From the tip of Italy’s heel to the ravines at the instep, from coastal towns on the Adriatic Sea to a port in the Gulf of Taranto, these nine towns in Puglia are a must for lovers of archaeology and history.
Puglia stretches from the spur to the heel of the Italian boot, or from the Gargano promontory to the Salento peninsular. With its strategic location on the Adriatic and Ionian Seas the area has seen many people come and go. And for this reason it is perhaps not surprising some suggest this is the most archaeologically and historically diverse region in Italy. A diversity that can be encountered at sites and attractions in many of the towns and cities today.
It just so happens that some of the best towns in Puglia for their history and culture are also amongst the most beautiful towns in the region. Whether you like visiting coastal towns and cities with a deep past, or prefer to explore picturesque hilltop towns, Puglia has it all. For anyone considering a trip with a focus on history and culture, these are the nine towns at the top of my list of the best places to visit in Puglia.
My choice of top towns to visit in Puglia is certainly subjective, and draws only on places I have actually visited myself. Although having visited the region a number of times now, the list of towns from which I make my selection is quite extensive. Unashamedly, however, these nine towns are the towns I fell in love with immediately; whether for their archaeology (as at Monopoli and Bari), their situation (Otranto and Ostuni), or just and overall feeling of a ‘unusual and great place to visit’ (Ginosa and Laterza). Oh … and the hospitality and gastronomy … all of them.
In no way am I trying to suggest that the many towns not included on my list are not worthy of a visit. Far from it. The seaside town of Trani, for example, has an interesting history and an exceptionally beautiful Romanesque cathedral that I definitely want to see again (I never got to go inside when I was last there). And of course there are still many towns I have not visited – yet. Much of my time spent exploring the region has focused on the Salento peninsular. So it really is about time I ventured up towards Foggia and the Gargano promontory. As Puglia is my favourite region of Italy, I will be sure to be exploring different towns during my next visit.
With its magnificent concentration of enigmatic trulli, the town of Alberobello is one of only two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Puglia.
Alberbello’s trulli district.
Alberobello is an intriguing place to visit, even if it is a bit touristy. Driving in the area you are sure to see a trullo or two dotted about the countryside. Traditionally trulli were small limestone huts constructed using a drywall building technique that did not make use of cement or mortar. They have a conical roof made of corbelled stone slabs.
It is thought they were first used as temporary field structures, built in the fields for storage purposes. In one area of Alberobello there is over 170 of them in a single area, built side-by-side with streets. Many of these are now used for shops selling local products and souvenirs.
As you can see in the photograph above, the main concentration of trulli are found on the side of a gently rising hill. Most visitors head straight for this area. Do take the time to walk all the way to the top of the hill where there is a church that has the typical conical, corbelled roofs instead of the usual domes. If you have time explore the other side of the town – there are a few Baroque churches.
If you are interested in Egyptian revivalist architecture, make sure you stop at Cimitero Monumentale di Alberobello. Designed by Antonio Curri and built in 1887, the entrance to the cemetery is only part of a much larger construction project. Two low towers are joined by a row of 12 columns, the capitals of which are decorated with lotus flowers so typical of Egyptian columns. The architrave of this structure is also adorned with ancient Egyptian motifs.
Chiesa parrocchiale di Sant’Antonio, Casa Pezzolla Museo del Territorio, Cimitero Monumentale di Alberobello.
From top left, clockwise: the entrance to Cimitero Monumentale di Alberobello; capitals with lotus flower decoration;
the conical roofs of the parish church of Saint Anthony; typical trulli, many of the corbelled roofs have symbols painted on them.
The city of Saint Nicholas with its Pontifical Basilica di San Nicola is an important place of pilgrimage for both Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics.
Cruise liners in the port of Bari are a sharp contrast to the exposed remains of the Medieval archaeological site of Santa Scolastica.
First impressions of Bari can be somewhat disheartening, certainly coming into the city by train or from the airport. Just another sprawling urban European city. Go beyond the suburbs and industrial zones of the modern city and onto the small promontory of land on which the city was founded thousands of years ago in the Bronze Age. Here in the Centro Storico narrow, irregular street-plan you will encounter an entirely different Bari.
This promontory was first inhabited in the Bronze Age over 4,000 years ago. And here has been continuous occupation ever since. Most recently it was a Medieval monastery dedicated to Saint Scholastica, parts of which were used up until the 19th century. Now the tip of the promontory is an archaeological excavation, open to the public. Inside, in a renovated church, walkways take visitors over the exposed excavations which show the first settlement wall, dating to the 4th century BC. During the tour of this recently opened site, an excellent audiovisual presentation tells the story of Bari.
As the capital city of the Puglia region, Bari is well connected. For anyone flying into and out of Puglia, the international airport just outside of Bari is the best option with direct flights to a number of European destinations. There are also regular flights to Rome for connecting flights to almost anywhere. A major train line links the city to the rest of Italy as well as many tourist destinations in Puglia. Bari is also a popular port for cruise-liners, giving passengers a stop for a day or two and the opportunity to take day excursions to many attractions in Puglia.
Swabian Castle, Basilica San Nicola, Archaeological Museum of St. Scholastica, Museo Civico, Ruins of Santa Maria del Buonconsiglio, Roman and Medieval road surfaces on Piazza del Ferrarese.
From top left, clockwise: foundation of an earlier church exposed in the Archaeological Museum of St. Scholastica; entrance to Basilica San Nicola; at the edge of Piazza del Ferrarese is an exposed section of an early Roman road which was later covered by the stones of a Medieval road; Castello Svevo.
Within the ravines beneath an imposing Norman castle are the rock-cut houses and churches of a people seeking sanctuary hundreds of years ago.
Ginosa is a truly delightful place to visit, and stay. The old town is situated on a u-shaped spur of land that is surrounded by a deep ravine that was caused by a meandering river many thousands of years ago. There is as much of interest in the ravine as there is in the historical town.
The fertile plains that surround Ginosa make this a good region for agriculture. Something the Romans certainly knew about and took advantage of if the quality of their villas is anything to go by. But with the turmoil and conflict in much of Europe that followed in the centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, entire local communities moved to the safety of the ravines. Here they cut into the relative soft bedrock, creating both domestic and religious spaces.
Castello Norman, Piazza Orologio, Museo Civico, Villagio Rivolta. More on the Historical Landmarks of Ginosa >>
From top left, clockwise: Norman Castle; Clock Tower built in 1820; the front of Chiesa Matrice with a fresco depicting Saint Martin of Tours;
a remnant of the Baroque decoration inside Chiesa Matrice.
A Romanesque church and Marquis palace stand tall amongst dazzling whitewashed houses, overlooking one of the largest canyons in Europe.
The renaissance façade of the Palazzo Marchesale in Laterza, Puglia.
Laterza is another town in the Terre delle Gravine regional park, the historical centre of which is dramatically situated above one of the largest ravines in Europe. A late Renaissance palazzo and a late Gothic church and bell tower dominate the skyline of painted white houses.
Today the palazzo, a re-purposed fortified castle built at the end of the 14th century to protect townsfolk, is home to an astonishing collection of pottery that has been made in Laterza since at least 1500. The town is well known for its production of majolica, a tradition that reached its apogee in the 17th and 18th centuries. By the end of the 19th century very few kilns were still producing this fine and beautifully decorated pottery. And then only for local, domestic use. Now the tradition is being revived, with a number of workshops once again taking up the distinctive methods of production and style of decoration.
The scenic ravine, particularly around sunrise and sunset, is a great space in which to explore the natural wonders of these canyons. But they are also home to another artistic tradition. In the walls of the ravines are a number of caves, some of which have been modified to create rock-cut churches. These were decorated with frescoes, often in a Byzantine style. Astonishingly the frescoes in some of these chiesi rupestri, painted in the 15th century, have survived and can still be visited.
Palazzo Marchesale, Museo della Maiolica, Chiesa di San Lorenzo, the Fountain of the Masks, Museum of Rural Life, the Ravine.
From top left, clockwise: the 17th century Sant’Anna fresco in the Palazzo Marchesale; the Peasant Civilisation Museum has an astonishing collection of historic, everyday artefacts; the 16th century fountain of the masks; a 17th century majolica plate in the Museo della Maiolica.
Because of the extensive and extraordinarily opulent Baroque patrimony, Lecce is also called the ‘Florence of the south’.
Although I would not go so far as to say you either love Lecce or you hate it, it is true to say the town provokes extreme reactions. And has been doing so for a while. An 18th century traveller by the name of Thomas Ashe described Lecce as the most beautiful city in Italy. In sharp contrast, Marchese Grimaldi said the façade of Basilica di Santa Croce is what he imagined a lunatic’s nightmare looked like.
While expressions of the Baroque period in Lecce are impossible to miss, the front of Santa Croce is especially over the top. In fairness to Grimaldi, he was in fact drawing attention to a specific aspect of Baroque style in Lecce. A distinctiveness that developed in Lecce and nearby towns on the Salento peninsular. Barocco leccese is described as gaudy, and owes its influence to the Spanish in the area at the time – 17th century.
For anyone who loves Baroque art and architecture, Lecce will certainly no disappoint. For those who are indifferent, there really is more to Lecce than the Baroque. An amphitheatre and theatre survive from the Roman period, while a 16th century castle and town wall are what remains of the attempts of Charles V to protect the town from raids from the Ottoman Turks.
Roman Amphitheatre and Theatre, Porta Napoli, Santa Croce, Duomo Square, Charles V Castle, Museo Storico della Città di Lecce, Museo Storico-Archeologico.
From top left, clockwise: the Roman amphitheatre is still used for shows in the summer; an exposed section of a Roman road in the centre of Lecce; the ornately decorated front façade of Basilica di Santa Croce; the interior of Chiesa di Santa Chiara.
An ancient town that came in to its own when Emperor Trajan ordered the construction of a new public road for a shorter route to Brindisi, the Via Traiana.
Monopoli is a much like Bari in that to get to the area of historical interest you have to drive through some unsightly industrial zones and a rather bland city centre. Beyond the city with its grid street is the labyrinthine centro historico, which is also a natural promontory into the sea.
The town’s historical timeline is there for anyone to see. In the crypt beneath the cathedral archaeologists have excavated a Roman necropolis and post holes from a Bronze Age structure, beneath the foundations of the earlier Romanesque church that stood before the cathedral was built.
Monopoli is a wonderful town with a number of the usual attractions found in historical seaside towns, such as defensive walls, a castle, and Baroque churches. And it is a pleasant town to stay in for two or three days. A short drive from the town is the archaeological site of Egnazia. A remarkable site with an equally remarkable museum. Occupation of this area starts 3,500 year ago in the Bronze Age and continues to the 14th century AD. With around 3,500 years of continuous occupation, archaeologists have not only done an impressive job working out the different periods of the site’s history, they have successfully created signs and displays within both the museum and on the site that reveals this history to the average visitor.
Archaeological crypt beneath the Cathedral, Castle of Charles V, World War II Air Raid Shelters on Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, Egnazia Archaeological Site and Museum.
From top left, clockwise: a Romanesque carving depicting the theme of Salvation, on display in the archaeological crypt; the foundations to the apse of the Romanesque church, on top of earlier Medieval graves and a 5th century Messapian tomb, also in the archaeological crypt beneath the cathedral; Via Traiana as it passes through the archaeological site of Egnazia; a 4th century BC model of a funerary banquet on display in the Egnazia Museum.
The fortified citadel with its massive, ancient white-washed walls is known as La Città Bianca, the white town.
By day or night, approaching Ostuni never fails to take my breath away. The massive whitewashed walls with commanding towers encircling the Medieval citadel are just as striking when brilliant white under the sun as they are with a golden glow at nightfall. Not surprisingly, this is one of the more popular destinations in Puglia. But there is more to Ostuni than the undisputed visual appeal of its setting.
In the Church of San Vito Martire (also called the Church of Monacelle) and in the adjacent Carmelite Monastery is the “Civiltà preclassiche della Murgia Meridionale” (Museum of Preclassical Civilisations of southern Murgia). Although the nave of a church and the halls of a monastery make for an unusual setting for archaeological displays, the ‘museum’ will definitely appeal to anyone interested in the archaeology of Puglia.
One of the more memorable displays is the reconstruction of a grave of a pregnant woman, dating to around 25,000 years ago. The woman, who has been nicknamed Delia or Donna di Ostuni, was buried with an amazing collection of grave-goods, and she was buried wearing a cap and other items of jewellery made from over 600 seashells.
The cave in which the Palaeolithic burial was found is only about 3 kilometres from Ostuni, in the Archaeological Park of Santa Maria di Agnano. The Grotto of Santa Maria d’Agnano was used from the Palaeolithic until the 16th century. Since the burial of ‘Delia’, the cave has frequently been used in religious contexts. For instance, the Messapians placed terracotta votive offerings in the cave, while later Christians, probably Byzantines, painted images of Mary on the wall. The area is rich in archaeological sites, driving through the country lanes you will see quite a few signs to dolmens, Neolithic funerary monuments.
Museum of Preclassical Civilisations of southern Murgia, the Gothic Concattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta, La Loggia between Palazzo Vescovile and Palazzo del Seminario, the Neoclassical Palazzo Municipale, the Column of Sant’Oronzo.
From top left, clockwise: the Gothic façade of the Concattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta; A 4th century BC votive offering on display in the Museum of Preclassical Civilisations; an exposed tower base and section of the town wall beneath the Piazza della Libertà; one of the surviving towers that encircles the ancient citadel.
Italy’s eastern-most town is best remembered for the Ottoman invasion of 1480, when over 800 people were beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam.
Do not be put off by the wide, sandy beaches covered by sun loungers and umbrellas – particularly in the warmer months. Otranto is not a seaside resort that only appeals to sun worshippers. The almost fully enclosed natural bay that is great for recreational yachtsmen today has made this an ideal location for seafarers for at least 3,000 years. Added to which, the strategic position at the Strait of Otranto, separating the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, has ensured nearly every nation with any business in the Mediterranean passed through Otranto at some point.
The old town is surrounded by a well preserved system of defence; a castle, imposing towers, gates and a continuous wall with a moat that still surrounds the entire town. Over the centuries and in response to various threats the walls have been repeatedly modified. They follow the line of the ramparts built by the Byzantines. So too the Castello Aragonese, named now after Alfonso of Aragon. What started out as a Norman fort has also been added to again and again; most recently in 1578 with the addition of the two polygonal towers. An interesting aside, as it has very little to do with Otranto itself, the castle in Otranto gave its name to the first Gothic novel – The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story by Horace Walpole (1764).
Nothing of Roman Otranto survives in situ. Of the Byzantines, the 9th century Chiesa di San Pietro is widely regarded as having some of the most important examples of Byzantine art in Puglia – the oldest of which date to the 10th century. The Cattedrale dell’Annunziata has another extraordinary example of Medieval art – the largest mosaic floor in Europe.
In a shrine within the Cathedral are the remains of the Martyrs of Otranto. These are the 813 inhabitants of Otranto who were murdered by the Ottomans on 14 August 1480 for not converting to Islam.
Castello Aragonese di Otranto, Chiesa di San Pietro, Cattedrale dell’Annunziata.
From top left, clockwise: a fresco in the Chiesa di San Pietro depicting Saint Peter washing Christ’s feet; the 9th century Chiesa di San Pietro; the 12th century mosaic on the floor of La Cattedrale di Santa Maria Annunziata; the front of the 11th century Cattedrale di Santa Maria Annunziata with its Baroque addition to the entrance.
Now a commercial port and naval base, in 500 BC with an estimated population of 300,000 Taranto was one of the biggest cities in the world.
Two reassembled columns out of 24 that made up a 6th century BC Doric Temple discovered in the early 1970s during the demolition of a house and church.
As a military base and an important commercial port, with huge steel and iron foundries, oil refineries, food processing factories and shipyards, why is Taranto on this list of recommended places to visit in Puglia? Taranto has long been an important city. Taras was the only Spartan colony, founded by Dorian immigrants in the 8th century BC. By the 5th century the town was at the peak of its power and influence. It was the sovereign city of Magna Graecia ruling over all the Greek colonies in southern Italy. Then it was already the main commercial port in southern Italy; goods were produced here and exported to Greece.
Very little of that ancient city survives today. What the streets of Taranto may lack is certainly made up for in the recently renovated national archaeological museum. Spread over four floors with thousands of exquisite objects from the Stone Age to the Roman period, the museum not only tells the story of this region of Italy but also the remarkable history of Taranto. A history that goes some way to explain why Taranto is still such an important port city in southern Italy.
Museo Nazionale Archeologico Taranto; Castello Aragonese; Museo Ipogeo Spartano di Taranto; Palazzo Pantaleo; Doric Temple; Cathedral of San Cataldo.
A few artefacts from the vast collection on display at the National Archaeological Museum of Taranto-Marta From top left, clockwise: 17 Neolithic flint blades that were never used; two of the many cases of ancient Greek ceramics; one of a large and varied collection of antifixes from the 6th century BC; a 3rd century gold diadem that includes semiprecious stones such as carnelian and garnets.
Is Puglia Worth Visiting?
My answer is an emphatic yes. As Puglia is my favourite region of Italy that was not a surprising response. But what i it I like about the region? Everything from the archaeology to the gastronomy.
The history of the region, unsurpassed by any other region of Italy, is just so incredibly rich. Rivalling, in my opinion, that of the old French region of Aquitaine. In Aquitaine you can be exploring the caves and art of our earliest ancestors in the morning, ponder a Roman mosaic at lunch, and then in the afternoon take in a rock-cut shelter made by Medieval troglodytes or a castle involved in the 100 Years War. So too in Puglia. From the Palaeolithic (hunters and gatherers) and the Neolithic (the first farmers), to the Bronze and Iron Ages, from the ancient Greek colonies of Magna Grecia and the towns of the Roman era to the fortified castles of the Normans, Spanish and Germans. The diversity of archaeological and historical sites in Puglia is truly awesome.
What’s more, all this is within easy reach of wonderful places to stay with exemplary hospitality and a dedicated passion for producing great food and wine. After a long day keeping track of the local timeline, it is time to sample the local gastronomy; a cuisine that relies on fresh, local produce, to produce simple but delicious dishes.