Puglia, which includes the Salento peninsula, or the “heel” part of the Italian boot, boasts gorgeous pristine beaches, quality vineyards, some of the best olive oil Italy produces and a delicious, ingredient-based regional cuisine. It is also one of the least “touristy” regions of Italy, which makes it all the more attractive if you are looking for that authentic travel experience.
Take a few days for a Puglia road trip to explore this most stunning region.
Rome to Gallipoli
Fly into Rome’s di Fiumicino airport and spend a day café hopping in the Eternal City to get over the initial jet lag. Rent a car the next day and make the 8-hour drive to Gallipoli, the first stop on your Puglia road trip. Don’t worry about arriving late, since the Pugliese tend to live at night. Shops and restaurants are open late to welcome the crowds who usually spend the hot afternoons indoors and spill into the streets at sunset to eat, drink and go on leisurely walks.
Gallipoli’s centro storico (historic center) is actually an island that’s linked to the mainland by a 16th-century bridge. Take a walk around the harbour and visit the cathedral before settling down for dinner at La Puritate, a lovely trattoria in the city’s historic center that specializes in fish and, even more specifically, shrimp. Don’t miss out on the delicate and sweet gamberoni al sale, or shrimp cooked in salt. The freshly-caught shrimp are coated in coarse salt and olive oil and barely cooked, and the result is worth the drive from Rome.
Suggested accommodation: Palazzo Mosco Inn Dimora Storica
Gallipoli to Otranto
Start your day with a visit to Gallipoli’s Sant’Agata church, a great example of Leccese Baroque architecture with its very intricate façade. La Purità church is also a must-visit while in Gallipoli. Its plain exterior architecture hides a surprisingly detailed interior.
Don’t forget to put your swimsuit on before you spend the day driving along the coast from Gallipoli to Otranto, and taking the time to stop at any beach you find attractive. The gorgeous Ionian turquoise waters have a striking resemblance to the Maldives, which they are often compared to, and the coastline is a mix of edgy rock formations and white sandy beaches. Locals set up on the razor-sharp rocks overlooking the water, and both cliff jumping and cave diving are popular activities.
This part of Puglia is known for its ricci, or sea urchin, and the tiny town of Porto Badisco is a must-stop to savour these delicious sea creatures. They are fished in the early morning, and usually sell out by about 2 p.m. Stop by Da Carlo’s bar, where a fisherman sets up shop on the patio. Here, ricci are ordered by the dozen and cracked opened on the spot by the fisherman and his son. They’re enjoyed with bread, salumi, cheese, wine and other local products purchased from the bar.
Don’t miss the Otranto Cathedral and its 800-year old Tree of Life mosaic, which covers the entire floor of the church. The elaborate black, white and gilded wooden ceiling that runs the length of the nave is equally impressive.
L’Altro Baffo is an excellent choice for dinner. It serves re-imagined local specialties and fresh seafood. The degustazione di pesce crudo del giorno (fresh raw seafood platter of the day) is highly recommended, and so is the orechiette, a small, ear shaped pasta (orecchiette means little ear in Italian) that is a Pugliese handmade specialty.
Suggested accommodation: Hotel Palazzo Papaleo
Otranto to Lecce
The road from Porto Badisco to Otranto goes through Cape Palascìa, more commonly known as Cape d’Otranto, Italy’s easternmost point. It’s where the Ionian Sea meets the Adriatic Sea, and is an absolutely gorgeous stretch of road. Make a quick stop at the colourful bauxite lake of Cave di Otranto, one of the most photographed spots in the Salento region. The contrast between the deep red earth of the old abandoned quarry and the emerald green lake waters is breathtaking.
Lecce, the main city in the Salento Peninsula, is commonly referred to as the “Florence of the South”. If you’ve ever been to Florence, you’ll immediately understand why it’s often compared to its northern cousin. The city is filled with gorgeous and elaborate Baroque churches and monuments. Some of the most notable buildings include the Piazza del Duomo, the Lecce Cathedral and the breathtaking Chiesa di Santa Croce with its impossibly intricate façade. Take a few hours, or even a day or two, to walk around the 2000-year old city. While you’re there, be sure to sample a caffè leccese, a refreshing and quite addictive mix of espresso on ice, sweetened with almond syrup. The pasticciotto (a cream-filled pastry crust typical of the Salento region) is a must-have breakfast staple, and the ones served at Cafe Alvino are delicious.
For dinner, try one of the several wine bars along Via Umberto I offering beautiful aperitivo choices paired with local wines.
Suggested accommodation: Palazzo Personè Dimora Storica
Lecce to Polignano a Mare
Drive inland through thousands of olive groves and vineyards until you reach Ostuni, also known as La Città Bianca (the white city). Spend a couple of hours getting lost around its narrow streets, admiring its wonderfully sinuous pathways, great baroque-style churches and breathtaking vistas overlooking the surrounding valleys rich in olive groves and vineyards.
Another lunch option along the way is the town of Alberobello, famous for its trulli, the traditional round Pugliese dry stone huts with conical roofs and tiny doors that resemble a hobbit’s abode. The trulli of Alberobello have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Polignano a Mare, the final destination for the day, is a small village built on a cliff overlooking the coast. The dizzying views into the infinite azure below are breathtaking from any side of the town. Dinner options abound here, as this town has quite the concentration of great restaurants. One-Michelin star Angelo Sabatelli Ristorante, a 10-minute drive from Polignano a Mare, offers 3 different tasting menus as well as an à la carte option.
Suggested accommodation: B&B Relais del Senatore
Polignano a Mare to Peschici (Gargano)
Puglia is where burrata cheese was invented, and the town of Andria is its birthplace. Stop by a cheese shop to sample this fresh cheese made of an outer layer of mozzarella stuffed with rich cream. Caseificio Asseliti e De Fato comes recommended by a local chef for making the best burrata in town, as well as other specialties including smoky scamozza, fresh bocconcini stuffed with stracciatella made–to-order, ricotta salata, and bocconcini stuffed with prosciutto.
Pack a picnic and enjoy the cheesy lunch with taralli, a cracker that’s also a local specialty.
After lunch, keep driving north until you reach one of Puglia’s most magnificent regions: the Gargano National Park. Located at its northernmost end, the Gargano juts out into the sea and forms the “spur” of Puglia’s “boot”. It counts several peaks and dozens of beaches, and the sinuous drive through the park is one of the most picturesque in Italy. If you’re a nature lover, the Gargano Park offers hiking, biking and camping activities.
Peschici is a small town on the northern coast of Gargano Park. It has the looks of a sleepy town but its historic center stays busy well into the night, with hordes of Italian tourists taking to the streets in a joyous cacophony.
Suggested accommodation: Il Barone del Mare
Peschici (Gargano) back to Rome
Spend the last morning of your Puglia road trip admiring the jagged coast of the Gargano National Park from the water, as you zip from cave to cave in a small boat driven by a local expert who will also serve as a guide. Dive into the crystal-clear waters, or join the local youth and try your hand at cliff jumping if you dare. As you glide by the coast, admire the elaborate and intricate trabucci fishing platforms. These traditional wood constructions are said to date from the Phoenicians. They dot the coast and loom over the water waiting for their prey. The two wooden arms extend and hold the fishing net that traps the schools of fish as they swim: a most ingenious way to get the freshest catch.
The drive back from Peschici to Rome takes a little over 4 hours.
Cover photo credit: Jan Koole