Straddling two harbours and set beside the deep blue waters of the Ionian, Taranto is an unpretentious city with a thriving fish market, fabulous restaurants and a top-notch archeological museum. It also makes a good base to visit the nearby caves and grottoes of Massafra.
The city divides neatly into three distinct parts: the northern spur is the industrial area, home of the steel works and train station. Cross the Ponte di Porta Napoli and you’re on the central island containing the old town. The southern spur holds the modern city centre (Borgo Nuovo), the administrative and commercial hub of Taranto, linked to the old town by a swing bridge.
Known as Taras to the ancient Greeks, the port became the first city of Magna Graecia (the area of southern Italy colonized by the Greeks) and was renowned for its oysters, mussels and dyes – the imperial purple was the product of decayed Tarentine molluscs. Resplendent with temples, its acropolis harboured a vast bronze of Poseidon that was one of the wonders of the ancient world. Sadly, little remains of ancient Taras or even of later Roman Tarentum, although their monuments and relics are on display in the city’s magnificent museum.
After being destroyed by the Romans, Taranto was for years little more than a small fishing port, its strategic position on the sea only being recognized in Napoleonic times. It was home to the Italian fleet after Unification, and consequently heavily bombed during World War II; attempts to rejuvenate the town have left its medieval heart girdled by heavy industry, including the vast and ailing Ilva steel plant that throws its flames and lights into the skies above.
The Taranto Cathedral, located in Borgo Antico's centre, dates back to the 10th century and is an interesting site to see. The Byzantine architecture is easy to admire, with interesting historical facts to accompany it.
Another activity that allows a step back in time is the Castello Aragonese, also in Borgo Antico. The castle dates back to the 900s and the Chapel of St. Leonard inside the castle walls is just as impressive. Guided tours provide an insight to what life was like throughout the ages in the castle - perfect for those that love history.
Other interesting sites include the remnants of the ancient Greek temple, Tempio di Posedidon, and the Spartan Musuem. Once you've ticked off the main sites on your checklist, simply strolling around the charming streets and stopping off for espressos and pastries is a nice way to spend a few hours.
Tarantos prime location on the coast means there are plenty of stunning beaches to enjoy. Marina di Ginosa has sands that stretch for several kilometres and shallow clear waters, ideal for children or if you just wish to relax in the water rather than swim.
Torre Colimena is part of the Regional Nature Reserve that is home to flamingos and swans, a perfect place to relax and look out for wildlife.
San Pietro in Bevagna has bars with sunbeds and umbrellas if you wish to enjoy the sunshine in luxury, or alternatively you can walk further along and enjoy seclusion.
Featured Image, Taranto Old Town © Alessandro Pinto / Shutterstock