In my night job as a professional pub-crawler (yes, that’s a thing), I hear about a lot of people’s travel plans in Italy. When I ask, “So where are you going after Rome?” infallibly, I hear, “Venice and Florence!” Now don’t get me wrong, both of these cities are gorgeous and definite must-sees. But after traveling to and living in Italy for some time, I have a ground breaking suggestion; skip them. Skip seeing Florence, Venice, and maybe even the latest popular spot that goes completely ignored by most Italians, Cinque Terre. Instead, I recommend heading to the South for your trip to Italy. Start in Rome, head down the coast, hitting up Naples, Sorrento, the Almalfi coast, and eventually the region of Puglia. This advice is especially relevant if you’re traveling during peak tourism season, July or August (watch out for a post about the phenomenon that is Rome in August). If you’re still not sure, I have some photos from my recent trip to Puglia that just might convince you.
Do as the Italians do
There’s a reason that you will find Rome and other major Italian cities deserted in the middle of August, aside from the tourists. Most locals take off from 2 weeks to the entire month to vacation either in the mountains, or at the beach. While shops, restaurants, and monuments in the center will be open, smaller locations will close down, putting up signs saying, “Siamo in ferie”. If you are in Italy in July or August, it’s harder to fully experience and appreciate the culture and lifestyle of major cities when the locals have left. I prefer visiting cities like Venice, Verona, Florence, and Siena in late fall to spring.
On my vacation to Salento, I checked my weather app and saw highs of 86 F/ 30 C and sunshine every single day. Coming from the northeast of the U.S., finding a string of beautiful days like that is unheard of. Summer storms, soaring temperatures and unbearable humidity can all ruin a beach vacation. In Puglia, every day is a beach day.
The beaches in Salento, the South of Puglia, are known to be some of the best in the world. Similar tothe Caribbean and Mexico, the beaches of the Ionian Sea have crystalline water, pristine sand, and plenty of food, bar, and club options along the waterfront. It was, as I explained to my Italian boyfriend, a little different from the cold, dark, and seaweedy water that I’m used to in the Atlantic. A typical beach day in Salento involves an early morning departure to either rent a sun bed and umbrella at a beach club or get a spot at the free beach, a seafood lunch at a nearby restaurant that serves fish directly from the sea, and aperitivo around 6 with tropical drinks and dance music at clubs on the beach.
Cost of living
Coming from Rome, the cost of living in Puglia seemed almost absurdly cheap, even in its peak season. Food, living accommodations, and the price of events are all lower than they are in the cities to the north. The South of Italy has been in a financial crisis for decades now, and while this is problematic for its residents and the Italian economy as a whole, it certainly makes traveling there affordable. You will get more bang for your buck visiting the South than seeing multiple cities in the North and have a more relaxing time doing so. In the height of tourist season, 4 days before leaving, I booked an apartment in a town 20 minutes away from the beach for 7 nights totaling €500. Incredible. With a little more advance planning, I could’ve found something cheaper and even closer to the water.
If you think all Italian food is the same, think again. Italy is an incredibly diverse country with different sub-cultures, dialects, and food in each region. Southern Italian food varies from its northern counterpart and is, on the whole, extremely fresh and locally produced. Some examples of Pugliese food include orrecheitte (handmade pasta), taralli (delicous little salty crackers served around aperitivo time), le pucce (salty scones with olives and tomatoes), and friselle (a type of bruschetta typical to southern Italy). Not including limone and mandorla (almond) granita and caffe in ghiaccio con latte di mandorle (iced coffee with sweet almond syrup). Locals will try to feed you until you burst, with all of these snacks and dishes coming in at less than €10 a piece.
When you visit Puglia, instead of its northern counterparts, you will truly experience the Italian culture. Not watered down for tourists like it is in Rome, Florence, or Venice, but what real life is like for locals and Italians. Salento is extremely popular, but mostly with Italians from the North and some Europeans. Americans don’t tend to visit it, making it a hidden gem in Italy. Puglia also has just as much to offer in terms of culture and history as other cities, which you will see if you visit the major cities of the region (Bari, Lecce, Brindisi, Monopoli, and Gallipoli). It has a rich history as an important player in Mediterranean sea trade and invasions from the Turkish empire. In small towns you can find a church around every corner, stunning seaside views, and locals who are happy to offer suggestions as well.
One of the many reasons why Salento is such a popular destination for Italians and Europeans is its incredible nightlife. There is a bunch of music events, clubs, and concerts that go on each summer in the South of Puglia. If you're very into music and clubbing, there are DJ appearances every night of the week at well known clubs and beaches in Salento. If you're not a huge fan of hard-core clubbing, you can always check out a more low-key beach club around aperitivo time, with music, drink specials, and enough people to make you think you're back in college. I recommend checking out the party scene around Gallipoli (Baia Verde) or the club that I went to on the other coast, BluBay. Here you can hang out on the dance floor or by one of the many pools and if you stay late enough, you can catch the sunrise over the water.
Speaking from experience, my recent road trip from Rome to Gallipoli (towards the southernmost part of Italy) was amazing. The surrounding landscape is beautiful, with views of mountains, olive groves, vineyards, and dramatic cliff scenes of the Adriatic Sea. The drive itself took 6 hours without traffic, tolls were about €50, and gas set us back €150 for both ways and one week driving across the region.
Visiting Puglia is a safer bet when traveling to Italy in the summer, saving you money and being a far more enjoyable experience in the dead of summer than Rome or Florence. And postponing those famous cities also gives you an excuse to book your next trip to Italy, asap. So, would you ever consider giving up your gondolas, duomo or colosseum for a trip to Puglia?