The Salento Peninsula in southern Puglia forms the heel of Italy's boot. The peninsula is known for its quality olive oil and wine, plus its interesting, picturesque cities and stunning beaches with clean water. Salento also has Roman ruins and remnants of its Greek past. In short, there's a lot to see in this far southern corner of Italy—here are some of the top sights in the Salento.
A good place to start a visit to Salento is in Lecce, its principal city, especially if you are traveling by public transportation. Lecce is the southeastern terminus for Italy's national rail line. Many smaller places on the peninsula can be reached from Lecce using the private rail line, Ferrovie Sud Est. Brindisi Airport is less than an hour away.
Lecce, sometimes called the Florence of the South, was the center of the ornate architecture called the barocco leccese (Lecce Baroque) and the city is filled with Baroque monuments. 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.
Gallipoli is a charming seaside town on the peninsula's east coast. The old town was built on an island that's now connected to the mainland by a bridge and it still retains some of the medieval walls. Its picturesque historic center is a pedestrian zone with a maze of alleys. In the center is the 17th century Baroque Sant' Agata Cathedral. Corte Gallo is an amazing courtyard that looks like an open-air ethnographic museum. Outside the walls are a castle, a good sandy beach, and a tourist harbor.
Otranto is another charming seaside town, this time on the peninsula's west coast. Its pedestrian streets and small alleys 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 12th-century-floor mosaics and the unusual chapel of skulls. Between the town's walls and the sea is a wide pedestrian street, the Lungomare, with cafes and a park, and within walking distance of the center, there's a sandy beach.
Much of Salento is on the coast and is known for its many clean beaches with good swimming, sunbathing, and water sports. Porto Cesareo, on the Ionian Coast, is a popular beach area with thermal springs set in a nature reserve. Porto Selvaggio is another good beach in a nature reserve.
Santa Maria di Leuca, the peninsula's southern tip where the Ionian and Adriatic Seas meet, is a top beach destination. White buildings fill the town and the seaside promenade is lined with villas and trendy nightclubs. The area's mild climate gives swimming and sunbathing a long season and the beaches are very popular. Another good beach in the south is Marina di Pescoluse, with white sand dunes and shallow waters, making it a good choice for families.
Grecia Salentina is a group of towns in the interior of Salento where a Greek dialect 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.
Manduria is the heart of the Primitivo wine country, a top red wine produced in Salento. In Manduria there's an interesting museum of Primitivo wine, where you can also taste wine, and a small archeological museum. At the edge of town is the Messapian Walls Archaeology Park where you can visit an ancient fountain inside a cave and see remains of the impressive megalithic Messapian wall. Outside the ancient walls is a large necropolis with more than 1200 tombs dating from the 6th century BC.
Pizzica Salentina Dance
Pizzica is the traditional music and dance of Salento. Related to tarantella dances, the lively dance has roots in superstition and healing. Today pizzica is being revived and is performed in many places.