I had previously visited Matera on a day trip during my road trip through Puglia but had only stayed a few hours. I’ve since come back to the Jerusalem of Italy and stayed a few nights more just because I loved it so much the first time. Matera is a one of a kind place in a country filled with one of a kind places. It’s unique to the point that other Italian cities and villages look almost routine.
Located in the province of Basilicata (bordering Puglia), this UNESCO World Heritage sight was also named The European city of Culture in 2019. I think Matera just might be Italy’s most beautiful and most fascinating city. That’s a bold statement to make when you have other incredible places in nearby Puglia, Tuscany, Sicily, Lake Como, Piedmont, and much more. The stone houses blend in perfectly with the rocky cliffs its built upon and the whole city looks like something out of a fairy tale novel.
History of Matera
To visit Matera without understanding the extensive history of the city is to not visit the city at all. Seriously though, the history of Matera is absolutely fascinating. It’s considered the third oldest continuously inhabited city in the world behind Aleppo and Jericho.
The city of Matera dates back to the early Bronze age in 2,500 BC during the time of the Egyptian empire. Settlements during these times were mostly found the in rock caves nearby. Over the centuries, every empire has had their influence on the city including the Greeks, Romans, Moors, Franks, Byzantines, Spanish and more.
The area around Matera is famous for its incredible deposits of natural limestone which the early inhabitants of the city used to carve out cave style dwellings. The houses you see in the city now are structures built on top of these rock caves over many generations. The saying in Matera goes that you’re probably walking on someone’s rooftop any direction you go.
Modern history of Matera
The modern history of Matera is probably its most fascinating (at least to me). After WW2, Matera was in an incredibly impoverished and terrible state as it was dubbed the “shame of Italy”. Throughout the latter of half of the 20th century, Matera was known for its crime, disease, general neglect of its infrastructure, and just a place that no one wanted to visit.
It wasn’t until the early 2000s when the movie “The Passion of the Christ” starring Mel Gibson was filmed in Matera. This brought international attention and fame to the city which kicked off an incredible renaissance of sorts for the city.
Yes, Mel Gibson essentially saved the city of Matera and is now one of their biggest heroes (no joke).
The city saw massive investment and restoration of its buildings, streets, and homes. Tourism became an increasingly large part of the economy and the city saw a major rebirth of sorts. Within Italy, it was still not a major draw as it is now.
In 2014, the European City of Culture committee was to meet for its 2019 selection (since these are always voted on 5 years in advance). The committee was made up of 5 Italians and 10 foreigners. The Italians all voted for other cities like Sienna and Ravenna to occupy the spot but the foreigners unanimously selected Matera. Once again, foreigners saved Matera.
In those 5 years, Matera saw major restoration and development and it has since blossomed into one of Italy’s major tourist draws. The latest James Bond film “No Time To Die” was filmed in Matera which cemented itself as a must visit city in Italy. Nowadays, Matera is beautifully preserved, clean, safe, and definitely somewhere you won’t want to miss.
Private Tour with Alessio Leardi
I took a private tour of Matera with two of my friends which I can highly recommend. There are no free walking tours of Matera unfortunately so this is the next best option in my opinion. Alessio was a very good guide and really understood the history of Matera old and new.
The best part is that he actually grew up in the Sasso of Matera. Yes, he grew up in the stone houses that you walk through and wonder to yourself, are these real residences? Alessio actually grew up in these houses in the 80s which was a time of severe poverty, crime, and incredible neglect. The streets of the old city of Matera was run down, dirty, crime ridden, and a place where drugs were free-flowing.
When you see the beautiful stone faced facade and perfectly manicured cobblestone streets, it’s hard to imagine a time that this city wasn’t so perfect and beautiful.
I really loved learning about his experiences living and growing up in Matera which is definitely something you wouldn’t know if you didn’t understand the history from a local!
What to do in Matera
The old town of Matera, or the Sasso/Sassi Di Matera is what you see in all the famous Instagram photos and it’s what you’re going to be spending all of your time in. Again, this beautiful city was considered a slum not more than 25 years ago and almost all of Matera lived in the modern parts of the city. Therefore, when we talk about Matera, we almost exclusively refer to the Sassi di Matera.
Matera is divided into two parts: Sasso Barisano and Sasso Coveoso. The Sasso Barisano is so named as such because it faces Bari, while the Sasso Caveoso looks south, towards Montescaglioso. There is one main road that goes through both Sasso’s and the road meanders around the outside of the two main areas with views of the valley.
Wander aimlessly through the streets of Matera
Matera is not a small city so you can expect to walk a half hour from one end of the old town to the other. There are numerous viewpoints, beautiful alleyways, stone stairways, churches, and of course rocks. The city vaguely gives me reminders of Berat, Albania but really there’s nothing similar to this town in Europe.
Simply walk through the small streets and discover something new at every turn. Matera has some incredible viewpoints and photo opportunities which will be surely surpassed by another viewpoint that you discover minutes later.
What to see in the Sasso Barisano
The Sasso Barisano is the larger and more central of the two , as well as the one with the more urban aspect because the caves are not visible from the outside, but always hidden inside the houses. The perfect viewpoint of Sasso Barisano is from the top of the town in front of the Duomo, or the Cattedrale di Maria Santissima.
As with both Sasso, the main name of the game is just to walk around and immerse yourself in the beautiful streets of Matera. You can spend hours just getting lost in the cobblestone streets and admiring the views in front of you.
- Church of San Pietro Barisano : the largest of the rupestrian churches of Matera, as well as one of the most evocative which is one of the must visit places of Barisano.
- Church of San Nicola dei Greci and Madonna delle Virtù : large monumental complex consisting of a network of dozens of caves, which during the year of Matera European Capital of Culture hosted the exhibition dedicated to Dalì .
- Church of Sant’Agostino : one of the most recent religious buildings in Matera, built around the sixteenth century. The exterior is characterized by an imposing late Baroque facade, while the interior retains frescoes, stone decorations and the access to the rock church of San Giuliano. Not to be missed, the view on the Gravina.
- Sassi in Miniatura : artisan workshop that houses a meticulous reproduction of Matera and its characteristic houses in a space of 12 square meters. Admission is free .
- Casa Grotta in Via Fiorentini : by paying the symbolic amount of € 2.00 you can cross the threshold of one of the typical houses of Matera and discover how and where families lived with their animals.
Sasso Coveoso is also the more iconic of the two areas. The view from my hotel at Il Belvedere offers a perfect view of the this Sasso with the beautiful Duomo at the peak. The viewpoint at Belvedere di Piazza Giovannia Pascoli is probably one of the most iconic views of the city and perfect for picture opportunities.
Three of the most significant rupestrian churches of Matera are located in the Sasso Caveoso and can be visited with the purchase of a single ticket managed by the Oltre l’Arte Cooperative ; with € 7.00 each (prices updated to 2019) you can enter:
- Church of San Pietro Caveoso : overlooking the square of the same name, it is the only church in the Sassi not to be excavated in the calcarenite – the material of marine origin from which the houses of Matera are made – and to overlook the Gravina.
- Church of Santa Maria de Idris : one of the most beautiful, particular and fascinating in Matera. Dug into the side of Monte Errone or Monte Idris, on the outside it offers a privileged point of view on the Gravina, the Civita and the Cathedral; while inside there is a Madonna and Child from the 17th century which, if you look closely, hides frescoes from previous eras underneath.
- Church of Santa Lucia alle Malve : built in the 8th century to house a Benedictine convent for women only, it develops in 3 naves and on the walls it preserves frescoes from the 12th century.
Murgia Park Viewpoint
One of the best things to do in Matera is to hike to the national park across the canyon. There is a small cable bridge that connects the hill that Matera is located on to the national park across the river.
The hike is an easy 1h round trip hike that will allow you to visit numerous caves from many thousand years ago until you finally reach the top of the hill and you’re greeted with incredible views of the Sasso di Coveoso.
I highly recommend doing this hike for sunset and watching the colors shine off the beautiful stone buildings of Matera. Alternatively, you can also drive from the city center to the Murgia viewpoint in 20 minutes.
Best time to visit Matera
Matera can be visited year round but the general tourist season runs from May until October. The weather is warm and enjoyable during the summer months but the crowds are also much greater. Expect loads of tourists from Italy and other European countries during these months. August is generally a month to avoid in Italy as everyone travels under the scorching sun.
Therefore, I think the best time to visit Matera are in September-October, as well as May-June. You can expect to pay cheaper prices during the shoulder months for accommodation.
You don’t want to visit too much in the off season as the town is too empty and so many of the restaurants will be closed. Matera’s main industry is tourism after all.
How to get to Matera
Matera is best visited by car especially on a road trip through Puglia. The closest airports to fly to are Bari which is 1 hour away by car.
Naples is also another feasible option being 2.5h away by car. Finally, Rome is a 6h drive from Matera which is perfect for those coming from far away and are doing a greater Italy road trip.
There isn’t much parking available inside the city center of Matera given that it is so old. You will have to find parking lots outside of the main area and walk to your accommodation. Some of the higher end hotels will offer shuttle service from their parking lot of choice to the hotel.
Bus to Matera
From the Puglian capital of Bari, there are numerous buses and even day trips that visit Matera. Companies like Flixbus, Marino Bus, and ItaBus make multiple daily trips between the two cities. It’s also an easy bus ride from Naples (2.5h) with Flixbus. There are no trains to Matera whatsoever.
From the Matera bus station, you can walk to the Sasso in 25 minutes or take a taxi for 10-15 Euros (As of 2022).
How to get around Matera
The best way to get around Matera is by foot. There is one main cobblestone road that runs through the old part of the city which allows for cars and scooters but the rest of the town is just stone roads and stairs which means walking is the only way to get around.
You won’t need to see any of the new part of Matera because there’s nothing special about it so you will spend all of your time in the Sassi di Matera.
Where to stay in Matera
There is no shortage of beautiful accommodation options in Matera. Over the years, Matera has become a sort of premium travel destination so you won’t find many hostels or budget style accommodations in the old city center. Conversely, because Matera was such a decrepit place only a few decades ago, there are not many locals living in the Sassi at all. It costs a lot of money to refurbish and renovate the old houses of the Sassi to a modern living standard. Therefore, the ones you do see are primarily hotels and Airbnbs.
Many of the hotels in Matera have at least some of the original cave as part of the hotel so you can get a feel of how people used to live (in a very luxurious way of course).
Stay at the Il Belvedere hotel
I stayed at the Il Belvedere hotel which was located on the outskirts of the Sasso di Coveoso. It had absolutely stunning and unobstructed views of the Sasso which I was able to enjoy from the patio every morning while eating breakfast.
I stayed in a single room with a single bed which was very affordable for a single traveler looking for a slightly upscale experience. They have larger rooms for couples and families all with remnants of the caves built in the past. Just look at these views!
For an ultra luxury experience, stay at the Sextantio hotel which is the ultimate in cave dwelling. The hotel is literally built into the caves and the rooms feel almost completely untouched from their original material. There is also a beautiful terrace that overlooks the valley and national park.
Where to eat in Matera
There are no shortage of amazing restaurants to eat traditional Italian food in the city. Make sure to try the local Orecchiette style pasta that is from nearby Puglia as well as the numerous meat dishes the region is famous for. Make sure to make reservations during the high season especially if you want outdoor seating!
- Osteria Al Casale
- Restaurante Le Bubbole
- Agriristories Ristorante Tipico Matera
- La Lopa
Where to have drinks in Matera
No proper Italian trip is complete without engaging in the daily ritual of aperitivo, or pre dinner drinks. Aperol Spritz is the drink of choice when you’re in Italy so make sure to grab an amazing cocktail while enjoying views of the sunset.
There are endless bars, cafes, and restaurants where you can grab an aperitivo. For the most high end bar with the ultimate view, head over to the Quarry Lounge in Sasso di Coveoso. This terrace offers incredible views of the city and is perfect for taking pictures.
Area 8 is my favorite place to grab cocktails and drinks before and after drinks. They have a great vibe located on the cobblestone steps of the Sassi and there’s always a great vibe to the place. On weekend nights, they even have a DJ but the music is never overwhelming.
- Visiting Beautiful Berat, Albania: The Town Of A Thousand Windows
- Houghton Views Review: The Perfect Camps Bay, Cape Town Hotel
- The Absolute Most Beautiful Villages Along The Mosel River, Germany
- Hotel Review For The Park Hyatt Zanzibar: Luxury In Stone Town
- Visiting Cochem And The Mosel Wine Region Of Germany
- Visiting Beautiful Toledo, Spain: Top Things To Do And Best Places To Eat
- The Top 10 Most Beautiful Attractions In Montenegro
- The Ultimate Guide To Visiting Lake Bled, Slovenia
- The Perfect One Day And Two Day Itinerary for Zurich, Switzerland
- The Ultimate Montenegro Coastal Itinerary: Budva, Bar, Kotor, Ulcinj
- Visiting Thessaloniki: The Culinary Capital Of Greece
- The Perfect Travel Guide For Freiburg im Breisgau