Puglia: the gorgeous heel of Italy characterized by rustic farmlands and crystalline beaches.
The deep South has been eclipsed by more-famous vacation destinations like the Amalfi Coast or Cinque Terre. But the secret is out and Puglia is coming into its own as a leading seaside destination for international travelers. The good news is, despite the spike in tourists, Puglia retains its calm, rustic charm; offering travelers a chance to truly relax and rejuvenate.
Puglia is a vast region, consisting of the entire back heel of Italy’s boot-like landmass. All the sights, towns and beaches are far apart so traveling by car is the only option for Puglia. Our road trip was made possible by Discover Cars. This was my first time renting a car and driving outside of the United States. Discover Cars’ website made booking as simple as possible. It was super easy to search by location and dates, and also filter for automatic versus manual transmission, which is important for many Americans renting cars abroad.
Discover Cars offers some of the lowest rates for car rentals internationally because they negotiate directly with the car rental companies. The entire process from booking to pick up was seamless. I also had a small mishap and scratched my rental car on a low wall while parking (damn you, Amalfi!) It was very easy to file the insurance claim online on Discover Cars’ website and I promptly received the wire transfer in my bank account within 10 business days. We definitely recommend checking out Discover Cars the next time you’re looking for an international car rental.
We took the A16 autostrada which is the fastest route to get from Naples to Puglia. This road appears quite new and was very smooth to drive on without much traffic. The tolls weren’t too bad either. Going from Naples Airport to Molfetta, we paid about 19 euros in tolls.
My sister and I covered a lot of ground in a week. We hit most of the must-see sights, but didn’t have enough time to go all the way to Santa Maria di Leuca at the southern tip or Gallipoli. We would definitely recommend including those two spots if you’re spending more time further south near Lecce. Otherwise, follow our itinerary for a fabulous Italian road trip by the sea!
The City of Seven Castles and the grandest city of Southern Italy. Naples is the gateway to many destinations such as the Amalfi Coast, Capri, Ischia as well as Puglia. We picked up our rental car at Naples International Airport and drove straight to Puglia, as I was warned that driving in the city center of Naples is not for the faint of heart.
But before hitting the road, it’s always nice to spend a couples of days getting lost in this chaotic yet charming city. Naples never fails to ignite your Italian sensibilities. It is one of the remaining cities that still oozes that mischievous old-world charm. It offers endless things to do: whether you want to get lost in the labyrinth of the Spanish Quarter, try the margherita pizza Julia Roberts ate in Eat, Pray Love (aka. Pizzeria Da Michele,) shop ‘til you drop on Corso Umberto or take a dramatically romantic stroll along the Lungomare di Napoli (Naples’ dreamy boardwalk along the sea.)
POLIGNANO A MARE
Polignano a Mare is where you will find the most famous view in Puglia: the iconic view of Cala Porto (Lama Monachile) beach framed by the ancient arches and limestone cliffs. This is the view that inspired myself, and no doubt many others, to travel to Puglia. It’s what also inspired the classic Italian song, “Volare!” But because it’s so well-known, Polignano a Mare is typically packed with travelers.
The historic center is lovely with bright white buildings winding along small flagstone alleys, similar to Santorini. An unexpected yet fabulous surprise were the trendy boutiques we found all throughout the historic center. You can do some serious shopping, especially for resort wear and accessories, in Polignano a Mare. Every boutique has exceptionally-made items from independent designers and artisans that you won’t find anywhere else.
We had lunch at Ristorante Antiche Mura which we totally recommend. We were taken aback by the highly refined setting and service, despite the affordable prices (around 15-20€ per plate.) The restaurant has multiple mouthwatering seafood dishes and pastas featuring sea urchin, langoustines, lobster, sea bass and more.
Monopoli is a picturesque port town with low white-washed buildings and romantic cathedrals by the sea. There are lots of pretty beaches to hit up between Polignano a Mare and Monopoli. We went to Porto Ghiacciolo, which is a small sandy beach next to a medieval castle. There’s a lot where you can pay 4 euros to park and it’s a tranquil place to lay down and have a dip when it’s not too crowded.
Monopoli is a gorgeous town, especially at sunset when the sky bathes everything in pastel purple against the calm teal sea. The city also bursts with vibrant contemporary art and culture. The international photography festival, PhEST, has impactful photo exhibits on display in the Palazzo Palmieri, Chiesta San Salvatore, Chiesta SS. Pietro e Paolo and all along Cala Porta Vecchia and the castle boardwalk. With pretty views and plenty of culture to consume, Monopoli should definitely be on your list of destinations to visit in Puglia.
Porto Cesareo is a small port town located 40 minutes away from Lecce. Porto Cesareo and the western coast of Puglia is known for having the clearest water and light sand beaches. Punta Prosciutto is the most famous beach for the impossibly clear water and powdery sand that stretches on as far as the eye can see. But Punta Prosciutto was insanely crowded with every inch of sand covered by beachgoers. It was still packed when we went in September, so I can’t even imagine how intense the crowds during high season are.
We ventured a bit further down to Torre Lapillo instead, another beach famous for its clear aqua water that curves around the bay. Torre Lapillo was also quite full, but not as packed as Punta Prosciutto. The water and sand were just as beautiful and we definitely preferred the slightly more laidback vibe at Torre Lapillo.
LA GROTTA DELLA POESIA & TORRE DELL'ORSO
La Grotta della Poesia and Torre dell’Orso are two of Puglia’s most popular must-see attractions, both located 30 km south from Lecce. La Grotta della Poesia is a natural pool which formed as part of the larger archaeological site of Roca Vecchia. It costs 3€ to access the pool. But it’s definitely worth it, as La Grotta della Poesia is one of the most beautiful natural pools in the world. If you’re brave enough to take the 5-meter jump (or make the walk down,) you’ll get the chance to swim in the most enchanting cave exposed to the sky.
Just ten minutes from la Grotta della Poesia, is Torre dell’Orso, a stunning beach and town with the same name. Torre dell’Orso was personally my favorite beach in Puglia. The water sparkles in the clearest turquoise color. If you walk up a small trail on the right, you’ll see Le Due Sorelle, two natural rock formations floating in the water, and the most spectacular view of the curved seashore below. Torre dell’Orso is a lively scene with beach clubs and bars all along the shore. But there are also parts that are open and free for the public to lounge on either end of the beach which are always welcome in popular tourist beaches.
Otranto is a very low-key and charming seaside town right above the tip of Italy’s heel. It’s a tiny town that’s walled in by the ancient Castello Aragonese next to the sea. The town’s main beach offers views on views, with the castle on one side of the bay and Cappella della Madonna dell’Altomare on the other. The main beach is a lovely place to swim. But if you continue walking north, you’ll come across even more beautiful lidos and calas with impossibly clear water.
The historic center of Otranto is lovely to walk through as well. Similar to Monopoli, at sunset, the sky glows purple against the glassy water and sand-washed castle walls.
Ostuni is perhaps the most beautiful, rustic part of Puglia. Serene olive groves stretch as far as the eye can see. White masserias—old farmhouses converted into luxury hotels—are tucked away among the olive trees, where guests can enjoy an authentic Apulian getaway.
Masseria Il Frantoio is one of the original masserias in the area. Armando Balestrazzi and his family realized their dream of restoring this 16th century farmhouse to exactly how it was back in the day. The restaurant at Masseria Il Frantoio offers an 8-course dinner with a new dinner menu every night. Dining at the masseria is a must-do for anyone traveling to Puglia.
Each course is served with amazing ingredients that are directly grown with love on the farm. You’ll get fresh, wholesome dishes like prawns with chickpea puree and saltwort, soft goat cheese with saffron and pear compote and farmyard chicken with potatoes and sage. Dining on top-quality organic ingredients at a romantic Apulian masseria will be a major highlight of your trip.
As you pass the wispy olive groves, an ancient white city floats up on the horizon. Ostuni, known as the White City, stands majestically above the olive farms and shining sea. It’s a postcard come to life with views that take your breath away. Paragon 700, the most luxurious and design-forward boutique hotel, is located in Ostuni. It’s the go-to option for those looking for a modern hotel that still has a bit of rustic Apulian charm.
Ostuni is definitely one of the more touristy towns in Puglia. But it really cannot be missed because of the stunning panoramic views and unique cultural experiences you won’t find anywhere else in Puglia.
Bari is the second largest city in Southern Italy after Naples and is the proud capital of Puglia. And it’s a bustling urban hub where there’s lots of fun stuff to do by the sea. Every evening, Bari’s charming Old Quarter teems with life. People of all ages are out and about in the streets; going to restaurants, drinking outdoors and chatting with their neighbors. There are beaches inside the city, Pane e Pomodoro (bread and tomato beach,) being the most easily accessible and popular one. The stunning Lungomare Nazario Sauro which romantically curves along the glassy turquoise water may even be more beautiful than Naples’ own boardwalk. Bari has castles, cathedrals, museums and fabulous restaurants. Truly no shortage of things to do.