Last updated on March 16th, 2022 at 04:15 pm
More often than not, Puglia is referred to as the new Tuscany. This spectacular region in Italy’s Deep South offers travellers the opportunity to experience the authentic dolce vita without the crowds, exactly the way Tuscany did a couple of decades ago. Therefore, no wonder Lecce’s nickname is Florence of the South. Adorned with countless gorgeous historical buildings and sprinkled with irresistible Italian vibes, Lecce does indeed remind of its northern counterpart in many respects. Yet it is also unique in so many ways. So, here’s our guide on what to do in Lecce, one of Italy’s prettiest cities. Enjoy!
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What to do in Lecce and how long to stay
When planning a trip to Puglia, many travellers tend to overlook Lecce. This is because most of them visit Puglia mainly for the region’s stunning beaches. However, a chance to explore this gem of a city should not be missed. The Old Town of Lecce is famous for its unique baroque architecture. The latter is so special and original that it even has its own name: barocco leccese.
The main characteristic of Lecce’s baroque is that it is incredibly elaborate and expressive. This is evident in the Old Town’s countless churches and old palazzi alike. Lecce is also famous for la pietra leccese. This is a kind of limestone which is extremely soft and workable, thus ideal for sculptures. La pietra leccese made it possible for baroque artists of the past to carve all these minute details we can now see on building facades across the Old Town.
In order to make the most of your trip to Lecce, consider spending at least two days there. Apart from all the amazing things to see in Lecce itself though, the city is also an excellent base to explore the entire region. Last but not least, Lecce is utterly charming in the evening when the best way to experience the Old Town’s unique ambience is by joining locals for the famous passeggiata, the leisurely stroll along the city’s quaint streets that Italians enjoy before dinner.
How to get to Lecce
Lecce is the most important city in Salento, the area that coincides with the actual heel of the Italian boot. There are two international airports (and ports) near Lecce: Bari (150km) and Brindisi (40km). Lecce also connects to most major Italian cities by train or bus.
Needless to say that driving is one of the best ways to get to Lecce as this will give you the freedom to plan an extended road trip across Puglia, just like we did. Rent a car in Bari and get to Lecce in just 2 hours.
Top 13 things to do in Lecce Italy
1. Stand in the middle of the imposing Piazza Del Duomo
Lecce’s Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square) is an impressively large open space that comes into striking contrast with the Old Town’s narrow alleys. The square is particularly enchanting in the evening when, dimly lit, it welcomes locals and visitors alike for the quintessentially Italian passeggiata.
Lecce Cathedral is the predominant building on the square. The most interesting thing about Lecce’s Duomo is that it has two facades: one facing the centre of the square and the other facing the west side of the piazza. Apart from the Cathedral, the square is also home to the Campanile (Bell Tower), the Bishop’s Palace and the Seminary, all of which are exquisite examples of Lecce’s baroque architecture.
2. Taste the exquisite pasticciotto leccese
This is the typical sweet treat of Lecce. You can find it in bakeries, cafés, restaurants and hotel breakfasts all across Salento but why miss the chance to try it at its very homeland? The pasticciotto leccese is a mouthwatering short-crust pastry filled with custard.
The latter is either plain or comes in a variety of flavours, such as pistachio, almond or even Nutella. The pasticciotto is almost always present at any breakfast buffet but it can also be enjoyed throughout the day. Try to eat it while it’s still warm and you can thank us later.
3. Stay at an authentic palazzo
In a city famous for its unique architecture, it would be a great pity not to stay at one of many restored palazzi which are scattered across the Old Town’s picturesque streets. One of these historical buildings, which dates back to the 1930s, houses the superb Palazzo Bignami, probably the best B&B in Lecce. Liana and Enzo, the hosts at Palazzo Bignami, are gifted with a unique sense of hospitality and they manage to make their guests feel at home from the very first moment they set foot in the B&B.
The common areas of Palazzo Bignami are among the prettiest we have seen during our travels. The reception area as well as the entire B&B are decorated in superb taste and feel incredibly cosy. We fell in love with the huge and bright kitchen/dining hall which was equipped with freshly made sweet and savoury snacks, hot and cold beverages, soft drinks and wine on a 24/7 basis. If that doesn’t feel like home, I don’t know what does.
We also enjoyed spending time at the splendid terrace with its spectacular views to Lecce’s rooftops. The terrace is a paradise of brightly coloured flowers and there are comfortable chairs as well as sunbeds available for guests.
Last but not least, the B&B boasts a homely sitting room with beautiful frescoes on its walls and ceiling which give away the most fascinating secret about the building’s past. The palazzo used to be a clinic and this very sitting room was the clinic’s chapel!
Staying at one of Palazzo Bignami‘s Junior Suites was one of the reasons why we loved our short trip to Lecce so much. We often say that our accommodation choices affect the success of a trip to a great or lesser extent.
This was one of the cases that our choice of accommodation rendered our trip all the more memorable. Our room was impeccably clean, enchantingly scented and beyond words comfortable. What else could we ask for at the end of a long day on the road, I wonder. Nothing much, really.
We had a sneak peek at some of the B&B’s other rooms as well and we can honestly say that they were equally adorable. Therefore, no matter which room type you choose, be it a suite, a deluxe room or a standard one, Palazzo Bignami is the perfect accommodation choice in the heart of the wonder that is Lecce.
4. Visit the Roman Amphitheatre and St Oronzo Square
Lecce is home to a Roman Amphitheatre dating back to the 2nd century AD. The amphitheatre was a chance discovery by construction workers back in 1901. Although later excavated and restored, the most impressive feature of the amphitheatre is that part of it still lies buried under the streets and buildings of Lecce.
The amphitheatre is situated at St Oronzo Square which is a favourite among locals. Once Lecce’s market square, Piazza Sant’Oronzo is dominated by the Colonna di Sant’Oronzo, a 29m tall column dedicated to the city’s patron saint.
5. Admire superb baroque architecture in Lecce’s churches
The best way to appreciate the unique style of barocco leccese architecture is by checking out some of Lecce’s churches. The Old Town is home to more than 40 beautiful churches. Among them, those of Santa Chiara, Sant’Irene, San Giovanni Battista and San Matteo stand out.
6. Marvel at the Basilica di Santa Croce
The facade of the Basilica di Santa Croce is the absolute masterpiece of the city. It is carved entirely out of pietra leccese. The countless details adorning the church’s facade go beyond the wildest imagination with animals, flowers, plants and cherubs creating an absolutely unique piece of art. When in Lecce, all roads (or should I say guidebooks) lead to the Basilica of Santa Croce.
This is why we couldn’t wait to look at the incredible facade with our own eyes. As soon as we reached the church, we stood in awe before its entrance. No, awe doesn’t actually describe how we felt. Let’s replace that with despair. Wondering why? Well, all of the church’s splendid exterior was completely covered up due to restoration works. We never got to see the flagship of barocco leccese after all. Bummer of epic proportions.
7. Discover the Old Town’s gates
Lecce was a city once enclosed within strong defensive walls. The latter have not survived the relentless passing of time but three of the old city gates have. The oldest of the three gates is Porta Rudiae which is situated at the Eastern part of Lecce. The porta we see now was actually constructed in 1703 as the original gate collapsed some time during the 17th century.
The southernmost entrance to the historic centre of Lecce is Porta San Biagio. Nowadays, the latter still serves as an important gateway, this time to the area where the heart of Lecce nightlife beats. Last but not least, Porta Napoli is, perhaps, the most impressive of all. The gate, which once marked the starting point of the road to Naples (hence its name), dominates the vibrant Piazzeta Arco di Trionfo. The Obelisk of Lecce which faces the gate is also worth checking out.
8. Eat the best pizza in Puglia
Puglia is famous for its delicious focaccia rather than its pizza. That said, we couldn’t resist having pizza for dinner quite a few times during our 2-week trip across the region. Hands down the best pizza we had in our entire trip was at Pizza & Co, a small family business in Lecce which serves heaven by the slice. Brothers Maurizio and Paolo, the masterminds behind Pizza & Co, come from Naples.
That pretty much says it all about their pizza making skills. First of all, the pizza dough is out of this world. The latter is topped with top quality ingredients, baked to perfection and always served with the brightest of Maurizio’s smiles. Honestly, it can’t get any better than this. Keep in mind that slices are very big although our motto is There’s no such thing as too much pizza.
9. Take a stroll at Villa Comunale
The most popular public garden in Lecce is the ideal place to sit back and relax in between long sightseeing walks. The garden was created in 1830. Nowadays it boasts a large collection of plants and trees as well as all necessary facilities (toilets, bar, benches etc) for visitors to spend a day at the park without a worry in the world.
10. Wander around Lecce’s Castle
The Castle of Charles V in Lecce is not as impressive as other castles within the region. However, taking a stroll around its grounds is a great way to spend a fine afternoon in Lecce. The castle is in excellent condition and it hosts various cultural events and exhibitions. There is also a papier-mâché museum on site.
11. Find Greece in Italy
Did you know that there is a considerable number of centuries-old Greek towns in Puglia? Visiting Grecia Salentina (Greece of Salento) is a unique experience and Lecce is the ideal base from where to explore this part of Puglia by taking easy day trips.
12. Learn about the papier-mâché art
Lecce has a very long tradition in the art of papier-mâché. The use of a mixture of paper and glue in order to create sculptures dates back to the 17th century when such cheap materials were godsent for religious artists who couldn’t possibly afford more expensive ones, such as marble or wood.
No wonder churches, as well as other public buildings, are adorned with papier-mâché statues and other decorative elements. If you are interested in learning more about this special art form, you can visit one of many papier-mâché workshops in the Old Town or the above mentioned papier-mâché museum inside the Castle of Lecce.
13. Explore the prettiest seaside towns in Puglia
Last but not least, Lecce is a good base to explore some of the most beautiful beach towns in Puglia. Monopoli, Polignano a Mare, Gallipoli, Otranto, Leuca, the list is endless. The region is abundant in picture-perfect seaside towns, some of which are laid-back and quiet while others are super touristy and crowded. Yet they all share one thing in common. They are undeniably charming.
So, are you already planning your own trip to the Florence of the South? If so, keep in mind that Puglia is an enchanting region with way too many treasures waiting to be discovered. This is why we encourage you to spend at least one week exploring Salento rather than just travel all the way to Lecce for a couple of days or so. Puglia is still a slow travel heaven, so try to play along. You won’t regret it!
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Disclosure: We were guests at Palazzo Bignami, yet all opinions are our own, as always.