For those seduced by Italy’s breathtaking coastline, amazing food, and cultural treasures, the Salento region of Puglia (at the southernmost tip of Italy) is one of the best summer destinations.
Fronting both the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, its blue and green waters are blissfully warm, and it offers sandy beaches as well as rugged prehistoric coves and romantic grottoes, towns with ancient histories and Mediterranean cuisine restaurants.
The coastal havens southeast of the town of Lecce to Santa Maria di Leuca at the very end of the heel, provide some of the most dramatic seascapes in the country.
Roughly a half-hour drive from Lecce is Roca Vecchia, an archaeological trove with remnants from the Bronze Age, and the extraordinary and craggy Grotta Della Poesia, one of the most beautiful natural swimming sites in the world. You can take a dip in the translucent aqua seas or explore the nearby grottoes.
Near Roca Vecchia is a cluster of magnificent beach sites: Torre dell’ Orso with a nice bay that might remind you of Capri, thanks to the Faraglioni, or ocean rocks (called Le Due Sorelle). Torre del Orso, whose towers like others along the coast were once look-outs for invaders, has a long sandy beach; its waters earned a Blue Flag designation for their transparency and cleanliness. Three kilometers away is Torre Sant’Andrea, named one of Italy’s most beautiful beaches. Here you’ll find an extravaganza of Faraglioni of varying shapes and sizes rising from the water.
If you can pull yourself away from this setting, Otranto, less than a half-hour’s drive away, is worth a visit for its historical buildings, including the fifteenth-century Castello Aragonese and the medieval Duomo, renowned for its intricate floor mosaics.
At Canale del Ciolo, an hour by car from Otranto, you’ll find a fjord-like setting with the Bay of Ciolo protected by steep limestone bluffs. The beach is small but the waters are a favorite for snorkeling. Just south of Canale is Santa Maria di Leuca (also known as Leuca), the southernmost point of the Salentine peninsula (Romans thought this was finibus terrae, the end of the earth) and a magnet for Puglia’s elite from the late 1800s.
Described by Virgil in the Aeneid, Leuca is where the Adriatic and Ionian seas meet up under the watchful eye of a much-photographed lighthouse. Explore Leuca’s Punta Ristola on a boat where you can visit archaeologically important caves, like the Grotta del Diavolo with Neolithic origins, and the Porcinara Grotto, a sacred site in ancient times with Greek and Latin epigraphic markings.