Traveler Caroline Goggin gives us the scoop on Polignano a Mare, a picturesque seaside town in Italy that you've never heard of.
PUGLIA, Italy – Polignano a Mare is one of those small, idyllic seaside towns that you want to both rave about and keep a secret. Sun bleached stone buildings rise out of rocky cliffs overlooking the Adriatic Sea. The historic center is a maze of slender pedestrian streets, where every so often you'll turn a corner and find a breathtaking view of the horizon. The town wraps around one central beach, where swimmers and cliff jumpers bask in the bright blue waters.
Incredibly, Polignano a Mare is still relatively and blissfully undiscovered by the hoards of tourists that descend on Italy each summer. Not many people speak English, which transforms every restaurant experience into an entertaining game of charades.
LAY OF THE LAND
The historic center of Polignano and the surrounding streets are small and entirely walkable. There is one main beach, easily seen from any viewpoint in the historic center, as well as a slightly smaller swimming beach just a five-minute walk outside the historic center and over the bridge.
IF YOU ONLY DO ONE THING
Spend ten minutes in Polignano a Mare on a warm, sunny day and you'll want to jump into the sea. The beaches are uncomfortably rocky, but the clear water is inviting and refreshing. The main beach has a naturally carved swim platform and several sea caves to explore just off the shore. The young and young-at-heart jump and flip from the rocky shoreline into the water, making it no surprise that Red Bull Cliff Diving has chosen the small town for its world series events three times since 2009.
WHAT YOU KNEW ON THE LAST DAY THAT YOU WISH YOU HAD KNOWN ON THE FIRST DAY
It's the ideal place to disconnect from reality and spend time swimming in the sea and sipping on an Aperol Spritz. Simultaneously when possible. If you need to work remotely, this is not the place for you. WiFi connections have trouble permeating the stone walls and are weak throughout the town.
WHAT TO DO
Expect to spend more time in the water than on the beach itself, which is rocky and crowded. Jump off the rocks, explore the sea caves, or bring snorkel gear and an inexpensive inflatable float to pass the time.
Explore the Coast
While there are a few sea caves just off the beach that you can swim into, there are even more along the coast that are only accessible by boat. Polignano Made in Love can help arrange hourly excursions with a local captain who can give a guided tour of the coastline with opportunities to swim in cavernous sea caves.
Day Trip to See Trulli Houses
Alberobello, a town known for the unique trulli houses that make up one of Italy's 51 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, is just a 40-minute drive from Polignano. The trulli are ancient structures made out of white limestone and cone-shaped roofs. The first trulli settlements date back to the Bronze Age and, legend has it, were created to evade taxes as they were perceived to be temporary and unstable and, therefore, not taxable. Today, Alberobello's trulli village is picturesque and bustling with shopkeepers who sell local crafts including linens, art, and ceramics.
Sip a Sidewalk Mojito
Mojitos don't normally come to mind when you think of Italy — but La Casa del Mojito, tucked away just off the main plaza of Polignano, has become an unofficial meeting spot in town for locals and visitors alike. Grab one of the benches outside for prime people-watching.
WHERE TO STAY
Polignano a Mare has many bed and breakfast options as well as Airbnbs. I stayed at Casa Dorsi and had a wonderful time. While there, I learned that many of the owners who list through Airbnb and Booking.com also have or know of additional apartments that they don't post online, so it's worth inquiring even if your top choice is already booked.
WHERE TO EAT
Southern Italy is known for light, fresh cuisine. The region is most famous for burrata, orecchiette pasta, olives, and olive oil. The food in Polignano a Mare is incredibly affordable, and you can find outstanding meals at the most casual of spots.
Mint Cucina Fresca
Superb food, service, and decor. The menu, which is predominantly vegetarian and vegan, combines flavors from the south and the north to create innovative dishes that rival the best restaurants in New York City. Reservations are not required, but are a good idea.
The street food restaurant has locals lined up around the block daily. Order fresh seafood sandwiches and salads to take away and enjoy on a sidewalk bench or at the beach.
Pizza e Fichi
A casual and affordable pizza restaurant beloved by locals. Try one of the plentiful appetizers, a delicious thin crust pizza, and the local wines.
Grotta Palazzese Summer Cave
It's possible you've seen this restaurant on Instagram: the open-air terrace is carved into a cliff face, offering unobstructed views of the Adriatic Sea. Like many fine dining restaurants, feedback is mixed about whether the quality of food actually warrants the high price tag. But if you value a good photo over great food, this restaurant is definitely one to visit.
If you're on a budget and staying in an Airbnb with a kitchen, shop at the daily farmers market and nearby cheese shop Capricci di Latte (Via Vito Cosimo Basile, 37/39; +39-080-344-8730), which sells fresh homemade burrata and mozzarella.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
How to Get There
Polignano a Mare is located just south of Bari, the capital city of Italy's Puglia region. It's a 45-minute drive from Bari International Airport (BRI). If you don't want to rent a car, the public transportation is easy to navigate: take a fifteen-minute metro or bus ride from the airport to Bari Centrale railway station. From there, trains run several times a day and take 35 minutes. The Polignano a Mare train station is a fifteen-minute walk from the historic center but, if you're traveling with luggage, ask your lodging to arrange transportation via rickshaw.
If you're seeking out Polignano as a place to unplug and pass the time relaxing and swimming, then there's no need to rent a car. However, if you plan to do any day trips to inland towns like Alberobello or Matera, it's best to have a rental car as hiring a driver for the day can be quite expensive and difficult to organize.
If you do rent a car, check with your Airbnb or hotel about parking arrangements prior to arrival. There is no parking in the historic center, although your lodging may offer parking a short (walkable) distance outside the main gates. If you're considering renting a car, be sure to arrange one in advance — especially if you only know how to drive an automatic (which are limited in quantity). Beware of hidden fees and confirm if they require an international drivers license before reserving.
Don't waste your time at the town's office of tourism; head straight to Polignano Made In Love, which can help arrange (free of charge) daily rental cars and excursions like boat tours and cooking classes.