Ohat a difference a few years made. Bari, “on the heels” of Italy, is rapidly moving away from its reputation as a sketchy port city. Previously, its only attraction was that it was the gateway to the popular region of Puglia; now it is transforming into a charming Italian destination in its own right, with a vibrant and young population. The region’s generally mild weather has resulted in some truly lively outdoor spaces at restaurants and bars, complementing the bustling beaches and traditional cultural hits nearby.
With its near-complete reinvention, this coastal town has just hit that sweet spot where there’s enough to do for a city break, while still offering a glimpse of an authentic way of life (don’t expect to hear a lot of English). If you’re heading to the area by train or car, spend a first or last night here for a taste of city life, or spend a convenient night near the airport. This is the perfect time to visit Bari, whether or not the rest of Puglia is on the maps.
What to do
Get lost in Bari Vecchia
The jewel in Bari’s crown is the labyrinthine Bari Vecchia, its old town, where you’ll encounter surprises around every crumbling corner; whether it’s the ruins of an ancient church, makeshift kitchen cafes offering exquisite homemade snacks, or residents sitting in undersized chairs blowing the breeze. Within this maze you may or may not come across the Basilica San Nicola (a majestic church where the remains of St. Nicholas are kept in the crypt below) and the huge Bari Cathedral, where a wedding usually takes place. In casual Italian style, you should be able to poke your nose either way. If you don’t find yourself lost along the narrow, curving passages of the Old Town at least once, you may be too attached to Google Maps.
Above all, be sure to stop at “Strada delle Orecchiette”, the nickname “pasta street” for the area around Via Arco Basso. This is where the vital women of the old town dry their homemade pasta daily and sell the finished product outside their modest homes.
Immerse yourself in art and design
Piazza Del Ferrarese, the first and main square in the old town, has begun its transformation into a center of art, design and culture. Stop by the Puglia Design Store, a treasure trove of the region’s best contemporary talent – think cushion covers in bold prints, quirky jewelery for the intrepid and abstract art tote bags you’ll shop for in gift but that you will end up keeping for yourself. Then, take in world-class exhibits at the Museo Teatro Margherita, which was built on stilts in the water when the Teatro Petruzzelli was the only licensed theater on Bari land. Our perfectly timed visit took place between retrospectives of global phenomenon Banksy and graphic artist Shepard Fairey, who created this iconic stenciled portrait of Obama.
Take a bike ride
To wander further afield, hop on a bike tour with Veloservice (from €30/£26) and follow a guide through Bari’s intriguing – and thankfully flat – neighborhoods. With the guide’s insightful commentary on how Bari’s merchant past has influenced its present, and the wind in your hair—welcome when it’s otherwise sultry—you’ll understand Bari much more than on foot. Set back from the central area, the vegetable market attracts so few tourists that you will be greeted with the flavors of exquisite olives and full-flavoured cherry tomatoes.
Where to stay
Bari is a city still in transition, and nowhere is this more evident than in the area of accommodation. In the center, northeast of the station, it’s a choice of family guesthouses or one of three or four necessarily overpriced hotels.
To go all-in-one, The Dilman oozes style. A discreet and minimalist atmosphere is found in the white facade and the decoration of the contemporary and chic rooms. Combined with its prime location between the train station and the old town, it’s the preferred choice for those who have a blast. Doubles from £220, B&B. dilman.it
For most budgets, the 75-room iH Oriente strikes a smart balance between comfort, price, and location, and has rooftop space for lounging. It leans toward business travelers, but it’s high time for leisure travelers to beef up, given the location near the Old Town and nightlife area behind Teatro Petruzzelli. Digital nomads should know: wifi is strong with this one. Doubles from £130, B&B. ih-hotels.com
The Atipico B&B offers a uniquely Barese experience, tucked away in a cul-de-sac in the old town. In keeping with the density of the area, it maximizes every last space – you’ll notice the “bar” is a wall shelf holding a few bottles of wine and glasses. Climb the steep steps (watch your head) into one of its three cozy, rustic bedrooms and, given the tranquility, you’ll find it hard to believe you’re in the heart of the city. Doubles from £85, B&B, atipicobb.it
Where to eat
As in most parts of southern Italy, there is a wide assortment of the poor kitchen – the food of the poor – which manifests itself in downright delicious street food. Sgagliozze (fried polenta) and taralli (biscuits made from wheat, olive oil and white wine) are ubiquitous. The tiny Panificio Fiore (+39 080 523 6290), around the corner from the San Nicola basilica, serves arguably the best takeaway focaccia in town. Eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner, theirs is particularly thin, crispy and well salted, with flavorful baked tomatoes coated on top.
Meanwhile, at the fish market behind the Teatro Margherita, you can buy plates of mussels, sea urchins and oysters garnished with lemon directly from the fishermen, to eat on the spot.
The best ice cream in Bari is hotly contested. The Martinucci lab is a draw as you can see the ice cream being made in the morning and it has many vegan/lactose free options. But the local love is with Gentile (+39 080 528 2779), who started making their own ice creams in the same location in 1880. Our tried and tested recommendation is to get several of each.
For a sit-down meal in the old town, La Locanda di Federico in Mercantile Square is a good place to start as it offers a range of traditional Apulian dishes. Or at lunchtime, there’s Mastro Ciccio on the outskirts of the old town for massive jaw-dislocating panini – one option has a big octopus tentacle and a whole ball of burrata heaped in as toppings.
Although a newer addition to its scene, Bari also offers fine dining. The divine La Bul is a perfect balance between balanced haute cuisine, attentive service and relaxed atmosphere. They offer a vegetarian tasting menu in addition to their main course, with wine pairings for an extra €20 (a bargain).
where to drink
Coffee is a way of life here and there are top-notch cafes on almost every street – just follow the morning queues to find a good spot. For the stronger stuff, head to Arcimboldo. Their Old Cuban (similar to a Daquiri but with Prosecco and a mint garnish) is a customer favorite, spilling onto the streets on a hot summer evening. Around the corner, there’s also outdoor drinking at PiccoloBar, which specializes in beer. A cut above, Katzuti Garage Bari is one of those bars furnished with such style you might mistake it for an interiors store – and the cocktails are just as refined.
With the region’s wines on the rise, oenophiles are spoiled for choice here – even Liberrima’s bookshop serves wine alongside its collections. Enoteca del Centro is a wine shop and bistro that places particular emphasis on its Puglia selection. You can enjoy glasses on site and marvel at its impressive wine cellar through its glass floor.
Where to shop
The main places to spend your money are Via Sparano and Corso Camillo Benso Cavour, which run parallel from the station to the old town. These cover everything from budget shops to top designers, with plenty of shoe shops in keeping with the city’s past.
Bargain hunters take note: Puglia Village’s huge designer store attracts Italian visitors to Bari, but unless you have a car it’s a bit of a hassle: a train and shuttle bus leave every hour from the town. Those making the trip will find discounted items from Adidas, Nike, Levi’s, Calvin Klein and smaller Italian designers.
In a city full of well-maintained and elaborate Italianate buildings and grand theaters, the stark contrast of the Fascist quarter (so named to be clear about its history) is both memorable and magnetic. Sweeping the south coast is a long stretch of imposing public buildings that were built in a rationalist style under Mussolini’s dictatorship.
Nuts and bolts
What currency do I need?
What language do they speak?
Italian. Come up with at least a few words – English is not widely spoken.
Should I tip?
Yes – 10-15%.
What is the time difference?
It’s an hour ahead.
How should I get around?
The train is useful for the airport, but the tourist center is best traveled on foot – it takes about 30 minutes from one end to the other. Unfortunately, narrow streets and illegal parking on trails mean that some parts of town will be difficult for wheelchair users.
What is the best view?
Climb the slope to Il Fortino di Sant’Antonio for a view of Bari that encompasses all of its components: the azure sea, the port, the fascist quarter, the new town and the corn-yellow buildings of the old town.
Like more traditional parts of Italy, Bari tends to close daily between 1pm and 4pm. So plan a long carby lunch and a siesta before starting the late afternoon activities.
Try to fly less?
You can get to Bari entirely by train from the UK. Simply take the Eurostar to Paris, then take a TGV to Milan from Gare de Lyon. From there it’s a seven hour train ride to Bari Centrale.
Good with flying?
Bari is well served, with British Airways, Ryanair, EasyJet, Iberia and WizzAir all flying direct from the UK. The flights last about three hours.