5 Reasons Puglia is Italy’s Hidden Gem
Located in the heel of Italy’s boot, the region of Puglia is an experience like no other.
Puglia features baroque cathedrals carved from ancient limestone. Rolling hillsides and vineyards. Sleepy seaside towns. Here, every city—big or small—feels like your own Italian hometown.
Really Learn Italian with the Locals
While students flock to urban centers like Rome, Florence, and Milan to study abroad in Italy, cities in Puglia (stylized as “Apulia” in English) remain unnoticed opportunities for cultural immersion. In this part of the Southern Peninsula, in English with shopkeepers and passersby are far less common than bigger cities.
Schools like the Università del Salento in Lecce offer programs for intensive language study, but you’ll hear Italian most places you go. During most of the year, traveling in the South forces you to practice your Italian. It can be intimidating to communicate, but residents are welcoming to those who actively participate in conversation—locals appreciate even basic Italian.
Go Baroque in Lecce
Southern Italy is the textbook definition of picturesque. The city of Lecce is called “the Florence of the South” for its buildings carved from yellow-white Leccese stone in the traditional baroque style. The Cattedrale di Lecce and the Basilica di San Croce are just as ornate and stunning as the Duomo di Santa Maria del Fiori in Florence—with almost 100% fewer selfie sticks.
Looking for something more rustic? About a two hour train from Lecce is Alberobello. Here you’ll find homes built without mortar with cone-shaped roofs called trulli. Alberobello is a quaint UNESCO World Heritage Site where trulli date back to the 14th century. The architecture is far simpler than what you’d see in Milan or Florence, but the simplicity makes Alberobello another timeless place in Italy.
Take It Easy
In cities like Lecce and Otranto, businesses (such as restaurants, bars, pastry shops) close for a lunch period from 1 – 4 pm before re-opening for evening hours. This break completely rejuvenates the day; workers can go home for lunch with their families, then rest until returning to work a few more hours. In the Southern peninsula, the work-life balance seems easier to achieve—at least from the outside looking in!
You may explore the city during these periods of lull, but don’t be disappointed by how quiet it becomes. The piazza will soon fill back up as citizens transition from working to relaxing. Unlike the United States, dinner is hardly ever before 9 pm and consists of multiple courses, even if it’s just a family affair. Nightlife is still very much alive in bigger cities within the region. Hole-in-the-wall Irish pubs to craft breweries to American style bars abound in Lecce.
Eat the Best Comfort Food
All Italian food is top-notch, but Southern Italian food manages to be the right amount of comforting and familiar.
Pastichiotto is a custard-filled pastry that is everything you’ve ever wanted in a dessert. It’s typical of the region and can be found in almost any café bar or pastry shop. Circular crackers called tarallini are the Italian equivalent of pretzels or breadsticks—the perfect bar snack to complement wine,cheese, or fresh olives.
In Bari and Gallipoli, fresh seafood rules the menu. Mussels and pasta go together effortlessly in these fishing towns. Love pasta? Puglia has its own signature pasta called orecchiette, “little ears,” traditionally paired with a tomato sauce (sugo). Less messy than linguine, lighter than gnocchi, this simple pasta must be experienced by anyone traveling to Puglia.
Roam Stunning Coastlines
Italy’s beaches are severely underrated. Fishing towns like Otranto, Bari, and Gallipoli depend on the coastlines for their livelihood and are also home to some of the best seafood in Europe. These towns meld Mediterranean seascapes and colors with everything else Italian.
Visit Torre dell’ Orso in Salento, a sandy beach where resorts are built into jutting limestone. Or, journey to Santa Maria di Leuca, the southernmost tip of Italy where the Adriatic and Ionian Seas mingle together. The result? The breathtaking experience of being at the edge of the world, torn between white sand and dramatic cliffs.