Episode #224: Brilliant Bari – Puglia’s bustling capital

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The city of Bari is a must-see destination on any trip to the Southern Italian region of Puglia. Found nestled along the sun-drenched coastline of Puglia, with its rich and fascinating history, charming old town, and vibrant cultural scene, Bari offers visitors a true taste of Southern Italian life.

Show notes
We welcome back Paolo Maragliulo of Apulia Handmade, a Puglian tour guide and travel consultant who has been working with visitors to his home region for many years. In this episode, Paolo shares his knowledge and enthusiasm for the region’s capital city of Bari. We learn about its resurgence from troubled times, about its lively, fun vibe, it’s fantastic connections and the delicious local food.

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What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. Bari is not only the captial of Puglia but is important due to its central location and being the center of the train network. It has an airport and a port and is where you go through if heading to Croatia, Montenegro, Albania and Greece
  2. Around 2 million people pass through Bari every day, so it is very busy and bustling
  3. It is a hub and center for shopping in the area, with the only IKEA in the region. It’s where people go for clothes and interior shopping
  4. It is also where any large concerts and events are held
  5. Paolo, who hails from the elegant city of Lecce, love Bari
  6. He is careful when suggests that people visit Bari because you need to understand it and be prepared as it is a very large and busy place and if you are not used to Southern Italy’s noise and buslte, it can be a little bit overwhelming, but it is certainly worth a visit as it so much fun
  7. There’s a lot of new places appearing in the city – eateries and shops, as it gets used to more tourists visiting
  8. Paolo thinks that if you really want to understand the spirit of Puglia or Southern Italy, Bari is definitely the best place to go!
  9. Although it is big and busy, it is not so much if you compare it to Naples. Bari has 250,000 people, or 500,000 if you consider the villages all around, but nothing like the size or craziness of Naples. You might describe it as a slightly more polite and easy version of Naples
  10. Paolo is originally from the more refined and elegant city of Lecce where they have a long-running (probably centuries) rivalry with Bari. They don’t understand each other. When they speak their local dialect, they are totally different and, as so often in Italy, the rivalry has a lot to do with football

Bari’s history

  • If you are in the historical part of Bari, you immediately get a sense of the Middle Ages. The city is one of the main places that pilgrims used to go through on the way to Jerusalem
  • The people of Bari notoriously traveled to Turkey to steal the body of St. Nicholas aka Santa Claus, and the bones can still be found in Bari in the St Nicholas church dedicated to the saint. A lot of pilgrims still go to Bari to pray in front of the tomb of St. Nicholas
  • It’s always been very connected to Eastern European countries. When they have the celebrations for St. Nicholas, the city will have lots of Greek Orthodoxes priests visiting
  • It can be seen as a bridge that connects Western Europe with Eastern Europe
  • The architecture that is typical of the Romanesque style of the Middle Ages in Southern Italy, derived from Bari
  • The Church of St. Nicholas is the very first example of the Romanesque style and then there is lots of churches and castles all over the region
  • After the 1500s, Bari became less important due to the war with the Ottoman Empire, but then later, it again became the hub of the region. It had a huge opera house, was home to concerts and shopping, but it also became the center of crime
  • The city had a lot of problems which peaked around 1990-2000 when the crime was so bad that people would not visit
  • The opera house was burned down and then the biggest tragedy and what actually led to the turnaround of the city, was the accidental killing of a young boy called Michele Fazio, who got in the way of a shoot out by rival gangs
  • The reaction meant that people said enough is enough and worked together to turn the city around, culminating in 2009 when they finally reopened the theater. 1991 is seen as the lowest point, and 2009 as a symbol of the Renaissance
  • There are, like with many cities, issues with crime in the outer edges, but the center is now safe for tourists and the people that live there
  • Katy has spent time just her and Untold Italy tour guide Olivia, wandering the city and felt completely safe
  • The cruise ships have returned to Bari. A lot of shops and cafés have emerged and the city is full of energy and promise
  • In Puglia, unlike many cities in Italy, did not empty out after World War II. People in many places had the opportunity to move to new houses out of the centers which they took. In Bari, however, a lot of people have kept living in the Old Town so it is still full of locals
  • In Bari, you will see all the balconies with clothes lines, a lot of people sitting outside chatting, a lot of small shops, like fruit shops, fish market
  • It’s alive. The city center is a place full of simple families – not middle-class or wealthy families and that gives her a really strong character

The story of St Nicholas and the stolen bones

  • St Nicolas is the big, important saint in Bari. It is common to have specific saints in specific places – for instance in Venice, there is Mark and in Amalfi, there’s Andrew
  • The idea of having an important saint to attract the pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem was very important in the past
  • St. Nicholas lived and died in Turkey, Myra. When the Arabs took Turkey over and started to control the Eastern part of the Byzantine Empire, the people of Bari decided to free (steal!) the bones of St Nicholas. They somehow ended up with 75% of the body – taking the bigger bones
  • They brought the bones back to Bari and then the Venetians went to Myra and got the rest – so they have 25% of Saint Nicholas’s body
  • A couple of years, after returning with the bones, they built the incredible Church of St Nicholas, which is huge compared to what was normal in the area in the Middle Age
  • There is an underground crypt, where the body is buried and where pilgrims used to (and still do) enter from one side, view and worship, then get out the other side, carry on with their journey to get a boat
  • There’s a group of scholars studying the connections between the Catholic and the Greek Orthodoxes and Bari is important for that
  • The main part of the Church of St. Nicholas is used for Catholic rituals, for Mass, etc, but in the crypt, there is also a little chapel used by Greek Orthodoxes. In the same spot, these two different religions, not known for getting along, have a place where they can meet. The church is a meeting point between East and West
  • They celebrate St. Nicholas twice in Bari
  • The biggest celebration is in May, around the 7th to the 9th, when St. Nicholas arrived in Bari. There’s a giant procession, with the statue arriving on a boat, remembering when the body arrived in the Middle Ages
  • But the main celebration, the most famous, is in December. St. Nicholas is known as a saint for protecting women who want to get married. if you have a daughter, you pray to St. Nicholas for a good marriage
  • The church in Bari collects money to help organize the wedding of a chosen person each year during this big celebration for St Nicholas
  • It’s something that is really important for the locals. There’s a little committee that chooses the recipient that needs the support


  • Paolo loves to do a food tour in Bari, even if it is just on his own. The evening is especially great, with people on the streets frying up all kinds of tasty treats – like the famous fried polenta pasta or fried dough. You walk around and you see the well-organized ladies at the front of their house, frying their goods
  • When home restaurants became trendy, the people of Bari could just claim that they had been doing that for forever. You can easily find people that will cook some pasta for you. There’s an area where you’ll find ladies making pasta in the middle of the street all day long
  • Katy enjoyed some of the best food she’s had in Italy, in Bari.  The crudo, the raw seafood (Pugliese sushi) which is so fresh and delicious
  • You can get the sea urchins, not only the freshest you will ever try, but such great value. In fancy restaurants around the world you can pay $30/40, whilst in Bari you can get them for €1!
  • There are lots of bakeries in Bari selling focaccia. The secret of their great bread is that there are potatoes in the dough. It’s a lot like a pizza, but it cooks in a pan with a lot of olive oil. It comes out super crunchy on the outside and then soft inside – thanks to those potatoes.
  • Filling wise you’ll have cherry tomatoes and olives. Take note – they leave the pit in the olives, so be careful not to eat too fast without checking and crack a tooth
  • In the old town, the long line you’ll see is always for the bakery, to grab a slice of focaccia. It is fun to people watch that queue
  • Katy cannot express how fresh and good this bread is – it is incredible stuff and there’s nothing else like it
  • The famous past of Puglia can be found plentifully in Bari. Orecchietta is the little ears-shaped pasta. They make a dish of this with the tops of a type of broccoli (Cime di Rapa), anchovy, garlic, bay leaf, and lots of olive oil
  • Paolo’s favorite dish is the Octopus Panini. You get this at public events often. So rustic, but so good!
  • The food is so fresh and nothing has been modernized – no one’s trying to be trendy or cool, they’re just doing their thing
  • This is because, in Bari, it is mostly locals, so the quality of the recipes, the ingredients, it’s kept fresh – there are not really restaurants in Bari that are just for tourists
  • There is also a big university, so lots of students wanting to eat well and not so expensively
  • It’s really like a place that is alive, it’s not a place for tourists and this is reflected in the food


  • If you visit Bari, you immediately notice the strength of the community. Family is still very important and beyond the family, the community – those who share your neighborhood. They really support each other. This doesn’t mean that they adore each other – like with families, communities can have a sense of community but still disagree and clash with people. But they pull together when they really need to
  • Paolo explains that many of us are oriented and focused on ourselves – our careers and our relationships. In places like Bari, people think in terms of ‘What’s the best for my community/my group?’ By yourself, you might not make it, but if you belong to a group you can
  • The lowest point for Bari was when Michele Fazio was killed in the cross fire. It shocked everybody and was a galvanizing moment. For the first time, everybody knew this was something that they had to face together. They felt that danger so close that slowly, they started to react
  • If you go to the old town of Bari and pass by the place where the boy was killed you see how narrow everything is, and understand how close everything is to each other, giving you a real sense of how these people felt the closeness
  • It can give us all hope to see how this community turned the city around for itself and for those of us visiting to enjoy the warmth and fun

The lay of the land in Bari

  • The contrast in Bari between the old town and the new is very stark. When you arrive in Bari by train and walk towards the old town, you go along Via Sparano, a lovely, wide pedestrian boulevard, full of fancy shops, and cute cafés. Lots of beautiful buildings from the 1800s
  • The moment you cross Corso Vittorio Emanuele, the other big street before you enter the old town, you see a dramatic change in the architecture. You jump back into the past – a different world
  •  The seafront, known as the Lungomare, is also beautiful. If you go there in the morning, there are lots of people out running, there’s the old fish market, which is lovely to watch.  They have a tradition of catching the octopus and then beating it on the rock to make it softer
  • In the evening, there is also a lot of nice places where you can go for an aperitivo. You don’t feel like a tourist, you just feel a part of this lively place
  • There are very few big hotels, in Bari. It is mostly B&Bs and small little family-run hotels. This adds to the lovely vibe of a stay and the atmosphere of the city

A fantastic base to explore Puglia

  • Another fantastic thing about Bari is that you can jump on the train and go to so many nice places
  • There is Monopoli and Polignano on the coast. It’s not a super fast train, you just have to chill out and relax on this train – perfect if you’re looking for a slow travel experience
  • You can go to Lecce. The fast train is just an hour and 20 minutes. The trains are new and really comfortable. Paolo always brings his bike as you are allowed to do that on the regional trains. If you have a bike, then you can really get out and explore
  • North of Bari, Trani is a little town that Paolo really loves. It’s easy to visit because the train station is not that far from the Old Town. You get off the train, take a nice, short walk and explore the Old Town
  • Other places north of Bari include Barletta, Molfetta, Giovinazzo, and Bitonto, all within easy reach by train
  • The train to the Gargano Peninsula is a little longer, so it’s much easier by car. So if you rent a car you can go along the coast, through the Salines (salt marshes), and stop for a hike to see the Flamingos
  • You can really enjoy the Gargano area more by car because the road from Mattinata to Vieste has spectacular scenery
  • As you drive up, there’s the forest. For Pugliese, it feels like another world because Puglia is generally pretty flat, whilst the Gargano area is 1,000 meters above sea level. The sea on one side. It is like another world
  • There is a UNESCO site called Monte Sant’Angelo which was a place used by the pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem
  • Then there is the Sanctuary of Saint Pio (Padre Pio) who was a monk that lived in the Gargano area. He was a very controversial figure because he claimed to have stigmata. He died in 1968 and local people, simple people loved him because he helped so many people and advised them. He opened a big hospital, which is very important in Puglia. Paolo’s mum even met him when she was young
  • The church used to fight against him because they believed him to be an imposter, but now, instead, he has become a saint. And you can go and visit all the sites associated with him

Things to do in Bari

  • Paolo recommends going to the opera. There are lots of theaters in Bari, but it is especially worth going to the one called Teatro Petruzzelli
  • This iconic theatre was set on fire back during the troubled times in the 90s but re-opened about 15 years ago
  • A visit here and watching the opera will really give you an idea of what opera means to Italians. You will see them all dressed up and feel the atmosphere. It’s a wonderful experience
  • The opera is on mostly in the winter, due to how hot it gets in the summer
  • Bari is a place where there are lots of music concerts and theater events. Obviously, if you don’t know Italian, the choice is a little more limited, but there is such a big choice of fun things to see. There are a lot of street festivals and it’s really cool to get part of the atmosphere
  • The St. Nicholas celebrations were held very recently. If you are in Bari, you’ll see a lot of posters with the program of events. For 3 days, they have a series of events, some religious and some traditional events
  • There’s a procession, as the statue arrives on the boat. The statue then sits on an altar in the square all lit up. There is an area that has a little market with everything from local craftsmen to clothing, to street food
  • There are also fireworks and light installations which are are big thing in Puglia. They set up these temporary lights by placing big beams attached with wires to the buildings. They decorate the streets and the squares with these lights – so the place seems full
  • These lights are a thing specific to Puglia. Sicily might be trying to borrow the idea because Katy saw some in Catania, but Puglia is where you see these most spectacularly. There aren’t many photos of it to be found on the internet – people are too busy enjoying it to take photos perhaps – or they just don’t do it justice
  • To see the most extreme example, you can look on YouTube for ‘Scorrano’. Scorrano is a little village where 3 of the biggest companies who make these lights hold a huge event in July. The amount of lights is unfathomable. They use it as a showcase because then they rent their lights for the different religious events in cities across the region
  • Other things to enjoy on a visit to Bari are the castle and the cathedral. There is a lot of beautiful architecture all over
  • Ultimately, what you will get a sense of and what will make you fall in love with Bari, is the life on the streets and the atmosphere. Just walking around and seeing people living, chatting, eating and enjoying their city
  • It’s just a really fun place with a really nice vibe

Want to reach out to Paolo for help with your Puglia trip?

Paolo offers consultancy on trips to Puglia, to make the most of your trip, as well as his fantastic tours. You can find him on Instagram, on Facebook and on his website, apuliahandmade.it. On his website, you can find contact him by WhatsApp with any questions or requests too.

Want to discover Puglia with Untold Italy?

  • For a deep, local connection and unique experiences, why not join one of our Puglia small group tours. See what our guests think about our Untold Italy tours in Puglia in the video below.

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About our guest – Paolo Maragliulo

Paolo is originally from Lecce, but now lives in Matera.
He has studied “Conservazione dei Beni Culturali” which is basically art history, history and restoration; when he started his area (Puglia and Basilicata) were far from being as popular as they are now.

His dream was to tell everybody the beauty of his region and he bet everything on that. Paolo now works as a tour guide for European and overseas companies. 

Paolo does food tours, cultural and archeological tours, hiking and cycling tours, and also works as a trip designer and consultant for individuals and companies. He has also worked for 5 years for a British theatre company so he has millions of stories to tell you with his theatrical style and it is there where he made plenty of experience leading groups of people on a multi-day tour

He has lived almost all his life in Lecce, but I am an addicted traveler; no matter what means of transport – his aim is to explore and that is the way of living my life.

He is now based in Matera, an amazing UNESCO site, and a perfect location to go exploring Southern Italy.

You can find Paolo on these channels:

Places mentioned in the show

  • Basilica di San Nicola – church where you can find (75% of) St Nicholas’ bones
  • Myra – place in Turkey from here they stole St Nicholas’ bones
  • Via Sparano – popular shopping street in Bari which leads to Corso Vittorio Emanuele and the old town
  • Lungomare – the seafront in Bari
  • Lecce – elegant Puglian city
  • Monopoli – a coastal town in Puglia, home to the Baroque Monopoli Cathedral
  • Polignano a Mare – beautiful old town with dramatic cliffside – wonderful in the summertime but very quiet off-season
  • Brindisi – on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. Historically, this Puglian city played an important role in trade and culture
  • Trani – seaport on the Adriatic Sea, northwest of Bari
  • Barletta, Molfetta, Giovinazzo, Bitonto – places to visit north of Bari by train
  • Gargagno – province on the spur of the boot where you’ll find towns Vieste, Peschici and Rodi
  • Orecchietti – famous pasta from Puglia that is said to be in the shape of an ear
  • Octopus panini – delicious local sandwich
  • MattinataVieste – beach towns popular with Italians
  • Monte Sant Angelo – on the southern slopes of Monte Gargano, it’s one of the I Borghi più belli d’Italia – most beautiful villages of Italy
  • Sanctuary of Saint Pio of Pietrelcina – known as Padre Pio 
  • Teatro Petruzzelli – theatre in Bari to see opera
  • Scorrano – Puglian town where the main manufacturers of celebration lights and decorations come from and has the amazing Festival of Lights in July

Food & Drink

  • focaccia – a flat oven-baked bread
  • orecchiette – the little ears-shaped pasta
  • cime di rapa – broccoli rabe used in local dishes


  • Michele Fazio – a boy tragically shot and killed by mistake during a feud between rival clans while walking home in Bari

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