Sunbaked villages, mouthwatering food, and spectacular sea to sky beauty (there’s nothing quite like that Italian sky glow) – Puglia has been on my radar for a long while. I’ve travelled all over Italy but not so far south and it was a jaw dropping experience. This post won’t act like a tour guide (I suggest buying a guidebook like Lonely Planet or Fodors), but it will give you some helpful tips to create an itinerary that maximizes your stay. This trip was absolutely EPIC! I loved exploring the region (and neighbouring Basilicata, home to Matera) and highly recommend it.
We mapped out our 10 day road trip by researching the must-see villages (with our handy region guide book) and then planned a route to minimize daily driving. Our drives were generally no more than two hours. The longest was the final leg from Matera to Naples.
We flew via Air Canada from Toronto to Rome and then took a short flight (just over an hour) to Bari on the coast. We stayed a night there, the largest town in the region, thinking that we would need the time to adjust to the jet lag and travel. I’d skip this step in future and power on by renting a car at the airport and driving an hour south to Polignano a Mare or Monopoli where you’ll find countless charming BnB’s. It’s an easy drive and you’ll be in the heart of Puglia quickly. Bari doesn’t offer anything by comparison.
When to go: Southern Italy is sweltering in the summer when many Italians flock here for their annual vacation. Good luck finding reasonable places to stay, seats in restaurants, or parking spots. Tourist season generally starts in April, peaks in July and August, and wraps mid-October. We chose the last week of September to avoid the heat and crowds. May would also be a good time. We had gorgeous sunny warm weather every day – it really was perfection!
Getting around: You’ll need to rent a car to experience all of the small towns along the way such as Locorotondo and Polignano a Mare. Pick a small one (standard drive is the only choice) so you can navigate the narrow roads and squeeze into parking spots. Use your phone GPS (it’s a lifesaver!) and your wits as directions are often confusing and country roads are poorly marked. You’ll need a ton of patience, good humour and confidence to drive here. My navigation skills were constantly put to test and luckily my guy, the driver, was extraordinarily calm – even when I sent him down one-way dead end twisty alleys in ancient cities!
Where to stay: Don’t bother with a big hotel (you won’t find the major chains here anyway) – the small local establishments are more charming and much better priced. We used booking.com (not Air BnB) for all of our planning. In general, try to avoid staying right in the middle of the historical centres – they’re packed with noisy crowds and tourist shops, plus you can’t drive in. We looked for small BnB’s within walking distance of the “centro” of old town. Stay two nights at each stop (except Alberobello) so you can relax and explore. This isn’t a region to speed through – don’t move to a different town every night or you’ll miss the charm of each stop.
Stop 1: ALBEROBELLO: A must stop in the region thanks to the village cluster of trullis – small limestone huts with circular stone roofs. A trullo is a two bedroom hut. They’re all over the region, and look like homes for gnomes. For a fun experience, stay the night (we chose Tipico Resorts) and then move on. Alberobello has become very touristy. We saw many more trullis on the road (dotted around the countryside) to Locorotondo and Ostuni.
Stop 2: OSTUNI: The first look at this whitewashed ancient town perched on a hill is awesome. We explored its wonderful twisty alleys but chose to stay a short drive away at a working olive farm and renowned restaurant – Masseria Il Fontanaio – where we also had an 8 course dinner made with homegrown ingredients. Good plan – it was a relaxing stop (with a swimming pool) that gave us a break from the crowded historical centre.
Stop 3: GALLIPOLI: This old town by the sea was a surprising delight. It was fun to explore but I also enjoyed reading on the sun-drenched terrace of our apartment – 20 Corte Moline. This tiny four room BnB was such a bargain and so lovely. It was in walking distance to everything and we were lucky to snag a parking spot just outside the walls of the village. The local cuisine was simple and delicious – try the squid and the gelato of course! We had to limit ourselves to one gelato daily – sea salt caramel is my favourite.
Stop 4: LECCE: One of the larger towns in Puglia, the architecture here is phenomenal. You’ll find lavishly embellished churches (more than 40) around every bend – and you’ll quickly get lost in the maze of streets and alleys. It’s a university town so there are a lot of well-priced restaurants. Our stop was the Palazzo Bignami, a former mansion with a rooftoop terrace and charming dining room – located just outside the walls of the old town centre.
Stop 5: MATERA: Named Europe’s Cultural City of 2019, Matera used to be one of the poorest towns in Italy. Until the 1950s, many of the poverty-stricken residents (and their precious livestock) lived in actual caves. Today, tourism is a major industry and, this summer, scenes for the next 007 James Bond movie were filmed here. Sadly the production wrapped three days before we arrived. We stayed in the heart of the old village at Ai Maestri Rooms & Cafe. Opened just 15 months ago, this tiny four room guesthouse has been immaculately designed. Our spacious room was carved out of a former water reservoir under street level – essentially an underground cave. It’s one of the most unique hotel experiences I’ve ever had – I didn’t want to leave and was so glad that we spent more of our budget on it. The room and this jaw-dropping historical town made Matera my personal highlight of our vacation.
We finished our trip by driving to Naples – about 3 hours from Matera – and flying to Genoa. There, we picked up a rental car and drove to Cinque Terre. Another option would be to explore more of Southern Italy on your way to visit Sicily.
Each stop on our Southern Italy road trip was completely different – both in accommodation and personality of town. Where else could you sleep in a gnome’s hut one night, and an ancient underground water reservoir the next?! For such a small region of Italy, the variety of experiences was astounding and reasonably priced. I highly recommend visiting Puglia but go soon before international travellers discover its charm. Fortunately, most of the roads in the region are too narrow and rural for huge tour buses, but I suspect Puglia will become a major tourist destination over the next decade.
Where to eat and what to do: We always rely upon a good guide book for our research, both before and during our trip. Make reservations at restaurants (especially during busy season) as owners don’t have much patience with big groups or walk-ins. Avoid the touristy spots in the main courtyards of the old towns, the food is generally very mediocre and expensive.
For more photos, check out our BnB’s on Booking.com, and also my Instagram page @lisatant. I’ve saved my Insta Stories in an Italy 2019 highlight so you can see videos of our rooms and a lot more detail of each town. I’ve also tagged my travel photos with #tantrumtravels. And tag me if you go to Puglia. I’d love to follow along on your adventure of one of my favourite places in the world.