I’ve been to Rome, Naples, Florence, and many other famous Italian destinations. But whenever anyone asks me which place I most recommend visiting in Italy, the answer is always the same:
Yeah, that’s what I said when someone first suggested we visit this Italian town of 60,000 in southern Italy’s Basilicata region.
But keep reading and I’ll explain exactly what it is that makes Matera such a magical gem.
To help you plan your visit, this post will cover the best things to do in Matera, Italy, the best hotels in Matera, the restaurants and bars you shouldn’t miss, as well loads more useful and practical knowledge!
I’ll cover everything you need to know to plan your trip in this Ultimate Guide to Matera, Italy, including:
- Why you should visit Matera
- My 19 Top Things to do in Matera
- The Best Restaurants in Matera
- Where to Stay – Including the Best Cave Hotels
- FAQs About Travel to Matera
Woah, that’s a lot!
Maybe you should bookmark this page for later just in case you don’t have time to read it all!
Anyway, let’s dive in:
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT MATERA
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Why do I think Matera is such an incredible place to visit?
Especially when it’s surrounded by much more famous destinations such as Naples and the Apulia coast where you’ll find gorgeous Italian towns like Polignaro a Mare, Monopoli, Ostuni, Lecce, and Alberobello?
Because none of those destinations have the Matera di Sassi, Matera’s “old town” area.
The Sassi quite possibly the most amazing place you’ve never heard of.
Carved almost entirely out of “tufo,” a white volcanic stone made of compressed ash, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is truly stunningly beautiful place well worth the time to visit.
And it’s really old. It’s been inhabited for nearly 9,000 years, making it one of the oldest continuously occupied places on Earth.
The first occupants of the Sassi arrived during the Paleolithic era.
Over the years, as the number of residents grew, a vast network of cave dwellings was dug in Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso. Meanwhile, above ground, stone structures rose above and around the caves.
Eventually, as the city expanded, the Romans built defensive walls. In the 1400s, a cathedral was added as well.
Over time, the Sassi’s fortunes have risen and fallen.
But because of an extended downturn that started in the 1500s, the Sassi (today divided into two areas: Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso) have been preserved as much as it was then.
In 2019 Matera was named the European Capital Culture, but despite the designation the plethora of things to do in Matera, there’s still time to get to Matera before word spreads too wide!
So let’s dive into all the many activities for you to discover in Matera:
19 AWESOME THINGS TO DO IN MATERA
1. Walk around the Sassi di Matera
There are actually any number of things to do in the Sassi, which just might be the coolest place you’ve never heard of.
But I highly recommend your first experience be just wandering around and simply soaking it in.
Most of the Sassi area is still uninhabited, but as tourism grows, shops and restaurants are slowly taking root.
Wander down the cobblestone streets and take in the ancient buildings. That big stone slab that towers over everything?
That’s actually Madonna de Idris, a church that was painstakingly carved out of the interior of the rock over many years.
You enter through what appears to be a regular door and suddenly find yourself inside a cave where the walls have since been covered with white plaster.
Try to visit at least once at night, as strolling around the Sassi under the stars is a magical experience and the first answer to the question of what to do in Matera.
2. Visit Casa Noha
Once you’ve walked around soaking in the Sassi’s atmosphere, it’s time to learn more about its fascinating history.
And there’s no better place to start than Casa Noha, an interactive exhibit about how the Sassi came be to be.
Casa Noha is located in the upper section of Sasso Caveoso.
Once owned by the noble Noha family, the house dates back to the 16th century and has since been restored by the FAI (an Italian preservation organization), after it was donated by the Lattore and Fodale families in 2000.
Not only have the rooms been restored to their original state but there is a multimedia presentation projected on the walls, floors, and ceilings of the five different rooms.
Location: Recinto Cavone 9
Hours: 9 a.m. – 7 p.m. April – October. Varies the rest of the year.
Book a Tour to Casa Noha Here
3. Hike La Gravina
The Sassi is a UNESCO World Heritage site covering over 1000 hectares and containing over a thousand dwellings, as well as shops and other buildings.
And much of the Sassi overlooks La Gravina, which is Italian for “ravine,” where you can find beautiful views of the river below, and also the more primitive cave dwellings dotting the other side the canyon.
Monks once lived here hundreds of years ago and left behind frescoes painted on the cave walls.
You can explore the ravine and even visit the cave dwellings with a few hours walk. You can also drive to the other side (if you do, be sure to read up on driving in Italy), though I think it’s much more rewarding to hike there yourself.
You’ll find stairs descending into the ravine at Parcheggio parking lot found on Via Maddona delle virtu. You’ll have to hop the wall, then look for the stairs going down.
Once you descend the stairs, find one of the rock bridges crossing the small stream and then choose any one of the numerous paths that lead up the hillside. (Note: Technically, you aren’t supposed to do this because the trail and the bridge aren’t maintained, so there is some risk.)
If you’re visiting in summer, be aware of the heat. The southern Italian sun can be brutal, so bring your sunblock and water.
The round-trip journey shouldn’t take any more than three hours if you’re relatively fit.
And the views from other side back to toward the Sassi are especially spectacular at sunset – and definitely one of the top things to do in Matera.
4. Visit Murgia National Park and Maybe (But Probably Not) Run With the Wolves
Established in 1990 and part of Matera’s UNESCO World Heritage Site designation, this rocky landscape is filled with – you guessed it – more rock churches!
But it’s also a chance to experience some of the area’s flora and fauna as you hike around the park. If you’re lucky, you might see porcupines, foxes, hedgehogs, and even wild boars.
There have been claims of wolves being spotted, but we take those stories with a big grain of salt.
Murgia is located only ten minutes from Matera, and you can take a bus or cab to get there.
Guided tours are also available, which is a great way to learn even more about the archaeological aspects of the park.
Location: Via Sette Dolori, 10 (Rioni Sassi)
Cost: Free or check tour prices here
Hours: Open every day
5. See What Life was Like in a Cave at Casa Grotta
Casa Grotta is a walk-through exhibit where you can see how most of the non-wealthy residents of the Sassi used to live.
Trust me, it wasn’t pretty – unless you liked sharing your bedroom with livestock.
Casa Grotta consists of several rooms. The first was a snow cellar. A hole in the roof was used to collect snow in the winter that provided water, as well as helping to cool things off in the sweltering summer months.
The next room shows what most of the Sassi’s caves used to look like, while the third is the “living” area, complete with an elevated bed where the family slept together, livestock commonly penned directly behind the bed.
Yup, the family lived with their horses, pigs, and chickens. Needless to say, sewage for man and animal was primitive.
More disturbing is the fact that most of the residents of the Sassi lived in these same primitive conditions until the 1950s, when the Italian author Carlo Levi finally exposed the tragedy that became known as “Italy’s shame.”
Location: Storica Casa Grotta Vico Solitario, 75100 Matera MT, Italy
Cost: € 3.00, free for children up to 10 years old.
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6. Visit the Rupestrian Churches
Rupestrian means “painted on cave walls,” and the Sassi are renowned for its ancient rupestrian cave churches.
In fact, in and around Matera there are 150 of these unusual religious structures.
The most famous one of all is Madonna de Idris, a small church chiseled into the limestone cliff looming over Sasso Caveoso.
Inside, you’ll find a nave with frescoes that date to the twelfth century and, unfortunately, aren’t in the best condition.
History, like these frescoes, slowly fades away over time. But it’s still possible to at least get a glimpse of how life was almost a thousand years ago for the residents of the Sassi.
Other rock churches of note include Convicinio of Sant’Antonio Rock Church, Santa Maria de Armenis, and Santa Lucia Alle Malve, the first female Benedectine monastic settlement. All of them make worthy additions to your list of things to do in Matera, Italy.
Cost: Varies, though you can buy a package here for up to three sites.
• 1 site: € 3.50
• 2 sites: € 6,00
• 3 sites: € 7,00
7. Church of San Pietro Caveoso
Not every church in Matera (and there are a lot of churches) is a cave church. Some are only partly cave churches.
Sitting almost directly below Madonna de Idris is the Church of San Pietro Caveoso.
Built in 1218, the church has undergone many changes over the centuries, but one thing hasn’t changed: the church’s spectacular setting.
You can either gaze up at Madonna de Idris or look out over the gravina. And be sure to visit at night, when the façade is lit up. It’s a site you won’t soon forget.
Location: Piazza S. Pietro Caveoso, 1, 75100 Matera MT, Italy
Hours: 10 AM to 8 PM
Cost: Free every day.
8. Watch Mozzarella Being Made
Matera is filled with dozens of places to buy fresh cheese, but one of my favorites was Masseria Riccardi, just outside of town, where you’ll see cheese being made and dozens of mozzarella balls hanging from the back wall ready to be sold.
Location: C.da Igino, sn – La Martella 75100 Matera
Hours: Tue-Thu-Sat: 9: 00-14: 00
Cost: Free, unless you buy some mozzarella!
9. Descend Into the Palombaro Lungo
Curious how Materans got their water before the arrival of modern plumbing in the 20th century?
Especially in such a dry region?
Basically, they collected snowmelt and rainwater in a giant cistern located under the city.
You descend via stairs into the Palombaro Lungo where the initial cavern was expanded by connecting other caverns to the main one. Once at the bottom, be sure look upward at the vaulted ceiling. I bet you’ll have the feeling you’re standing in a cathedral.
And be sure to look for the four holes in stone ceiling. That’s where Materans used to lower buckets to fetch water. And it turned out they accidentally dropped a lot of stuff while doing so.
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When modern plumbing came to Matera, the Palombaro was sealed and forgotten until 1991, when it was rediscovered.
Divers were the first to explore the abandoned cisterns and they found watches, rings, eyeglasses, and more, all of which had lain hidden in the water decade after decade.
Location: Piazza Vittorio Veneto
Hours: Open every day between 10:00 – 1:30 and 3:00 – 8:00
Cost: In summer, it might be necessary to reserve tickets by calling 39 339 3638332 reservations. But most of the time, you should be able to simply walk up and buy your tickets, which cost € 3.00.
10. Take a Day Trip to the Puglia Coast!
Matera is located a short drive from Italy’s renowned Puglia region, a popular stop on road trips in Italy. There you’ll find towns like Polignaro a Mare, Monopoli, and Lecce, all located on the coast. Each has its own charms, but all provide stunning views of the Adriatic Sea. I was especially partial to Polignaro a Mare, which has a path winding right along the clifftops.
If you’re not interested in sea-views, check out the famous white beehive houses of Alberobello or walk to the top of Ostuni’s white-clad walls for fantastic views of the surrounding countryside.
11. Check out the Sculptures at La Palomba
This sculpture park is located on the outskirts of Matera in a former quarry.
In 2013, sculptor Antonio Paradiso mounted an exhibition of his various works in the quarry.
Most striking are the sculptures fashioned out of twenty tons of metal including steel girders that came from the ruins of the World Trade Center in New York City.
You’ll have to look carefully for the park as it is obscured from view when you’re on the main road.
Location: Matera Strada Statale 7 Appia, località “La Palomba”
Hours: All day
12. Eat Gelato. Then Eat Some More!
You probably don’t need to be told to eat gelato while visiting Italy, but here’s your reminder just in case.
While I had gelato at most every gelato spot in Matera, I don’t have one favorite place.
That’s because this is Italy and almost every Italian takes great pride in the quality of the food they put out. Which means it’s almost impossible to go wrong!
And gelato tastes even better when eaten on a hot summer night sitting in an Italian piazza.
13. Get a Great Night’s Sleep in a Cave Hotel
Can’t get enough of the Sassi?
Then why not spend the night in one of the cave hotels sprinkled throughout the two districts. Don’t worry, you’re not going to have to rough it or share space with bats.
These caves have been turned into unique but comfortable lodgings where you’re guaranteed a quiet night’s sleep.
Reserve One of Our Favorite Cave Hotels in Matera Now:
- Aquatio Cave Luxury Hotel & Spa, Via Conche
- Sassi Hotel – Matera, Via San Giovanni Vecchio
- Sextantio Le Grotte Della via Civita, 28
14. Stroll Around at Night
The Sassi is a fantastic place to visit during the day, but at night it becomes positively magical – and a can’t-miss addition to your list of the best things to do in Matera.
Lamps light up the stone streets, while spotlights illuminate the churches, creating a romantic ambience that’s pretty much impossible to resist. Every place you look, you see something white glowing dreamily in the light.
Follow the twisty streets up to the view from San Pietro Caveoso, itself brilliantly lit up, and stare out over the dark gravina, the Milky Way arching overhead.
15. The Cathedral of Matera
Completed in 1270, the Cathedral of Matera is located in the Civita, the first part of the Sassi to be settled.
Originally, the site had been a Benedictine monastery dating back to 1082. Built in a Romanesque style, the cathedral underwent extensive renovation before reopening in 2016.
Be sure to check out the 13th century painting of the Madonna, and the two frescoed crypts from the 12th century that were discovered during the renovation.
Visiting it is definitely one of the most popular things to do in Matera Italy!
Location: Piazza Duomo, 75100 Matera MT, Italy
16. Pray for Someone Trapped in Purgatory
Built between 1725 and 1747, Chiesa del Purgatorio is a baroque-style church with an extra touch added to its décor: skulls and skeletons adorning the church door.
Why the grim décor?
Because this is a “purgatory” church, where worshippers pray for loved ones trapped between heaven and hell.
If you suspect a loved one is facing that problem, this is just the place for you.
Location: 4 Via Domenico Ridola
Hours: Hours vary
17. Tour the Sassi by ApeCar
Are your feet worn out from so much walking?
No worries, Ape Tour Matera is here to give you a guided tour through the Sassi riding in a stylish three-wheeled Piaggio.
It’s a fun and unique activity in Matera!
Where to Book: Click here to reserve an ApeCar tour.
Cost: Ranges from € ten for twenty minutes up to € 25 per person for seventy-five minutes.
18. Take in the Spectacle of Festa Della Bruna
If you’re able to time your visit to Matera to overlap with the festival known as Festa Della Bruna which takes place at the end of June and start of July, I highly recommend making the effort to add this fascinating spectacle to your list of what to do in Matera.
Honoring Madonna della Bruna, protector of the city of Matera, Festa Della Bruna dates back to 1690.
Festivities stretch out over several weeks and include processions by colorfully dressed “knights” who parade around town on horseback and gorgeous lighting displays around the city. Some displays look like church facades, while others are arches you pass beneath and “hallways” you walk through.
One local said the lighting displays embarrassed him because they were so kitschy, but I honestly found strolling around them at night to be beautiful.
The culmination – and the highlight – of Festa Della Bruna begins on the morning of July 2 as a float carrying the statue of Mary is paraded around town accompanied by the knights.
The procession continues all day along roads lined with people and ends when the statue of Mary is deconsecrated by a priest and then the float carrying Mary arrives at the packed main square.
There, with tens of thousands of people looking on, a group of men – and the night we watched, one woman, for the first time ever – basically attack the float and tear it to pieces.
Getting a piece of the float is widely considered to be good luck and the largest, most intact pieces can later be sold for thousands of euros.
I can honestly say I’d never experienced anything like standing among twenty thousand Italians cheering on the destruction of the float.
Had I been in the U.S., I think I would’ve been worried about things getting out of control, but even though it was midnight on a hot July night, the crowd included families with small children. Everyone was cheerful and having a good time, and much to my surprise, no one was drunk or rowdy.
Location: throughout Matera
When: Starts the middle of June and ends July 2.
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19. The Tramontano Castle
The story of this unfinished medieval castle is filled with enough drama for an episode of Game of Thrones.
Construction began in 1501 after King Frederick of Aragon went back on his promise to the people of Matera and made Count Giovanni Carlo Tramontano the ruler of Matera. Tramontano set about constructing a new castle for himself, which required more taxes on an already over-taxed population.
Fed up, the locals assassinated their new lord. The abrupt death of Tramontano ended work on his castle. Only three of the five towers were built, along with their accompanying “curtains.”
The moat was also never built, but what the count did manage to finish demonstrates the finished castle would have been a very well designed and almost inaccessible fortress complex.
Location: Via del Castello, 75100 Matera MT
Hours: Any time
Cost: Free, but note you can only visit the outside of the castle.
Best Restaurants in Matera
If you’re an epicurean, you’ll notice subtle differences between the cuisines of southern and northern Italy. In a nutshell, there’s more seafood here, and less cream and cheese.
But the chefs here absolutely take just as much pride in their cooking. And better still, the restaurants are much less expensive.
Here are some of my favorite places to eat out in Matera.
- Ristorante da Nico, Via Sant’Antonio Abate, 5
Having dinner in the middle of the Sassi on a warm summer night with good friends is a magical experience. And in my opinion, this is the best spot. Start with tagliatelle with chickpeas, onion, and fried breadcrumbs. For dinner, choose from fresh seafood dishes, pasta, or beef. Be sure to get a couple of bottles of the very affordable red wine. Don’t forget to sit outside and enjoy the cool evening breezes.
- Osteria Malatesta, Via San Biagio, 45
This charming spot has both indoor and outdoor seating, but I loved sitting outside both to catch a cool breeze and to people watch folks wandering about. The fresh bread was wonderful, as was the antipasto. And whatever you do, be sure to order the jug of local red wine!
- BurBaCa, Via XX Settembre, 14
This is a steakhouse but has a very casual atmosphere with reasonable prices. The bar inside gives it a lively feel and there’s outdoor sitting for those hot summer nights.
- Fior di cucuzza, Via Rocco Scotellaro
This vegetarian and vegan brewery is right next door to the Sassi and serves dishes made from local ingredients.
Best Bars and Nightlife in Matera
To be honest, unless you count strolling around one of the plazas at midnight on a hot summer night, Matera isn’t exactly a hotbed of nightlife.
But there are bars in Matera that are worth a visit:
- Vicolo Cieco Salsamenteria, Via Fiorentini
The oldest club in the Sassi, this friendly and cozy spot is in a cave. They also serve local food and wine and have an outdoor area you can hang out in on those warm summer evenings.
- Area 8, Via Casalnuovo
Trendy enough to have landed a mention in the New York Times, this bar serves cocktails to famous tourists (Jason Schwartzman) yet has managed to stay popular with locals as well. A scooter does double-duty as a D.J. booth, while waiters fetch drinks and light snacks.
- Charlie’s Speakeasy, Via Casalnuovo
Vary casual bar with delicious Italian bar food and a lively atmosphere.
Where to Stay: Hostels and Hotels
Even though it isn’t a tourist hotspot like most other Italian cities, 2019’s European Capital of Culture has a wide range of accommodations to fit almost every budget.
I’d suggest choosing something not far from the Sassi since you’ll probably be spending most of your time there.
Or you can stay in the adjoining central area of Matera, which is within easy walking distance to the center.
Best Hotels in Matera, Italy
Earlier I mentioned taking the opportunity to sleep in a cave hotel. Fortunately, Matera has an abundance of those!
- Aquatio Cave Luxury Hotel & Spa, Via Conche
Looking for luxury? Then check out this five-star hotel. The 35 rooms have a modern design with all white interiors, and the on-site spa has an indoor pool carved right out of the rock.
- Sassi Hotel – Matera, Via San Giovanni Vecchio
One of the first hotels to open after the Sassi was rediscovered, this hotel offers the best views of the Sassi. But not every room is a cave room, so be sure to request one of those ahead of time!
- Sextantio Le Grotte Della via Civita, 28
Located in a network of caves, these rooms are simply furnished but there are free-standing bathtubs and massages are available. You can also arrange for an in-room massage and breakfast is included. Parking and bike rentals are available.
Matera offers more than just cave hotels. So if the idea of sleeping in a stone room isn’t your cup of tea, here are some other choices.
- La Locanda di San Martino via Fiorentini, 71
This hotel also has beautiful rooms, a gorgeous spa, and an amazing breakfast buffet but with a slightly more affordable price.
- L’Hotel In Pietra, Via San Giovanni Vecchio
Originally a 13th century monastery, this small hotel has fantastic views out over Matera.
Budget Hotels and Hostels in Matera, Italy
- L’Ostello dei Sassi
Want to sleep in a cave but you’re on a budget? Don’t worry, because I’ve got you covered. This hostel is located right in the Sassi, so you can get the whole cave experience!
- Le Monacelle Ostello Via Riscatto, 15, 75100
This simple but functional hotel harkens back to the days when cloistered nuns and noblewomen visited for spiritual retreats. Positioned high up in the Sassi, the views from some of the rooms are especially magnificent.
Not a fan of hotels?
Matera has plenty of other options, including more local living, on Airbnb. Sign up here to get up to $40 free towards your first booking on Airbnb (requires a new account).
I was in Matera for a month and wanted more of a local experience.
I found that at Casa Netural, a coliving and coworking facility a little bit farther out of town.
Casa Netural has four apartments, a fully equipped kitchen, and a nice coworking facility. Even better, since Casa Netural is plugged into the local community, you have the chance to get to know locals and have a much more authentic Italian experience.
FAQs about Visiting Matera Italy
Despite its recent designation as the 2019 European Capital of Culture, Matera might not be as familiar as other Italian destinations, but it’s still an easy place to get around.
Here are the answers to some frequent asked questions to help you prepare for visiting Matera:
How’s the Weather in Matera, Italy?
Matera is located way down south, right on the arch of Italy’s famous “boot.” Situated between 45 and 70 kilometers from both the Adriatic and the Mediterranean, Matera rests at an elevation of 400 meters and has a fairly moderate climate.
Summers can be hot, reaching up into the 30s C (high 90s F), while winters can occasionally be cold enough for snow. The rainiest months are January, February, March, April and May.
Is Matera, Italy, Safe?
Matera is incredibly safe. It wasn’t uncommon to see entire families strolling around Matera’s plazas and eating gelato as late as midnight on hot summer nights. In five weeks, there wasn’t a single time I felt unsafe in Matera.
You should still practice common sense and avoid any situation that feels sketch. Plus you would have travel insurance for Italy.
How to Get Around Matera
Matera is small enough that pretty much everywhere you want to go is pretty much within walking distance. And since cars aren’t even allowed in the Sassi, you’ll definitely you’re your walking shoes there.
For the few places that might be too far to walk (or when the weather is too hot) you can either ride a bus or catch a cab, but there are currently no ridesharing services in Matera.
Practical Info and Fast Facts
- Matera, Italy: 60,000
- Matera, Italy, Time Zone: GMT -5 (CDT, though no daylight savings observance)
- Languages in Matera: Southern Italy is one of the few areas in Europe where English isn’t widely spoken. Nonetheless, usually almost every young person has at least some familiarity. My Italian is minimal but I got by fine.
Emergency Numbers Polizia\Police Carabinieri Ambulanza \ Ambulance Vigili del Fuoco \ Fire Department 113 112 118 115
How to Get to Matera, Italy
You have three options to get to Matera: fly, take the train, or drive.
Ryan Air has the most flights to Bari, followed by Wizz Air.
From Bari Palese Airport you can take the Puglia Airbus Shuttle, which has five routes per day to Matera Piazza Matteotti Ferrovie.
To go by train, first take the Nord Barese train to Bari Centrale. There you’ll take the Ferrovie Appulo Lucane train to Matera Centrale.
To reach the Ferrovie Appulo Lucane departure point you’ll need to walk five minutes from Bari Centrale. Turn left when you exit the station, but if you get lost, don’t be afraid to ask for directions. This is Italy, which isn’t known for clear signage.
The train to Matera takes about an hour and a half and costs €5.
You can also reach Matera from Rome or Naples via Flixbus.
That’s it for this Ultimate Travel Guide to Matera, Italy!
Here are some articles to help you plan your trip to Europe:
- The Best Backpacks for Europe (Our 5 Top Picks)
- When is the Best Time to Visit Europe?
- How to Find the Cheapest International Flights (in 3 Steps)
Safe travels in the 2019 European Capital of Culture!