The grand baroque city of Lecce is the region’s main tourist haunt. Landmarks here include the flamboyant 17th-century Basilica di Santa Croce. Under the instruction of prominent local architect and sculptor Giuseppe Zimbalo, the region’s best master craftsmen labored for almost a century to adorn every inch of the basilica’s façade with intricate carvings. The result is an allegorical riot of cherubs, dodo’s, griffins and other fantastical figures.
The façade of Lecce’s Duomo is comparatively restrained, although its interior is richly decorated with an abundance of marble and gold. Lecce was once encircled by a defensive city wall. One of the three remaining city gates, Porta Napoli is a monumental structure built in 1548. Other landmarks include the Roman Amphitheatre in Piazza Sant’Oronzo. Dating from the second century AD, this impressive ancient structure was not unearthed until 1929.
Lecce is more than a feast for the eyes: it will also satisfy your taste buds. Tasty yet humble local specialities include fave e cicoria (fava bean purée with wild chicory) and orecchiette con rapini (ear-shaped pasta with turnip greens). Fish is in plentiful supply, as is lamb and goat. Intense local red wines such as Primitivo and Negroamaro are the perfect accompaniment to this simple, hearty food. With its eclectic interior of old bicycles and junk shop treasures, Dalle Antiquario is a great place to sample regional home cooking, as is La Cucina di Mamma Elvira.
At the other end of the spectrum, Michelin starred Bros’ by Floriano Pellegrino elevates the simplicity of such regional classics into a hip and innovative gourmet dining experience. Their 5-course tasting menu utilizes a series of stickers for you to choose from, and then your gastronomic journey begins. Be sure to check out their quirky sweet trolley: an unfolding box-on-wheels full of fun old-fashioned candy concoctions.
Wherever you dine, you should aim to leave room for gelato. The long-established Natale Pasticceria serves delicious gelato as well as pasticciotto leccese (Lecce’s signature custard cream-filled pastry). A cool new alternative, Crem Lab is both a gelateria and a chic cocktail lounge, providing the ultimate gelato-disco combo.
With its animated ambience and young student crowd, the bars around Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II including Verso Sud and Urban Café are recommended for evening cocktails and people-watching. Although apps such as Grindr and Scruff may suffice as a portal to the local gay boys, should you prefer a physical LGBTQ venue then head beyond Lecce’s centro storico to the fun and friendly Marilyn Café Lounge Bar.
When it comes to accommodations, a sleek and indulgent choice is the 5- star La Fiermontina Urban Resort, which boasts minimalist design and a contemporary art collection. A more affordable option is 8Piu Hotel, a new 4-star property located a short walk outside of Porta Napoli.
The nearby baroque old town of Nardò has a relaxed, gay-friendly ambience. Its picturesque central piazza is a hub of activity, with café-bars such as Bar Parisi buzzing from morning to night as locals enjoy a cappuccino, an Aperol spritzer, or a late-night grappa.