Puglia is full of beautiful places, from the natural splendor of the Gargano peninsula, to the white cottages of Alberobello, the caves of Polignano and the elegance of Lecce.
Many tourists are drawn to these and, although many fly into Bari, they quickly leave in search of the touristy spots of Puglia.
That is a huge mistake.
In many ways it is in Bari that the heart and soul of Puglia is to be found. Here is a city that is no Disneyland tourist attraction.
Bari is real, Bari is vibrant and Bari is enchanting.
Spend more than a few days here and you'll likely fall in love with its addictive blend of old and new.
This is a city where the past has shaped today, but it is not a "museum" city, not a city living off the glories of yesteryear.
Instead Bari is young and vibrant, you can almost feel the energy in the air, the confidence in the future.
This heady infusion of old and new makes for a potent cocktail - Bari is almost like Aperol Spritz turned into a city: light, bright and full of spice.
To really experience Bari in all its glory you'll want to be in the heart and soul of the city. That means the old town and in the old town nowhere can beat Palazzo Calò: sipping a glass of local Primitivo wine, on the rooftop at night, while the lights of Bari sparkle all around you is unforgettable.
An equally as good alternative is La Muraglia, a lovingly restored old stone palazzo with all modern conveniences. A place to feel at home in.
There is enough to keep you busy for days and then you are going to need more days to simply soak up the atmosphere.
My first stop is always the old town. Once lost in the maze of winding lanes I am once again back in the Bari I love: housewives and nonnas make their famous orecchiette pasta in the streets, gossiping with neighbors and keeping an eye on the children. You feel so safe walking around here - you know that there is always a watchful nonna on a balcony somewhere keeping an eye on things.
Last time I was there, I was sitting chatting in the street when a wooden spoon came flying out of the window above and clattered onto the cobbles below. After much laughter from the ladies making pasta, a young lady came to the window and sheepishly explained that she had thrown it at her husband... but sadly missed. That kind of sums up the passion and colorful atmosphere of the old town.
At the entrance to the old town stand an imposing castle, built in the 12th century by the Normans under King Roger. It seems somewhat out of place here, detached, quiet, severe and stern looking; it casts a disapproving eye on the happy chaos playing out in the narrow lanes nearby.
Maybe that was the idea.
The castle was meant to dominate, intimidate the locals: first it was the Normans, then the Swabians, the Arogonese and others. All of them looked down on Bari from the castle walls.
Is it then little wonder that the castle was once hated?
Now though the space has been reclaimed: exhibitions are held in the castle grounds and there is a small museum inside the walls. Visits costs 6 Euros.
Beautiful indeed and home to the remains of Saint Nicholas - the saint whose generosity gave rise to the Santa Claus tradition.
There is an interesting story of how Saint Nicolas always wanted to be laid to rest in Bari but his remains were taken to what is now modern day Turkey only to be stolen back by a group of daring sailors from Bari. The Basilica now houses these remains and, as a result, the Basilica of St Nicholas has been an important place of pilgrimage for nearly a thousand years.
If there is one attraction you must not miss in Bari then this is it.
Far less famous than than the Orthodox St Nicolas Basilica is the 12th century Catholic Cathedral (the Cathedral of San Sabino). It is still magnificent however and has a simple beauty that breaks your heart and touches your soul. Don't miss it.
Bari is one of the best cities to eat in all of Italy. In the past it was often overlooked, in favor of those more famous gourmet cities of the north, but times are changing and finally Bari is getting the recognition it deserves.
Bari is becoming one of the foodie capitals of Italy. Many chefs are combining tradition with modern dining trends to award-winning effect. Personally, I prefer things local and traditional: nothing can beat a family run trattoria, where the recipes of nonna live on and everything is fresh and homemade.
So where to eat?
Well, try El Chiringuito for seafood. You can read more about it under our market section below.
Other great options include Il Bugigattolo in Via Gaetano Salvemini 97: a tiny little place that has been here forever and is now in the hands of the second generation. Great local dishes and the best pizza in Bari.
La Uascezze in Vico Sant'Agostino 2-3-4 is a good choice if you'd like to try a selection of local dishes. They've a tasting menu for 22 Euros that gives you a good sampling of Bari's specialties. It is always busy so make sure you book and, if it's summer, ask for an outside table as they have no air con and it gets hot inside.
Along the lovely Lungomare - Bari's seafront promenade, you'll find local fisherman selling their catch. They are there most mornings but Sunday is the most popular day to visit and is when many locals drop by to buy their Sunday lunch.
Try some of the local sushi offered by the fisherman - mostly it is sea urchin and it is delicious.
If you prefer your seafood cooked then drop by the nearby El Chiringuito bar, where they cook the best of the day's catch for you. Anything fresher is still swimming. It's a great place to get a feel of the local vibe too as this place is always packed with locals and very lively.
You've got to try Sgagliozzi - a type of fried polenta that is considered one of the seven great treats of Europe and was voted one of the world's best street foods by Newsweek.
The queen of the Sgagliozzi is Maria, well over 80 now, you'll find her and often her children and grandchildren preparing these delicacies on Strada delle Crociate, 13 after 3:30 p.m. The video above will introduce you to Maria - it is all in local dialect and Italian, still, it will give you an idea of who you need to look out for and the passion of Maria for her Sgagliozzi is clear.
Try panzerotti too. It's the other "classic" of Bari street dishes and nowhere is better at making it than Dirello in Vico San Cristoforo 2. It's in the heart of the old town, just near the San Sabino Cathedral and is a small family run place. They've a version made with pistacchio... I'll never forget it, I fell instantly in love.
The best beaches are a little outside of Bari, a 30 minute drive south, in the seaside town of Polignano a Mare. Most famous of all the beaches in Polignano is Cala Paura; set in a little cove and washed by turquoise seas this is a beautiful spot. Get there early in July and August - after 10 a.m. the beach gets really crowded.
Nearer Bari, Giovinazzo is a lovely beach with clear and shallow waters.
In Bari itself try Pane e Pomodoro (Bread & Tomato). It might be a strange name for a beach, but it is a lovely stretch of beach, loved by locals, and a great way to enjoy some beach time without needing to head out of town. A local joked that the name comes from the British and German tourists who arrive as white a flour and leave as red as ripe tomatoes. Is it true? I've no idea ;-)
November through to the end of March can be cool and grey. It rarely gets very cold, but days can be miserable and March in particular can be rather wet.
April and October are often beautiful; however, the best months are May, June and September - dry, sunny days and without the extreme heat and humidity of July and August .
A lot of airlines from across Europe, and some even from places as far away as Doha, fly into Bari Airport . From the airport you can get a bus into town. The cheapest option is the number 16 AMTAB bus which takes you right into the centre of Bari, stopping at the Bari Central Station, and costs less than a Euro. Running the same route but costing five time the price is the Tempesta Shuttle. It takes half the time though.
If you're arriving in Rome then the Rome to Bari train is the best option. The fast ones take around four hours.