The Puglia Region in Italy’s south is often described as the “real Italy” in a country that is inundated with millions of tourists each year (and for good reason I should add!). Puglia (or Apulia in English), is the heel of Italy’s ‘boot’ and while very popular with Italians, the region sees far fewer non-Italian tourists than most other parts of the country. Being relatively unknown to foreigners, those lucky enough to visit are rewarded with a trip filled with beautiful vistas, friendly locals and mouth watering food and wine!
Tips for visiting Puglia
A few things to keep in mind if you’re planning on visiting the area:
- Many people speak English, but many don’t. Some ability with the Italian language is beneficial, though not a necessity. Being able to communicate with the local people in their own language, especially those who don’t speak English, added an extra level of enjoyment to my trip as the conversations went past the basic niceties required from store owners or accommodation providers. When in doubt, try using Google Translate.
- While not heavily visited by non-Italian tourists, many of the towns in the region, particularly those I discuss below, are geared for tourism. Don’t expect to have people come up to you in English, flogging a boat trip, walking tour or made in China souvenirs. We visited in October (so well outside of high season) and we saw little to no advertisement for tourist day trips or excursions. For me, this was perfect! If you’re looking to be catered for from morning to night, this region may not be for you.
- If you’re looking for peaceful beaches, avoid August if at all possible. During the month, a lot of Italy flocks to the coast.
- The people we met were very friendly and no one seemed to be suffering from “tourist” fatigue at the end of the tourist season. Everyone we spoke to was helpful and accommodating, so have a go and try having a have a chat (in Italian of course!).
- The food is amazing. It goes by the name “Cucina Povera” or “poor people’s food” but that doesn’t mean it’s not full of flavour. It’s about doing more with less and making a limited number of seasonal ingredients taste amazing (and it does!).
- Seek out the local specialties wherever you visit. Asking a local or a shop assistant what is in season or is unique to the area will start a very animated conversation and end with you leaving with lots of yummy goodies!
- The beaches are spectacular though not all have white sand. The beach in Polignano al Mare, which is featured on a lot of websites, consists of large rounded peoples and stones. Not comfortable, but you’re there for the views and the crystal clear water! If you’re after white sandy beaches, head to the west coast of Salento or the large beach in Torre dell’Orso, 20 minutes east of Lecce.
- Located far from many of Italy’s more popular tourist sites, it’s a very unique region (see Alberobello and its famous trulli, Lecce and Salento’s beaches) and well worth the detour!
- And before I forget, Matera isn’t in Puglia (it’s actually just across the border in the Basilicata region), though many people visit as part of a trip to Puglia.
Travelling to Puglia
For my oh-too-short trip in October 2016, I started and finished in Rome using the train to travel to and from the region. For non-train lovers, or for people travelling from outside of Italy, Puglia has two international airports. One in Bari and one in Brindisi, both centrally located for starting your Puglia adventure.
Being a non-European, train travel remains a novelty. The undiscounted or base fare for a second class train ticket is 70 euros or 100 euros for first class on the FrecciaArgento (high speed train) taking approximately 5.5 hours from Rome to Lecce (the furthest city south). With huge discounts on offer, once you know your travel dates, book as early as possible. We booked heavily discounted, non-refundable super economy tickets for 36 euros each (an absolute bargain if you ask me), purchased about three months before our travel date.
Visiting the grocery store attached to the Roma Termini station, we packed a picnic, jumped on the train about 15 minutes before departure (you’ll have better luck being able to store your bags near you if you’re on when the gate is announced), and nestled in for the journey south. We ended up arriving about a half hour late, so if you’re staying in accommodation where the owner needs to meet you, keep this in mind. I let the owner know the train number and estimated time of arrival and they were waiting for us.
Alternatively for those really adventurous, you can rent a car anywhere in Italy and travel to the region by car.
Sample 10 day Itinerary
While relatively compact with a major highway running along the coast from Lecce in the south to Bari in the north, there are several strategies for visiting the area:
- pick a couple bases, one in the south and one further north, and do day trip from those bases
- pick one central base and do day trips from there
- move around every day to experience a variety of towns at night,which are almost always a different experience compared to the day. See my post about Lecce as an example. The town transforms after dark!
- Start south and make your way north or start north and make your way south
The best plan for you will depend on your travel style, the amount of time you have and the areas you want to visit. With only ten days in the area, I chose to move around a bit, though spending a couple day in three bases.
Day 1 – Travel day from Rome leaving on the 2:30pm train, arriving in Lecce around 8:30pm. Night in Lecce.
Day 2 – Full day exploring Lecce. Night in Lecce. (blog post)
Day 3 – Pick up rental car in Lecce in the morning, visit Torre dell’Orso and most of the east coast of Salento. Night in Otranto. (blog post)
Day 4 – Drive to Gallipoli and explore the West Coast of Salento including beaches. Night in Otranto. (blog post)
Day 5 – Morning exploring Otranto, beach visit in Torre dell’Orso (less windy this day), driving north to the Trulli Region in the Itria Valley in central Puglia. Night in a trullo two kilometres outside of Locorotondo. (Unique to the area and highly recommended).
Day 6 – Morning exploring Alberobello, returning rental car to Hertz office in Monopoli in the afternoon (check office hours as most rental companies close for several hours in the afternoon). Train from Monopoli to Polignano al Mare. Night in Polignano al Mare. (blog post)
Day 7 – Full day exploring Polignano al Mare. Night in Polignano al Mare.
Day 8 – Day trip to Monopoli using the train (one stop on the Trenitalia train line – less than 5 minutes). Night in Polignano al Mare. (blog post)
Day 9 – Train to Bari, bus to Matera arriving in Matera in evening. Night in Matera.
Day 10 – Full day exploring Matera. Night in Matera. (blog post)
Day 11 – Regional train from Matera to Bari. FrecciaArgento train from Bari to Rome. Night in Rome.
Day 12 – Fly home
Travelling around Puglia
When travelling around the area, I can’t suggest highly enough how advantageous it is to have a car, though driving can be a bit tricky (I’m looking at you, Monopoli!). When planning the trip, I opted to have a car for the areas where train travel is pretty limited or non-existent. This meant visiting Lecce without a car, picking up the car as we left the city, having the car for four days and then using public transport for the remainder of the trip.
Areas where a car is highly recommended:
- The Salento region if you want to visit more than either Otranto and Gallipoli. If you’re interested in only seeing the towns, both can be visited by public transport from Lecce. If venturing to the beaches or to the small towns and villages throughout Salento, including Santa Maria di Leuca in the very south, a car is recommended or required.
- The Itria Valley including Alberobello, Locorotondo, Cisternino, Martina Franca and Ostuni. While these towns can be visited by public transport, having a car allows you to visit multiple towns without the need for backtracking or making a larger city or town (that may not be as picturesque as the smaller towns) as your base. We stayed in a renovated trullo in the region which would not have been possible without a car.
- If you want to visit any town or coastal area that is not directly on a train line.
- When travelling to regional areas on a Sunday when the regional train line doesn’t run and its services are replaced by buses. We were caught out trying to travel from Polignano al Mare to Matera on a Sunday which ended up taking 7+ hours with a long wait at the Bari train station! Alternatively driving would have taken about an hour and a half.
The trains in the region are serviced by two companies. The state-run Trenitalia which runs the major train lines (including the train line from Rome to Lecce). See the website for more details (www.trenitalia.com). Regional towns are serviced by a regional train line Ferrovie Del Sud Est (www.fseonline.it). Using the regional train system provides more flexibility when visiting regional towns. For example, if you use Martina Franca as a base you can easily see both Alberobello and Cisternino by the regional train with no need for a car.
Visiting the area by train is possible but it requires a bit or research and patience!
Areas where no car is required or not recommended:
- The major cities of Bari, Brindisi or Lecce. I would highly recommend against having a car when in these cities unless your accommodation is outside the city centre.
- Any towns that are on the main Trenitalia train line which runs from Rome to Lecce. This includes towns such as Polignano al Mare, Monopoli and Trani. I easily visited Monopoli from Polginano al Mare using the Trenitalia train with a journey time under five minutes.
Have you visited Puglia? What are your favourite towns? Do you have tips that I missed?
Also, if you have any questions about Puglia, leave me a comment below.