Taranto, a city in Puglia in the South of Italy is not oft visited on the tourist trail. But, is it a hidden gem and a must-see destination in Puglia? Or is Taranto worth skipping altogether? Find out here in our short guide – is Taranto worth visiting?
Where is Taranto?
Taranto lies on the Ionian Sea, across the other side of the heel of Italy from Bari in Puglia. It is not a major tourist destination, rather a port and an industrial city.
How to get to Taranto from Bari?
The journey from Bari is pleasant with olive trees to the horizon at times. A direct train of 82 minutes will take you from Bari to Taranto.
Entering Taranto, the train sweeps past huge docks and industrial facilities and deposits you at Taranto station, which is located on the western side of the town.
On leaving the station some geographic fundamentals are clear. With a single bridge onto and off the small island, traffic is inevitably funneled and heavy – and there are no pedestrian crossings. Not a pleasant start to a visit.
Why visit Taranto?
So why go to Taranto? Firstly, the location. A glance at a map will show its dramatic position, built on either side of a of a bay, linked by a small island, separating the Mare Grande and the Mare Piccola.
Secondly, Taranto’s lengthy history – a human settlement since the Neolithic, with major indigenous civilizations, Greek influences and the inevitable conquest and influence of Rome. It has a modern National Museum collection of this history.
And thirdly, it is less than 90 minutes away by direct train from Bari. If not now, then when? So, what is the reality of Taranto?
What to do in Taranto?
Explore the city
Once on the small island, there is what must be a leading contender for the world’s worst municipal fountain. An unremarkable, classical-looking fountain has been mated to some Brutalist slabs, surrounded in turn with water spouts in poor condition. The fountain clearly does not operate often, if at all, given the debris that surrounds it. This is the gateway to the older part of the city.
The way to the cathedral is up the road to the right. The cathedral is one of the most famous of sites in Taranto. Unfortunately, compared to others in Puglia, the cathedral is unremarkable. There are two substantial Doric columns surviving from a Greek temple which spark a bit of interest, these can be found a few hundred metres from the Cathedral.
Emerging to cross the single bridge onto the eastern part of the town, there is a single pavement on the south side. You cannot miss the Castello which houses the Tourist Information office. The bridge itself is a (rarely opening) swing bridge that allows passage between the Mare Grande and the Mare Piccolo. It is not a romantic sight, although it bears the usual quota of rusting padlocks attesting undying love.Once away from the traffic in Giardini Piazza Garibaldi, the prospect is much more pleasant with the Palazzo degli Uffici dead ahead.
You can also take a stroll to the Adriatic coast and the Lungomare Vittorio Emanuele. A blocky building – the Prefetura – took our breath away, but not in a good way. As well as is sheer mass, its ornamentation includes bronze eagles on pedestals and large Roman trophies with crowned shields. This is a retained product of the years of Fascism in Italy.
Heading east to return to the station is a monument to sailors, the Monumento al Marinaio aka the two tennis players. There is a fine view of the Castle before you have to retrace your steps to the railway station.
Visit the National Archaeological Museum
Our main reason for visiting Taranto, was to visit MArTa, the National Archaeological Museum. The sapphire in the mud!
This impressive museum houses artifacts marking human settlements and cultures and is perhaps the major draw to Taranto. On the first Sunday in the month, you can get free entry, but the queue is long in mid-morning. It took us 90mins to get inside the front door and then some.
Be warned – go on another day and pay €8! MArTa contains some stunning pieces. You’ll need at least a two hours, ideally more to take in the museum fully. The exhibit descriptions are of high quality, with Italian and English translations. Start at the top of the building if you’d like to take in the museum chronologically.
Learn about the Tarantella
“Here, in this harsh landscape, lives the tarantula and echoes of some deep, dark pre-Christian pagan shit, like tarantism, a dance, a ritual, an exorcism, an expression of unspeakable desires.”Anthony Bourdain on witnessing the Tarantella ritual in Puglia
The Tarantella are folk dances which originate in Puglia. Legend has it that being bitten by a wolf-spider (a tarantula) would cause a form of hysteria. The Tarantella dance is performed as a way to exorcize this condition.
In fact, such is the importance of this legend, that tarantula spiders are named after the town of Taranto. Today, you can visit the largest Tarantella festival, which is held each year in Salento, normally Lecce, rather than Taranto.
Try some Puglian cuisine
We loved the southern comfort food in Bari and the surrounding areas in Puglia. Taranto is a great place to come for a slap up meal, as the prices are much lower than in tourist areas, such as Monopoli and Lecce.
To try some local cuisine, Trattoria Il Ghiottone is well worth a visit. With a set menu offered for around 12 Euros (Primi, Secondi and a side dish), this is the place to enjoy a long lunch. House wine is also a bargain – with a litre costing less than a glass would in Tuscany!
Is Taranto worth visiting?
In conclusion, we would recommend Taranto for anyone keen to visit the Archaeological Museum. This was the star of the city for us.
Taranto’s main issue from a visitors perspective, is that there is simply too much competition in Puglia. The region is full of gorgeous towns and cities, with stunning architecture. And Taranto in comparison, is found wanting a little bit.
We have no doubt that Taranto may be a more pleasant experience if we were accompanied by a local showing us the best spots in town, but as a tourist destination for a visit, we would not recommend it especially if you are pushed for time in Puglia. There are far prettier, enticing and accessible places to visit in Puglia and Salento, such as Lecce, Monopoli and Poligano a Mare.
Taranto is not a tourist city and not built as such, but if you are keen to see a more “lived in” part of Puglia, then go for it!
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