We’ve traveled extensively in Italy with kids, but this was our first time on Italy’s eastern coast, on the Adriatic. We had heard so may appealing things about Puglia — the “heel” of the Italian boot — how it is authentically Italian with the absence of Starbucks and English speaking locals, few American tourists, the stunning coastline, and fabulous food and wine. So, we decided to go!
And the urban dwellers that we are, we couldn’t help but tag on two city destinations to our Italy family vacation —Venice and Rome — where we discovered fresh ways to see these two tourist hotspots in the middle of the summer.
Italy with Kids: Exploring the Adriatic Coast
We started our “Adriatic Adventure” by flying into Venice from our home, San Francisco. We were not keen about going to such a tourist hot spot in the middle of the summer but our kids were eager. So, we decided to find an off-the-beaten path place to stay, a “Venetian penthouse,” as its more our style and with four kids, affordable.
Our accommodation was fabulous and only a minute walk from the water taxi where Giorgia, the owner, met us. The three bedroom apartment was spacious and modern, equipped with a washing machine and incredible rooftop views.
Giorgia offers private tours through her business, Have A Glass in Venice, so we decided to take the “lagoon tour” to the little islands off the coast of the mainland, including Vignolo, San Erasmus, Burano, Torcello, and Murano. It was an unforgettable experience and far from the crowds.
The next day, we woke up early and headed to the Venice’s famed fish market to shop amongst real Venetians. We ended up only spending a couple of hours in St. Mark’s square amidst the crowds — we toured the Basilica of San Marco and Bridge of Sighs (I bought tickets online which saved us from standing in the 45 minute queue) and then walked far away to eat and wander amongst locals.
On our walk back towards our apartment, it was siesta time and amazingly quiet, as we were the only people on many of the pedestrian streets and alleyways — hard to believe that this was Venice in July!
The next leg of our trip, we flew Alitalia to Brindisi via Rome without a hitch. We arrived on time in Brindisi and the rental car was right there for us. We were thrilled to see that there was no schlepping bags in a shuttle; we picked up our Fiat SUV with a built in booster seat.
I have long wanted to experience staying in a trullo — the fairy tale-like white washed stone houses with cone shaped roofs, found only in Puglia. This was our chance! We drove to our “trullo” which we rented directly from the owner over the Internet.
This trullo had recently been restored and upgraded to a beautiful property, set amongst acres of olive trees in between Ostuni and Ceglie Massapica, two little hill towns outside of Brindisi, in the Vall’Itria.
Short Excursions from Vall’Itria
We stayed in Puglia for a week, exploring the nearby hill towns and beaches of the Vall’Itria — Ostuni, Alberobello, Locorotondo, Cisternino, and Franca Martina.There’s a lot to explore, and I was a little unprepared for the driving distances between places, which seem closer together on a map, but each town was well worth the effort.
Most of these towns seemed sleepy during the day (at least in mid-July) and then came alive at night, with locals taking their evening stroll, or passaigiata. They all have nice pedestrian zones that make an evening outing with kids for gelato hard to resist.
- Alberobello is not to be missed, as the hundreds of trulli buildings makes it a trulli wonderland!
- Martina Franca was fun to visit the morning of market day (Wednesday).
- Locorontondo’s clean, shiny limestone paved streets and balconies overflowing with colorful geraniums, makes it one of Italy’s best kept secrets. We were only disappointed to find that the cantinas (Locorontondo is known for its white wine) we wanted to visit were closed, since our visit coincided with the afternoon siesta.
- Ostuni, called the “white city” because its buildings are all painted with white lime paint—caters to tourists with a nice selection of quaint restaurants. Great for strolling, especially in the evening, (up or down a very steep hill, so watch those stroller breaks!) There is also a fascinating archeological museum in the cathedral at the top of the old town that houses well-preserved human remains from around Ostuni from the Paleolithic period. The most famous one is a woman in labor lying down, with a type of hat made out of very small shells. Our boys were fascinated, if not a little scared!
- We also loved nondescript Ceglie Massapica, the town closest to us, and spent a good amount of time at our local “wine pump,” getting our empty wine bottles refilled with the cheapest best wine I’ve ever tasted!
Finding the Best Beaches in Puglia
It took us quite a few tries to find a beach where we wanted to hang out. We learned that the sandy beaches are mainly south of South of Torre Canne, so we focused in this area which is quite vast. We drove up the SS379 (the long coastal road) and checked out a few beach clubs and found them to be narrow and packed with people and loud music.
While many of the best beaches can only be accessed through resorts, we did find a true gem — better than what any resort could deliver — the nature preserve Torre Guaceto — where a little mini-shuttle train-on-wheels provides service from the parking lot to the beach.
The sandy beach is wide and the water is clean, warm, and a clear turquoise hue — perfect for swimming. The visitor center, 2 miles inland at Serranova, organizes nature walks, bicycle tours, and guided snorkeling trips. We had finally found our beach, one of our highlights!
Day Trips in Puglia
This is great day trip, and every guide book will tell you that it is a “must-do” in Puglia. The “Gotte di Castellana” is a geological phenomenon that has created fascinating and beautiful caves which run almost 2 miles under the northeastern edge of the Valle d’Itria. Our kids loved it — English tours are offered, and be sure to buy tickets online in advance, as the tours sell out. We didn’t go, but there is also a “safari zoo” in nearby Fasano and a water park slide nearby Monopoli, on the coast.
This is a longer day trip, but we have always wanted to go to ever since reading Christ Stopped at Eboli in college Italian class. It was interesting to visit another region, and the “sassi,” are fascinating. We regret not arranging a tour, in advance, as you really need a tour guide to show you the old caves where people actually lived until the 1950s.
Since I am in the wine industry, it would not be a trip to Italy if we didn’t visit a winery, so on our last day in Puglia we drove down what is known as the “Salentine Peninsula,” to the sleepy town of Salice Salentino—not sure that most people here even know that there is a famous wine named after their town!
After visiting the winery, we ended up stopping in Porto Ceasareo, a pretty coastal town on the Ionian sea, proving that one can experience both the Adriatic and Ionian sea in one day!
General Advice on travel to Puglia
- There is a reason why our property owner sent us longitude and latitude coordinates for each restaurant recommendation, as our Google maps on our Ipad and Iphone worked very inconsistently — often we were just a dot on a piece of graph paper! My advice is not to rely on these devises as your only map. Seems as though GPS is the way to go in this part of Italy, especially outside the town, in the more rural areas.
- Puglia is a large region, with a beautiful coastline that runs for hundreds of miles, with many inland treasures too. Figure out what part of Puglia you want to explore, and then base your accommodations in this area—the rest will be for next time. Don’t regret spending too much time in the car.
- The siesta period in Puglia in the summer can be long — anywhere from 12:30-4:00pm, which means most shops will be closed during this time. Similarly, restaurants stick to serving lunch at regular lunch hours (12:30-2:00), so plan your meals and sight seeing accordingly!
Our final leg of our trip was our stay in Rome, where we were meeting another family, at the Ciao Bambino recommended Albergo Santa Chiara. We had a fabulous suite with a small terrace where we could relax and drink wine after a day of site seeing. Our friends were right next door, and since we were the only two suites on the floor, it was as if we had an apartment.
I wandered next door to the Hotel Minerve and went up to the roof to admire the view, a stunning hotel, but Santa Chiara was the perfect place and value for us! Best of all, we were a stone’s throw from the Pantheon — the location could not have been more ideal.
Palazzo Valentini: One of the best kept secrets in Rome! This multi-media tour of well a preserved archeological remains of an ancient upper class Roman home was one of our highlights. Be sure to buy in advance, online. The kids loved it! It is one of the most interesting tours I have ever been on.
Segwaying through the Borghese gardens is the perfect way to spend out last afternoon in Rome, and a big hit with our tweens and teen!
Michelle lives in San Francisco with her husband and four children (ages 6, 10, 12, and 14) and works for a wine and spirits public relations agency there. In her past lives, she has lived in Bologna, studied Italian, worked in the field of international relations and authored a book. More than anything else, she loves traveling with her family, especially in Italy, and exposing them to la dolce vita!
Italy family hotels and resorts from the CB! Hotel Collection