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City guides

Bari city guide: Where to stay, eat, drink and shop in Puglia’s gateway port

Sometimes the low-key cities packed with trading, mingling and dining locals are the very best ones – and Bari’s a great first taste of the Puglian region, says Shilpa Ganatra

Thursday 15 December 2022 10:14 GMT
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Though not one of Italy’s most famous cities, Bari has plenty of flavour
Though not one of Italy’s most famous cities, Bari has plenty of flavour (ARET-Pugliapromozione/Carlo Elmiro Bevilacqua )

What a difference a few years makes. Bari, on Italy’s “heel”, is speedily moving away from its reputation as a sketchy port city. Previously, its only draw was that it was the gateway to the popular region of Puglia; now it’s morphing into a charming Italian destination in its own right, with a vibrant, youthful population. The region’s mostly balmy weather has given rise to some genuinely buzzy outdoor spaces at restaurants and bars, complementing the busy beaches and traditional culture hits nearby.

With its reinvention almost complete, this coastal city has just hit that sweet spot where it has enough going on for a city break, while also offering a peek into an authentic way of life (don’t expect to hear much English spoken). If you’re heading off into the wider region by train or car, spend a first or last night here to get a taste of urban life or spend a handy night near the airport. This is the ideal time to pay a visit to Bari, whether or not the rest of Puglia is on the cards.

What to do

Get lost within Bari Vecchia

The jewel of Bari’s crown is the labyrinthine Bari Vecchia, its old town, where you’ll encounter surprises around every crumbling corner; be they ruins of an ancient church, makeshift kitchen cafes offering exquisite homemade snacks, or residents sitting on too-small chairs shooting the breeze. Within this maze, you may or may not encounter the Basilica San Nicola (a majestic church where St Nicholas’s remains are kept in the crypt below) and Bari’s huge cathedral, where there’s usually a wedding going on. In relaxed Italian style, you should be able to poke your nose in either way. If you don’t find yourself lost along the old town’s curving, narrow passages at least once, you may be too attached to Google Maps.

Crucially, be sure to stop off at “Strada delle Orecchiette” the “pasta street” nickname for the area around Via Arco Basso. This is where the life-lined women of the old town dry out their homemade pasta daily, and sell the finished product outside their modest homes.

A woman makes pasta along Strada della Orecchiette (Andrea Ruggeri/ARET-Pugliapromozione)

Soak up some art and design

Piazza Del Ferrarese, the first and main square of the old town, has begun its transformation into a hub for art, design and culture. Stop by the Puglia Design Store, a treasure trove from the region’s top contemporary talents – think bold-printed cushion covers, statement jewellery for the fearless, and abstract art tote bags that you’ll buy as gifts but end up keeping yourself. Then take in some world-famous exhibitions at Museo Teatro Margherita, which was built on stilts in the water when Teatro Petruzzelli was the only theatre allowed on Bari’s land. Our impeccably timed visit took place between retrospectives of global phenomenon Banksy and graphic artist Shepard Fairey, who created that iconic stencil-style portrait of Obama.

Take a bike tour

To wander further afield, hop on a bike tour with Veloservice (from €30/£26) and follow a guide around Bari’s intriguing – and mercifully flat – neighbourhoods. With the guide’s insightful commentary on how Bari’s merchant past has informed its present, and the wind in your hair – welcome when it’s otherwise stiflingly hot – you’ll get to understand Bari much more than on foot. Set back from the central area, the vegetable market pulls so few tourists that you’ll be ushered in with tastes of exquisite olives and cherry tomatoes bursting with flavour.

A room at The Dilman, Bari (The Dilman)

Where to stay

Bari is a city still in transition, and nowhere is that more evident than in the realm of accommodation. In the centre, northeast of the train station, it’s a choice of family-run B&Bs or one of three or four hotels that are inevitably overpriced.

To go all-in, The Dilman oozes style. A discreet, minimalist vibe is found in the white frontage and the décor of the contemporary, classy rooms. Compounded by its bang-on location between the station and old town, it’s the preferred choice for those splashing out. Doubles from £220, B&B. dilman.it

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For most budgets, the 75-room iH Oriente strikes a smart balance between comfort, price and location, and has a rooftop area for lounging. It leans towards business travellers, but it’s high time for leisure travellers to muscle in, given the location near the old town and the nightlife area behind Teatro Petruzzelli. Digital nomads should know: the wifi is strong with this one. Doubles from £130, B&B. ih-hotels.com

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There’s a specifically Barese experience on offer at Atipico B&B, tucked away in a cul-de-sac within the old town. In keeping with the density of the area, it maximises every last bit of space – you’ll notice the ‘bar’ is a wall shelf holding a few win bottles and glasses. Clamber up the steep steps (mind your head) into one of its three cosy, rustic rooms and, given the quietude, you’d barely believe you were in the heart of the city. Doubles from £85, B&B, atipicobb.it

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Mussels at the fish market ( Graziantonio Pallotta/ARET-Pugliapromozione)

Where to eat

As with much of southern Italy, there’s a large assortment of la cucina povera – food of the poor – which manifests as 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 Basilica San Nicola, serves arguably the town’s best takeaway focaccia. Eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner, theirs is particularly thin, crispy and nicely salted, with flavourful baked tomatoes smeared on top.

Meanwhile, at the fish market behind the Teatro Margherita, you can buy lemon-garnished plates of mussels, urchins and oysters straight from the fishermen, to eat right there.

The best gelato in Bari is fiercely contested. Martinucci Laboratory is a draw as you can see the ice cream being made in the mornings, and it has plenty of vegan/lactose-free options. But the local love is with Gentile (+39 080 528 2779), which first began making their own ice creams in the very same spot in 1880. Our tried and tested recommendation is to have several from each.

For a sit-down meal in the old town, La Locanda di Federico off Mercantile Square is a solid place to start as it offers a range of traditional Puglian dishes. Or at lunchtime, there’s Mastro Ciccio on the old town’s periphery for massive, jaw-dislocating panini – one option has a fat octopus tentacle and a whole burrata ball crammed in as the filling.

While a new element to its scene, Bari does fine dining, too. The divine La Bul strikes a spot-on balance between well-balanced haute cuisine, attentive service, and relaxed atmosphere. They offer a vegetarian tasting menu in addition to their main one, with wine pairings for an added €20 (a total steal).

Bari’s Old Town ( Carlo Elmiro Bevilacqua/ARET-Pugliapromozione)

Where to drink

Coffee is a way of life here and there are top-notch cafes on nearly every street – just follow the morning queues to find a good spot. For the stronger stuff, head over to Arcimboldo. Their Old Cuban (similar to a Daquiri but with Prosecco and a mint garnish) is a favourite with the clientele, who spill out onto the streets on a hot summer’s evening. Around the corner, there’s also al fresco drinking at PiccoloBar, which specialises in beer. A cut above, Katzuti Garage Bari is one of those bars that’s furnished with such flair you could mistake it for an interiors shop – and the cocktails are similarly refined.

With the region’s wines on the up, oenophiles are spoilt for choice here – even the bookstore of Liberrima serves wine alongside its collections. Enoteca del Centro is a wine shop and bistro that’s notably strong on its Puglian selection. You can sample glasses on the premises, and marvel at its impressive wine cellar through their glass-bottomed floor.

Where to shop

The main places to splash your cash are Via Sparano and Corso Camillo Benso Cavour, which stretch in parallel from the train station to the old town. These cover everything from budget boutiques to the top designers, with plenty of shoe shops in keeping with the city’s past.

Bargain hunters take note: the huge designer outlet of Puglia Village is a draw for Italian visitors in Bari, but unless you have a car, it’s a bit of a faff – a train and hourly shuttle ride away from town. Those who make the trip will find cut-price items from the likes of Adidas, Nike, Levi’s, Calvin Klein and smaller Italian designers.

Bari’s Teatro Margherita (Joe Vitone/ARET-Pugliapromozione)

Architectural highlight

In a city full of well-kept, elaborate Italianite buildings and grand theatres, the stark contrast of the Fascist District (so named to be clear about its history) is both memorable and magnetic. Sweeping across the southern coastline, it’s a long expanse of imposing public buildings that were built in a rationalist style under Mussolini’s dictatorship.

Nuts and bolts

What currency do I need?

Euros.

What language do they speak?

Italian. Come with at least a few words – English is not widely spoken.

Should I tip?

Yes – 10-15 per cent.

What’s the time difference?

It’s an hour ahead.

How should I get around?

The train is useful for the airport, but the tourist centre is best navigated on foot – it’s around 30 minutes from one end to the other. Frustratingly, narrow streets and illegal parking on pathways mean parts of the city will be tricky for wheelchair users.

What’s the best view?

Climb up the slope to Il Fortino di Sant’Antonio for a view of Bari that encompasses all its component parts: the azure-blue sea, the harbour, the Fascist District, the new town, and the corn-yellow buildings of the old town.

Insider tip?

Like more traditional parts of Italy, Bari tends to shut daily between 1pm and 4pm. So plan for a long, carby lunch and a siesta before commencing late afternoon activities.

Getting there

Trying to fly less?

You can get to Bari entirely by train from the UK. Simply take the Eurostar to Paris, then take a high-speed TGV to Milan from the city’s Gare de Lyon. From here it’s one seven-hour train onward to Bari Centrale.

Fine with flying?

Bari is well-serviced, with British Airways, Ryanair, EasyJet, Iberia and WizzAir all flying direct from the UK. Flights take around three hours.

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