The BFH Healthy Travel Guide to Puglia, Italy
Italy is one of my favourite places in the world, especially in the spring/ summer. The food is local and often found sold directly from farmers off the side of their trucks, the sun is strong, and the beaches are pebbly (my fav). After spending summer 2018 hopping through Rome, Siena, Florence, and Cinque Terre— I knew I had to get back here as soon as possible. This month-long trip through Puglia (pronounced pool-ia) was mid-May to mid-June and hot damn, I reckon this is the ideal time to explore Italy’s boot. The weather is divine, but the beaches aren’t too crowded yet.
My guides are generally very detailed on one location, but I decided to touch more briefly on many areas, hopefully to inspire a magical trip through the Puglia region of Southern Italy.
Bari is the most common town to fly into when visiting the Puglia region. Bari is a big city, and the old part of the city has lots of history and charm. I wouldn’t personally opt to spend too much time in Bari, although it can serve and a pretty good base if you happen to find a great airbnb and plan on renting a car. Either way, give yourself at least half a day to wander the streets of Old Bari (known as Bari Vecchia), and make sure not to miss:
Basilica of San Nicola: one of the most beautiful minimalistic churches I’ve ever seen, this famous church is a pilgrimage center for Roman Catholics in Europe. Right in the heart of the old town by the port;
Church of San Sabino: not as famous as San Nicola, but also beautiful white facade, and you can’t miss it either way;
Strada delle Orecchiette: is a backstreet in Bari Vecchia where nonna’s are making fresh traditional handmade pasta orecchiette, right there in the streets;
Piazza Mercantile: a big beautiful square in the middle of old Bari that you’ll probably stumble on whether you try to or not.
Teatro Petruzzelli (Opera House): beautiful terracotta coloured building in Bari, one of my fav building to look at in Bari.
Swim: honestly, I don’t recommend swimming in Bari. It’s a big town and the beaches are lousy, but hey, you can take a dip at Pane e Pomodoro (the closest patch of sand, about 15 min walk from the old town).
Da Nicola Frutta Fresca: little fruit and vegetable stand in the streets of old Bari, you won’t miss it wandering around from Basilica of San Nicola into the heart of the old town.
La Salumeria di Raffaele Lapesara: just outside the old town, this little salumeria will make all your Italian foodie dreams come true. Fresh bread (and focaccia..!), pasta, cured meats and cheese— the perfect spot to pick up goods to make sandwiches for the road (or get them made for you in store!)
Mastro Ciccio: this place cannot be missed while in Bari: sandwiches like you have never seen (also panzerottis, salads, pizzas, desserts)— all authentically Apulian flavours.
Matera is more inland than other locations, and technically isn’t officially in the Puglia region. That being said, if you’re in Puglia, Matera (located in the Basilicata region) is only a couple hours drive and is really quite special. Matera is the third oldest continually inhabited in the world, and after being inhabited since the paleolithic area, was abandoned due to horrible living conditions. Conditions have since improved, and some beautiful airbnbs and absolutely epic feasts await you. Matera has some old old cave dwellings you can visit, and the whole town has hardcore Game of Thrones vibes.
Ancient cave dwellings of Sassi di Matera: cave dwellings inhabited since the Paleolithic period
Park of the Rupestrian Churches of Matera: rugged regional park featuring churches carved out of caves & cliffs, one with 8th-c. frescoes
Matera Cathedral: Roman Catholic cathedral dedicated to Virgin Mary
Casa Grotta nei Sassi: recreated cave dwelling
Piazza Vittorio Veneto: a beautiful central square
Viewpoint of Matera and the Sassi in Murgia Timone: for a great view of the city
Church of Saint John Baptist: Romanesque architecture stunning exterior
Chiesa del Purgatorio: Baroque architecture
Villaggio neolitico: remains of a neolithic village
Ponte Tibetano della Gravina: swinging bridge
Osteria la Pignata: traditional Italian Osteria, great antipasti, pasta, meat, and fish.
Quattroquarti - Crostaemollica: cheap eats in Matera, great for lunch. Lots of options and flatbread with fresh toppings.
Trattoria del Caveoso: lots of delicious meat dishes, epic antipasti, and handmade pasta. They also highlight truffles in many of their dishes.
La Grotta nei Sassi: this is the spot in Matera for a seafood feast. They’re also well known for their fresh handmade pasta.
Alberobello is a small region in central Puglia, known for its Trulli houses. These whitewashed stone houses with classic Trulli cones roofs are mortarless, meaning there is nothing cement-like holding them together. The reason for this is that the locals wanted to avoid paying taxes to the king, and building them like this made them easy to dismantle in case tax-collectors came to inspect. The region is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and although the city is now uber touristic, it’s still a sight to see. Also this area has some mad restaurant game.
Walk around the Alberobello neighborhood of the Rione Monti quarter, where over 1,000 Trulli homes stand together. The Rione Aia Piccola district has only about 500 Trulli homes, but is much less commercialised.
Visit the Sant’Antonio church at Piazza Antonio Lippolis.
Visit the street market on Thursday mornings.
Hang around the main square, where there are often market vendors. One sells seasonal fresh fruits and dried figs stuffed with almonds (they are so good).
Not far from Alberobello are the Grotte di Castellana caves where you can hike 3 km underground into epic natural caves. Booking a tour is required, it’s 16 Euros per person. Very neat experience (see photos below).
Alberobello and the Castellana caves
Ristorante La Cantina: hands down the best meal in town, but you absolutely need reservations, so book em! +39 080 432 3473
Trattoria Terra Madre: beautiful restaurant with epic food. They grow lots of their own organic food. Mostly vegetarian menu. Also a must-book ahead of time!
+ polignano a mare
Monopoli is an absolute must on any trip to Puglia. About 30 kms south of Bari, this little town on the water has a gorgeous old town, and is surrounded by some of the most beautiful beaches Italy has to offer. Polignano a Mare is no doubt already on your to-do list, and indeed I suggest leaving yourself a whole day to swim and explore that area. You can reach Polignano a Mare by hopping on the train from Monopoli (5 minutes, 1.20 Euros each way). The beaches south of Monopoli are also 5*’s, and in fact the coast line all the way down to Cala Verde has little coves of turquoise waters and white sand about every 500 meters. I suggest renting a bicycle and riding down south, making a pit stop at every beach. The centre of Monopoli’s old town is also beautiful, and full of these mismatched white/ off white beautiful buildings. The whole coast from Polignano a Mare down past Monopoli is breathtaking. Do not miss!
Swim: (I’ve starred my favourites)
North of Monopoli: Coves of Clio, Lido Pantano, Cala Susca*, Cala Monaci, Cala Corvino, Grotte delle Sirene, Cala Incina, Cala di Pozzo Vivo*, Cala Sala, Lama Monachile Cala Porto*
South of Monopoli: Cala Porta Vecchia, Porto Bianco, Porto Rosso, Porto Verde, Cala Paradiso, La Scaletta*, Spiaggia Tre Buchi*, Lido Colonia, Calamarena*, Lido Porto Camicia, Purple Beach, Porto Marzano, Spiaggia di Porto Ghiacciolo, Lido Santo Stefano, Cala Sottile, Cala Verde
Get lost in the old town and walk along the waterfront from the fishing port all the way to the cathedral and then you can continue on to the southern beaches .
Rent a bicycle and ride south stopping at the beaches along the way (this is a must do! One of the highlights of my trip. You start in the old town and can hit all the beaches listed!
Hike to Polignano a Mare: there’s a trail that runs all along the coast from Monopoli to Polignano (about 10 kms)
In Polignano a Mare: (hike! … or take the train from Monopoli, it’s 7 minutes away and the trains run fairly regularly)
Get lost in the old town, there are 3 viewpoints of the sea from the old town, one which overlooks the famous Lama Monachile Cala Porto beach
Swim/ sunbathe at Lama Monachile beach
Hike in the surrounding areas, you’ll get a nice vantage point of the beach
eat In Monopoli:
Monopoli has a Natura Si (the Italian organic store chain) a short 10 minute walk from the old town.
Vini & Panini: it’s all in the name. Epic paninis, charcuterie/ cheese boards, and a long wine list. Located in a beautiful square in the old town, this place is the one for people watching.
Magnapulia: a great little Italian deli.
Il guazzetto: one of the most epic feeds in Otranto. They serve beautiful food, handmade pasta, lots of seafood. Eat here.
La Lampara sui Colli: for an epic seafood feast. Come hungry.
La Locanda dei Mercanti: homestyle grill, lots of seafood.
eat In Polignano A Mare:
La Salumeria Gourmet di Francavilla Vito: this gourmet deli is a must; full of Puglian delicacies, and so many options for certifies organic sausages/ cured meats without preservatives, etc. And ready made ahhhmazing meals including sandwiches, lasagna, veggies. They also make epic charcuterie boards and have a large wine list.
Pescaria: The Pescaria sandwich. You’re welcome.
The Focacceria Delle Noci: this place’s focaccia is infamous in the region, grab a slice and hit the beach.
Gusto Caruso: for some of the best gelato in town.
Mint Cucina Fresca: cute spot in the heart of the old town that serves healthy food (in case you’re done with carbs by now).
La Rotellina: for an authentic panzarotti.
La Salumeria di Francavilla Vito
Known as Italy’s ‘Citta Bianca' (white city), Ostuni is indeed super whitewashed. It is especially beautiful from far, seeing all the buildings together. The town is a collection of different periods through Italian history and walking around you will experience an almost time-warp-like experience.
Wander through the Centro Storico (old town) during the morning and evenings (it gets pretty quiet during the day when many shops/ stores close for nap time)
Visit the 15th century Gothic cathedral
Watch the sunset from Corso Vittorio Emanuele II
Visit the Saturday local farmers market from 8 am to 1 pm. near Via Gabbriele D’Annunzio, southwest of Ostuni centre
Swim: a short drive away from town you’ll find gorgeous beaches like Marina de Ostuni, Lido Morelli, Quarto di Monte, and Torre Pozzella.
Saturday local farmers market from 8 am to 1 pm. near Via Gabbriele D’Annunzio, southwest of Ostuni centre for fruit + veg, and local goods
La Pastasciutta: for a cheap bowl of handmade pasta.
Trattoria Fave e Fogghje: one of the most beautiful restaurant interiors, like you’re eating in a farm kitchen. Authentic local food. Don’t miss it!
+ TORRE DELL'ORSo + Sant’andrea + cava di bauxite
Otranto is the southernmost town I visited in Italy, and it is one special place. The shoreline is filled with epic caves and sandy beaches, with incredibly blue waters. This region stretches a fair bit on flat terrain and is a perfect place for long bicycle rides!
Swim: Cave of Poetry (Grotta della Poesia), Grotta Sfondata, Spiaggetta dell'Orte.
Sant’Andrea cliffs (you can swim here too depending on how calm the water is).
Cava di Bauxite: a nice walk from Otranto town, this body of water basically looks like Mars and pops up out of seemingly nowhere. The red earth is wild looking, it’s a must see!
Centro di Otranto: aka the old town, is small and beautiful. Get lost (well, it’s not really big enough to get all that lost..) in the cobbled streets
Aragonese Castle of Otranto: located in the old town, you can’t miss this massive castle, and you can also go inside if you like.
otranto + TORRE DELL'ORSo + Sant’andrea + cava di bauxite
The main square in between the beach and the old town walls will often have local fruit and vegetable vendors in the morning, selling off the side of their trucks (they will mostly be gone by midday).
There is a little food shop in Torre Dell’Orso called La Corte del Gusto that sells some fruit + veg, cured meats, and a few local delicacies like the best dried figs stuffed with mandorla (almonds).
In Otranto, the best food shop (biggest selection) is Punto Spesa
Classe80: for seafood platters galore, and a slightly fancier vibe.
ArborVitae: for seafood and a lovely courtyard.
La Trottoria: Local food with large patio, amazing handmade pasta.
Corte Del Casaro Agriturismo: local cuisine, with a serious family vibe. Famous for their woodfire pizza and antipasto plates.
TRavelling in Puglia
Once you get past Lecce, there’s no good train system (bittersweet— it’s inconvenient, but it keeps the region from blowing up like the Amalfi coast). If you’re travelling in the high season, the buses are ample, but otherwise, you definitely want to rent a car. Either way, I suggest renting a car if you’re travelling more than one person, or are limited for time. I personally didn’t rent one, but the costs of buses and trains are not that cheap going from one town to another (Bari to Monopoli was 25 Euros, Otranto to Monopoli was 20 Euros)… so especially if you’re sharing the costs, you’re better off getting a car. You don’t need one, but you’ll save time (possibly money), and be able to hop around to more areas with ease.
The train systems north of Lecce are pretty great. You buy the tickets just before hopping on (unless you’re making a cross-country trip, there’s no need to buy in advanced), and you validate them there as well.
Where to Stay
In general, opt to stay in the centre of the old town if you can. The old town is always central locations with beautiful views. Costs staying in the old town are generally a bit higher, but if you’re only spending a couple of days in each location, it’s so worth it! I had immense success combining airbnbs with booking.com spots in Puglia, have a browse on both sites before booking, because they have a large amount of options on both. Book as soon as possible! As many of the great spots sell out.
One of the best experiences for me was a farmstay near Otranto, which I found on airbnb. Keep your eyes peeled because there are some awesome experiences there for you!
More photos of the epic feasts I had in Otranto at the farmstay.
Limited for time?
I’ve seen some travel guides for ‘5 days in Puglia’ and honestly I think it would be a shame to try and squeeze this incredible place into a 5er. Ten days to two weeks would be a minimum, and if you’re limited for time I suggest prioritising Monopoli/ Polignano a Mare, Alberobello, Otranto/ Torre Dell’Orso, and Matera (in that order).
A Salumeria is a shop specializing in cooked and cured meats, cheeses, and other prepared foods; a delicatessen.
A Macelleria is a butcher.
Shops close in the afternoon across Europe, but especially in Puglia. Generally between 2 and 5 pm, most stores will be shut, and occasionally all of Sunday.
If you’re travelling before July, be aware that the bus/ train schedules are very limited down South. Google and websites like Rome2Rio advertise buses that do not run until the high season. Your best bet is to contact the bus/ train company before relying on it. Ideally, before high season, opt for a car.
Almost all shops/ cafés, and restaurants close midday. Always check opening hours, and definitely make reservations for dinner if you’re travelling in the high season.
Slow down! The south of Italy operates on slow motion, enjoy it. Eat slow, don’t rush around. See less things and really enjoy them!
Most people in the South do not speak English. Yes, even in some cafés, supermarkets, etc. Italian is the norm here, which is cool (you are in Italy!) so make sure you brush up on your Italian or keep Google translate close by.
Eat breakfast at home. To be honest, I eat most meals at home, but breakfast in particular is a bit of a weird one in Italy. From what I can see, most people eat cookies and coffee for breakfast. If you know me at all, that’s a nightmare and a half (click here for more on coffee…). My advice: just eat breakfast at home.
Always stay in the old town. Each city has one, and it will always be the most beautiful/ central spot to stay.
Natura Si is the name of the chain organic shop in the south of Italy, you’ll find a few of them around.
Lido is the name of a beach that is private, and they charge a fee to enter (sometimes upwards of 20 Euros in high season)… barf! Opt for a wild beach instead.