It's no secret that Italy is one of the most family-friendly places on Earth. And awesome Puglia may be the family-friendliest part of Italy.
PUGLIA, Italy – Before we had children, my husband and I used to travel to Italy every other year for vacation. The land of delicious food, incredible wine, beautiful people, and la dolce vita, Italy has it all.
Now that we have kids, we prefer to travel in June before tourist season ramps up. But after a rainy trip to France last summer, we decided to travel south to ensure that the only precipitation we experienced was from crashing waves.
Italy was the no-brainer choice, and then farther south to Puglia, where summer begins in May and lasts until October. I scoured the internet in search of the perfect masserie, beaches, and restaurants that would satisfy this discerning author and would accommodate her six- and eight-year-old bambini. What resulted was a memorable trip punctuated by many plates of orecchiette, ball after ball of burrata, magical local beach clubs, welcoming family-owned hotels, and a steady stream of Aperol spritzes.
Lay of the Land
Puglia is the region of Italy in the heel of the boot. The southern part of Puglia, where we spent our time, is the Salento Peninsula. An area of two coasts, its eastern shore gazes at the Adriatic Sea, while the west coast fades into the Ionian Sea. The often windy east coast is a dramatic mix of sandy beaches, rock formations, and grottoes. It sits in contrast to the white sand beaches and calm, warm, turquoise water typical of the west coast, which draws comparisons to the Caribbean and the waters of the Maldives for good reason. From north to south along Puglia's east coast, the commercial centers are Bari, Brindisi, Lecce, and Otranto. On the west coast, the largest towns are Taranto and Gallipoli. The highest concentration of masserie (small, family operated hotels) is found around Ostuni and the Valle dei Trulli between Bari and Brindisi. As a result, beaches here are more crowded with foreigners and the villages are populated with souvenirs shops and restaurants with menus in three languages. To me, this does not translate to an authentic Italian experience. Which is why I decided to venture arther afield for our accommodations.
Where to Stay
With only six rooms, a stay at this lovely farm in southern Puglia feels like visiting cool friends who have opened their home to in-the-know travelers. With all the creature comforts of a luxury hotel, the rooms at Masseria Prosperi are light, bright, and designed with the simple elegance of a country residence. When I say “farm,” I mean it. Just beyond the main part of the hotel is a huge corral, complete with a dairy cow, horses, donkeys, goats, turkeys, and geese. While this ménagerie of animals would normally not live together in such harmony, they have been raised this way and know no other way. (Note to self: This is a good lesson for parenting.) (And by the way, the cow is the boss!)
A wonderful diversion for families with kids, the animals are friendly and love to be fed by little hands. Speaking of diversions, if the kids get bored in the pool, they can try the swing, play structure, and trampoline. Because Masseria Prosperi is small, you'll become acquainted with other guests, which makes aperitivo hour around the pool a lively affair. Have at least one dinner on site. The multi-course experience around the communal table brings travelers together and often includes the owners, Antonio and Mercedes. Otherwise, the masseria is an easy 15-minute drive to the restaurants of Otranto.
An Instagram paradise, Masseria Potenti is the incredible creation of mother-daughter duo Maria Grazia di Lauro and Chiara Tommasino. Located in a secluded part of the Mandurian countryside, just a short drive from the Ionian Sea, Masseria Potenti is an expansive, white-washed 16th-century farmstead that has been painstakingly converted into a beautiful and luxurious boutique hotel whose design makes it stand apart from other boutique hotels in the region. The impressive collection of furniture, textiles, and décor that Maria Grazia and Chiara have amassed is woven into the fabric of the masseria and assembled to make guests feel like they are visiting a whimsical weekend house. With suites spread throughout the property in converted stone stables with vaulted ceilings, guests are ensured privacy and a peaceful sleep. Courtyards and outdoor lounges are lit by twinkling lanterns, scented by Maria Grazia's incredible floral designs, cut from her garden.
Speaking of Maria Grazia, every morning at 4 am., she wakes up and begins baking bread, cakes, and other pastries for her guests' breakfast. In the afternoon, she teaches a cooking class where guests learn about Apulian cuisine and receive her family recipes. When not in the kitchen or playing hostess, she can be found in her garden, harvesting vegetables, herbs, and fruit for the afternoon and evening meals served in the outdoor dining room. This woman never stops and is the heart and soul of this place. Tip: On most weekends in the high season, Masseria Potenti plays host to lavish weddings. So if you want to stay here, mid-week might be best.
My main regret about our visit to Masseria Cervarolo is that we only got to spend two nights here. Located near Ostuni in the Valle dei Trulli, the small hotel tucked into the side of a verdant hill is surrounded by ancient olive groves and vineyards. Guest accommodations are rooms in the main villa and a series of trulli, the iconic conical buildings that dot the countryside in this part of Puglia. They're simply designed with an Italian-country flare that complements trulli architecture.
We loved exploring the nooks and crannies throughout the property, including a painstakingly restored, tiny 17th-century chapel and a warren of charming and comfortable indoor living rooms. Seeking a break from the tourist circuit? The pool at Masseria Cervarolo — the largest hotel pool I have experienced — is perfect for small children, lap swimmers, or couples seeking solitude in the shade. Lunch or an aperitivo under the pergola of the pool bar is pretty fantastic.
Where to Eat
Whether it is a beach club or a restaurant, always book in advance, even if you call the same day. Italians like reservations.
La Terrazza 300 Mila
From the owners of 300 mila in Lecce, this is hands-down the best pizza in Otranto. Located high up in the old town on a huge water-facing terrace, this is a great spot for a casual sunset dinner. The thin-crust pizza is made to order depending on the size of your group — which means that the pizza can be made as long as your table.
Fantastic seafood, just outside the castle walls in Otranto. The best restaurant in Otranto, it may be a refined dining experience, but kids are welcome, as long as they behave. Choose between the intimate dining room or the breezy terrace.
We loved this restaurant so much that we ate here twice and told everyone we met about it. Located in tiny Ceglie Messepica, a small hilltop village with few tourists, charming streets, and lovely baroque architecture, and tucked down a quiet alley in a restored 15th-century convent, the lovely, slow-food restaurant is owned and operated by Lillino Silibello and his family. With a passion for ingredients and an exceptional wine list, a meal at Cibus is as delicious as it is memorable. Order house antipasti and cold spaghetti with stracciatella cheese, fresh tomatoes, and basil — the dish that drew me back again.
Mora Mora Bistro’ del Mare
When we first touched down in Puglia, our host from Masseria Prosperi suggested that we stop at this beach club on a lovely cove between Brindisi and Otranto for a casual seaside lunch. Because we went on a windy weekday, Mora Mora was pretty quiet: The DJ was still setting up his gear and the few diners were the owner's relatives and friends. The new chef, who had just arrived after traveling and cooking around the globe, turned out fresh seafood and pastas in a contemporary, international style. If it’s the weekend, be sure to book in advance.
Santa Maria di Leuca
Ever since the 1990s, when I visited La Fontellina, a the chic beach club tucked into the rocks on Capri, I have searched for locals-only, in-the-know, beach club-restaurants that no one has ever heard of. Lo Scalo fits the bill. Built into the rocky coastline just outside the hamlet of Marina di Novaglie at the tip of Salento, the seafood restaurant is perched above the water, offering endless views of the Adriatic. Come here to feast on fresh lobster, fish, just-made burrata, or simple spaghetti with clams. After lunch and a couple of glasses of wine, take a snooze in one of the lounge chairs on the terrace below. When it’s time to head out, take one last plunge into the crystal blue-green water before walking up the hill to the car. If you can’t bear to leave, Lo Scalo rents rooms.
What to Do
You can't really experience Puglia without renting a car, so make use of it. Many wonderful villages in this part of Italy haven't (yet) been completely destroyed by tourists, so you can still have an authentic Italian experience. With the exception of the towns Alerobello (Puglia's own Disneyland) and Ostuni, we saw very little impact of foreign tourism on the Italian way of life. Which may be why Puglia is where Italians go for vacation. Swim with the locals in Castro Marina, stroll through Cisternino and Martina Franco, stop for a gelato in the piazza in Fasano, and take the windy coastal road instead of the highway. Puglia is just waiting to be explored.
Where to Beach
The main thing to do in Puglia during summer is hit the beach. All but one of beach clubs that we loved and returned to are family operated and located on small, private coves where the sea is calm. When in doubt, always ask a local for a recommendation.
Lido La Castellana
This little beach club just outside Otranto is a slice of paradise. Owned by Ennio and Carlo Capasa, Milan-based fashion designers who grew up in Puglia, Lido La Castellana is a family operation where kids scamper and swim while nonnas sip cappuccino and decide what to serve for lunch. The small cove, with beautiful, shallow, blue-green water, is dotted with white umbrellas and loungers and backs up to a lush, grassy lawn. Lunch is served on a patio shaded by a pergola draped in grapevines, surrounded by a collection of blue and white cabanas. The brief menu consists of whatever is fresh that day, like friselle Puglisi, a regional dish of hard, crusty bread drizzled with olive oil and topped with a fresh salad of tomatoes, burrata, arugula, and whatever is crisp. Days spent here are lazy, quiet, and family-oriented. Don't come expecting a disco or DJ (as many of the beach clubs advertise): This local place is small, chic, and perfectly executed.
Lido Santo Stefano
We were the only Americans in sight at this local beach club just south of Monopoli. Larger and more casual than Lido La Castellana, Santo Stefano is a sandy cove sandwiched between rocky outcroppings and the ramparts of Castello di Santo Stefano. Orange and green umbrellas dot the sand, providing shade for families and friends relaxing and catching up by the sea. While the beach is busy on weekends, it is virtually empty during the week, a reflection of the fact that this is a local spot that tourists don't usually visit. Lunch is simple and unsophisticated: pre-packaged salads, panini, and ice-cold Moretti beer. If you need a break from sitting in the sand, head over to the bar, where octogenarians play dominos and smoke cigars, or swim out to the raft and lounge in the sun. Whatever your jam, bring your best Italian, because English is (blessedly and happily) not spoken here.
Lido Bacino Grande
Located at the south end of the sweeping bay of Porto Cesareo, the small beach club (part of the Bacino Grande Hotel) is quiet and family-friendly, with unbelievable, shallow, warm water and a great restaurant. While this long, sandy beach can get crowded, most of the beach clubs and bars are mostly concentrated towards the north end of the beach, making the location of Bacino Grande more relaxed. Lunch is served at a casual outdoor bar (delicious pizza, pasta, and Pugliese fare) or in the formal enclosed beachfront restaurant (the choice of business people and well-dressed locals).
If You Only Do One Thing
Instead of a quick stop to take in the view in Castro Marina, I wish we had spent the entire day swimming off the rocks with the locals.
What I Wish I Had Known on the First Day
There is nothing worse than arriving at a beach club, only to find that the sun beds, umbrellas, and restaurant are priced to target tourists, especially when the locals’ beach club next door costs a fraction of the price, is less crowded, and shares the same sand. We made this mistake once on our trip, and never repeated it again.
Before we embarked on this adventure, I had compiled a long list of beaches, towns, and restaurants that I wanted to experience. My best advice is to try not to see and do too much. Take things slow in Puglia.
Plan Your Trip
How to Get There
A 50-minute flight on Alitalia takes you from Rome directly into Bari or Brindisi. Car rental in Puglia is essential. Be prepared for lines and inefficiency at the rental car counter. Driving from place to place in Puglia is straightforward with the help of GPS, but expect to spend a lot of time traveling on country roads.
When to Go
In Puglia, summer starts in May and lasts until October. If you can swing it, the shoulder season sees fewer crowds than July and August, when all of Europe is on vacation.