If you are thinking of traveling to the South of Puglia, without a doubt you should include this beautiful city in your route. The historic center is small and you will be able to see it in one day.
However, we advise you to stay a couple of days to fully enjoy this wonderful city. Lecce is one of the most beautiful and well-preserved cities in southern Italy, something that is immediately apparent in its well-kept historic center.
About Lecce and Baroque Architecture
Lecce may be called the Florence of the Baroque. In this artistic tendency in Italy there is nothing that can be compared. This is how that the historian Gregorovius described Lecce. Lecce is the capital of the Lecce province and of the Salento sub-region.
Located just 11 Km far from the Adriatic Sea and 23Km from the Ionian Sea, it lies in the middle of fertile plain, surrounded by attractive countryside, seashore and small towns. The city can easily be reached from Brindisi airport and it makes the perfect destination for a weekend break or a holiday as it’s a great base for exploring the Salento Peninsula.
Lecce is the Baroque masterpiece of Italy and stupefies tourists with its little-known magnificence, its noble palaces and undeniable beauty of its numerous churches. In 2010 the city has been listed in “Best in Travel 2010” by Lonely Planet.
Lecce is built of stone that glints gold and cream in the sunlight, it is taken from the surrounding land and it is called pietra leccese (literally stone from Lecce), a light yellow, soft, compact and easily workable limestone. More than the architects, it was the local craftsmen and masons who left their mark in this city, working the stone and letting their ideas run wild especially when designing the facades and creating marvelous compositions made up of animals, birds, monsters, cherubs, flowers and fruit.
What to see in Lecce
Historic City Center
Lecce is known as the “The lady of the Baroque”. Its long and noble history is certainly witnessed by the numerous buildings and Churches scattered across its lovely historic center. The town’s great artistic treasure is its architecture with picturesque little lanes and Baroque churches with facades finely decorated.
The 17th century was definitely the period of prosperity which led to grand developments and the construction of palaces and churches. These buildings adapted the fashionable Baroque style to the soft local stone, with decorations and cherubs extravagantly covering facades and doorways. This local style is known as Barocco Leccese (‘Lecce Baroque’).
Crossing the Porta Napoli, built in the 16th century in honor of Carlos V, you will access its attractive historic center. Passing through all kinds of baroque buildings, you will arrive at the center of the city: Piazza Sant’Oronzo.
We start our tour from St. Oronzo square (piazza Sant’Oronozo). This is the central square and big heart of the city, surrounded by shops and cafes it is constantly full of people. A 30-meter column stands atop the square and a statue of bishop and patron Saint Oronzo is perched on top of it. It is one of the two columns which marked the end of ancient Appia road and originally stood in Brindisi.
In addition to the column we find the remains of the Roman amphitheater, the Palazzo del Seggio (also known as the Sedile), the churches of San Marco and Santa Maria delle Grazie.
The square also hosts one of the most important Roman ruins: a 25,000-seat theatre and Roman amphitheater from the 1st century BC.
this space was used to entertain euphoric spectators through games, fights between gladiators and theatrical shows. Discovered in the early 1900s, today it is possible to see a third of the original amphitheater, although it is true that much of it remains buried.
Piazza Duomo (Duomo Square), one of the most beautiful squares in Italy is definitely the best example of Baroque architecture: it is closed on three of its four sides, with access only from one of them. The surroundings of the square, which has a charming atmosphere at night, are full of restaurants and bars where you can spend a pleasant time.
On the left corner we find the double-façade Cathedral was built in 1659 with a Latin cross shape and has 13 altars. The main façade is characterized by very simple architecture while the side façade has an exuberant baroque style. An imposing 70-meter-high bell tower stands out beside.
Completing the square is the Episcopio (Bishop’s Palace) which is the Bishop’s residence and is built just beside the Cathedral and the Seminario (Seminary). It is adorned with friezes and tall pillars and the courtyard has a beautiful well with two angelic guardians, it is decorated with garlands and also bunches of fruits and flowers.
Things to do in Lecce
Basilica di Santa Croce
One of the most fascinating expressions of baroque architecture is the Church of Santa Croce, (which lies north of St. Oronzo square) whose baroque façade is as exuberant as its large Renaissance interior is austere. It took a team of craftsmen over 100 years to complete the church but the result is astonishing. Entirely built which leccese stone the façade is a masterpiece of ancient architecture to marvel at, it is ornamented with strange beasts and allegories, cherubs, fantastical monsters, plants. The interior, in stark contrast to the façade, it is done in plain Renaissance style.
Castello di Carlo V
The castle was built built by Emperor Charles V in 1539 around an ancient Norman fortification and it consists of two concentric trapezoidal structures surrounded by solid battlements and an impenetrable moat. Today, the Castle of Lecce houses the headquarters of the Department of Culture and is used to hold cultural events and exhibitions of all kinds.
It is possibly the most interesting museum to see in Lecce. It belongs to the Faggiano family and is located in the heart of the old town. Here you can see objects and archaeological remains from numerous civilizations, covering more than 2,000 years of history, from the year V a. C. until the Middle Ages.
Other main sights in the city are: Church of St. Nicolò and Cataldo built in 1180, Church of St. Irene dedicated to one of the three patron saints (Oronzo, Domenico and Irene), Church of St. Chiara with a madly decorated altar. Porta Rudiae the ancient entrance to the city before leaving this honour to Porta Napoli also called Triumphal Arch, consisting of two slender Corinthian pairs of columns it is one of the most popular landmarks in town.
What to do in Lecce
But Lecce is not only Churches, museums and Baroque buildings. Lecce’s old city center is a big outdoor museum: there’s a grace and original elegance in its wonderful small streets, alleys and courtyards packed with upmarket boutiques, antique shops and furniture restorers.
Lecce is also famous for the craftspeople who construct various models out of cartapesta (papier màché), there are plenty of small studios in the old town where these artists can be admired while modelling a wire and covering it with paper dipped in glue.
What to eat in Lecce
Puglia gastronomy is exceptional and that of this area of Puglia is not far behind at any time.
Try Ciceri e tria: one of the star dishes of Salento cuisine and one of the best known thanks to its simple ingredients. The main ones are pasta and chickpeas, in addition to aromatic herbs such as rosemary, sage, bay leaf and parsley.
The rustico: a delicious and tasty specialty of Salento. The aromatic puff pastry disks contain a smooth filling of béchamel, tomato and mozzarella. They are excellent to eat hot.
Try a pasticciotto: the most typical sweet not only from Lecce, but from the entire region. It is a kind of bun with a heart of pastry cream, very common for breakfast.