Santa Maria di Leuca: History, What to See and What to Do, Beaches

Are you thinking of visiting Santa Maria di Leuca in Salento? This article has all the information and advice you need: what to see in Santa Maria di Leuca, what to do, where to stay and where to eat… 😉

History of Leuca

Leuca, from the Greek Leukòs . . . white, so called because of its high cliffs irradiated by the morning sun, the first land sighted by sailors coming from the east; while the west makes us dream: the sunset of Santa Maria di Leuca; as fiery as the exotic ones. For the Romans it was de Finibus Terrae, the end of the earth, their last outpost.

santa maria di leuca immagini
Santa Maria di Leuca Mare Francesco Fersino, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

On the promontory, stood the temple dedicated to the Goddess Minerva, now the Basilica Minore, with a poor façade, designed to disguise itself from Saracen raids. With Otranto, as legend has it, it contends with the landing of Aeneas and that of St Peter.

s maria leuca - basilica minore
Puglia Santa Maria di Leuca – Basilica Minore
By Mentnafunangann – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

It is not legend, however, that a Bronze Age settlement was found on one of the two points that characterise it, Punta Meliso, where an expert eye can still see the four holes that housed the piles of a pile-dwelling; the other is Punta Ristola.

It is a popular belief that one of the two points is the water divider between the Ionian and the Adriatic Sea, while as we know this is Punta Palascia, a few kilometres from Otranto, being the most easterly point in Italy.

Santa Maria di Leuca cosa fare e vedere
Santa Maria di Leuca

Santa Maria di Leuca lighthouse

From the sanctuary, access to the port is via the 286-step Santa Maria di Leuca staircase, an experience not to be missed. In the middle, the town creates an impressive waterfall, tracing the last stretch of the Apulian aqueduct. Also on the promontory is the majestic lighthouse, built in 1864 and 47 metres high. Its beam has a range of 50 km, saving quite a few boats.

Close to the basilica, or sanctuary as everyone calls it, is the Santa Maria di Leuca clinic, a nursing home run by religious people with a breathtaking view, just right to relieve the last years of the elderly ones. For all these happenings, the promontory can be counted as the historical centre of Santa Maria di Leuca; where local craftsmen have been exhibiting their handicrafts since time immemorial. But Leuca is not only about history, but also about gastronomy, handicrafts and above all the sea.

Santa Maria di Leuca

What to see in Santa Maria di Leuca?

In the next few lines we will see together what to see in Leuca, from the beaches (actually it’s just one) to the coves (small beaches) and the famous caves.

Santa Maria di Leuca beaches

To say that the water is clean is a euphemism. For those lucky enough to wake up at the crack of dawn, they can admire the sea tinged with emerald green, taking us back to a Phoenix-like atmosphere. Rising on a hard rock, Santa Maria di Leuca’s beaches are few in number; there is a small stretch that the people of Leuca call (rena ranne) large beach, a stretch of a hundred or so metres of beach that clashes with the kilometres of sandy shores that stretch along the Ionian coast as far as Gallipoli; but you can’t have everything!

Santa Maria di Leuca Caves

It is rich in caves, ravines that Mother Nature has not skimped on all around the perimeter and beyond of beautiful Leuca.

To enter them is to dream, to go back millions of years, where the nature of things was moulded by the slow flow of time! There, water takes on a utopian language, where travellers find it hard to understand.

With boat hire in Santa Maria di Leuca we can visit them all, we mention only a few so as not to make the story boring:

LE TRE PORTE (the three caves of Santa Maria di Leuca) put together, the GROTTA DEL DIAVOLO (Devil’s Cave), where the entrance is on dry land and then emerges into the sea, the GROTTA DEL SOFFIO (Blowing Cave), where the waves break and create a puff, the GABBIANO (Seagull Cave), and many others, which can be admired from the sea, of course, on the many tours to Santa Maria di Leuca.

Grotte di Leuca

Handicrafts in Leuca

Handicrafts are centred on olive wood artefacts, since Salento has the record of baskets made by weaving rush with reeds, and all the terracotta pottery known from ancient times. In addition to this, there is the art of stonemasons on Lecce stone, a very soft tuff that gave birth to the incredible Baroque.

Salento Santa Maria di Leuca: Where to eat?

Hungry after a day at the beach?

After the hustle and bustle of the day, hunger knocks; as Rino Gaetano would say, don’t worry, Leuca offers the most varied culinary solutions. Of course, typical cuisine is the master here, poor dishes from rural tradition but with a mixture of smells, flavours and colours worthy of the tables of the Gods; they call it the Mediterranean diet. But would you also like to taste some fish? Obviously very fresh and local.

In this respect, we list some pizzerias in Santa Maria di Leuca:

  • La Conchiglia
  • Da Leo
  • Calura
  • Gnam
  • Athena

There is no shortage of restaurants that travellers can find in this beautiful marina.

These are some of the restaurants in Santa Maria di Leuca:

  • Osteria Terra Masci – fish specialities
  • Osteria del Pardo – typical cuisine
  • Costa di Ponente Restaurant – Mediterranean cuisine
  • Mangiamare – fish specialities
  • Boccon di Vino – typical cuisine
  • Fedele Restaurant – fish specialities

These are just some of the places where to eat in Leuca. Of course there is no shortage of artisanal ice cream parlours (e.g. Martinucci), all located in places worthy of a Flemish painter. In the lower part, the seafront promenade crosses the entire marina, forming an incessant promenade. But for those who want to stay up late, the reference point is Bar Del Porto, one of the oldest in Leuca. The movida starts at midnight and continues until morning. Also overlooking the sea of Santa Maria di Leuca are the sumptuous late 19th century villas with important Arab and Baroque architecture.

Curiosities about Santa Maria di Leuca

  • One of the many curiosities about the villas are the typical “bagnarole” built on the rocks and each bearing the colours of the villa to which it belongs. They served the noblewomen of the time through a tunnel leading from the villa to the sea to bathe inside, hidden from prying eye
  • Leuca has been recognised as a terminal as well as a spiritual and historical point of the Via Francigena routes of the south and of Europe. The Speleo Trekking Salento association has developed, studying the territory, an ancient route of about 146 km that goes from Madonna Del Casale in Brindisi to the Sanctuary of Leuca, touching the territories of 23 Salento municipalities. Remaining in the religious sphere of tradition, it is said that those born on August 15th, the day dedicated to the Madonna, hear the tolling of a golden bell lost in the depths of the sea.Like any place rich in tradition, popular music could not be missing! The
  • Pizzica is a unique Salento peculiarity, a dance that combines the sacred and the profane, stealing our souls. It is not uncommon to attend a Pizzica concert in Leuca, and get lost in the ravines of time! It all ends with the big concert of the Notte Della Taranta at the end of August in Melpignano, an event of international renown. Everything is seasoned by the hospitality of its inhabitants, who for 2000 years have made hospitality a strong point, embracing customs and traditions in a land of peace and tolerance!

What to visit in Santa Maria di Leuca in 2 days

Day 1

Starting the day with sunrise and a breathtaking view can only be the best way to be happy. The effort made to get up so early will surely be forgotten in front of the panorama that opens up from the top of the Punta Meliso plateau, on which the Santa Maria di Leuca lighthouse stands 102 metres above sea level. This, running since 1866, rises 48 metres and on less cloudy days its intermittent beam is visible for 40 km.

Nearby is the Sanctuary of Santa Maria de Finibus Terrae, an unmissable destination for religious and non-religious people alike. This, built on the ruins of a pagan place of worship, still contains the “Ara a Minerva” as historical evidence. Next to it are paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries and an organ from 1855.

Leuca Marina is also famous for its well-kept and organised marina, which has hosted extremely luxurious yachts many times.

To descend towards the centre, one can walk down the two flights of stairs that celebrate the end of the Apulian aqueduct, the so-called monumental waterfall of Santa Maria di Leuca. This ambitious fascist project has great symbolic value.

After crossing the region, the water is blessed as it passes near the Basilica and then pours into the sea to celebrate the end of the earth and the beginning of the endless sea.

At the end of the steps is one of the largest harbours in the area with more than 760 mooring places. After a short break to enjoy some pucce salentine and lulled by the undertow and gentle sea breeze, you can continue along the seafront.

Characteristic are the manor houses, mostly in Art Nouveau style, used in the past as summer residences by the wealthiest families and which have embellished the seaside resort, giving it an exotic charm.

On the opposite side of the road, close to the sea, you can admire the “bagnarole“, dug out of the rocks to allow people to bathe away from prying eyes in the past.

Day 2

The day cannot fail to start with a breakfast overlooking the sea with “caffé in ghiaccio” with almond milk and pasticciotto.

If you want to get lost in the blue and enjoy a privileged view, a boat tour among the caves and jagged coastline is ideal.

If, on the other hand, you prefer walking, you can go into the “Parco Naturale Regione Costiera Otranto Santa Maria di Leuca e Bosco Tricase”, which covers 3227 hectares and is characterised by a wide variety of scenery, vivid colours and lush nature.

Moving from Tricase to the sea, it will be possible to admire the “Vallonea dei cento Cavalieri” (Vallonea of the hundred knights), the only centuries-old oak tree in Western Europe.

Capo di Leuca

To end the weekend on a high note, you just have to indulge in the flavours of traditional cuisine, poor in raw materials but rich in taste.

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Team HDSalento

Team HDSalento

Articles by the HDSalento team

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