Planning a trip to Italy and wondering about all the things 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, Basilicata, 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 the things 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 Public Transport
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 Rental 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 neighboring 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.
Top Things to Do in Matera, Italy
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 haven’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 accommodations, 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 Ape 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 color 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. The exact points my photos are taken are my most asked question about Matera over on Instagram and while some are official viewpoints, others are just on random streets that are difficult to pinpoint.
Sunrise is the best time to photograph the city. It means getting up extremely early in the summer but it’s totally worth it. The city is something different at 5 am. Here are some of my favorite 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. It’s my favorite for sunrise. Find it here.
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 on 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. This viewpoint is better towards the end of the day.
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.
Via D’Addozio – The main thoroughfare that comes down into the Sassi Barisano, there’s a great viewpoint from here. Note that this street is incredibly busy after 7 am go you’ll need to get here really early to make the most of this photospot.