has attracted a variety of settlers and invaders from many nations, leading to a few isolated pockets of localised linguistic quirks, including some rare dialects of Greek, French and even Albanian origin!
Even the climate is eclectic. The overall Mediterranean tendency towards warm, dry summers and mild, wet winters can often be totally upended by the cool winds coming from the Adriatic or the hot sirocco from Northern Africa – sometimes all in the same day. Known for its rustic beauty and quiet charm, tourism seems to have passed over Puglia and it remains relatively untouched by the modern day. Puglia’s shape and location mean that many of its most intriguing and beautiful villages are just a short drive away from the coast, which features a stunning mix of pebbly and sandy beaches, high chalk cliffs and crystal clear azure waters.
If you’re planning to visit this region for the first time, here is a list of the most beautiful places in Puglia that I highly recommend you don’t miss out on!
How To Get To Puglia
There are two main options when it comes to travelling to Puglia. If you are already in Italy, either visiting other regions or you’re an Italian resident, then driving is a good option that allows you to see more of the Italian countryside. And having driven from Puglia across to the Amalfi coast last October, I can assure you that the drive is smooth and the landscape scenic. There were plenty of gorgeous places I kept wanting to stop off at! From Naples to the Puglia region it is around a 3 hour drive.
Alternatively, you can fly into one of Puglia’s airports, of which there are two main ones – Bari Airport to the North of Puglia and Brindisi Airport to the South. Most airlines have direct flights from the UK to these airports and we caught really cheap flights with RyanAir direct from Manchester to Bari which were quick and easy.
Check Skyscanner to find your cheapest flights to Bari or Brindisi Airports.
Seeing as Bari is where we started our Puglian journey, I shall begin my list of the most beautiful villages in Puglia there! All of the places on this list can be reached in under one hour from Bari so that would be a great place to base yourself to explore this beautiful northern region of Puglia.
For our stay in Puglia, we stayed in this beautiful Airbnb, hosted by Pino, just south of Ostuni. The villa was actually made up of two separate villas in a private compound which made for the perfect luxury escape for a family of 6. It had an outdoor dining area with its own wood fired pizza oven situated next to the pool and was surrounded by olive groves, lemon and lime trees. We had such a wonderful time here and for us, it made the perfect base to explore the surrounding areas being less than an hour away from each of the places in this guide.
How To Get Around Puglia
If you fancied, then it is completely possible to travel around Puglia via public transport. In fact I have a couple of friends who did this recently. It did however restrict the speed at which they could get around and they found that they would have to spend an entire day, if not two in each place. But if you aren’t able to drive or just don’t fancy it in a foreign country then just know that it is very much possible to travel via bus or train. You can find trains times here and bus times here.
For our trip, we decided to hire a car and explored at our own pace. I didn’t do the driving myself, Peter had that pleasure, but I did say on almost a daily basis that I thought I would have been capable and confident driving in Puglia. The max road speed was about 70kph (43mph) and the roads were very quiet by British standards. As long as you stick to the correct driving etiquette of staying on the inside lane on the motorways and only moving in to the outer lane to overtake before moving back to the inside lane you’ll be fine!
On our road trip around Puglia, we rented via Auto Europe which gave us the best choice on all the car hire options that were available locally – I would happily recommend them. But as ever, be sure to inspect the car for any scrapes or damage that are noted on the contract before you leave the car park and go back in to the office to tell them about any that you feel aren’t mentioned.
Click Here To Find The Most Competitive Car Hire Rates
On the subject of driving, there are a couple of things to be aware of, especially when it comes to parking in towns. I would generally say, if you can park out of town in an official car park and walk into town, then this is your best option! Otherwise, white lines mean you can park and it’s free, blue lines mean you can park but you have to pay and yellow lines mean that parking is for disabled badge holders only. Of course, in true Italian style, there are exceptions to these rules and you really need to be careful about driving around town centres. Despite ‘knowing’ all the rules we still managed to land ourselves with a parking fine in Matera where we accidentally drove into the market square where it was apparently prohibited for cars to drive into.
Now that we have discussed the basics, let’s continue on to the most beautiful places in Puglia that I highly recommend you visit. The most beautiful villages and towns. These places honestly won’t disappoint!
The Most Beautiful Places In Puglia
Bari, Puglia’s capital, is a vibrant, youthful and progressive metropolis combining both the grandeur and cosiness of traditional Italian architecture with a bustling shopping district and a lively nightlife scene. Not to mention some world renowned pizzerias. One unmissable place is Da Donato – Address: Via Lattanzio Francesco 59..thank me later!
Bari has been one of the most important towns in the Puglia region throughout its history, being ideally placed on the main Roman trade roads, and also a major port for trade onwards to the East. Like the rest of the region, Bari’s history is long, turbulent, and at times very sad – it was a centre for the trade in slaves for many years and was the only European city to suffer from chemical warfare during WWII, albeit by accident.
A fascinating overview of Bari’s origins and development can be found in the archaeological museum, housed in a preserved 16th century bastion in the old town, with interactive features to keep everyone engaged. Also in the old town, and known as the resting place for the bones of St. Nicholas (yes… the real Santa Claus), the fortress-like Basilica di San Nicola is a compelling visit. The interior of the church is worth a look in its own right too, as it contains – amongst other treasures – many precious, ancient mosaics and an 11th century stone carved Cathedra (Bishop’s throne) made for the first bishop of the Basilica.
And have I mentioned the seafood market? This is a massive draw for foodies and you don’t get much fresher than the seafood or the banter here!
Around 45km north of Brindisi and 8km inland from the coast lies the beautiful town of Ostuni or La Città Bianca (The White City) as it is popularly known. A spectacular white walled labyrinth of a town that is seen shining for miles around. Built on a solitary hill and surrounded by an ocean of olive groves, which contribute to the areas reputation for high quality olive oil. This makes it strikingly visible from a distance, but perhaps one of the best panoramas over the city, the olives and the sea, is from the viewpoints at Corso Vittorio Emanuele II.
The views inside the town are not to be sniffed at either. With every steep staircase, quaint alleyway and corner revealing another hidden gem, the best thing to do in Ostuni is simply explore its labyrinth of streets on foot for as long as your heart is content. It’s worth saving some leg power to get you to the very top of the city though, to appreciate the majestic 15th century cathedral, which is exquisite both inside and out. There is strong evidence that grottos around the Ostuni area were populated by Neanderthal hunters, and the 25,000 year old remains of a pregnant woman – found buried in a local cave and now nicknamed ‘Delia’ – can be visited in the Chiesa di San Vito Martire, for a true connection with the vast human history of the area.
Polignano a Mare
Around 30km south of Bari lies a proper gem, Polignano a Mare. A thriving coastal village and popular tourist destination, combining natural beauty, historical interest and contemporary arts. Its ancient origins lie with 4th century BC Greeks, with some evidence of even earlier Bronze Age settlements also being uncovered in the centre. Once important to Rome for its grain, Polignano became a wealthy and prosperous place. However, following the fall of the empire, many years of war, invasion and shifting ownership left their mark and with many architectural remnants still visible today, particularly the Roman Lama Moachile bridge on the coast, and at the archaeological site of Santa Barbara, just north of the village centre.
It’s not all about the past though. Polignano celebrates contemporary art, with the Pino Pascali museum showcasing works by the Polignano born 20th century artist himself, and exhibitions by other artists. The town’s centro storico or historic centre is also a homage to modern poetry, with snippets attributed to Puglian writer Guide Il Flâneur visible on doorways, streets, walls and his famously picturesque poetry steps.
Archaeological and cultural pursuits aside, the natural wonders of Polignano are unmissable. Composed of steep cliffs, Polignano’s coastline features a number of natural caves, which can be explored by boat. There is one particular cave which has been turned into a restaurant and it looks absolutely incredible!! Click here to find out more about Grotta Palazzese and book yourself a table.
The village also boasts some beautiful pebble beaches between the cliffs, most notably Lala Monachile and Cala Paura, giving easy access to – and stunning views of – the ever tempting Adriactic waters. And if you can’t wait that long for a dip, cliff diving is a very popular pastime here! In fact they even have annual cliff diving competitions here.
Locorotondo is a particularly beautiful inland town located roughly 70km from both Bari and Brindisi, well known for its wine, which can be found in restaurants and bars throughout the region! It has the honour of being included in I Borghi più belli d’Italia (literally ‘the most beautiful villages in Italy) – an official association of small towns meeting exacting standards of architecture and heritage and a superb quality of life for its people. The membership conditions are a tough ask, so the group is super exclusive and this makes Locorotondo a remarkable and worthwhile place to visit, if only for a gentle wander around the old town to take in its exquisite perfection.
The town dates back to the tumultuous period following the fall of the Roman Empire, when many coastal populations moved inland to escape from invaders, some revitalising ancient abandoned settlements as appears to be the case with Locorotondo. Its name comes directly from the peculiar circular structure of the original settlement, which is now the villages popular and frequently visited centro storico and the name Locorotondo literally means ’round place’.
Although the town is worth visiting for its own beauty, the top of the hill in the old town also features a circular road providing satisfying vistas of the bucolic Valle d’Itria countryside below. If you want to sample the regions iconic wines, the headquarters of one of the main producers, Cantina Sociale del Locorotondo, can be found near the train station and they serve directly to the public – samples, bottles and in bulk – so trying before you buy is a very enjoyable experience at bargain prices!
Unique to the Puglia region, and not to be missed, are the trulli – a type of dry stone hut with conical limestone tiled rooves that are synonymous with the picturesque town of Alberobello. Although this remarkable building style can be found dotted throughout Puglia, some of the best preserved and most concentrated examples are found in Alberobello, just a short drive from Locorotondo. These trulli houses have been designated a UNESCO world heritage site since 1996.
Whilst the centre of town now has some more typical Italian buildings and streets, the original settlement was built of trulli alone, and there are still two districts in the village which feature this ancient style almost exclusively. Monti is the more touristy of the two, where many of the buildings have been converted into local gift and craft shops, cafes and restaurants. This is in contrast to Aia Piccola, which is much quieter and is still primarily a residential area.
Particular points of interest are the remarkable ‘living’ museum, housed in Trullo Sovrano (the only two-level trullo in the town) and Parrocchia Sant’Antonio di Padova – an early 20th century church, built in keeping with the trulli style and the only church of its type in the world. The origin of this unusual town architecture can be traced to an early 17th century local lord, who needed his workers to clear and cultivate the land, but was reluctant to pay taxes on an official settlement. So he insisted that all buildings must be constructed out of un-mortared stone that could be easily dismantled if a tax collector came calling!
A short trip down the coast from Polignano a Mare will bring you to the stunning coastal village of Monopoli, which offers a certain change of pace from other towns and villages in the immediate area, being much larger and more commercially active. It still keeps its charm though and, like most other parts of the region, has much of its varied history visible today. The cathedral and the castle dominating the centro storico in particular.
Monopoli’s impressive fortifications were developed largely in response to repeated invasions by pirates, and were robust enough to hold off Charles V’s armada, when it arrived in 1529, initially sending the Spaniards away disappointed (although the village later passed under Spanish rule anyway). The old port area is still used for fishing today, and is well worth a wander. The octagonal Castello di Carlo V was built by the Spanish, to further improve defences against threats from the sea. From the beginning of the 19th century until 1969 it was used as a municipal jail, but is now largely an exhibition centre and art gallery. A walk around the building offers some spectacular views over the seas and the harbour.
The towering belfry of Monopoli Cathedral (Cattedrale Maria Ss. Della Madia) was built in the late 1600s, to replace the original which had collapsed, sadly killing 40 people. The main church itself was also then rebuilt with typically Italian baroque flair, but the history of the site as a religious setting is much longer, with the original church being constructed in the 11 th century, this in turn being built on the site of an old roman temple. Some of the relicts from earlier versions of the cathedral are on display in the current building.
Although technically in the Basilicata region of Italy and not in Puglia, Matera lies only a short distance from Puglia’s western border, in a small canyon carved by the Gravina River, and is a fully worthy inclusion in any Puglia road trip. In fact, I would go so far as to say it is unmissable!! During our stay in Puglia we booked two nights away especially to explore Matera, the European Capital of Culture in 2019.
The area was settled in the Palaeolithic era, and if it has been populated continuously ever since (a matter of some debate), this would make it one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world.
With the ‘Sassi’ (two neighbouring ancient districts, now both part of the current town) believed to be some of the first ever human habitations in Italy, as Centro Storicos go, you can’t get much more storico than this! The Sassi are homes dug into the rocks themselves and, until the late 1980s, the dangerous condition of these cave dwellings caused them to be considered an area of extreme poverty. Luckily, following careful regeneration, many of the caves have now been restored and turned into fabulously quirky tourist destinations, businesses and hotels, and are a must-see for their unparalleled historical interest.
The Park of the Rupestrian (rock-hewn) Churches features, unsurprisingly, a network of churches and monasteries, built into the natural caves in the area, with examples of some of the earliest Christian worship, some of which are themselves built on sites of earlier pagan worship. The Sassi and Park of the Rupestrian Churches are both, unsurprisingly, UNESCO heritage sites.
Matera looks as thought it hasn’t changed much in thousands of years. So much so that it has been used in multiple movies, most notably as the set for the 2004 film directed by Mel Gibson, The Passion Of The Christ.
In my opinion, Puglia is the best region of Italy to visit and was top of my list of places to visit for quite some time! It didn’t disappoint in the slightest and I was left desperately wanting to return to discover more. I love that it is relatively untouched and still very much under the tourist radar. Full of rustic charm, an abundance of beautiful towns and villages, extremely welcoming people and history in abundance, you will fall head over heels for the ‘boot’ of Italy (yes, sorry, I just did that!!). I hope I’ve given you some inspiration to explore this incredible region and where to find the most beautiful places in Puglia. If you have visited, do you agree with these places?
I’m planning a trip back soon, hopefully later this year or early next year so I will update this post with more gems I discover!
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