Matera, one of the world’s oldest permanently inhabited cities, is a fascinating place to visit. Its two picturesque sassi districts, with houses built in natural caves or dug into the soft limestone, date from prehistoric times and were used as housing until the 1950’s when residents, many living in poverty, were relocated. Most of the houses were abandoned but today many have been restored and some have been made into vacation houses, hotels, shops, or restaurants. Several Rupestrian churches are open to the public and you can see typical cave houses furnished as they would have been when they were inhabited.
- For a good introduction, book the Discover Matera Walking Tour through Viator, a 2-hour guided tour of a sassi district with visit to a cave dwelling and church as well as Matera’s Baroque historic center.
The sassi of Matera is one of Italy’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, inscribed as the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region. Matera has been chosen to be one of the two European Capitals of Culture in 2019 and I’ve included it in my recommended places to visit in 2017. Because of its similarity to Jerusalem, several movies have been filmed in the sassi including Mel Gibson’s, The Passion of the Christ.
Where to Stay in Matera
Matera is beautiful at night and staying in one of the cave hotels in the sassi is a unique experience. One of the top cave hotels is Sextantio Le Grotte Della Civita. I stayed at Locanda di San Martino Hotel and Spa, with comfortable rooms in a renovated church and cave dwellings, with an unusual thermal pool. Just above the sassi, I stayed at the 3-star Albergo Italia where my room had a great view of the sassi and cliffs.
What to See in Matera
The sassi districts are an unusual sight when viewed from above and are fascinating to explore on foot. The more modern city, dating from around the 13th century, is a lively and interesting place with churches, museums, big public squares, and a walking area with cafes, restaurants, and shops.
- The sassi districts are Matera’s top attraction. View points to look out over the sassi in the upper town near Piazza Vittorio Veneto and Piazza Sedile and stairways near them leading into the two sassi districts, Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso, separated by a ravine. Walk down along the narrow, winding streets lined with cave houses to you arrive at the church of San Pietro Caveoso at the bottom. From there you’ll have views of the sassi above, the ravine below, and cliffs across the canyon dotted with caves.
- Rupestrian Churches were used by monks as early as the 7th century. Several of the ancient cave churches are open to the public (admission charges apply) and some have centuries-old frescoes and carvings. One of the best places to visit is the Complex of Madonna delle Virtù e San Nicola dei Greci.
- Matera’s 13th century Romanesque cathedral is dedicated to Santa Maria della Bruna, who is celebrated in a fantastic festival on July 2 each year that culminates with an amazing fireworks show over the sassi, a really beautiful sight. The cathedral’s interior is primarily decorated in 18th century Baroque style but there’s a Byzantine style 14th century fresco of the Last Judgement.
- Piazza Vittorio Veneto is a lively square with several churches and cafes, Roman remains, and a fountain that sometimes has a colored light display at night. Via del Corso is a main shopping street from the square to Piazza San Francesco and Piazza Sedile. Under the square is a huge cistern, the second largest after Istanbul’s famous Basilica Cistern, that can be visited.
- The Church of San Giovanni Battista is a Romanesque church whose interior still retains its Romanesque features. Several other interesting churches are scattered around the city.
- Museums include a Museum of Peasant Culture, the Domenico Ridola National Museum of Archaeology, Palazzo Lanfranchi modern art museum, and the Museum of Contemporary Sculpture, housed in Palazzo Pomarici and underground caves.
- Take a hands-on private cooking class in Matera in the kitchen of a local chef. You’ll prepare 4 typical dishes, then sit down to enjoy the meal including wine and coffee.
- The Festa della Madonna Bruna is a spectacular festival held on July 2.
- Itinerary: Matera and Craco in 48 Hours
- More photos and places to visit: Matera: Going Under
How to Get to Matera
Matera is in the Basilicata region, the instep of the boot, near the border of Puglia. The closest airport is Bari, n Puglia, about an hour away. Some shuttle buses connect Matera with the airport or you can take the private rail line, Ferrovie Appulo Lucane (except Sundays and holidays) from Bari train station.
To reach Matera by train, go to Bari on the national rail line that runs along Italy’s east coast, then go out of the station and around the corner to the smaller Ferrovie Appulo Lucane station where you can buy a ticket and take a train to Matera. The train takes about 1 1/2 hour. From the Matera station you can take a bus to the Sassi area or it’s about a 20 minute walk.
Matera can also be reached by bus from nearby towns in Basilicata and Puglia and there are a few buses from some major Italian cities.
If you’re driving, take the A14 between Bologna and Taranto and exit at Bari Nord. Or from the west, follow the route to Potenza across Basilicata to Matera. There are parking garages and a few free parking lots in the modern city area. Traffic is restricted in most of the historic center.
Places to Go Near Matera
Take a Basilicata wine tour, a full-day excursion from Matera that includes a visit to Venosa to see its castle and Jewish catacombs, a stop at a winery for wine tasting, lunch at a farm house, and the castle in Melfi.
Just across the border in Puglia, visit the interesting towns of Gravina in Puglia, a smaller town with rock-cut houses and churches, and Altamura, known for its bread.