Rolling hills dotted by olive trees, gorgeous beaches with turquoise water, poppy fields, vineyards, and charming villages—if you think this is Tuscany, think again. Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, is all this and more, and now it’s coming onto the radar of American travelers in a big way. And since the area isn’t very well connected by public transit, a road trip is the way to go. Here’s how to do it.
Fly into Bari—one of Puglia’s two international airports—and rent a premium car from Hertz Italy in the arrivals hall. Kick off the trip by checking into Borgo Egnazia, a member of Leading Hotels of the World that was a pioneer of luxury travel in the region. Run by Aldo Melpignano, whose family owns four luxury hotels in the area and one in London, it was designed by Pino Brescia to look like the platonic ideal of a traditional Puglian village, complete with a piazza surrounded by casette (little houses), three restaurants, three outdoor pools, and a golf course. Head to Borgo Egnazia’s beach club, Cala Masciola, for a fresh seafood lunch overlooking the sea, and don’t miss dinner at Due Camini, which earned a Michelin star last fall for its innovative take on Puglian cuisine. If you’re lucky enough to be in house while they host one of their summer parties, be sure to go.
This spring, Masseria Torre Maizza, a Rocco Forte Hotel, opened minutes away from Borgo Egnazia, bringing a new luxury option to the area. With just 40 rooms and suites, it’s much smaller than its neighbor, so it’s a good option for travelers who like the intimacy of a boutique hotel. Like Masseria San Domenico—another member of Leading Hotels of the World run by the Melpignano family—it’s housed in a renovated masseria, one of the traditional Puglian farmhouses that dot the region.
While you’re in the area, head to Ostuni, known as la città bianca (the white city). With narrow lanes leading up a hill surrounded by whitewashed buildings, it looks like a village in the Greek islands. Borgo Egnazia can arrange a guided tour of the town with a stop at Masseria Brancati, an ancient olive oil mill, where you can admire 2,000-year-old olive trees and taste the golden liquid they produce.
The northern part of Puglia—known as the Valle d’Itria—is dotted by trulli, centuries-old dwellings topped by conical roofs. Legend has it the area’s inhabitants would dismantle the homes when the tax collectors showed up and rebuild as soon as they left. The town of Alberobello boasts the largest concentration of trulli and is protected by UNESCO, but some of the trulli in the surrounding countryside have been converted into B&Bs or villas. Villa rental company the Thinking Traveller has a few of these ancient buildings in its portfolio, and one of the most charming is Trullo Melograno. Book a stay there to see what it’s like to live in one of these rustic homes and you can have a local chef prepare a home-cooked meal. As part of its Think Experiences program, the Thinking Traveller also offers an exclusive tour of Alberobello, paired with a cheesemaking experience at a nearby farm, where you can see how mozzarella and burrata are made.
Two more must-visit towns in the area are Monopoli and Polignano a Mare, both of which you can see in a day. Head to Monopoli for pizza at La Dolce Vita and stroll the picturesque streets of the historic center and the seafront promenade. Then go to Polignano a Mare, which is built on a series of cliffs overlooking the sea and a small but beautiful beach. Stop for an Aperol Spritz at one of the little cafés on the piazza or overlooking the water, or splurge on a meal at the famous Grotta Palazzese, built into the side of a cliff. Design lovers who want to bring home some ceramics should make a detour to the town of Grottaglie. There are many studios and shops to peruse, but the best is Enza Fasano Ceramiche, a family-run shop that makes gorgeous tableware, plant holders, and decorative objects.
A bit farther away but worth the trip is Matera, this year’s European Capital of Culture and one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities. It’s technically in Basilicata, but it only takes about 90 minutes to get there. To really understand this fascinating city known for its sassi (cave dwellings), it’s best to hire an expert guide like Fabio Congedo of Imago Artis, who can explain its complicated history and show you the best spots in town. “Matera needs to be visited, since the reasons why it has been included in UNESCO’s World Heritage list are still standing,” Congedo, a former archaeologist, says.
After a few days exploring the lush Valle d’Itria, make your way south to Salento. The Thinking Traveller has a variety of villas in this area too, but the most jaw-dropping one is Il Tabacchificio. This spacious villa occupies a former tobacco factory and is filled with furniture by Gaetano Pesce, Eero Saarinen, and Verner Panton, as well as objects the owners—the Italian ambassador to Ghana and his wife—picked up on their travels.
The villa is so gorgeous it’ll be hard to tear yourself away, but there’s a lot to explore in this part of Puglia. To try some of the region’s best wines, book a tasting at Duca Carlo Guarini, in the tiny village of Scorrano. The duke’s noble family has been making wine here for 900 years, and you can taste their expertise in the glass. His wife, Lucia Mancini, is also an accomplished ceramist, with her own studio housed in the family palazzo nearby. For dinner that evening, book a table at Masseria Le Stanzíe, which serves traditional Puglian specialties made with vegetables and herbs from the gardens inside a centuries-old farmhouse. It doesn’t get more authentically farm-to-table than that.
When in the Salento peninsula, spending time on the beach is a must. The farther south you go, the shorter the distance between the Adriatic and Ionian seas. Drive down to Santa Maria di Leuca, the village where the two seas meet. In summer there are beach clubs and you can take a boat ride to explore the grottos. A few minutes away is Gagliano del Capo, where Palazzo Daniele, a new member of Design Hotels, just opened in the family palazzo of art collector Francesco Petrucci. He and Gabriele Salini of G-Rough in Rome teamed up to transform the aristocratic residence into an intimate hotel, restoring the original frescoes and tiles and adding art by contemporary artists.
Another new hotel in the Salento is the Palazzo Maritati e Muci, a passion project of Michelin-starred French chef Guy Martin. Guests can stay in one of the 10 rooms spread over two palazzi in Nardò that have been lovingly restored and filled with art and design pieces by Gio Ponti, Charles Garnier, Alvar Aalto, and Ettore Sottsass, among others.
Otranto is another lovely seaside town with a charming historic center and a port. On hot summer days, everyone goes to one of the beach clubs along the coast, like Lido Gold, which is located in the area known as the Maldives of Salento.
Architecture lovers should also spend a day in Lecce with Imago Artis guide Fabio Congedo, who grew up there. The city is famous for its ornate Baroque architecture, and Congedo will point out all the most beautiful buildings. “I was born in Lecce in 1972, so I’ve had the opportunity to notice several changes in its historic center,” he says. “After being nearly abandoned in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, it slowly made a comeback thanks to specific restoration designs and European funds.” In a full-day tour organized by Imago Artis, you can also do a pasta-making class and get a peek inside a privately owned aristocratic palazzo—just one of the hidden charms of this incredible region.
Previously published on Architectural Digest.