Few people still know about the heel of Italy, the region of Apulia (Italian: Puglia), as a destination for mass tourism. The authorities have kept these lands exclusively for domestic tourism until recently. They say Apulia is among the top tourist destinations in Europe now. You bet it is! You can stroll through medieval cities in Apulia, explore rocky gorges with caves where people used to live and pirates would hide their loot. Here, you can taste one of the world’s best olive oils, local fine wines, and cheese, see several stunning UNESCO heritage sites, and, of course, relax on the pristine coasts of two seas at once – the Adriatic Sea and the Ionian Sea.
In my travel blog, in addition to useful information about the beautiful region of Apulia, you will learn not only our impressions, tips, and life hacks for planning an independent trip but also to see atmospheric photos! All places contain direct links to Google maps for easy location, official sites, or sites where you can get more details. The travel guide is filled with links to Wikipedia for those who want to delve into the facts, learn the history and understand the names.
I will begin my story about our journey along the heel of Italy from the top of the region, the so-called spur. Then, the history of places with travel hacks will gradually move down to the most extreme point of the region (the heel itself), where two magnificent seas meet.
The coastline of Apulia is over 800 km long. The beaches can be found for every taste here: secluded in the bays or crowded with people, wild or private, with pebbles or with white sand in shallow waters, which are called the Italian Maldives (located on the coast of Gallipoli). To suit all tastes!
You can go on a beach vacation with comfortable conditions from mid-June till the first weeks of September due to the warmth of the water. Our trip was at the end of June. The water was comfortable in temperature for passive swimming. The days pleased us with wonderful weather and allowed us to explore the cities without the sweltering heat at lunchtime.
I will give more detailed information about the decent beaches, which we visited and which appealed to us most in the succession they were reached during the trip. I want to note that Italians do not like to spend time alone on the beaches. They prefer crowded places. They also have their rest in companies. So, if you also love noisy companies or would rather choose to relax in the crowd, make sure to get acquainted with Italians from the north!
The Isole Tremiti (the Adriatic Sea)
There is a tiny island archipelago of Tremiti 10 nautical miles from the beautiful coast of Gargano (Italian: Gargano), which is the only archipelago of Italy on the Adriatic Sea. The islands are a part of a natural marine reserve. The water is so clean here! It reflects limestone cliffs, destroying which wind and sea have created stunning bays and fjords.
The sun-scorched landscapes of the islands of San Nicola and Isola di Caparia are to the North of Isola San Domino, the largest and greenest island. San Nicola is the only city in the archipelago founded by Benedictine monks in the 11th century. Tremiti is also popular with tourists. For centuries, pirates lived on the islands. There were only prisons and monasteries.
We stayed on the island of San Domino for four days. In our opinion, we had enough time for a lazy rest and to enjoy the most beautiful sea. The islands are a paradise for scuba divers because the depths of the sea are home to algae, starfish and different types of fish.
One day we hired a yacht for the whole day. Stunning views of the islands from the deck, the opportunity to stop, explore the depths in the bays, and ride with the breeze were worth it! What concerns the price, the rental service is relatively inexpensive. You will get a tank of fuel enough to go around all the islands and return to the port where you have previously hired the yacht.
I cannot but mention the flavor of the port life. Being there, stop for a couple of minutes and watch the local sailors: their expressions, habits, clothes, not to mention their dialogues! They are indeed the descendants of pirates! If you like to bargain, you are guaranteed to get a discount on a mini-yacht rental.
And finally, if you want to explore the Apulia region, do not stay long on the islands. A quiet life of vacationers flows without a variety of entertainment on the island of San Domino. Everything is concentrated on a day’s rest by the sea. The service lags slightly behind the continent, and accordingly, prices for housing and food on the island are too overpriced due to the remoteness and difficulties with the goods delivery. However, the beauty of the water and rocky beaches here is the best of all that we have visited in Apulia and we can rate it as 10/10! We liked the southern line the most, and the owner, a Mauritian, also recommended it to us. There is only one sandy beach on the island located in the port.
There are two ways to get to the islands: by ferry or by helicopter. Ferries leave from the city of Termoli. If you have rented a car, you will need to take care of the parking lot in Termoli, as only locals can take their transport to the islands. The islands are tiny. You surely won’t need a car! In half an hour, you will pass San Domino from the extreme point to the farthest. It is better to buy ferry tickets in advance. We got to San Domino by helicopter. Link to the official website of the airline to book tickets online. Helicopters fly from two cities: Foggia and Peschici. There was no excitement with tickets: we bought them the day before the departure. We left our car in the airport parking lot. Note that the cost of the helicopter turned out to be cheaper, even with a ticket for our dog Foksik. What is more, it took only 30 minutes there and 20 minutes back!
The medieval city of Vieste
Since the Middle Ages, Vieste has played a key role in the art and history of the Gargano Peninsula. The city had appeared even before the arrival of the Romans. Today it is the main resort on the peninsula. There is a bizarre rock carved by the wind named Pizzomunno on the Castello beach (Italian: Spiaggia di Castello). The historic center of Vieste stretches to the sea. Vieste’s churches and buildings tell the story of the city’s long history. The cathedral Chiesa di San Francesco is one of the finest examples of 11th-century architecture in Apulia.
National park Gargano
High white rocks and cliffs surround the cities of Vieste and Manfredonia. There are also small rivers flowing with the banks covered with bright greenery. In 1991, the Gargano coast became a part of the national park (Italian: Parco Nazionale del Gargano), covering 120,000 hectares. Not only the coast is protected, but also the nearby forests and fields. Gargano is rich in biological diversity. More than 2000 plant species, 1/3 of all growing in Italy, as well as 2/3 of the country’s fauna, can be found here. Gargano’s nature has not changed for centuries. This can be seen in its pristine beauty even nowadays.
Along the rocky coast of Gargano National Park, there are a couple of dozen hotels with fantastic pebble beaches. We have assessed a wonderful beach Spiaggia di Baia dei Mergoli giving it nine out of ten points. Why not ten might you ask? As it turned out in practice, the following everyday story is common for places with such amazing nature! Many hotels in the national park border on magnificent bays, which can only be reached by passing through their territory. Officially, such hotels are to let those wishing to get to the public beach. But, as you have probably guessed, they do not follow this rule. However, it is possible to formally request a pass from the municipality of the city of Mattinata (the link). If your hotel is on the second line, it must have an agreement with the one in front. And you will be brought to and fro by a buggy. Lifts are available on the beaches.
You can also rent a mini-yacht in the local porticos on the beaches if we can call them like that. It turns out that many archaeological findings have been discovered along the rocky coast of Gargano National Park in secluded crevices. In ancient times, fishermen lived in sea caves, then pirates and smugglers hid their loot here. And now we can only admire the whimsical play of light and colors on white rocks by the turquoise sea with golden sand!
Bari – the capital without the capital’s gloss
Tradition meets modernity in the capital of Apulia. The historic city of Bari is on the peninsula called Bari Vecchia. There are avenues and buildings south of the medieval center dating back to the early 19th century. Today Bari is the largest city in southern Italy.
In ancient Rome, the city was considered an important political, economic and cultural center. Bari became a place of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages. The Cathedral Duomo di Bari, erected to Saint Sabino, is a fine example of the Romanesque style. During the early Middle Ages, Bari was a part of the Byzantine Empire.
In the streets of Bari, time and identity have come to a standstill. Clothes are dried on the clothesline, children play noisily, signors conduct dialogues in the cool shade, and in the narrow streets, women make a local type of pasta in the form of small shells called orecchiette.
On the land side, the capital and several other nearby towns are adorned with wheat fields and the sun-scorched slopes of the Alta Murgia hills. The hills of Alta Murgia are infinitely beautiful! The national park Parc national de l’Alta Murgia is located on this territory and occupies 70 thousand hectares of steppes and semi-deserts. Wild orchids grow, and birds of prey live here. The landscape of Murgia is cut by grabens. Graben refers to deep crevices along streams as a result of limestone rock erosion.
Polignano a Mare – a city from a postcard
Another famous resort town Polignano a Mare was founded during the Greek colonization. The houses of the historic center stand on the cliffs and the waves almost break on their roofs during a storm. Houses here are like seashells molded on the cliff, which try to gain a foothold at least somehow! Narrow streets lined with whitewashed houses and fences meander from the sea.
Our journey will continue across the plains of Valle d’Itria with quaint Italian houses called trulli (Italian, plural). These houses have an original conical stone roof that can be disassembled and reassembled within a short time. Their design helped to evade a housing tax. In ancient times, buildings that had a roof were considered living quarters. Thus, when the tax officer appeared on the horizon, they were instantly dismantled. In addition to this artful uniqueness, this roof structure helps to keep warmth in winter and make it cool in summer even nowadays. A surprising fact is that the roof of a trullo can easily withstand even an earthquake, not containing any mortar at all.
Trulli houses are approximately 400-500 years old. It may seem that there is little space inside, though this is deceptive. The total area of such houses is usually about 140 m2. Rounded walls are combined, forming full-fledged rooms. The unobstructed tapered roof creates additional space at the top to compensate for low walls. These houses are deprived only of sunlight since the windows are tiny and placed on the very roof. Most trulli have a small backyard garden or terrace to compensate lack of light.
The fort city of Ostuni
The white-stone fortress walls of the city of Ostuni are visible from afar. There are olive groves like the sea all-around at the entrance to Ostuni! Few people had known about the existence of this small white town on the hills until the fashion designer Giorgio Armani declared that Ostuni, in his opinion, is the most beautiful city in Italy. Now there are a lot of tourists in the city. The city is beautiful indeed! Like all cities in Italy, it begins to live a completely different life with the onset of the evening!
The golden city of Lecce
The city of Lecce is called the city of Baroque. The beauty of its buildings is compared to Florence. This city is also called golden owing to the special color of the stone, most of the buildings are built here. This stone is a local limestone called poor marble. However, over time it takes a soft yellow and amber color.
The city of Lecce is beautiful and rich in monuments of architecture from different eras, starting from Ancient Rome. Apulian Baroque does not sparkle with gilding or excessive luxury. It is covered with a layer of time! At the same time, Lecce is a lively and modern city, where there are always crowds of people in the evenings, and atmospheric music sounds from cafes and restaurants.
Italians cannot live a day without fresh pastries made in pasticherias. The dessert pride of Lecce is pasticciotto which should go in pair with a local drink of cold coffee with almond milk and ice cubes.
Another product that Southern Italy is associated with is cheese. Locals love different types of cheese: “mozzarella“, “ricotta“, “burrata” and few of them will go to buy cheese in the supermarket because real cheese is made only by masters with their own hands.
Be sure to try the local tarallo. These are small bagels made from flour with olive oil, white wine, and salt. You can also find other ingredients in the delicious taralli.
Most of the countryside is with typical Apulia farms. Initially, ordinary farmers used to live in such houses. In the Middle Ages, the farms built near the sea were turned into fortresses to protect against Turkish raids. Later they were transformed into landlord villas or hotels. We were staying in one of such houses named Masseria Berzario.
Visiting a farm in Apulia, you will immerse yourself in the peasant tradition and taste the local cuisine. Locals appreciate the charm of elegant simplicity and during lunch, they will offer you the very best that this land has. Their houses are nestled among olive trees, almonds, and chestnuts and they cook only traditional dishes here, in the villages on the coast. This is something in-between living by the sea and relaxing in the countryside.
Apulia is famous for its olive oil. Centuries of experience in olive cultivation contribute to the creation of quality olive oil. “The most important thing is the care and experience that is passed down from generation to generation as a valueless heritage,” says the owner of the villa. “We do not only harvest but also prune trees twice a year. Good oil, like wine, can only be made in the countryside!” These traditions are an integral part of the life of this region. Italo adds: “I would say that without oil, Apulia would not be Apulia! We produce a high-quality product and we need to take care of the environment of the region. If the oil loses its status, then we will have to leave unprotected these big, magnificent trees that adorn Apulia!”
The beaches on the Salento peninsula
Visitors to the southern part of Apulia enjoy the comfort of choosing between two different seas: the Ionian Sea on the west side and the Adriatic Sea on the east side. An advantage of accommodation in the middle of the Salento Peninsula is the opportunity to relax on both seas at once! Both are half an hour away. Another bonus is the ability to maneuver during windy days on a particular sea. If the wind is northern Tramontana, then it is better to rest on the Ionian coast, and during the southeast wind Scirocco, you had better go to the Adriatic Sea. According to residents, the exception to this rule is the beaches from Otranto to Santa Maria di Leuca. This coastline has the same wind conditions as the Ionian Sea, although geographically, it belongs to the Adriatic side.
The Italian Maldives are in the Ionian Sea. Their location stretches in a long strip from the city of Gallipoli (from the Lido Conchiglie beach and below the city) up to Marina di Pescoluse (the beach Lido Maldive del Salento). The color of the water is amazing! The sand is white and tiny. The shallow water from the coast creates a Maldivian visual beauty with turquoise waters. Rest here is suitable for families with small children and people who cannot swim.
As I mentioned at the beginning of my travel blog, in the Italian Maldives, you can find beaches, either equipped with all amenities or not. I would like to note that, apparently, due to the popularity of these Maldives, it was very crowded here during our stay, in contrast to the beaches located in the north of Apulia. The same is with the beach life. If on the Tremiti Island and in the Gargano National Park, the beach life was more natural and peaceful, here, it was noisy, active, and filled with various catering near the beaches. And you certainly won’t do without meeting and having fun with the Italians from the north! The density of development and choice of housing near the sea in the southern part of Apulia is becoming significantly denser. You can explore each beach in the Ionian Sea of the Salento Peninsula in more detail by following the link.
The beaches of the Salento Peninsula, located in the Adriatic Sea, differ in their coastline in cliffs, coves, a narrow strip of coast, and pebbles instead of sand. The water, of course, is also clear, green, and turquoise. You can feel the presence of depth on the Adriatic coast at once. In some places, it is allowed to jump off the cliffs.
Baia dei Turchi beach is a good choice for those who like to walk through the pine forest before swimming. You should bear in mind that the sandy part of this beach is rather narrow and the capacity is limited. Parking here is paid and also limited by the availability of free spaces. A regular bus is for those who want to take a break from the distant parking, located near the highway.
The extreme southern point is the city of Santa Maria di Leuca
My story ends with a short tour along with the bustling seaside resort of Santa Maria di Leuca, where the Ionian Sea meets the Adriatic. In this small town, there are many luxurious villas made in the Moorish style and built during the heyday of the Fr. l’Art nouveau.
The city is on a promontory, where jagged and rocky cliffs alternate with beautiful sandy coves and natural caves, divided into western and eastern. Some of them, like Grotta delle Tre Porte, can be reached along the coast. However, you will need some water transport to get to most of the caves.