Bari: The California of Southern Italy

Updated On: March 22, 2023

bari boats

Bari is a stunning coastal city located in southern Italy. It is the capital of the Metropolitan City of Bari and the Apulia zone. It’s the second-largest city in Southern Italy and it was named the fifth-largest province in Italy, and it is also the most populated.

Bari was called the California of the South; a title that was given to it due to its amazing growth compared to other areas in the Southern region of Italy. It is an amazing destination with spectacular food, castles, and churches. 

It is very easy to get to the town by taking the high-speed train from any city in Italy, or by plane from any major city in Europe. There is also the adventurous route that you can take, crossing the Adriatic Sea by ferry from Albania, Montenegro, or Croatia.

The city consists of four different urban areas. To its north, you will find the old town on the peninsula between two modern harbours, and in the south is the Murat quarter, the modern heart of the city, which is laid out on a rectangular grid plan with a walk on the sea and the central shopping district.

Bari’s beautiful coastline.

The History of Bari

The city of Bari was founded by the Peucetians who were an Iapygian tribe that inhabited western and central Apulia in classical antiquity. It was controlled by many empires; by the Greeks and then by the Romans. During the Roman reign, Bari was a connection between the coast roadway and the Via Traiana and is thought to have been the main focal point of a fishery. From there, Bari’s harbour was founded in 181 BC and it became an important location for trade as well as protection of the entire coast.

Bari has always been coveted by many empires. It was ruled by the Goths and Lombards as well as the Byzantines. In 1071, it fell under the rule of the Normans and became the main town of Apulia. Crusaders often sailed from Bari. In the middle ages, Bari was ruled by lords like Hohenstaufens and the Sforzas of Milan.

In the late 15th and early 16th centuries, Isabella di Aragona, the princess of Naples, united Bari along with her kingdom and lived there. Napoleon’s brother-in-law, Joachim Murat, built a new part in the city in the early 19th century named Murattiano after him. The port then began to develop and grow once again.

During World War II, Bari suffered huge damage and it was taken without any resistance by the British in September 1943. In December 1943, there was a chemical warfare disaster in Bari. It was the only European city to experience and suffer chemical warfare in World War II. The disaster happened when a German bomber attacked the port of Bari, which was the place where the Allied forces were stationed to begin their attack on Italy. Over 20 Allied ships were sunk in the overcrowded harbour, including U.S. warships. One of these ships was the Liberty ship John Harvey, which was carrying mustard gas.

The existence of the gas was highly classified and the U.S. had not informed the British military reference in the city of its existence. This increased the number of deaths, since British physicians, who had no idea that they were dealing with the effects of mustard gas, prescribed proper treatment for those suffering from exposition and immersion, which proved fatal in many cases. Because rescuers didn’t realize they were dealing with gas casualties, much additional damage was caused among the rescuers through contact with the polluted skin and clothing of those more directly exposed to the gas.

Once again, an explosion happened in the harbour in April 1945 when the Liberty ship Charles Henderson exploded in the harbour while offloading 2000 tons of aerial bombs. This explosion caused the death of three hundred and sixty people and 1730 were wounded.

Heart-stopping sea panorama of Polignano a Mare, a town in the province of Bari, Puglia, southern Italy on the Adriatic Sea. City on cliffs, heaven on the earth.

Industry in Bari

Due to the famous port in the city which makes Bari a major seaport in Italy, it takes great pride in its seafood industry, followed by several industries, including chemicals, machinery, printed materials, petroleum, and textiles which are among the city’s economic contributions. Also, agriculture is outstanding in the province and the most famous crops include cherries, tomatoes, artichokes, grapes, and table wine.

Transportation in Bari

The city has its own airport which is called Bari Karol Wojtyła airport and it is located northwest of Bari. The airport is connected to the centre by train services from the Bari Aeroporto railway station.

The city of Bari has the Bari Central Station which is connected to the most important cities in Italy, such as Rome, Milan, Bologna, Turin, and Venice, and another mainline is linked to the southwards by the Bari Taranto railway and the provincial services also operate to Foggia, Barletta, Brindisi, Lecce, Taranto and other towns and villages in the area.

The cliff face of Bari

Tourism and Things to Do in Bari

Bari is a wonderful place to visit and has great tours, especially in the ancient part of the city -called Bari Vecchia by locals-. It’s a beautiful medieval neighbourhood in which there are many important churches. Let’s see Bari’s attractions and places you can visit.

1- San Nicola

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It is considered the most popular attraction in Bari. Its construction began in 1087 and was finished in 1197 and it is located in the old town near the harbour. It is one of the greatest achievements of Roman architecture in Apulia. Inside the church and above the high altar is a 12th-century tabernacle, and on the right of the altar when you enter the church is Madonna with Saints by Vivarini, painted in 1476. In the apse, there is a marble bishop’s throne and the 16th-century tomb of Bona Sforza, wife of King Sigismund II of Poland and last duchess of Bari.

When you go inside the church, you can find the tomb of Saint Nicolas and a plethora of notable sculptures and mosaics. The saint’s remains came to Bari from their original sepulchre in Myra (now part of Turkey) when that city fell into Saracen hands and the saint had perhaps chosen the city of Bari as his burial place while on his way to Rome.

2- Teatro Petruzzelli

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The theatre was built in 1903 and it is considered the fourth largest one in Italy. This theatre has hosted some of the greatest Italian and international performing artists, including Luciano Pavarotti, Rudolf Nureyev, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, and Liza Minnelli. In 1991, the theatre was destroyed by a fire but it was rebuilt again to resemble its former glory. It was reopened in 2009 with the Orchestra of the Province of Bari performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. This place is a great choice to visit. I’m sure you will love visiting it and enjoy its numerous concerts.

3- Bari Castle

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One of the great attractions in the city is Bari castle, which was a Byzantine-Romanesque building but then King Frederick II reconstructed it in 1233. After him came Bona Sforza who converted it into a palace in the 16th century, adding the bastions and corner towers above the moat, and afterwards the castle was used as a prison and signal station. Nowadays, the castle contains a museum with Apulian-Norman sculptures.

4- Borgo Murattiano

The boats of Bari on the coast

It is the business and commercial centre of Bari. Its streets, unlike those in the old neighbourhood, are straight and in an organized web, lined by wonderful buildings, many of which date to its early 19th-century origins. Others consider the styles that followed, especially Art Nouveau, called Liberty in Italy, to be popular at the turn of the 20th century.

5- Piazza Mercantile

Located on the east side of the town near the harbour, this square is a fantastic place to visit and the architecture is quite unique and stunning to view. This square truly looks like a typical Mediterranean coastal resort where different coloured shutters cover the windows, washing hangs out on small balconies, and plants and shrubs line the rooftops.

6- San Sabino

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San Sabino has important remains of Norman adornments. It was built in the same place as a Byzantine cathedral after it was destroyed by William I of Sicily in 1156 and the construction was completed in the 12th century. When you enter the church, you will find the remains of Saint Columba and relics of other saints. In the cellar, there is an elaborately decorated painting of the Madonna and the relics of Saint Sabinus brought to Bari in 844 from Canosa after being robbed by Saracens.

The archaeological excavations under the cathedral revealed layers of history from Roman through medieval times; English signage explains the finds, which include a paleo-Christian mosaic floor and a tiny chapel and altar.

7- Bari Provincial Art Gallery

For amateur artists, you will find a wonderful art gallery that hosts a wide variety of artworks ranging from the 11th century right up to the 19th century. It contains works by many artists like Paolo Veronese, Giovanni Bellini, and Tintoretto. There, you will find a wealth of high-quality art including paintings from medieval times, and a host of artwork centred on the Apulian school of art and notable Italian artists.

8- Lido San Francesco

If you are looking for relaxation and enjoying the day and the sea air then this is the right place to go. It is located in the east of the old town centre. You will be amazed by the perfect golden sand and a stretch of clear blue water. Also, there are many activities and games available, and you can find many shops, beach bars and restaurants to enjoy.

9- Egnazia

It is an ancient city located in the south of Bari. It was founded in the 13th century and it’s the place where the people in the Bronze Age settled. The walls built by the indigenous people are still there, as are remnants of ancient Greek and later Roman civilizations. This place used to be an important port on the Traiana Road linking Rome to Brindisi, but in the 10th century, it faced successive sacking by Visigoths, Saracens, and Turks. There are still parts of the Traiana Road, amphitheatre, forum, and two Christian basilicas from the Roman era. It is an interesting place for ancient history lovers and a great attraction. It is also only one hour away from Bari. 

10- The Town of Altamura

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It is located one hour south of Bari. This town has retained its historical charm and some of its original city walls are still standing today. The main landmark of this town is the Romanesque cathedral, which is considered the main and important attraction in the city and it was built by Frederick II in 1231.

The beautifully carved doorway on the main façade, from the 14th or 15th century, is one of the finest portals in Italy that depicts multiple biblical scenes in a very small space, including the Virgin and Child with two kneeling angels, and below is an uncommon Last Supper in infinite detail. Although the cathedral is well worth a visit, the town itself is very interesting, with gorgeous stone streets and archways.

11- Lungomare Nazario Sauro

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Lungomare Nazario Sauro is a terrific seafront balcony running along the old harbour, the Porto Vecchio. When you go there, you will see the colourful boats in the harbour at any time of day. One of the most interesting things to do there is to arrive in the morning to see fishermen unload and sell their catch at the pier which is lined with fantastic architecture and whitewashed buildings. Also, you can have a pleasant walk in a wonderful atmosphere and the views out to the sea are fantastic.

12- Via Sparano

Via Sparano is located in the new region of Bari, with its streets running from the Corso Vittorio Emanuele to the Piazza Aldo Moro. In the street, you will find amazing shops and brands including Disney Store, Emporio Armani, Pandora, H&M, Michael Kors, and Zara. Also, you will find things to do other than visiting the shops, like relaxing at its multiple cafes, bars, and restaurants.

13- Alta Murgia National Park

It is one of the finest parks in Italy which is located south of Bari. It offers a different kind of attraction to the usual sightseeing that Bari offers. The park covers a huge area which is 677 km square. It has such an interesting landscape from forests and open pastures to rocky outcrops and old abandoned villages. In the park, you can explore the Italian countryside and make use of hiking and cycling trails. Also, you will find wildlife species including wild boar, Kestrels, and Gray Wolf.

14- Succorpo Museum of the Cathedral

If you enter the cathedral, you will have time to view this impressive structure, and if you go underground you will find a unique subterranean world that features a myriad of Roman Ruins. It also includes part of a 2nd-century road, a detailed mosaic from a former basilica and also elements of a 9th-century Byzantine church.

15- The Town of Alberobello

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It’s a close town to Bari where you can have a nice day trip. There, you will find small conical stone houses built from local limestone, many of which are painted white and the ancient building technique is still used today in many of its newer buildings.

Alberobello’s western side features two small hills covered with about 1500 of these Trulli houses. A lot of them are still resident houses, some have been set up for guests, and many shops and cafés are prepared for the thousands of visitors that fill the narrow streets.

If you want to go to Alberobello by train, you can go to the south side of Bari Centro train station, on Via Giuseppe Capruzzi. The cost of the ticket per person, one way, is 4.90 euros and the trip takes 1 and a half hours.

16- Bari Ferris Wheel

The famous Ferris Wheel of Bari

Like in many cities around the world, Bari has an observation wheel that sits along the waterfront, similar to the London Eye. When you ride it, you will see the amazing city of Bari from above. During the daylight hours, you can see the whole city from a unique angle as you can go all the way above the rooftops of the city. In the evenings, you can enjoy the beauty of the sun setting over the city, turning the rooftops with beautiful colours as golden hour hits.

17- The Russian Church

The church is located in the centre of Bari. It was built in honour of Saint Nicholas and the church was constructed to house the number of Russian pilgrims coming to visit the relics of Saint Nicholas. The inner part of the church is fantastic and decorated with a huge, golden altar. The saint is an important figure in the Russian Orthodox Church and many Russians have undertaken pilgrimages to Bari over the years to visit the relics. Keep in mind that you will need to be dressed modestly when visiting and women will need to have their heads covered.

18- Castellana Caves

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One of the wonderful places you shouldn’t miss when you visit Bari is the Castellana caves. It was first explored in 1938 and it’s estimated that it has been there for more than 90 million years. The complete itinerary covers a distance of 3 km and lasts for about two hours. Also, the partial itinerary covers a distance of 1 km and lasts for 50 minutes.

It is recommended to visit the 3 km tour where you will get the chance to marvel at the best chambers, including the impressive White Cave. This is a huge chamber that features an opening on its roof through which bright sunlight enters the cave and illuminates its walls in the most fantastic way.

19- Orecchiette, the Local Pasta

Every city in Italy has its own way of making pasta and Bari is one of those cities. You must try it if you visit the city. You will find Orecchiette pasta which is very famous in the city, translating roughly as the little ear due to the way it looks. If you go to a restaurant, try Orecchiette alla Barese, which is a pasta dish with broccoli rabe or turnip greens. 

Places to Stay in Bari

With all these attractions, you will need more than one day to visit Bari, so here, we recommend to you more than one hotel where you can stay during your visit.

IH Hotels Bari Oriente

The hotel has a lovely roof garden and an internal courtyard that serves a complimentary breakfast. It’s also close to the old town.

Palace Hotel

It has affordable rates and rooms overlooking San Nicola Basilica and the castle.

Palazzo Calo

This hotel might not be near the attractions but it is about a half-hour walk to the old town, and it’s a nice place to stay in.

La Muraglia B&B

You will find it in the Old Town, just off the seafront promenade and close to the main attractions. This place has large apartments with balconies and a lovely rooftop terrace for guests.

De Rossi Holiday

It is close to the old town and the rooms have a colourful vibe and are decorated in a tropical style, giving the place a bit of personality.

Il Trespolo Degli Angeli

Il Trespolo Degli Angeli is hidden among the winding streets in the heart of the old town of Bari, and there, you can have breakfast on the terrace overlooking views of Bari.

The beautiful city of Bari offers more than just beautiful views and amazing and unique attractions. It offers you an entire experience from the moment you step off the train or plane to your way to the city. You get to experience the food, the culture, and the amazing natural views. Whether with your friends or your family, you will have an overall wonderful stay in this quaint Italian city.

To have the full experience, make sure you try all our recommendations from this article and let us know how your trip went, we’d love to hear all about it!

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