Puglia Sightseeing guide
Puglia is definitely one of our favourite regions in Italy.... truly unspoilt and unlike anywhere else in the country and with an incredible wealth of things to see and do. We have listed below some of our favourite towns and villages in Puglia, all of which are well worth visiting during your stay here.
Alberobello is one of the most famous and most easily recognised landscapes of the Puglia region. The skyline is a spectacular gathering of trulli (circular buildings with conical roofs, built from limestone). Reminiscent of 'hobbit' houses, you will find them throughout the Puglian region, but never in as much abundance as here in Alberobello and, as a result, the town has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1996. Their beautiful whitewashed walls look spectacular against a clear blue sky, and despite the fact that this is somewhat of a tourist hotspot, it's definitely a 'must-see' sight. Many of the trulli are now souvenir shops but you will find restaurants within their walls too whilst many are private homes or B&B establishments. Even the town's cathedral is a trullo! The trulli themselves date back to the 16th century and are built directly on to the rock, without any foundations and without use of any mortar. The idea back then was to build houses that could be easily dismantled. In this way, the ruling Counts of Conversano could avoid taxation on new urban settlements that had been imposed by the King of Naples. This design of building also had the added bonus of allowing them to easily destroy the homes of recalcitrant villagers. The town is divided into 2 parts - Rione Monte and Rione Aia Piccola. The former is comprised of narrow streets gently sloping upwards and featuring around 1000 trulli scattered along 7 parallel streets culminating at the top with the Chiesa Sant' Antonio, a trullo-shaped church, whilst the latter is much less commercialised district of about 600 trulli, still occupied.
Bari is the capital of the region and is split into two main areas - the old town lying between the Porto Vecchio and Porto Grande harbours, and the commercial newer part of the town. Our preference is definitely for the former. The old town is a maze of narrow streets that give a glimpse of life in times gone by. Certainly the confusing layout was intentional, successfully preventing any marauding pirates from findin their way to the important buildings at the towns centre. These include the Basilica of San Nicola, one of the area's earliest Norman churches, built to house the relics of St Nicholas, the patron saint of Bari. Whilst St Nicholas may have morphed into our modern day Father Christmas, it's here that visitors will discover his real resting place. Just a short walk further on from the basilica is the town's castle - Castello Svevo - a very well preserved piece of history. The newer part of town is laid out in marked contrast to the older part, with long uniform streets. If you like shopping then the newer part of town should certainly satisfy any craving for a bit of retail therapy. The Via Sparano is a kilometre long pedestrianized shopping street.
Just 20 kilometres from the busy city of Bari lies Giovinazzo, a much sleepier coastal town with a picturesque and colourful port. Whilst there is not a great deal to see here, it's a lovely spot to enjoy a passeggiata. For those interested in history, a visit here can be combined with a trip to the Dolmen of Saint Sylvester, an example of megalithic architecture dating back to the Bronze Age.
If you're looking for a picturesque coastal town to visit, then one not to be missed is Monopoli. Monopoli is a prosperous fishing port, characterised by narrow cobbled streets, pretty fisherman's houses, piazzas and churches. The Castle of Charles V perched on a promontory and surrounded by sea on three of it's four sides, is worth a visit as is the Cathedrale di Madonna della Madia.
Polignano al Mare
Just 2 km from Monopoli, Polignano al Mare is perched atop limestone cliffs and looks out over the beautiful blue waters of the Adriatic.
By far our favourite destination if you're wanting to be by the coast is the Gargano promontory. In fact, this has to be one of the most beautiful areas in Italy. The landscape is simply stunning with white limestone cliffs overlooking bright blue seas contrasting with the dense forests and lush green meadows filled with colourful flowers. The Umbra Forest that lies within the promontory covers an area of over 15,000 hectares and is now protected as a national park. It is home to over 2000 species of plants and for keen botanists, it's an opportunity to enjoy the highest concentration of wild orchids in the whole of Europe. It's also a paradise for walkers and cyclists with plenty of paths and tracks for everyone to enjoy. We suggest you pick up a map of the trails and paths from the Villagio Umbra. This is the visitor centre and museum located in the middle of the forest. But don't just stay inland.... make sure you also visit the coastline here too. It's just as spectacular and is dotted with gorges, caverns and caves. A couple of the prettiest towns along this stretch of coastline are Vieste and Peschici. Inbetween these two towns you will be able to spot the 'trabucchi' which are ancient fishing traps consisting of a wooden platform set on stilts over the sea on which sits a series of poles, ropes and winches and on which nets are hung.
Widely known as 'the Pearl of the Gargano', Peschici boasts some wonderful sandy beaches. but don't miss the chance to leave the beach to visit the town centre too. It is very popular with tourists but despite this has retained its charm and authenticity. Explore the narrow streets that lead to the castle at the top of the town and which is now home to a Medieval torture museum.
This is the capital of the Gargano region and boasts two excellent beaches - the Marina Piccola and the Spaggia del Castello. Both are very popular with tourists in the Summer months and, if you like kite surfing or scuba diving, these are great bases to choose. As with Peschici, it's worth exploring the labyrinth of winding streets, filled with boutiques and shops selling local ceramics and crafts.
At completely the opposite end of Puglia's coastline is another seaside town worth visiting - Otranto. This is a historic seaside town boasting a delightful marina, pretty alleys, sandy beaches and dominated by its castle - the Castello Aragonese - which is open to the public. Take time to visit the Cathedral here too but, be warned, the Capella Mortiri (Chapel of the Dead) here is not for the feint hearted, home as it is to the skulls and bones of 800 martyrs massacred by a conquering army back in the 15th century for not converting to Islam. The bones are neatly arranged in 7 tall glass cases.
Around the heel of Italy on the other side of the coast is Gallipoli. This is divided into the 'borgo' which is the more modern part and the old city. The centro storico is located on a small island just off the coast, linked to the mainland by a 16th century brudge. Once part of Greater Greece, by the 18th century, Gallipoli had become a thriving commercial centre famous for its lamp oil that was exported throughout the Mediterranean and Northern Europe. As well as being used to light lamps including the lights in London, the oil was also made into soap including the famous Savon de Marseille.
Further up the coast from Gallipoli and slightly inland is Castellaneta, a pretty town perched on the Gravina Grande, one of the most spectacular canyons in Puglia. The town's most famous resident was Rudolf Valentino, one of the greatest stars of the silent movie era. There is a museum dedicted to him in the town.
Cisternino is one of the region's prettiest towns and has therefore been listed as one of the 'Borghi i piu belli d'Italia' (one of the most beautiful villages in all of Italy). Beautiful white-washed buildings line narrow arched alleyways whilst balconies festooned with flowers bring colour to quaint little courtyards. It's an absolutely charming and idyllic spot to explore and it's definitely worth trying to combine a visit with one of the many festivals that take place in the town. These include the Pietre che Cantano (Singing Stones) music festival and the Festa di San Quirico as well as several food festivals, all of which take place in August.
Puglia has a number of towns and villages listed within Italy's most beautiful though and Bovino is another on this list. The hilltop village of Bovino tends to be less well known amongst tourists but well worth a visit if you are passing.
However, Cisternino and Bovino are not alone in being titled one of Italy's most beautiful villages. Locorotondo is also one of the region's prettiest towns and, not surprisingly, has also been listed as one of the 'Borghi i piu belli d'Italia'. The centre is filled with whitewashed houses and historic buildings. Interestingly, the buildings were originally painted white to try to prevent the spread of the plague but the tradition is now proudly kept alive as a way of honouring the towns history. Definitely don't miss out on the chance to wander round its narrow, sleepy streets. And why not combine a visit with a trip to the nearby Grotte di Castellana. The caves are a quite spectacular example of stalactites and stalagmites and covers an area of 3 kilometres in length. Visitors can choose whether to take the shorter 50 minute tour or to enjoy the full tour which takes about 2 hours.
Similarly known for it's white buildings is Ostuni, known affectionately as 'The White City'. It's a great place to visit in the Summer months when there are an abundance of festivals to enjoy mostly revolving around food or wine, many of which are held in the Piazza della Liberta. These include the Processione della Grata on 2 August, which culminates in a stunning evening of candelight when the candles of the 6000 or so people attending will light up the countryside. In the same month, there is the Sagra dei Vecchi Tempi on 15 August, when visitors will have the chance to try traditional dishes from the area and the Cavalcata di Sant' Oronzo between 24 and 27 August. This event includes a spectacular parade of knights on horseback.
Lecce is just as beautiful a place to visit, crammed with exuberant Baroque monuments, built in a style commonly known as 'Baroque Leccese' due to it's uniqueness. The two main focal points of the city are the the Piazza Sant 'Oronzo and the Piazza del Duomo. The former is home to an ancient amphitheatre dating back to the Emperor Hadrian., whilst the latter is an enclosed courtyard home to both the 68 metre high bell tower and the 12th Century Duomo - the Cattedrale di Maria Santissima - just one of over 40 churches in the town. For those with an interest in wine, it's also an important centre of wine production.
Fasano is yet another Puglian town full of narrow lanes, whitewashed houses, pretty piazzas and archways. If visiting, definitely take time to visit the Museo dell' Olio. It's a great way to learn about the history and production of olive oil. For those with children, Fasano is also home to the popular Zoo Safari. But whilst in Fasano, also head to Selva di Fasano. 400 metres above sea level, the location is the highest point in Brindisi province and therefore offers visitors some absolutely amazing views.
Other smaller towns that you may want to pause and stop to explore include Conversano, Gioia del Colle, Messagne and Foggia. Certainly, all these are unspoilt by mass tourism and offer a chance to truly sample Puglian life, much of which revolves around the local produce grown nearby. Conversano, for example, holds an annual fair ('sagra') in honour of the Ferrovia cherry, during which visitors will be able to try a plethora of delicacies all made with this cherry as it's main ingredient. And Gioia del Colle is the birthplace of Primitivo wine, whilst Mesagne hosts the Snails festival (Sagra to li cozzi cu la panna), Peaches festival (Sagra ti li Peschi) and the Festival of the Stuffed Cakes! (Sagra ti la Fucazza Chena). Even Foggia, which by any means, is admittedly not one of the prettiest towns in Puglia, is worth a visit just to try it's unique pasta - troccoli - which differs from the orecchiete pasta you will find throughout the rest of the region.