Propping up southern Italy as the heel to the country’s boot, Puglia has a history of being overlooked by travellers looking to discover the beauty of Italian life by the sea – the lure of the lemon-scented Amalfi coast often being the preferred destination. That’s all changed over the last decade though, and it’s not hard to see why. With its endless beaches, opulent castles and churches, enchanting national parks and beautiful coastal towns filled with tradition and charm, the area has everything any visitor would want in abundance.
Perhaps the most famous images of Puglia are of its colourful fishing boats floating just off shore on the dazzling Adriatic and Ionian seas – after all, this is an area dominated by coastlines, where locals fully understand the meaning of vita al mare. This of course means that there are plenty of beaches to visit in Puglia. Pescoluse, warmly known as the Maldives of Puglia, stretches out over 5km of powdery white sand and shallow waters, while Torre dell’Orso, with its crystal-clear water and two towering sea cliffs known as the Due Sorelle (two sisters), is one of the region’s most dramatic landscapes. Ask any locals though, and they’ll all mention Polignano a Mare, where sandy coves are surrounded by pretty towns and historic buildings, making for a spectacular coastal backdrop.
It may be a bit more inland, but if you’re looking for picturesque towns, you can’t do much better than Valle d’Itria. The area is home to strings of città bianche (white towns), gorgeous hilltop habitats that sparkle under the sun thanks to their trulli – miniature white houses topped with pointed domes that evoke the charm of days long gone. The best place to see them is surely Alberobello, a Unesco World Heritage area home to 1,400 trulli.
The architecture of Puglia is much more than just pretty homes though. Head to Lecce, and you’ll find countless gems of jaw-dropping baroque architecture. There’s the impressive Basilica di Santa Croce, with its swirling façade complete with gargoyles, cherubs, sheep and even dodos, as well as Giuseppe Zimbalo's most famous works – the beautiful cathedral and the thrusting, tiered bell tower, located nearby. Elsewhere there’s the mysterious Castel del Monte, built for unknown reasons in the 13th century, and the grand palazzos and ancient churches of Foggia.
If you’re after a more natural type of beauty, Puglia also delivers. The region’s countryside has always been its foundation – the source of its food, its wealth and its culture – and there’s plenty to explore, from sun-soaked fields to ancient forests. The Gargano national park is a festival of life, home to the imposing Mount Gargano, the Tremiti islands and the Umbra Forest, where animals build their homes amongst tall trees and picturesque lakes. Then there’s the Sentiero Airone nature reserve, home to Europe’s largest colony of pink flamingos.
Of course, you can’t discuss Puglia without mentioning the food. Seafood is obviously in abundance, but the region also produces much of Italy’s olive oil and large amounts of its fruits and vegetables. Most cooking in the area relies on simple recipes made with fresh local produce, and regional specialties include orecchiette, small homemade ear-shaped pasta, and canestrato pugliese, a celebrated cheese often grated on pasta. Meanwhile, the town of Altamura creates bread that is prized across Italy. Like with many other parts of life in Puglia, food is where tradition and community go hand in hand – families often eat lunch and dinner with their windows and doors open, filling the air with fragrance, and sometimes even inviting curious passers-by in for a bite.