Welcome to Bari, the capital of Puglia and one of the greatest cities of southern Italy.
They say that in Bari nobody is a stranger, and it makes sense if you think that over the centuries the city has been ruled by pretty much everyone. Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Spanish, French… everyone has passed through the city, leaving a piece of themselves behind in the form of a building, a tradition or a surname.
You might consider Bari provincial at first, but the city actually has deep connections with Mediterranean shores both near and far. Each day, several ferries leave Bari’s port for Albania, Greece and Croatia, making the city an important hub for maritime traffic in the Adriatic Sea. And let’s not forget the annual Fiera del Levante, historically one of the largest and most important fairs in the Mediterranean.
Here’s another example. Bari’s beloved patron saint, Saint Nicholas, actually came from the Turkish town of Myra and is still worshipped by both Catholics and Greek Orthodox. The city is a pilgrimage destination for both confessions.
Yes, Bari is many things: a southern Italian city steeped in tradition, a busy Mediterranean port, a meeting point for religions and cultures. From churches to castle, Bari boasts impressive architecture, a lively and picturesque historical center, and great food.
Tourism here is growing, but as far as Italian destinations go, this place is still very much off the beaten track. Read on, and I will tell you why you should pay Bari a visit.
NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH – Bari Vecchia
Vendors selling freshly-made orecchiette on the side of the street, people on balconies having loud conversations with neighbors, clothes hanging outside of windows, and the sensation of not knowing exactly where the street ends and somebody’s backyard begins.
A stroll around Bari Vecchia will give you a sneak peek into traditional Italian life, and it will feel welcoming and familiar. But it wasn’t always the case: until 10-15 years ago, Old Bari was known for being incredibly sketchy. In recent years, however, these alleys have gone through a bit of a renaissance. They have been cleaned up and they have regained their role as the beating heart of the city. There are bars and cafes everywhere and tourists can be seen walking around, nose in their air, taking in the picturesque surroundings.
You won’t be surprised to hear that the sights you don’t want to miss while visiting Old Bari are churches (we are in Italy, after all). So let’s start with the beautiful Basilica di San Nicola. Its simple façade is a great example of Romanesque architecture. The church houses the relics of Saint Nicholas, who is worshipped by both Catholics and Greek Orthodox. The non-believers among us will be interested to learn that Saint Nicholas inspired the figure of Santa Klaus.
The basilica is beautiful, but to me it has nothing on the Cattedrale di San Sabino. I absolutely adore its simple white façade and bell tower, and the interior is quite impressive too.
As you explore churches and squares, don’t forget that Bari Vecchia is best enjoyed getting lost in its maze of alleys.
LANDMARK FOCUS – Castello Normanno-Svevo
The Castello Normanno-Svevo is one of Bari’s main attractions. This huge fortress lies at the edge of the old town, separating it from the city’s port. The Normans built the castle around 900 years ago, on top of the area that once housed the residence of the city’s Byzantine governor.
In 1155, Bari’s population rose against their Norman ruler and, in retaliation, William I – not surprisingly nicknamed “the Wicked” – completely destroyed the city. It was 1156, and the castle was badly damaged in the clashes.
It wasn’t until 1233 that Frederick II began the restoration of the building, with the construction of the gate, the vestibule and the loggia in the inner courtyard. In the 16th century, Isabella of Aragon and her daughter Bona Sforza thickened the walls of the fortress and adapted them to the new weapons available to potential attackers – firearms. They also turned the interior into a lavish mansion.
In the following decades, the castle was basically abandoned and turned into a prison first and into barracks later. In 1940, renovation began that would eventually transform the building into the museum you can visit today.
The highlight of your visit will the courtyard, with its two staircases and the loggia added by Frederick II. From the courtyard, you can access a room with interesting archeological excavations and the Gipsoteca, with its 130 chalk casts of Romanesque works from landmarks all over Puglia. Upstairs, where the rulers’ living quarters were located, you can visit temporary and permanent exhibitions.
If you are lucky enough to visit when few tourists are around, you will have giant rooms all to yourself.
STREET VIEW – Lungomare di Bari
You can’t really say that you have seen Bari until you have walked down its seafront. Focus on the section of the lungomare closest to the old town.
Start off at the Fortino di Sant’Antonio that was once part of the city walls (you can still walk on the ramparts). Although in different iterations, this fortified tower has been here for almost 1,000 years. Structures like this, built right on the water, typically represented the most vulnerable part of the city’s defense and required some extra protection. Hence, the dedication to a saint!
Walk along the old port, with its pretty marina and boats bobbing in the tide. From here, you are just steps away from the Teatro Margherita, a former theater now being turned into a museum. The building was completed 1914 in Art Nouveau style, and built right on the water to circumvent an agreement between the city government and the Petruzzelli family (owners of a nearby theater) saying that no other theater could be built within city limits.
Past the Margherita, you will find the Molo San Nicola, where fishermen sell their freshest seafood. This pier is a piece of old Bari, one to which many locals feel intimately connected. (People refer to it as “nderr la lanz”, which translates into “on the ground by the boat” – where fishermen placed their catch.) If you are into it, it is also a great place to try some street food Bari-style: sit down and savor some raw octopus, mussels and cuttlefish, all washed down with a Peroni beer. Not for me, thanks.
Past the pier is where the monumental section of the Lungomare begins, with Rationalist buildings dating back to the years of the Fascist regime. this architectural style emphasized logic and functionality.
Take it easy on the Lungomare, and walk down the street taking in the sublime views of the Adriatic just inches away from you.
9 AM – After a sweet breakfast, head out to explore the Old Town. Start with the Castello Normanno-Svevo and then check out the Cattedrale di San Sabino and the alleys of the old town.
1 PM – Lunch at L’Osteria del Borgo Antico
2:30 PM – Visit the Basilica di San Nicola and then reach the water.
3 PM – Walk along the city ramparts and explore the Lungomare
5 PM – Head for a coffee or ice-cream in the pedestrian-friendly Via Sparano da Bari with its impressive Palazzo Mincuzzi. Indulge in some shopping, too, if you feel so inclined.
8PM – Dinner is on a budget at Il Rustico, but oh-so-tasty!
Here are some travel tips on how to make the most of your one day in Bari. They will help you ensure you have a pleasant and smooth visit.
- Bari’s Karol Wojtyla airport has connections with many European cities, especially through low-cost carriers like easyJet and Ryanair.
- From the airport, you can catch a train to Bari Centrale (central station) for €5 or a shuttle bus for €4. Both take around 30 minutes. Catch the timetables to see which one leaves first, as they are not too frequent.
- Bari’s main attractions are concentrated within the city center, which means you can forget about public transport and just walk it.
- There are many accommodation options in Bari, and you can stay in the city center without breaking the bank. We stayed at Tanasa & Profugando Relax, a very clean, cosy and quirky looking apartment in the old town. Prices start at €34/night. It is located just minutes away from the Basilica di San Nicola.
- Bari has incredible food. You can’t visit without trying the local delicacy – orecchiette pasta with broccoli rabe (cime di rapa). I also enjoyed cavatelli con ricotta forte and focaccia barese. Locals also adore raw fish, which can try and the Molo San Nicola for a very authentic experience. My favorite Apulian wine? Primitivo di Manduria, of course. My restaurant recommendations: L’Osteria del Borgo Antico, with wonderful staff and great pasta dishes, and Il Rustico, a no-frills local institution serving amazing antipasti and mouthwatering pizza for only €10.