Matera, the City of Caves, was once a poor community that didn’t attract much attention from tourists, despite being an ancient city etched into the surrounding limestone rocks that has been populated since Palaeolithic times, some 7,000 years ago.
The residents of Matera built their homes in caves that they dug out of the landscape, which secretly conceals a network of caves, creating a troglodyte village which remains standing until this day.
The city was once known as “the shame of Italy” due to the extreme poverty and being riddled with malaria, but it emerged from obscurity in 1945, when the famous Author and Painter Carlo Levi published “Christ Stopped at Eboli” highlighting the plight of Matera’s people in his memoir.
Due to the public outcry that such poverty and squalor existed, the Matera officials re-established the townspeople in modern housing and even relocated them to other towns, and by 1950, it was fully evacuated, leaving the city was walled up and forgotten.
In the 1980s, a group of the political class decided to restore the Sassi and their work brought the attention of UNESCO to Matera, in 1993 it was named a UNESCO Heritage Site.
This magical city transports you to another era and is so similar to settlements found in the Holy Land that the town has been used in numerous films and TV series as a backdrop for Jerusalem. The most famous being Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” which propelled Matera into the public eye.
Tourists started to flock to Matera to explore their winding alleyways and rustic cave dwellings and the tide has turned for this city so much that this year it was voted the European Capital of Culture 2019. Matera is the perfect example of a city that has thrived and flourished due to tourism and is now one of Italy’s hidden gems.
The city is incredible for history buffs and there are plenty of churches, grottoes and convents that go back as far as the middle ages. There are now charming cave restaurants, cave cafes and you can even sleep inside one of the rustic cave houses for an unforgettable experience.
This ultimate travel guide to Matera will show you all the most beautiful places in Matera, what to expect when visiting, where to stay in Matera and things to do in Matera which will help you in planning a trip to Matera.
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How to get to Matera
Matera by air: Fly into Bari’s main airport and from there you can find an airport shuttle that takes you directly to Matera, prices start from only €3.
Matera by bus: There are various services connecting major cities with Matera, from Rome, Pisa, Siena or Florence there are services running with the Marozzi and Liscio buses. Matera is also connected to Bologna and Petruzzi bus lines runs a regular service.
From Milan, Bologna, Naples and Ancona you can take Marino Buses. All the various bus companies have differing prices for their services and it’s best to use a free booking app such as GO EURO where you can find the best prices for travelling from one city to another.
Matera by train: The most convenient way to get to Matera is to take the train from the city of Bari, the journey is very fast and cheap, costing only €5 for the hour and a half journey.
Matera by car: You can fly to Naples and drive to Matera, a four-hour drive from the city. There are car rental places at Naples airport.
What to expect in Matera
Matera is a sprawling Italian city which is composed of the Sassi, or historic centre, and the more modernised outskirts. In the centre there are many winding alleyways and stairs and the city requires a lot of walking. A pair of good walking shoes or comfortable trainers is a must.
Electricity is a standard 230 Volts in Italy and there is a three pronged socket that will probably require an adaptor. It is advisable to bring an extra camera battery or battery pack for exploring the city so that you won’t be caught out without any battery after wandering around the city.
The language spoken is Italian and the currency is the Euro. English is spoken in some more touristy hotels and restaurants, but a lot of people in the city don’t speak much English.
Hiring a local guide, using google translate and having a local map handy is a great way to help you get around the city if you don’t speak Italian. People are helpful and your hotel or restaurant and bar staff may be willing to help you if you require.
Matera is not an expensive destination and a meal costs around €20 per person, entrance to museums and churches only cost a few Euro, whilst there are many free places to explore in the Sassi.
For budget travellers, you can make do with a daily budget of around €100 including food and accommodation, for midrange budgets it is advisable to budget up to €250 per day. Since the rise of Matera due to its fame in movies, prices for cave hotels have increased significantly but there are still some hidden gems under €100 per night.
Tipping is common in Italy despite a service charge, or “coperto” being included in the bill, it is usual to tip around 10 – 15% of the bill.
Matera is growing into a booming tourist destination but has not yet reached peak popularity as yet, there are some tourist buses that come in for a daytrip, these usually depart by lunchtime so the city is quieter in the afternoon and evening if you want to avoid the crowds.
Staying in Matera itself will allow you more freedom and flexibility to take your time to explore in the quieter periods of the day.
How to get around Matera
Matera is a great city for exploring on foot, as there are plenty of hidden alleys and winding stairways that mean that you will be exhausted after a day’s walk around the city.
There are some sights that are worth visiting a little further out of the city and the easiest way to reach them is by car. There are some car rentals in Matera itself if you prefer to rent just for the day.
A public bus service runs from Matera to connect it with local points of interest. Alternatively, you can also hire a taxi to get around the city itself, there are several agencies which you can call ahead to book your taxi and your hotel, or restaurants may be more than happy to call and arrange a taxi for you as not everyone speaks English.
In fact, most taxi drivers don’t speak English so a map or google translate will be sure to come in handy!
The best time to visit Matera
Italy is best visited in the springtime and autumn. In the summer, the temperatures tend to be high and the city can be humid and sweltering.
The benefit of the cave dwellings is that caves often maintain cooler temperatures in the summer and keep in the warmth in the winter.
The best time to visit Matera is in early autumn, from September to October, when prices for accommodation are slightly cheaper. Summer is often the most expensive time to visit.
Things to do in Matera
Learn about the history of Matera at Casa Noha
For a brief introduction to the tragic and inspiring history of the Sassi, head to Casa Noha which is a small museum run by local families which have a 25-minute-long multimedia exhibit about the history of the city.
The price is only €5 per person and you will gain greater insight into the city and its often tragic history before heading off to explore on foot.
Lose yourself in the Sassi
The historic centre of the Sassi is divided into two sections, the Sassi Barisano and Sassi Caveoso, the neighbourhood is best explored on foot and it is possible to spend an entire day losing yourself in the historic alleyways and discovering the winding paths of the city.
You can discover little havens of paradise in the hidden courtyards with vibrant cacti and the higher you ascend, the more spectacular the views. Walking around, you can feel like a time traveller and you can discover the two sides of the Sassi.
Sassi Barisano is more developed for tourism and there are cafes, hotels restaurants and plenty of trendy places to discover, whilst in the Sassi Caveoso you can discover the more historic buildings of the city.
Some of these caves have been closed to visitors due to safety concerns but you can still catch a glimpse of life in another time by wandering around this area of the historic centre.
Visit the Matera Cathedral
Matera boasts a stunning 13th century cathedral that can be found at the highest vantage point of Matera at Civitas Hill, straddling both neighbourhoods of Sassi.
The cathedral has undergone significant restoration which lasted over ten years and has only recently opened to the public. From the cathedral you can take in the spectacular views over the sprawling city.
Frescoes, frescoes and more frescoes
There are many churches to explore in Matera, most of which are Rupestrian churches. These churches have been built into the surrounding stone and are home to stunning frescoes.
The most notable churches and convents include: Convento Di Sant’Agostino, Chiesa Rupestre di Santa Lucia Alle Malve, Chiesa di Santa Maria di Idris and San Giovannni, Convincio di Sant’Antonio and more.
A window into the past at Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario
Casa Grotta offers an insight into life in one of the traditional cave houses of Matera. Here you can see how locals once lived until the 1950s!
The house has a collection of artifacts including furniture and tools from Matera’s past and entrance only costs €3 per person.
Visit a lookout point
The city is best seen from a high vantage point and aside from the spectacular views from Matera cathedral you can find numerous areas of the city that will reward you with breathtaking panoramas.
Another favourite is the Convent of Saint Augustino where you can see some spectacular views of the city.
Modern art at Musma
Matera has its own museum of modern art which was refurbished from a cave palace built in the 17th century. An entrance ticket only costs €5 per person.
Explore the Palaeolithic caves
From Sassi you can explore the caves that date back to over 7,000 years ago! To get there you can cross the ravine on foot.
The path starts just next to Via Modonna della Virtù, where you can cross a hanging bridge that crosses the river and take any of the small hiking paths upwards, the best times to go are very early in the morning or late afternoon to avoid the heat, good walking shoes and drinking water should be carried with you on the hike.
What to eat in Matera
Small pasta shapes made from semolina are a traditional favourite in Matera, and served up with vegetables or mushrooms.
Some of the best Cucina Povera, or poor man’s cuisine can be found at La Finestra Sui Sassi, where you can taste some down-to-earth Materan cuisine.
This traditional pork sausage is seasoned with pepperoncino, fennel, salt and pepper and comes from pigs that live in the region and have been made following a traditional recipe since Roman times.
The Materans love their cold deli meats and the best place to try a dish of the local specialties is the Trattoria del Caveoso, a cave restaurant that offers thin, buttery, melt-in-your mouth slices of local meats.
This crusty and famous Italian bread is made from durum wheat, the bread is still made following the ancient baking process and is a perfect accompaniment to local cheeses and sausages.
Peperone di Senise
In the Basilicata region, the vibrant red Senise pepper is the star of the show. It is used in most of the cooking and most sauces will have a hint of this sun-dried pepper.
It is often preserved and even served with meat or grilled. Be sure to try the Peperoni Cruschi, peppers fried in aromatic olive oil and served up as a small snack.
A fantastic restaurant is San Biagio on Via San Biagio, 12, where you can watch the sunset on the terrace and enjoy local dishes flavoured with the famous Senise peppers.
The Basilicata region is said to be the origin of over ten different types of pasta shapes including the “Orecchiette” or “little ears” and there are wonderful restaurants in Matera where you can try the different pastas.
One of the best is Il Cantucchio, Via delle Beccherie, 33, which only has 10 tables so booking several days in advance is a must! The orrechiette here is some of the best you’ll taste and they have excellent slow food such as braised rabbit.
If you need something to keep you going whilst you are exploring the city head to Piada, Via Della Beccherie, 45, and pick up the ultimate street food, the Piada.
This is a sandwich made of flat bread and other forms resemble a type of stuffed bread or pizza. This street food is served up with a variety of fresh local ingredients including the local meat, eggplant, cheeses always with a sprinkling of oregano and a drizzle of local olive oil.
Where to stay in Matera
If you come to Matera, where should you stay other than a cave hotel? Here are some of the very best to suit every budget (and a hostel if a cave hotel is beyond your budget) including Airbnb:
The Rock Hostel – This hostel is the perfect budget solution to stay in the heart of Sassi with shared bathrooms and lockers.
L’Hotel in Pietra – This charming budget hotel is built upon an ancient Rupestrian church, the reception area was once an altar and there are views out onto the historic city. The hotel also offers a parking service for an additional fee.
The hotel staff are friendly and there is a gorgeous terrace where you can enjoy the views. The rooms also have unique period features, room 1004 has an original stone bath, whilst room 1003 has an underground hot tub!
As is typical in a cave house, the rooms are prone to dampness but they try to rectify it with dehumidifiers.
Il Palazzotto Residence & Winery – This hotel was built in a 16th century noble residence carved into the limestone caves and is a great spa hotel with massages and beauty treatments in your room and regular wine tastings and cooking lessons.
Rooms combine the modern and the traditional with a minimalistic atmosphere, if you book upstairs you can enjoy spectacular views from a Juliet balcony and sleep underneath a wooden vaulted ceiling.
Palazzo Viceconte Matera – This hotel is built on the site of a Palazzo, or aristocratic residence, and you can feel as if you are staying in a regal palace decorated with elegant chandeliers, antiques and paintings.
The hotel boasts 14 regal rooms which are sumptuously decorated and perfect for a romantic getaway, you can also have massage treatments in your room and parking for €18 per day.
The stunning hotel bar has a terrace overlooking Matera and there is a buffet breakfast included in the price.
Tours to do in Matera
Learn how to make traditional poor man’s cuisine in a wonderful three-hour cooking class. This hands –on class will give you the opportunity to learn how to make pasta from scratch and enjoy a tasting of the meals that you create accompanied with the local wine.
The class is hosted in the home of the chef and she will teach you about the local ingredients and experience the best of Matera’s hearty cuisine.
This two-hour guided tour will take you to explore the attractions of Matera including the Church of San Pietro Caveoso, Palazzo Lanfranchi, the cave houses and even where “The Passion of the Christ” was filmed. This guided tour will give you depth and insight into the incredible city of Matera.
Day trips from Matera
The Stunning Baroque Bari is only 1 hour 10 minutes by car from Matera and is also accessible by bus.
The beautiful coastal city is an important Roman Catholic pilgrimage destination who come to visit the cathedral di San Sabino and the Basilica of San Nicola. There is also a Norman castle that has stood in Bari since the 1100s which can be explored.
The most enchanting part of Bari is its old town, where you can get lost in the cobblestone streets and discover the city on foot.
As this is a coastal city you can wander the seafront promenade called Lungomare Nazario Sauro and take in the sea air and the local atmosphere.
There is even a golden-sand beach just east of the historic centre called Lido San Francesco to enjoy a swim and sunbathe amidst the locals.
Lecce is a beautiful city with a wealth of historical sights situated just over two hours’ drive from Matera, amongst them a beautiful Baroque Basilica of Santa Croce and the impressive 17th century Cathedral.
There are several charming squares such as the Piazza del Duomo and the Piazza Sant’Oronzo where you can take in the monuments and Baroque architecture.
At the Piazza Sant’Oronzo you can find the Roman Amphitheatre which dates back to the 2nd century AD, here you can go on a guided tour and get a feel for what this amphitheatre must have been like in Roman times.
Lecce also has its own defensive fortified castle that was constructed in the 16th century when Charles V ruled.
As Lecce was once part of the defensive network of the coastal cities of Italy, Porto Napoli is one of the relics of its network and you can appreciate the majesty of the fortifications.
Recommend budget tours in Matera
- Discover Matera Walking Tour
- Guided Tour Sassi di Matera: Sasso Caveoso and Civita
- Italian Hands-on Private Cooking Class in Matera
- Full-Day Tour of Matera
- Matera Hot Air Balloon Tour
- Miglionico tour: Castle and Polyptych will surprise you
- Tricarico walking tour: the Arab-Norman town
- Crypt of Original Sin tour with transfer
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