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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This image shows the iconic view to the Sassi of Matera from Piazza Pascoli. This is usually everyone's first glimpse of the Sassi since Piazza Pascoli is the commonest entry point to Matera Old Town.
The iconic view to the Sassi of Matera from Piazza Pascoli.

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.

This image shows the green area at Murgia Timone with various hiking paths. Matera in the distance looks absolutely beautiful.
Matera is undoubtedly the star of Basilicata. However, there is a lot more to discover in the region.

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.

This photo shows the sassi and the ravine at sunset.
Gorgeous Matera Old Town at sunset.

Civita

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.

This image shows the Duomo in Matera overlooking the Sassi.
The imposing Duomo in Matera.

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.

This image shows many people walking along the narrow streets of the Sassi in Matera.
Walking around the Sassi is priceless.

Casalnuovo

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.

This image shows the Casalnuovo area in Matera. This area stretches to the far left side of the Sasso Caveoso.
Casalnuovo

Il Piano

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.

This image was shot in Piazza Vittorio Veneto. In the background, the magnificent Annunziata Palace. In the foreground, the bronze statue of Dali's Space Elephant.
Dali’s Space Elephant at Piazza Vittorio Veneto in the Piano.

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.

This is a close up of a couple of cave dwellings in the Casalnuovo area. This area was in very poor condition in the 50s. Nowadays everything is being renovated.
Cave houses in the Casalnuovo area looked a lot shabbier in the 50s than they do now.

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.

This photo shows a cave in the Murgia Timone area. In the background, Matera under an amazing sunset sky.
From simple cave dwellings to an entire city carved in rock, Matera has a fascinating history.

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.

This image shows the view to the Duomo of Matera and the Sassi from Belvedere Luigi Guerricchio at Piazza Vittorio Veneto.
View from Belvedere Luigi Guerricchio

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.
This image shows the view to the Sassi and the ravine from Sant’Agostino Church.
View from Sant’Agostino Church

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.

This photo shows one of the countless narrow alleys in Matera Old Town.
Time stands still in Matera’s maze of narrow streets.

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.

This image shows people walking along Madonna delle Virtù Street.
Madonna delle Virtù Street

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.

This is an image of Maria happily standing on a rock at Murgia Timone.
Maria having a Leonardo-I’m-the-king-of-the-world moment at Murgia Timone.

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.

This image shows a panoramic view of Matera from the Belvedere at Murgia Timone.
Spectacular view of Matera from Murgia Timone.

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.

This image shows a spectacular sunset over Matera as seen from the Belvedere at Murgia Timone. It is a panoramic view of Matera and the sky is dramatic with all hues of red and yellow alongside grey and black clouds.
Amazing sunset over Matera as seen from the Belvedere at Murgia Timone.

Apart from the views, Murgia Timone also offers excellent opportunities for long walks in a superb natural setting.

This image shows a hiking path at Murgia Timone. In the background, Matera looks splendid under the cloudy sunset sky.
Murgia Timone offers excellent hiking opportunities.

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.

This image shows the silhouettes of a group of people standing on a rock at Murgia Timone under a dramatic cloudy sky.
Many people choose to spend an afternoon walking around Murgia Timone.

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.

This image shows Matera at dawn. The red colour of the sunrise reflects on the Duomo and other buildings.
Sunrise and its stunning colours in Matera.

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.

This image shows the entrance to the Palombaro Lungo, Matera's impressive water cistern. The different colours on the walls indicate the various levels the water reached when the cistern was still in operation.
The impressive interior of the Palombaro Lungo.

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.

This image shows the interior of the kitchen at La Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario. The kitchen is tiny and all cooking utensils hang from the walls. There are shelves carved on the cave wall.
The kitchen in La Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario.

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.

This image shows the facade of San Pietro Barisano along with its bell tower. This is one of the most interesting rupestrian churches in Matera.
San Pietro Barisano

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€.

This image shows the complex of Santa Maria de Idris and San Giovanni in Monterrone churches. The churches are built atop Monterrone Cliff and provide an imposing spectacle in Matera Old Town.
The complex of Santa Maria de Idris and San Giovanni in Monterrone churches.

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.

This image shows the beautiful facade of San Giovanni Battista church.
San Giovanni Battista

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.

This image shows a typical dish of Matera, the cialledda materana salad. It is made of tomatoes, local cheese, olives and stale bread.
Delicious cialledda materana at Vicolo Cieco.

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.

This photo shows two glasses of Aglianico wine (one red, one white) with a platter of cold cuts and cheese at Vicolo Cieco in Matera.
Aglianico del Vulture wine at Vicolo Cieco.

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.

This image shows Via Ridola in Matera. The pedestrianised street is lined with beautiful old buildings. There are people walking along the street or sitting at the outdoor cafes.
Vibrant Via Ridola

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.

This image shows the beautiful terrace at La Corte dei Pastori B&B in Matera. The terrace has magnificent views to the Duomo of Matera and the Sassi.
The gorgeous view from the terrace of La Corte dei Pastori.

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.

This image shows the breakfast at La Corte dei Pastori. There is orange juice, croissants and yoghurt. In the background, San Pietro Caveoso and the Sassi.
Breakfast with a view!

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.

Book your cave room at La Corte dei Pastori now!

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.

This image shows a very large and elaborate cucu’. It is painted in many vivid colours. In the background, the spectacular views to the Sassi of Matera.
This unique cucu’ was handmade with love by Mimmo’s father.
A cherished object for Tiziana and Mimmo’s family.

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.

This image shows cucus of various sizes, colours and shapes. This is Tiziana's collection of cucus. The cucus are on display at the reception area of La Corte dei Pastori B&B.
Tiziana’s creations on display at La Corte dei Pastori.

See one of the world’s most impressive ancient towns through the eyes of a local!
Book one of the best guided tours in Matera now!

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.

This is a night shot of Matera. The duomo dominates the evening sky while the other buildings are all dimly lit.
Matera at night is irresistible.

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.

This is a photo of Madonna delle Virtù Street. There is a blue Piaggio Ape on the street.
The charming Piaggio Ape may be the only vehicle allowed in Matera Old Town.

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.

This is an image of San Pietro Caveoso and the complex of Santa Maria de Idris and San Giovanni in Monterrone churches.
Sites like San Pietro Caveoso and the complex of Santa Maria de Idris and San Giovanni in Monterrone churches can only be reached on foot.

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.

This photo shows 2 Aperol Spritz cocktails on a table. In the background, the spectacular view to the Sassi of Matera.
No matter where you choose to eat in Matera, don’t miss the chance to enjoy an Aperol Spritz or three with the best view!

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.

This is an image of Madonna delle Virtù Street without a single person.
Enjoy the silence in Matera while it lasts.

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.

This is an image of Katerina and Maria with their backs turned to the camera. They are sitting on a roch at Murgia Timone admiring the view of Matera across the ravine. The sky is dramatic with the rays of the sun mingling with grey clouds. It is almost sunset.
Till we meet again, Matera!

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.

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