In the “Heel of the Boot”: Our Puglia road trip itinerary
Cone-topped circular stone buildings (trulli), ancient cities on hilltops, white sand beaches, brilliant blue sea water, and olive groves galore – those are just a few of the sights you’ll see traveling the Puglia region of Italy on a road trip.
When I first published my series of articles about Puglia, many people had not previously heard of the region, and I was happy to make the introduction. I thought providing a map, general schedule of our activities and locations, and links to previous articles for detail would be useful for people considering a similar visit to this wonderful part of Italy.
Using this itinerary, you might tweak the routes a bit, explore other points of interest and attractions, and stay in different masseria (country lodgings in former farm house communities) and hotels — there are many to choose from. This itinerary covered about 500 miles and worked well for meeting our goal of getting an introduction to Puglia. Though it didn’t allow us to spend a great deal of time in any one place, we came away feeling that we captured the essence of the region and we fell in love with Puglia from what we saw.
Our routes weren’t always the most direct and we sometimes backtracked in order to see something in particular. I would have been happy zig-zagging in any number of ways around the region — always happy to be on the move and looking around, especially in a place that holds so much lusty appeal.
Consider this a practical companion piece to the related posts about Puglia on the blog to inspire and inform as you start planning your own personal Puglia road trip experience.
Driving tip: Be prepared for occasional wild rides on the highways of Puglia. I never feared as I was totally confident in our local driver, Carlo Romano. A two-lane road functions more like a three-lane road with cars in both directions passing others giving the appearance of a potential head-on collision. But everyone understands and plays by the same rules, and we soon just got used to it. I might even give driving a try on my next visit, but limited parking in many towns is another reason to consider a private driver.
Note: Mileages noted in this post are approximate.
Andiamo! Let’s go!
Day One – Foggia to Vieste via Parco Nazionale del Gargano and Monte Sant’Angelo, 70 miles
Drive: We arrived in Foggia from the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna by train (a pleasant scenic route along the Adriatic Sea). From the station, we quickly made our way to our first appointment, a guided tour. We sped along a busy highway taking in the scenery of dry, sun-drenched landscape dotted with ancient olive trees. Turning off the main highway, the scenery changed as we entered Parco Nazionale del Gargano surrounded by dense pine trees. The forest presented a climate and terrain different from any other we saw in Puglia.
Must visit: Beyond the forest on top of the mountains, we arrived at Mont Sant’Angelo where we had a guided tour of the castle and the Shrine of St. Michael. The castle had defended against of a succession of invasions of dominations since the time it was built in the 9th century to defend the Sanctuary of Saint Michael the Archangel where it is said that St. Michael appeared during the 5th century. The castle was of great importance during the Crusades because it was a key stop on the route to the Holy Land.
Stroll and stay: Our first night in Puglia was spent in at the popular Hotel degli Aranci in Vieste. From the small balcony of our room, I took some time to enjoy the view over the rooftops of nearby buildings to the Adriatic and its tempting smooth waters. I could have stayed there sipping Prosecco for a long time, but the old town beckoned. Vieste is a city that bustles with locals and tourists, many of whom arrive by cruise ship. Although you’ll see plenty of souvenir shops, the old town retains a charming ambiance especially on quiet side streets and alleys away from the crowds.
Day Two – Vieste to Alberobello, 175 miles
Drive and savor the view: Continuing our path around the perimeter of the forest from Vieste we enjoyed vistas of the Adriatic coastline where boats traverse the clear blue waters.
Must visit: Back in the valley, near the city of Trani, we were treated to another landmark, Castel del Monte, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From the outside, this octagon-shaped castle is a dominant feature of the area on a hilltop. But inside, we saw its real beauty, unique design, and intricate stonework as we explored the many chambers on three levels.
Dine: I never tire of dining al fresco even on a hot afternoon when many are keeping cool inside. While having lunch at Convivio in Trani at about 2:00 p.m. we felt quite alone eating our lunch under an umbrella on the sidewalk, but I was relishing the heat, delicious pasta, and a crisp white wine.
Reflect and climb: We walked off our lunch calories in town, stopping to visit Cattedrale di San Nicola Pellegrino, the cathedral named for St. Nicholas the Pilgrim. Positioned right on the waterfront, it is one of the prettiest settings for a church that I saw in Italy. A climb up the bell tower presented fantastic views of the town and the Adriatic Sea.
Stop and savor: We took Carlo’s advice and stopped by a fruit stand where we were not only able to get amazing fresh cherries, but we enjoyed meeting the vendor whose sincere and friendly nature was infectious.
Dine and Stay: Driving past the many trulli in the Valle d’Itria and in the town of Alberobello (famous for the cone-topped trulli structures), we reached our destination for the night at Victor Country Hotel, a masseria located just outside of town in a rural setting. There are also very mysterious (and rumored to be haunted) abandoned old buildings and trulli on the property that will grab your attention.
Day Three – Alberobello to Ostuni with visits to Locorotondo, Cisternino, and Martina Franca, 50 miles
Dine and shop in trulli: We enjoyed excellent food and service at L’Aratro Restaurant in Alberobello which included what was probably my favorite orecchiette pasta in Puglia. Orecchiette is a distinctive pasta of the Puglia region named such because of its shape which resembles an ear (“orecchia”). L’Aratro’s owner, Domenico Laera, is a lively, friendly character as you might expect in this land of sun-baked cobblestone streets flanked by trulli. Alberobello is a busy tourist attraction and there are plenty of small shops selling souvenirs, but among them you’ll find appealing local wares and get a chance to talk to the shop owners.
Walk around town: Perhaps it’s the Mediterranean climate, but nearly everyone we met as we walked along the streets of Alberobello and three other beautiful cities of Puglia’s Valle d’Itria – Locorotondo, Cisternino, and Martina Franca seemed easy-going and exuding a love of life. Passing residents as they quietly moved about their lives in the narrow lanes and alleys, I was getting a feeling for life in these old cities and it was a highlight of the trip for me. I would have liked to spend a couple of days in each town, but took in as much as I could with just a couple of hours instead.
Must-see: A key attraction in Martina Franca is the baroque 17th century Palazzo Ducale in the Piazza Roma near the entrance to the town’s historic district. Once a castle, it now houses the city hall as well as a museum, but the former royal apartments can still be toured.
Drive: We ended our day in Ostuni, aptly nicknamed “The White City” because of the stacks of white-washed buildings built on the hilltop that create such a commanding sight.
Dine and stay in rural luxury: Just outside of Ostuni, we stayed in another masseria, Masseria Il Frantoio, in the middle of ancient olive trees, many gnarled with age (hundreds of years old) yet still producing delectable olives. The old renovated farm house and outer buildings have much character. The meals served here outside in the courtyard by candlelight were wonderful in their preparation, creativity and I loved the ambiance.
Day Four – Ostuni to Guna Beach, 20 miles
Sun and sip: For Mr. TWS, a day at the beach is heaven. I rather enjoy it myself. At Guna Beach in Brindisi, it was quite windy and a bit cool for me to feel like swimming, but I loved feasting my eyes on the Adriatic where wind surfers were taking advantage of the strong breezes while I sipped an Aperol Spritz.
Dance: Well, I didn’t dance the traditional Pizzicarella or Taranta at the festival in Ostuni, but you should and I will next time. However, we totally enjoyed being among the festive crowd, listening to music by an Italian favorite, Tony Esposito. Many festivals are held throughout Puglia in the summer. Back at the masseria quite late, we crept up the stairs to our room and suddenly realized that we were more than halfway through our Puglia trip. Time was passing way too quickly.
Day Five – Ostuni to Lecce with visits to Gallipoli and Galatina, 105 miles
Taste: The city of Gallipoli is on the Ionian coast of Puglia. There we enjoyed wine tasting at Cantina Coppola and took a tour of Camping La Masseria, a camping and lodging resort adjacent to the vineyard. More al fresco dining made me happy at La Giudecca where we ate fresh seafood and pasta with a view of the harbor and sea.
Stroll some more: Walking around towns in Puglia is a must and I loved our short, but sweet stroll through the streets of Gallipoli and along the waterfront embracing the sultry feel of this city.
Get lost: Galatina is another of those wonderful Italian towns where you can easily lose your way in a maze of narrow streets. At one point, I asked directions of a lovely resident who tried very hard to give me directions which I tried to follow, but continued to lose my way. That wasn’t a problem, because I could have stayed happily lost in that town for a long time.
Must-see: The beautiful frescoes of the Basilica of St. Catherine of Alexandria (no photos allowed inside, however) and in the courtyard of the adjacent convent captured my attention and imagination. We were also enthralled by many frames with lights that we saw throughout the city (and others in Puglia, too) that are lit at night for the summer festivals.
Stay: In the baroque city of Lecce (“The Florence of the South”) we stayed for two nights at Hotel President, a modern hotel in the city just outside of the old town. The location was great as it was an easy walk from there to the main squares and historic sites. In the evenings, many couples and families were out walking with gelato in hand. Lecce is a vibrant city — youthful with its population of university students and young professionals, yet full of ancient history.
Walk into history: We walked in the footsteps of the ancient Romans in the old town. Even though I had read about the Roman amphitheater ruins of Lecce, I was surprised when I came across them sunken below street level not visible from other parts of the thriving Sant’Oronzo piazza.
Lecce Cathedral is stunning inside and out. At night the the exterior is lit by the most lovely lights. There are several other churches in Lecce that are important landmarks, including the Church of the Holy Cross.
Day Six – Lecce to Otranto to Balnearea Beach, 55 miles
Must visit: Yes, another castle to visit. Castello Aragonese Otranto has a captivating view of the shoreline and boats bobbing in the harbor. Inside, along with historical artifacts, there are art exhibitions. Then take a walk to Otranto Cathedral to admire the beautifully intricate ceiling and floor designs as well as a shocking display of skulls behind the altar.
Sun and swim: At Balnearea Beach near Otranto, we had our second taste of fun in the sun and mild surf of the Adriatic. Having now been to two of the enticing beaches of Puglia, I know that Mr. TWS would be hanging out in and near the water all summer long if he had the chance. We didn’t go hungry there either as multiple course of fresh seafood were served at the beach restaurant.
Day Seven – Lecce to Bari via Polignano a Mare, 95 miles
Drive: On our way north from Lecce to Bari, I felt a tug of nostalgia as we passed road signs for some of the towns we had visited during our week in Puglia. I considered the contrast between the wide modern highway and the small towns, olive groves, and beaches that were off the main track. It didn’t seem possible that it was time to go home.
Driving along the waterfront near Bari, we passed by fisherman pulling seafood (in this case octopi) right out of the water and stopped by the local fish market where mussels were being cleaned and stacked on the countertop.
Indulge: Gelato — of course. This was our last stop for gelato in Puglia, and we chose a very good place for it as verified by Carlo, a gelato expert.
Sing: Domenico Modugno, a native of Polignano co-wrote and recorded the song Volare — meaning “to fly”. There was something about being in Polignano on that hot summer day, the last of our days in Puglia, that made me want to sing my heart out at the statue of Modugno. I actually resisted the urge, but next time I will belt out every word!
Must see – the gritty city: Bari’s old town has a reputation for crime and I think many tourists avoid it because of that. I probably wouldn’t go there at night or without a knowledgeable guide like Carlo. But I’m glad that we got this glimpse of a different, grittier, and exciting side of Bari.
Must see – the sacred beauty: From the bustle and noise of the piazza, we stepped inside the Basilica di San Nicole. Quietly, so as not to disturb Mass, we walked along the side corridors looking up at the ornate Romanesque design features. In the crypt, another service was in progress as we examined the relics, artifacts, and mosaics.
Sleep: For our final night in Puglia, we stayed at the Hotel Sheraton Nicolaus in Bari to be close to the airport for our flight in the early morning. It’s a very nice hotel, but surrounded by business travelers in this modern setting, we felt that we had already left the authentic Puglia behind. We had a quick dinner at a nearby pizzeria before returning to our room to pack for our early morning flight.
Final morning – Bari to Bari Palese International Airport, 10 miles
We woke early for our final ride with Carlo, this time to the airport. I wasn’t really ready to leave, but it was the end of the road for this trip.
Plan: That morning I made a promise to myself to come back to further explore the region. It’s a promise I intend to keep.
Are you ready to hit the road in Puglia?
I guess this old motorbike on the property of Masseria il Frantoio in Ostuni isn’t a great option for a road trip, but I like to think about the stories it could tell about traveling along the roads of Puglia in days gone by.
Grazie mille to Puglia Promozione for making our road trip possible.