Do you believe in love at first sight? We do. Our love affair with Matera started the very second the existence of this ancient cave town in Southern Italy came to our knowledge. We don’t remember exactly when that was, but as soon as we googled Matera and hit the Images tab, we were hooked. We knew we had to visit Matera at the first opportunity. So, when we (finally) planned our long-awaited Puglia road trip, Matera (although not in Puglia) was the very first city we added to our two-week itinerary.
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Table of contents
- Things to know before you visit Matera
- 13 spectacular things to do in Matera Italy
- 1. Take in breathtaking views of the Sassi
- 2. Get lost in Matera’s maze of ancient streets
- 3. Walk the entire length of splendid Fiorentini and Madonna delle Virtù Streets
- 4. Visit Murgia Timone
- 5. Enjoy both sunrise and sunset in Matera
- 6. Admire the amazing Palombaro Lungo
- 7. Visit La Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario
- 8. See some of Matera’s beautiful churches
- 9. Eat cialledda materana
- 10. Drink Aglianico del Vulture wine
- 11. Join locals at their evening passeggiata along Via Domenico Ridola
- 12. Stay at a cave hotel
- 13. Bring a piece of Matera back home with you: the traditional cucu’
- Matera Travel Guide
- Top tip: Visit Matera before everyone else does
Things to know before you visit Matera
Where is Matera Italy
Matera is the most popular city in Basilicata, a region in Southern Italy. Basilicata is one of Italy’s best-kept secrets waiting to be discovered. With its picturesque villages and towns alongside spectacular coastline and dramatic mountains, the Basilicata region is off-the-beaten-path Italy at its best.
Matera Old Town
We need to clarify here that, when we talk about Matera, we are referring to its historic centre. So do pretty much all of the other travel guides out there as well. You see, the city of Matera is really big but the only part that appeals to travellers is the Old Town. For good reason. But what does the historic centre include exactly? While planning our trip to Matera, we were quite baffled ourselves so we decided to be quite thorough on this one.
The Civita is the oldest part of Matera. It represents the first town settlement which has been inhabited for about 4000 years. Built on a hill overlooking the Gravina, Matera’s ravine, the Civita is dominated by the imposing Duomo, the Cathedral. It is home to a number of spectacular mansions. Just so you find your bearings easily, the Civita is the part of Matera situated between the two Sassi.
I Sassi di Matera
The Sassi of Matera are the two districts stretching on both sides of the Civita. Facing the latter, we can see the Sasso Caveoso to the left and the Sasso Barisano to the right. The Sassi of Matera are famous for the unique cave dwellings that have been inhabited since the Paleolithic period. They form an extraordinary and truly special landscape. This is why the Sassi enjoy UNESCO World Heritage Site status since 1993. The Sassi are of great historical significance as they have earned Matera a place among the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities.
The Casalnuovo area stretches to the left side of the Sasso Caveoso. This district was dug out of the rock in the 15th century when Albanians fleeing from Ottoman invasions decided to call Matera home.
The Piano of Matera is the flat and most recent part of the Old Town. Built during the 17th and 18th centuries, this part of the city reminds of a typical Italian town in all its splendour. Piazze, palazzi and evening passeggiate are what the Piano is all about. To cut a long story short, if the Civita and the Sassi represent the impressive, almost unreal, stage which leaves everyone dumbfounded, the Piano is the lively backstage where real life goes on in an irresistibly charming way.
A bit of Matera history
Being one of the most ancient cities in the world, Matera’s history is a long and interesting one. However, it seems that nobody remembers anything that’s happened before the 1950s, the turning point in the city’s history which had a huge impact on local people’s lives. Until then, nearly 16,000 people lived in Matera’s cave dwellings. Living conditions were hard. Poverty, lack of space and running water as well as outbreaks of malaria and other diseases were among the reasons why the Italian government of the time declared Matera a national disgrace and forced its entire population to move to newly-built yet claustrophobic houses. The unwillingly abandoned town soon fell victim to absolute neglect and deterioration as it turned from being the shame of Italy to a ghost city and lair for all sorts of criminals.
Fortunately, all this began to change in the 1980s when Matera caught the attention of various archaeologists and other intellectuals. UNESCO marked the end of Matera’s downfall in 1993 when they awarded the city World Heritage Site status and put the foundation stone for the revival of one of Italy’s most exciting places. Nowadays, Matera sees rapid development as it gradually becomes a major tourist destination in Southern Italy. The European Capital of Culture for 2019 has put the wounds of its past behind and looks towards a well-deserved and glorious future.
13 spectacular things to do in Matera Italy
1. Take in breathtaking views of the Sassi
Every time we plan a trip to some place new, we are eager to know its best viewpoints beforehand so as not to miss them once there. We did the same with Matera. However, it turns out that, in this case, doing our homework in advance wasn’t that necessary. Matera offers stunning views pretty much everywhere. That said, there are indeed a few viewpoints your camera wouldn’t want to miss.
Best viewpoints in Matera
- Piazza Pascoli: This square will most probably be your entry point to Matera Old Town. Piazza Pascoli is home to a balcony which offers an iconic, picture-perfect view to the Sasso Caveoso. Honestly, we didn’t expect to catch the best view of Matera so easily, without any climbing involved. But we did and we loved it.
- Belvedere Luigi Guerricchio: Luigi Guerricchio was an artist who loved Matera deeply. This exquisite viewpoint towards the Sasso Barisano in Vittorio Veneto Square honours his memory.
- Piazza Duomo: The Duomo lies in one of the highest points in Matera thus offering spectacular views to the city, especially the Sasso Barisano.
- Santa Maria de Idris Church: Climb the stairs to Santa Maria de Idris Church for some of the most breathtaking views to the Sasso Caveoso and the ravine.
- Sant’Agostino Church: The Sasso Barisano from a different yet equally amazing angle.
- Murgia Timone: For panoramic views to the Sassi of Matera head across the ravine to the Murgia Timone area.
2. Get lost in Matera’s maze of ancient streets
Once you reach the Sassi, ditch the map and start walking. Strolling around the narrow alleys, while taking in superb views at every turn, is the best way to get the essence of this unique town. Expect uphill streets and some stairs.
3. Walk the entire length of splendid Fiorentini and Madonna delle Virtù Streets
Starting from Piazza Vittorio Veneto, get to know with the Sasso Barisano by walking along the picturesque Via Fiorentini. The latter changes to Via S. Antonio Abate at some point. Continue to your right and walk the entire length of Via Madonna delle Virtù. This marvellous street, which has the cave town on one side and the dramatic ravine on the other, passes through both the Sasso Barisano and the Civita before ending at S. Pietro Caveoso Church in the Sasso Caveoso.
4. Visit Murgia Timone
Il Parco della Murgia is an area of wild beauty that stretches across the ravine. It is home to the Belvedere, a magnificent viewpoint as well as the Park of the Rupestrian Churches which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with the Sassi of Matera.
It is very easy to drive to the Belvedere from Matera and there is ample parking space there. However, when we visited on May 1st 2019, we were not allowed to drive to the Belvedere. This was a means to regulate traffic and crowds alike. For this reason, there was a bus departing from Piazza San Pietro Caveoso to Piazza Matteotti. From there, the Belvedere bus line took us directly to Murgia Timone. Alternatively, you can walk from Porta Pistola in Matera to Murgia Timone through the ravine. The trail seems to be an exciting one but it wasn’t open to the public when we visited. Bummer.
The views from the Belvedere to Matera Old Town are out of this world. Do try to be there at sunset for an almost unreal experience.
Apart from the views, Murgia Timone also offers excellent opportunities for long walks in a superb natural setting.
Last but certainly not least, among wildflowers and hiking paths, the area is home to more than one hundred cave churches waiting to be discovered. The only way to visit those UNESCO listed treasures is by joining a guided tour.
5. Enjoy both sunrise and sunset in Matera
The golden hour is by far the best time to appreciate the beauty of any given destination. Matera is unbelievably pretty during both sunset and sunrise. As we said above, the Murgia Timone area is the optimal spot to find yourselves during sunset. That said, any other viewpoint in Matera Old Town will also do. Same goes for sunrise and its magnificent colours which are totally worth the early wake-up call.
6. Admire the amazing Palombaro Lungo
The Palombaro Lungo is an utterly impressive water cistern in the heart of Piazza Vittorio Veneto. This huge cistern was dug in the rock in the 16th century in order to store the area’s spring waters. The imposing construction is huge and its history is a really interesting one. You can visit by guided tour alone which is only available in Italian. However, even if you don’t speak the language, don’t miss the opportunity to enter this unique structure. There are leaflets in English, Spanish, French and German which include the exact same information your Italian guide will share with the group during the 25′ tour. A ticket costs 3€ and you need to book a specific date and time of visit in advance.
7. Visit La Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario
It is difficult to imagine how large families of 8+ members along with their livestock used to live inside those tiny caves. La Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario provides insight into the way of life of a typical peasant family in Matera which remained unchanged up until the 1950s. This museum is in essence a cave dwelling furnished and decorated as though it was still inhabited. The guided tour is conducted in Italian but there are highly informative leaflets in many other languages. Last but not least, there is a video documentary you can watch at the end of the tour which is an invaluable source of knowledge regarding the real Matera.
8. See some of Matera’s beautiful churches
Matera is home to a large number of wonderful churches. It is primarily famous for its rupestrian churces, the impressive constructions carved out of rock. There are more than a hundred rupestrian churches in Matera but three of them stand out. First of all, San Pietro Barisano is the largest rupestrian church in the town of Matera. Under the church’s floor, you can visit the area where the ritual of the corpses draining used to take place. Yes, being there feels as spooky as it sounds, but it’s totally worth it.
The complex of Santa Maria de Idris and San Giovanni in Monterrone churches is built atop Monterrone Cliff, which dominates the Sasso Caveoso and is one of the most iconic landmarks in Matera Old Town. The two churches, which seem like one actually, are home to magnificent frescoes painted on the cave walls. The third and last unmissable rock church is Santa Lucia Alle Malve which, in our humble opinion, has the most breathtaking frescoes and interior of all. Keep in mind that there is a combined ticket for all three churches which costs 7€, whereas entrance to each of them separately would cost a total of 10,5€.
Apart from the rupestrian churches, the Duomo, Matera’s Cathedral, is also worth a visit as well as a couple of other churches. Among them, Sant’Agostino dominates the Sasso Barisano while San Giovanni Battista, the beautiful church located just outside of Matera’s old city walls, is a unique blend of Romanesque, Arabic, Gothic and Greek architectural elements.
9. Eat cialledda materana
Food is a huge part of our travels. We always check out local delicacies before we even visit a place so as to know what to look for. In Matera’s case, the simplest dish is the one that caught our attention. Cialledda materana is a salad made of every-day ingredients, such as stale bread, tomatoes, cheese and olives. It is the ideal meal especially on a hot day when you don’t want to feel stuffed. We don’t know if it has to do with the fact that it reminded us of our very own dakos salad, one of Crete’s signature dishes and a favourite throughout Greece, but we loved cialledda materana.
10. Drink Aglianico del Vulture wine
The only DOCG (denominazione di origine controllata e garantita) wine in the Basilicata region, the Aglianico del Vulture, is one of the best red wines in Italy. It is made of Aglianico grapes, an ancient variety believed to have been brought to the Italian South by Greek settlers back in the 7th or 6th century BC. Don’t miss the chance to sip a glass or two while gazing at the marvel that is Matera.
11. Join locals at their evening passeggiata along Via Domenico Ridola
When you visit Matera, you will most probably want to spend ALL your time in the Sassi. However, as in all Italian cities (and the rest of the world for that matter), you should make time to follow the locals’ footsteps and experience the real Matera. The best way to achieve this is by taking an evening stroll, the famous passeggiata, along Via Domenico Ridola. It feels as though the very heart of Matera beats on this street any time of day. Yet it is in the evening, in that blessed moment when the crowds of day trippers are long gone and locals reclaim Via Domenico Ridola, that the street reveals all of its magic.
12. Stay at a cave hotel
We’ve said it before and we will never stop. Choosing a nice place to stay is very important to make our part-time travels even more memorable. This is especially true for destinations which boast some kind of special accommodation type. This is why we’d never even think of planning a trip to Matera without arranging to stay at one of the city’s cave hotels in the Sassi. The vast majority of the former cave dwellings have been turned into modern, comfortable hotels that preserve Matera’s unique architecture. In case you’re wondering, cave hotels are not the cheapest accommodation option in Matera. That said, staying in one of them in the heart of the Sassi is a unique experience you will cherish for life.
For our two-night stay in Matera, we chose La Corte dei Pastori, one of the most affordable cave hotels in the Sasso Caveoso. La Corte dei Pastori is a family-run B&B which comprises five cave rooms carved out of rock. Some of them still bear witness to their past with frescoes and byzantine crosses adorning their ancient walls. This Matera cave hotel enjoys a prime location with jaw-dropping views to the Sassi. In all seriousness, we were reluctant to leave the superb terrace with its stunning views to the Sassi and the ravine. This is why we had dinner there during our second evening in Matera. Take away pizza, a bottle of wine and such spectacular views made for one of the best dinners ever.
When weather allows it, the terrace is also the place where breakfast is served. The latter includes a wide variety of sweet and savoury treats as well as a generous share of the famous Matera bread. Tiziana and Mimmo, the owners of La Corte dei Pastori, go out of their way to make guests feel like home in Matera. Apart from running one of the cosiest B&Bs in the heart of the Sasso Caveoso, Tiziana and Mimmo are always there to help guests plan their Matera itineraries or provide them with practical information regarding parking, bus schedules etc.
To cut a long story short, we enjoyed our stay at La Corte dei Pastori immensely. Not only because we got to sleep in an actual ancient cave, but, most importantly, because we feel as though we have a home away from home waiting for us in Matera.
13. Bring a piece of Matera back home with you: the traditional cucu’
The best Matera souvenir to bring back home is hands-down the traditional cucu’. The latter is a handmade whistle made of clay and shaped as a multicoloured rooster. Throughout Matera’s troubled past, the cucu’ has served different symbolisms. In prehistoric times, the cucu’ was a popular toy for children. Many of these clay whistles have been found in infant tombs of that era. Later on, roosters became symbols of power. This is why people placed them outside their houses to protect themselves from all evils. At times of great poverty, the cucu’ became the most popular gift a young man could give his significant other. The more elaborate the cucu’, the greater his love for the girl he hoped to become his wife. In the 1950s, the cucu’ resumed its former role as a popular toy and became the best Easter present idea for the little ones.
Nowadays, the cucu’ is a real symbol of Matera. There are still a handful of people who continue the tradition of crafting handmade rooster-shaped whistles. Among them, Tiziana of La Corte dei Pastori herself who displays her large collection at the common area of the B&B. You can buy your very own cucu’ from street vendors and shops all over Matera Old Town.
Matera Travel Guide
How many days in Matera
Sadly, most travellers decide to see Matera on a day trip. We can’t stress enough how terribly wrong this decision is. Matera Old Town is very compact thus easy to see within a few hours. However, it is such a shame leaving the city without having seen the Sassi in the evening. Not to mention that everyone that decides to visit Matera should definitely stay in a cave hotel. Therefore, an overnight stay in Matera is mandatory in our opinion. We spent two nights in Matera. We consider this the absolute minimum for anyone who wants to get a taste of the cave town’s authentic ambiance.
How to get to Matera Italy
Driving is by far the best way to get to Matera. The regions of Puglia and Basilicata are home to countless charming towns which are worth checking out. What better way to do so than planning a road trip across the Italian South? If you arrive to Matera by car, remember that vehicles are not allowed in the Sassi. Therefore, you’ll want to park as close to the historical centre as possible. You can either park at the designated areas along the streets around the Old Town (0,70€/hour, 08:30-13:30 and 16:00-20:30) or at one of the city’s private parking lots. We parked the car at a large parking garage at Vena Street near Lucana Street for 0,50€/hour. We paid about 25€ for the entire length of our stay. Parking in Matera is not cheap but we didn’t have a worry in the world as far as the car was concerned.
You can also get to Matera by train. The wisest option would be to get to Bari first as it is just a 1,5h train ride from there to Matera. Check out the Ferrovie Appulo Lucane website for more information regarding Matera’s train station departures and arrivals.
Just a quick reminder here. With all vehicles forbidden within the Sassi area, brace yourselves for some uphill streets as well as a fair share of stone steps.
Where to eat in Matera
When it comes to eating in Matera, there are a lot of factors at play. Apart from the obvious food-related ones, you may want to choose where to eat in Matera with regards to the views you will get while eating. So, it is largely a matter of personal taste. Whatever you do, don’t miss the chance to have a glass of wine with locally produced titbits at Vicolo Cieco in the Sasso Barisano. As far as the Holy Trinity of Italian food (pizza – pasta – gelato) is concerned, we’ve got you covered. Il Rusticone near Piazza Vittorio Veneto offers the most mouthwatering pizza while the unassuming Kapunto prepares the best handmade pasta. The latter is located in Via Lucana, the main street which serves as a border of sorts between New and Old Matera. For your gelato fix, head to I Vizi Degli Angeli in Via Domenico Ridola.
Top tip: Visit Matera before everyone else does
Ever since we decided to visit Matera, we thought that it would be yet another super touristy destination in Italy. The uniqueness of its landscape and its UNESCO World Heritage Site status made us think that we would come across hordes of tourists. Truth be told, Matera was crowded when we visited. But most visitors were Italians. This would explain why guided tours in most major sites across Matera are in Italian rather than in English. It seems that, no matter its splendour, Matera still remains one of Italy’s best kept secrets in the sense that it mainly attracts Italians.
To the outside world, Matera represents a rare case of an off-the-beaten-path destination in Italy. But for how long? Our guess is that this hidden gem status of Matera won’t last for long. So, wait no more. Start planning your Italian South dream trip and visit Matera before everyone else does.
We could go so far as to say that Matera is Italy’s Venice of the South in terms of uniqueness and wow factor. However, there is only one Venice in the world and everyone should definitely plan a trip there at least once.
Read our full travel guide to Venice and its charms now!
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Disclosure: We were guests at La Corte dei Pastori but, as always, we express nothing but our honest opinion about the experience we had.