A Road Trip Through Puglia

Embrace the southern lifestyle with a trip down the heel of Italy.
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Puglia has everything. Amazing food, stunning olive fields, inspiring cities, and one of our favorite things: a dreamy coast. I’ve spent long summers exploring Puglia’s quaint towns and villages, sleeping in its traditional masserie, and working with local artisans to design quality linens and woven bags to bring the slow lifestyle into your home and wardrobe.

Discover the beauty of southern Italian culture on a road trip through Puglia with tips on the best places to eat, sleep and explore.

Matera

©Mandalyn Gilles

Although Matera is technically part of the Basilicata region and not Puglia, it’s right on the border and it’s a place you can’t miss. One of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, Matera has a mountainous landscape filled with cave dwellings that will take your breath away. Abandoned in the 1950s because it was considered the “shame of Italy,” it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a thriving tourist attraction. Now a famous film set, Matera is a time capsule where you can experience a unique part of the country’s history.

I normally prefer discovering a city by wandering around and asking the locals for tips, but in Matera, I make an exception. The city has such a rich history that makes it really worth hearing the whole story. There are a lot of English-speaking guides that can tell you the mysterious story of Matera and take you to amazing places in the Sassi. Be sure to visit the churches and cave homes as well.

The Santa Maria di Idris church is a must-visit. This impressive church is built into a huge rock and is dramatically visible from all over the old part of the city. The cave homes, casa grotta, are the most interesting and well-known part of Matera’s history. Several caves are set up like the homes were back then, so you can experience how the people used to live.

Where to Stay

Italians have moved back to the caves and set up restaurants and hotels here. One restaurant that is worth visiting is Palazzo Del Duca. This restaurant has the most magical view and is the perfect place for a romantic dinner. If you are looking for good pasta and even better wine, this is the place for you. The Palazzo also has some very luxurious suites in the caves if you want to spend a night in this beautiful city.


Polignano a Mare

Polignano a Mare is next on the list. This coastal city is one of the best-known places in Puglia: you have probably seen this impressive cliff and its beautiful hidden beach on Instagram. This means Polignano a Mare is quite touristy in the summer, but it’s still worth a visit. We’ll save the beach and sunbathing for when we head further south.

Looking over the cliffs and the sea during sunset is something you can’t miss. And what better way to do that than with a glass of wine in your hand. At Grotta Palazzese you can do exactly that. Set inside a natural cave, you can dine on the side of a cliff while enjoying gourmet dishes with the sounds of the sea. Note: although this restaurant is extremely dreamy, it has mixed reviews. We think that what this restaurant lacks in quality, it makes up for in unforgettable views—so arrive prepared and this can still be a night to remember. If you prefer good food to good views, try L’Archibugio or grab a slice of focaccia from Focacceria del Corso.

Where to Stay

When you go to Puglia, you must stay in a masseria. Masserie are traditional 16th and 17th-century farmhouses that have been restored and turned into authentic hotels. Borgo San Marco has 18 suites in different styles and an outdoor swimming pool set in an elegant Mediterranean garden with a citrus grove. The property also has a little church with ancient frescoes and a terrace where you could sip homemade drinks. I love relaxing in the coffee-reading room which is set in the property’s former olive oil mill with a stone olive press.


Ostuni

©Instagram/paragon700

Driving south along the coast we end up in Ostuni, la città bianca. The white-washed, hilltop city has it all: excellent restaurants, a beautiful historical center, quaint masserie and so much more. You can easily spend a whole day eating your way through Ostuni, and I have lots of local tips for you.

Start your morning by lingering over an espresso or an iced caffè leccese (served with sweetened almond milk) at Bloom Bistrot Café, a modern coffeehouse in town. Then order a pasticciotto, a traditional pastry filled with custard, at Pasticceria Da Pasquale which prepares some of the best sweets in Puglia.

Discover 10 Foods You Need To Eat In Puglia

Try Osteria del Tempo Perso at lunch. This restaurant is carved out of a millenary rock in the historic center of Ostuni. You can expect pure traditional food and amazing wines from Puglia and Tuscany. For aperitivo, Borgo Antico Bistrot is a highlight. The location is stunning and a must-visit during sunset hours. The food and drinks are good, but you will enjoy the view the most. Save room for dinner at the nearby Taverna della Gelosia, a romantic restaurant set in a beautiful location with traditional interiors and authentic dishes.

Grottaglie

Grottaglie has been well known for its ceramics since the Classical period: they have played an important part in the local economy for centuries. The city is still full of ceramic shops and ateliers, and the artists are passionate and happy to explain their craft to visitors. Each one has its own style, so you should try to visit as many as possible. A few shops you should visit are Bottega Vestita, Antonio Fasano Ceramiche & Ceramiche Franco Fasano.

Grottaglie is the perfect place to get some handmade souvenirs and learn more about this beautiful art. If you want to dive into the history of this art form, pay a visit to the Museo della Ceramiche Grottaglie. This museum has hundreds of beautiful ceramics on display that span from the 8th century BC to the present day.

Where to Stay

From Grottaglie, we will drive south to Manduria to stay at Masseria Potenti. A family-run estate, Masseria Potenti is full of southern charm. Taste fresh food from the countryside, admire the traditional architecture in each room and meet the kindest people. There is so much to do here, including cooking classes, wine tastings, and al fresco yoga. Warning: you may have a hard time leaving the property!


Lecce

After a relaxing stay at Masseria Potenti, it is time to head into the city again. Lecce is known as a “southern Florence” filled with beautiful Baroque buildings. Wander through the city to admire ornamental buildings, courtyards, and churches, including the Basilica di Santa Croce.

Don’t miss the Roman Amphitheater in the southern part of the Piazza Sant’Oronzo. This theater was used for animal fights during the 1st and 2nd centuries. No one knew about its existence until construction workers uncovered it in 1901 while digging to build a bank. Now a part of the theater is used for music and theater events during the summer. Some other historical places to see are Lecce Castello, the Faggiano Museum, and Abbazia di Santa Maria di Cerrate.

After exploring the history of Lecce, it is time to try the traditional kitchen. At Trattoria Nonna Tetti, a rustic restaurant in a cozy setting, you’ll find hearty pasta and meat dishes. For vegetarians and vegans, I would highly recommend trying the fave e cicoria (fava bean purée with sautéed chicory) and ciceri e tria (pasta and chickpeas).

Another great place is Mamma Elvira Enoteca, a wine bar in a very lively street near Basilicata di Santa Croce. Here you can try the tastiest local wines with typical local small dishes. If you want to end the evening with cocktails instead of wine, you can go to the cozy cocktail bar Prohibition where they have a great selection of the tastiest cocktails.

©Instagram/marikamarangella

Where to Stay

From Lecce, we can drive to Galatina. Here we will stay at Palazzo Garibaldi: a luxurious, affordable boutique hotel with prices starting at only €80 per night! The Palazzo has five beautiful suites with a minimalistic and contemporary style. Enjoy the quiet rooms, outdoor terrace, and a hearty breakfast before getting back on the road to head further south.


Otranto

We are now firmly in Puglia’s Salento region, and you’ll notice there are fewer tourists here and more undiscovered towns and beaches. I may be biased because my family comes from the south, but this is my favorite part of Puglia. Set along the coast, Otranto is the perfect city to start discovering the region.

Walk along the lungomare, the promenade of Otranto, and you’ll find sandy beaches with sun beds to spend the day at the water. It’s the perfect place for a sunset passeggiata. Book a table for dinner at L’Altro Baffo. This gourmet fish restaurant has some really unique dishes on the menu like carbonara ai ricci di mare (sea urchins). The owner of the restaurant is also the chef, and he puts a lot of passion into selecting ingredients and creating traditional recipes with a contemporary twist.

Pit Stop: Cala dell’Acquaviva

On the way from Otranto to Tricase, we make a little pit stop at Cala dell’Acquaviva. Believe me: you don’t want to miss this place. If you are a lover of beautiful beaches, be prepared for frequent stops along this coastline between Otranto and Santa Maria di Leuca, which is filled with hidden coves. Cala dell’Acquaviva is a beautiful small beach where you can enjoy the sun and the sounds of the sea between the rocks. At the top of the stairs leading to the beach, you will find Anãm: a dreamy beach club with great views and the best drinks. Try the Basilcello, a drink with gin, lemon and basil syrup — it is the absolute best.

@Instagram/anamterrace

Tricase

My favorite part of this road trip is the drive from Otranto all the way to the southernmost point of Puglia. There is one thing I can promise you: the drive is as beautiful as the destination. But before we get to the tip of Italy’s heel, we will make a stop at Tricase. This quaint town is the perfect place for an espresso and pasticciotto at Martinucci, a café that first opened in 1950. Afterward, I like to wander through the city and do some shopping.

Next, we will head to Tricase Porto, an extension of the city that stretches to the sea. The surroundings are beautiful and there are some pretty beaches where you can lay out your towel and take a dip in the sea. A real insider tip: when you walk to the end of the beach, you will see a small passage in the rocks to the left. Behind this lies a “secret” rocky beach with a kiosk that serves the tastiest frise: double-baked bread topped with fresh tomatoes.

If you linger here until dinner, book a table at Taverna del Porto to enjoy a beautiful sea view accompanied by excellent fish dishes and local wines.

Where to Stay

One of the most beautiful palazzi in southern Italy is located along the route from Tricase to Santa Maria di Leuca. Palazzo Daniele, a boutique design hotel that combines 19th-century architecture with modern decor, is located in Gagliano Del Capo. The suites are so beautiful that you will be tempted to stay in bed all day admiring the frescoes on the ceiling. Luckily the rest of the palazzo is worth getting out of bed for. Discover the beautiful pool, spa, and kitchen with delicious local food.


Santa Maria di Leuca

The last stop for this road trip is at the southernmost part of Puglia: Santa Maria di Leuca. Life is slow here, so plan to enjoy relaxed days by the sea, leisurely dinners al fresco, and excellent cocktails to toast your time in Puglia. While there are mostly rocky beaches in the area, Lido Giulia is a restaurant and beach club with plenty of sand, sun beds, and umbrellas for a little more comfort. You should also rent a boat (with or without a skipper) to discover the sea caves where ancient Greek, Latin, and Byzantine inscriptions have been carved into the rock walls. Jump off the boat and swim into the caves to have a magical experience.

When the sun slowly sets and the heat starts to let up, climb the large staircase up to the Basilica di Santa Maria de Finibus Terrae, a famous picturesque church. This is a beautiful walk at sunset and the view looks out over the harbor and the sea.

Walking down back to the city along the main road, you will come across Boccaccio, a rustic little restaurant set within a garden. Order the orecchiette cime di rape (orecchiette with broccoli rabe), stracciatella e sbriciolata di tarallo (stracciatella cheese with crumbled taralli). End your evening with a gelato in hand as you walk along the promenade. Each summer, Santa Maria di Leuca hosts a market where local artists showcase their creations. It’s the perfect place to pick up a meaningful souvenir in Puglia.

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