From top to toe, Italy is filled with spectacular scenery and beautiful towns. So beautiful that it can be difficult to decide where to visit next! While Puglia is at times overlooked internationally, Italians have long followed the sea and sun to this southeastern region that is the heel of the peninsula’s posh boot.   

Travelers new to the region might wonder: is Puglia worth visiting? We’re here to answer with a resounding yes! 

Here’s why you should visit Puglia: 

The beaches   

With roughly 800 kilometers of coastline, it’s no surprise that Puglia has some of the best beaches in all of Italy. A peninsula within a peninsula, visitors can enjoy pristine beaches on the Ionian and Adriatic coasts. And they truly are pristine – Puglia’s beaches regularly win the Blue Flag, an international eco-label given to the cleanest, most environmentally sustainable beaches. From the “Maldives of Salento” to the views of the “Two Sisters” sea stack, visitors looking to mix cultural touring with the ease of the sea have dozens of gorgeous options to choose from in Puglia. 

Read more about the Best Beaches in Puglia

The trulli   

A village of the unique trulli houses in Puglia with white walls and conical roofs
Visit Puglia to tour the distinctive trulli in Alberobello. Image by Jacques Savoye from Pixabay

There is little more unique to Puglia than its famous trulli houses. These traditional Pugliese homes are ingenious conical structures built with entirely local materials. Unique to Puglia, the trulli are built without any mortar and are devised to be quick to build and quick to dismantle. They maintain a cool interior and the conical roofs lead to a central cistern, usually located under the house, to catch what little water Puglia gets.    

You can find them throughout the Itria Valley, but only in Alberobello can you find more than 1,500 trulli, many in use today and almost all in perfect condition. Today, Alberobello is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as an “exceptional Historic Urban Landscape.”   

The lifestyle   

Visit Puglia to tap into the slow, easy days of southern Italy. Puglia isn’t stuck in the past; it has simply maintained the healthiest aspects of a slower pace of life. Take a cue from the Pugliese and learn to linger over a meal, enjoy the warmth of the sun, gather friends or family around, and soak in a less frenetic atmosphere. It’s the perfect destination for travelers looking to travel slow. Relax and reconnect with nature with the freedom to explore and enjoy some of the most beautiful landscapes in Italy.   

The towns   

The beautiful beach in Polignano al Mare, Puglia

Puglia has a diverse geography and a unique history, both visible in its gorgeous towns and cities. Visit the quaint villages in the Itria Valley, including the trulli of Alberobello, nearby Locorotondo, Cisternino, and lively Martina Franca. There’s the atmospheric town of Polignano a Mare clinging to a rocky cliff over the Adriatic Sea and nearby Monopoli, the whitewashed city of Ostuni, Otranto on the Adriatic coast, and Gallipoli on the Ionian Sea.  

Visit Lecce, Salento’s historical and artistic center, and another UNESCO World Heritage site for its beautiful baroque architecture. And though Bari hasn’t traditionally been on the tourist trail, the recently renovated old town, burgeoning cultural spaces and lively nightlife have put the port city back on the map for many travelers.   

The food   

As in all of Italy, the food in Puglia is incredible.    

Known as the breadbasket of Italy thanks to its large production of durum wheat, Puglia’s pasta and bread are gastronomical staples. Most visitors have heard of the ubiquitous Pugliese orecchiette pasta, fresh pasta shaped like “little ears.” But there is so much more to Pugliese food than that!    

A little-known tradition is the “fornello pronto” in the Valle d’Itria, that is, butcher shops where you can order your meat and have them cook it for you on sight. Other street-food options throughout Puglia include the focaccia barese, fried panzerotto, or the rustico leccese, a puff pastry filled with mozzarella, bechamel sauce, tomato, and black pepper.   

Pugliese cuisine is historically very poor. In the past few could afford meat. Luckily, vegetables abound in this sun-kissed, fertile land. Here you can get fava and chicory prepared in a dozen different ways. Or simply ripe tomatoes with a fresh Pugliese burrata or simple grilled vegetables – all drizzled, of course, with Puglia’s famous olive oil.    

The olive oil   

Visit Puglia to see century-old olive trees

With approximately 60 million olive trees, there are more olive trees in Puglia than there are Italians in Italy. In the Valle d’Itria in particular, travelers can see hundreds of olive trees, including some more than 2,000 years old! Besides a liberal use of the delicious oil during meals, visitors can tour through the olive groves. Today, most of these ancient, millenarian olive trees can be found in the area between Monopoli, Ostuni, and Carovigno. Tour by car or, even better, hike or bike among the olive groves, moving from one town to another.  

The masserie   

Puglia’s cuisine and culture change as you move away from the coastline. In the countryside, the cuisine changes from the fresh fish of the coast and more to meat and vegetables. There, we can also find a treasure unique to the region: the masserie. Ancient structures dating from the 16th century, these farmhouses used to be the home of the massaro, or farmer. Today these masserie range from rustic, renovated farmhouses to luxury hotels. Traditionally agricultural, you can visit to stay the night or simply go for a traditional, kilometer-zero meal. Agriturismi can be found throughout Italy, but only in Puglia can you find them in the traditional style of a Pugliese masseria.    

The history  

Like much of southern Italy, Puglia was conquered by dozens of different civilizations. Its fertile land and strategic and commercial importance attracted the Greeks, Romans, Ostrogoths, and Byzantine Empire; the Normans, Frederick II, the Kingdom of Naples, the Aragonese, the Habsburgs, and … you get the idea.    

This unique and eclectic history left an imprint on Puglia that we can still see today. The Greeks founded Taranto. The Romans brought the long history of wheat, olive oil, and wine production to the region to feed the legions. Gallipoli is fortified thanks to the Byzantines. The Normans brought the relics of San Nicola to Bari and built the Basilica di San Nicola and the French created what is known today as Bari Vecchia. Each new kingdom deeply affected the peninsula’s architectural, agricultural and cultural landscape.    

The nature   

a view of cactus and the seaside in Salento, Puglia

Those looking to explore the natural beauty of Puglia have plenty to choose from even beyond the attractive beaches. Don’t miss the Grotte di Castellana. The longest cave network in Italy with approximately 3 kilometers of underground caves, it is widely considered the most spectacular in Italy as well.    

Visit the stunning islands of the Tremiti Archipelago. Protected by a marine reserve, the only archipelago of Puglia is the pinnacle of natural beauty. Go to explore the wild beaches, snorkel or dive in the pristine water, or enjoy a day on the sea by boat.    

Visitors to the plateau of the Alta Murgia National Park will find a unique mix of nature, archeology, and history. With beautiful flora and fauna year-round, the Alta Murgia is also filled with masserie, jazzi, and poste, or dry-stone buildings used by shepherds to protect their animals. Most notable, however, is the 13th-century Castel del Monte. Built by the Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick II, the UNESCO World Heritage Site fortification is a mysterious geometric structure built with perfect octagonal walls and eight octagonal towers.  

Finally, those with time to spare can head all the way to the southernmost tip of Puglia in Santa Maria di Leuca to see the place where the Adriatic and Ionian Seas meet, and explore the nearby caves, beaches, and nature reserves of the Salento Peninsula.   

Visit Puglia to tour the traditional trulli, travel along the picturesque Adriatic coast and cook with an Italian nonna on our Mediterranean Escape to Puglia and the Amalfi Coast. 

  

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Italy is often summarized as the country of food, wine, history, and nature. But even more than any of these, family is everything in Italy. I had never known this to be more true than during the months that my team and I worked on a special trip to Italy for Joseph and Irene.

Knowing barely a sentence of Italian and hailing from upstate New York, Irene and Joseph, 85 years young, reached out to Ciao Andiamo to help connect them to their Italian heritage. Joseph’s parents had been born in the late 19th century in Italy, outside of Bari, Puglia. Although Joseph and Irene had visited Italy a number of times, they had never before been to the place of Joseph’s roots.

Joseph decided that now was the time to seek out his family history, to track down the place where his parents had grown up and perhaps even find some living relatives from their hometown.

Uncovering Joseph’s Italian Heritage

After hearing their story, we designed a two-week-long trip down the Adriatic coast, spanning the regions of Abruzzo and Puglia, and concluding near the town of Bari, where we hoped to help Joseph discover pieces of his ancestry.

Working with our incredible Italy team and genealogy experts based in southern Italy, we began our search. We weren’t armed with much: rough birth year estimates of Joseph’s parents, a surname whose spelling had changed after Joseph’s parents had immigrated to America, and the name of a hometown somewhere near Bari – which, as we would soon find out, was incorrect.

But after weeks of hard work, we were able to track down something quite special.

Finding More Than We Expected

First, we found the official birthplace of Joseph’s father, in the small town of Toritto. We started tracking down birth certificates and names of a couple of living cousins.

We found that one of the cousins, whose grandfather had been the brother of Joseph’s father, was still living in Toritto, and he had a brother who was also alive and well living in Canada. The cousins were overjoyed to learn about their American relatives, but we decided to keep the news quiet from Joseph and Irene for now, until we could be sure it was true.

We continued our research and met with more and more local residents in Toritto. Toritto is the kind of small Italian town where everyone knows everyone, and we were amazed to witness the whole town start to become abuzz with news of Joseph and Irene and their planned visit mere months away in the early fall.

A Touching (and Memorable) Reunion

October finally arrived, and Joseph and Irene set off on their journey to southern Italy. After a number of days relaxing and exploring different coastal and countryside towns, they spent two days at a local masseria, a farmhouse, near the historic center of Toritto. It was here that their Italian family would come to meet Joseph and Irene for the very first time.

I had the incredible fortune to be part of this meeting at the masseria. I arrived with our local partner Max to assist with translation and logistics and photographer Ksenija to document the reunion. We were incredibly honored to be included in such a special experience and were, of course, delighted to continue to help.

Excitement mixed with nervousness. We weren’t sure how the events of the family reunion would play out. Would the one cousin we had spoken with even show up? Would he bring along one or two other relatives as well? How long would they want to stay and visit, and what would they say?

On the day of the event, something amazing happened. Not one, not two, but 27 family members would show up at the masseria throughout the course of the evening, in what would turn into a beautiful six-hour-long reunion full of hugs and stories, laughter and emotion.

As you might imagine, the conversations were loud, animated, and at times confusing – deciphering all the intricacies of the family tree and translating between the English spoken by Joseph and Irene and the Italian dialect spoken by everyone else. But somehow, magically, the evening worked, and they were truly united as a family.

Celebrating La Famiglia

Since we had never imagined that so many people would be joining, the owners of the small masseria were only prepared for a dinner of 5-8 people. But when you invite guests over in southern Italy, you invite them, and we would need to find a way to pull together enough food and wine to accommodate a celebration for over 20 guests.

Incredibly, the owners and their small staff managed to whip up a huge feast in the kitchen, and we dined and drank wine into the wee hours of the morning.

Joseph, beaming from ear to ear throughout the night, made no fewer than three toasts to his new-found Italian family and those who helped make the evening possible.

The next day, we took Irene and Joseph to the historic center of Toritto, showed them the street where Joseph’s father was born, and dropped them off at Joseph’s cousin’s house, as the family had insisted that they join them the next day for lunch for a part two of the family reunion.

I am so incredibly grateful that I had the chance to lend a hand in writing such a beautiful story of Italian family, and to help create an experience that a teary-eyed Joseph told me he will always remember. I know I certainly will.

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