It’s both a blessing and a curse that more people don’t know about Puglia. And what I mean is that for those who do know and have visited, they fall in love with the charming towns and beaches and fresh seafood and delicious wines. And it’s like discovering a whole new side of Italy that doesn’t appear in many guidebooks. There are no major “sights” like in Rome or Florence. But there are beautiful landscapes to take in; this very rural part of Italy is stunning for its farms and its beaches. The old towns here are sites in and of themselves, especially places like Matera which has recently become a must-visit in the region after the Italian government swept in and helped the city go from a slum to a tourist destination. There are the trulli dotting the landscape, especially in the middle part of the region where they are found among the expansive fields of olive trees.
When we planned our trip to Italy, visiting Puglia was a must. Frankly, I think we could have spent our entire two weeks in Italy traveling around this region. But with roughly six days, we had to make the most of our time in the area and be selective about what we did and where we visited. There is so much to see here that a return visit will have to happen (and hopefully for longer next time)!
Puglia is famous for its white-washed towns like Ostuni (just check that Instagram location tag and you’ll see what I mean), and it’s easy to just travel around and get lost seeing these towns. However, they are all rather similar – some more touristy than others – so don’t spend all your time visiting the towns. I’d recommend finding a home base (or two) and traveling from there.
We split our time in Puglia between Otranto and Locorotondo. Otranto is further south in the Salento Peninsula, towards the heel of the boot, while Locorotondo is a bit further north in the region and not far from Bari. We tried to visit some other areas in Puglia while we were there – driving between Otranto and Locorotondo provided one day of town-hopping. You will definitely need a car when visiting this area and there is much to explore.
Getting There: We flew from Venice to Bari and then rented a car once we arrived in Bari. We had a longer drive ahead of us to Otranto (also we got a bit lost due to the poorly executed road signs in Italy), this was about 2-2.5 hours. The main airports in Puglia are Bari and Brindisi though Bari seemed to have more options.
Where to Stay: I highly recommend staying in a masseria while you are in Puglia – there are plenty to check out! Masserias are farmhouses/country homes and they are a popular form of lodging in this area. There are all different kinds of masserias across all different price ranges. Some will be more modern than others, most offer pools (because Puglia is hot in the summertime!), some offer cooking classes, many have restaurants serving breakfast and possibly dinner. They are generally located outside of the towns (since by nature they are more of a rural home), but in close proximity to the towns.
We stayed at Masseria Mongio dell’Elafante. This hotel was beautiful, very modern style. There is a large pool in the middle of the olive trees, an outdoor dining area (we had dinner here our first night), an indoor breakfast room. The accommodations are in separate buildings from the main building, we had a 3-room suite with 2 bedrooms and a small common area with a kitchenette. The AC worked almost too well which was good since it was so hot while we were there. The hotel is close to a beach (Baia de Turchi) and you can easily walk there. The food here was delicious. Our first night we arrived late and arranged to have dinner at the hotel. We had a delightful 4-course dinner with wine (Primitivo rose, a puglian varietal), one of the best meals on the trip. We had swordfish carpaccio, pasta with zucchini and shrimp, roasted squid (incredible) and a hazelnut/pistachio spumoni for dessert. The dessert was incredible. We also got an extra glass of wine and 2 amaros after dinner (an amaro del capo and amaro lucano). The hotel is a short drive into Otranto so it’s easy to visit the town for dinners.
We stayed at Masseria Serralta. Very beautiful property with views of the town and the surrounding valley. There is a lovely area for breakfast outside, as well as a small pool. The masseria is made up of trulli, very cool to stay in one of these homes. Marta, who runs the masseria, was very helpful and gave us recommendations for dinner. The breakfast here was very good, great service during our stay. There are only a few rooms so we quickly got to know the other guests which was nice.
Things to Do:
Otranto is close to many beaches so this is a perfect place to soak up the sun and escape the heat!
- Baia del Turchi – A short walk from our hotel, we went early one morning before leaving Otranto. Was very crowded by 11am which was when we left. Nice beach, but not a lot of space. Mix of beach clubs and open beach areas.
- Alimeni Beach – This was a short drive away from our hotel (about 10-15 minutes). There are many beach clubs here, all vying for your attention and money. We opted for Lido Dei Pini. The beach is covered in umbrellas and chairs for all of the beach clubs. So many people at the beach too! But it emptied out by midday and felt much more manageable. Cost for chairs was 15E for 2 chairs + umbrella, plus 3E for parking. We had lunch at the beach club which was surprisingly good. They offered a hot/cold buffet – we oprted for squid salad, grilled veggies, fries, watermelon, and caprese salad.
- Santa Cesareo Treme (Bagno Marino Archi) – A bit further away from our hotel, about 45 min driving. We did a lot of research and this looked like a nice quiet beach option for the day. The beach club we went to was awesome – kinda loved this place. It’s on a cliff so no sand. Very empty at the club, mostly older couples there. It’s straight out of the 1960s and has a cool vibe. Plus it was pretty quiet vs the crowded beach the day before. There is a really great restaurant at the club with pizza (giant pizzas!), fish, salads, drinks. The spritzes are strong here 🙂
Visit the old town of Otranto – We came here for dinner twice, the town is very busy with tourists and the old town is mostly shops and restaurants. Lots of tourist shops selling much of the same things. The old town is behind a fortress, reminded me much of Croatia and Crete. It was relatively easy to find parking in town and walk to the old town.
Slightly bigger town in Puglia, we only came here for a few hours on our way to Locorotondo. We had lunch in town, got some gelato, and left. It was very hot while we were there so we didn’t really want to spend a lot of time just walking around. There are old ruins in the center of town which is pretty cool, we just sort of stumbled upon them while walking back to our car. Would be nice to go back and explore more.
Come here to see the beautiful white town, walk around, drink a spritz, and then you can go. Don’t need to spend a lot of time here if you just want to take in the view and grab some photos.
Walk around the old town, have a nice dinner (at Bina!), and then grab a drink at one of the bars along the edge of town. This was probably my favorite of the small towns in Puglia because it seemed less touristy and more full of locals. We stumbled upon a concert/performance after dinner, then found ourselves in the popular bar area where loads of people were hanging out after dinner. And the people in this town are all gorgeous! My only regret is that we didn’t spend more time in Locorotondo during the rest of our stay.
- Sailing – We scheduled an afternoon sailing trip out of Monopoli, about 30 minutes driving from our hotel. Sail was on a catamaran – Rent Me Charters. We shared the boat with a family of 6 (also American). This wasn’t really a sail though as we barely left the Monopoli coast. Most of the time we just hung out outside of Monopoli, maybe the sail went up for 5 minutes. The crew barely spoke to us and said the conditions were not good for sailing. There were snacks and drinks on the boat, but all were terrible. The sail cost 40E per person. Not recommended, not a great experience.
- After our sail we explored the town, which was similar to the others. Not surprising. Did some shopping and got a spritz before dinner.
Polignano a Mare
- Coco Beach Club – This is technically in Cozze, just a bit north of Polignano a Mare. Spent the day here before our dinner reservation in town that evening. It was very windy though so we couldn’t go in the water, only the pool. The beach club is very large but was pretty empty that day. Also, they have a rule that to use the pool you must wear a swim cap. Not many people in the pool, probably for that reason! They have two restaurants on site, one more casual than the other. We opted for the nicer sit-down spot and had some delicious salads (polpo salad of course) and a few drinks. We were able to shower and get ready there before our dinner.
- The town itself is very nice, we wandered around and took photos, did some shopping, and had spritzes at La Cuerva before our dinner at Grotta Palazzese.
Food & Drink: Puglia is known for its seafood and you will find plenty of fresh fish here. Eat as much of it as you can! Olives grow everywhere so plan to eat many of those as well!
L’altro Baffo – Fantastic meal! Sat up on the roof. Ordered a bottle of local white wine, seabream fettucine, sea urchin pasta, tuna, and sea bass. For dessert – Mosticiollo with coffee, salt and chocolate. Service was a little slow post-meal, but food was all very good.
Classe 80 – Recommended by the hotel, the chef had previously worked at the hotel. Just outside of the town walls. Very good food and service. Were presented with the catch of the day (a giant platter of fish and some live lobsters) and ordered the branzino for the table. We also ordered the saltcod with fava & greens, the cavatelli with veggies, and the grandma’s vegetables which was our favorite (chickpeas, fried bread & broccoli). The fish came covered in salt and then was uncovered and plated for us.
Doppiozero – Recommended by a friend of mine, it was a perfect lunch spot while we were in Lecce for a few hours. Small cafe with salads, sandwiches, juices, drinks. We had some salads and prosciutto to share.
Bina – Maybe one of my favorite dinners of our trip! Recommended by our hotel. The restaurant is beautiful and the service was extremely friendly. Our server was very helpful in recommending wine and dishes for us to share. All of the wines served here are from Puglia. We started with a bottle of sparkling rose, followed by a bottle of red for dinner. We started with the gourmet trio which had squash blossom courgettes, capacollo (so so good in this area), cheeses. For dinner we had a pasta w pistachios, a lamb dish with pistachios and mushrooms, and chicken which was stuffed with pork. And of course a tiramisu for dessert. And an amaro after dinner.
Docks 101 – There are a number of bars along the edge of the old town which overlooks the plains of Martina Franca, this bar was the most popular. It honestly felt like we were in the Hamptons and not a small town in Italy! This place was very busy, very crowded. Lots of young and old people hanging out having drinks. Quite the scene! The other bars nearby were nowhere near as crowded, this seemed to be the place where everyone came. It was also a Saturday night so probably a little busier than usual.
Terrazzamare – Had good reviews, but was awful. Everything was flavorless. The wine they picked for us was way too sweet. Overall so disappointing and the only bad meal we had in Italy.
Polignano a Mare
Grotta Palazzese – This is the famous “cave restaurant”. Worth coming for the experience and the photos, though quite overpriced as I thought the food was just okay. It was also extremely windy the night we were there which made for an entertaining meal. The total for our meal was 350E – 2 bottles of wine, 2 apps, 3 mains and coffee. The apps were so-so, mains were better (sea bass, risotto w sea bream, and pasta with monkfish, bacon and parmesan). We skipped dessert, getting gelato at an old school spot in town.