15 Best Things to do in Matera Italy
Matera is a one-of-a-kind destination that you should try to fit into your Italian itinerary.
It’s the main site of the Basilicata region of Italy and is one of the world’s oldest cities.
Matera is located halfway between Calabria and Apulia and is also known as the “City of Stones”.
The Sassi (stones) of Matera are ancient, cavernous villages located between the “Murge” plateau and the “Gravina” stream, where the local population lived for centuries, along with their cattle.
However, for a variety of reasons, the last 70 years in Matera have been a never-ending series of negative and positive events.
Back in the 1950s, Matera was considered a national shame:
In 1935, Carlo Levi, a multifaceted intellectual and artist born in Turin, was imprisoned for political activity and exiled to the poor and wild South, specifically to the village of Aliano in the province of Matera.
Irritated by the desperate living conditions of the peasants of Basilicata, particularly in the city of Matera, he wrote the novel “Cristo si è fermato a Eboli” (Christ stopped in Eboli), a vigorous and passionate account of the poor people’s daily suffering that he witnessed during his seven-month confinement.
Regarding Matera, Levi quotes his sister, who compares the Sassi to a Dante’s circle, where men, women, children, and animals lived in extremely poor condition, with no utilities such as a bathroom, sanitation, or electricity, often sharing the same small and cramped cave.
As a result, Matera was dubbed “Italy’s Shame.”
Then, in 1953, approximately 17000 people living in these caves were forced to leave by law.
They were forced to leave the Sassi (the cave houses) and relocate to a new neighborhood in the city.
It wasn’t easy because Matera had about 30,000 residents at the time, and half of them had to relocate to the new section of the town.
It took about 15 years to evacuate everyone.
Since then, the sassi have been abandoned for more than 30 years, until a redevelopment process earned Matera the prestigious title of UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, and they have since become one of the most striking and well-known Italian landmarks in the world.
Matera was also named the European Capital of Culture in 2019.
Many directors have shot scenes from their films in Matera over the years, including Mel Gibson’s masterpiece film, The Passion of the Christ.
Also, the last James Bond film, No Time To Die, which began filming in April 2019, was shot in Puglia and Basilicata, specifically in Gravina and Matera.
Because of its complicated modern past, Matera has only recently begun to emerge as a legitimate tourist destination.
So, if you’re looking for that elusive spot in Italy that is breathtakingly beautiful but still undiscovered, this is the place for you.
When visiting Matera, my advice is to abandon the map and just get lost; you will undoubtedly come across the major attractions without even looking for them.
The one thing you should know is that visiting Matera requires a lot of walking, and because the city is hilly, completely open, and hot (especially in the summer), bring comfortable flat shoes with rubber soles and plenty of water.
If I’ve piqued your interest, keep reading to find out more about the best places to visit in a single day or more.
And how to get there: the best cave hotels, the best restaurants, and the best sunset viewpoint.
15 Best things to do in Matera Italy
1. A ride in an Ape Calessino
The Sassi district is divided into two sections: Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano.
These are real ancient cave dwellings inhabited since the Paleolithic period, where even a large number of families lived in abject poverty.
The Sassi, along with Petra and Giordany, are among the world’s oldest populated cities!
Walking is the perfect way to appreciate the city’s intricate architecture. You can, however, visit it in a delightful local three-wheeled motor vehicle used as a tourist cab.
They are called Ape Calessino and are the classic little Italian vehicles that seem to be a motorbike enclosed in the body of a tiny car.
This is without a doubt one of the best things to do in Matera, Italy, and it’s a quick and charming way to get around the city. The tour lasts about 45 minutes.
2. Learn about Matera history in Casa Noha
Casa Noha is an ancient palace in Matera’s Sassi, just a few steps from the Cathedral.
The owners donated it to the FAI (Fondo Ambiente Italiano), which completed an accurate conservative restoration and designed a compelling multimedia exhibition that tells the story of Matera from its beginnings to the present.
The multimedia exhibition projected on the walls, ceilings, and floors of Casa Noha’s interior is an excellent way to begin your visit to Matera.
3. Get the best views from a scenic viewpoint
There are some very interesting panoramic points in the Sassi of Matera with fantastic views.
Belvedere Luigi Guerricchio
The most photographed viewpoint is the Belvedere Luigi Guerricchio, which is located in the city’s largest square, Piazza Vittorio Veneto. This square connects the nineteenth-century city with the Sassi. The entire Sasso Barisano and Rione Vetera can be seen from here, with the Cathedral of Matera in the distance.
The terrace is located near the Mater Domini Church, beyond a three-arched arcade. Unlike other panoramic points, this belvedere will make you feel like you’re immersed in the Sassi.
Belvedere Luigi Verricchio viewpoint in Piazza Vittorio Veneto[/caption]
Another Panoramic Point is in Piazza Duomo, from here, with the Cathedral of Matera behind, you can get a bird’s-eye view of the entire Sasso Barisano. A point of view that will help you understand the concentration of cave houses better than others.
View over the Sassi from the Cathedral square[/caption]
Via Madonna delle Virtù
The Gravina Torrent and the Sasso Caveoso can be seen from Via Madonna delle Virtù, with the Church of San Pietro Caveoso and its square in the foreground.
This street is famous for its panoramic views as well as Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ. In fact, the director chose to film some of the feature film’s scenes here. This is a must-see stop for anyone who enjoys movies.
View over Piazza San Pietro Caveoso from Via Madonna delle Virtù[/caption]
Piazza San Pietro Caveoso
If you want to see the Gravina stream and its canyon, head to Piazza San Pietro Caveoso. Furthermore, from there, you can get a better view of the Murgia Materana Park, which lies beyond the watercourse, as well as the first churches and rock houses dug into the calcarenite.
Newlyweds on top of the ravine[/caption]
Within Matera’s historic center, my favorite viewpoint is the Monterrone, which houses the rupestrian church of Madonna de Idris.
Unlike the other belvederes, this one offers a wide – angle panorama of the Sasso Caveoso, the Murgia Park, and the Gravina Torrent. A truly privileged viewpoint.
The Monterrone viewpoint offers a view of Piazza San Pietro Caveoso.[/caption]
Belvedere Piazzetta Pascoli
Piazzetta Pascoli is located on Via Ridola, one of the historic center’s main streets. Palazzo Lanfranchi, which is located to the side of the square, now houses an important museum. The view from this terrace opens up onto the Sasso Caveoso and its striking houses carved into the rock.
Belvedere di Murgia Timone
This is the only one on this list that is not located within the Sassi, and is only accessible by car because it is located beyond the Gravina Torrent, in the Murgia Materana Park.
To get there take the Taranto–Laterza road (SS7) and follow signs for the Chiese Rupestri to get a great shot of the Sassi.
This Belvedere, located in the heart of Matera’s Murgia Park, offers a panoramic and evocative view of the Sassi.
Seeing the Sassi from this viewpoint allows you to fully appreciate the incredible beauty of this location.
The best time to visit is in the evening, when the sun goes down and the village lights come on. The landscape completely changes, the houses are tinged with red, and you find yourself in front of a massive nativity scene.
The crucifixion scene in Mel Gibson’s film Passion of the Christ was shot here, probably because of the suggestive Christmas backdrop
View from the Belvedere Murgia Timone[/caption]
4. Explore Piazza Vittorio Veneto and the Palombaro Lungo Cistern
Piazza Vittorio Veneto, which is Matera’s largest square, is located in the new part of the town, the historical center.
Surprisingly, what is often referred to as “the historical center” is actually the “newest” renaissance and baroque neighborhood. The key attractions are concentrated around Piazza Vittorio Veneto and Via Domenico Ridola, one of the main shopping streets in town, in the baroque part of it.
Palombaro Lungo water cistern[/caption]
The Palombaro lungo, one of the town’s largest water cisterns, can be accessed from this square.
Matera is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, thanks to the sassi buildings, rupestrian churches, and, most importantly, this water cistern discovered still full of water in 1991, during the renovation of Piazza Vittorio Veneto.
In the past, they were able to collect rainwater in the town’s underground, so they built these massive caves beneath the town and when it rained, the water went down through the limestone, which was a natural filter for the water and made it clear and pure.
People used to go there with buckets to collect water until the beginning of the century.
They are now empty, but you can still visit the Palombaro Lungo cistern during exclusive guided tours at specific times.
Palombaro Lungo opening hours:
10 a.m. to 1 p.m;
3:30 p.m. until 6:00 p.m.
The ticket price is € 3 per person.
5. Admire the Cathedral of Matera
The Cathedral of Matera is the heart of the Civita, the site of the first populated center of the entire ancient city, and is located on one of the highest points of the city and the historic center.
The cathedral was built in the Apulian Romanesque style, which is a simple style rich in symbolic elements that represent the spiritual life of the time, at the end of the thirteenth century.
Its interior, on the other hand, has a distinct style that stands in stark contrast to the exterior. Only a few frescoes and capitals are original to the time, the rest are the result of various restorations over time.
This cathedral, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, is still an important place of worship for Matera residents.
6. Visit Vico Solitario’s Casa Grotta
The Casa Grotta, one of Matera’s oldest houses, is located in the heart of the Sasso Caveoso.
The house offers an intriguing glimpse into what life might have been like in the Sassi in the 18th century. In fact, the interior is still decorated and designed to depict past living conditions.
This Cave House was home to a large family as well as a variety of animals who shared this small cave.
Water was taken directly from underground from a well inside the cave. And the snow was collected in snow cistern, they were caves that were always cold and capable of retaining snow, and they were used as natural refrigerators.
The ticket costs € 3 per person.
Hint: A spectacular view of a group of Neolithic cave houses carved into the rock can be found directly in front of the house, across the ravine.
7. Explore the Murgia Materana Archeological Park
Matera and the nearby archaeological park of Murgia Materana are home to over 100 rupestrian churches.
They were mostly founded in the early Middle Ages, and are structures carved into the rock. Originally built as religious structures, they have since been converted into homes or animal shelters.
The Park of the Murgia Materana is located in the eastern part of Matera and of Basilicata, on the border with Puglia, and has been included on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, along with the Sassi of Matera, and houses numerous and ancient testimonies of how people lived in these areas in prehistoric times.
It is completely normal in this area to see Greek Orthodox churches built next to Roman-Latin temples.
A guided tour of the Murgia Materana park and its rupestrian churches is, in my opinion, the best way to experience them.
The gorge’s trails are similar to mountain trails and are not suitable for those who suffer from vertigo. The terrain is not difficult, and you do not need to be an experienced hiker, simply wear comfortable shoes.
8. Visit MUSMA
Matera was named the 2019 Capital of Culture for a reason, and that reason is that it is densely packed with museums. Among the most prestigious is the MUSMA, which stands for Matera Museum of Contemporary Sculpture.
The MUSMA museum is housed in the Pomarici Palace, a 17th-century structure in the sassi, and is the world’s only museum located in a cave.
The museum spaces include not only the palace’s built-up areas, but also the large excavated hypogea.
One of the museum’s unique features is that it houses contemporary art sculptures in man-made environments dating back centuries.
It depicts the history of Italian and international sculpture from the end of the nineteenth century to the present day.
It is the most important museum in Italy dedicated solely to sculpture.
The price of a ticket is €5.
9. Explore Piazza San Pietro Caveoso
Piazza San Pietro Caveoso is the main square in the sassi neighborhood.
The square provides a beautiful view of Murgia with its rupestrian churches and the crag with natural cavities.
The church of San Pietro Caveoso is located in this square and is the only church in the “sassi” that is not excavated in the tuff rock, and therefore has the appearance of a traditional church.
The church was built in the fourteenth century, but the facade was redone in the seventeenth century in the Baroque style.
An arch placed to the left of the church highlights the belvedere on the ravine.
The church is open to the public during the opening hours, which usually coincide with liturgical celebrations.
10. Visit the Madonna de Idris Rupestrian Church
The Church of Santa Maria De Idris is the largest rupestrian church in the sassi, and is located on a large rock, the Monterrone, overlooking San Pietro Caveoso Square.
It dates back to the twelfth century – the year construction began – and is part of a rocky complex that also includes an ancient crypt dedicated to San Giovanni in Monterrone, which contains very valuable frescoes.
The Church of Madonna de Idris is part of the Matera rupestrian church circuit, which also includes Santa Lucia alle Malve, San Giovanni in Monterrone, and San Pietro Barisano.
11. Visit the unusual Purgatory Church
The Purgatory Church can be found on Via Ridola as you walk towards Palazzo Lanfranchi. The Confraternity of the Poor Souls of Purgatory built this small late Baroque church (hence the name).
The Purgatory Church is a one-of-a-kind example in Italy due to its oval shape and the use of scalps to depict the deaths in purgatory.
Really unusual for a Catholic church!
12. Visit Museo Laboratorio
The Museo Laboratorio della Civiltà Contadina is located in Via San Giovanni Vecchio 60 (Sasso Barisano), in a renovated courtyard building dating from the 16th century in the lower part. It is an ethno-anthropological museum, and if you want to see how local artisans and peasants used to live, visit the museum’s replica of a typical cave dwelling and workshop.
13. See Matera in Miniature
The Sassi in Miniatura, a workshop and museum with impressive limestone miniature models of the old town, is one of the things to do in Matera. This workshop can be found at Via Fiorentini, 82 in the Sasso Barisano, close to the Cathedral, the Tramontano Castle, and the Ridola Museum. Eustachio Rizzi’s skilled hands created the Sassi in Miniatura, which he built in May 1996 and worked on continuously for three long years. We now have the opportunity to admire this work in all its beauty and charm.
14. Taste the delicious cuisine of Matera
Matera’s cuisine consists of simple and authentic dishes made with local ingredients.
It is rich in vegetables, legumes, and cereals, but also includes meat for special occasions.
Matera bread is a typical product of excellence, delicious not only when freshly baked but also after a few days.
Cialledda, a soup made with stale bread and other poor but tasty flavors, is the most common dish of Matera’s culinary tradition. It is available in both a hot and a cold version for the warmer months.
Strascinate (fresh pasta) with cruschi peppers and cime di rapa (turnip tops) are also recommended, as is the “Crapiata materana”, a soup of legumes and wheat.
For those who enjoy street food, there’s “focaccia alla chianca,” a hard wheat focaccia baked directly on the oven’s stone. High and crispy, topped only with fresh tomatoes and olives.
And, here’s where to eat in Matera: the best restaurants, traditional spots, and street food.
Baccanti, a restaurant carved into the rock. The restaurant, which is situated in front of the picturesque landscape of the Rupestrian Churches Park, is very spacious and elegant.
Everything was delicious, from the appetizer to the dessert, especially the “Ricotta cheese cloud”.
If you are unsure about what to order, ask the staff, they will advise you on the best options.
La Lopa, another restaurant housed in a “cave,” is situated in the historic heart of Matera’s Sassi.
Antonella, the owner, is enthusiastic about her work and knows how to greet her visitors.
Here you’ll find high-quality traditional cuisine, as well as very good fresh homemade pasta.
Another excellent restaurant in the Sassi is Abbondanza Lucana, which is located in Rione Caveoso.
Here you can taste dishes inspired by the flavors and ingredients of the delicious Lucanian cuisine.
If you want to eat pizza while in Matera, Evoè 19a Buca is the place for you.
This underground restaurant has a perfect light and a natural warmth that is quite overwhelming.
For a special occasion, I recommend Ristorante Dedalo, which serves excellent Lucanian cuisine in a creative gourmet version.
The dining rooms are carved out of the rocks and feature sculpted columns and unusual corners.
If you want to taste the focaccia, go to Paoluccio in Via del Corso or De Palo in Via Nazionale 174.
However, all of Matera’s bakeries are excellent for street food.
15. Spend the Night in a Boutique Hotel Built Inside a Cave
If you visit Matera, consider staying at least one night, as many people believe that the evening hours are the best time to visit and appreciate the city.
There are many accommodations, such as hotels and B&Bs, in Matera’s historic center that allow you to enjoy it even at sunset and at night, when the city appears to transform into a small nativity scene.
Booking a hotel room in the Sassi is the most romantic thing to do in Matera. So, choose one and prepare to have one of the coolest experiences of your life.
If you want to sleep in a cave without giving up the comforts of a 5-star hotel, I recommend Sextantio Le Grotte Di Civita. You can sleep in caves that have been transformed into beautiful rooms and suites.
Maximum detail in the furnishings and accessories, as well as the magnificent breakfast room in a thirteenth-century rupestrian church next to the hotel.
If you want the most comfort while staying in a cave, book a suite at Aquatio Cave Luxury Hotel & Spa. This charming 5-star hotel is located within Matera’s Sasso Caveoso, and has 35 rooms set among the tufa walls.
Inside, there is a fantastic SPA, a restaurant, and a multipurpose room perfect for any type of meeting.
Residence Le Dodici Lune is the place to stay if you want to sleep in a real cave house, the kind that local farmers and shepherds used to live in.
The rooms are in the caves, each with its own entrance and a terrace in front that overlooks the neighborhood, the communal area where families usually gathered and spent the majority of their time.
When is the best time to visit Matera?
Matera is always exciting to visit. I went in the summer, when the sun shone brightly on the clear Sassi and white tuff walls, but it was extremely hot and humid.
The highest average temperature in Matera is 35°C (95° F) in July, and the lowest is 11°C (51,8° F) in January.
Matera, in my opinion, is best visited in the spring and early autumn, between September and October, when hotel prices are slightly lower. Summer is frequently the most expensive time to visit.
How to get to Matera
Reaching Matera is not as simple as it is to get to larger Italian cities, unfortunately, transportation in these areas is inefficient.
Even if you don’t need a car to visit Matera’s historical center, renting a car is an option to consider.
It will give you much more freedom to explore the city’s surroundings, including the archaeological area, panoramic viewpoints at sunset, and nearby cities like Altamura and Gravina.
An option would be to fly to the nearest airport, Bari, and rent a car from there. Perhaps you could use this opportunity to go on an on-the-road tour of nearby locations such as Alberobello and its trulli, the Castellana caves, and the coastal destinations of Salento in Puglia.
More information on how to get to Matera can be found here.
Where to stay in Matera
So you’ve discovered the best things to do in Matera; now let’s take a look at where you should stay!
In addition to the luxury cave hotels mentioned above, Matera has a plethora of accommodation options ranging from the most affordable to something in between.
Here’s my pick of the best.
Cenobio Hotel is a luxury boutique hotel in the heart of the Sassi, just a few steps from the charming Piazza San Pietro Caveoso. It has modern furnishings that complement the traditional elements of the sassi.
Hotel Residence San Giorgio is located in Sasso Barisano and offers small, medium, and large suites, which are also ideal for families.
Locanda San Martino provides accommodation in typical cave dwellings, from which you can not only enjoy beautiful city views but also relax in the underground thermal baths.
Basiliani Hotel is located in Matera Sassi and offers modern rooms in ancient buildings, all with views of the prehistoric caves of the Chiese Rupestri Archaeological Park.
Each room has a modern design and its own entrance.
L’Hotel In Pietra is located in the Matera Sassi area. It’s housed in a 13th-century converted monastery and features a large hall, grand rooms and suites with vaulted ceilings, mezzanine levels, and a wine cellar.
From this hotel, you can also enjoy stunning views over the town.
Dimora dell’Annunziata is located outside of the sassi area, but it’s only a 15-minute walk away.
The rooms are spacious, clean, and comfortable. There’s also free private parking, which is convenient if you have rented a car.
Matera Guest House is one of the most convenient options for visiting Matera and exploring its historic center.
It’s in a great location, just a few steps from Piazza Vittorio Veneto, and is ideal for families.
Rizzi Residence is located within the Sassi and is one of the most affordable places to stay in Matera’s historic center.
The rooms are modernly furnished, with the option of a classic room or a larger flat.
What if I were to tell you that you could stay in a typical cave house in Matera’s Sassi without breaking the bank?
Well yes, if you don’t believe me, take a look at the Stone Rooms; you will thank me later for this gem!
You haven’t found the right accommodation, or the prices aren’t reasonable for your dates?
Given that rates vary from day to day, I recommend that you visit this page to find the best deals for your travel dates.
Please note that the Sassi area is not accessible by car, so if you have rented a car, ask the hotel if it has any agreements with external car parks.