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A port and university city, as well as the city of St Nicholas all at once, South Italy’s second largest town is jam-packed with activities for all ages, expectations, budgets and energy levels. Bari is a buzzing seaport with connections to Greece, Albania and Croatia, reinvigorated by a recent facelift and heavy investments into restoring its vast architectural heritage to its former glory. Fly to Bari for its beaches and stay for everything else, such as its enchanting old town, Bari Vecchia, winding streets and unpretentious, market-fresh cuisine. Have a glass of ripe primitivo or aperitivo at its gem-like Piazza Mercantile or just watch the world go by, sitting on church steps and munching on some panzerotti. And of course, dedicate ample time during your Bari holiday to finding your favourite among its myriads of bays and beaches, lapped at by the impossibly blue waters of the Adriatic Sea.
Once called Barium, Bari is the capital city of the Apulia region, tucked right down in the heel of Italy. Don’t let that fool you: the region takes centre stage in more ways than one: Apulia, or Puglia, is well-known and well-loved for its thick extra virgin oil, stunning 800-km-long coastline, and unfussy, yet deeply satisfying cuisine. With a population of a little over 300,000, Bari comes in behind Naples in terms of economic power but stands second to none in cultural riches, history and warmth. A coastal city with access to strategic shipping routes, it has enjoyed a premier status both as a centre of fishery and an important gateway to the Adriatic since it came under Roman rule in the 3rd century BC. For the same reason, the city has changed hands countless times over centuries, turning this port city into the living memory of tribes and empires, sieges and civil wars, saints and dictators.
Puglia’s cuisine, in true Italian style, has real culinary firepower. It’s nothing fancy, though. Quite literally: the region’s most important gastro-invention is cucina povera or 'food of the poor’. Born more out of necessity than mere culinary experimentation, local cuisine is down-to-earth, delicious, and strictly uses seasonal and local ingredients. This philosophy is best represented by orecchiette, or ‘little ears’, an ear-shaped Pugliese pasta variety, made without eggs. They make a perfect backdrop for the mouth-watering sauces Bari is known for, blended from aubergine, tomatoes, mushrooms and ripe Pugliese olives. La Locanda di Federico, a medieval-style restaurant on Piazza Mercantile serves traditional Barese dishes with a side of cosy. Seafood, of course, is also a main character in Bari’s inimitable culinary scene. Ask straight for the signature dish: riso, patate e cozze, and enjoy the harmony of rice, potatoes and mussels, baked in terracotta pots in wood-fired ovens. Visit the market behind Teatro Margherita and sample the freshest seafood you’ve ever tasted. Temptations are all around: fishermen dish up plates of octopus, shrimp and Adriatic fish, ready for you to try. Bari’s street food is legendary, too: try panzerotti, a deep-fried mini-calzone, stuffed with tomato and mozzarella. Look for Maria delle Sgagliozze on Strada delle Crociate and grab some sgagliozze, aka deep-fried polenta cubes, from Maria herself for a comforting home-cooked snack.
The city’s new harbour is home to passenger ferries that cross the Adriatic to Greece and Albania. The old one is home to Bari at its most authentic. Head straight to Porto Vecchio, where fishermen still sell their catch straight off their boats, along with the freshest seafood you can possibly eat. Soak up some more old-world charm strolling the skinny, maze-like streets of the historic old town, Bari Vecchia. Romanesque-style Basilica di San Nicola was erected in the late 11th century to shelter the relics of St Nicholas, the inspiration for Santa Claus, no less. Bari Cathedral comes in only second in fame but not in architectural and religious importance. Another precious example of Apulian Romanesque, its understated façade features an impressive rose window, in the embrace of monsters and fantastic beasts. Thanks to Norman King Roger II, you can also get a taste of Bari's Byzantine legacy. Built in the 12th century over the remains of a Byzantine structure, Castello Svevo is a popular destination for art lovers, hosting art and cultural exhibitions all year round. The performing arts is yet another thing Barese people are passionate about. Teatro Petruzzelli is up there with the country’s most celebrated theatres in Italy and has seen the performances of Luciano Pavarotti, Rudolf Nureyev and the likes.To see what’s hot in Puglian culture now, mingle with the hip crowd of Officina degli Esordi. The self-proclaimed ‘urban lab’ is home to fans and creators of all things contemporary in music, dance, theatre, visual arts, cinema, literature, sports and food.
With not one but two main shopping arteries, shopaholics are bound to get spoilt in Bari. For big-hitting names, stroll along Via Sparano and splurge on Prada, Valentino, Gucci, Max Mara, Coccinelle and Marina Rinaldi, or opt for the well-loved but more affordable boutiques of Zara and Benetton. Corso Cavour also has an impressive lineup of fashion, cosmetics and accessories shops, lovely cafés to take a break from your retail therapy every once in a while, and a direct connection to the sea. Want to treat your foodie friends at home? Visit the markets in Corso Mazzini and Via Nicolai for local delicacies or browse among traditional potteries and straw baskets in the old city centre. There’s no better place to wind down with the sun than Piazza Mercantile at the crossroads of Corso Vittorio Emanuele, Lungomare Imperatore Augusto and Piazza del Ferrarese. Once the throbbing heart of commerce, today the square is awash with people sipping coffee or enjoying their gelato, as well as with national and international cultural events. Throw yourself into Bari’s pulsing nightlife in one of its many bars and clubs across town. Noise bar has won the hearts of locals and visitors alike with its super laid-back ambience, neat selection of craft beers and varied events, including concerts and art exhibits.
Enjoy beach life to the fullest. Trust us, no matter what seaside activity you’re into, Bari has got you covered. Puglia’s envy-inducing coastline starts in Bari and seemingly never ends. Polignano’s grottos, coves and dazzling blue water are well worth seeking out, especially its showstopper Cala Porto in the town’s very centre. The small cove of Cala Paura is a local favourite but it’s more on the rocky side, while the sandy beaches, sun loungers and beach cabins of Porto Cavallo and San Giovanni are popular among families with children. Not that you have to step outside Bari for some seaside recreation, with Pane e Pomodoro, Torre a Mare and Mola di Bari lying right at the city’s doorstep.
Bari has a mild, Mediterranean climate, with rainy, almost spring-like winters and hot summers. Thanks to the occasional winds from Eastern Europe, there might be a few cold days or even (gasp!) snow but the average temperature does not drop below 6°C even in the coldest of months, March. In the summer, desert-air tends to flow over from North Africa, bringing warm to hot days and one more reason to keep to the beach.
Officially known as Bari Karol Wojtyła Airport, Bari Airport is located some 8 kilometres northwest of the Puglian capital. Despite its relatively small size (it has only one terminal), Bari Airport houses some 20 stores selling electronics, cosmetics, books, newspaper, toys and Italian goodies. To reach Bari, get on an Amtab bus or Tempesta shuttle bus or find a cab at the Arrivals Hall. Alternatively, car hire is available.