Rome, Venice, and Florence are world-renowned as epicenters of Mediterranean culture. Home to breathtaking Roman ruins, thought-provoking museums, and culinary masterpieces; however, they are also easily one of the world’s worst-kept secrets. While many only visit these wondrous cities once in their lives, the crowd-weary traveler can explore equally stunning alternatives in the Puglia region during peak tourist seasons.

There are jaw-dropping cities that we will showcase in this article are: Lecce, Florence (without the crowds), Ostuni, ancient architecture with a Mediterranean backdrop, and Matera, a UNESCO World Heritage ruin which holds an indescribable “undiscovered” feel. So, grab your pen, paper, and passport as we explore the most enchanting cities that Puglia has to offer.

1. Lecce

The vibrant city of Lecce often referred to as, “The Florence of the South”, is an oasis of history, architecture, and artistry. The Roman amphitheater is just one of the many archeological attractions that Lecce has to offer. Built in the 2nd century and rediscovered in 1901 by construction workers, the amphitheater has been beautifully renovated into a modern venue, while still maintaining its Romanesque heritage.

While Florence and other northern Renaissance hubs may display the David, Mona Lisa, and Birth of Venus, Lecce displays a more unique form of artistry, paper-mâché. Contrary to the image in your head, these displays are not your mediocre, primary school, wrap-and-glue-newspaper-around-a-balloon paper-mâché. Rather, it is a legitimate art form that has been masterfully practiced in the city of Lecce for centuries. One tour around the Papier-Mâché Museum and you’ll never give your future kid’s project a second glance.

2. Ostuni

A trip to Puglia would be remiss without visiting Ostuni, otherwise known as the “white town”. The coastal village of Ostuni hosts a variety of stunning views, from the seemingly endless olive orchards to the west, the alluring Adriatic Sea to the east, to even a gothic style cathedral perched on Ostuni’s highest point.

Ostuni shares its likeness to popular Hellenic coastal towns such as Santorini due to the dazzling effect of its whitewashed buildings and painted walls. The foundation of the town is built upon and carved into the sea-weathered pink-tinted stone which, paired with the sapphire Adriatic Sea and pale-white buildings, creates a scene you’ll have to see to believe.

3. Matera

Prior to the 1950s, Matera was a poverty-stricken eye-sore for Italy. The city’s inhabitants did not have access to electricity, running water, or sewage and slept in caves that had been occupied since the paleolithic era. Since the 1950s, evacuations, renovations, a UNESCO title, and a Mel Gibson movie have helped to transform Matera into the flourishing city it is today.

Walking down the winding stone staircases from the modern city into the ancient cave-dwellings known as Sassi, you can’t help but feel yourself being transported to another world. The dramatic weaving of grey-stoned buildings, panoramic hills, ominous cliffs, and the St. Pietro Caveoso Church culminate into a jaw-dropping feeling that can only be outwardly communicated as, wow.

To put it plainly, Santa Marias De Idris, Sassi, and the Matera area as a whole is an almost fictitious area that is a bucket-list item for any worldly traveler. Additionally, due to Matera’s remote location in southern Italy, it has managed to remain relatively unknown and still maintains an allure of mystic and discovery; however, Matera was recently named as the European Capital of Culture for 2019, so hurry over before this hidden gem meets the mainstream.

Whether you're a seasoned traveler, a student planning their study abroad trip, or just a fan of traveling, the Puglia region of Italy truly has it all (not to mention a lower cost of living and less crowds). As I excitedly plan for my own semester abroad to Italy, I can't wait to hit these breathtaking Italian gems and hope I've helped you feel the same!