This seriously underrated and still largely undiscovered region has many hidden gems, just waiting to be enjoyed. Prices are consistently cheaper than in other parts of Italy, but it has so much to offer! From breathtaking Norman and Baroque architecture to stunning coastline that dates back to ancient times, you can explore it independently by train or car.
In the itinerary below, I have suggested several off-the-beaten-track destinations and it can be a helpful start to planning your own exploration of many of southern Italy’s hidden corners.
Puglia and Salento: Trulli, Norman and Baroque architecture and stunning coastline
A varied tour of Italy’s south
Bari Airport is ideal for starting this itinerary. Direct flights to Bari Airport are operated by British Airways and Ryanair. Two bus services run from the airport into central Bari and to the railway station or hire a car before your journey with www.auto-europe.com, where you’ll find competitive rates.
If you fancy a break from driving, you can certainly explore southern Puglia by train, but it does take some advance planning and you can use two train companies, one is Trenitalia/Ferrovie dello Stato www.trenitalia.com, which generally connects the bigger cities and towns and Ferrovie del Sud Est, a private local train company which connects the smaller places www.fseonline.it.
Before starting to explore Salento, the southern province of Puglia, I highly recommend heading slightly north of Bari and making your first stop Bitonto.
Little known Bitonto has the largest cathedral in Puglia and it’s definitely worth a visit. It boasts impressive Romanesque architecture and sculpture (12th century), a marble pulpit (13th c), an exceptionally preserved griffin floor mosaic (11th c), a fine crypt (12th c) and well-presented excavations dating back to the 5th century and revealing a Paleochristian church.
Next, not far from Bitonto head to Trani, a charming fishing port, where you can instantly feel yourself readjust to the ‘slow living’ that the locals encourage and spend hours watching the light wash over the imposing cathedral and play magic tricks with the sea!
Head on down past Bari and inland to Martina Franca, a picturesque town in the green Valle d’Itria (the trulli area of Puglia). Its lovely historic centre will stun you both with its whitewashed simplicity as well as its baroque grandeur and you’ll find it enjoyable to get lost in its maze of winding alleys. Don’t forget to bring your camera, as the light here combined with the sights are a photographer’s dream!
Before making your way to Lecce, the Florence of the South, don’t miss exploring Ostuni, an awe-inspiring town perched on a hillside overlooking the Adriatic Sea and called ‘La Citta’ Bianca’ or the White City. Its uniformly whitewashed buildings make it sparkle and captivate the visitors who find themselves wandering Ostuni’s medieval layout.
Lecce, capital of Salento, is not to be missed and with its baroque extravagance feels more like a living stage set and its spider’s web of streets offers dazzling architectural surprises at every corner! A quintessentially southern Italian town, Lecce, bursting with piazzas and palazzi, is indeed a wonderful setting for the strolling visitor.
Embraced by two seas, Adriatic and Ionian, a visit to Salento wouldn’t be complete without exploring its truly diverse and stunning coastline: from the rugged cliffs of the Adriatic coast spanning from Otranto to the very tip at Santa Maria di Leuca, to the beautiful sandy beaches of the opposite coast reaching Gallipoli.
Along the way stop for a refreshing swim in a transparent blue sea at San Foca and Torre dell’Orso and don’t miss exploring Laghi Alimini, two lakes north of Otranto.
Once you reach Gallipoli on the Ionian coast, you will be so spellbound by everything that Salento has to offer that you will not want to leave this slice of paradise and quite certainly you’ll be plotting another trip to discover all the other gems in Puglia that you couldn’t fit in the first time round!
Have fun planning and Buon Viaggio!!