Puglia’s Salento Peninsula is known for its beautiful beaches and coastline but it also has several towns and cities worth a visit. If you’re going to Salento, don’t miss these places:
Lecce is the largest city in southern Puglia and the gateway to the Salento Peninsula. Since it’s on the main rail line of Italy’s east coast it’s easy to get to without a car.
Lecce is known for its unique Baroque architecture called barocco leccese that you’ll see on many of its monuments and for traditional paper mache crafts, cartapesta. It also has remnants of its Roman past, a castle, a good shopping street, and several museums. The historic center is fairly small and mostly a limited-traffic zone so it’s easy to explore on foot.
On Salento’s west coast, Gallipoli has one of the most interesting and unusual old towns. Originally built on a limestone island, the old town is connected to the mainland by a 16th century bridge. Walk through the maze of picturesque alleys and streets, where you’ll see fishing baskets and unique decor on walls of houses and in courtyards, especially in Corte Gallo. The Baroque SantAgata Cathedral, built in the 17th century, is in the center.
A castle that once guarded the port stands near the old town entrance. Gallipoli is a great place to eat fresh seafood and there’s a nice stretch of beach along the old city walls too. From Lecce, Gallipoli can be reached via the private Trains of the Southeast.
Otranto is a pretty white-washed town on the Salento’s east coast. The old town, partially enclosed by medieval walls, is a pleasure to walk around. Otranto’s 11th century cathedral has a beautiful mosaic floor and unusual chapel of skulls with remains of the 800 martyrs of Otranto who were killed in a Turkish invasion in 1480.
An Aragonese castle sits just outside the old town and you can walk up to the top of the wall next to the castle for good views. Along the sea next to the walls, there’s a wide walkway with cafes and places to eat. Within walking distance of town there’s a beach where you can swim.
Santa Maria di Leuca
Where the Ionian and Adriatic Seas meet at the tip of the Salento Peninsula is the town of Santa Maria di Leuca. Leuca comes from the Greek word Leukos, white. In town you’ll see architecture that’s a mix of Moorish and Art Noveau styles. The seaside promenade is the place to go for good gelato and nightclubs.
Because of its mild climate, there’s a long beach season and its a popular place for swimming in the emerald sea and boating. Underwater caves dot the coastline and you can see some of them on boat tours. On a hill overlooking the seas is its lighthouse, one of the most important in Italy and the De Finibus Terrae Basilica, meaning end of the lands, built on the site of a Roman temple. A staircase with nearly 300 steps connects it to the port.
A visit to the Greek Salento towns gives you a look at a different part of Salento, Inland to the south of Lecce there’s a group of 11 towns whose whitewashed walls, architecture, and even language are reminiscent of Greece. These Greek towns, called Grecia Salentina, still retain their Greek heritage. Most of the towns have a castle and an interesting historic center with ornately decorated buildings.
It’s believed that Salento’s traditional music and dance, called Pizzica Salentino, originated in this area. Find out more about Pizzica Salentino and see a video.