Whether you want to explore the local architecture, take to the water or simply unwind, Puglia has much to do for both the locals and visitors. John Bensalhia looks at some of the most memorable experiences to enjoy in the region...

Cathedral calling

Italy is well known for its stunning cathedral architecture, and Puglia is no exception. The biggest in Puglia should be on your list of places to visit – Bitonto Cathedral.

The dates for the origins of this cathedral are not precise, but it is believed that Bitonto was first documented around the fifth century, not long after the region converted to the Christian religion. Renovations would follow, but the current cathedral was built on top of the earlier basilica between 1150 and 1200 in Norman-Romanesque style.

This Romanesque style is still present and correct today in aspects such as the crypt, sculptures and architecture from the 12th century, the 13th century marble pulpit and the striking 11th century griffin floor mosaic, preserved in all its glory. It's also possible to see the excavation work results of the early Christian and pre-Norman ruins underneath.

Another good cathedral to visit is Troia Cathedral. This cathedral combines an interesting mixture of styles including Puglian Romanesque, Byzantine and Muslim. It dates back to 1093, when it was built on the foundations of an extant church that was devoted to St Mary.

Like Bitonto, Troia Cathedral is a masterpiece of architecture, with much to see. These include a stunning rose window that can be seen in the upper half of the west facade. The rose window is filled with stone screens of geometrical shapes that take their inspiration from Islamic styles. The window is also notable for its surrounding carvings of figures and the bookending Puglian lions. Likewise, the bronze west doors are a notable attraction. The work is the responsibility of Oderisio of Benevento, who stylishly crafted these in 1127, complete with inscriptions, 10 knockers, two wyverns and eight lions. The interior of the Cathedral is also worth exploring, with its clever column structure – 12 of these signify the Apostles, with the 13th in the south-west corner signifying Christ himself.

The Full Monty

Looking for the full Puglian experience without having to do the work? One such option is to go with a boutique tour company that organized one-of-a-kind experiences on a week-long basis with a maximum of 12 participants. Espressino Travel are one that the ITALY Magazine team has personally tried and tested, deep in the Salento region.

ITALY's editor Georgette Jupe-Pradier said "while there are plenty of tour groups around Italy, what made them stand out was their attention to detail and comfort. Instead of having us traipse all over the region, too exhausted to actually enjoy anything. We slept in, had lazy long lunches and had time to ourselves too. I would absolutely recommend this. 

If that wasn't enough they also throw in cooking classes, dinner in a castle and a gelato-making lesson in the white-washed town of Ostuni. 

Water-ver you want

Sometimes, seeing your chosen destination from the water is an ideal choice. Not only do you get to see a diverse mix of architecture, sights and natural wonders, you get to do so from the breezy, relaxing environment of a boat.

A number of packages are available for anyone thinking of taking to the waters to see Puglia. Placeinpuglia.com offers a choice of boat or fishing trips which can be caught at the weekends and on Italian public holidays.

If you think you're a master fisherman worthy of Izaak Walton, or just want to have fun fishing, then the fishing package provides you with the necessary gear (including tackle, rods and bait). It's an early rise generally (although the trips can be tailored to your needs), and lasts for around five hours with a maximum capacity of five. An optional extra for this trip is a picnic lunch which includes goodies such as cold meats and salamis, freshly baked bread and a choice of wines, beers, soft drinks and bottled water.

Alternatively, you can just enjoy the views. And what views! Your journey will either take you north or southwards. Northwards includes locations such as Lendinuso, Campo di Mare and offshore Brindisi. Southwards passes maritime villages of Torre Rinalda and Torre Chianca, and inland freshwater lagoons. A yummy picnic is again available.

Another package comes courtesy of arialuxuryapulia.com where you can enjoy the sights of Puglia from a magnificent 40ff luxury yacht. This package accommodates up to eight guests, who can witness some of Puglia's finest beaches, rock cliffs and protected nature reserves. Such destinations to see include the Punto del Pizzo nature reserve, and the beaches of Porto Selvaggio, Santa Maria al Bagno and Quattro Colonne. Lunch and drinks are also provided.

Eating At Home (With Locals) 

One of the biggest trends today in travel, is the option of "home restaurants" where dinners can connect with local hosts to arrange a personal dinner in someone's actual home. We think this idea is fabulous, not only do you get to taste the region's flavors, it allows for personal discourse and the option to meet someone you normally might never meet, all while truly experiencing a taste of local life. 

My Italian Friends is one such organization which has options in Puglia as well. Organize a cooking lesson with a nonna, or simply, a casual dinner in the town next door. It's easy and functional and we look forward to trying this the next time we're based in Italy's heel. 

Cave in

If you're in the Puglia region, the Castellana Caves are a must-see destination.

It's open all year round, and you will be taken through the routes by informative tourist guides who are on hand to provide more information and facts about the history of the caves.

The caves are a gateway into a magical world full of stalagmites, stalactites and even precious crystals. It's believed that the names of the habitats (such as Owl, Madonna, Desert Corridor, and Lupa) of the caves were coined by the explorers. And don't forget the last caves such as the White Cave, which are said to be among the shiniest and most beautiful in the world.

There are two itineraries: the first is the shorter of the two, a 1km and 50 minute long tour, while the longer of the two is 3km long and lasts for just under two hours. The Caves are open all year around, although it's worth checking in advance the opening times as these vary between seasons.

The temperature is around 14 to 18 degrees Celsius underground. Suitable clothing and footwear are advised for the tours.

Back to nature

Seeking a place to get away from the flim flam of modern life? You know, a place without iPhones, laptops and bustling crowds. Well, Puglia's the place for you with a slew of lovely parks that are just the areas to experience the natural wonders of the region.

One of the largest – not just in the Puglia area, but in Italy – is the National Park of the Gargano. Situated north of Puglia, in the Foggia province, this is a natural park to get lost in, whether it's the greens of the Umbra Forest, the wetlands of the Varano lake of the marshes of Fratarolo.

The National Park of the Alta Murgia is another famous Puglia park, and comprises a number of areas that include the Mercadante Forest, the Difesa Grande Forest and the Valley of the Dinosaurs. Although set up to protect the wild animals various species of plant in the area, today it is also possible for visitors to experience this natural wonder, whether by bike or on foot.

You can also walk, cycle or ride in the Regional natural park of Punta Pizzo and Isola di Sant'Andrea. Based on the Ionian coast, south of Gallipoli, this park boasts Mediterranean vegetation, pine forests and wetlands.

Meanwhile, if you're looking to take a long walk, then the Regional Park of the Terra delle Gravine is a good spot to choose. This protected area of Puglia contains a number of intriguing plants and trees that include the Holm Oak, the Hornbeam and the Fragno.

Mount up

Become the king or queen of the castle when you visit one of Puglia's most famous castles. Built by The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in the 13th century, Castel del Monte (or Castle of the Mount) overlooks the comune of Andria.

Originally, Frederick II planned the castle to be built as part of his network of his defensive castles in 1237. The end result is curious, however, in that it doesn't follow the rules of your average conventional castle – there is no drawbridge, no ditches, no basement. But with walls and towers that reach 26 metres, protection was ensured.

Castel del Monte is octagonal in shape, and is notable for its roof terraces, from which it was possible to spy on potential enemies looking to infiltrate the base. At its height, it was decorated with lavish tapestries, paintings and mosaics. While these no longer remain, it's still worth paying a visit to this important piece of history.