You may better know the Salento Peninsula as "the heel of Italy's boot," but after visiting, you'll know it for the dreamy beaches, mouthwatering street food, burgeoning wine scene, Ancient Greek history, and traditional farmhouse homestays. While the coastal area in the southern region of Puglia has been a favorite for tourists across Italy for decades, it's still under the radar for most international travelers, helping it to preserve its rustic charm. Even though you have to travel to the farthest corner of Italy to get there, you won't regret making the journey to this up-and-coming gem.
Planning Your Trip
- Best Time to Visit: Since the beach is the main attraction of the peninsula, the warm summer months are the best time to visit when the average daily high ranges from 80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Most Italians have the month of August off of work and swarm to the coastal region, so visit in May, June, or September to avoid the biggest crowds.
- Language: While Italian is the official language across Italy, many towns in the Salento Peninsula speak distinct dialects even from each other—some of which are more closely related to Greek than Italian. In fact, the most commonly spoken language in the region is the Salentino dialect of the Sicilian language. Since international tourism is not as prevalent in the region, you may be hard-pressed to find English speakers, even in touristy areas. Despite the various dialects, everyone understands standard Italian, and learning a few key phrases may come in handy.
- Currency: As with the rest of Italy and most of Europe, the currency used is the euro. While the majority of hotels and restaurants in cities accept credit cards, it's very possible you'll come across places that don't, especially in smaller towns.
- Getting Around: If you're starting in the biggest city of Lecce, the fastest way to travel around is by renting a car and driving yourself. However, there are also regional trains connecting towns throughout the peninsula which often cost just a few dollars per trip.
- Travel Tip: In many parts of the Salentine coast, cavernous grottos have been carved out into the limestone cliffs. You can visit some of the most captivating examples in Santa Cesarea Terme and Otranto.
Things to Do
If you're heading to the Salento Peninsula, you're probably going for the beaches. At the tip of Italy's heel is where the crystal clear waters of the Ionian and Adriatic seas converge, and the picturesque beaches are exactly what you'd expect of a Mediterranean getaway. But the region also has a history that stretches back millennia along with all kinds of cultural activities to fill out your trip.
- Each seaside town offers something uniquely special, but a few standouts include Porto Cesareo and Porto Selvaggio on the Ionian coast which have thermal springs and are inside a nature reserve. Santa Maria di Leuca is at the peninsula's southern tip; white buildings fill the town and the seaside promenade is lined with villas and trendy nightclubs. Gallipoli is one of the larger coastal towns known for its historic Old Town and vibrant LGBTQ+ scene.
- Lecce, the principal city of the region, is sometimes called the "Florence of the South" and is the center of the ornate architecture called barocco leccese (Lecce Baroque). Lecce is also a center for traditional paper mache crafts and the castle has an interesting museum of paper mache. The historic center is good for walking and there are plenty of places to taste the typical cuisine of southern Puglia.
- Grecia Salentina is a group of towns in the interior of Salento where a Greek dialect called Griko is still spoken, written on signs, and taught in schools. Some of the architecture is reminiscent of that of Greece, including whitewashed buildings and houses. Several of the towns have interesting historic centers and churches and even impressive castles like the one in Corigliano d'Otranto. Since the towns are close together, it's easy to visit several in one day, especially if you have a car.
- Otranto is another charming seaside town with pedestrian streets and small alleys that are lined with whitewashed buildings reminiscent of Greece. Most of the old town is still partially enclosed within medieval walls with a castle at one end, said to be the inspiration for The Castle of Otranto, the first Gothic novel ever written. Be sure to visit the 11th-century cathedral to see the stunning floor mosaics and the unusual chapel of skulls.
What to Eat and Drink
While you can—and should—splurge on freshly caught seafood at an elegant oceanview restaurant, many of Salento's most iconic dishes are simple and delicious street food. Friselle are bagel-shaped crackers that are often moistened and then topped with fresh tomatoes, creamy ricotta cheese, and a couple of anchovies. A puccia sandwich uses pizza dough for bread and is stuffed with meat, cheese, and local produce that's usually been conserved in olive oil (cavallo—or horse meat—is a traditional filling).
The signature type of pasta from the region is orecchiette, which translates to "little ears" and refers to the shape. The tiny nook in the pasta is perfect for soaking up the sauce, usually made with fresh tomatoes or garlic and broccoli rabe.
Even though the vineyards of northern Italy are more internationally recognized, the Salento Peninsula produces top wines that are hard to find outside of the region. The town of Manduria is the heart of the Primitivo wine country, a full-bodied red wine, and not far you can also try Negroamaro wine, literally translating to "black and bitter."
Where to Stay
Even though Lecce is the largest city and likely where your trip to Salento begins, Lecce isn't on the coast and is at least 20 minutes by car to the nearest beach. Don't skip on seeing what Lecce has to offer, but more likely than not you'll want to spend your nights by the water. Brindisi is the biggest city on the coast, but the smaller seaside towns like Gallipoli or Otranto have more charm.
A local type of accommodation unique to the Puglia region is the masseria, large farmhouses similar to a Spanish hacienda. Many historical masserie have been converted into charming bed and breakfasts, such as Masseria Trapanà outside of Lecce.
Even more luxurious than a masseria is a palazzo, literally a converted palace. To say you've spent the night in a castle, book a room in any palazzo-designated hotel, such as Palazzo Presta in Gallipoli.
You can get to Salento by car, train, or flying. Driving yourself from Rome takes at least six hours, while the drive from Naples takes four hours. The southern terminus station for the national railway is in Lecce, and direct trains from Rome get there in just over five hours.
If you're coming from somewhere farther than Rome, taking a flight to the Sarento Airport in Brindisi is your best option. There are daily flights from Rome, Milan, and other Italian hubs all throughout the year and, in the summer months, flights from all over Europe.
Culture and Customs
Pizzica is the traditional music and dance native to Salento, a subgroup of the larger tarantella folk dance that is ubiquitous throughout Southern Italy. The lively dance is fast, upbeat, and usually accompanied by tambourines. The style dates back centuries or more when people who were sick were supposedly cured by being bitten by a tarantula and then dancing. Today, pizzica is being revived—without tarantulas—and is performed in many places throughout the Salento Peninsula. So if you hear music coming from a nearby plaza, don't miss out on catching a glimpse of this local tradition.
Money Saving Tips
- Hotel rates spike up in the prime summer months of July and especially August. If you can, try traveling in the shoulder season of May, June, or September for cheaper prices.
- Street food reigns in Salento, so eating cheap is easy. Grab a puccia or another easy-to-pack item to bring with you to the beach.
- Travel around the Salento Peninsula on the regional train is very affordable, but tickets go up in price as they sell out. Especially if you're traveling in the busy summer months, try to book your train tickets as early as possible.