The Southern Italian Gem: Puglia. One of my absolute favorite regions in Italy, for many reasons, including the food, the diversity of scenery, the culture, the beaches and much more.
In this article you will get the full travel guide to Puglia. Ranging from the best places to visit, where to stay, the best time to visit, what foods to try and the best way to get there and get around.
Just to clear up things, Puglia and Apulia is the same. The latter is the most accurate to local Italians, however, the most used term internationally is Puglia. Throughout this travel article I will use Puglia.
Puglia is a region of Italy, located in the southern peninsular section of the country, bordering the Adriatic Sea to the east, and the Ionian Sea to the southeast. Puglia’s coastline is the longest of all the mainland Italian regions. In the north, the Gargano area extends out into the Adriatic sea like a small tip, while in the south, the Salento peninsula forms the “heel” of Italy’s boot.
Puglia is one of the richest archaeological regions in Italy. The region is home to two national parks, the Alta Murgia National Park and Gargano National Park.
The best time to visit Puglia is from April to June/July, and September and October. August is the main vacation month in Italy, and Italians perceive this month as holy. Which means that some places (outside the most touristic places), restaurants and shops close in August. Both April and October can provide some beautiful sunny days, but with a more cooling breeze.
So if you are planning to travel around a lot in the region, and visit small inland cities, I would recommend April to June, and September-October.
Puglia is the region to be among the first in Italy for the production of many products like olive oil, almonds, grape, tomatoes, durum (wheat which is used to produce pasta), and many other vegetables. Since the region also holds the longest coastlines of all the mainland Italian regions, seafood is an important part of the pugliese cuisine. The large variety of seafood that is available includes sea bream, octopus, prawns, oysters, anchovies, mussels and clams. Ciao linguine vongole!
The key locally produced ingredients used include: olive oil, artichokes, tomatoes, aubergines/eggplants, asparagus and mushrooms. In summer it is very common to use carosello, a variety of melon. Just a note, you can easily misinterpret it for being cucumber or squash.
There are an estimated 50 to 60 million olive trees in Pulgia, and the region accounts for 40% of Italy’s olive oil production. In other words, you will have no problem of finding gourmet olive oil in the supermarkets.
Unfortunately, since 2008 the olive oil industry in Puglia is under threat from the pathogen Xylella fastidiosa, a disease which inhibits the uptake of water and nutrients by the trees. The epicenter of the epidemic in the region is its south-eastern part.
There are two international airports in Puglia. The biggest airport is in Bari, which operates with the most international flights. The second airport is further south, in Brindisi. This is also international, but on a smaller scale.
You can also take bus, train or boat from other central parts of Italy to get to Puglia. The region has a good network of roads, and and highway through almost the entire region. This makes exploring different parts of Puglia really fun and easy if you rent the car. However, the railway network is less comprehensive, particularly in the south. There are no high-speed lines, and the trains depart less frequently.
When it comes to accommodations and where to stay, I highly recommend renting a house or an apartment when you visit this southern region. Puglia is very popular among Italians themselves, so the hotels are often characterized by being big and impersonal. You can find cozy boutique hotels, but this requires a bit of searching.
I would say that the rule of thumb is; the further south you travel in Puglia, the more I would recommend renting a house for your stay. The southern part of the region is less developed, with huge farmlands and lots of houses for rent.
For instance, in places like Ostuni and Alberobello, which I highly recommend visiting – you have to stay in a trullo. This is a traditional Apulian dry stone hut with a conical roof, which is specific to the Itria Valley, in the Murge area of Puglia. The golden age of trulli was the nineteenth century, which were marked by the development of wine growing.
After spending a lot of time in this region (but still feel there is so much more to explore), I can say something about where I would recommend visiting.
What differs most between the north and south of Puglia is the landscape. The north is known for having a more hilly landscape, more mountains and steep roads. The south, however, is completely different, with its flat scenery, elongated coast lines and extensive farmlands. You will find some mountain villages in the south as well, but nothing compared to the north of Puglia.
The north part of Puglia is characterized by the magnificent Gargano National Park. If you are a beach lover, with a taste for everything from rocky cliffs to elongated white sand, the north tip of Gargano is worth exploring. The bus network along the Gargano coast is pretty good, but if you want more freedom to explore I highly recommend renting a car.
In the north I would recommend staying in the old town of Vieste or Peschici.
Polignano a Mare is a coast town, located by the Adriatic Sea, in the mid-south part of Puglia. In the summer this is a lively beach town, and I would say one of the most popular city beaches on the Puglia coast. Bring a blanket, a little picnic and find one of the cliffs and shelves the Adriatic Sea has carved out – that is if you can find one in peak season…
Matera is an inland city in the region of Basilicata, the mid-southern part of Puglia. The city has a long history, and is most known for its cave dwellings carved into an ancient river canyon, by the Gravina River. This has become a noted historic tourism destination, and a vibrant arts community, definitely worth a visit.
The country side of southern Puglia: Surano/Spongano
Lecce is a 2000 year old historic city in southern Italy. It’s one of the most important cities in Puglia, and the main city of the Salentine Peninsula – a sub-peninsula at the heel of the Italian Peninsula. The city is commonly known as “The Florence of the South”, due to its rich Baroque architectural monuments. I visited Lecce during the Covid-pandemic, so unfortunately, I didn’t get to experience the city at it’s most active. But that didn’t take away the impression of ancient historical charm.
Further south from Lecce, you will experience the their characteristics of the south – many small town villages and huge farmlands. South-west from Lecce you have the city of Gallipoli, know for its large fishing port and beautiful sunsets. South-east from Lecce you will find small inland villages like Surano and Spongano, characterized by olive groves and farmlands. If you’re looking for a proper get-away, you will find some secluded gems for rent in this area. If you like to be closer to the sea, Castro is a great coast town, with an exceptional fish market and some beautiful cliff beaches.