Down at Italy's heel

Swap the tourist hotspots of Italy’s north for a sunny city break in Bari


Italy isn’t short of tempting city breaks but Bari, the bustling capital of Puglia, is one which is often overlooked. But from beach life and its picturesque old harbour to history and promenades along the esplanade, this bustling spot near the top of Italy’s heel is just as enticing.

And beyond the shops, bars and restaurants, tucked away among the old town’s tranquil winding lanes, where traditional pasta sellers hawk their wares and time seems to stand still, Bari has strong Jewish roots stretching back to Roman times.

In the 12th century the city was a recognised centre of Talmudic studies with a busy synagogue, while the cemetery is thought to date back to around the 8th century. Over the centuries, the community suffered and declined, facing forced conversions, expulsions and in more modern times, the Italian Racial Laws of the 1930s.

But Bari became a beacon of hope at the end of the Second World War when many Jews from across Italy and Nazi-occupied countries took refuge here; after a refugee camp was established, the area became a departure point for Palestine offering freedom and a new life.

The old town holds further clues to the city’s Jewish past. As its name suggests, the former Via Sinagoga was home to the city’s synagogue, dating back to at least the 10th century, and the heart of the Jewish community.

Since renamed Via San Sabino, the street is just a stone’s throw from the medieval cathedral which sits at the centre of this atmospheric centro storico.

The narrow twisting alleys themselves feel almost unchanged. Follow your nose rather than sticking to a map and wander the side streets off Via San Sabino, soaking up their old-world charm, stopping in coffee shops and watching local residents passing the time on their balconies.

One of the highlights to seek out is Strada Arco Basso, better known as Strada delle Orecchiette, where local women make traditional Puglian ‘orecchiette’ pasta on the streets.

Every stall seems to charge the same price, just over £2 for a small bag of the little ear-shaped pasta, so it’s a case of choosing your favourite vendor from whom to make a purchase. For a more organised taste of Puglia, you can find also street food tours on foot or by bike, along with pasta-making experiences if you fancy some hands-on creativity.

Another old town landmark, the Norman built Castello Svevo is unmissable — quite literally, a dominant, solid structure looming among the dainty winding streets. Built in the 12th century, before its destruction by the aptly named William the Bad, it was rebuilt and restored by Frederick II in around 1230.

Over the years it has functioned as a prison and a barracks, but now houses a museum that’s home to sculptures, jewellery, 15th-18th century pottery dug up from the castle’s midden, photography exhibitions, and sites of archaeological digs revealing structures from the Byzantine period.

After this dash through history, step back into the sunlight and stroll to the picturesque old Porto Vecchia harbour where tiny fish dart in the clear green water and small colourful boats bob on the waves, with trips down the coast to the caves of Polignano for those who wish to take to the water (complete with glass of prosecco and dip in the Adriatic).

The skippers skilfully access the larger of the 21 caves, each with its own individual story — ‘Delle Monache’, the Cave of the Nuns, honours the sisters said to swim here over the summer months as the discreet cave granted them dignity and privacy.

The Blue Cave with its small sandy beach is hugely photogenic, while the ‘Palazzese’ Cave is home to a restaurant whose terrace boasts some of the best dining views in town.

For those who’d prefer to stay on dry land, wander from Porto Vecchia harbour along the Lungomare Nazario Sauro esplanade and gaze out to sea. Following the shoreline brings you to the city’s memorably named Pane e Pomodoro beach; it’s well known that Italians love carbs and tomatoes, but to name a beach after foodstuff is certainly quirky.

After a few hours of sun, a paddle or a dip, there’s a hidden foodie gem to discover here too, tucked away just a few streets from the beachfront; restaurant Buò - Crudo, Cotto e Mangiato, which claims to be the first and only organic bistro in Bari.

It’s no secret that Italians also enjoy their shellfish and meat, so inventive vegetarian dishes (that aren’t pasta or pizza) can be slightly harder to find, making the delicious, healthy dishes on Buò’s menu an added treat.

Its produce is supplied from a network of local producers, and the menu and goods for sale change according to seasonality and availability; anything from risotto with radicchio and mushrooms to baked aubergine millefeuille with tomato, mozzarella and basil chlorophyll, accompanied by the focaccia of the day and a fennel side salad. Wash it down with a Puglian Primitivo.

Other Puglian foodie treats to watch out for are the sweet pasticciotti pastries, said to originate from neighbouring Lecce but popular across southern Italy. Served as a breakfast or mid-morning snack, they’re filled with cream or ricotta, but you’ll see adaptations such as pistachio or lemon cream fillings too.

For something savoury, dig into a panzerotto, a fried turnover containing typical pizza toppings such as mozzarella and tomato.

And you can’t visit Bari without being offered savoury taralli. This swirl of cracker, similar in texture to a breadstick, is proffered before your meal or to accompany drinks, and can be purchased throughout the city as a snack or souvenir.

Lecce itself is home to a Jewish museum situated underground in a former synagogue if you’re planning more day trips, although there’s plenty to keep you in Bari; along with the city’s second beach at Lido San Francesco and shopping on the buzzing Via Sparano, you can find culture at the Bari Provincial Art Gallery or the Teatro Petruzzelli, the fourth largest theatre in Italy and a hub for contemporary art.

With its mix of tradition and modernity, a dash of sea, and fascinating history, this sunny city break offers a real taste of Italy.

Getting There

Direct flights to Bari cost from around £75 from Gatwick with easyJet or British Airways, or around £70 from Stansted and Edinburgh with Ryanair.

You can find apartments and guest houses to book in Bari’s old town, while rooms at the five-star Grande Albergo Delle Nazioni on the seafront cost from around £165 per night.

For more information about Bari and details of accommodation, visit

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