There’s no denying the seductive power of Puglia’s coastline, where white stone architecture and craggy coves set off an astonishingly-vivid sea. As Puglia’s biggest transportation hub, Bari offers a tantalizing number of day trips. Entire regions beckon, from the Valle d’Itria and Salento to the south, Murgia and Gargano to the north, or Gravina and Basilicata inland. On the other hand, travel time makes a number of destinations difficult to reach in a single day. We’ve listed some of the best options for travel via public transportation, along with logistical information.
Many a trip to Puglia begins with seeing a picture of Polignano’s white buildings perched on a cliff over the sea. With views of the water from practically every street, Pogliano developed into a resort town early on. In spite of pebbles in lieu of sand, the Cala Porto (a.k.a. Lama Monachile) is nearly always packed. Plenty of other delectable coves within walking distance provide access to the crystalline waters, so dedicated swimmers won’t be disappointed. South of town, a promenade stretches high above the water.
TrenItalia runs several dozen trains per day from Bari; travel time to Polignano a Mare is about 35 minutes. The station is about 10 minutes’ walk from the historic center.
Monopoli features plenty of sand, rocks, and ledges for sunning and swimming, but it remains more down-to-earth than its neighbor Polignano a Mare. The harbor includes four distinct coves, including several with iconic blue fishing boats, one with a beach, and another with a small castle. There’s also a more modern harbor, evidence that the town runs on more than tourism. Nonetheless, Monopoli felt nearly as busy as Polignano, although that may have been due to the film festival underway during our visit.
Monopoli’s tidy grid of streets dissolves into a medieval warren between the harbor and the Baroque cathedral. This area is ideal for wandering between visits to the dozen or so little beaches within walking distance.
Monopoli is about five minutes past Polignano a Mare on TrenItalia’s coastal route, with several dozen trains per day. There are also some express trains from Bari, which cut travel time in half (to just 20 minutes). The station is about 10 minutes’ walk from the historic center.
Against the glorious backdrop of Puglia’s coastline, Trani features some of the region’s best medieval architecture. Before the Spanish deliberately let the harbor silt up, Trani rivaled Bari as a coastal power. No other town dared to build both a castle and a cathedral right on the edge of the water.
Trani’s famed cathedral ranks as a classic of Puglian Romanesque, with high stone walls visible to boats far and wide. Inside lies a unique structure with three separate churches stacked on top of one another. Massive bronze doors have oxidized to the same color as the water. Restoration works unfortunately prevented us from climbing the bell tower’s 258 steps.
Another church, the Chiesa di Ognissanti, is thought to have been founded by the Knights Templar in the 12th century. Nearby, the Scolagrande and Scolanova have been reconsecrated as synagogues, in acknowledgment of Trani’s history as a thriving Jewish center under Frederick II. Scattered around town, Venetian-influenced palazzos survive from the period after a Spanish king pawned Trani to Venice.
Trani doesn’t have a sandy beach right in town, but a jetty stretches out from the harbor. One can dive off the rocks or simply lounge on the wide stone walkway surrounded by blue in every direction. Surprisingly, Trani has far less tourist traffic than its neighbors to the south. This was our favorite of Puglia’s coastal towns.
TrenItalia runs several dozen trains per day to Trani from Bari; travel time is about 40 minutes. The station is about 10 minutes’ walk from the historic center.
If you’re looking to get away from the crowds, go to Barletta. Start the day with a cappuccino at the café directly in front of the Colossus of Heraclius (Eraclio), the largest bronze statue to survive from the days of the Roman Empire. The Colossus stands in front of the Basilica del Santo Sepolcro, a major stopping point for Crusaders and pilgrims heading for the Holy Land.
Near the coast, the grounds of Barletta’s castle form a park between the cathedral and the sea. The castle itself is one of Puglia’s best. Begun by the Normans around the early 12th century, it was continually remodeled over the years. The battlements command spectacular views of the coast, and we could have done cartwheels on top of the castle without anyone noticing.
Barletta’s cathedral absorbed a number of different architectural styles over the course of its long construction, although the Puglian Romanesque still dominates.
Barletta is about 10 minutes past Trani on TrenItalia’s coastal route, for a total travel time of around 50 minutes from Bari. TrenItalia offers several dozen departures per day. The station is about 10 minutes’ walk from the historic center.
Alberobello and the Trulli Towns
Travel to Alberobello via train can easily take over two hours each way with at least one transfer. A better alternative – if it’s not jam-packed – is the “Trulli Link” bus run by FSE from Bari Largo Sorrentino (the bus depot adjacent to the main train station). Alternatively, one can take an informal tour, which is basically a van with a driver. We saw local offices offering full-day and half-day tours along Bari’s Corso Cavour.
Ostuni packs a surprisingly diverse set of sights. A Baroque obelisk and Renaissance church grace the Piazza della Libertà in the lower section, whilethe cobbled lanes wind up into a more medieval world. Alleys twist and crisscross between whitewashed walls, interspersed with views of the surrounding valley.
At the hill’s peak stands Ostuni’s cathedral, where an interesting juxtaposition of arcs creates an elegant and unique facade. Rebuilt from 1469-95, the church is technically considered Gothic, though the old-fashioned rose window and carvings remain true to the older Puglian Romanesque style.
Ostuni sees large numbers of tourists during high season, so we recommend visiting as early as possible or at the end of the day. Roughly 30 trains per day run between Bari and Ostuni, with an average travel time of 50 minutes; Brindisi is a further 20 minutes on the same line. Getting to Ostuni’s historic center from the train station outside of town is simple: pop into the tabacchi to buy a ticket for the shuttle bus (about €1.50), which usually waits outside the station when trains pull in. Getting back is trickier, as the buses may or may not follow the official schedule – we waited over an hour. Taxis run around €20.
Anyone with an interest inancient Rome or the Crusades will want to visit Brindisi. Romans laid out the Appian Way in a straight line from their city to Brindisi, marking its terminus with a pair of giant columns, one of which still looms over the harbor. The capital on top is a replica, but the original is preserved at the nearby Palazzo Granafei-Nervegna; we recommend walking over to examine its detail – and appreciate the scale – from up close. A few blocks away, the Tempio di San Giovanni al Sepolcro is a Crusading prince’s tribute to the round Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Italy’s main point of departure to the eastern Mediterranean, Brindisi’s massive harbor mixes historic and modern elements. Nearby, the cathedral hosted a number of historic events before an earthquake damaged it badly enough to require a complete reconstruction in 1746. A few original fragments remain inside, most notably some mosaic flooring. Luckily, the adjacent Portico dei Cavalieri Templari survived the quake. Its characteristic Norman architecture gives the little portico an outsize impact on the piazza today. It now provides access to the Ribezzo Archaeological Museum, which turned out to be the high point of our visit to Brindisi. The extensive collection – which happens to be free – includes a set of ancient bronze statues salvaged from shipwrecks, hauntingly eroded by their years underwater.
Brindisi lies along the same route serving the coastal towns mentioned above. Trains from Bari run roughly twice per hour and generally take just over 60 minutes. Walking from the station to the harbor area takes about 10 minutes.
No trip to Puglia would be complete without a visit to Lecce – which really deserves more than just one day. We have a full post about its fanciful architecture, so different from the gilded theatricality of classic Baroque buildings. Lecce’s medieval streets and piazzas also hold ancient Roman remains, including an atmospheric theater, an 25,000-seat amphitheater, and an epic column which once marked the end of the Appian Way in Brindisi. The latter is now topped by a statue of Lecce’s patron saint.
On the other side of town, local cats guide visitors from the Norman-era Chiesa dei Santi Niccolò e Cataldo into an enchanting cemetery replete with eclectic monuments.
Several dozen trains run to Lecce from Bari each day;most take roughly 90 minutes. The station is about 5 minutes’ walk from the historic center.
Matera developed in and around twin depressions in the side of a rocky gorge:known as sassi, theylook as if a giant hand took two scoops out of the hillside. An elevated spur between the sassi connects to the newer town higher up the ridge.
The upper areas feature more of the town’s amenities and tourist traffic. A good place to start is the Piazza Vittorio Veneto, with the Chiesa di San Domenico and Chiesetta dei Cavalieri di Malta. From here, one can descend into the Sasso Barisano or wander along the ridge towards the Sasso Caveoso.
The latter contains the rock-cut churches of Santa Maria di Idris and Santa Lucia alle Malve, as well as the haunting Casa Grotta. But ultimately, simply wandering around the sassi might be the most rewarding experience in Matera. The organic layout defies traditional boundaries: one resident’s roof forms someone else’s garden, while countless outdoor communal living rooms line the winding lanes.
Like Lecce, Matera deserves more than a single day and also takes a bit longer to get to. However, for those with limited time in the region, it’s feasible to do a day trip to Matera from Bari. Matera Centrale lies about 10 minutes’ walk uphill from the historic area. About 16 trains leave from Bari per day, and the journey takes 1.5 to 2 hours each way. Sometimes passengers need to transfer to a train waiting across the platform at Altamura; operators should announce this but it never hurts to ask for confirmation. The route is on the FAL line, which uses a separate ticketing and platform area from Bari’s main station. Signs are on the left as one exits Bari Centrale.