If you are planning a visit or simply curious about Ostuni, Puglia, then you are on the right page. I invite you to keep reading and learn about the legends of its origin, its rich history and tips on what to do, eat and drink.
There’s no doubt that Ostuni boasts an old history with archeological findings date back to the palaeolithic era, over 20,000 years ago, and that it’s highly coveted throughout history.
Archeologist unearthed the tomb of the oldest mother in the world, named as such because it contained the remains of a pregnant woman with an eight month old baby in her womb in Santa Maria di Agnano cave just outside Ostuni in 1991. Eventually, carbon date tests show that she died 28,000 years ago, and rather unusual for the era, she was mummified and sported seashell headdress and ceremonial outfit.
Why would this small town in a small region have such a long and, as you’ll discover, rich history? One obvious answer comes to mind: location, location, location.
Perching like a crown on top of a hill, and jutting from the surrounding mountains towards the sea, Ostuni spreads uncontested from the base of the hill to the Adriatic sea. How uncontested, you ask? Suffice to say that on a clear day, from the bastions of Old Ostuni, you can catch a glimpse of Brindisi, some 30km to the south and Monopoli 30km to the north. That’s over 60km of coastline.
Stay at Casa dei Fiori and bask in this magnificent view from your glass enclosed private terrace.
On top of its prime location, Ostuni is also blessed with the fact that the three sides of the hill facing the sea are all sheer. Consequently, the only way to reach the city is via two gentler slopes that start right under the front wall, which makes them easy to protect from above. In addition, the hills around Ostuni are scattered with natural caves which provided refuge to the early nomadic tribes that originally inhabited the area, and later to the settlers that build the city. Finally, the natural bay just down the hill in the seaside village of Villanova is ideal for boats to anchor, and voilà, you have all the ingredients for the perfect spot to settle.
Legends say that the first settlements in Ostuni dated back to the Messapians, a Greek tribe from the famous Troy period (around 8th century BC). According to the same legend, the entire area from Cisternino to Ostuni was under the control of Sturnol, one of Diomede’s best fighters, and that upon founding the city, Sturnol named it after himself. The legend has a ring of truth to it since in the local dialect Ostuni is called “Stune.”
However, a more probable origin of the city name was that the original settlement was destroyed during one of the frequent wars between the Messapians and the Spartans. As a result, a new fortified city was built (Astu = fortified town, Neu = new) which later became Ostuni.
The medieval town
The city of Ostuni went on to pass from one civilization to the next throughout its long history. The historical centre in its form today dates back to the XII century when Frederic II of Swabia (the Holy Roman Empire) decided that the city should be developed due to its strategic location. A later ruler, the Aragonese, will further increase fortifications by creating the round turrets. In the early 15th century, after the sack of Otranto in the hands of the Ottoman Turks, Ostuni erected two outpost towers by the sea at Torre Pozzella and Torre St.Lorenzo. By this time, Ostuni counts over 17.000 souls.
Ostuni was enclosed within its defensive walls throughout the 17th century when the plague spread and devastated all of Europe. Curiously, in Ostuni the disease only caused a few deaths. This was attributed initially to a miracle from St.Oronzo who became the saint protector of the city (there’s a prominent statue of him in the main square), and later on to its famous white walls. The more likely explanation is that thanks to an abundance of limestone in the area, it was customary to paint the city walls in white since it helps deflect the heat and keeps the dwellings cooler while also reflecting light in the narrow streets below. However, unbeknownst to them at that time, limestone wash is a natural antiseptic, so the entire city was in fact sterilized.
The “new” town
The city will finally expand outside its defensive walls in the 18th century when the Bourbon dynasty took control of the Kingdom of Naples, to which Ostuni is a part of, and brought stability to the area. The wall that faced inland was dismantled and the newer areas were built. Piazza della Liberta, Ostuni’s main square, became the new centre. Since then the city has been on a continuous and steady expansion outward to the surrounding hills.
Today Ostuni counts just over 30,000 inhabitants in an area spanning roughly 2km across. This makes for an interesting city as one can take a leisurely walk and witness how the architecture has developed through time: from the medieval 11th century core (nicknamed “La Terra”) to the modern, 21st century outer part of the new town. Should you embark in this architectural journey through history, it’s recommended that you walk in the general direction of your destination. Discard the fear of getting lost and ignore the maps, paper or otherwise, and make sure that you don’t miss the hidden and the more obvious beautiful details of the city’s buildings and monuments.
What to See and Do
While in the White City, simply park your car and forget it as you can go anywhere on foot. Additionally, the historical centre is a restricted traffic area (“ZTL”), which means driving through or near it would most likely result in a fine.
Piazza della Libertà
Start your visit by going to Piazza della Libertà, Ostuni’s main square. Here you find the obelisk of St.Oronzo erected in 1771. It commemorates the triumph (some say miracle) of the saint over the plague.
Look closely at the obelisk and at St.Oronzo’s hand that points to the air, you’ll notice two fingers pointing vertically instead of three fingers (thumb, index and middle) stretch horizontally that signifies a blessing from a patron saint. That is because the actual patron saint of the city is St.Biagio. St.Oronzo with his two fingers pointing vertically is merely showing his victory as defender of the city.
Facing the saint to your right, you can see Caffe’ Fanelli with its outdoor tables and chairs. Stop here for a coffee or a pasticciotto and embrace the dolce vita among the bustling square and passersby.
Continue to the opposite end of the square where Ostuni city hall is situated, housed in an old monastery. Feel free to go inside and up to the first floor. While the individual rooms that now constitute offices and conference rooms are off limit, the main hall is itself quite spectacular. On the walls, huge tapestries and paintings tell the history of Ostuni and Puglia from its legendary beginning to the post world war era.
Notice how the men and women in the paintings are both depicted with thick muscles and bones. It’s to represent the hard farmer’s life, and how both sexes are seen equally as pillars of the society.
While staying in Ostuni, don’t miss the various city sponsored events held in the main cloister. The list is advertised normally by the entrance.
Next door is the church of St.Francis of Assisi (XIV century) which is definitely a must visit. Statues and paintings fill its side altars and walls. They are exquisite representations of the baroque art in Puglia. Even if you may get overwhelmed as you admire the walls, be sure to also look up at the ceiling to appreciate its woodworks.
From here enter the White City proper along Cathedral Road. Many vendors line the street offering all kinds of artisan made products. Stop by CIMAF, a family run business. For generations they have been making their own olive oil. Have a taste of their oil and do not resist the temptation to buy some for yourself, because where else can you buy premium grade olive oil for about the same price as supermarket grade olive oil?
Along the way, stop for a visit at the Museo della Civilta’ Murgiana (Museum of Prehistoric History). Take in the artifacts found in the area and appreciate the long history of the place. While you’re there, also pay respects to the oldest mother in the world.
Keep moving up toward the Cathedral of Ostuni. Built in late 1400s, its primary architectural and political importance made it a Co-cathedral with the Brindisi cathedral. Quite a feat for a small town such as Ostuni.
Notice the main “Rosone” (rose window) on the cathedral’s main entrance. It is the second biggest in Europe after the cathedral of Palma de Mallorca. Due to its elaborate stone artwork, many believe that this building is from the Baroque period, while it’s actually from the Romanesque era. You can say that this building was ahead of its time.
Find the hidden path
From here on, just lose yourself. That is the only way to explore the unexplored. Even after years of living here, one can still discover a hidden corner or two in the maze of small roads and alleyways. Notice how the houses are built one over the other. It’s their way to take advantage of the peripheral walls’ height and the hill slopes. No wonder they used, and still use to this day, lime-wash to paint the walls of the town. If the walls didn’t reflect the abundant sunshine, the tight streets would be in constant penumbra at best. Have sunglasses handy, you may actually find the freshly painted walls extremely bright.
If you are hungry, stop at Il Posto Affianco. It’s Apulian and Southern Italian cuisine done right and is one of the best deals you can find in Ostuni. To obtain the restaurant space, the owner Sergio and his sons have converted a series of old houses. The small houses and their tiny rooms will make you feel like you’re in your own private medieval dining room. Should you prefer an alfresco meal, ask to be seated outside in the small, shady courtyard.
Via Oronzo Quaranta
Eventually, find your way to Porta Nova. Literally the New Gate, it dates from the XV century and was one of the main entrances to Ostuni old town. From here walk down to Oronzo Quaranta street and walk along the outside wall. Take in the sheer size of the defensive wall of the city juxtaposed to the infinite space before you. Be amazed by the view of green carpet of centenarian olive groves and the azure Adriatic sea as far as the eye can see.
Scalinata Monsignor Antelmi
As you reach the other side of the city walls, find Scalinata Monsignor Antelmi, just below Piazza della Liberta’ square. Treat yourself to a gelato at Cremeria Alla Scala while you either sit at one of their tables outside or, do like the Italians, sit on one of the low walls or stairs around the area. In the evening, there are often free shows on the wide steps that bring you back to the main square.
Finally, from the main square (Piazza della Libertà), the choices are numerous. Here is a list of possible destinations:
Corso Vittorio Emanuele
Also known as Via Lecce by the locals, the buildings on this prestigious street were built in the early 1900’s. Admire some interesting facades as you walk along. However, the real showstoppers on this broad street are the lookout points. Here, you can take the most amazing pictures of both the old town and the olive groves and the sea beyond.
Constructed during the Baroque era by some of the richest families of Ostuni, gaze at some of the most beautiful domus dimora (mansions) in town.
Selva di Ostuni
Continue along Corso Mazzini. Just before the roundabout for Villanova and Fasano, you will cross a small asphalted road that travels uphill. Walk along the hills that stretch from Ostuni parallel to the coastline. It’s a treat for photographers and those that enjoy trekking!
When you drive or arrive from the sea, you will notice that these hills seem more like a wall. That is because they are in fact part of the “Altopiano delle Murge” (Murge Plateau). The name “Murge” is from latin murex, sharp stone or wall from the impression of facing a huge wall as you approach from the sea. “Valle d’Itria” is located on the other side of this plateau (keep on reading to learn more about it).
Parco Rimembranze (Remembrance Park)
If you are looking for a place to relax, or to let the kids burn some energy, stop by Remembrance Park. Also knows as Villa Comunale by the locals, here you will find an area dedicated to the little ones. Also, the large park has many shaded and sunny spots with benches if you are looking for some down time. While you’re here enjoy watching some older men play bocce or kids play with a ball. Finally, here you find also a small caffè where you can sit and enjoy a coffee or a drink.
If you happen to be in Ostuni on the second Sunday of the month, check out the antique market here. Arrive before lunch and find all kind of rarities and treasures. BE READY TO BARGAIN!
You can not come to Italy and not visit a market. In Ostuni, walk across town starting from Piazza della Liberta square and you will reach a big open space at the end of via Nino Sansone. Here, most days you see people doing sports like jogging or walking or even practicing their motorcycle skills driving around orange cones. However, this area really comes alive on Saturday mornings which is market day.
If you come by car, be careful of where you park. A lot of police patrol the area and if you don’t park properly, you will get a fine. Luckily, there is a private parking at the beginning of via Caduti di Nassiriya just across the street. At the market, you can find everything imaginable: clothing, shoes, linens, kitchenware, plants, and of course, food, food, and more food. The market is so big that it spreads to the surrounding streets.
If you’ve always wanted to learn or improve your Italian, you’ll be happy to know that in Ostuni is home to an excellent Italian language school called Casa di Puglia. During your stay here, why not take advantage and participate in one of the study holiday programmes offered year round.
Ostuni is located about 8km (5 miles) from the Adriatic coast where you can find some of the most spectacular coastlines in Europe. Here you find everything, from white fine sandy beaches to rocky cliffs protruding over the water. Furthermore, many of the beaches along this coastline are awarded the Blue Flag certificate year after year which means that they are certified for the quality and the cleanliness of the water, safety and environmentally friendly attributes. This is such a vast topic by itself that it will have its own post; make sure to subscribe so you don’t miss it.
Ostuni is located in between two regions in Puglia: the Salento and Valle d’Itria. Both regions are home to some of the most sought after attractions in Puglia, and you can reach them from Ostuni in under one hour drive. Hence, Ostuni is an excellent base to visit these beautiful regions. Why not stay longer, take advantage of the central location and avoid having to constantly change accommodations and to pack and unpack your luggage. Instead, do day trips and come back to the comfort of your home away from home in the evening. Also in this case, the topic is so vast that it will have its own post.
Vacation In Puglia friends
Here are some friendly businesses we believe you will enjoy visiting.
Where to eat:
Il Posto Affianco
Where to have a drink:
Where to go for dessert:
Cremeria Alla Scala
Where to buy Olive Oil:
Where to learn Italian:
Casa di Puglia
In Ostuni, Puglia, Italy, you can find a wide variety of accommodations; from traditional hotels and resorts to camping grounds to holiday rentals including the well-curated vacation rental homes offered by Vacation in Puglia. From a stately historic masseria with private pool surrounded by centuries-old olive trees, to a typical Ostuni stone home complete with rooftop terrace offering amazing view of the city and the sea. Find our full selection of rental homes to fulfill all your needs and budgets here.
Ostuni, nicknamed the White City is a small but famous city situated in the centre of Puglia, Italy, in the Alto Salento sub-region of Puglia. The city is famous for its citadel-like medieval centre overlooking the green carpet of thousand year old olive trees and the blue Adriatic sea. Visit our useful links and blog posts for ideas and inspiration.
Definitely. Ostuni’s location roughly in the centre of Puglia allows you to easily reach most of Puglia’s main attractions like Alberobello and the Itria Valley for the trulli, Lecce with its amazing baroque architecture and gorgeous coastal cities such as Polignano a Mare and Monopoli further north towards Bari or Otranto and Gallipoli in the lower Salento. Learn more and get inspired by visiting our useful links page and blog page.
All of our vacation homes are in and around Ostuni, Puglia, either in the centre of town by the historical centre like Casa dei Fiori, or, like Masseria Bellavista, is on the countryside and close to the sea. All of our holiday homes boast great locations in the best neighbourhoods of Ostuni. Itself the most beautiful city in the Alto Salento, Puglia.
From Bari Palese airport you can either take the shuttle bus or the train. Both take you to Bari Centrale train station. From there just take any regional train heading to Lecce and alight at Ostuni station. There is a city bus that goes from Ostuni station to the centre of town. Find the links to the transport providers on our useful links page.
By car, follow the signs first for Bari and once in the freeway, for Brindisi and/or Lecce. Exit the freeway at Ostuni Villanova or Ostuni Rosa Marina and follow the signs for Centro (city centre) or Centro Storico (historical centre). The 96 km (60 miles) drive takes about 75 minutes by car. For public transportation info, visit our useful link page.
By car Brindisi Aeroporto del Salento airport is an easy 30 minutes drive from Ostuni on freeway following signs for Bari. With public transportation, a shuttle bus takes you from Brindisi airport to Brindisi train station. From the train station, take the train heading to Bari and alight at Ostuni train station. The train journey takes less than 30 minutes on average. Find timetables and relevant info on our useful link page.