You may be looking at awe-inspiring destinations like the Italian Riviera, the Amalfi coast or Tuscany, but have you considered a trip to Italy's idyllic heel instead?
In the southern region of Puglia and its Salento peninsula, your senses will be overwhelmed and delighted with sweeping coastlines, stunning beaches, labyrinthian old towns, savory local delicacies and memorable wines. You'll ease into a whole other rhythm of Italian life (forget the bustle of Milano and Rome!) and, if you do it right, you'll discover gems that many Italians have yet to explore.
Italy's heel has a longer coastline than other regions of Italy's mainland, and is bordered by both the Adriatic Sea and the Ionian Sea. Sure, Puglia is home to well-known destinations like its capital Bari, the baroque city of Lecce nicknamed 'Florence of the South' and to the iconic town of Alberobello known for its conical trulli houses. But what makes the region unforgettable is all the places, treasures and feelings in between... and I am here to tell you about them!
In its whitewashed towns and enchanting countryside dotted with millions of olive trees, I promise you will be tempted to stay... or, at the very least, to make plans (almost immediately) to return.
Bari itself is captivating and quite underrated compared to other Italian cities.
A port city with two harbors, it is a hub for many passenger ferries to Croatia, Greece, Albania or Montenegro. It is also a vibrant university town with a modern center boasting elegant shopping streets and museums. But what is most evocative about Bari is surely its authentic old town and this stark contrast between old and new. Strolling the maze of narrow cobbled lanes, you'll stumble upon one picturesque piazza after another and architectural marvels like the Basilica of S. Nicola, the Cattedrale di S. Sabino and its imposing steeple, the Teatro Petruzzelli and the impossible-to-miss Castello. But you'll also stumble upon several generations of locals making orecchiette pasta by hand in the street in front of their homes, their front door wide open and their children playing nearby. You'll find yourself inadvertently interrupting soccer games in the streets and squares, or conversations between neighbors shouting across balconies overhead. You'll order an espresso and find yourself watching the card game at the neighboring table, wondering whether your grandfather would be friends with these gentlemen if he lived here.
If you travel to Bari, please enjoy my 3 highlights for me: (1) Take a sunset walk and have a drink on the city's medieval ramparts, (2) spend some time in Piazza Mercantile (look up to take it all in), and (3) watch the fishermen at work at Porto Vecchio and along the Lungomare waterfront promenade.
2. Polignano a Mare
Polignano is the perfect setting for slow wandering and sea-gazing. Perched atop limestone cliffs overlooking deep blue waters, Polignano has several beautiful lookout points that will make your heart pound. Certainly don't miss the Balconata sul Mare. The town has a Greek feeling to its architecture and color palette. Take time to find the charming Vicolo della Poesia with a staircase featuring poetry by Bari writer "Guido Il Flâneur". In fact, if you are attentive to your surroundings, you'll find bits of his poetry on doors and walls throughout the old town.
The beach itself (Cala Porto) is small and pebbly, but picturesque. Float on your back and watch the light change on the stone cliffs and its stacked houses. You can rent a bike from Polignano Made in Love and cycle to other nearby beaches and cute towns like San Vito.
And, if you really want to make a memory, go for lunch (or a more formal supper) at the Grotta Palazzese - a restaurant tucked in a cave where you have water spilling in on both sides of its terrace. Quick tip: Be sure to dress adequately (no swimsuits) and warmly, as it can be cool and clammy in the cave, especially after you've been in the hot sun. Also be prepared to spend a LOT for the same "simple" (though extremely fresh) food and wine you've been inexpensively savoring all over Puglia.
If you love charming fishing towns and rugged beaches, spending time in Monopoli will do you good! In the morning and evening, enjoy the harbor, the small red lighthouse, the winding streets and the medieval walls surrounding the city. In the afternoon, grab your car or bike to explore nearby beaches, some of them more rugged than others: Cala Porta Vecchia, Cala Cozze, Porto Verde, Cala Paradiso, La Scaletta, Tre Buchi or Porto Marzano.
Remember that public beaches allow you to plop down your towel and umbrella freely on the sand or cliffs, whereas private beaches ("lido") will ask you to rent a spot for the day.
Staying the night in a masseria and booking a supper there will allow you to connect more deeply with the land, the traditions and the passionate people who are so beautifully committed to preserving and promoting nature and this culture.
Alberobello can feel overwhelmingly touristy, but it is worth seeing as it is quite unique. If you want to step away from the touristic center, explore the Rione Aia Piccola area. From there, you could also enjoy views over Alberobello.
Quiet and slow, Locorotondo is the perfect place to spend a few hours taking a mindful stroll, taking in the vista of the surrounding countryside, and savoring an outdoor lunch with a glass of their renowned sparking white wine at one of the welcoming trattorie in the old town.
7. Martina Franca
Look up, look around and look back to take in all the beautiful balconies, archways and shutters. Watch and listen to locals as they go about their day. Let your eyes flit over the symphony of Baroque details of the Basilica di S. Martino and the Chiesa di San Domenico.
Every summer, Martina Franca hosts the Festival della Valle d'Itria opera festival.
A highlight of my Salento trip was the nearby beach "Baia dei Turchi", which I still dream of on long winter days.
10. Santa Cesarea Terme
11. Santa Maria di Leuca
The iconic lighthouse stands next to the Basilica that was built on the site of a Roman temple.
Driving down the coast (from Lecce or Otranto) to Santa Maria di Leuca gives you the opportunity to stop in picturesque places like Castro, Porto Tricase or Porto Ciolo. On the Ionian coast, don't miss the crystal clear waters of Spiaggia di Pescoluse.
Gallipoli is a perfect base for exploring the western coast of Italy's heel. The city center is atmospheric and authentic, large enough so you can wander quite a while through its narrow streets or along its seafront perimeter. Brace yourself for ferocious winds! Visit the Castle and head to the nearby fresh fish market for scents and tastes that will linger with you long after you've left.
Its city beach is beautiful and clean, with a gentle curve that makes you feel as though you've stepped right up to the threshold of a painting hanging framed in front of you. Return at sunset to fall in love with the sky and the tide.
Gallipoli is also close to other awe-inspiring beaches along the coast, such as Baia Verde or Punta della Suina with its dunes and wild greenery.
13. Porto Cesareo & Torre Lapillo
The long, sandy, shallow beaches with their dunes, islets and reefs are a marine protected area. Head north to Torre Lapillo, a favorite among locals. For more secluded stretches of beach (especially early in the mornings) visit Punta Prosciutto.
Directly across from Porto Cesareo, you'll find a tiny island called Isola dei Conigli (rabbit island). You can take a boat trip there and explore the island's cypress, pine and acacia trees. There is also a public beach on the island.