Matera, Italy is one of the most memorable cities I have ever seen in Europe, the one I would strongly recommend you to visit, if your way is passing through Southern Italy. In this post I will share my tips on things to do in Matera, restaurants and hotels worth visiting as well as a couple of ideas for some day trips from Matera.
Table of Contents
- 1 The past of Matera
- 2 What to see in Matera
- 3 Things to do in Matera, Italy
- 4 Matera accommodation
- 5 Restaurants of Matera
- 6 Getting to Matera, Italy
- 7 Day trips from Matera
The past of Matera
Matera is a town in Basilicata region of Italy with a very special story. It is an area which has been continuously inhabited since the Phaleolitic era, but during this time Matera has lived through more ups and downs than most of the world towns.
Matera is nicknamed the “cave city” or the “underground city” and when you see it, you realise why: the old town consists of building carved right in the stone in a form of cave with house facades. Forgotten by the rest of Italy and the world, Matera reached its low in the end of 1800s. For a while the town remained in deep poverty, continuing its life in almost pre-historic way: people living in caves – sassi – with no electricity or doctors, but with farm animals and chicken sharing the same cave houses.
The destiny of Matera took a sharp turn, when for one year it became a home of Italian author Carlo Levi, who spend his exile under the Fascist regime. Carlo Levi described Matera in the most vivid way in his book “Christ Stopped at Eboli”, which caused an uproar in postwar Italy. Matera was named “the shame of the Nation” and dealt in a typical tradition of those times: that is the new grey housing blocks were built and all the Sassi dwellers relocated to the new houses.
The empty caves were left alone for a while, but in the 1980s the new generation of Matera children, who grew up outside the malaria and poverty became influential adults and claimed their heritage. First hotels have welcomed guests, the churches and the cisterns were renovated, and the new restaurants prepared the traditional peasant dishes with a twist.
And now Matera is simply a destination you cannot miss, a town you for sure will remember and distinguish from the others.
What to see in Matera
Start your day in Matera in Casa Noha – a 25 minutes multimedia experience, which will tell you a story of Matera from the Paleolithic times until nowadays.
Panorama over Sassi di Matera
To get a breathtaking view of the Sassi di Matera, head to the Cathedral or further to the Monastero di Santa Lucia.
Built in the 13th century, Duomo di Matera is the highest point in Matera, so prepare for the amazing view. It is also the point which divides the two sassi of Matera.
Rupestrian churches in Matera
Rupestrian means that the churches are excavated out of the rock and built in some form of cave. There are well over 100 of those in Matera, but the main ones (and the recovered ones) are San Pietro Borisano, the Crypt of Original Sin and La Madonna de Idris.
Musma Museum of Matera
Because Matera feels so old, seeing contemporary art there feels special. Try visiting the Museum of Contemporary Sculpture Matera to get confused between the ancient and new.
View across the ravine
For a very different view, go to Monastero di Santa Lucia to look the other way – I mean, not in the direction of Matera, but out. You’ll be surprised to see rather impressive mountains with Palaeolithic caves in it and a creek below.
Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario
Visit this little museum to catch a glimpse of what the life in Matera used to look like in those not-too-old days (actually, until 1950s). Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario is a little cave house with the reconstructed furniture and household items.
Palombaro Lungo is a giant underground cistern, which used to supply the water to the city of Matera. The tour of this Matera cistern will take you around half an hour, but do check the tour times in advance, as the visiting times might be restricted during off-season time.
Things to do in Matera, Italy
Walk around the Sassi di Matera
Exploring the city on foot was one of my favourite things to do in Matera. I would suggest you to forget about all your maps, apps and guided tours and spend an hour or so just aimlessly wandering around Matera’s old town. You will most likely get lost and end up climbing very many stairs while looking for the way out, but don’t worry – it is a rather small city, so getting lost there is a safe indulgence.
When you don’t follow any route, it is easier to feel the vibe of the city, to imagine the life there now or before and to discover some beautiful angles. My highlights were friendly street cats, potted trees and a whole olive grove in someone’s stone yard.
Have a coffee with a view
Sit down for a coffee in one of those small open air cafes on the upper gallery of the city. After even a short walk up and down the stairs it was the greatest pleasure to rest my feet a bit, and it was much easier to continue the walk after a good Italian espresso.
Sleep in one of the cave hotels
A little bit expensive must-do, but worth it. After all, how many times have you slept in a designer-decorated cave? Keep in mind that many of the cave hotels have small rooms and narrow stairs, and very often – no parking lot in front of them. Pack light, so you don’t curse your luggage while bringing it to your room.
Watch the sunset and sunrise
When the dusk falls and the small lights appear Matera looks so mysterious and cosy at the same time. With so many high points in the city, you will be able to find a perfect sunset and sunrise watching spot.
Catch the view of Matera in snow
A difficult one, only for true Matera lovers. You have the biggest chance to see the snow in January, but it is very hard to know, whether it will appear. I have visited Matera in January and enjoyed a nice coffee in the sun outside without a jacket – of course, with no snow in sight. But who knows, you might be lucky?
Just 300 metres from Matera Cathedral there is a hotel called La Dimora Di Metello, combining the old caves of the building with the modern minimalist interior design.
If you want to relax and have a great wine and dinner experience right at the hotel, then Palazzotto Residence&Winery is your choice.
And for a very authentic yet chic cave-life, try Le Grotte della Civita. And even if you are not planning to live there, check them out anyway. Quite a unique hotel.
If you prefer to stay in a comfortable hotel outside the cave-like old town, then Hotel San Domenico Al Piano might be a good choice.
For amazing views and tasty breakfast stay in Hotel Sassi.
Or try sleeping in the former monastery in L’Hotel in Pietra.
There are some very decent B&Bs in Matera costing around 50 euro for the room if you book in advance. So if you are looking for something simple yet comfortable, check out Sognando Matera, Il Giardinetto or Saxum – Residenze del Caveoso.
Apartments in Matera
Would you like to try and live in Matera like a local? Then AirBnb is your friend. If it is your first time booking a flat, you can use this code to get a 25 euro off.
Restaurants of Matera
To get the taste of local dishes and products of Basilicata, check out the L’Antica Credenza in Via San Francesco.
To enjoy a good Neapolitan pizza (after all, Naples is not that far), head to Oi Mari’ in Via Fiorentini 66.
For a modern take on traditional food, visit Soul Kitchen in Via Casalnuovo 27.
Getting to Matera, Italy
The nearest airport to Matera, Italy is located in Bari. It is also conveniently served by many low cost companies, so this could be a great budget destination with really amazing surroundings to explore.
The regional train from Bari to Matera leaves from Bari Central Station, but from a different location than the rest of the trains (the upstairs platform). It is rather easy to find, but do allow yourself some 10 minutes in order to surely find it.
The train ride takes around 1 hour 50 minutes. You can check the train timetable here.
Day trips from Matera
If you decide to make Matera your base for exploring the region, here are some must-visit destinations nearby.
Alberobello – the home of Trulli. Yes, the region is full of very unique architectural styles.
Polignano a Mare – Remember the song “Volare, Cantare”? This town is the home of this song. A little pearl by the sea with one of the most beautiful beach views. More information about Polignano a Mare.
Bari – the biggest town nearby, great for shopping, some mid-sized city life, galleries and restaurants. More information about Bari, Italy.
Ostuni – A stunning white city by the blue Adriatic sea.
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