The beautiful region of Puglia in southern Italy is just perfect for a road trip. Puglia has it all; rolling countryside, miles of gorgeous beaches, vibrant towns and delicious local produce. This cool, laid-back and unspoilt part of Italy is an awesome road trip destination.
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Puglia - Best Road Trip Itinerary
Driving in Puglia
This is a seven day Puglia, Italy road trip, staring in the coastal city of Taranto and ending at the fascinating Castel del Monte in Andria. If you don’t have seven days to spare then check out this 4 days in Puglia road trip. Our Puglia Italy itinerary and travel guide will take you to all the best places to see and stay, and provide handy tips and facts so you get the most from your Southern Italy road trip.
Car rental for travel around Puglia is easy at Bari and Brindisi airports, both on the east coast of Puglia. Bari is a 90 minute drive from the start point of Taranto, across typical Puglia countryside. If this is your first time driving in Puglia or Italy, be prepared for the poor condition of some roads and erratic driving style of the locals, check out our driving in Italy tips before you go.
Puglia Road Trip Map
DISTANCE | 540km
DURATION | 7 days
DRIVE TIME | 8 – 9 hours
WHEN TO GO | all year round
PLACES VISITED | 8
4. Santa Maria di Leuca
8 Castello del Monte
Puglia Road Trip Itinerary
Pick up your rental car at Bari airport and head east to your first stop of Taranto. Bari does have a gorgeous old town and some pretty good beaches close by, so if you have time you could stop for a day or so, especially if you’re recovering from a long flight. If you do stay, make sure to check out the local street food scene, distinctive and quite different from standard Italian fare.
Taranto is home of the Tarantella, Italy’s lively and graceful folk dance. It was alleged that victims of the tarantula’s bite could cure themselves by frenzied dancing which sweated out the poison. The dance is characterised by light, quick steps and a teasing flirt and only takes place privately in Taranto at 6am on 29th June, every year to celebrate the Feast of St Peter and St Paul. It is the only known place where the dance has survived.
The picturesque Città Vecchia is an island dividing the Mare Grande (big sea) from the Mare Piccolo (little sea) and was the site of the Roman citadel, Tarentum. The old town today is still laid out as it was in 967AD. There are now less than 1,000 people living in Città Vecchia, in a city of some 200,000 residents. The Duomo, founded in 1071, has been the object of much subsequent rebuilding and includes a catacomb-like crypt with sarcophagi and painted frescoes. Behind the Duomo is the 11th century San Domenico Maggiore with its high, double approach Baroque staircase.
Castello Aragonese, the huge castle built by Frederick of Aragon in the 15th century, dominates the eastern corner of Città Vecchia. This is an impressive castle, steeped in local history and currently in the middle of a large scale restoration project. The only way you can visit the castle, is to have a guided tour, only in Italian; it is worth doing the tour to see the views from the battlements and the interesting restoration work. The tour is free of charge, you can find out more here.
Wander the streets, soak up the atmosphere and people watch to your heart’s content, then head for the lively fish market for lunch. Held in a magnificent Art Deco building, you can buy and eat the fabulous and abundant shellfish, for which Taranto is famous.
Stay at Histò San Pietro Sul Mar Piccolo for five star luxury, superb service and elegant Italian style. One of the best hotels in Puglia, there’s also a fabulous spa, making this a great place to start your Puglia holidays!
Gallipoli is one of the best towns in Puglia, a charming small port town on the west coast of the heel. Head for the small island across the Ponte Papa Giovanni II and you’ll find a vibrant and busy tangle of streets and alleys; there is an old world feel here, you can easily imagine what it must have been like 50 years ago.
Head off the main arteries and into the mass of houses, churches and small family run restaurants to experience the real Gallipoli. Whitewashed walls, covered in bouganvillia and wisteria, with the plaster chipping off, just add to the charm. There are numerous small churches and chapels, all with extraordinary doors, often carved from one piece of wood. Gallipoli is a photographer’s dream, every alley has an angle, every corner a surprise. You could wander for hours here and never get lost; just keep going and eventually you’ll get to the sea!
Head for the Basilica Cattedrale di Sant’Agata. The cathedral sits on the highest point of the island and has an incredibly ornate exterior. The interior is also ornate but where the outside is softened by the colour of the stone and natural light, the inside is dark and feels a little forbidding, but the craftsmanship and dedication that goes into such buildings never fails to impress.
This coast is known for its fabulous beaches. If you want to stretch your Puglia road trip to 10 days, why not take some time to enjoy the best of Puglia’s beaches on your road trip? Stay Ciao have a great Puglia beaches guide which tells you all you need to know!
Santa Maria di Leuca
Santa Maria di Leuca, often referred to as simply Leuca, is at the southernmost point of the heel and sits on a promontory between the Ionian and Adriatic seas. The Greeks called this place Leukos, meaning ‘brilliant sun’, little knowing it would become one of the most popular beach destinations and must-see place on any Puglia itinerary.
Leuca was a simple local fishing village until the end of the 19th century when tourists started to visit, attracted by the crystal clear waters and beautiful scenery. Many wealthy southern Italians made Leuca their summer residence and they build large and ornate villas which still decorate the seafront. Today, Leuca is a popular resort which has maintained an upscale feel.
Head up to the lighthouse, which is the second most important in Italy after Genova. Next to the lighthouse sits the simple yet beautiful Basilica Sanctuary of Santa Maria de Finibus Terrae (end of the land), built to commemorate the passage of St. Peter here during his journey to Italy. The views from here are stunning and sunsets draw a big crowd, so go early and wait it out with a beer if you want the best views!
Puglia Travel Essentials
Evenings on the seafront are family orientated and busy. There are lots of food vans selling crepe, gelato and pizza along the promenade, as well as a number of restaurants and bars. There is a great atmosphere with families out together to enjoy the evening sun; there are usually a few surfers in the water if the waves are right. It’s a great place for an evening stroll before dinner or to enjoy an Aperol Spritz overlooking the water. Look out for the salt water pool, when the surf is up, the waves crashing against it are mesmerising.
Just above the port is the Cascata Monumentale Di Leuca, the last point of the Apulia Aqueduct, a project which was started in 1868 and was not finished until 1941. The cascata, which is 300 steps high, is not operated often and there is no set timetable, but you may be lucky during the summer months and even luckier to see a night operation where it is spectacularly lit. Check at the local Tourist Office for information.
There are a lot of sea caves to the east of Leuca which can only be explored by boat and all along the sea-front you will see signs for trips. You can visit Grotta Della Poesia (Cave of Poetry) by car from Leuca or Lecca, this gorgeous and dramatic swimming hole is located in Roca Vecchia and well worth a detour with your towel and swimmers in the boot!
Italy Travel Ideas
Often called the Florence of the south, due to the beautifully carved stone pietra di Lecce, used in much of the 17th century Lecce Baroque style buildings. This is another must-see destination on your road trip of Puglia.
Head for the old town, to the west of the castle. Coming from the castle, you will arrive in the Piazza Sant’Oronzo, complete with a partially visible Roman amphitheatre and a pretty dodgy 1970’s clock tower which rather spoils the effect. This is a great place for lunch, spending an hour or so with a tasty pizza and glass of local wine means you can absorb the beauty of the pale pietra di Leccastone at your leisure.
Continue west along Via Vittorio Emanuele; enjoy the shops, gelatarias and cafes along the route before turning into the magnificent Piazza Duomo to see, you guessed it, the Duomo. The piazza not only houses the Duomo but the Palazzo Vescovile, a 70m campanile and a seminary, built by Lo Zingarello in the 1600’s.
You will have to pay €5 to visit the Duomo…sometimes you can see too many churches, but the medieval crypt in this one is worth the entry fee. Studded with over 100 columns in serried ranks, the crypt is beautifully simple, the columns carved intricately and so differently to the fussy Baroque style in the cathedral above.
Further along Via Vittorio Emanuele you will find paper-mâché workshops, Lecce’s other claim to fame.
Other must-sees in Lecce are;
- Porta Rudiae, the 18th century city gate through which everyone who entered the city in ancient times would have passed.
- Santa Croce, the church built between 1549-1679 which has a stunning rose window by Lo Zingarello.
- Chiesa del Rosario, said to be Lo Zingarello’s finest work, with an ornate and detailed exterior.
- The 16th century Castello which has one floor open to the public.
- Take a day trip from Lecce to the beach at Torre dell’Orso, a beautiful long stretch of sandy beach with clear turquoise water.
If you’ve had enough of churches and religious buildings, wander the back streets of the old town not forgetting to look up at the fabulous architecture. Often you will catch a glimpse of everyday life which helps give the city context; washing hanging out to dry; residents enjoying a coffee and watching the world go by from their balcony; exotic plants grown in pots on rooftop terraces.
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Built atop a hill, you will see Ostuni in the distance as you drive through the lush Valle d’Itria. The so called La Citta Bianca (the white city) is a maze of alleys, stairs, dead ends and glimpses of the Adriatic.
Head for the old town, the citadel at the top of the hill is still fortified by the ancient walls. This is where you will see the white walls and white painted buildings which give the town its name.
Ostuni is a town made for wandering. Make sure you wander in the morning or late afternoon after the long lunch break, this is when the town is at it’s most vibrant and lively. Consider taking a walking tour here, because of the maze like nature of the citadel, it is easy to miss the best sights. Stop often for gelato and coffee to soak up the atmosphere.
Head up to the 15th century cathedral at the top of the citadel and then on to Corso Vittorio Emanuele II to take in the sunset over the Adriatic, one of the best we’ve seen.
From Ostuni the itinerary takes you inland to Alberobello, but if you have a day to spare and fancy some beach time, head to Polignano al Mare, about 40 minutes away. Hit the chic and incredibly picturesque Lama Monachile beach and chill for the day.
From Lecce, head inland towards Alberobello, passing the pretty town of Martina Franca on the way, well worth a stop if you’re not in a hurry. The approach to Alberobello through the Itria Valley is one of the best scenic drives in Puglia, rolling countryside full of perfectly planted rows of olive trees and vines and fields full of wild flowers begging to be photographed.
Alberobello is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home of the famous trulli houses; a distinctive circular building with a conical roof. Trulli are built from local limestone stacked without using mortar. The walls and openings are generally whitewashed and the stone roof tiles often have religious, pagan or magical symbols painted on them. The origins of the trulli are obscure although the name is also applied to ancient ground tombs found in the Roman countryside.
We found the trulli site a little Disneyesque and much preferred the rural trulli houses found in the Murge dei Trulli; they somehow seemed to sit better in the natural surroundings. A walking tour is a good way of understanding the history and architecture of the trulli houses and seeing some of the off the beaten track highlights. Check out this post about the Alberobello Trulli where you can find out more of the history of these fascinating dwellings.
Head for Antica Salumeria del Corso, a fabulous deli with a tasting room. The owner is passionate and enthusiastic about the local produce and will give you spot-on suggestions and descriptions for your lunch. Go there and eat lots of fabulous local produce and drink a glass of local wine…you wont regret it.
A Note about Olive Trees
As you vacation in Puglia, admiring the beautiful scenery and perfectly laid out vineyards and olive groves, spare a thought for the farmers, families and communities which are being decimated by a disease that is currently rampant in Salento and killing olive trees in their millions.
Xylella fastidiosa is considered one of the most dangerous plant bacteria in the world by the The European Commission. It’s carried from tree to tree by a little bug. Olive oil from an infected tree is still safe to consume, but the tree soon dries up, and is no longer able to produce olives.
Everywhere we went in Salento we saw olive grove upon olive grove of dead or dying olive trees. Where you would expect to look across a carpet of silver green leaves, now all you see are brown twigs. Many trees have been cut down and burnt to try and prevent the spread. It is a tragic sight, knowing how generations of farmers have loved their trees like children, and that their loss will be life-changing.
You can read more about this devastating disease and its’ impact here.
Castel del Monte
The last stop on this Puglia road trip, but by no means the least. Located remotely in the endless plains near Ruvo de Puglia, getting to Castel del Monte takes you on a spectacular cross-country drive.
This remarkable castle, built by Frederick II in the mid-13th centuary, outclasses all his other castles. It is one of the most sophisticated secular buildings of the Middle Ages. Frederick II had broad intellectual interests and used this castle as a hunting lodge, where he was able to retire from court life with his falcons and books.
Inside there are two floors, each with rib-vaulted rooms, some still lined with marble. The building is geometrical and octagonal in shape with a central courtyard and the rooms arranged around the outside. It is not known why such precise planning was required for the castle but it certainly makes it interesting to visit.
The walk to the castle from the car park at the bottom of the hill takes about 20 minutes. The first eight to ten minutes is on a tarmac footpath, the remainder through the tranquil woods. Arriving in this way gives a sense of what it would have been like when in use, surrounded by woodlands with enticing glimpses of the very pale stone of the castle through the lush green trees. The 360° views of the surrounding countryside and distant Abruzzo mountains make it clear as to why Frederick II chose to build here.
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