Visiting Matera, Italy

When my brother-in-law visited Puglia, Italy, he came home raving about a town built into a cave-filled mountain we had to visit. When researching a Puglia trip, you are likely to see mention of a visit to Matera. Although it is technically part of the region of Basilicata, it is less than an hour from Bari, so it is best included in a trip to this region.

We have traveled around much of Italy, but this town is unique and worth a visit. I would even recommend going out of your way if you are anywhere near southern Italy.

Things to do in Matera, Italy
The Matera Cathedral overlooking the buildings of Matera at night

Why You Truly Want to Visit Matera

Why is it so special? Matera is a place to get lost and has a spiritual quality that feels like Sedona, Arizona. The old, or original town, is set on two hills, Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano, in the green hills of interior Italy. Sassi means stone in Italian. The singular is sasso. The town is perched over a ravine.

Matera is believed to have first been settled in the 10th millennium BC. Yes, you understood that correctly. People have inhabited the caves of Matera since the Palaeolithic Era, which makes it one of the oldest continuously established settlements in the world. The original inhabitants settled in the numerous limestone caves in the area with their families and animals. Eventually, they dug out the caves, creating houses, a city, and churches from and around them.

One day in Matera, Italy
A view of the road and ravine over which Matera sits.

While researching my 7-Day Puglia Itinerary, the posts I read recommended certain places to visit in Matera. Because of how the town was formed, a more relaxed approach is better. Also, be ready for a lot of walking up steep hills- and getting lost! Google Maps can’t navigate well here; even though it will give you directions, it will get confused, and you won’t be where it says you will be. Think of lots of small alleys, steps, and turns. But because the old town is on two hills, you can always find your way by heading up or down.

In the 1950s, the government saw dangerous living conditions in the sassi and built housing above the city, where most of the parking (and driving) is currently. They moved most of the population there. You can still see abandoned houses in the sassi as evidence of this abandonment. Later, popular culture and travelers realized what an interesting place Matera is, and people moved back in. Ben Hur (2016), Passion of the Christ, and Wonder Woman are just a few movies filmed in Matera.

Where to Stay in Matera

where to stay in Matera
The living room of our Airbnb

I highly recommend staying in a cave inside either of the Sasso.

We stayed in a spectacular cave home hosted by Tudor, a painter, on Airbnb. I cannot recommend this beautifully styled home with incredible views.

If you would instead book a hotel, you can find cave hotels on Hotels.com.

How Long to Stay in Matera

Visit Matera
Like many small towns in Italy, Matera is ideal for wandering.

We spent one day in Matera, which was not enough time. One thing we did well was to spend a night in Matera. The light is ever-changing, so I recommend staying long enough to see a sunset and how the light bathes the town at different times of the day and night.

What to Do in Matera, Italy

The Stone Church of St Mary de Idris is a must-see, if only for the views of the town it provides. You can go inside, which is very simply decorated.
  • Wander through its alleys. I would have spent a day doing just this if I had more time. I also recommend trying not to head to a particular place. It is so easy to get lost here that you will waste your time. There are many versions of many of the things to do in Matera.
  • Visit a house museum. There are many of them. They will show what life was like for early settlers, how the caves were used, and how they were eventually expanded.
  • Shop or eat in the Central Piazza Vittorio Veneto, Matera’s open square at the top of the hill between the two Sasso.
  • Check out a cistern. A cistern caught rainwater and was the water source for the neighborhoods of the Sassi. Under the plaza is the largest cistern, Palombaro Lungo.
  • Duck into churches. There are over 150 churches in Matera, some large and some just large rooms with frescos. We saw a few churches while in Matera.
  • But our favorite was the ancient church with incredible views, the Church of St. Mary of Idris. It was reasonably easy to find since it is on a hill in Sasso Caveoso.
  • Go outside the town to explore the Crypt of Original Sin and its beautiful frescos with a tour.
  • Take a Tuk-Tuk Ride. Unlike in Otranto, the tour mainly takes place on the outskirts of the town, as motorized vehicles are not permitted in its alleyways.
  • Cross to the other side of the ravine, the Gravina of Matera. You can book a guided hike to Parco Murgio to see Matera from across the ravine, or you can try the hike on your own.
  • Another option to see what you want is to book a walking tour of Matera.
Churches in Matera, Italy
The stunning Renaissance interior of the Matera Cathedral also has an intricate Nativity.

I hope this gives you a glimpse of why Matera is a must-see destination. I was in love with it, and I would go out of my way to return.

Are you planning a trip to Matera, or have you been? Let me know in the comments.

If you liked it, please share it. Thank you!

2 thoughts on “Visiting Matera, Italy”

  1. We were there at the beginning of May for 2 nights. We stayed in a cave hotel The whole experience was amazing. We loved Matera and it’s history. I recommend a 2 night stay to be able to explore and enjoy this unique town

    Reply

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