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Bari reinvented: why you should visit Puglia's underrated port

Previously overlooked as a gritty, working-class port, the authentic and welcoming city of Bari is now infused with a new energy and vibrancy.

The southern Italian city's architectural heritage is more accessible than ever, important cultural landmarks have been renovated and reopened, and the traditional cuisine of the surrounding region of Puglia is being reinterpreted by forward-looking chefs.

A view of the tightly packed buildings of Bari's Old Town, with Basilica di San Nicola on the right and the sea in the distance
Bari's Old Town, clustered tightly around Basilica di San Nicola © Jacek Sopotnicki / Getty Images

Wander the narrow streets of Bari's Old Town

Reinvigorated by investment over recent years, Bari Vecchia's heritage precinct is framed by the sprawling horizon of the Adriatic Sea, and bookended by expansive avenues to the north and south. Concealed amid the Old Town's tangle of narrow streets and elegant piazzas is a collage of spiritually inspired architecture that spans more than one thousand years.

Built in the 12th century to venerate the relics of St Nicholas (who was the inspiration for Santa Claus), Basilica di San Nicola has a beautifully ornate 17th century gilded wooden ceiling. The church is often filled with the aroma of incense and the sound of reverential prayers from pilgrims. Bari Cathedral, the Old Town's other significant church, conceals a crypt built on Roman foundations and an ancient Christian basilica. Bari's Byzantine legacy is seen in the towers and moats of the 12th-century Castello Svevo, which hosts regular arts and cultural exhibitions.

The peach coloured Art Nouveau Teatro Margherita sits right on the harbour
Bari's beautifully restored Teatro Margherita © Angelo Pittro

Experience the city's cultural rebirth

In addition to the centuries-old treasures of Bari Vecchia, the city’s more recent architectural gems are also being resurrected. Harbour-front Teatro Margherita, which originally opened in 1914, is one of Bari's most loved and iconic buildings. After 38 years of abandonment it has been restored and reopened as a contemporary arts hub that will host temporary shows, such as 2019’s World Press Photo exhibition.

Also restored and reopened as a concert venue after 26 years of closure is the Auditorium Nino Rota, named after the Italian composer of The Godfather soundtrack who taught and resided in Bari for almost 30 years. When the ornate 1854 interior of Teatro Piccinni is relaunched in summer 2019, Bari's trio of renovated cultural establishments will be complete.

Two cyclists ride past a large wooden doorway
Exploring Bari's Old Town by bike © Velo Service

Tour Bari on two wheels

Bari's historic townscape is a great place for walking, but exploring the city with a guide and alternative transport is also becoming popular. Helmed by authoritative and enthusiastic locals, Velo Service offer a choice of bicycles, rickshaws or Segways, and specialist tours taking in the city's heritage, cuisine and culture are all available. Highlights include winding through shady streets fragrant with aromas from simple restaurants to emerge in the gleaming marble plaza framing the Basilica di San Nicola.

For travellers really keen to explore Bari's culinary credentials, the six-hour Cook & Taste tour is a comprehensive combination of culture and cuisine. After all scheduled tours, there's often the opportunity to continue by bike (around 4km) to cool off at Bari's recently revitalised Torre Quetta beach.

Hands mould a small piece of pasta into a cup shape, using their thumb
Orecchiette pasta is moulded using the thumb © Sabinoparente / Getty Images

Feast on the flavours of Puglia's cucina povera

Forged through the economic necessity of harnessing strictly seasonal and local ingredients, Puglia's signature cucina povera (literally 'food of the poor'), is proudly served in family-owned restaurants across Bari. Made without the addition of eggs, local pasta is moulded into delicate orecchiette ('little ears'), and served with an inventive array of sauces, often crafted from vegetables including eggplant, tomatoes and mushrooms, and Puglia's zesty and plump olives.

Another Bari speciality is riso, patate e cozze, a humbly titled but delicious layering of baked rice, potatoes and mussels. An excellent version is served at Terranima on the edge of the Old Town. Characterful heritage photographs of Bari enliven the restaurant's interior, and there's every chance passing diners will be lured in with a complimentary glass of wine offered by the restaurant's friendly owners. Local street food, including robust panzerotti (deep-fried pastries stuffed with cheese and tomato), is best enjoyed amid the bars and cafes of Bari's Largo Albicocca piazza.

Discover Bari's emerging culinary scene

Building on their pride in Puglia's traditional recipes, Bari's inventive chefs have begun to introduce contemporary twists on the region's traditional dishes. In a leafy former greenhouse, Botanical Bistro's open kitchen serves up modern-Italian spins on fresh tuna and stuffed calamari. A menu highlight is the vitello (veal) crusted with almonds and pistachios. Another convenient lunch spot is Mastro Ciccio, which offers interesting variations on Puglia's excellent seafood. Try the grilled octopus in a charcoal brioche bun.

For a sweet coda to exploring Bari's emerging dining scene, Francisco Urbano at Urbano Chocol-Atelier in nearby Capurso is regarded as Puglia's master of cacao-infused treats. Combining traditional ingredients like strawberries and hazelnuts with surprises like pink peppercorns, Urbano's heavenly invention is definitely worth the 12km detour south of central Bari.

People drinking and chatting at night at the Officina degli Esordi
A lively night at the Officina degli Esordi © Umberto Loper / Officina degli Esordi

Uncover Bari's bohemian side

Anchored and energised by the local university, which has more than 50,000 students, Bari is the best place to experience Puglia’s modern and idiosyncratic urban culture. West of the Old Town near Piazza Garibaldi, the Officina degli Esordi multi-use complex is a versatile and exciting introduction to Bari's cultural heartbeat. The self-described 'urban laboratory' has multiple spaces used for concerts, DJ sets, art workshops, film screenings and exhibitions. On the southeastern edge of the Old Town, the Prinz Zaum bookstore and bar gets locals talking, thinking and drinking with regular events including occasional live music.

A cat looks up a picturesque street of trulli, with their conical roofs
A street of trulli in Alberobello © thegrimfandango / Shutterstock

Venture to nearby wonders

It's easy to take a day trip from Bari to other compelling destinations. Around one hour's drive south in the rugged neighbouring province of Basilicata, Matera is also experiencing a renaissance as one of the 2019 European Capitals of Culture. The town's stunning hilltop location is honeycombed with centuries-old sassi (cave dwellings) that have been converted into cafes, accommodation and sophisticated art spaces. See Matera 2019 for the town's full 2019 arts and culture schedule.

Eclectic and historic architecture also underpins the appeal of Alberobello, a convenient one-hour journey southeast of Bari in the rural heart of Puglia. The town is famous for the more than 1500 trulli – the region's beehive-shaped signature structures made from local limestone – that cascade down its gentle slopes. Trattoria Terra Madre is the best place to enjoy a relaxed farm-to-table lunch in Alberobello.

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