If you consider yourself to be somewhat of a connoisseur of global natural beauty – look furthermore, you have opened the portal which will offer you a glimpse to a destination that is the most astonishingly underrated place I’ve visited so far and will ultimately end up high on your ‘must-see’ list by the time you finish reading this blog post.
Gargano National Park
Gargano National Park (Italian: Parco Nazionale del Gargano) is a heavenly promontory that sits on the spur of Italy’s iconic boot. Covering over 120,000 hectares, the Gargano was declared a national park in the 90’s in order to protect sites with immeasurable naturalistic, archaeological, religious and anthropologic significance.
Why you must visit the Gargano
The Gargano features sandy and pebble beaches, most of which are enclosed by imposing and awe-inspiring limestone cliffs and rock formations. It has an ancient forest, Forest Umbra, which is the only part of Italy that still has ancient beech and oak forests which once covered a large area of Central Europe. Along the coastline and in the mountains, you will find the most delightful towns full of little white houses, some with religious sites that pilgrims travel across the world to see. Driving along you will come across cows eating from one of the thousands of olive trees or strolling in the forest and you will find dogs acting as shepherds, guiding goats and sheep to safety. The local produce is some of the freshest in Italy and it will usually be served with a smile from genuinely friendly, hospitable locals who craft their products with generations of family wisdom and understandable pride. Gargano is the place to bathe in natures beauty in total tranquillity and photographers will be absolutely spoiled by the abundant supply of subjects.
I must you warn you-you might never want to leave. We extended our stay on two occasions, staying for a grand total of 17 days and we had to strongly resist the temptation to extend for a third time. We want to return in the future and stay even longer.
Where to visit in Gargano:
I must preface this all by saying that the Gargano itself is deserving of its own guidebook and really in some aspects, it is like visiting a different country (not Italy). I am merely scratching the surface with my insights. Without further ado… here are some places we recommend visiting in Gargano along with some food recommendations and general tips.
Forest Umbra is an ancient forest which has incredibly unique fauna and flora, due to its geographical position and natural events that have occurred over millions of years. This forest has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2017 because of its ancient beech trees.
There are a number of ways to indulge in the beauty of this forest from hiking one of the trails to enjoying a picnic on one of the many picnic tables. We chose to do some random short hikes in the forest as well as enjoy our breakfast there. There is not a lot of information available online about the trails, I have read that there is an information centre in the forest with maps for purchase but they are only in Italian and low on detail.
We loved watching the cows, sheep, goats roaming freely in the forest (sometimes accompanied by shepherd dogs), that was definitely a highlight of visiting Forest Umbra. I have never seen animals living in such a way and it was heartwarming to see.
Italians have the unfortunate tendency to plonk unsightly beach beds wherever it is possible in order to capitalise on beachgoers. I have to admit, I detest this and I try to avoid beaches that are totally covered in beach beds because for me it defeats the purpose of going somewhere to take in a natural landscape. It is kind of hard to find beaches without beach beds, one benefit of visiting off-season (we visited in mid to late September) is some beaches have fewer beach beds or none of them at all. I think this is particularly strange for me as an Australian but this would be considered normal by most Europeans (Marko doesn’t like them but is used to them).
The weather rapidly cooled down soon after we arrived, to the point that I went from wearing dresses and hats one day and then the next day I was rushing to the store to buy a jumper to wear with my only pair of pants, so we, unfortunately, didn’t have much time to enjoy the beach. There are many other beaches in the promontory and I only managed to visit a few, my two beach recommendations will come under the topics of ‘Towers’ and ‘Vieste’.
There are countless towers (Italian: Torres) that were established in the 16th century dotted along the coastline of Gargano National Park (and also in other regions of Italy), we managed to get close to 4 of them.
They were once used to protect the region from pillaging pirates – as a vantage point for spotting and warding off threats, to alert local people of attack and even for peasants to shelter within. According to an article that I read, these towers weren’t particularly effective and resulted in more aggressive attacks, especially on smaller settlements.
You are able to explore around some of these towers, on one occasion we even explored the insides of a partially destroyed one (a bit risky, I know). We even saw one that had been converted into a home!!
Check out the beaches near the towers
The towers are often located next to some really gorgeous beaches too, if you spot them I recommend to park your car nearby and check out the beaches surrounding them, you might be pleasantly surprised.
I recommend visiting the towers located nearby to the camping ground Baia Falcone as you are able to view 3 towers and even get close to a ruined one. There is a lovely beach to walk along in that area, as well as a Trabucchi, which is a traditional wooden fishing machine, typical to the Gargano region.
The following places are all super charming, with mostly pretty white buildings and I recommend exploring all of them by foot. You never know what you may find around the corners of these picturesque towns and if you explore them off-season you will feel like you have these places all to yourself at times. Some parts of these areas are very residential but it is entertaining to simply people watch as locals go about their days, you may even be greeted by the locals as well as some furry friends.
Vieste has one of the larger townships in Gargano and is a great place to stock up on supplies, shop for clothing, find great food, drink coffee and of course, wander around.
In medieval times Vieste was heavily attacked by pirates and at one stage the people of Vieste were enslaved and slaughtered en masse by Turks.
As mentioned earlier, the towers are evidence of their defence system from centuries ago, there is also a Swabian castle in the town of Vieste, which to this day is used for defence, in the form of a military establishment which is closed to the public. In my travels throughout Europe, I’ve normally seen castles and fortresses used as tourist attractions, sometimes with museums inside, so this was really surprising and fascinating that it is still in use for its original purpose.
We also visited a free museum, Museo Malacologico, which displays and sells rare shells along with other precious items. This was an interesting place to peruse especially because it is so rare to see the kind of shells that we saw completely intact.
Beach: Spiagga della Scialara
Our favourite beach was Spiagga della Scialara which is one of the most well-known beaches in Gargano due to a giant limestone rock which has been named ‘Pizzamunno’. When we drove by this beach we were very keen to check it out upon spotting its white limestone cliffs and the humongous rock by the beach. From the beach, you can even see the city centre of Vieste.
Due to the shallow waters, we were able to walk in the water, as many people were doing, without actually fully immersing ourselves in the water (it was too cold). This was a really cool experience.
Where to eat in Vieste
- Dessert: Cornetto is a very popular dessert in Gargano, it is essentially a croissant-like pastry, filled with a filling of your choice like nocciola (English: hazelnut) or Chantilly cream. Bar Pasticceria Matteosky has some of the tastiest, generously-sized cornettos in Gargano and at 1.50EU is a very budget friendly treat.
- Bakery: Panificio Giuffreda is the place to go for pizza, biscotti and bread. We discovered very early on that pizza disappointment (yes, I am coining this term) was less likely if you visit a bakery. Panificio Guiffreda has some of the best pizzas, baked on delicious and very filling bread, with a variety of vegetable toppings – this is really a budget-friendly alternative to getting a whole pizza.
- Cheesery: We visited La Fattoria to pick up some fresh cheeses, this wasn’t cheap (10-15 euros per kilogram) but you are paying for very high-quality products. We loved their pecorino which was the perfect snack as well as their ricotta which took my homemade cannelloni to the next level. They also have a restaurant which is rated very highly on Trip Advisor.
- Best supermarkets for budget conscious people: If you are getting around by car and plan to cook, MD Discount is one of the cheapest supermarkets to visit in Gargano. RD Discount is another option but it is a bit painful to reach, even by car. These supermarkets are both located in Vieste.
Monte Sant’Angelo (English: Saint Angel mountain) as the name suggests, is a town up in the mountains. This town is a famous spot for Christian pilgrims to visit because Saint Michael the Archangel is said to have appeared in a cave, in 490, 492 and 493. In the present day, you can visit the Sanctuary of Saint Michael the Archangel, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site and visit the exact location the archangel is said to have appeared at.
There are multiple sites in Monte Sant’Angelo that would be of interest to pilgrims and architecture appreciators, including a 12th-century baptistery, Tomba di Rotari and an 11th-century Catholic church, Church of Santa Maria Maggiore.
I felt less inclined to visit religious sites for most of this trip for no apparent reason (I normally visit a lot of churches) so I didn’t visit any of these sites. We did, however, enjoy wandering through these streets, Marko and I chatted to some locals, tried some food and left quickly upon seeing oceans of crowds. I recommend visiting early in the day if possible to avoid hordes of tourists visiting by tour buses.
Where to eat in Monte Sant’Angelo
- Cafe/restaurant with a view: We visited Cantine Cippone for coffee and some desserts and sat outside on their terrace to soak up some sun rays and got a very cool perspective over the rooftops of a residential part of Monte Sant’Angelo.
- Bakery: Marko picked up a little pizza from Panaficio Moretti and he was so mindblown over how tasty it was, that I couldn’t resist capturing the moment. As I mentioned earlier, bakeries are the place to go for a pizza snack that will blow your mind nearly every single time – without blowing your budget.
Vico del Gargano
Vico del Gargano, known affectionately as ‘The Village of Love’ was certainly a romantic place to take a stroll. We wandered around this town, patting many dogs and exploring the unexpected nooks and crannies. The drive up to this town was simply breathtaking, especially with the coastal views from above.
St. Valentine is the patron saint of Vico del Gargano so in the town you will find Piazzetta San Valentino (English: Little square of Saint Valentine) as well as Vicolo del Bacio (English: Alley of kisses) – both romantic places for a lovers tryst. If you happen to visit around Valentine’s Day (13-20th of February), they celebrate all week long with multiple events taking place.
We particularly enjoyed inspecting the Chiesa del Purgatorio (English: Church of Purgatory) which had some very unique, morbid decorations on the exterior of the church. Our favourite part about Vico del Gargano is in the form of a food recommendation which you will find below.
Where to eat in Vico del Gargano
This place sits firmly in my top 3 dessert experiences of the year. You might remember when I lost my mind after eating a beignet in Strasbourg – well, this experience rivalled that. I stared into space and couldn’t talk properly for about 10 minutes after sampling one of the best desserts of my life. We had a large assortment of pastries which we absolutely savoured.
We couldn’t resist making the trip up the mountain to return here and I can’t lie, this may have contributed to one of our trip extensions. It is called ‘Dolci Pensieri’, the lovely pastry chef expertly crafts regional desserts as well as pasta and serves you with warm Southern hospitality. Dolci Pensieri isn’t listed on google maps, so put this address into google maps: Via Aia Mascis, 5 – Vico del Gargano and follow the pink signs. If you are a foodie visiting Gargano and take anything from this blog post, I implore you to visit here! Like the cheesery I mentioned, it isn’t cheap (about 16 euros per kilogram for pastries) but in this case, you are truly getting what you pay for, high-quality products!
This Santorini-esque town, perched upon a cliff is another one of the larger towns in Gargano. Like a lot of the towns in Gargano, this is a wonderful place to wander, especially at sunset as you get unbelievable sea views from the fortified old town. Marko and I both agreed this is one of the prettiest towns in Gargano, unfortunately, a lot of places were closed for the season by the time we visited.
How to get around
I highly recommend getting around by car because it is the easiest way to explore the national park. Some of the roads are fairly uneven with potholes (especially in the forest) and there are sometimes cows and goats on the road so you need to be very attentive while driving.
You can take the bus or train to San Severo or Foggia and then take a local bus to your final destination. From what I’ve read, using public transport in this area is possible but it can also be slow, infrequent and unreliable. I found some helpful advice in a forum if it is your only option.
When to visit
If you wish to enjoy some of the remaining warmth of summer, avoid the crowds and also the high prices of peak season, I recommend visiting in autumn, around September-October.
Spring is a great time to see the wildflowers in Forest Umbra. Summer is a very popular time to visit especially for Italians because it is simply the best destination on the Italian Adriatic coast so you can expect higher prices and crowds. According to the official Gargano tourism website, winter is a great season for hiking, leisure fishing and deep sea fishing and if you are after a cultural festive experience, they celebrate by honouring Christmas traditions that originate from centuries past.
A tip for travelling during the off-peak season
If you choose to travel in any season except summer and late spring, you need to keep in mind that a lot of shops, restaurants and cafes are closed for the rest of the year. During the off-peak season they can also have unusual opening hours and they don’t necessarily display these opening hours on their doors or online.
Tourist attractions and religious sites may also have shorter operational hours. We found most of the central area of Vieste to be up and running as per usual for our entire stay (mid-September to early October).
We stayed in a one bedroom house at Valle Umbra Holiday Home, that we booked through booking.com. Our accommodation was one of the reasons that we didn’t want to leave Gargano.
Our hospitable hosts greeted us with wine and olive oil from their farm and we enjoyed staying on their large property that was full of olive trees. Our accommodation had a fully equipped kitchen so we had a lot of fun cooking up a storm most nights. We loved having coffee with a view of the forest from our balcony and sunbathing on the terrace. We hope to return to the same accommodation one day.
We feel like Vieste was a good place to base ourselves, despite it being a long drive to places like Monte Sant’ Angelo and Mattinata. You could possibly break up your accommodation and stay in a second place if you wish to explore the East coast, from Mattinata and beyond more extensively.
More resources for visiting Gargano National Park
- My favourite blogging couple, Erin and Simon from the blog ‘Never Ending Voyage’ actually inspired me to visit Gargano after I saw their incredible photos and I was super intrigued by reading about a place in Italy that I had never heard of before. They have two very informative blog posts about Gargano that you may wish to read – one listing some places to visit in the Gargano and the other is a guide to Vieste.
- The Gargano tourism website also has some valuable information that can help you put together the ideal itinerary for you. This page, in particular, has some links relating to specific areas of interest so you can tailor your visit specific to your interests.
I hope this blog post has inspired you to visit the Gargano National Park because it is really the most underrated destination in Italy and is truly the best place to visit on Italy’s Adriatic coast (it is really incomparable to the rest of that coastline). It was a soul rejuvenating experience and a memorable highlight of our road trip. Marko and I continued to talk together about our experiences in Gargano as we travelled around Italy and we still talk about it now that we are back home in Montenegro. We will be back one day, for sure.
Visit Gargano for an authentic Italian experience
Gargano is the place to visit for an authentic Italian experience unlike anything else. Sightseeing in Italy and getting a feel for Italy are very different things and I feel like getting an authentic experience can be even rarer (especially if you are not Italian). The Gargano National Park has something that everyone could enjoy but I especially recommend it for nature lovers and foodies seeking authentic Italian food. The warm Southern hospitality that we experienced in Gargano was incomparable to the rest of Italy, the following journey was sometimes a rude shock because of that. Throw away your rigid itinerary and forge your own path in the unforgettable Gargano.
Special thanks to Marko for his photographic contributions and insights included in this post :).
Until my next post,