Similar to other Southern European countries where wine is the main focus, beer has always been a sideshow in Italy, to the detriment of the quality. Likewise, if you discount Osterias and the, good pubs and bars can also be tricky to find. However, that is slowly changing.
It is clear since the early 2010s, there is an emerging small brewery scene in the Emilia-Romagna / Veneto area, some of which has garnered international attention. My last visit confirmed Tuscany has joined in the fun, with breweries scattered across from Livorno, Pisa, Prato, Florence and so on.
Traditionally Italians have tended to drink pale lager, strong ‘doppio malto’ pilsner, wheat/wit ale and red ale, and although you could previously scoff at it’s poor beer scene, they did at least have this tradition. It manifests itself in some quite funny ways. For instance, you will note the horrible Tennant’s Lager on sale in many bars and most supermarkets (it must have marketed itself well in the 80s). You’ll quickly notice how heavily Italy leans on Germany for good beer (and why not eh?) by virtue of how most bars stock a good German beer or two. However, all these new breweries are challenging that status quo, cleverly making sure they offer enough of a range to fill up a bar’s tap choice.
As for the pubs themselves, your traditional Italian dive pub would look like someone tried to turn a corridor into a room, with elderly gents popping down for a morning beer of something fizzy and harmless and a cig, while everyone respectable is downing their morning espresso. Italy seems to be just about dispensing with the generic ‘modern bar’ scene that plagued the early 00s as well, so you’ll find much more pleasant bookish/alternative places serving better products in an informal setting. There are some gems lurking around the spaces between Osterias, modern bars and Irish pubs. This isn’t Belgium though, don’t rely on simply wandering around – do your research in advance.
Ratings Key (0-10)
Bars marked (*) will take you to our full profile write-up!
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|Storie Del Vechhio Sud||Bari||7||9||9||7||6||8|
This large city has 3 distinct parts. A historic, and for now ungentrified unspoilt old town filled with ageing locals, the smell of fresh laundry, and kids playing football in tiny squares. Then, the grid-lined post-industrial town North of the train station with typical Italian high rise, shutters and Juliet balconies. South of the tracks is the down to earth end, with grimy hi-rise blocks, snarls of motorway. The majority is unpretentious and distinctly Italian. Nightlife is unusually dispersed, with a core of bars in the old town, including 2 very atmospheric cocktail bars in historic venues, and then a shower of fairly dispersed individual bars south of the tracks. Expect many of these not to open, or even get going until after 8pm, while some will be closed on Monday.
A lively university city with a young, vibrant feel to the city centre, there is usually something going on, and the architectural style, with porticos and shady corners provide an element of mystique to the place. The bar scene is far from cutting edge, however this is compensated ably by the atmosphere. Outside of the centre, check out the areas around the campus for some lively down-to-earth bars and bring-your-own-grub Osterias.
A town of historic importance, the Via Appia from Rome to Brindisi is famous worldwide, and ends at the waters of the Adriatic. Brindisi’s ugly side, quite literally the other side of the tracks, is easily and wisely ignored, leaving a compact, yet characterful town centre, with a mixture of classical grid-pattern streets and an old windier historic centre. Nightlife gets going a little later than some Westerners may be used to, so be prepared for the Mediterranean rhythm of life. Bars are competent, rather than sparkling, likewise the atmosphere is alive, but not quite buzzing.
5 villages on a rocky clifftop coast comprise Cinque Terre, a very much over-exposed tourist destination, yet one with enough remaining charm to justify a visit. The views alone are unarguable. However, with middle class custom comes middle class nightlife, and if you stick to the Cinque Terre you may find things slow, especially during the week. Nevertheless, there are little corners of activity if you wish to find them, and signs that the area is attracting a younger crowd. This will bring with it much needed bars with later opening hours, wider drinks selection and a more convivial atmosphere. In the meantime, avoid yanks with chunky cigars like the plague and get your wallet ready for a hammering.
A quiet city for two reasons – firstly it has for centuries outgrown itself. Economics and ill-fortune massively diminished the city, which has never truly recovered. Secondly, it is now Italy’s premiere cycle city – one of the safest places in the world to cycle in. The occasional sound of a Piaggio is only a peripheral interference in otherwise sedate charm. This would give off warning signs that it isn’t the most lively place at night – and to an extent that’s correct, however a core group gather in the central square, which on weekends at least carries on until the early hours of the morning. Other than historic Osterias, don’t expect miracles with the bar scene here.
While intensely choked with tourists on some of the main streets and around the station, much of Florence remains undeterred and life continues as normal. Go out in the Oltrarno and it won’t feel too much different to venturing out in any large town. Florence has a mixture of nightlife to offer, with a healthy collection of scuzzy alternative bars, craft beer venues, cocktail bars, and bookish alternative hangouts which add up to an enjoyable evening out. As usual with Italy, most of this doesn’t come cheap.
pop. 583, 601
A large city with a number of different ‘centres’, Genoa offers authenticity and the kind of unvarnished, yet tolerant experience you would expect from any working class port. When arranging a night out, try not to incorporate too much hopping between districts unless you are entirely au fait with the public transport network. Take care in some of the inner city backstreets which can become maze-like and in some areas, especially the red light district, there are those who would take advantage. Otherwise, enjoy the energy of the place and the fact it isn’t clogged up with tourists for once.
A small coastal city, La Spezia’s riverfront is the usual battle between tourist glamour and much-needed port employment. The topography has a similarly schizophrenic split, with a completely flat city centre before steeply heading off into the hills via a series of staircases, escalators and funiculars. On a Friday or Saturday La Spezia comes alive late at night – you can see families having an evening wander between 10 or 11pm, while those out for a good time will be hanging around into the early hours. If you try to visit anywhere before 9pm you’ll probably find the atmosphere lacking. In terms of venues, there are one or two standouts, with some alternative courtyard bars, osterias and birrotecas. Despite the proximity to Cinque Terre, La Spezia doesn’t feel especially touristy, and, as an outsider, I’d argue it benefits from that.
A characterful, undeservedly overlooked city which boasts a series of ancient ruins, there is enough in Lecce to sustain a couple of days enjoyment. The atmosphere at night in the centre is buzzing, and you will find a good variety of pubs to suit you needs, some of which have the historical benefit of being located in buildings which themselves are very atmospheric. Although there is a slight degree of tension over migrants due to Lecce’s southern position, the pace of life here is generally so laid back as to avoid frequent problems emerging.
A surprisingly large place. While overlooking the cobbles of Piazza Cavour you would think you were in a small town. The atmosphere is quaint, historic and the local amenities geared to the middle class. Balsamic vinegar and Ferrari will do that to a place. There are some fun down-to-earth Trattorias to fill your boots for a more local price. You’ll be assured of an old fashioned Italian welcome at these places. In terms of the nightlife, we didn’t spot too many exciting things going on in the centre, however the region is going through an explosion in beer brewing, so in the last decade, anyone seeking a better quality beer will likely be well served.
pop. 108, 938
Where Rimini starts and ends is arguable. Its old town, set slightly in-land is a world away from the miles long strip of beach and the apartments and amenities that run parallel. At least you have a choice whether to have a tacky night out on the tiles in one of the beachside clubs and bars, or a more middle class experience at the osterias in the centre. Rimini usually attracts Poles and Russians at the beach, while domestically it has a reputation akin to Blackpool in the UK. Cheap and cheerful, faintly garish, and a good laugh.
While not meeting with everyone’s approval, there is something distinctively different about Trieste, alone meriting a justified degree of intrigue.
This port served Austro-Hungary, and has always been on the fringes of the Italian sphere of influence. Formerly well connected to Ljubljana and Graz, now oddly shut off from that due to the World Wars destroying the rail route and its viaducts. You will find a melting pot of influences from Austrian, Slavic, Venetian and Tyrolean. These can sit awkwardly, which is perhaps why people don’t get on with the place. In terms of its nightlife, you have a stark choice between grand cafés, expensive with slow table service, or uncomplicated bars. Like a lot of Southern Europe, nightlife means eating as well as drinking, so you may find yourself dragged to Piadina bars so the Italians can scoff snack food. Unfortunately, these are mainly dull, featureless venues, and they don’t seem to care overly.
pop. 62, 343
A well to-do seaside resort of faded glamour, this place has served the well-heeled for many long years, and the pathetic behaviour of the upper classes to impose exclusivity and privilege can still be found today, as its beaches are partitioned by hotel and subject to an entrance fee for those not staying in the area. Nightlife has very little middle here, you either choose a pretentious yet bland café on the promenade or a tacky bar down at the cheap end of the strip. At least it’s sunny and beautiful, eh?