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By the end of winter, my family (and every other family here in southeastern Italy) is finally ready to play along the white sandy beaches of southern Italy’s Salento region. With over 60 million inhabitants, Italy is subdivided into 20 regions. Salento refers to the southernmost area of Apuglia.
More specifically, Salento is what people commonly call the ‘heel’ of the Italian boot. This region encompasses approximately 60 miles, from the Ionian coast to the Adriatic coast.
You will leave absolutely touched by the culture you experience in Salento but your family is going to love the dreamy beaches that exist here in La Bella Italia.
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Three Types of Beaches in Italy
When in Italy, you must understand the difference between the three main types of beaches that are available. First, the soft sand beaches that my kids adore, and that you are probably most familiar with, are called the spiaggia. Next, a lido is a piece of private beach offering paying visitors a range of amenities such as umbrellas, beach chairs, concessions, and even possibly access to some water sports. Finally, there is spiagge di scogli that translates to ‘rocky beaches.’ The scogli are my personal favorite because I adore the sound of the crashing waves against the rock faces before I dive off one of its edges.
Baia Dei Turchi (Otranto)
Rather than one standalone beach, Baia Dei Turchi more commonly refers to a length of dramatic coastline, three miles north of the quaint but ever so prominent city of Otranto. This once-thriving port served as a gateway to the Orient during the Roman empire, acting as a strategic base for merchants.
Baia Dei Turchi is part of the Protected Oasis of Alimini Lakes, so visitors can enjoy miles of unspoiled beaches surrounded by pineta (pine forest) and uncontaminated nature.
As a side trip while you are in the area, your family will enjoy walking around the two Alimini Lakes. The smaller of the two, known as Alimini Piccolo, is freshwater and is surrounded by picturesque marshland and beautiful vegetation. My family loves to find trails, and my oldest son always wants to be the leader of our crew. For some reason or another, he likes to ignore the clearly marked trail and take us through dense thicket requiring us all to become the Evel Knievel of acrobats (especially me, because I’m carrying my two-year-old that loves hiking except when the wild grass covers his head and the branches are sort of like a high-tech laser security system).
One especially beautiful hike that we thoroughly enjoyed is the Entroterra Nord Laghi Alimini. It’s a low-difficulty, 5-mile hike that stretches out to both lakes with incredible vistas of the countryside, ancient masserie (Italian farms), and medieval sites.
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Alumni Grande, the bigger of the two lakes, is closer to the coast and was created by the sea’s continuous erosion of the landscape. This lake is fed by the sea and surrounded by rocky areas and pine woods, and it attracts many migratory birds. Your family may even be lucky to spot birds of prey such as marsh harriers, owls, peregrine falcons, hawks, and kites. The pinewoods are also home to some interesting mammals like the native red squirrel, mice, rabbits, hedgehogs, porcupines, ferrets, and moles.
Once you arrive at the overlook at Alimini Grande, you will notice a small cutout in the woods off to the right side. Families typically take advantage of this area for picnics. In fact, my family started a campfire there and enjoyed a delicious panino under the whistling pines in late March of this past year.
Things To Do
As you can see, the Baia Dei Turchi is surrounded by natural beauty and is especially welcoming to families. If you have older children, then a visit to the area would be amiss without a trip to AquaSpeed. This is a private beach that offers exhilarating rides along the Baia Dei Turchi beachline. Here your family can experience parasailing, high speed boat rides, and getting pulled through the water on a variety of different floating (skipping and flying) discs, bananas, and other adrenaline-filled devices. Here you can also enjoy water skiing and jet skiing.
To access the Spiaggia Baia Dei Turchi, you will first have to transcend a beautiful sandy pineta (pine forest) by foot or navetta (beach taxi) depending on which parking lot you enter.
If you think that AquaSpeed sounds right down your alley, then I would recommend you park in the Parcheggio Dei Turchi 2. If you get there early enough, you may find yourself some shade along the parking lot’s perimeter where there is some tree coverage. If you get there any later, then your car will be out in the open sun for however many hours you decide to stay at the beach, so make sure to bring a sun reflector for your front windshield.
The parking lot is well-maintained and a safe place for your vehicle. At just €3.50 per day, roughly $4, you can’t go wrong. Once you cross through the entrance to the pineta (pine forest), there will be a navetta (beach taxi) at your service consistently picking up and dropping off beachgoers. Look for a van and your family will be dropped off approximately 250 meters from the beach access. Simply follow the signs for AquaSpeed and enjoy your day.
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Even if your kids are not old enough to participate in the aqua sports available, this beach is still a fine place for children. The only thing I will mention is that I have noticed that the beaches along the eastern side of Salento often drop off much closer to shore, creating more waves. If you are visiting with younger children, you may need to improvise as we did. With the world’s smallest and most flimsy plastic beach shovels, we managed to dig a pit about five feet by three feet and fill it with water (after 4,320 trips with a bucket) for our toddler to enjoy. Also, whenever you want to take a break from the beach, you can take the navette back to the parking area and find a nicely tucked away children’s park and shady picnic area under the relaxing sway of pine trees.
Found almost directly across the heel of Italy from the city of Otranto (about a one-hour drive or 37 miles), you have another of Salento’s top beaches. Porto Selvaggio is a local paradise situated in a protected wildlife refuge. It is one of the top spots for an Italian honeymoon too.
As one of Nardo’s marine (seaside access points), there are many marked trails leading into Porto Selvaggio’s protected forest. Parcheggio Spiaggia Porto Selvaggio is the main parking lot for park access. Although the park is free of charge, parking is not free. You will need to put €3.00 I(about $4) nto the parking machine and make sure to place the parking receipt in a visible location on your dashboard.
Once you have your kids and beach bags ready to go, just follow the crowd along the 800-foot walk towards the park’s entrance. You’ll have one more decision to make before being fascinated by the splendid waters awaiting you.
On our first trip to the park, we walked the entire distance (about a mile) to the pebbly beach of Porto Selvaggio. The trail winds around quite a few turns and is mostly downhill, so the way down was mostly a breeze even though I had my youngest son packed in the baby carrier and my oldest on my shoulders.
Towards the end of the trail, we passed through a portion of the park’s pineta until the view opened up to this:
Things To Do
I cherish the many memories my family and I have already made swimming in the turquoise blue waters of Porto Selvaggio. My son especially loves using his snorkeling mask there.
Enjoy tips from a local for loads of family fun and snorkeling at its best in the turquoise waters around Salento, Italy’s finest beaches.
In the glistening waters that surround the pebbly beach, my sons have spotted so many beautiful forms of sea life roaming the pleasant waters. My oldest loves the furry crabs that hide between the rock crevices and the multicolored pipefish that look like seagrass floating by. I can’t forget the flounder fish that was hiding underneath the sandy bottom that he nearly stepped on. My youngest boy loves finding the hermit crabs that are absolutely everywhere.
This past year, our family had the unusual experience of being squirted by a sea cucumber. These creatures expel a white sticky netting if they sense danger. As you can imagine, my wife was extremely pleased by my son’s offer to hold this slimy, wiggly guy, but we all had a good laugh out of it.
Make sure to purchase a pair of beach rock shoes for everyone in your family. Your feet will thank me later. If any of you plan to go a little wild and do some jumping or diving off of any of the rock formations overlooking the water, there is one thing you need to look for as you climb out of the water – ricci di mare, or sea urchins. Yep, as you wade in close to your planned exit route, scout the area both above and under the water for any sea urchins attached to the rocks.
There is so much more to see in Porto Selvaggio’s 1200 acres . The wildlife refuge is also home to some well-known archeological sites. Be sure to follow the marked hiking trails to Grotta Uluzzo, Grotta Cosma, Grotta del Capelvenere, Grotta Verde, Grotta Gaia, and peek into the locked entrance of the Grotta Del Cavallo. (By the way, grotta means cave.) And don’t forget the hike up the hill to visit Torre Uluzzo and Torre dell’ Alto, which both once served the nearby cities as fortified coastal watchtowers. The views from the top are nothing like you’ve ever seen before. My wife is speechless every time, lost in the beauty of it all, until … “MOMMMMM!!!”
When your kids have been hit by the beach z’s, you can head back into the pineta and let them rest on top of a blanket on the sandy forest floor. If you have had enough of the water (as if that is ever possible with a beach like this), your family can choose to head back to the main parking area on foot via the main trail, take one of the much narrower trails that juxtaposes from your left and right along the way, or pay a few euros for a nice, comfy ride in a navetta back to the main entrance to the park. You will thank me later for this idea, because with kids and bags in tow, that 1.2 mile uphill trek is no joke.
Approximately 18 miles north of Porto Selvaggio, still on the Ionian sea side, you will run into Punta Prosciutto. When I lived in the small town of Lequile, the lady that owned the neighborhood deli and who happened to be one of my running confidants recommended this beach to me. And boy, am I glad she did!
Punta Prosciutto is perhaps one of the wildest beaches in Salento, and its crystal-like waters are ever so refreshing. My boys love running across the sand dunes and charging straight for the water’s edge. My wife and I usually have to play a quick game of paper, rock, scissors to see who will chase them down to get their shirts and shoes off before they jump in.
My boys love Salvatore, an old man who comes around selling sliced fresh coconut out of a cooler. He definitely brings jokes with him, but unless you all know some Italian you won’t have to worry about covering your children’s ears. Any time you come to an Italian beach, you’ll see various beach traders. Be friendly, polite, and always smile. We like to give some of them a few euros here and there because most of them are living hard lives, having immigrated from the African continent or the Middle East.
The beach at Punta Prosciutto has its share of both private and public access. If you don’t care about having an umbrella or chairs, then just walk to a part of the beach devoid from similar-colored umbrella tops and you’ll be fine. What we love to do when we go to any beach is to pack a yummy, kid-friendly, and heat-sensitive lunch for us to enjoy on the beach. Normally this includes fresh tomato sandwiches (make sure you ask for morbidelli, soft bread that kids love, at the local bread market), plenty of fresh fruit, cold water, and a bottle of frozen espresso (an Italian summer favorite called granita di caffe).
When our kids were younger we really enjoyed pitching a tent on the beach. Not only could the kids go in for some shady play, but also my wife would have a comfortable place to breastfeed our youngest. (Side note: nudity is very natural here in western Europe. Although you may never run into any nudists during your trip, it is possible – so don’t get caught staring!) The beach tent is great, but now that the kids are older, they are so busy playing and swimming that it just doesn’t justify bringing the old tent any more, although it still gets plenty of use in our living room and out during campouts.
Punta Prosciutto is a perfect destination for your family if you have younger children. The beach is lapped with shallow waters up and down its stretch, and the water stays a few degrees warmer than the water surrounding the scogli. My boys love being able to walk out for quite a distance without worrying about water getting too high for them.
If your kids are older, then treat them to one of the popular sports around. Usually, paddleboarders, kayakers, windsurfers, and divers fill the horizon. Overall, because of its secludedness, natural beauty, soft sand, and kid-friendly atmosphere, Punta Prosciutto is a must-visit beach destination.
Cala del Acquaviva
Don’t forget to bring along those beach shoes you bought so you can walk around comfortably on the Cala del Acquaviva beach. Tucked away between lush vegetation and towering rocks, Cala del Acquaviva features a beautiful, cold spring with the clearest of water, closely resembling a Caribbean experience.
There is nothing simple about nature except for its simplicity. And the simplicity of the cove leaves nothing to be desired. Actually, the fairly recent addition of some concessions was enough to create a bit of unhappy sentiment from locals and tourists alike. You can form your own opinion when you get there, but when traveling with little ones an establishment that offers a cold treat and a bathroom is not that bad.
We particularly enjoyed the feeling of the cold springs between the fjord one hot summer day when the temperature soared over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. At the mouth of the cove, the water is shallow, and my sons both enjoyed feeling the caress of smoothed pebbles under their toes.
Around the three sides of the cove, there is generous space for popping down your stuff and catching some sun. If your kids are a bit older, then experience jumping or diving into the calm waters below from the edge of the rocks. The tall rocks on either side of Cala del Acquaviva do a fantastic job of blocking the wind so your family can enjoy the glass-like smoothness of the refreshing waters below.
Sentiero del Ciolo
The final destination on my list of beaches in Salento is registered and protected under the Regional Natural Coastal Park Association of “Costa Otranto Santa Maria di Leuca-Bosco di Tricase“. Located in the comune of Gagliano del Capo, the Sentiero del Cielo inlet is renowned for its breathtaking views and is dominated by a bridge that connects the two shores of Santa Maria di Leuca and the Marina of Novaglie.
Before you head down to the beach, take a second to allow the views from the top of the bridge to impress themselves into your memory. The stairway leading down from the main parking lot winds along the southern ridge; make sure that your kids take the extra-wide and angled steps slowly.
Our cute little hiking family decided to park at the Sentiero del Ciolo parking area and take the more tranquil scenic route down to the water’s edge. Along the steep path, we found numerous prehistoric caves cut into the sides of the rock cliffs, which are especially well-known to rock climbers. When we visited, we had the pleasure of meeting German and French climbing teams. (If your family is into rock climbing, and you can fit it into your schedule, check out SudestClimb – Antonio has an amazing indoor climbing setup, and the staff has several organized adventures for all different levels.)
The entire path at Sentiero del Ciolo is surrounded by Salento’s typical rocky-yet-lush landscape. Before we left, we heard about the possibility of finding several rare species of plants along the hiking trails, so we downloaded a plant identifier application to our phones and allowed our sons to have fun taking pictures of various plants and trying to repeat the tongue-twisting Latin names of their species.
Once you are in the water, snorkeling and scuba diving is just the thing to do. We absolutely loved watching the local fish dance and prance around the rocks, and the water’s clarity is perfect for spotting them.
If you are strong swimmers, you can go past the underside of the bridge and look to your left, where you will come across one of several semi-submerged sea caves. We put my youngest in a small floatie, the kind that lets his legs dangle into the water, and pushed/pulled him along while the rest of us swam into the cave. Although we didn’t stay long since the tide was becoming stronger, it was stunning nonetheless to see and feel the different substrates lining the cave walls.
If you do not think that swimming out to any of the caves is a good idea for your family, then consider renting a kayak or jumping on a boat tour to make sure you don’t miss out on the caves. The three main caves include:
- Grotta Piccola del Ciolo
- Grotta Grande del Ciolo
- Grotta delle Prazziche (accessible by boat)
When You Go
From Los Angeles, you will not find a direct flight into Salento. because you have to pass through a major airport as your international port of entry. That said, if you wish to limit your trip to one-stop, search for a flight from Los Angeles to Brindisi (BDS).
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I suggest you choose a flight that goes through Rome, Zurich, or Frankfurt before landing in Brindisi. Within the Brindisi Airport, you will have access to all the typical rental car agencies that you are used to back home.
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Where to Stay
Italians are wonderful at hospitality, and it’s one of the richest industries in the southern region of the boot. There will never be a shortage of restaurants and accommodations, although trying to get a pizza before 7pm could be a little tricky.
When you come to Salento, a great place to make your headquarters to explore all the beaches is the beautiful city of Lecce, otherwise known as the ‘Florence of the South.” Its Baroque architecture and rich history are evident on every one of its small winding streets within the old city walls.
Lecce’s central location makes it possible to jump in the car and reach almost any part of Salento within an hour. For under €100 per night, your family can enjoy a stunning perspective of the city from Palazzo Astore. It is a historic-meets-modern B&B located in the centro storico (historic center), and it includes the region’s famous star-vaulted ceilings, a rooftop lounge complete with an extra-large hot tub, and hammocks for your children to swing on.
Another option is 12 miles south to Aradeo, a much smaller Italian town that has everything you could ever need. Check out Villa Silmone for an opportunity to accommodate your family at their country B&B. It has modern construction set in the campagna (country) about a mile from the city center. your stay includes all the amenities you could imagine plus a delicious Italian breakfast. And if you want to retire back to the bed and breakfast for a nice relaxing dinner with an array of local dishes, they will gladly accommodate you. As a bonus, you and your family will have unlimited access to bicycles, a barbecue area, and plenty of room for your kids to run about safely.
For a luxury experience, you can wake up smelling the sea at Otranto’s Palazzo de Mori. This is the most expensive option of the bunch, but when you’re staying in a medieval center of Italy a few extra euros can be worth it. This classy dimora antica is absolutely gorgeous, overlaid in the region’s pietre leccese, and comes with its own storied past.
Parking in Italy
I recommend that you read this article by Nicolas Mascolo, writer for Italian Viaggio, that offers an ultimate parking guide including explanations of the various signs you should be aware of when driving in Italy.
When you come to Salento, you and your family will have the privilege of swimming in some of the world’s most beautiful waters. With the sun above you, the beach all around you, and the warm breeze blowing by, Salento’s dramatic coastline is a must-see for all families.
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