Puglia embodies everything that is seductive about southern Italy: rolling countryside blanketed in almond and olive groves, luridly turquoise beaches, snug whitewashed villages, and long, lazy lunches washed down with prized local vino.
Lapped by two seas and stretching 432km (268 miles) from north to south, the region of Puglia delivers an array of diverse landscapes, from the light-dappled woods of the Gargano promontory to the Greek-speaking, pizzica-dancing towns of far-flung Salento. Should you cycle between bougainvillea-draped towns in the Valle d’Itria, snorkel the Tremiti Islands, or feast on pasticciotti (creamy pastry) in bombastically baroque Lecce?
The list of great things to do is as long as Puglia itself. If you’re not sure where to start, read on for these highlights bound to have you plotting your own Puglian sojourn.
1. Island hop the Tremiti archipelago
You’re guaranteed a much better time on the Isole Tremiti (Tremiti Islands) than poor Julia the Younger, exiled here by her emperor uncle Augustus on a charge of adultery in the 1st century CE. Located some 20km (12 miles) off the Gargano Promontory, the compact archipelago of five islands – San Domingo, San Nicola, and uninhabited Capraia, Crettaccio and Pianosa – is a pristine wonderland of milk-white bluffs, Aleppo pines and crystalline waters littered with starfish, lobsters and rare black coral. Slumber on verdant, bustling San Domingo or time-warped San Nicola; the latter’s medieval abbey is worth a visit for its 11th-century floor mosaics. Boating and diving tours from San Domingo reach wild, tiny Capraia, its limpid inlets perfect for snorkeling.
Planning tip: For good beach weather without the July and August crowds, visit in June or September. Ferries to San Domingo sail from Vieste, Manfredonia and Peschici in summer, and from Termoli year-round. Most tourist facilities on the islands are closed in winter.
2. Hike the Parco Nazionale del Gargano
If northern Puglia’s Gargano promontory reminds you of the Dalmatian coast, it’s no coincidence. Millions of years ago, the “spur” of the Italian boot was connected to what is now Croatia. Today, much of this wild, mountainous nugget constitutes the 1181-sq-km (456-sq-mile) Parco Nazionale del Gargano, one of Italy’s most beautiful national parks.
Well-marked hiking trails traverse the park, from short and breezy to calf-toning and sweaty. Lace up your boots and hit one of the trails inside the silent Foresta Umbra (“Forest of Shadows”), a UNESCO World Heritage–listed ancient woodland harboring roe deer, wild boar, elusive wild cats and over 65 varieties of orchid. For lofty coastal panoramas, hike the trail connecting Vignanotica to Mergoli, a moderately difficult walk taking in the Gargano’s lush, precipitous coastline.
Planning tip: Not only is Vieste one of Puglia’s most atmospheric coastal towns, it’s an ideal base for exploring the Gargano National Park. Book accommodation well in advance in the summer.
3. Feast like a local at masseria
Do you laze by the pool in the shade of a fragrant orange tree, sample prized olive oils with an oil sommelier, or master the art of pasta making? These are the tough choices you’re likely to face when staying at a masseria, the fortified farmhouses scattered across the Puglian countryside. Some are cheerfully rustic, others seriously chic, and several are well known for their locavore restaurants and cooking classes. One epicurean favorite is Il Frantoio in Ostuni. A 500-year-old olive farm, the masseria is famous for its superb olive oils. Savor them at an olive-oil degustation or, better still, at Il Frantoio’s multicourse locavore feasts. Sophisticated takes on Puglia’s cucina povera (peasant cuisine) are also on the menu at Fasano’s luxe Masseria Torre Coccaro, whose cooking school will have you hand-rolling orecchiette (“little ears” pasta) like a Puglian pro.
4. Find your perfect Puglian beach
Chances are you’ve swooned over images of Cala Porto beach, framed by topaz seas, cliff-hugging abodes and an ancient bridge. Yet Polignano a Mare’s iconic cove is only one of many drop-dead-gorgeous playgrounds on the Puglian coast. In Mattinata, milky cliffs plunge down to white sand, turquoise water and commanding rock formations at Baia delle Zagare, a staple on “Best Beaches in Italy” lists. Further south in the Salento, a path leads through dense pine forest to Baia dei Turchi, its shallow, pellucid waters a match for any Caribbean beach. On scorching summer days, cool down at rocky Cala dell’Acquaviva, an eye-candy cove where salt and spring waters mingle to invigorating effect. The latter beach is on Puglia’s Ionian Coast, also home to Punta della Suina, a popular summertime hangout for LGBTIQ+ travelers partying in gorgeous, sun-bleached Gallipoli.
5. Celebrate coastal heritage on a trabucco
Travel the Puglian coastline between Peschici and Vieste and you’ll spot giant, Tim Burton–esque structures jutting out of the sea. These stilted creatures are trabucchi, historic fishing machines used by fishers to lower nets into the water using a complex system of winches.
Abandoned for many years, the trabucchi are enjoying a renaissance as nonprofit associations such as Vieste-based La Rinascita dei trabucchi storici del Gargano lovingly restores what are important cultural icons of the lower Adriatic. The association runs various onsite activities throughout the year, from traditional fishing experiences to olive-oil degustations (email for upcoming events). Other trabucchi along the coast have been converted into restaurants serving the freshest local seafood. One standout is Al Trabucco da Mimì, located just east of Peschici.
6. Cycle the trulli-scattered Valle d’Itria
Instigator of endless tree-change fantasies, the Valle d’Itria stretches from Putignano to Ostuni in a sweep of undulating vineyards, olive trees, and Hobbit-esque trulli (traditional limestone huts with conical roofs). Like barocco leccese, trulli are unique to Puglia and you’ll find the greatest concentration of them in UNESCO World Heritage–listed Alberobello.
While the town’s storybook streets merit exploration, dig deeper by renting a bicycle or e-bike and exploring the Valle d’Itria’s backroads. These will lead you anywhere from the mysterious, rupestrian church of Santa Maria di Barsento to wineries like I Pàstini. Also running through the Valle d’Itria is the Ciclovia dell’acquedotto pugliese, a scenic cycling trail that follows the route of an aqueduct that stretches from Campania to Puglia’s southern tip.
Planning tip: Numerous operators in the Valle d’Itria offer e-bike rental and guided cycling tours. Among them is highly recommended e-Bike Puglia.
7. Fall under the spell of the pizzica
It’s said that Puglia’s pizzica was conceived with the intent of healing “hysterical” and “obscene” women under the malevolent spell of the tarantula spider. Centuries later, the folk dance remains a hypnotic spectacle, its frenzied, rhythmic motions both beautiful and liberating.
The best place to fall under its spell is in Puglia’s Salento. Not only is the peninsula the pizzica’s spiritual home, it’s the setting for August’s Notte della Taranta, a festival that celebrates traditional dances of the Salento. Events take place in numerous Salento towns with an epic concert finale in Melpignano. The town is located in Grecìa Salentina (Salentine Greece), an area famous for its Greek dialect (Griko). Of course, there’s no need to wait until August to hone your pizzica moves; dance teachers run classes throughout the year, among them Lecce’s highly regarded Serena D’Amato.
8. Binge on baroque in Lecce
When it comes to architectural exuberance, the university city of Lecce takes the torta (cake). Its baroque architects went to town on the city’s malleable limestone, turning buildings into outrageously flamboyant set pieces that earned their own moniker: barocco leccese (Lecce baroque). Jaws free fall at the Basilica di Santa Croce, whose facade explodes with allegorical griffins, wolves, lions, flowers, fruits and vegetables. Telamons – huge male figures used as columns – in Turkish dress groan under the weight of a balustraded balcony, itself in the shadow of a magnificent rose window.
The basilica’s facade was designed in part by 17th-century Leccese starchitect Giuseppe Zimbalo, whose legacy also includes the reconstruction of the city’s commanding cathedral. The latter looms large over cinematic Piazza del Duomo, itself a baroque show-off that glows ethereally at golden hour.
Local tip: Lecce is renowned for its pasticciotto, a shortcrust pastry filled with luscious crema pasticcera (Italian pastry cream). You’ll find one of the best at Caffè Alvino, a short walk from both the basilica and cathedral.