Way down in Italy’s ‘heel’, the region of Puglia has been overlooked by travellers in the past. But in the past year or so its popularity has sharply risen, with visitors lured by its quirky towns, delicious regional cuisine, reliable sunshine and spectacular beaches. After hearing yet another rave review from a returnee here at Citalia HQ, I decided it was time to hotfoot it down there to see what all the fuss was about.
With flights in and out of Bari, I planned a week-long road trip around the stiletto, with stops at historic cities, cute-as-a-button countryside towns and laid-back beach resorts. I even squeezed in a trip to the neighbouring region of Basilicata, so I could gawp at the prehistoric cave dwellings in the hilltop city of Matera.
To give you a flavour of my road trip through Puglia, I’ve put together a short video. Have a watch, then scroll down to read my full itinerary and find out how Citalia can help you plan your own Apulian adventure…
My Puglia road trip itinerary
Day 1: Lecce
After touching down in Bari and picking up our hire car, we headed south to Lecce. It was a fair drive (just over two hours), so once we arrived, we headed straight out to explore the old town. After admiring the remains of the Roman theatre, we joined everyone else in a passeggiata along the Via Giuseppe Libertini, before picking out a pizzeria for dinner.
Day 2: Lecce, the Poetry Cave and Otranto
We spent the morning strolling around Lecce. It’s known as the ‘Florence of the South’ for its beautiful baroque architecture, which you can see throughout the old town. My favourite spots were Piazza del Duomo (where the cathedral is located) and the little backstreets behind it, where we found a handful of tiny but beautiful churches.
Although the old town is where most of the attractions are in Lecce, the newer part of town was also rather lovely, with grand townhouses and blossom trees lining the streets.
Next stop was the seaside city of Otranto. We skipped the motorway and drove cross-country towards the coast, winding our way through quiet countryside and seemingly endless olive groves.
Once we reached the coast, we stumbled across a bit of a hidden gem: the Grotta della Poesia (Poetry Cave). With only a tiny sign to announce its presence, we very nearly missed it. The cave has a collapsed roof, and forms a stunning natural swimming pool with clear, sun-warmed seawater. It was busy with locals, all jumping off the rocks into the water and snorkelling around the cave edges. A fantastic pit-stop on a 35-degree day!
From the grotta it was another half-hour’s drive to our stop for the night, Otranto. Arriving early afternoon gave us plenty of time to wander around the whitewashed old town as well as hitting the beach to enjoy the turquoise waters.
Day 3: Punta Prosciutto and Matera
We had a long drive from Otranto up to Matera, so we broke it up with a stop at Punta Prosciutto, one of our top 5 beaches in Puglia. The drive was a mix of easy motorways and country roads, with more beautiful countryside scenery along the way. Punta Prosciutto was absolutely gorgeous, with pure white sands and some of the clearest waters I’ve ever seen.
On the road again, it was a two-hour drive to Matera. After getting a little lost on our way into town, we arrived at our hotel and promptly headed out again to catch a glorious sunset over the sassi (the neighbourhoods of cave houses built into the hillside). Dinner was pasta (of course!), accompanied by a glass of delicious Basilicata red wine.
Day 4: Alberobello and wine tasting
After a morning exploring Matera and admiring the stunning views from the sassi, it was back across the border as we drove east to the town of Alberobello. After a few issues with the parking meter, we were ready to explore, heading straight for Alberobello’s famous trulli district. These round, pointy-roofed houses are classic Puglia, and have even gained recognition from UNESCO for their regional heritage.
Some of the trulli are still home to locals, some have been turned into quirky trullo hotels, and some have been converted into shops and enotecas. We stopped off at one of these (Enoteca Tholos) for an afternoon of wine tasting once we were done exploring. Gino, our host, poured out generous measures of local red, white, rosé and dessert wine (plus a chaser of basil-infused liqueur), each one accompanied by plates of tasty, bite-sized snacks. A fantastic way to spend the afternoon!
Day 5: Locorotondo, Cisternino and olive oil tasting
The morning was spent exploring two beautiful towns just down the road from Alberobello: Locorotondo and Cisternino. Both have lovely old quarters – all narrow lanes and gleaming whitewashed houses. Both also boast spectacular belvederes (viewpoints) with views right across the countryside.
After a light lunch, it was out into the countryside to a local olive oil farm. Owned and run by the same family for four generations, we enjoyed a tour of the factory to learn how their organic, cold-pressed oils are produced, before retreating to the farm’s trullo for a tasting of different varieties with fresh-baked bread. Puglia has been Italy’s olive oil heartland for centuries, so it was a great way to learn a little more about this region’s heritage.
Day 6: Polignano a Mare and Ostuni
Most of today was spent at the beach, in the gorgeous seaside town of Polignano a Mare. We arrived mid-morning, just in time to watch a local parade through the town centre, which was brilliant to see. After exploring the clifftop old town, it was off to the little town beach to watch cliff divers jumping off the rocks into the clear waters below!
For dinner, we made our way to the hilltop town of Ostuni. As we approached, we could see why it was nicknamed the ‘White City’ – its limewashed houses were practically glowing in the late afternoon sun. We strolled the winding streets up to the cathedral, before settling on dinner at a restaurant with views across to the sea.
Day 7: Bari
With a mid-afternoon flight home, we had time for a quick stop-off in the city of Bari. We made a beeline for Bari Vecchio (the old town), where we went in search of the famous ‘orecchiette ladies’. These women sit outside their townhouses each day, hand-making Puglia’s famous ear-shaped orecchiette pasta. It was great to watch – their hands moved so quickly, turning out hundreds of these little pasta shapes almost effortlessly!