Updated: Jan 21, 2021
You’ll hear many times that traveling in Puglia, the southeastern heel of Italy's boot, is easiest with a car. This is true. It gives you the flexibility to stop in quiet little villages with sparse public transportation, mozzarella-making farms in the trulli-studded countryside, and idyllic rocky beaches only accessible from narrow dirt roads. I enjoyed all of those things and more during a week of road-tripping with friends from Ostuni to Gallipoli to Matera in a trusty Jeep.
But experiencing Puglia is also possible and enjoyable without a car, which is great news for those jaunting through the region alone or those who simply would rather sit back and let a train do the navigating. I know because I did it myself, using public transportation (which is way cheaper than renting a car and still shows you amazing views of the sea and countryside) to visit five towns during a dreamy two-week solo trip in Puglia. Here’s where I went and what I think you should do when you go.
Bari ---> Polignano a Mare ---> Monopoli ---> Locorotondo ---> Lecce
This itinerary is bookended by two main cities with three smaller towns in between. If you're entering and leaving Puglia from Italy, it's easy to do so via train, as there's a major station in Bari. If you're coming from a different country, you'll likely fly in and out of Bari or Brindisi, which is about a 1.5-hour train from Bari and a half-hour train from Lecce. See the "getting there" section below each stop for detailed instructions about transportation between each city.
Note: "Replacing" Locorotondo with Ostuni, a beautiful city in the same sub-region of Puglia, would make this journey a little bit easier in terms of transportation. However, I experienced Ostuni with a car and cannot vouch for its convenience otherwise — and Locorotondo is well worth the effort!
Luggage: Since this is a carless itinerary, packing light will make your life easier when you're walking between bus/train stations and your hotels (and leave you more room for souvenirs). Luckily, most of these walks should only take you about 15 minutes as long as your accommodations are in the city center. You can always do laundry while you're there.
Transportation: I'm providing transportation instructions below, but for booking tickets or double-checking details, Omio and Rome2Rio are really good resources. These don't always have complete information, though, especially for buses, so when in doubt, it's best to visit a tourist office.
Language: Most people working in the service industry in Puglia speak English, so you don't need to know Italian to communicate during your trip. One of the great pleasures of Puglia, though, is chatting with friendly strangers (especially the elderly, who usually don't speak English), so it's definitely a plus to know some phrases.
Siesta: All of Puglia totally shuts down after lunch between about 2 p.m. and 5 or 6 p.m., so expect shops and restaurants to close at that time. This is the perfect opportunity to lounge on the beach, nap in your room, or take walks and pictures of town with no photobombers.
Reservations: Even if you feel like you have a small town all to yourself, it's still best to make dinner reservations if you have your heart set on any particular restaurant.
Markets: Pugliese cities don't necessarily have big, open-air produce markets every day like they do in Florence or Rome. These are typically just once a week (refer to this article for schedules in each city). However, you'll always be able to find small kiosks and shops selling local produce throughout the city center.
Aperitivo: Though pre-dinner spritzes are very popular in Puglia, free snacks are not as typical as they are farther north, so don't be surprised if your glass of wine doesn't come with a complimentary bowl of chips. Just ask for taralli or crispy fava beans, and they'll only cost €1 or so.
Two nights in Bari
Bari, the capital of Puglia, has the most electrifying energy, mainly because of the old town, Bari Vecchia. The neighborhood is a colorful maze of narrow streets, with laundry billowing in front of slender, three-story homes and loud-mouthed locals sitting in the open, doing anything from making orecchiette to dancing to the Black Eyed Peas. The Barese use the streets as their living room, which is why walking through Bari Vecchia feels like you’re in someone’s house — and why you should definitely say buongiorno or buonasera to everyone you pass. I’ve heard people call Bari dirty and dangerous (the same things they say about Naples), but I never felt unsafe, and it might have been my favorite city in Puglia.
What to do
Spend lots of time walking around Bari Vecchia, enjoying the colors and shade of the small streets, smiling at busy locals, and checking out the orecchiette-rolling technique of the pasta ladies who make this neighborhood famous. You’ll see them working at wooden tables in front of their homes, chatting and looking at passersby while their hands do quick work out of muscle memory. Largo Albicocca is a particularly beautiful square in the old town and is very happenin' at night.
Sights to look out for in Bari are the Basilica di San Nicola, Castello Normanno-Svevo, Piazza Mercantile, Basilica di San Sabino, and Petruzzelli Theater. You can visit these on your own or book an experience — maybe a historical walking tour, a street-food tour, or a cooking class. I joined Free Walking Tour Bari and loved it.
The Lungomare is a long path along the Adriatic sea. It's a scenic place to watch the sunset and provides free entertainment in the morning, when fishermen sell their day's catch, clean squids, and tenderize octopus by hurling it repeatedly against the pavement.
The modern part of the city is less charming than the old town, but you can find lots of shopping and trendy restaurants and cafes in the Murat district.
Where to stay
Unless you want a view of the sea, I'd suggest staying in the heart of the action in Bari Vecchia. I stayed in this Airbnb on Strada Barone and can’t recommend it enough. From my front door, I could see inside a pasta lady’s kitchen, where the table was always full of drying orecchiette. To left, a kind man ran a produce stand and promptly began his Peroni drinking at 10 a.m. And a few steps to the right, four ladies cranked out cavatelli and orecchiette, which was very convenient when I decided to buy pasta to cook at home, using ingredients from the fruit man and a nearby cheese shop.
What to eat and where to get it
On the street: One of my favorite things about Bari is that you don’t have to sit at a restaurant to eat well. It's fun (and cheap) to dedicate at least one evening to trying the city's best street foods, especially those of the fried variety. Some crispy delights include:
--sgagliozze, deep-fried polenta squares (Try them at Try Donna Carmela’s in Largo Albicocca or Maria’s on Strada del Carmine)
--panzerotti, pizza dough that’s stuffed with anything you like and fried (Rosticceria Dirello near the San Sabino church fries them to order)
--and popizze, salty little balls of fried bread dough. Buy these along the Lungomare, where locals like to set up chairs, grills, and bubbling pots of oil so they can fry food and listen to music during the sunset.
--Non-fried but very luscious is the famous olive, tomato, and oregano focaccia Barese. El Focacciaro makes a good one.
At the butcher: In Puglia, it's common to visit the butcher not only for meat to cook at home but also for a snack, like the traditional Sunday-lunch dish braciole di cavallo, which are rolls of thinly sliced horse meat stuffed with parsley, cheese, and pork fat. I loved watching the cooks at Beccheria on Strada Vallisa grill meats for sandwiches right behind the butcher case, which is also stocked with beef, pork, chicken, and sausages.
From the sea: The freshest raw seafood can be found at the seafood markets on the piers surrounding Teatro Margherita. Go in the morning (ideally before 10 a.m.) for a snack of raw octopus, allìive (cuttlefish), or, if you're visiting between September and April, a plate sea urchins with crusty bread for scooping out the roe. You might also try raw mussels; I got them from a friendly fisherman named Gino, and I'm still alive.
At home: Puglia produces some of the best olive oil, wine, and fruits and vegetables in Italy, which means staying in for dinner is a wonderful idea. You'll want to buy orecchiette from a pasta lady anyway, so why not cook it at its absolute freshest? Complete the meal with fresh meat or seafood, a typical vegetable like cime di rapa, and some in-season fruit for dessert.
Alla gelateria: Gelateria Piccinni is simply superb.
Finally, if you do sit down in a restaurant, be sure to eat the Barese specialty riso, patate, e cozze, which is a layered and baked dish of rice, potatoes, and mussels.
I wrote a story for Heated Mag about eating in Bari; check it out for extra details.
1 night in Polignano a Mare
Polignano a Mare is best known for its famous beach, Lama Monachile, which you may have already seen on Instagram. It's a small rocky spot nestled between cliffs that tower over clear, turquoise water. It is the main attraction of the small town, which, though beautiful, I found to be a little bit Disney-fied and less sincere than the other cities I visited. Nevertheless, it is a very nice place to spend a day or one night.
Getting there from Bari
Easy. Trenitalia has a half-hour train from Bari Centrale (a 15-minute walk from the city center) to Polignano's train station (about 10 minutes from the city center).
What to do
I was happy to spend most of the afternoon at Lama Monachile, swimming in the cool water and watching braver-than-me children jump off the cliffs. Unless you show up first thing in the morning, the small beach will be very crowded. Just go with the flow, enjoy the people watching, and bring a sandwich for an inexpensive lunch.
After a day of swimming, clean up at home and head out in the evening for aperitivo in the piazza of your choice. Peaceful Piazza San Benedetto has top-notch cat-watching and SanBé, a good place for a Campari spritz and crispy dried fava beans.
Though Polignano is popular with tourists, its passeggiata time does feel like a true reflection of the Italian tradition. Before dinner, stroll through the city and take a break in a piazza, watching kids behave crazily and the elderly population shoot the breeze. Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele is the main square, but I preferred eating gelato in Piazza Aldo Moro, which was still lively after dinner.
Soak in views of the beach and the distant sea at sunrise and sunset from viewpoints scattered around the city.
Where to stay
Staying east of the beach means you'll still have easy walking access to the city center but will enjoy more peace and quiet. I found just that on Via Sirene at Dims Polignano.
What to eat and where to get it
Seafood may be the obvious choice in an oceanside town, but Polignano also loves its meat, which is apparent at Osteria Piga. They bring taralli (the region's famously hearty, tire-shaped crackers) out with the bread (a classic move in Puglia) and serve their delightful beef tartare with wasabi-scented candied orange. I also had their perfectly pillowy gnocchi with Gorgonzola sauce and taralli crumbs.
An obligatory try is Polignano’s Caffè Speciale, invented and made famous by Mario Campanella at Il Super Mago del Gelo, which translates awesomely to The Super Wizard of Frost. Caffè Speciale is a warm coffee drink with cream, sugar, lemon peel, and amaretto — sweet and citrusy yet not too aggressive for the morning.
When you want gelato (and you will, because it’s Italy), I kindly advise you not to indulge your curiosity of a certain sign reading “World-Famous Potato Gelato…” Instead, try Gusto Caruso.
3 nights in Monopoli
Peaceful Monopoli is the perfect accompaniment to chaotic Bari, but that doesn't mean it's boring. The fishing town has an old port, a castle, beaches, churches, and such a lovely look, thanks to its many white buildings with colorfully painted shutters and creatively adorned balconies. You hear all the time that certain Italian cities are perfect to "get lost in." Well, that's really true here. Though the beach and main streets are full of out-of-towners, you'll find plenty of small alleyways with no one in sight, and each one will seem prettier than the last.
Getting there from Polignano a Mare
Take the five-minute Trenitalia train to the Monopoli station, which is about a 15-minute walk from the historic center.
What to do
An introductory walk in Monopoli starts at Porto Vecchio, the old port, which is full of little blue fishing boats and socializing fishermen. Continue on to the Castle of Charles V, a fortress from the 1500s. You can't go inside, but you can admire details on the stone — like fossilized seashells. Keep walking, and you'll find bars, a bastion with cannons, and people tanning on big rocks in the water.
Eventually, you'll run into Cala Porta Vecchia, the main beach just outside of the city walls. Monopoli has a prime location along the Capitolo, a long stretch of clear-watered beaches, which means you can take the bus to any spot you like. But I was happy at this charmingly busy beach, lying in the sand and floating in the warm water with a view of the city.
Cattedrale Maria Santissima della Madia is the main church with a cool backstory. The original church, first built in 1117, didn't have money to finish the roof. Legend has it that a local man named Mercurio prayed for the material to build it, and the Madonna came to him in a dream, telling him to go to Porto Vecchio. He did, and sailing right into the port was a miracle: a wooden raft carrying a painting of the Madonna. The citizens carried the painting to the church and used the wood from the raft to finish the roof. You can still see the painting and the original wood in the new Baroque church today.
Look up close at the Chiesa di Santa Maria del Suffragio, and you'll see why it's nicknamed the Halloween Church. The purgatory church, built as a place for sinners to pray for forgiveness and get the golden ticket to heaven, is decked out with creepy skeletons on the outside and has 18th-century mummies inside — something different!
I'm not usually so churchy, but I guess something heavenly came over me in Monopoli. Chiesa di San Domenico, my favorite in the city, has a big rose window that's just lovely to look at during the sunset.
Monopoli isn't such a doing city. Take lots of walks and lots of sits, preferably in Piazza Vittorio Emanuele for the best people-watching in town — and a group of nice people selling extremely juicy olives.
While the pastel-colored old town is more picturesque, the bright orange, more modern part of the city is also sweet to explore. Check out the streets running from Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, and you'll find shops to buy everything from local wines and cheeses to fancy clothes and sunglasses.
Where to stay
You can't go wrong with a little hotel or B&B in the historic center. I loved watching people talk, walk, and eat from my balcony at this Airbnb.
What to eat and where to get it
Monopoli has no shortage of wonderful seafood. I really liked Il Guazzetto's elegant crudo on ice, as well as their endless selection of pasta dishes and rendition of ciambotto, the Pugliese fish soup with a spicy tomato broth and croutons.
My favorite meal, though, was more of an assortment of classy snacks and booze at My Wine. There you can enjoy high-quality local wines for €5 a glass with fabulous food, like sea bass carpaccio with dried raspberries and the best-presented plate of butter and anchovies you've ever seen.
It doesn't get more Pugliese than cavatelli with mussels and fava-bean purée. I ordered this at Trattoria San Domenico and ate every bite.
Apluvia had only been open for a week when I was in Monopoli, but you wouldn't know it. I had perfectly cooked rosemary-scented squid with pancetta and peas, and the people next to me seemed to be enjoying a very good aperitivo deal with lots of seafood snacks.
Make room daily for the perfect peach granita at frescolatte gelateria di puglia.
2 nights in Locorotondo
Alberobello is Puglia's most famous place to see trulli, 700-year-old stone houses with cone-shaped roofs, but Locorotondo feels like a more genuine home base in the Valle d'Itria. With pristine cobblestone streets, views over the trulli-dotted valley, and a unique architectural style called cummerse, Locorotondo looks like the setting of a fairy-tale. It has all of the makings to become overly touristic, but it isn't. I felt a sense of peace and comfort when I was there and wished I had stayed at least one night longer.
Getting there from Monopoli
Locorotondo is on the opposite side of a big hill from Monopoli, so there's no direct train. I took the Ferrovie del Sud (FSE) bus from Monopoli (the bus stop was about a 15-minute walk from the city center). About 45 minutes later, it dropped me off in the center of Locorotondo, just a five-minute walk from my B&B.
What to do
Meander through the city center to appreciate the cummerse, the name of Locortondo's slender rectangular buildings, whose steeply slanted stone roofs meet in a narrow, flat peak. The typical Locorotondo cummerse is bright white, has adorable chimneys, and is dutifully decorated with flowerpots. You'll also see alluring arches, tiny churches, and shops selling ceramics and paintings of Locorotondo.
A circular walkway surrounds Locorotondo (which means "round place"), and even though the sea is nowhere in sight, it's called the Lungomare. Even without the blue of the ocean, the view is pretty spectacular: trulli, vineyards, and endless haybales flecking the farmland.
The perfect passeggiata is through the park near Piazza Dante and along Corso XX Settembre, followed by aperitivo at Caffè della Villa, a truly joyful place to watch the evening transpire.
See more of the Valle d'Itria. You could take a day trip to Martina Franca or Cisternino, which are nearby and easily reachable by bus or train. Even better, you can explore the countryside by bike. I did a half-day tour with ebike Puglia that fulfilled all of my Pugliese dreams: crumbling trulli, cute goats, countless cacti sprouting from brick-red soil, and lunch at a farm, Masseria Madonna dell'Arco, which serves cheeses made by milk from its own gigantic cows.
If you're in town on a Friday, check out the morning market in Piazza Antonio Mitrano. It had one of the most tantalizing selections I've ever seen of local produce, cheese, and taralli in all flavors from sweet to spicy.
Look out for local wines. Locorotondo is famous for white wines made from Verdeca, Fiano, and Biano d'Alessano grapes, and its red wine made with Susumaniello is tasty and robust as well. I Pastini is a reputable winemaker with a tasting room in the city center and a nearby vineyard if you'd like to make a mini excursion.
Where to stay
It blows my mind that I was able to book a beautiful, three-room bed and breakfast in the heart of Locorotondo on my budget — but I was, and it was my favorite stay of my entire trip. Da Concavo e Convesso has lovely, comfortable rooms with balconies and stone walls, a rooftop with a bird's eye view of the cummerse and the Church of St. George, and cakes for breakfast cooked by the owner's mom. I will remember it very fondly.
What to eat and where to get it
Now that you're in the land of capocollo (the famous salume from Martina Franca), I'd suggest indulging in some Pugliese meat specialties, like bombette (rolls of pork or veal stuffed with capocollo and caciocavallo cheese) or pasta with polpette al sugo (meatballs in a rich tomato sauce). I had the latter and an excellent rabbit dish at Bina Ristorante.
U'Curdunn is another splendid place to try local dishes, including seafood. Their outdoor tables are particularly picturesque.
Since Locorotondo is smack in the middle of prime Pugliese farmland, I can't recommend lunch at a farm enough. It's the best (and most scenic) way to try local meats, cheeses, and produce in a sustainable and educational setting. It is hard without a car, though, so I would suggest joining the aforementioned bike tour or another experience that provides transportation to a masseria.
4 nights in Lecce
One day is long enough to see Lecce's historical center, but it's relaxing to take your time through Puglia's Baroque capital, nicknamed the Florence of the South because of its many fancifully designed buildings. In addition to ornate churches and Roman ruins, Lecce has easy access to small cities and beaches via bus, some of my favorite cheap eats in Puglia, and a beautiful golden hue at sunset.
Getting there from Locorotondo
This is the hardest part of our public-transportation journey, but it's really not that bad. Take the 30-minute FSE bus from Locorotondo to Fasano. From there, you could take another bus to the Fasano train station — which is almost 2 miles from the bus stop, too far to walk with luggage if you ask me — or call a taxi for no more than 15 euro. From there, you'll hop on an easy one-hour train to Lecce, whose station is just a 10-minute walk from the heart of the city.
What to do
Lecce's Duomo and belltower are grand and imposing, but even more striking is Basilica di Santa Croce, whose intricate facade has enough symbolism for a whole college course. It's worth taking a walking tour of Lecce (I did this one) to get a better, more meaningful understanding of the church's design — as well as the other sights in the city.
Even without a tour guide, it's easy to appreciate the details of Leccese architecture, which has been influenced over the centuries by French, Spanish, Greek, Norman, and Roman visitors. See how many faces and figures you can spot carved over doorframes and supporting balconies, and notice how the yellowy Leccese limestone, which is very soft and malleable, has crumbled over time to give each building lots of different patterns and textures.
My favorite place in Lecce is the ancient Roman theater, which is hidden among quiet streets and full of resting cats. This is one of the city's main attractions but is mysteriously calm, which makes it a peaceful place to stop during a long stroll. You can also pay to enter the accompanying museum.
The Roman amphitheater is the other (and more bustling) Roman ruin in town, as it's located in the main square, Piazza Sant'Oronzo.
Lecce's city walls are accessible by four main porte, or doors. It's fun to go beyond the city walls to explore the more modern part of town. Just a quick walk down the block outside of Porta Napoli led me to two delicious bakeries and a more genuine view of local life.
You can obviously souvenir shop in any city, but I'm specifying it here because I noticed that Lecce has a particularly high concentration of shops selling pieces by local artists. Most of these are on major thoroughfares Via Palmieri and Via Libertini. They sell typical Pugliese products like paint-splattered dishes (made with dried olive branches) and pumi, ceramic good-luck charms that people often put on their balconies to keep evil spirits away. I found both and more at La Salentina and Il Ripostiglio di Atena.
Two things I would have done if I'd had time: 1) There's a Jewish Museum in Piazza Santa Croce, which was the heart of Lecce's Jewish neighborhood during the medieval age. 2) There are frequent buses to Otranto, a beautiful city with caves, a castle, and a fancy cathedral right on the sea. Many other beaches are accessible from Lecce; you can grab a bus schedule from one of the tourist offices.
Where to stay
You'll enjoy your stay anywhere in Lecce's city center, but try to avoid booking anything on Via Libertini, which can get very busy.
What to eat and where to get it
The pasticciotto: You can find these dense, cream-filled short-crust pastries, typically eaten for breakfast, anywhere in Puglia, but they come from Lecce and taste noticeably better there. They're shaped like oblong muffins and taste like sugar cookies with an eggy pastry cream center. My Airbnb host left me four of them from Pasticceria La Fornarina, and I happily ate one every day for breakfast.
The rustico: When I learned that these buttery discs of puff pastry with mozzarella and tomato also contain bechamel, I was like, "Is that really necessary?" It is. The addictive savory pastries are the best cheap lunch in Lecce. I loved them from La Fornarina and Schipa Serena.
The caffè Leccese: The special ingredient in Lecce's iced espresso is almond milk — but don't picture the sad, watery stuff from Blue Diamond (sorry). Almond milk in Salento is already sweet (so there's no sugar added to the coffee), and it has an almost syrupy consistency that makes this drink a real treat in the afternoon. Find it at any coffee bar.
Ciceri e tria: I first learned about this dish in, ironically, one of my culinary classes about nutritious food. The first ingredient, chickpeas (ciceri or ceci), is quite wholesome, but then they're combined with a deliciously luscious flat pasta called tria, half of which is boiled normally and half of which is fried into crispy, crouton-like bits. I love this dish because it transforms cheap, readily available ingredients into a really satisfying, multi-textured meal. That's why it has remained a staple of the Salento diet for the last 2,000 years. You can order it at almost any restaurant in Lecce, but I loved it at Trattoria Le Zie, which feels like someone's living room.
Spritzes and snacks: You must make it your mission to eat as much burrata as possible in Puglia. Luckily, cheese goes well with wine and spritzes, which is a wonderful reason to have snacks for dinner — or apericena. There are a lot of nice places to do this along Via Umberto and Via degli Ammirati. Enoteca Mamma Elvira can recommend local wines by the glass to go with their small plates, like burrata with chicory and eggplant rolls with scamorza, while Mamma Lupa has countless bruschette topped with typical Pugliese ingredients.
Gelato: Finally, make Baldogelato your go-to for airy gelato in flavors both classic and inventive — plus a special of the day.