Our highlights from the Puglia region in southern Italy! Italy is just EASY with kids - mealtime is a no brainer (pizza. check. pasta. check.), gelaterias are abundant, and kids are treated well. We had never been to the Puglia region, and I was eager to explore the southern coast of the other European country I love so much (I studied abroad in Tuscany, and then went back to work there for a year post-college!).
Here I’ll share our itinerary, and any activities, restaurants, or other spots we discovered that I consider to be a must for families traveling in the area! I know, I know - this space is supposed to be all about FRANCE! BUT as long as I have tried and true research and experiences to share, I want to pass it along.
We were there in the beginning of August for about 5 days. We covered a lot of territory, and could have easily spent more time here. The area definitely merits at least 4 days minimum.
General tips for visiting Puglia
The cities are hot during the day! Honestly the kids could handle maybe 45 minutes of exploring before they got too tired and hot. Which I get - it was very toasty!
That said - the coast somehow remains cool and breezy, and the sea is delightful. That’s why you can find basically every Italian on the coast during the summer:) Evenings also seem to cool down to a perfect temperature. Temperature-wise, I thought the Puglia region was way more doable than expected - a great surprise!
Be ready to eat Italian, Italian, and then more Italian. Not that that’s really an issue... just be forewarned. Other cuisines have not infiltrated Italy much, and even less so the southern region it seems. Restaurant service is s.l.o.w…. Bring your drawing supplies and snacks - they will be more crucial than ever!
Try to listen to some Italian podcasts before coming - many people, even in the tourism industry don’t speak a word of English! We tried this is the car a few times and had a great time repeating phrases in Italian.
You'll need a car to properly explore this area... no way around it!
Step 1 - 24 hours in Matera, Italy
Our first stop in Italy was a quick one. Logistically it made sense to stop here - it’s about an hour from the Bari airport, and breaks up the 3.5 hour drive down to the very southern tip of the heel of the boot. But also it just looked too cool to pass up!
Matera is known for the cave dwellings in the hills surrounding the city… the area has been inhabited for 8 THOUSAND years, making it one of the oldest settlements in human history! We didn’t visit the actual caves, as it involves some serious hiking, but we did visit an amazing museum explaining how these caves were lived in until 1952 when the govt transferred 15,000 people into more modern housing. Many people bought these homes for a symbolic 1€ - now they are worth 100s of thousands!
Here’s what we did:
Visit the Casa Grotta museum. A must! They outfitted a cave exactly how it would have looked when a family of 6 or more lived there, complete with the bottom armoire drawer being a child’s bed! We all learned a lot here.
Take an ape (like a tuk tuk) ride to explore this hilly town! 45 mins, 50 euros for a family of 4. We used the Ape Vito company.
There are gorgeous churches everywhere… we popped into any we ran into along the way, including a church built into the mountain.
Pick up a little cucù bird - a ceramic whistle played with by local children for generations. Be prepared to hear lots of whistling:)
Try the local Matera bread, shaped like the caves! We are at ristorante Morgane and had an excellent meal there.
Stay in a cave hotel! We loved Hotel Cenobio - great family room in 2 levels, and the kids strongly approved of their Nutella filled croissants at breakfast.
Verdict? Matera definitely merits a stop!
Step 2 - Surano at the tip of the boot
After Matera, we continued south to the area around Surano for 3 nights. This would be our base for exploring the tip of the heel of the boot. The city of Surano does not have anything in particular happening, like many of the inland cities in this area. What was important was the accommodations, and the central location for exploring the coast.
We stayed at the Relais l'Oliveto - the property has 5 tiny homes, all facing a gorgeous pool. The landscaping is pristine and there was a green fig tree that I might have taken advantage of a bit too much:) Our little house had an upstairs with a queen bed and then trundle beds downstairs, and a kitchen and veranda.
Here are our top picks for this area:
Otranto - charming seaside village. The heat is so intense during the day we only managed an hour here with the kids. Worth a quick stroll!
La Grotta della Poesia - this is a protected site, and you pay a few euros to access the coast. There is tons of cliff diving going on - the kids were entranced watching all the flips and dives. You can swim but I would only recommend this for strong swimmers - there are waves and the water is deep!
Sant’Andrea - this was a little coastal spot where we walked along the bleached white limestone cliffs, admiring the dark blue sea and divers. Then we swam at a sandy inlet that was perfect for the kids. This was some of the most stunning coastline I've ever seen!
Consider a fancy beach day! We checked out and drove 40 minutes to a ‘lido,’ or private beach, where you can rent lounge chairs, umbrellas or a gazebo for the day. My husband had reserved our spot at the Coco Loco (lol) beach in advance via the website - apparently there were very few spots left a month before! A gazebo, 2 lounge chairs and a cushion is pricey - count around 140 euros for the day - but it is such an agreeable beach experience that it’s worth it if you’ll be there for the better part of the day. There is a bar and restaurant on the beach, so you can get cold drinks and lunch (we were not impressed by the food - stick to the sandwiches, or better yet bring a picnic and just get drinks there). No sunburns, naps, showers… Italians know how to do the beach!!!
We loved the Il Mattarello 2.0 restaurant so much we ate there twice! Not much English was spoken but we made it work and they were very nice to the kids. As you can see in the photo - we had the restaurant to ourselves until the Italians streamed in around 9PM!
Verdict - I would choose where you stay in the tip of the heel based on what accommodations catch your eye - you’ll have driving no matter what, and the landscape isn’t incredible until you get to the coast. Which is definitely worth seeing!
Step 3 - Head north to Alberobello!
This UNESCO World Heritage city was our base for exploring northern Puglia. This area is much greener and more typically ‘Italian,’ compared to the extremely arid tip of the heel of the boot.
We stayed at the hotel ‘i Trulli del Fauno’ to get a taste of the local architecture, the iconic ‘trulli’ buildings. Legend has it that these homes were originally built to avoid taxes, since their roofs could be dismantled quickly, and any roofless structure was not really a building and therefore could not be taxed. The thought of people continually destroying their dwellings sounds sad, but the buildings today are solid and very distinctive. The city of Alberobello feels like a little fairytale town!
Here are our highlights from this area:
Alberobello of course - count a 1/2 day to visit this tiny city… there are 2 sections of town worth checking out - the touristy area that can get quite crowded, and the residential area, which was pretty deserted and better for photos. In the touristy area, some souvenir shops offer a panoramic view from their rooftop if you purchase something - look for the little sign out front.
The seaside town of Monopoli - picturesque with beachy vibes. We had a chic apero at the Don Ferrante rooftop terrace, with amazing views. The cathedral Madonna della Madia merits a walk through - it is stunning.
The hilltop town Locorotondo - very charming! We had lunch at Bina, which was a bit more upscale but kid-friendly and delicious.
The Giardini Pistola botanical gardens - check their website (in English!) to see if any events are going on while you’re visiting the area. We did the Sunday evening family picnic and it was dreamy - they lay out blankets, cushions and small tables, and you can order food or bring your own. There is a drink bar servings local wine and juice, and they put out garden toys for the kids. The garden landscaping is incredibly beautiful, especially at sunset. A must!
Verdict : I preferred the Northern part of the Puglia region - it is lusher while still having the gorgeous coast and charming little cities. There are tons of great spots to stay in this area, just make sure you come to Alberobello at some point as it is a must!
There you have it! I hope this helps anyone considering a trip to Puglia, Italy with kids. We had a lovely time there... I would love to hear if you have been to any of these spots or if you end up using any of these tips!