Bathed in golden light with baroque cherubs, colourful shops and hotels full of old fashioned Italian glamour, Lecce is the perfect spot for an early summer break. Judith Baker shares her top tips for the perfect 48 hours in this historic part of Puglia
Found right in the heel of Italy’s boot, Lecce is the capital of the Salento region in Puglia. As well as being famous for its pretty coastal towns and romantic cities, Lecce is sometimes called the Florence of the Italian south because of its baroque architecture. It also has Roman ruins and some luxurious places to eat and stay.
Start the day with a Leccian breakfast of fresh fruit and its signature pastry pasticciotto – a heavenly custard filled parcel.
Enjoy at one of many chic coffee shops such as Caffe Cittadino near Piazza Sant’Oronzo, overlooked by cherubs and gargoyles.
Later in the morning try an almond latte at Alvino, one of Lecce’s most famous cafes. Linger till noon and you will hear the tenor who sings his heart out every day at this time.
The best way to explore Lecce is by meandering through its cobbled streets admiring the sandstone buildings dappled in golden light. The historic old town is small enough to walk round in two days, with plenty of time for cappuccino and cocktail stops en route.
THINGS TO DO IN LECCE
There are hundreds of churches with signature twisting columns carved with saints, cherubs and animals. A good starting point is Lecce’s cathedral in Piazza del Duomo, built in 1144 and rebuilt in the 17th century by Giuseppe Zimablo, whose distinctive ornate style characterises the city.
The Piazza also houses a bell tower, monastery and a tourist office, great for picking up a map and details of tours including cookery classes and papier mache making.
Lecce is famous for its papier-mache art, called cartapesta, and figurines made in this way are found around the city. The ceiling in the church of Santa Chiara is an 18th century cartapesta made to look like wood. The Castello Carlo V, which was expanded by the Spanish Holy Roman Emperor of the same name in the 16th century, even has a small papier-mache museum.
‘Piazza Sant’Oronzo is home to a Roman amphitheatre which still buzzes with life today and is surrounded by busy cafes and shops’
Piazza Sant’Oronzo in the heart of town is home to a Roman amphitheatre, which would once have seated 14,000 spectators. It still buzzes with life today and is surrounded by busy cafes and shops.
A short stroll away is the magical Museo Faggiano. The owner, Luciano Gaggiano, unearthed an archaeological treasure when he was checking his sewers back in 2001, and seven years of excavation uncovered rooms, escape tunnels, frescoes and artefacts dating back centuries. Luciano has made his family home into this incredible museum and is there to take your €5 entrance fee in person.
After soaking in the history, make time to pursue some shopping. Lecce’s cobbled streets house pretty boutiques selling crafts, jewellery, leatherware and antiques. The best are around Via Vittoria Emanuele and Piazza St Oronzo.
Where to eat in Lecce
Like much of Italy, Lecce enjoys an afternoon rest from 2pm-5pm, after which the city jumps into life. Take an early evening stroll to enjoy an aperitif at one of the bars such as Quanto Basta on Via Paladin and indulge in some serious people watching.
The city is famous for orecchiette pasta (which means ‘little ears’, reflecting the shape of the pasta) served with cima di rape (turnip tops), and it’s surprisingly good. Most Puglia food is fresh and simple, and do try the excellent local Salento wines, like Negroamaro.
Our favourite restaurants include Alle Due Corti on Corte dei Giugni for hearty local cuisine, and Cucina di Mamma Elvira on Via Ludovico Maremonti for a contemporary setting serving classic Italian dishes.
Where to stay in Lecce
Lecce’s most luxurious hotel is the Palazzo Bozzi Corso, which opened its grand doors in 2018. Palazzo Bozzi Corso by La Fiermontina is housed in a palace built in 1775 by Gabriele Bozzi Corso and later passed to another aristocratic family.
Parisian Giacomo Fiermonte who owns La Fiermontina Urban Resort just minutes away purchased the palace and transformed it into an all-suite, super luxurious, elegant hotel.
He has used his glamorous family history as inspiration and, as at sister property La Fiermontina employed French interior designers Charles Philippe & Christophe to create a distinctive look with strong colours, stylish furniture and a mix of antique and contemporary paintings, sculptures and objets d’art. A sweeping staircase goes up to the lounge area overlooking Lecce’s old town streets and historic skyline and at the top of the stairs is an elegant 1930s bar.
Sister property La Fiermontina Urban Resort, found just a short walk away, is situated in its own gardens with oversized dramatic sculptures, century old olive trees, 16 distinctive rooms and suites and its own chic restaurant serving modern Salentine cuisine.
Opened in 2015, La Fiermontina was lovingly converted from a former masseria – a fortified farmhouse or country estate typical of Puglia – over a 10-year period. The 17th century private home is filled with art and custom-design furniture reminiscent of 1920s Italy and, unusually for Lecce, has an outdoor swimming pool.
Tip: If you have more than 48 hours, add on a trip down the Adriatic coast to Gallipoli.
British Airways flies to Brindisi (which is about 45 minutes from Lecce by car or bus) from London Heathrow and to Bari (which is about two hours away from Lecce) from London Gatwick.