To call Lecce the “Florence of the South”, is actually an understatement to describe the mesmerising beauty of this Baroque city. Located in the Puglia region of Italy, Lecce being the main city of the Salento peninsula and the capital city of the province of Lecce, not only epitomises the Baroque architecture, but has so much more to offer due to it’s central location in the peninsula. Read on to know why this Baroque city makes for a perfect base to explore Salento peninsula and coastline.
The enviable proximity of Lecce to the best beaches of Salento – sandy, natural and unorganised, coupled with the finest masterpieces of Baroque architecture that make up the old town of Lecce, makes it the perfect base to explore the Salento coastline and the stunning towns/villages in the vicinity like Gallipoli, Otranto, Santa Maria di Leuca, and Nardo, to name a few (all within the range of 40-85 km).
You can out and about and explore during the day and then be back by late afternoon to enjoy Lecce at its finest! It’s a town best explored as the sun begins to fall, and the sandstone walls of the Baroque masterpieces glow ochre and city comes alive. It’s a town meant to be enjoyed in the late afternoon over countless cups of gelato, while observing the piazze gradually turn into a meeting point for the young and a resting place for the old, and all around you, the air fills with rapid and heavily accented Italian as the locals indulge in a casual banter over the passeggiata.
For leisure lovers and beach bums, the beaches around Lecce:
Starting from Pilone in the province of Brindisi and heading down south all the way to Santa Maria di Leuca and circling back up to Taranto, the Salento coastline offers an enviable coastline with long stretches of white sandy and rocky beaches with pristine blue waters through and through. To say that there are so many beautiful beaches in the vicinity of Lecce that you may fall short of holi-days but not of the beaches to explore, will be an understatement.
White sandy, rocky, pebbly, private, public, perfect sunsets, sea food, beach promenades, and the list goes on – the Salento coastline truly is an enviable coastline with never ending beaches suited to everyone’s taste – you name it, they have it! So just grab your bikinis, bathing suits, start your car and let the divine coastline guide you to find exactly what you’re looking for – it’s meant to spoil you for choice!
The Melendugno coastline from San Foca to Torre Sant’Andrea – this little patch of eastern Salento coastline is truly picturesque and inarguably the most scenic one in the whole of Salento. It offers some remarkable rock formations coupled with pristine blue waters and impeccably white sand. A trip to Salento is incomplete without having visited these four beaches:
San Foca – it’s a white sand beach with white rock formations and small caves underneath it on one side of the beach, and an organized beach with shacks, umbrellas and sunbeds as you descend down on the other side. If you’re looking for an organized beach with pristine blue waters and great facilities around, we highly recommend this one. The beach is very family friendly. Therefore, during the peak summer months of July and August, it quickly becomes super crowded. If you’re visiting the beach during this time, either book your sunbeds and umbrellas a few days in advance at one of the beach shacks, or arrive early in the day to find space in the public part of the beach, before it’s all occupied. Finding a place, however, in the off season from September to June, is easier and can be booked on the spot.
Torre dell’Orso – it’s a white sand beach with white rock formations on one side of the beach, Le Due Sorelle – beautiful rock formations standing strong in the middle of the sea, and an organized beach with shacks, umbrellas and sunbeds as you descend down on the other side. If you’re looking for an organized beach with pristine blue waters and great facilities around, we highly recommend this one. Le Due Sorelle makes for a perfect backdrop for that perfect gram 😉. So click those Instagrammable pictures to your heart’s content! The beach is also family friendly.
Grotta del Poesia – inarguably the most picturesque beach of the Salento coastline, this one’s a must visit when you’re in Salento. While the beach itself is unorganised, this marvel of a natural swimming pool is what makes it so picturesque! For all the Instagram influencers and amateur photographers – the best time to visit this natural wonder, will be in the wee hours of the morning just in time to catch the sunrise and capture the beauty without being photobombed by the visitors that flock to this location during the day.
Do note that since 2018, it has been forbidden to jump in the swimming pool due to the injuries that it led to in the past; and law breakers are subjected to significant fines. However, having visited before and after that, we’ve seen equal number of enthusiasts still jumping in the natural swimming pool. Also, since 2018, visiting this natural wonder requires a ticket of €3 and a green pass since 2021. Please be sure to check the latest COVID-19 related entry restrictions on the official Italian government website .
Torre Sant’Andrea – another spectacular beach on the Salento coastline, this one’s our favourite. Known for the impressive white door like rock formation, this beach also has an unorganised public beach space on it’s other side, however, due to the fewer number of visitors it receives compared to San Foca, its easier to find a spot here to put out your beach towels and umbrellas to sunbathe or have a little picnic with your partner/friends. However, for all the Instagram influencers and amateur photographers – the best time to visit this beach will be in the wee hours of the morning to catch the sunrise and capture its beauty without the visitors that flock to this location during the day.
Porto Cesareo and Torre Lapillo Bay – while the Melendugno coastline with the aforementioned beaches are the most scenic Salento beaches with impressive rock formations, it’s the western Salento coastline that has more sandy beaches with clearer waters and white sand. Of these, one of the best beaches in western Salento is the Torre Lapillo Bay. Torre Lapillo Bay is relatively less busier than it’s eastern counterparts and is the perfect beach to go swimming in its pristine blue waters.
Lecce for gastronomy enthusiasts, foodies at heart and wine lovers:
Having been to over 50 villages, towns and cities in 12 different regions of Italy, trust us when we say that Puglian cuisine is the pinnacle of Italian cuisine. As a matter of fact, there’s no such thing as Italian cuisine, because every region in Italy has it’s own cuisine characterized by the region’s specific ingredients and preparation style; however, that’s a topic of discussion for another day.
Puglian cuisine is for the connoisseurs of flavours. Historically known as Cucina Povera, i.e. cuisine of the poor, Puglian cuisine is characterised by the usage of the simplest and the most basic of the ingredients to create dishes with the most accentuating flavours one would have ever tasted. Mind you, Puglia is no longer poor, however they have retained their centuries old simplicity in the cuisine, and how! Fresh local produce and fresh catch of the day are the stars of Puglian cuisine. A land of the farmers and fishermen, Puglia has vegetables, fruit, fish and seafood at the core of its cooking, while meat is quite rare. Moreover, Puglia produces 40% of Italy’s olive oil and the region is also one of the biggest durum wheat producers in the country. This is why Puglia is particularly famous for its unique types of bread and pasta. Due to the enviable location of Puglia, the landscape that is blessed with great soil, abundant sunshine and an endless coastline – ingredients like cherry tomatoes, tomatoes, chicory, fave, other beans and lentils, Cipolla onions, olives and olive oil and fresh fish is available in abundance. All in all, Puglian food is like the region itself – authentic, unspoilt and superb.
So undoubtedly, one of the best ways to immerse yourself in the wonders of this sun-kissed region in Italy’s South is by savouring the land’s unique tastes. And where better to taste it than in Lecce. The city is home to many decades-old family-run restaurants housed in the classic Leccese stone dwellings. The heritage Leccese dwellings housing these family-run restaurants make for a very cosy ambience, and this coupled with the authentic Puglian dishes handed down over three generations of cooks/chefs of the restaurants, make for an unforgettable dining experience.
Where to eat in Lecce – we visited a few of these restaurants during our stay in Lecce in September 2017; of these we’d highly recommend Osteria da Angiulino, Trattoria Nonna Tetti, 00 Doppiozero, 63 Osteria Contemporanea. 63 Osteria Contemporanea is particularly interesting for having a contemporary take on Puglian cuisine. If you’re a celiac or gluten intolerant, finding a wide variety of regional dishes that are gluten free can be challenging in Puglia and Lecce. And that’s why Volo Restaurant deserves a mention – this restaurant is one of the rare ones in Lecce which has a vast menu of gluten free and vegetarian dishes and specialises in Puglian cuisine; so your dietary restrictions can be well taken care of while enjoying the delicious Puglian cuisine. While we couldn’t dine at Blu Notte, we were told by the locals that this is one of the best restaurants in town for sea food. So if you’re a sea food lover, you may want to check this one out.
While every dish in Puglian cuisine is delectable, some of the must try dishes and preparations that we highly recommend you to try on your visit to Lecce and Puglia are:
- Orecchiette Con Le Cime Di Rapa or Orecchiette alla Pugliese – a typical Puglian tiny ear-shaped pasta that you can find in every trattoria and ristorante (restaurant) in Puglia. It is cooked in various ways including with garlic, tomato sauce, meat sauce, or vegetables. The classic recipe is the one with the turnip tops (Cime di rapa), however this may not be available during summer months. We loved the Orecchiette pasta so much that we even bought its packets as souvenirs for our journey back home, and can’t recommend it enough for you all to try.
- Fave e Cicorie – when it comes to vegetable-based recipe ideas, sky’s the limit in Puglia. No matter which part of the year you choose to travel to Puglia, you will most definitely have the opportunity to taste the superb dishes prepared with only the best seasonal ingredients. One of the most prominent vegetable dishes in Puglia is Fave e Cicorie or fava bean puree with greens. We tried it at many different restaurants during our trip to Puglia and it tasted divine every single time.
- Parmigiana – another unmissable vegetable dish worth a mention is the parmigiana di melanzane (eggplant parmesan) and parmigiana di carciofi (artichoke parmesan).
- Tiella or Riso, Patate e Cozze – a baked dish of mussels, rice, potatoes and sometimes cheese, this unusual dish puts the Pugliese mussels centre stage by baking them into a pie with rice, onions, tomatoes, potatoes and breadcrumbs. The mussels are left in their shell, which means you’ll need to pick them out, but it is traditional. The layered rice dish gently steams in white wine in the oven, with the crunchy breadcrumb/cheese topping providing plenty of texture. This dish truly won our hearts when it came to seafood in Puglia; so much so that we even went looking for it back in Amsterdam 😉.
- Frisella – a crunchy, dry bread baked in a stone oven with a drop of olive oil and topped with cherry tomatoes and Italian herbs, friselle are one of Puglia’s most famous, and practical foods and makes for a perfect snack on the go as you explore the city.
- Taralli – think of them as Italy’s answer to the pretzels. Small and circular, these crackers make for a wonderful snack, especially alongside a glass of Pugliese wine! Try them savory—made with flavors like fennel, black peppercorns, Cipolla onions, pepperoncini or poppy seeds—or sweet, with white wine and sugar.
- Puccia – a sandwich made of pizza dough stuffed with meats, cheeses, and/or vegetables, this is another traditional on-the-go snack in Puglia.
- Panzerotto – it is a type of fried calzone stuffed with tomatoes and mozzarella in its classic form. You can also find its meat variation stuffed with ham and mozzarella. Make sure to eat it hot immediately after it has been taken out from the frying pan to enjoy the mozzarella melt in your mouth!
- Focaccia – round, tall, stuffed with tomatoes and olives, the focaccia is the queen of Puglian street food and should not be missed when in Puglia. You will find it anywhere and everywhere in one of its many guises, at the beach shacks and kiosks, at take-away joints in towns and cities, etc. Try it with onions, aubergines, vegetables, meats, cheeses and so on. Warm and crunchy, it is a perfect snack on-the-go at any time of the day.
- Pasticciotto – hands down the best dessert of Puglia, these are small cakes that originate from Galatina town in the province of Lecce, but nowadays you can find them all over Puglia. These small tarts are crusty on the outside and have a cream/custard filling inside it in the classic version. Nowadays it often comes with other innovative fillings. For all of you with a sweet tooth, pasticciotto makes for an ideal coffee companion, to start your day with 😉.
- Puglian wines – although not traditionally as famous for its wine as other regions in Italy, Puglia is gradually acquiring the place it deserves in the wine-producing map of Europe. Puglian wine is as smooth as the region’s flat land and as pleasant as the sea breeze that caresses it. In Puglia, red wine is the king and some of its must-try varieties are Nero di Troia, Primitivo and Neroamaro.
Where to eat anything other than Italian/Puglian in Lecce – while for most tourists it may make absolutely no sense to have anything other than the heavenly Puglian cuisine of the region, when in Lecce, if you’re in Lecce for longer and want some change for your taste buds, ever got you covered. When we were Lecce, we stumbled upon a Greek restaurant – Elleniko, a Mexican restaurant – Mexal, and an Indian restaurant – Just Desi. Of these, we visited Elleniko and cam vouch for its delicious authentic Greek cuisine 🙂.
Lecce for city explorers and architecture aficionados – the mecca of Baroque architecture
If the southeast of Sicily puts up a great show of Baroque architecture, then Lecce is its prestigious showstopper! Calling Lecce “The Florence of the South” highly understates its sheer elegance and astounding Baroque beauty for the numerous Baroque churches, gates and other buildings it is home to. The city is an open air museum hosting Baroque styled churches at every nook and corner of the old town.
Originally introduced by the Catholic church, Baroque architecture is a highly decorative and theatrical architectural style which appeared in Italy in the early 17th century and gradually spread across Europe. It reached its peak in the High Baroque (1625–1675), when it was used in churches and palaces in Italy, Spain, Portugal and France, and Austria; and flourished till the Late Baroque period (1675–1750).
So if you’re an architecture aficionado just like us, prepare to be mesmerised by the elaborate Baroque beauty of Lecce, for this is the Mecca of Baroque. The best way to explore the stunning architecture of Lecce is by exploring it on foot. And since Lecce is located on a flat piece of land, the walking expedition is a pleasurable one. As you stroll through the old town, you’ll see numerous buildings, complexes, heritage houses with creme-coloured Baroque architecture having balconies, pillars and doors with intricate carvings and ornate decorations. As you stroll through the old town, take your time to stop and gaze up in wonder, photograph everything and enter whatever takes your fancy – churches, palaces, piazza’s, etc. (provided they’re open, of course!), as you immerse yourself in the magnificent Baroque architecture of Lecce. Below, you’ll find a list of some of the unforgettable Baroque churches and structures that left us awestruck.
The Baroque churches of Lecce:
Basilica di Santa Croce – this church is inarguably the most beautiful church in Lecce and is renowned for its amazing architecture and stunning Baroque façade. Created in the 17th century, this church is constructed from the unique Lecce limestone that gives the structure its light creme colouration.
The front façade is truly breath-taking with intricate decoration, dramatic pillars and windows and exquisite artwork. Its walls are adorned by intricate sculptures, gorgeous rose windows and interesting stone statues. With the build up that the front facade provides, the interior doesn’t disappoint. Inside, the church is decorated with intricate artworks, elaborate and detailed carvings and statues on the numerous walls and pillars of the church. While a trip to Lecce is incomplete without having visited the Basilica, we highly recommend a visit inside to complete the whole experience.
Cattedrale dell’Assunzione della Virgine or Duomo di Lecce – popularly known as the Lecce Cathedral, the Cathedral located on the Piazza del Duomo, is at par with the Basilica di Santa Croce as the most important religious building in the city. Constructed in the late 17th century, this cathedral has an opulent Baroque styled northern façade and a beautiful bell tower.
The northern façade contains some magnificent stone statues and sculptures with detailed design, and faces the charming cathedral square. The interior of the Cathedral is highly decorative and features a myriad of gold artwork, opulent arches and a ceiling with gorgeous artwork. Furthermore there are also twelve chapels within the church, each of which is dedicated to a different saint or religious figure.
Chiesa di Santa Chiara – our Airbnb was just around the corner of this church. This Baroque church stands out for its beautiful front facade. It’s facade has intricate decorations and yet the design on the whole is really neat. The church really accentuates the beauty of the piazza it is located in. This piazza comes alive at night as the bars and restaurants dotting it are flocked by the locals for an evening or a night out. This piazza and the bars around it are much loved by the youth of the city, and we highly recommend having a drink at one of the bars here to enjoy the taste of the local life.
Chiesa di San Matteo – this Baroque church is particularly impressive for its curved front facade which is concave at its top and convex at its the bottom. The facade is adorned by intricate and detailed decorations, with neat tall pillars on its sides.
Chiesa di Sant Irene – another beautiful Baroque church in Lecce. While it’s front facade has a rather humble front facade compared to the ones listed above, it’s the interior here that is particularly exquisite with elaborate decorations and pillars and floral decorations with beautiful detailed carvings. A visit inside is highly recommended for art and architecture aficionados.
Chiesa del Carmine – this Baroque church is slightly off the walking route of the old town, however is well worth a visit for a its beautiful front facade. The front facade had elaborate decorations and statues of the saints and the prophets that make the facade stand out and give it a rich feel.
Piazza del Duomo – this square is by far the most charming Baroque square we’ve ever seen in Italy. The square has a theatrical appearance accorded to it by the two beautifully decorated Baroque buildings, the Lecce Cathedral with its intricate northern façade, the palace – Palazzo Arcivescovile and the opulent library building that looks more like a palace, which engulf the square in their creme coloured hues.
The impressive square is located in the centre of the historic old town of Lecce and has some gorgeous monuments and religious structures. Furthermore, the surrounding streets feature a series of shops and restaurants for those who want to enjoy a fine meal or indulge in a little retail therapy.
The historic gates to the old town of Lecce:
As it implies, like many other old towns of Italy, the old town of Lecce too is guarded by the walls and historic gates that were symbolic of the entry to the town. While Porta Napoli and Porta Rudiae are on the same side of the town and connected by a wall, Porta San Biagio is located on the opposite side. While we wouldn’t recommend to go out of your way to visit these, the Porta Napoli and Porta Rudiae are unmissable if you’re driving to Lecce, since just outside these gates there’s a large parking by the street where you can park your car. Since the parking inside the old town is restricted for the old town residents, this is most probably where you’ll have to park your car if you’re visiting with one.
Around Lecce – seaside towns for the explorers at heart:
While the Salento coastline is enviably beautiful, the seaside towns in Salento match up equally to the beautiful coastline. Here are some of the charming villages and towns around Lecce that have something for everyone. We highly recommend you to visit some of these if you have time at hand and want to experience the quaint Salento charm, to escape the hustle and bustle of Lecce.
Otranto – this charming seaside village on the eastern coast of Salento is recognised by the Association of the Most Beautiful Villages of Italy – Borghipiubelliditalia, as it aptly deserves to be. Take a stroll through its old town and have a drink at one of the bars by its port. If you prefer to have a relaxed stay away from the hustle and bustle of a city, and yet be close to the pristine Salento beaches of San Foca, Castro Marina and others, Otranto is a nice place to base yourself at. A must visit place in the vicinity of Otranto is Cava di Bauxite (or the cave of Bauxite). Originally used a mining site, this cave is now abandoned and left as-is to allure the offbeat explorers.
Nardò – this beautiful town barely a 30 minute drive from Lecce and close the eastern Salento coastline has managed to stay away from the public eye and retain it’s quaint charm. It’s old town has a beautiful square/piazza, with some Baroque churches and monuments worth capturing for photography lovers. It’s proximity to (the beach of) Spiaggia di Porto Selvaggio, which is part of the Natural Part, makes it an ideal location to base yourself while in Salento without burning a hole in your pocket.
Gallipoli – this seaside town on the western coast of Salento is a party town, known for its nightlife by the beaches. If you want to party in Salento, this is where you go! Apart from partying, Gallipoli has a beautiful long sandy stretch of beach that adds to its appeal. Fancy enjoying the sunset and then dancing the night away by the beach? Then head over to Gallipoli.
Santa Maria di Leuca – a sleepy town at the southernmost tip of Puglia, the heel of Italy, is definitely worth the visit for enjoying the untouched la dolce vita charm and the laid back village Puglian village vibe.
Where to stay in Lecce:
If you like the bustling vibes of the city, staying in the old town of Lecce – Centro Storico, is the best option. However, if you’re visiting Lecce by car, then we highly recommend you to stay just outside there Centro Storico. When we visited Lecce in September 2017, even though it was after the peak summer season, finding a parking in the parking areas just outside Centro Storico was a nightmare, to say the least. Even if you rent a place inside the Centro Storico, parking in the old town is reserved only for the residents, so you may not be able to park close to your accommodation. Thus, it’s best to stay within a km’s distance from the Centro Storico on the side of the gates Porta Napoli and Porta Rudiae (as most of the must visit historic sites, churches, monuments and action is in this part of the town). If you can find a place that has free parking on the street and is less than 1 km walk away from Centro Storico, book it up without hesitation! Doing this saved us a lot of parking woes during our trip in the peak summer season August, the second time we visited Lecce in 2021 🙂.
How to get to Lecce:
The easiest and the fastest way to reach Lecce is by a car. If you’re landing at the Bari or Brindisi airport, both of which have a good connectivity to the rest of the country and Europe, the best option to explore Puglia and Salento, is by renting a car from the airport. A drive from Bari airport to Lecce is a highly comfortable one with a straight highway from Bari to Lecce for the major part of 200km drive.
However, if you’re dependent on public transport, you can also take a train from Bari central station or the Brindisi central station. You can find the train schedules and frequency on the Trenitalia website. However, choosing this mode of transport also means that you’ll have to first reach the city’s central station from its airport; you can do so by a public bus or a train. For (shuttle) buses from Bari airport to Lecce, check out this TripAdvisor post for various options and combinations.