Italy's Overlooked Coastal Paradise
For most of its history, Puglia was well off Italy's tourist trail. Like many of the southern regions of this country, it's known mostly for agriculture production. Here you'll find plenty of olive oil, wine, and table grapes, not to mention fresh seafood along the coast.
It's this coastal area of Puglia that is mainly responsible for the region emerging as the tourist draw it is now becoming. Puglia boasts 500 miles of coastline fronting two different yet equally beautiful bodies of water: the Ionian and Adriatic seas. Traveling the country backroads from one secluded beach town to the next is as memorable and rewarding as any other activity in Italy. With that in mind, let this guide be your primer on must-visit locales for a perfect Puglia beach holiday.
And if you'd like to combine these beaches with some historic hilltop towns and a bit of regional culture, then this 15-day relaxed Puglia vacation Itinerary will help you plan a more comprehensive vacation.
Lama Monachile Beach: The Postcard of Puglia
Located about 45 minutes south of Puglia's capital city of Bari, in the town of Polignano al Mare, Lama Monachile might be the most iconic beach in the region. There’s an old bridge crossing over Lama Monachile (a river used to run through here) and below it, a narrow stone path bordered by grassy knolls leads down to a small pebble beach hemmed in by sandstone cliffs.
There are many upscale restaurants nearby with patios and views overlooking the water. However, to enjoy Lama Monachile properly, you can grab a focaccia from a shop in town, pick up a bottle of wine and some cured meats/cheeses from a salumeria. Then head down, claim your bit of sand (if you can find the space), and enjoy a picnic in front of the ocean.
The beach is in Polignano al Mare's historic center. Stone paths snake through this medieval part of town and converge at stone plazas filled with cafés, shops, and the odd clock tower. There are old churches dating to the 15th/16th century here, a fine example being the faded white Santa Maria Assunta. Most fascinating is the old church of Purgatorio, which sits on an ancient underground cemetery. You can see skeletons in its underground labyrinths but you need to get permission from the church to enter.
Capitolo: Long Stretches of Sand off the Tourist Trail
About 15 minutes south of Lama Monachile is the beach resort area of Capitolo. The longer stretches of sand outside of town are mostly private, and you can choose between many beach clubs along the coast. All of them have a fun party vibe.
However, there is one public beach located in the town center. Just past Bar Kapitolo is a public access beach, which is a little bigger than at Loma Monachile and it's open 8 am 6:30 pm every day. To get there, look for the blue gate with “public access" signs on it or take the pedestrian walkway across the street from Bar Kapitolo. More beaches down the coast toward Costa Merlata.
Costa Merlata: Beach Town Perfect for a Stopover
On the way south to Costa Merlata from Capitolo are some long stretches of undeveloped coast. This is where you’ll find Parco Naturale Regionale Dune Costiere. The park protects coastal dunes and their surrounding ecosystems and wetlands from development. There's over a dozen beaches here and many lookout points, which makes it a good place to stop off if you're on a road trip.
Then there's Costa Merlota, a sleepy beach town and upscale residential community. Most of its shore is rocky, but there are a few beaches (half are private and half are public). On the south end of town is Spiaggia della Costa Merlota, a little beach in a rocky cove that's tranquil and good for swimming/sunbathing. There's an even smaller beach on the north end of town, near Camping Costa Merlata. It's a little strip of sand near a rocky shore, but posted signs warn that occasionally there are strong currents.
Grotto della Poesia: Lagoon Perfection
Further down the coast of Puglia lies one of the most beautiful natural pools in the world: Grotto della Poesia. There isn't much nearby save for a couple of old hotels and derelict beach houses. From the coastal road, you'll walk out to the end of a rocky promontory to carved steps leading down 15 feet or so to an oval opening, at the bottom of which is a beautiful grotto the color of pure turquoise gemstones. It's a great diving spot and in summer you'll find crowds of folks practicing their aquatic acrobatics.
There are other coves and inlets around the pool that are made up of karst cavities connected by ancient tunnels and passageways. In some of these tunnels are inscriptions in Latin, Greek, and Messapic dating to the 2nd and 4th century BCE. In actuality, the grotto was probably an old Messapic shrine used for worship. Also, there was likely a freshwater spring here at some point, as “Poesia” in medieval Greek means “drink of water.”
If you’re lucky enough to be visiting on a road trip, then be sure to travel the backroads around the towns of Roca and Torre dell'Orso. You’ll drive along country roads lined with wildflowers, old stone hedges, olive groves, and long blankets of green wheat fields dotted with daisies.
Pescalusa Beach/Maldive del Salento: A Slice of the Caribbean in Italy
Now we leave the Adriatic side of Puglia and head to the far south where the heel meets the Ionian sea. Marina di Pescalusa is the town, which sits on a hill on the coast and is filled with white-washed vacation homes. Spiaggia Pescalusa is its public, crescent-shaped beach with soft tan sands and tide pools. If you visit the town during siesta (especially in the offseason) you'll find most establishments closed for business.
Just up the coast about two km from Marina di Pescalusa is one of the most deservedly famous beaches in the region: Le Maldive del Salento. It earns the name due to its impossibly crystalline waters, which are not unlike what you'd find in the Maldives archipelago. This version is mostly a private beach with some public sections; but even though it's a popular area, it has a secluded/hidden quality due to the fact it’s protected by sand dunes and tall grass.
Gallipoli: Fun and Sun in a Historic City
About 12 miles (20 km) south of Maria di Pescalusa is the sleepy coastal town of Torre de San Giovani. From here it's a gorgeous drive along rocky coast to the next great beach destination: Gallipoli. With its high defensive walls and colorful baroque buildings, this ancient metropolis is a throwback to the Italian port cities of old.
The historic center of this fortress city is dense with buildings, cobbled streets, and narrow pathways lined with boutiques, cafes, bistros, and souvenir shops. There are also little plazas and many old churches, the most impressive being Catedral de St. Agnes. It was built in 1629 and sits on a plaza at the highest point in town. Mere steps from here is the crescent-shaped Spiaggia de la Puritate ("Beach of Purity"). If you're going to be visiting the old town during summer, this is the beach upon which to laze.
If you're looking for longer stretches of sand, then head just south of Gallipoli to the outer coastline. The first beach you come to here is the Spiaggia Beach Club Loving. It’s a small private beach with a patio bar and a small strip of sand perfect for swimming. Further down is Spiaggia Samsara, a private party beach and beyond this is Spiaggia di Baia Verde. Both feature crystalline waters and no shortage of discos and restaurants. They're great places to come for sunsets, swimming, and comingling.