Oh Bella, Bella Italia! You have my heart!
Love at first sight? Yes, it exists! I left my heart in Italy after only 4 days enjoying the beauty of three unique cities located in Southern Italy. A short Southern Italy Travel Guide with ideas on the best cities to visit in Southern Italy, located only a few hours away from Bari.
The starting point for this trip was Bari. Bari is a relatively large city and is the capital of the Puglia region. However, it does not hold many tourist attractions. I would recommend it as a starting point, as there are many budget airlines flying to Bari airport and its location is excellent for exploring the nearby cities to visit in Southern Italy, which are easily accessible by train and bus.
There are two options to arrange your travels. The first one is to stay in Bari and organize day trips to the nearby cities, while the second option is to spend a night or two in each city. I chose the first option as I was staying for only four days and did not want to worry about carrying luggage and checking-in and checking-out every day.
Your trip should start with a visit around the old town of Bari (Bari Vecchia). I had a map, but I still got lost while wandering through the little cobblestone streets filled with the smell of clean fresh laundry. The two things that come to my mind now, when I hear Bari are the smell of clean fresh laundry hanging over balconies and open doors leading to small outdated rooms.
In the old part of Bari, the front doors to people’s houses are literally on the street, there are no yards and no fences. Semi-transparent curtains are covering the wide open front doors. You can easily take a quick glance inside of people’s houses while you are passing by. The rooms inside are small, with a few outdated furniture. If you are walking around the streets in the evening, you will see a lot of people sitting around the table and noisily discussing something in Italian. Well, I guess this is the Big Italian Family!
Something that I never managed to understand in Bari was what shop’s and even some restaurants’ working hours are. Most of the stores are closed during their siesta time – streets are quiet and empty. This might even be in the middle of the day. A few hours later, though, at around 8 or 9 in the evening, locals will be out shopping, eating, drinking and overall just having fun.
Before you leave Bari, choose a random small restaurant in the Bari Vecchia area to have delightful traditional meal and wine. Of course, you should also get a scoop or two of the delicious gelato – the real taste of ice-cream. If you want to feel like a local, eat pizza at Pizzeria Di Cosimo Mauro located at Largo Albicocca. This is a very simple, self-service, non-touristy place and everyone only speaks Italian. The location is absolutely lovely as Largo Albicocca is a tiny square at the heart of the old town of Bari. Take a step back in time and visit the beautiful Basilica of San Nicola and Cathedral of San Sabino. For picturesque views overlooking the sea take a walk on the Augusto Promenade.
Matera – the sassi town – one of the top cities to visit in Southern Italy.
Once claimed as the “shame of Italy” this is probably one of the most unusual and fascinating places I have ever been to!
Matera is actually located in the Basilicata region and not in Puglia, however, it is extremely close to Bari and you can get there by train in just over an hour.
Matera’s history is quite unique and interesting. The ancient town of Matera or also named “Sassi di Matera” dates as far back as 9000 years ago. The “sassi” represent thousands of cave dwellings located in a narrow canyon.
The locals inhabited these stone houses up to the 1950s, when the prime minister from the communist party declared the town as the “shame of Italy”. It is a fact that the inhabitants shared the caves with their donkeys and lived without any electricity or running water. The population was forced to move to the newly built houses in the modern area of the city.
In 1993, Matera was announced as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and since then a few famous Hollywood movies were filmed there. Some of the homes have already been restored and renovated, however, the ancient town of Matera still holds authentic and extraordinary atmosphere.
Alberobello – the trulli town.
Alberobello is another UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is also unique and extraordinary, which makes it one of the best cities to visit in Southern Italy. Alberobello will give you the feeling of going back in time, but in a different way compared to Matera. Alberobello will make you think of the magical world of hobbits and dwarfs.
Alberobello is very small and touristy, which makes it a bit overcrowded. This can be seen especially in the main alleys where most of the shops are located. This is not surprising as most of the shops actually have terraces and they let tourists climb up and enjoy the panoramic view of the trulli roofs, which is truly fascinating and exceptional. Unfortunately, the day when I was visiting Alberobello the weather was not the greatest with cloudy skies and frequent showers and my photos are a bit dark.
Don’t be afraid to take turns in the smaller alleys and get lost in this fairytailish world. Some of them are dead ends and will not really take you anywhere. These small streets, however, are not as crowded and you will be able to enjoy the trulli and take some good pictures.
It might sound crazy, but you should know that some of the locals actually still live in these small cone-shaped houses. If you follow the crowd, you will probably be lucky and find an authentic “trullo”, with an open door and an old lady sitting near the entrance. You will be surprised when you realize that this is a local Italian, with a wide and friendly smile, welcoming you in her house without even charging a fee. As you can imagine she will not speak English, but she might murmur something in a rapid Italian.
Once you walk in one of these hobbit-looking huts, you will understand how tiny they actually are. Having more than three people at the same time inside is impossible. My other impression was how dark it is inside, which probably should not surprise you as “trulli” do not have a lot of windows. As you are stepping out of the “trullo” you can leave an amount for this short visit, but remember no one is asking you to give any entrance fee for this.
A few hours will be absolutely enough for you to wander around the streets. Explore the more hidden corners for a better, less-touristy experience. A good idea is probably to go very early in the morning or later in the afternoon as there will be far less tourists. Grab a bite and drink some traditional Italian coffee. Have a half English, half Italian conversation while trying to buy a souvenir from one of the small shops. Get lost and take pictures.
Ostuni – the White City.
I decided visiting Ostuni in the last moment. I was leaving in the evening on that day and I was not sure if travelling to another town is a good idea. Despite almost missing my train back to Bari, which would have meant missing my flight back to Sofia, visiting Ostuni was well worth it as one of the top cities to visit in Southern Italy.
One of the most important things you should know about getting to the town center is that it is approximately 2 km away from the train station. I believe it is not impossible, but I would not recommend walking up the road. There is a bus just in front of the train station that you can get and will take you to the town center.
Ostuni is another town where you do not need a plan or a map, it is enough to stroll through the maze of narrow cobblestone alleys of the old part of Ostuni. The town has almost a Mediterranean feel with its whitewashed houses. The colourful flowers and staircase railings make the place extremely beautiful and charming.
The feeling that Ostuni gave me was that the time has stopped. It might have been the early morning, but I barely saw any tourists. The locals on the other hand seemed like they are not in a hurry for anywhere, but I guess this is the Italian lifestyle! A few of them were sipping Italian coffee, some looked busy with housework, and neighbors gossiping through the windows.
These four cities to visit in Southern Italy, each with their own charm and uniqueness, left me overwhelmed and stunned. It was love at first sight. Puglia has a lot more to offer with its stunning towns and picturesque views. Southern Italy, you have my heart and I shall come back!
Have you been to the Puglia region? What are your recommendation for cities to visit in Southern Italy? What were your favourite places? Feel free to share your own experience of travelling across Italy.