During my trip to Puglia I visited Lecce, a beautiful small city located almost at the very tip of the ‘heel of the boot’ in Southern Italy. It’s often called the Florence of the South, due to its abundant Baroque architecture. Perhaps that’s why the city really resonated with me, since I do love Florence.
I actually enjoyed Lecce, but didn’t have nearly enough time there. I would highly recommend a visit. Here are some of the things to do and see in Lecce.
The hub of Lecce’s life has to be centered around the oddly shaped main square – the Piazza Sant’Oronzo. Here you’ll find cafes, shops and restaurants of course, which are perfect for just taking a break and for people watching, but the piazza also offers lots of history too.
Marked by the statue of the same name, Saint Oranzo can be seen sitting atop a column, blessing the city. The column is said to mark the end of the famous Appian Way, but today it makes a pretty awesome landmark for finding your way around the city if you get lost.
The best part about this large square is the giant Roman amphitheatre, which considering the age of the ruins, is in exceptionally good condition.
And it wouldn’t be Puglia without some representation of the olive tree. There is a beautiful old and gnarly one right on the square.
Spend time on the piazza in the evening, when it’s bustling with activity. And if you visit in summer, you’ll get to see live outdoor performances.
A short walk from the piazza is Charles V Castle, which is also worth a look. Though the outside of this former fortification is rather stark, you’ll see art and stained glass displayed in spacious rooms with vaulted ceilings and stone details on the inside.
Piazza del Duomo
If you’re a Top Gear fan, you may recognize this spot from an episode filmed in Lecce. This giant piazza is home to the Duomo (listed below), but also to a bell tower, Bishop’s palace and seminary. And it’s a photographer’s dream. Even if you don’t visit the church, it’s worth a visit to this square just to admire the architecture and colored stone. Best times are very early morning or right before sunset for the light and lack of people.
Like most typical Italian cities – Lecce has more than its fair share of churches. Over twenty to be exact! Too many for me to visit. You could spend your entire stay hopping from church to church – but who would want to do that and miss out on all the food and wine? I can only do so many churches before becoming ‘holy fatigued’ – they all look the same to me. Here are three major ones to visit, all with no admission charge.
Basilica di Santa Croce
Though my sad photo doesn’t do it any justice, this church is perhaps the best example of Baroque style out of all of Lecce’s churches. The basilica began as a monastery in the 14th century, was constructed in several stages, and was completed in 1695. The facade has a beautiful large stained glass rose window and is littered with stone carvings from animals to vegetables. The inside boasts seventeen alters, more ornate flourishes like carved stone columns, chandeliers and a wooden and gold vaulted ceiling containing three paintings.
Chiesa di Sant’Irene
Named after Lecce’s Patron Saint Irene, this church was over 40 years in the making and was completed in 1639. The inside is rather plain and simple, but bright and the dark wooden pews really pop against the pure white walls.
The Duomo sits on the piazza of the same name. It was built in 1144 and dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. It’s unique because of its two entrances and two facades. The more ornate facade, seen above, depicts the coat of arms and statues of Saint Orontious, Justus and Fortunatus.
Inside, the nave is shaped like a cross and has a whopping twelve alters and a crypt. The wooden ceiling holds a painting representing the Last Supper.
There is more in-depth info on churches of Lecce here.
Art, History and Gardens
The papier-mache tradition came to Lecce by way of Venice. In Lecce it’s called Cartapesta. There are lots of shops, and even if you aren’t in the mood to buy anything and bring it home, it’s worth popping in and out of a few shops just to appreciate the artisan craftsmanship. You can also visit the Museo della Cartapesta, which is a museum dedicated to the art of papier-mache.
Lecce has an Archeological museum, Museo Storico Archeologico which I didn’t visit, but have heard wonderful things about. If gardens and outdoor space is more your speed – try the public gardens at Villa Comunale or the Botanical Gardens, Orto Botanico.
One of my most favorite activities in any Italian city is wandering the streets of the centro storico (historic center). This is always encouraged, especially when joining the locals on their nightly passeggiata.
The pretty Baroque architecture, showcasing the special ‘Lecce Stone’, not to mention the pretty doors, windows, balconies, loggias and archways will have you snapping photos everywhere you turn. One evening, I came across a street market with stalls offering clothing, crafts, trinkets and also vendors selling street food like roasted chestnuts, which were in season during my fall visit.
And why not top off an evening with an after dinner espresso at this cute little cafe?
Lecce is easily accessible by car if you fly into either the Bari or Brindisi Casale airports. You can also take a local FSE train from Bari to Lecce in about 90 minutes or from Brindisi to Lecce in about 30 minutes. Local bus service runs from Brindisi to Lecce several times a day.
Want to plan a trip to Puglia, but don’t know where to start? Here’s how I can help.