Three days exploring Italy’s heel: Bari, Polignano a mare and Matera

I recently spent some time in Bari, Italy – the lesser-know capital of the Puglia region at the heel of Italy’s boot. The port city became my base for several days while I travelled to a few little hidden gems in the Puglia and Basilicata regions.

Day one: Bari

I landed in Bari airport with absolutely no idea of what the city would be like, aside from knowing it was located on the coast. So for my first day on the ground my plan was to get to know my new base, Bari. Knowing it was by the water, the city was certainly different to what I had pictured in my mind; my hostel was located in the midst of the metropolis surrounded by tall, French-inspired architecture, which rose a few stories high along streets resembling the urban planning similar to that of New York City. As I headed towards the Old Town, I passed by plenty of familiar stores and stopped into a few cafes to see all the delicious cakes and biscuits they had on display.

Once I reached the Old Quarter of the city, I felt like I’d literally stepped back in time or into another city completely. The wide, well-planned roads quickly turned into narrow, winding paved streets. Sometimes, I was walking alone with nothing but peaceful quiet but I could turn a corner and children would appear out of nowhere, zip right by me chasing one another and then disappear back into the maze. Other times, people would watch me curiously as I wandered the streets below their balconies.

Exploring the maze-like streets of Old Town was an adventure in itself, and hiding away were restaurants and small local stores. I finally made my way through the maze to Castello Normanno Svevo Bari, the city’s castle. The area had a few busy little restaurants, where you can sit outside with a view of the castle’s exterior.

Walking down the maze-like streets in Bari’s Old Town

Spotted this timid little guy along with two of his sibling eating left over rice down a small street in Old Town

Day two: Matera

The city of Matera is the third-oldest continually inhabited settlement in the world, which means there’s a ton of history to be uncovered while visiting this city. The city itself was first inhabited because of its natural caves that became dwellings for many of its first people around 9000 years ago.

While Matera is now a cultural haven for tourists who wish to explore the historical settlement of the area, these cave dwellings did not always hold the allure that they do today. In fact, Matera was a city of severe poverty and was once known as the “shame of Italy”, with some of these small cave dwellings housing up to 10 people.

Today, the appreciation of this historical settlement has drawn tourists to the area, with many of its cave dwellings (those which are not in use as housing) repurposed into stores or restaurants.

How to get to Matera:

Best public transport option: Train from Bari Centrale FAL to Matera Centrale 
Time from Bari to Matera: 1 hour and 40 minutes by train.
Cost from Bari to Matera by train: €4,90 (one way). Tickets can be bought at the station’s ticket booth.
Other information: You can see the schedule the official website, however, it’s in Italian. Remember to validate each ticket before you get on the train!

Overlooking the UNESCO World Heritage site of Matera
The most delicious Nutella gelato in Matera

Ruins of art on a wall in Matera

Day three – morning: Polignano a mare

Polignano a mare is a small, coastal town situated on a craggy cliff and surrounded by vibrant turquoise waters. The town is very small, but worth the visit just to see this postcard-worthy coastline. I’d recommend a half-day trip to Polignano a mare, and I’d suggest heading there in morning to early afternoon, when the sun is in prime position for the beach.

However, if you find yourself there in the evening, Polignano a mare offers a unique dining experience in a cave on the side of a cliff overlooking the water. (Disclaimer: I haven’t dined at this particular establishment myself but the photos I’ve seen look pretty amazing, and while I won’t mention names I wanted to share that such a place exists here.)

How to get to Polignano a mare:

Best public transport option: Train from Bari Centrale to Polignano a mare 
Time from Bari to Polignano a mare: 40 minutes to 1 hours by train
Cost from Bari to Polignano a mare by train: €2,50 (one way). Tickets can be bought at the station’s ticket machines.

Day three – afternoon: Bari

Back in Bari, I walked along the port area for the afternoon, where the yale blue waters were vibrant in the radiating Italian, summer sun. I sat down to relax by the water and began watching all the different kinds of fish swim between the rocks and a few tiny crabs making their way in and out of the water. For those who wishing to catch a few more hours of the sun’s rays, there’s a small beach right by the port area.

Found some colourfully decorated houses on my walk towards the port
A small beach/ inlet is located behind the last lamp posts

Travel tips for these areas:

Siesta is a common tradition practiced in these areas, which means that many of the restaurants and shops are closed between 1/2pm until 5pm. Plan accordingly if you wish to visit one of these places for lunch.

I can recommend the Olive Tree Hostel as a cheap accomodation option.

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