Get a kick out of the history, food, and unbelievable beauty in Puglia—Italy’s heel.

Puglia is for travelers wanting an authentic side of the country with a personality all its own, different from Tuscany’s Renaissance splendor or Rome’s intensity.

Extravagant baroque churches dreamed up by Lecce’s 17th-century architects are covered in golden limestone columns, creatures, and carvings. Even the small town sanctuaries beckon the faithful, kneeling in prayer as benevolent saints cast their eyes down in blessings.

Sleepy, quiet enclaves with white-washed buildings shine brightly under the siesta-time sunshine. Vespas dance through the narrow lanes, tanned gentlemen riding up top. Little ladies chit chat in their sing-song banter on the balconies above. During the evening passagietta you’ll find couples taking a leisurely stroll. Life moves slower in Puglia’s cities and we are so glad for it.

At one time though, noise did once fill the air when Lecce’s Roman amphitheatre roared with 14,000 spectators. The jolly laughter of Old Saint Nick may seem more at home in the North Pole, but his actual bones rest in Bari’s Basilica di San Nicola. The real gift is listening in on the women gossiping outside or the glint of olive oil being poured from a decanter like liquid gold.

And let’s not forget Puglia’s ultimate offering—its coastline. It’s no use trying to resist the allure of the Blue Flag Adriatic beaches. Don your swimsuit and dive in. We recommend Polignano e Mare, a dreamy seaside town of craggy coastline and emerald-green water.

Otranto, Italy’s easternmost location, is only a stone’s throw from the Balkans and Greece. Tread on the 12th-century cathedral’s floor mosaics and prepare to be in awe at the glorious display of Biblical stories and maritime trade between Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Jews, and Muslims—a multi-faith fusion celebrated in stone.

Although the calming chiesas (churches), tiny towns, and summery spiaggias (beaches) are a feast for your eyes, it is your stomach that will also be full. Briny seafood is plentiful and fresh. Prickly sea urchins and dark black clams are a salty delight. Turnip greens mix with handmade orecchiette, a regional specialty. Cool off with a scoop (or two… or three) of gelato. A late alfresco dinner is worth the wait when your glass is filled with white wine.

Olive groves produce some of the countries most flavorful varieties. Green figs open to reveal blood red sweetness inside. And the bread… even back in the first century, Roman poet Horace called it the best. Crunchy carbohydrates stuffed with roasted eggplant, zucchini, and cheese are a staple on many menus.

Ostuni rises above the sea like a decadent wedding cake, built on high for protection from invaders. A labyrinth of lanes winds to a 15th-century Gothic cathedral. Maps aren’t necessary. Just get lost wandering aimlessly catching peeks of the Adriatic Sea revealed between green doors and plants springing from terracotta pots.

Walk alongside the Trulli, cone-shaped dwellings with white bottoms and limestone slab roofs. These unique structures are mostly found in UNESCO-listed Alborobello.

Further inland, Matera is an ancient inhabited city carved in rock. A network of paleolithic caves remained unchanged for centuries and languishing in poverty, until the government stepped in. Now the sorrowful beauty of the slim alleys and steep staircases are discovered on foot.

The international crowds have yet to descend on Puglia in full force, making it a spot in Italy where time has stood still, waiting to be discovered.