If you want to impress an Italian, tell them you’re travelling to Puglia.
They love to explore the southeast corner of their country. The French are in on the secret too, but you won’t hear much English spoken in the region that covers Italy’s jaunty boot heel.
For now, Puglia is still slightly off the beaten path, but as you explore white-walled cities, endless olive groves, and alluring sea caves, you’ll understand why this gem won’t stay hidden for long.
Why is Puglia different?
The cities of Rome, Florence, Venice, and Milan boast glamour-drenched histories, but things grew differently in the south.
Without the influx of wealth from major trade ports, the southern regions grew from humble beginnings: origins that are reflected in Puglia's cuisine, culture, and architecture. Things move a little slower, siestas stretch out for longer, and the cobbled streets are ideal for aimless wandering.
This contrast to northern grandeur makes Puglia a stunning addition to your itinerary, but don’t be surprised if you never want to leave.
Italy’s best beaches
Heavenly beaches are one of Puglia’s most underrated secrets.
Crystalline waters and immaculate shorelines make many of the region’s beaches poster children for the Blue Flag - an international standard awarded to clean, sustainable waters. From the beguiling sea caves of Polignano a Mare to the aquamarine coves of Porto Pirrone, Puglia boasts over 800 kilometres of coastline that will bewitch even the most beach-spoiled Aussie.
You can lounge on silky sands or jump from rocky cliffs, but bring your camera either way.
White-washed churches, cobbled lanes, and alleyways brimming with hidden gems set the scene for the ultimate backstreet wander. Be mindful of the early afternoon, when many businesses close for siesta, although gelato vendors seem tireless.
There are many contenders for Italy’s prettiest town, but Locorotondo always makes the shortlist. This is not a place jammed with tourist attractions but a destination where the best pastime is getting lost. Meander through the historicl centre, enjoy the hilltop views, and sip renowned local wine at an al fresco bar as you consider your dinner options.
For the ultimate sunset view, stop outside Ostuni and watch the colours of the sky change over the white buildings. The city of Lecce is brimming with gorgeous baroque architecture and fascinating Roman ruins and the seaside town of Otranto invites you to visit a 15th-century castle in the morning and splash in the balmy ocean after lunch - the pristine beach is right by the historic centre.
Trulli houses and Alberobello
As you drive through the winding lanes of the Pugliese countryside, you’ll see conical roofs poking up between the olive trees. These adorable structures are trulli, a unique style of dwelling with a fascinating history.
Lords and landowners allowed peasants to reside on their property, but to avoid paying tax on permanent buildings, the houses needed to be dismantled quickly at inspection time. The original trulli roofs were ingenious stone stacks created without mortar, but as the inhabitants gained more rights, trulli became the cosy, permanent structures they are today.
The town of Alberobello is home to a World Heritage site of trulli: an incredibly picturesque area of looping laneways that should top your list of sights to see in Puglia.
Slow food to be savoured
Puglia is the place to embrace slow food. Meals are made from local ingredients, using traditional methods, and every bite is designed to be savoured. Seafood is prime and plentiful, and the bounty of the Valle d’Itria graces every table.
Orechiette can be found in every restaurant, food stall and souvenir shop. You’ll be surprised at how flavoursome this ear-shaped pasta can be when paired only with turnip tops, garlic, and olive oil. Fave e cicore consists of dried, pureed broad beans and wild chicory, but your belly and taste buds will rejoice over this deceptively simple dish.
The Pugliese take calzone to a new level with panzerotti: deep-fried pockets of dough bursting with tomato, mozzarella, and other enticing fillings.
Don’t miss your chance to sink your teeth into the cheese and meat combination of a bombette before enjoying an espresso and pasticciotti, a moreish, custard-filled pastry.
Olive oil like you’ve never known it
Olive trees are never far away when you’re in Puglia. The idyllic country lanes wind through groves of red soil and twisted trunks, and an authentic tasting opportunity is available at countless family-owned masserie, or farmhouses.
The experience is reminiscent of wine tasting. You warm the cup in your hands, then sip slowly, aerating the golden oil in your mouth. The flavours can be spicy, full-bodied, green or bold, and different styles are suited to baking, drizzling or frying.
Don’t miss the unique experience of strolling through a historic olive grove. Puglia is home to millions of treasured trees that are protected as historical landmarks. It’s not unusual to see trees up to 3,000 years old, but it’s hard to wrap your mind around the fact that the olive tree in front of you existed before the founding of the Roman empire.
With its sunny, southern location, it’s no surprise that Puglia is famous for its fruit-forward red wine, but the region also offers delectable whites and some of the country’s best rosés.
Wineries are scattered all over the boot heel and include everything from the postcard-worthy Trulli il Castagno to the sweeping estate of Tomaresca. Sip on full-bodied Primitivo reds, vivid pink Negroamaro rosés, or sparkling wine made from Bombino Bianco grapes in a hilltop masseria, or a vine-draped courtyard.