A Short Guide to Matera, Italy | The City of Caves

Whether you've got a day or a long weekend, here is what to see and all the best things to do in Matera, Italy as well as where to stay, where to eat and how to get there.


We weren't supposed to make it to Matera. After all, we were on a Puglia road trip; heading into the remote region of Basilicata was going out of our way.

And yet, when one learns the story of Matera, it becomes a place that you simply have to visit. 

This remarkable city, the third oldest continually inhabited in the world, that once held so much sorrow, is perhaps one of the most fascinating we have ever visited. 

Carved into the rock, Matera is composed of a network of caves inhabited since the Paleolithic era. Unknown to much of Italy, the city hid a society living in poverty; malaria was rife and families lived alongside their animals within the caves as a recently as the 1950s. Exposed and brought out of obscurity by the memoirs of Carlo Levi, the government passed a law forcing all residents into the modern buildings, which today forms the 'new Matera'.

In these dark holes I saw a few pieces of miserable furniture, beds and some ragged clothes hanging up to dry. On the floor lay dogs, sheep, goats and pigs… Children appeared from everywhere, in the dust and heat, stark naked or in rags, eyelids red and swollen… and with the wizened faces of old men, yellow and worn with malaria, their bodies reduced by starvation to skeletons… I have never in all my life seen such a picture of poverty.
— Carlo Levi

'Old' Matera however has come a long way in the intervening 70 years. Today, it is a place to stroll in the sun, marvel at the architecture, fall in love and gain a sense of all that is wonderful about southern Italy. From its position as "the shame of Italy", next year it will be crowned the European City of Culture. And the caves, once pits of squalor, are now sought after boutique accommodation.

It is for this reason that we were so relieved to have visited Matera before the secret is fully let out. Popular with Italian tourists for the last decade, this ancient city remains relatively unknown to foreign visitors, and when wandering the streets it is still the sing-song lilt of the local language that you will hear.

In the next few years, that is certain to change so enjoy the chance to get lost in a city of improbable beauty and tradition, where tourism has not yet taken over, whose history can be traced back further than almost any other place known to man.

A short guide / things to do in Matera, Italy
A short guide / things to do in Matera, Italy

Things to do in Matera

Gain and insight at Casa Noha

Touted as the thing you absolutely must do before visiting the Sassi of Matera (literally meaning stone, but best translated as 'districts'), distracted by a beautiful hot day and an ice-cold beer in Piazzetta Giovanni Pascoli, we somehow managed to miss this - having read more since, it's the one thing we regret from our brief time in Matera. 

Funded by two local families whose ancestors used to live on the premises, Casa Noha provides a 25 minute multimedia exhibit relates the often upsetting history of the city provides an incredible to better understand the sassi, and its people.

Recinto Cavone 9 | 9 a.m. - 7 p.m. April - October (shorter rest of year) | Entry €5

 

Get lost in the Sassi di Matera

The ancient sections of the city are composed of two Sassi - Sassi Barisano and Sassi Caveoso - and by far the best way to discover both is on foot. 

Spend a day roaming labyrinth-like narrow alleyways, interconnected loops and pretty little courtyards bursting with bright green cacti. Climb up old stone staircases for spectacular views, discover a pretty piazza and disappear through spectacular archways to encounter a world that looks not of this time.

Whilst Sassi Barisano has undergone a significant amount of development, with old caves beautifully refurbished to create stunning art spaces, boutique hotels and traditional restaurants, it is in the Sassi Caveoso that one can catch a real glimpse of the lives that were lived here not that long ago. Due to safety concerns, a number of caves have become recently inaccessible (we absolutely wouldn't suggest climbing over barriers to get a better look....) but to glimpse into caves, largely untouched since the 50s is utterly fascinating.

It does get very hot in Matera, so try to avoid too much mid-afternoon walking. And, if you want to roam the streets without many other tourists, then simply get out at at 7 a.m. like we did - the city will be your own private museum, and you'll soon see why this is one of our very favourite things to do in Matera.

Whilst we're big fans of getting out and discovering a city by ourselves, for those that prefer having a guide on hand, consider booking a guided walking tour of the Sassi - or even a guided cycle tour.

Anyone who sees Matera cannot help but be awe-struck, so expressive and touching is its sorrowful beauty.
— Carlo Levi

 

walk across the ravine

From the two Sassi of Matera, you can look across the ravine and see a hill punctuated with small caves; these are actually the palaeolithic caves which make Matera's story so unique. To give you some perspective, we're talking about a period in time over 7,000 years ago! And visitors can actually walk across the ravine to explore them and get one of the best views available in Matera. 

Take the stairs by Monastero di Santa Lucia, cross one of the rock bridges and then take your pick of the criss-crossing paths leading up the hill. Due to the view available and the necessity to beat the heat, sunset and sunrise are obviously popular times to make this manageable walk across the ravine in Matera - take plenty water and avoid doing the walk during peak afternoon sun. 

 

Taste authentic matera bread

Besides a quick overnight stop in Bari, Matera was our first real stop on this road trip. Understandably, we were prepared to gorge on all things carbohydrate. What surprised us however, was the distinct lack of pizza and pasta on most menus. Turns out that Matera is famous for something else...its bread.

We're not going to lie. it's pretty darn good bread too.

With a loaf shape evocative of the stones and caves, it is made from 'hard wheat' from the area and preparation of the yeast must follow a certain process. This all results in the unique taste and deliciously crunchy crust. Commonly served as a sandwich (although we did enjoy the odd bruschetta too), you can expect filling such as roasted eggplant, zucchini, cheese and pesto for the veggies, or all number of cured meats for the carnivore inclined.

For those wanting to get an even deeper understanding of the local cuisine, consider a three-course cooking class in a cave restaurant.

 

Check out the Cathedral

Atop Civitas hill, on the highest point between the two Sassi lies the 13th century Apulian-Romanesque Cathedral. Recently re-opened following a mammoth 10 year restoration project, this is a hugely popular attraction for visiting Italians. Even those with less of a Catholic-persuasion will appreciate the fantastic view from its privileged position overlooking the Sassi Barisano. You should also make a stop at the Madonna de Idris, a small church chiselled into the rock. 

 

Visit MUSMA

If contemporary art and sculpture is your thing, don't miss Matera's Museum of Modern Art based in a wonderfully refurbished 17th century cave palace. 

Located at Via S. Giacomo | Open 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. | Entry €5

A short guide / things to do in Matera, Italy
A short guide / things to do in Matera, Italy

Where to Stay in Matera

So, you've discovered the best things to do in Matera - now, where do you stay?

Whether you want a luxury cave, the best value option or something in between, this wonderful city is bursting with accommodation choices; here's our pick of the best.

Budget accommodation/hostels in Matera

L'Ostello dei Sassi | Located in the Sassi, this is an excellent opportunity to get 'the cave experience' on a budget. Helpful staff with modern facilities. We'd definitely recommend the six or four bed dorm over the larger one. Click here to find out more and check availability.

Mid-range Hotels in Matera

L'Hotel in Pietra | It's actually quite amazing that you can stay in this phenomenal hotel for as little as £75 a night - it's beautiful! Converted from a 13th Century monastery, this boutique hotel has vast, grand rooms and suites with vaulted ceilings, mezzanine levels, and stunning views over the town. Click here to find out more and check availability.

Luxury Hotels in Matera

Le Grotte Della Civita | Looking for the ultimate luxury cave hotel? Le Grotte Della Civita, with its medieval romance in a spectacular hilltop setting, may well be it. Beautifully unique rooms and suites with vaulted ceilings, sandstone walls, and standalone bathtubs with burning log fires. Delicious food, cooking lessons, and spectacular views. Definitely one for honeymooners or romantic breaks. Click here to find out more and check availability.

Apartments in Matera

If, you prefer to have access to a kitchen and enjoy a bit of extra space on your travels, you'll be pleased to know that there are plenty of apartments on offer in Matera. 

Either make a booking through Airbnb (if you've never given Airbnb a go before, be sure to sign up via our link and receive up to £20 GBP off your first booking) or check out these listings on booking.com.

A short guide / things to do in Matera, Italy
A short guide / things to do in Matera, Italy

How to get to Matera

Car | We visited Matera as part of our Puglia road trip, and we highly recommend this as the best way to discover the region. Car rental is available at Bari and Brindisi airports via Auto Europe. You can read our road trip and driving advice for Puglia in an upcoming article. If you are renting, try to avoid driving too much in the old town. Your best bet for a free parking space will be on the streets of the more modern parts of Matera, we recommend you ask ahead at your accommodation for instructions on where to park.

Train | If you want to travel to Matera by train, the best way is to make your way to Bari. From there, you will find regular departures from the Bari FAL train station (just across the road from the main railway station). Journey from Bari to Matera takes 1.5 hours and costs just €5.

If you're using public transport to get around Italy, then check out Go Euro which is a fantastic free app/website for anyone travelling independently in Europe. It gives train and bus times, designs the easiest or cheapest route from A to B and lets you book tickets centrally and easily. 

Want to know more about Matera and its transformation? Then this Smithsonian article is a must read!


like it? pin it!

The very best things to do, where to stay and how to get to Matera, Italy - all in one helpful little guide!
The very best things to do, where to stay and how to get to Matera, Italy - all in one helpful little guide!

read more about our journey through southern italy