Ahhh, welcome to Lecce, Italy; a historically preserved, walled city situated in the heel of Italy’s boot in the Puglia region. Within the old city center are numerous Baroque-style churches, half-buried Roman ruins, locally-run restaurants, a plethora of shops and artist studios. The city, rich in tradition, still abides by local customs of mid-afternoon closures and evening strolls through the streets. During our month-long stay, we navigated the maze of cobblestone lanes and discovered the 10 best things to do in Lecce, Italy.
When we made plans to go to Rome, the purpose wasn’t to take in the sights or to immerse ourselves into the culture. We were going for one reason: to meet my mom and sister. It wasn’t our first time in Rome, but it was for them. Their trip was a two week introduction to the Big Three: London, Paris and Rome; we were joining them for the last leg. Like most first-timers to a city, they wanted to see the sights and had plotted a 3-day itinerary of sightseeing in Rome.
It’s been a long time since I’ve participated in a mad dash of tourist sights, but I wanted to experience the city with my family, so I jumped on board with their schedule; Kris was more content to wander on his own. Our days started fairly early – earlier than our typical days, anyway – and ended long past dark. With the tour guide book in one hand and a camera in the other, we determinedly routed our way through an ambitious 3-day itinerary of sightseeing in Rome.
It is amazing how quickly a month can go by; it feels like we just arrived in Lecce and we are already packing up to leave. We booked a month-long stay in Lecce because we wanted to experience living in – not just visiting – a small European town (and to test the waters to see if we could really live abroad someday). We wanted to feel a little more grounded and more integrated with the community. We wanted to be mistaken for locals.
It took a couple weeks, but we eventually started leaving the map at home. We adjusted our schedule to coincide with the mid-day break and late dining hours. Every day we wave to our neighbor across the street and exchange “Ciaos” with the bookstore owner as we pass by. More than once we were stopped and asked for directions, but, unfortunately, this is what makes us feel foreign again as we haven’t improved our Italian in the slightest. We are continually disappointed with our inability to communicate, often feeling embarrassed that we have had every opportunity to learn a second language, yet – through our own fault – only speak one.
It took us some time to understand the typical hours of eating in Lecce, Italy and, while our first impressions of typical Lecce cuisine still stand, once we really got it figured out we were introduced to an abundance of dining options. When our friends arrived, visiting from the United States, we were ready to take on the local food scene and adapted to eating much later in the night than we are accustomed to. We found lively cafes and restaurants we never knew existed; we had passed by several times, but only during the day when they were concealed behind shuttered doors and gates.
We didn’t have high expectations for the bars in Lecce, Italy. It is a small, historic town that markets its architecture more than its nightlife. Being in the middle of a lesser-known wine region, we knew wine would be flowing, but we weren’t sure what we would find in the way of craft beer and cocktails. With our fun-time friends in town and my reluctance to stay in one location too long, we have discovered a multitude of imbibing establishments.
Bars in Lecce, Italy: Birra
We have a knack for finding beer meccas, but don’t let that get you excited, Lecce isn’t one of them. Italy isn’t exactly known for its beer production, but craft brew is certainly on the rise. We found more than a few bars in Lecce, Itay serving up pints of goodness along with fun times.
Lecce is home to an astounding number of churches; there are 22 churches of Lecce, Italy listed on the local tourist map of the historic city center. Even after our month-long stay we haven’t seen them all. Visiting hours vary, but are usually reserved for the morning with a few reopening in the evening, but even posted times aren’t exact (making it a little difficult to time our stops).
As we seem to be in the Baroque capital of southern Italy, most churches of Lecce, Italy are heavily decorated on the outside with intricate carvings of columns, statues, animals, plants and scrolls. When we have timed our visits right, we’ve been treated to an array of interiors – from plain and simple to being on the verge of gaudy. Most churches display original works of art – dating back several centuries.
The historic center of Lecce has three remaining gates of entry: Porta Rudiae, Porta San Biagio and Porta Napoli. It’s easy to see all three Lecce, Italy city gates on a simple stroll through town and it’s worth it to pass through the gates to the ‘outside’ of the city to get the view looking back in.
Lecce, Italy city gates: Porta Rudiae
Sometimes called Porta Sant’Oronzo for his statue that graces the top, Porta Rudiae is the oldest city gate, but was rebuilt in 1703. It features a single arch with Sant’Dominic and Sant’Irene on either side of Sant’Oronzo. Below the saints, near the top of the pillars, are the sculptures of Lecce’s founders.
The last three cities we’ve stayed in have been landlocked (Seville, Madrid and Lecce) and it had been far too long since we’ve seen the sea. From Lecce, the Ionian and Adriatic Seas are just a short (and inexpensive) one hour train ride away, so we headed west to the Ionian Sea for a day trip to Gallipoli, Italy.
Day trip to Gallipoli, Italy
The historic town and castle sit just off shore on an island, once only accessible by drawbridge. Now, a permanent bridge links the old walled city to the mainland inviting visitors to explore the labyrinth of alleys, the recently restored castle, and a few century-old churches, all surrounded in the beauty of turquoise water. Since we were visiting in the off-season on a weekday afternoon, the town was quiet, with most places closed and only a few people out and about. But, with the sun shining and endless views, we happily explored the city with a walking tour to 10 sights.
I’ve previously stated that we rarely spend time visiting museums, but in Lecce we’re making an exception. Museums abound in this city that has both an archeological significant past and an intense art history. Combine that with the current string of rainy days and museums are quickly becoming a desirable option. The entry fee for museums is affordable (€3 fee Faggiano Museum; €3 Roman Theater Museum; and €3 into the Carlo V Castle, which is required for entry to the Paper Mache Museum), but there are two very worthwhile free museums in Lecce, Italy: MUST Museum and Provincial Museum.
The weather forecast for Lecce was riddled with rain, but that wasn’t going to dampen our spirits. Our friends, Noel and Susan – affectionately nicknamed, “The Noels” – were making the long haul from Phoenix, Arizona to visit us. For the third time on our journey, we were being joined by friends and we were ecstatic that we were welcoming this couple on our trip. Staying for five short days, our focus fell more on catching up with one another and introducing them to the social lifestyle in Lecce, rather than tourism.