10 Must Visit Destinations for 2021 in Puglia, Italy

Like the Italian flag our landscape boasts a tricolour of green, white and red: the green of the verdant olive groves, stretching as far as the eye can see; the white of limestone ever present in the drystone walls that surround them, the ancient stone dwellings that populate them and the dramatic coastal cliffs and stacks that contain our region; the ferrous red of the soil, pulsing with vitality. Set in an endless blue painted blue as the azure sea bleeds seamlessly into deep blue skies. Welcome to Puglia. Our home.

Cactus in Puglia with fichi d’India fruit
Trulli of Alberobello Puglia
Home made Italian tomato sauce from Puglia

 Visiting Puglia in 2021? Then don’t miss...

 

When planning a visit to Puglia think of our region in three parts;  Gargano to the north, Salento to the south and in between the Valle d’Itria. Then there is Bari. An arrival point for onward travel or a base for Bari Vecchia and beyond.

The Valle d’Itria, “Imperial Puglia” and Matera in the neighbouring region of Basilicata are easy day trips from there.

Benvenuti in Puglia

The Valle d’Itria is green and glorious, with rolling olive groves stretching as far as the eye can see. The landscape is peppered with trulli - traditional white stone dwellings with a conical roof. It has medieval white walled old towns: Locorotondo, Cisternino, both officially among i borghi piú belli d’Italia (Italy’s most beautiful towns), and la città bianca itself, Ostuni. 

It is home to one of Puglia’s most iconic destinations. Alberobello with its famous historic trulli zones. While just beyond in the nearby province of Bari you find another. Polignano a Mare, famed for its Lama Monachile beach, sandwiched between dramatic limestone cliffs and overlooked by the old town sitting atop.

The Valle d’Itria is the most visited part of our region. It is easily accessible from both of our international airports. Indeed, the Valle d’Itria has much on offer to merit this. But be aware of the “echo chamber” effect. Being the most visited part of Puglia it is often recommended as a place to visit. Because it is so often recommended it is added to bucket-lists of must see destinations... and so it goes.

Trulli snow globes on sale in Alberobello Puglia

Yet, Santa Cesarea Terme in Salento is as geologically interesting as Polignano a Mare. And far less visited. Here the cliffs plunge suddenly into the Adriatic. Dramatic swimming basins and rocky platforms are tucked in between secluded rocky coves. As the name suggests it has thermal spa baths. Further south is Castro, with its picturesque “balconies” over the Adriatic.

The Gargano’s landscape is the most diverse in Puglia. With rugged limestone cliffs, sparking azure sea and exceptional, long sandy beaches every bit as fine as the award-winning beaches of Salento and, in our experience, superior to the Valle d’Itria’s best.

Along the coast you will find hidden caves and private coves, sea stacks majestically rising up from and reaching into an infinity of blue and the trabuchi; wooden fishing platforms, a cross between grotesque spiders and steampunk oil rigs.

It is greener too.  The Gargano National Park extends across much of Gargano’s interior, within which the dark and prehistoric Foresta Umbra sits.

With long, sun-drenched summers, slow and easy towns sleepy in the summer heat and simple, delicious food Puglia is a popular holiday destination. Based on our experiences here are our region’s top 10 places to visit in 2021.

 

#1
Vieste | Peschici | Gargano

 

Why? | Al Trabucco da Mimì - our most memorable experience in Puglia | accessible city beaches you can walk to | stunning scenery getting there and getting around | the best coast in Puglia | fewer visitors to get in the way

With some of the region’s most iconic and best known destinations in the Valle d’Itria and Bari province, it may come as a surprise that our top Puglia destination is in the most overlooked part of our region. It may not be recommended as often as the Valle d’Itria but that does not mean the destinations and adventures on offer are any less rewarding. Remember that echo chamber effect we talked about.

Vieste in the Gargano, Puglia with one of the most famous faraglione Pizzomunno di Vieste

Many opine that visiting the Gargano, the “spur” of Italy’s boot, will sequester you away from everything else Puglia has to offer (meaning the Valle d’Itria). We consider that this betrays an ignorance of this part of our region. While it is a 2h30m drive from Bari to Vieste there are many beautiful destinations on offer in Gargano, at least as interesting and as inspirational.

It has medieval towns, small fishing villages and it has wonderful beaches with long unbroken stretches of fine sand. Look out for the trabucchi dotted around the coast and enjoy the splendour of the most impressive of Puglia’s limestone sea stacks rising up out of the blue.

As the most visited part of our region the Valle d’Itria sets a high standard. But that makes it a well-worn track visitors to Puglia tread. We say be a trend setter instead of a trend follower. Think outside the Valle d’Itria box. Visit Vieste, be imaginative, and enjoy a more exclusive experience in the Gargano. 

Nearby | Vieste sits on the futhest point of the peninsula, and makes a perfect base to explore from. The Foresta Umbra, Peschici and Viso del Gargano are all within within a 30–40 minute drive from Vieste. Take a boat trip to Mattinata, the best way to experience Gargano’s coast. Take a day trip to Monte Sant’Angelo to see the Sanctuary of San Michele Arcangelo. Take longer to visit the Tremiti Islands - often praised for their exceptional beauty.

More | read the Big Guide to Vieste | read about our road trip to Gargano | when we ate at Al Trabucco da Mimì,

#2
Polignano a Mare

 

Why? | the iconic views of Lama Monachile | epic raw, fried and cooked street food | Il Super Mago del Gelo | Volare

No trip to Puglia would be complete without visiting Polignano a Mare. Swimming beyond the cliffs that stand either side of Lama Monachile into the blue painted blue. Grab some of the most amazing street food at Pescaria - the fried octopus and the red shrimp tartare panini with buffalo mozzarella are our favourites. An ice-cream is a must have; Polignano is also well known as the ice-cream town.

The iconic Cala Monachile beach at Polignano a Mare in Puglia at sunset

Follow the poetry around the old town, taking in the views from the balconata sul mare; panoramic terraces with wonderful views of the rocky coastline rising out of the deep blue sea that bleeds into deep blue sky. Cross the bridge to Domenico Modugno’s statue earphones in, listening to “Volare” - the song he co-wrote and performed. Walk down the Modugno steps and understand why he stands proudly, head towards the sky and arms outstretched, singing about “flying in the blue painted blue”.

Nearby | visit Monopoli - because you can and it has a fine old port where you can still watch fishermen repair their nets after landing the daily catch.

More | read the Big Guide to Polignano a Mare.

#3=
Bari Vecchia

 

Why? | a vibrant but not (yet) overly commercial bar and restaurant scene | a good base for public transport connections | its authenticity | a raw seafood lunch or some panzerotti at the Porto Vecchio | tiramisù with a twist | la festa di San Nicola

This time last year we would probably have ranked Bari less favourably. But our effusive Baresi podcast team members rave about the culture and nightlife on offer and have convinced us it is Bari’s time. Their city is “buzzing”, they tell us.

San Nicola Bari street art - the Saint Nicholas festival is one of Bari’s biggest events

We love Bari Vecchia - the old town. Wandering around the maze of narrow streets and alleyways you will find that life in the old town carries on as it always has, notwithstanding extensive regeneration that has taken place. The sound of food being prepared and the chattering of families dining together echoes all around; laundry hangs from balconies, drying in the lazy heat of the afternoon.

Just outside the old town is the Porto Vecchio where you can enjoy a freshly caught raw seafood lunch served up by the fisherman returning to port. We recommend sea urchin served with a hunk of bread, a wedge of lemon and a cold beer and El Chiringuito for panzerotti and Peroni. The street food of Bari

Nearby | make efficient use of your time in Bari as a base to explore nearby towns with outstanding cultural and historical heritage, all easy to reach by train | Barletta | Trani | Bitonto | Andria | or the lesser known but no less lovely towns of Ruvo di Puglia and Giovinazzo | Matera in the neighbouring Basilicata region is a wonderful city to visit, easily accessible by road (and usually by train) and only 64km from Bari; if short of time this always trumps Alberobello (#9) | Altamura famed for its bread is en route | Castel del Monte “a unique masterpiece of medieval military architecture” is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is an easily managed detour.

More | read the Big Guide to Bari | when we ate at La Ciclatera Sotto il Mare - our favourite tiramisù

#3=
Lecce

 

Why? | the baroque and roll colours of Lecce | the Basilica di Santa Croce | the best pizza in Puglia | puccia to grab and go | a great base for day trips around Salento

The cream of Lecce’s baroque architecture set against the azzurro sky and the faded colours accessorising the palazzi of the centro storico never fail to impress us. The Basilica di Santa Croce has one of the finest and most intricate Baroque facades in Italy, in exquisite detail.

The basilica of Santa Croce in Lecce is one of the best examples of baroque architecture with a stunning baroque facade.

A great choice of food is on offer in Lecce all year round. It has - officially - the best pizza in Puglia - as well as fine puccia, street food at its most honest (and cheapest).

Nearby | the Grotta della Poesia is 30 minutes by car. Just beyond at Torre dell’Orso is the award winning spiaggia delle due sorelle.  Soft white sand, crystal clear water and gently undulating dunes dappled with maquis scrub are framed by the pine grove behind. Otranto and Gallipoli, Santa Cesarea Terme, Castro, Marina Serra and Santa Maria di Leuca are worthwhile day trips.

More | read the Big Guide to Lecce | discover the colours of Puglia | try a bitesize piece of Puglia.

#5
Cisternino | Locorotondo

 

Why? | charming old towns | officially i più bello borghi d’Italia | intimate | the macelleria 

It is hard to pick a favourite. Both are picturesque and charming towns. Little separates them other than the 9km lying in between.

Some 16km west of Ostuni, Cisternino has a slight advantage over its sister satellite towns - Locorotondo, Martina Franca and Ceglie Messapica - of being closer to the sea. Both offer a more intimate setting for dinner than Ostuni. 

Looking out over the Valle d’Itria from Cisternino one of its most beautiful towns.
Restaurants can be found in the narrow alleyways of Cisternino’s old town.
Cisternino in Puglia’s Itria Valley is officially one of the most beautiful towns in Italy.

We think Locorotondo is the prettier of the two, particularly when viewed looking up from the Valle d’Itria behind. But only just. 

There is shortage of bars, caffès and restaurants in the centro storico of each. Locorotondo has one of our favourite pizza restaurants, Cisternino has its macellerie, butcher shop restaurants famous for their bombette pugliese.

Ostuni may have more impressive winding alleyways and steps knotted around its centro storico, but with visitors to la città bianca growing year on year, we prefer these less crowded towns.

Nearby | Ceglie Messapica | Martina Franca home of the annual summer opera festival, Festival della Valle d’Itria | Alberobello (see #9).

#6
Santa Maria di Leuca

 

Why? | the drive there | the lungomare | de finibus terrae | go sailing | snorkelling for your next meal | fewer visitors

The drive down the coast from Santa Cesarea Terme is one of the highlights of our region. We either go straight there or stop off en route. Leuca sits on the southernmost extreme of the heel of Italy’s boot. To the Romans de finibus terrae  - the end of the world.

Looking out to sea at Santa Maria di Leuca in Puglia the southernmost point of the heel of Italy’s boot.

Leuca offers a rare spectacle. From the same spot you can watch the sun rise over one sea, and set behind another. Where the two seas meet and their currents clash is given away by the churn of their colours: the turquoise blue waters of the Adriatic into the deep blue hues of the Ionian.

Despite its beauty, it is never, ever busy. Relax at one of the lidos and watch the local youth snorkelling for octopus and sea urchin.

Nearby | some of Italy’s best beaches; coming back up the Ionian coast the Maldives of Salento at Pescoluse, and beyond you find Porto Cesareo, Torre Lapillo and the dunes at Punta Prosciutto. Naturists may prefer the wild and rugged Porto Selvaggio and the relaxed and liberating Spiaggia d’Ayala at Campomarino di Maruggio.

More | World’s End | our road trip along the coast to Leuca | read about our visit to Spiaggia d’Ayala.

#7
Gallipoli | Baia Verde

 

Why? | the fish market | the old town | the old town beach | Pôr do Sol | Punta della Suina - Spiaggia degli Innamorati | watching the sun set 

Far from the sleepy old fishing port you find during the off-season months, Gallipoli is where the beautiful and glamorous party after a hard day taking the hot Salento sun. Especially at one of the nearby lido beach clubs. 

Sunset over Gallipoli’s old town.

Lido Pôr do Sol at Baia Verde is our favourite (sandy beach, clear sea and friendly staff - and a sunset to die for), but if you want something a little more rugged head to Punta della Suina for the rocky shelves and intimate, discrete coves.

The old town is a network of narrow streets and alleys, shops and restaurants. Find the basilica Cathedral of St Agatha tucked away inside. Outlined with historic courtyard houses, look out for fishermen weaving their fishing baskets.  

Nearby | Nardò | the nature reserve of Porto Selvaggio with its popular main and secluded beaches.

More | we visit Pôr do Sol - our favourite beach club.

#8
Ostuni

 

Why? | explore the centro storico | buy David a Cinzano Bianco at Caffè Garibaldi on the Piazza della Libertà 

The White City rises up from the Valle d’Itria, crowning the hill it sits on. The walls and buildings of the old town gleam in the distance and can be seen as you drive along the main coastal highway.

It has a vibrant centro storico in summer, with restaurants and bars to be discovered in every alleyway twisting around and up and down the hilltop upon which the duomo sits.

The narrow winding alleyways of Ostuni’s old town.
Ostuni in Puglia is known as the white city - la città bianca.
Ostuni’s old town is a maze of winding alleyways.

Find us sitting outside one of the trendy cocktail bars for an evening aperitivo or post-dinner cocktail. And if you think you spot our podcast co-host and production assistant David (virtually or in real life), you probably did. Impress him with a Cinzano Bianco or, if he is feeling in a more exotic mood, try your luck with a mojito or even a caipirinha.

Nevertheless we have bumped down Ostuni a few spots this year. It may be a favourite with visitors, but we prefer nearby Cisternino and Locorotondo, the other white cities, for an intimate old town dinner. And by the time you have visited the former, you might experience a sense of déja vu in Ostuni.

Nearby | see #5 above | Carovigno - which with a Michelin starred restaurant in the centro storico punches above its weight (although we prefer the simple charm of the family run trattoria at the further end of the piazza).

More | read the Big Guide to Ostuni | read the Big Gay Guide to Ostuni | follow David on Instagram | follow us on Instagram.

#9
Alberobello

 

Why? | iconic Puglia | hidden Alberobello | innovative pizza

Think of Puglia and you will probably picture Alberobello’s trulli - as iconic as Polignano a Mare’s Lama Monachile - and just as likely to grace the cover of the latest edition of The Lonely Planet Guide to Puglia. Alberobello, a UNESCO world heritage centre, is home to more than 1,500 of these strange circular dwellings with conical roofs, evidence of a long-forgotten past heritage.

Drawing a stream of visitors all year round tourism takes centre stage in Alberobello. Most trulli in the crowded commercialised Monti district are shops; those that are not are restaurants.

Where are the best trulli in Puglia - Alberobello is famous for these conical dwellings.

Unprepared for the crowds and the commercialisation some visitors leave feeling underwhelmed. The authenticity and charm of a long gone way of life has all but evaporated. Manage your expectations and forget the promise of a “magical” experience and you can avoid being disappointed. 

No matter the time of day, if you know where to look you can still find a small, less manicured part of Alberobello hidden from the throngs of visitors.

Nearby | see #5 above | Monopoli for lunch when we have had our fill of the crowd, it’s a picturesque drive down the other side to the coast.

More | read the Big Guide to Alberobello | discover some innovative pizza in Alberobello.

#10
Otranto

 

Why? | the cathedral floor mosaics | the city beach | the fish restaurants | location as a base for exploring Salento

Italy’s easternmost town is dominated by its Romanesque cathedral and the Castello Aragonese. Below its defensive walls sits a white sandy beach caressed by turquoise waters. 

Take a pre or post lunch or dinner walk along the sea-front promenade to the small but thriving port.

The mosaic floor at the cathedral in Otranto Puglia is impressive.
Otranto in Puglia is a top tourist destination its cathedral one of the most visited destinations.

Be sure to visit the cathedral with unique 12th-century floor mosaics, and a beautiful vaulted crypt.

Nearby | Specchia and Presicce | see #11

 Want some more?

 

We always try to add value. So here is our Puglia +1.

 

#11
Marina Serra | Tricase Porto | Tricase

 

Why? | the natural swimming basin at Marina Serra | Farmacia Balboa | Castel di Salve wine cantina | Locanda del Levante restaurant

Tricase is a small town in the province of Lecce. We head directly to Piazza Giuseppe Pisanelli for an aperitivo at Farmacia Balboa (where you might just spot co-owner Dame Helen Mirren who has a masseria in nearby Tiggiano) sitting midway between the two churches that flank the square.

Before heading off to Locanda del Levante for dinner - the first difficult choice is deciding whether to sit outside in the balmy cool of the evening, or inside; the restaurant has one of our favourite interiors - we stock up on 10 litre boxes of wine from the Castel do Salve cantina a few doors down.

Wild and savage Puglia - porto selvaggio is set in a nature reserve near Gallipoli.

We have usually lunched at Tricase Porto after an early morning swim at the piscine naturale di Marina Serra. Swimming there as the sunrises over the Albanian mountains (you can see them) and the natural basin is another unique experience to add to your list.

Nearby | Grotta Grande del Ciolo - this is swimming at Lama Monachile (Polignano a Mare) turbo-charged. But good luck finding a parking spot | Santa Maria di Leuca | Santa Cesarea Terme | Castro.

More | how we fit in a trip to Tricase and Marina Serra.

Seafood pasta in Puglia.

Read about Puglia’s sagre festivals. The Big Guide to Puglia’s Food Festivals.

Driving in Puglia.

Driving in Puglia? Read our driving FAQ.

 

GO DEEPLY INTO PUGLIA

The endless olive groves stretching as far as the eye can see and clusters of trulli are both reasons to visit the Valle d’Itria. Indeed, no trip to Puglia would be complete without visiting Polignano a Mare, eating seafood by the old port in Monopoli and exploring the trulli. But even with a dash of Lecce and shot of Otranto you would still be experiencing what most of Puglia’s visitors experience. And while the Valle d’Itria may draw the majority of Puglia’s visitors, it’s Salento that puts the “extra” into extraordinary.

"We are in Puglia."

~ Melanie Knill-Ives