A road trip through Italy must be one of the best ways to explore this fantastic and diverse country. It is a chance to sample so many delicious foods from the various regions making up Italy and to see how they all compare. We loved travelling through Northeast Italy. But perhaps you may want to experience the fabulous bucket list cities of Rome, Venice and Florence. Or perhaps like us, go off the beaten track to discover other must see places, some you may have never heard of until now. If you have that adventurous spirit in you, then this is how we found these five travel destinations in southern Italy.
Arriving from Albania to Bari
We arrived to southern Italy via the overnight ferry from Albania after our three week road trip of the Balkans. With Zadar, Croatia being one of the highlights.
Our €108 ferry ticket included sleeping quarters of bunk beds with an ensuite. While the bunk beds were half a metre too narrow to cuddle up as a couple, the room was spacious. The ensuite a bonus. We must have slept ok, once Terry was able to relax having calculated the exact time from when we left Albania. Why? Must be a male thing. Well, we did leave two hours late.
We arrived into Bari, Italy on time and after an expresso and brioche at the forward deck café for breakfast, we were ready for the day ahead.
How to Travel the South of Italy
Italy has 20 regions all offering a different aspect of this amazing country. Our road trip destination was Sicily, which would take us through the three regions of southern Italy – Puglia, Basilicata and Calabria.
Or we could say, the outside heel of Puglia, the in-step of Basilicata and the toe of Calabria.
Travel by car is one of the easiest ways to explore southern Italy. Most of the autostrada in southern Italy was without tolls – yay a bonus for the wallet. The autostrada is often elevated, with stunning views out along the coastline.
If a car isn’t an option, then the trains in Italy are efficient and reasonably priced.
Polignano A Mare – Puglia region
The old town of Polignano is sited high above the beautiful crystal-clear waters of the Adriatic Sea. The town sits at the top of 20-metre-high limestone cliffs with great panoramic views out to sea, and views to the caves and swimmers on the beach below.
To get a perspective on how high the town is, Polignano is the place to come for the Cliff Diving World Series. Now, this would be one heck of an adrenaline rush.
Passing through the old town gate Porta Vecchia, the cobblestoned narrow streets make exploring much more interesting. It’s here you find quotes from written on house doors and walls, plus displays of local artwork giving a warm feel to the old town. The local tourist office has lots of information and places to see in the city.
Polignano is also known for its ice cream and Mario Campanella (since 1935) is the shop to visit. It was mainly due to the description of the coffees made with ice cream, whipped cream and amaretto. We couldn’t resist. The service is good and prices are reasonable too.
Alberobello – Puglia region
Alberobello in Italian means beautiful tree, and when you visit this small town, it is certainly beautiful, but also unique. For some of the locals, their home is a Trulli, a building made of limestone with dry stone walls and a conical roof. Certainly, one way to clear the land of rocks.
The Trulli’s date back to the 14th century when a feudal lord, to avoid paying taxes, had his workers live in a Trulli. The Trulli could be easily dismantled and moved allowing the Lord to avoid taxes for a settlement of people. Very clever.
Today Alberobello town is designated as a UNESCO site.
It was such fun to explore in and around the Trulli’s. Stepping inside to have a look at some of the shops and the small space containing the merchandise. There is even a local “Trulli” church Terry found – Chiesa di Sant’Antonio while Maura was checking out a local food delicacy. A small custard pie called Pasticciotto Leccese – so delicious.
Matera – Basilicata region
If you have you ever wanted to visit a cave dwelling, then Matera until 1952 was just that. It was here the locals carved out homes in the rock of the hills and ravines, many centuries ago. Matera is one of the oldest inhabited places in the world and dates back 7,000 years.
We arrived by car which gave us the opportunity to explore some of the caves outside of the town. Being careful not to step on a snake or fall down a hole, we ventured over the rocky terrain to take a peek at some of the caves.
Now the better option is to visit the cave area known as the Sassi. It’s here you can visit renovated caves offering accommodation, restaurants and shops. It’s certainly a change from the 1950s squalor living conditions from the photos we found online. The dwellings back in those days housed the locals and their livestock too.
Matera is composed of two Sassi – Sassi Barisano and Sassi Cavesoco. Both areas give you an idea of what the living conditions were like and how the caves have been transformed into modern day living.
It is worthwhile visiting Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario to get a perspective on the layout of a cave dwelling. And if you have time, a visit to Casa Noha offers you a multimedia perspective of cave living put together by two local families.
Matera became a UNESCO site in 1993 and is worth a visit or a stay on your road trip to southern Italy.
Scilla – Calabria region
Scilla is one of those seaside towns you tend to fall in love with, even though it is the site of the sea monster Scylla from Greek Mythology. We didn’t see anything unusual when we arrived.
The town covers the hillside with houses, local shops and a large piazza overlooking the sea. From here you wind your way down the hill past the Ruffo Castle (old fortress) to the beach. The old fishing village located here now has hotels, restaurants and bars. We found it a little quieter now summer is officially over – 15th September to be exact. The sea water, however, was still warm and a bonus to why the town is so popular.
Scilla looks out to the strait of Messina having a strategic advantage to guard the shipping routes. On a sunny day, as we had, you can view the Aeolian Islands, seven small islands from the coast of northern Sicily.
Reggio Calabria – Calabria
We wanted to stop for lunch while we waited for our ferry to Sciliy. As we had a few hours, we decided to explore the old town area of Reggio Calabria.
As it was a Saturday around 1 pm when we arrived, there was a mass of traffic heading up the hill, apparently racing home for lunch. Were we driving along a one-way street? Or was this the norm? Or something else?
It was the something else. When we got to the pedestrian area of shops near the waterfront, the place was deserted. The stores were now shut for the weekend. We didn’t mind as it gave us time to enjoy the large pedestrian streets to ourselves. And explore a city rebuilt after the 1908 earthquake.
Reggio Calabria is famous for its two-life size Greek warrior’s statues sculptured in bronze. They were found in the sea 80kms away and now available to view in the National Museum.
For us the walk along the waterside promenade with its views across to Sicily gave us the perfect place to spend some time. Seeing the street lined with Palm and Magnolia trees, it would be the ideal place to hide from the summer sun to get some shade.
National Parks of Southern Italy
A road trip to Italy gives you the freedom to explore some of the beautiful national parks scattered throughout the country. And if you love hiking, then adding a day trip to one of the national parks would be a great option considering the reviews we have read.
On this trip we passed by Parco Nazionale del Polino, Parco Nazionale della Sila and Parco Nazionale dell’Aspromonte. The parks are open to the public and have stunning scenery to be enjoyed.
Taking a road trip of Italy’s south coast also offers fabulous beaches to enjoy. The summertime beaches are busy, making late September and early October an ideal time to visit. This way you can still swim in warm waters, with plenty of open beach space, and then enjoy dinner with a sunset.
If you are planning a trip to Italy, make sure to include some of these southern Italy destinations. You won’t be disappointed.
Have you been to Southern Italy?
Which place did you enjoy the most?