Planning a trip to Italy and wondering what to do in Matera, the region’s infamous, ancient city? Keep reading for some unmissable spots and experiences to consider for your trip.
Matera. The Italian city with a dire past yet a delightful future, a city of history, culture, disease, and squalor, a place that’s a must-visit for anyone planning a trip to Southern Italy or a Puglia road trip.
The uniqueness of Matera lies in its history and it’s simply impossible to not want to visit once one learns about this town. A place that went from a picture of poverty and squalor up until the 1950s to being awarded the European Capital of Culture in 2019 and UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
Matera is the world’s third oldest continually inhabited city in the world, composed of caves and stone alleys that have been lived in since the Stone Age and up until the 1950s. While many other parts of Italy developed through the centuries and living conditions became better and better for most, Matera hid a society living in squalor and extreme poverty. People lived amongst their animals in caves rife with disease and malaria.
It was only until writer Carl Levi, who visited, wrote about Matera in his memoirs and exposed the truth did the town’s situation start to improve. In the 1950s the government relocated the population into modern housing in what is now the ‘new’ Matera. The Sassi lay abandoned for many years until finally being developed into what we see today.
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Matera might just be the most unique place in all of Italy and it’s a must-see on any Italy bucket list. Keep reading to discover what to do in Matera to learn more about its past and how you can discover it.
HOW TO GET TO MATERA
Matera is located in the Southern Italian Region of Basilicata but it’s very close to Puglia so it’s easily combined with a Puglia road trip. Matera has good transportation links to most other major cities in Italy and is fairly easy to get to.
By Air: Matera’s nearest airport is Bari which has connections to many major European cities. From the airport, you can then hire a car, take a bus or train to Matera. It’s also possible to fly into Naples. Matera is a 4-hour drive from Naples and perfect if you want to combine Matera with a trip to the Amalfi Coast.
By Train – It’s possible to get to Matera by train from other popular Italian destinations such as Bari, Salerno, Naples etc however there can be many changes and the journey can take a long time. Check the Tren Italia website here to find out if it’s worth it and if not it might be better to take the bus.
By Bus – Various bus lines have connections to Matera from major Italian cities. Marozzi and Liscio buses connect Matera with Rome, Pisa, Siena and Florence and Marino bus lines run services from Milan, Bologna, Naples and Ancona. I personally like to use a site like Busbud in order to find the best bus connections and check for prices for bus tickets around Europe.
By Car – One of the best ways to visit Matera is by hiring a car, especially if you’re doing an extended road trip to the South of Italy and neighbouring Puglia. You can hire a car at Naples or Bari airport with ease. From Bari, it takes just 1 hour to drive to Matera.
In Matera, there are many public car parks to park just outside the Old Town or Sassi Area and many hotels also offer private parking. Just note that you can’t drive into the Sassi due to the Zone Traffico Limitato so you’ll have to find parking in the newer part of town and walk from there. More on this in the ‘top tips’ section below.
Matera from Bari – Most people come to Matera from Bari, combining Matera with a Puglia road trip. From Bari, you can reach Matera by car, bus or train. Personally, I think reaching Matera from Bari by car is the easiest way and it’s the way you’ll do it too if choosing to road trip in the area. The bus is a great, direct option too.
WHAT TO DO IN MATERA
Explore the Sassi
Sassi di Matera is the same used to refer to the oldest part of Matera, the one famed for its incredible, historic cave dwellings. The Sassi are the main reason tourists from all over the world visit Matera- to explore these old cave dwellings, the rock churches and the maze of staircases and pathways that connect them all.
Matera’s ancient sectors are composed of two Sassi, Sasso Barisano, the more developed part and Sasso Caveoso, most of which still hasn’t seen much change. You’ll no doubt probably come across them both during your stay.
Sassi Barisano is located more toward the north side of the old town and today is full of boutique cave accommodation, ancient churches, cafes and restaurants. While the structures are still based around the old cave dwellings, they have been restored and gentrified making it hard to imagine what Matera was really like all those years ago.
Sassi Caveoso on the other hand, located a little further south in the old town is more true to what Matera would have been like 100 years ago. The area is still filled with many cave dwellings that have been completely unchanged and shows a different, more authentic side, truer to history. There isn’t much to do here apart from meandering around trying to imagine how the people here really lived.
There are many things to do in Matera’s Sassi from visiting ancient rock churches and shrines, visiting museums, dining at fine restaurants and admiring the ochre colors of the city at different times of the day. The Sassi also make a great base to explore the city.
Don’t fancy navigating all the narrow alleyways by yourself? Opt for a guided tour or even a famous tuk-tuk tour with a knowledgeable guide to find out more about the history of Matera and all its sights.
Stay in a Cave Hotel
When people think about what to do in Matera, staying at a Cave Hotel is almost always at the top of the list. I second that.
While most cave hotels today are boutique and luxurious accommodations, they give a wonderful insight into what life could have been like living in these vast, dark dwellings. Overall staying in one is a truly unique experience and if you’ve been looking to splurge a little on your trip to Italy, this might be the place to do it. I know we did.
We stayed at the Corte San Pietro hotel which was fantastic both in terms of accommodation and service yet it was still pretty affordable. Make sure to scroll to the bottom of this post for all my cave hotel recommendations.
Admire the City from its Viewpoints
With its winding, narrow alleyways and stone stairways leading upwards, Matera also has quite a number of gorgeous viewpoints to discover. The viewpoints not only allow you to get your bearings but there is something awfully beautiful about Matera’s panorama.
Whether it’s the Duomo’s tower perched at the top like figurines on a wedding cake, the beautiful colour schemes of ochre and beige or the staircases that lead your eyes across the whole canvas.
If you’re a photographer you’ll also want to make your way to some of these viewpoints. Sunrise is the best time to photograph the city. Here are some of my favourite Matera viewpoints.
Belvedere di Piazza Giovanni Pascoli – perched to the side of the Piazza right next to the National Museum, this viewpoint is one of the best in the city.
Convento di Sant’Agostino – There’s a beautiful view from the front courtyard of this clifftop church.
Belvedere Luigi Guerricchio detto dei “Tre Archi” – Located in the busier side of town, this viewpoint provides a brilliant vantage point from the west side of the city. Located just next to Piazza Vittorio Veneto.
Piazza Duomo & Via Duomo– Due to its hilltop location some of the best views of Matera can be found right outside the town’s main Cathedral and the roads leading up to it.
Via S. Rocco – Heading down towards the Sassi from the ‘new’ town down Via S. Rocco there is a pretty amazing viewpoint from a cute hidden piazza.
Hike up to Belvedere Murgia Timone
As soon as you start exploring you’ll realise that the Sassi di Matera are actually perched on one side of a ravine. Across the other side of the ravine, you’ll see a few more abandoned caves carved into the rock as well as a pretty incredible viewpoint.
The viewpoint is known as Belvedere Murgia Timone, part of the Parco della Murgia Materana and provides you with an incredible, panoramic view of the whole of ‘old’ Matera and all its Sassi. When thinking about what to do in Matera, this is definitely worth visiting. The best time to go is at sunrise when the sun casts a golden glow on the entire town.
To get to Murgia Timone viewpoint you’ll need to get to the Sassi’s main road. By Porta Pistola there’s a staircase leading down that’ll take you to the Tibetan-style suspension bridge. Use the bridge to cross the stream and then keep following the path up. The snaking path will cross the side of the ravine all the way up to the viewpoint. It takes about 45 minutes to complete the hike all the way up. Did I mention the views were totally worth it?
If you’ve rented a car you can also drive to the viewpoint by putting it into Google Maps here. I recommend coming here before arriving in Matera or when leaving so you don’t have to come back into the city and find parking again.
Visit the Rock Cave Churches
One of the things that can’t be missed when planning what to do in Matera is its rock cave or rupestrian churches. Unique to this part of Southern Italy these rock churches have been carved into the rocks and caves all around the city. They are small with low ceilings and labyrinth corridors and many of them conserve ancient frescos, many of which survive to this day without any real restoration.
Matera has over 150 rupestrian churches that have been chiselled into the rock and cave dwellings. Some of the rupestrian churches to included on your Matera itinerary are Santa Maria de of Idris, Santa Lucia alle Malve, San Pietro Barisano and San Giovanni in Monterrone just to name a few.
Visit the Church of St Mary Idris
The Church of St Mary Idris is located on a rocky mount just next to the church of Saint Peter Caveoso and it’s one of the best surviving examples of Matera’s rupestrian churches. The cult of Idris- the Greek for Virgin Mary important in Byzantine Constantinople, was introduced to southern Italy by Byzantine Monks.
While the church is small in size, seeing it is a must. The crypt contains some of the best surviving frescos from the 12th-17th Centuries of any rupestrian church in Matera. There are also some more modern frescos surrounding the altar.
Peek inside the Church of Saint Peter Caveoso
Located in Sasso Caveoso, quite precariously on the side of a rocky outcrop, this church has been here since the 13th Century. Recently remodelled, inside you’ll find Romanesque stone arches and art from the 18th Century including a beautifully frescoed wooden ceiling. Definitely worth a quick peek inside when passing by.
Admire Modern Sculpture at MUSMA
One of the most captivating places to visit in Matera Italy, MUSMA is Matera’s Museum of Contemporary Sculpture. It’s located in the 16th Century Palazzo Pomarici in the middle of the Sassi, a former cave Palace residence. The exhibition galleries are unique cave rooms and stone passageways that provide the perfect juxtaposed setting for works of modern sculpture.
Here you’ll find an array of modern work from international and local artists and with admission costing just €5 per adult, it’s the perfect spot to catch up on culture and escape the heat.
Learn about Matera’s History at Casa Noha
Casa Noha is a great spot to start your Matera itinerary. Funded by two local families, Casa Noha is the place to learn more about the history of Matera. It’s a small stone dwelling with interactive exhibits and a multimedia video that talks about the history of the Sassi and their gloomy past and the people that lived here.
Once you know a little bit more about the history of the city and what you’re looking at, everything becomes just that little more fascinating as you move around and see all Matera’s sights.
Casa Grotta is a lovely example of a typical house in the Sassi that you can visit after learning a little more about the history of the city at Casa Noha. Here you can experience the historic cave dwelling with its original furniture – just what life would have been like before these districts were depopulated at the end of the 1950s.
Visit Matera’s Duomo
Located on the tallest hill in the city, Matera Cathedral can be seen around for miles. Built in the 13th Century, this landmark cathedral is one of Matera’s top things to do. With its Romanesque facade and beautifully frescoed interior, this really is a highlight, even for non-churchgoers.
Try Matera’s Food
Matera, just like the rest of Italy certainly has its fair share of delicious foods to gorge on throughout your stay. Apart from the typical Italian fare, like pizzas and pasta there are a few very local dishes you’ll want to seek out and try.
For meat eaters, you’ll want to try Matera’s cured meats including the wild boar sausage and Rionero ventresca or innards sausage. Lamb is also a speciality in the area. For vegetarians, trying the crapiata, an ancient legume and cereal soup is a must, especially on the colder evenings. There’s also lagane, a thick fresh pasta and peperoni cruschi, dried sweet peppers.
Last but not least, there’s the famous Matera bread made with special ‘hard’ wheat from the area. The taste and texture are similar to that of sourdough but without the sourness. It’s simply delicious so make sure to have some at least once during your stay.
WHERE TO STAY IN MATERA
The place to stay in Matera is in a cave hotel in the Sassi. These caves were once the dwellings of the residents of Matera so it’s only fitting to experience them as the locals once did, minus the disease and poverty. Today Matera’s cave hotels provide a mid-luxury boutique accommodation experience that’s pretty unique. These are my top picks.
Sextantio Le Grotte Della Civita – One of the most beautiful and celebrated cave hotels in Matera, Sextantio offers a true Renaissance stay. The hotel has been renovated yet still remains rustic, minimal and probably the hotel that embodies what a true ‘cave hotel experience’ in Matera should look like.
With wide open spaces and free-standing baths in candle-lit caves, a stay here is a must if your budget allows. Check rates and availability here.
Corte San Pietro – Another beautiful cave hotel with a gorgeous terrace and dining room, the rooms here are spacious, rustic yet comfortable. The breakfast is truly amazing and sets you up for a day of exploring and the staff is lovely and willing to help everything through to restaurant recommendations.
This was where I stayed during my time in Matera and I couldn’t have been happier. Check rates and availability here.
Palazzo Gattini – Now you might already know that a large part of the opening scenes of the latest James Bond movie, ‘No Time to Die’ was actually filmed in Matera and this is where Daniel Craig stayed during the filming process. For a chance to stay in one of Matera’s finest hotels and to feel like a real-life Bond, this is the spot. Check rates and availability.
Palazzotto Residence&Winery – Another incredible luxury cave hotel that is worth checking out. This one also has a bar and terrace perfect for sipping their selection of curated wines after a day of exploring. Check rates and availability here.
B&B Fiorentini – The perfect choice for a cave hotel stay on a budget. This gorgeous little B&B features atmospheric cave rooms with all the mod cons and super friendly hosts. Check rates and availability here.
BEST RESTAURANTS IN MATERA
Matera restaurants range from luxurious Michelin-worthy meals on beautiful stone terraces, to casual dining- there really is something for everyone. Keep reading for some of the best restaurants in town.
Keiv Bistrot – Located on the beautiful Piazza San Pietro Caveoso and with sublime views of the church, this is a great find in the Sassi area. They have all the Puglian and Matera classics like the local bread, orecchiette with tomato sauce, grilled vegetables, fish and meats. There have many vegetarian and plant-based options to choose from.
La Lopa – Probably the best meal we had in Matera, La Lopa serve up a feast in a cave restaurant. In a super romantic setting, dine on their delicious local cuisine. Make sure not to miss the Matera bread balls, Crapiata, a Matera legume soup and the great wine list. After your meal make sure to descend down to the basement where you’ll find a cave cinema playing videos about Matera’s eventful history.
Regiacorte – For a luxurious dining experience to remember book a table on Regiacorte’s terrace and enjoy the incredible view while dining on Michelin-star-worthy Italian food.
TOP TRAVEL TIPS FOR VISITING
↠ Matera’s Sassi or historic center is part of the dreaded ZTL zones that exist in many Italian cities to limit traffic in the city center. The ZTL or Zone a Traffico Limitato will mean that you’re not allowed to drive into or through the center at the specified time- that’s normally displayed at the entrance. The fines for driving through the ZTL at the wrong time are no joke either.
If you’re driving to Matera as part of a Puglia or Southern Italy road trip you’ll need to park elsewhere and then walk down to your hotel. The best way to organise parking is through your hotel. Alternatively, you can try to find street parking in the newer part of Matera.
↠ Due to the above, if you’re driving try not to bring too much luggage. If you have large, heavy rolling luggage, make sure to organise parking and a transfer from your hotel ahead of time.
↠ They take the siesta pretty seriously in Matera and between the hours of 3 pm and 6 pm you won’t see much local movement. That does mean that most restaurants and cafes are closed during this time so make sure to eat lunch at lunchtime otherwise you’ll be left to go hungry until dinnertime.
Many restaurants are also just open for lunch or only for dinner so make sure to check opening hours online before heading over.
↠ Bring comfortable footwear, you’ll be walking a lot and up many hills and stairs.
Some more ideas for things to do in Matera during your stay
Ready to plan what to do in Matera for your trip? Let me know your questions and comments below, I’d love to hear from you.
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