All you need to know to plan a trip to Matera, Basilicata, one of the most peculiar and unique towns in the world and unique UNESCO site in Italy.
Matera is a city like no other.
Entirely carved out of the rocky slopes of a mountain in Basilicata, a region in the South of Italy, it is one of the most ancient cities in the world and a place with an appearance and a history so unique, it defies belief.
Matera came onto the world stage in 2019, when it became European Capital of Culture and finally got all the attention a place as beautiful and as interesting as this deserves.
We visited over the course of several day and fell in love with this unique, otherwordly yet welcoming town.
This is all you need to know to plan a visit.
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Why visit Matera
Matera is a small town in the region of Basilicata, a rather remote and often overlooked part of Italy, in the South of the peninsula.
It is not particularly well connected to the rest of the country however, it is one of the most beautiful places you can ever see in Italy and has a story so unique, it will be hard to forget.
Matera is a city entirely carved out or rocks, the so called ‘sassi‘.
The geography here is harsh and the steep mountain flanks made it difficult for locals to build traditional homes.
Therefore, they came up with a solution: they carved their houses out of the rocks and lived in caves!
The caves were kitted out to welcome families and animals and may sound like a pretty standard dwelling for ancient times, if it wasn’t for one not-so-small detail: Matera’s caves have been in use until the 50s and are still in use now, albeit recently fully restored and upgraded!
A visit to the caves is the main reason to visit Matera but I don’t want you to think the town is for culture lovers only.
Matera is stunning so while its history and uniqueness makes it stand out, its sheer beauty is also reason enough to come here.
The visual impact of this city of rock is powerful and the rupestrian churches, the cave churches locals used for religious ceremonies, are unique in the world.
Good to know: a rupestrian church is a church carved out of a rock. Matera has several of them, some easier to visit than other, and they are so unique they are now UNESCO World Heritage site.
The best things to do in Matera
Matera developed over the slopes of a steep mountain shaped like a natural amphitheater and is, as such, divided into three main parts.
At the top of the mountains lies the more modern part of town, the districts of Piano and Civita: beautiful and flat, this part of Matera has nice shops, palazzi, museums and some interesting churches.
Along the slopes of the mountain lie the real gem of Matera, the part of the town carved out of rock.
Part of the amphitheater is called Sasso Barisano and the other park Sasso Caveoso and they are divided by a road that meanders at the bottom of the valley: Via Fiorentini
All these parts have beautiful landmarks and things to see.
These are the best things to see and do in Matera.
Learn the history of Matera with a guided tour of the city
Matera is a city with a story so peculiar you will not be able to fully grasp it (or believe it!), without a local guide.
Ours allowed to put into context some very interesting facts about the city.
Matera is one of the most ancient cities in the world and precisely, it is said to be the third most ancient after Aleppo and Gerico.
It seems to have been inhabited since the Neolithic and the first trace we have of the word ‘sassi’ to indicate its neighborhoods and dwellings dates as far back as the XI century.
For most of its history, Matera has been a place of awful misery.
The caves that we now see as so charming were cold, humid and unforgiving and their position below the main city made the sassi a place of unseen poverty, that both wealthy locals and the Italian State, once created in the late 1800s, could easily ignored.
In 1931, anti-fascist activist and author Carlo Levi was sent in confinement to the area and authored a book that captured beautifully and dramatically the reality of this area and of the Matera Caves.
His book was a turning pint for the city: the book defined the sassi an ‘infernal crater’ and this got to to the attention of the Italian authorities who quickly defined Matera ‘vergogna d’Italia’ – Italy’s shame.
In 1952, actions were take to change the situation.
People were kicked out of the caves and relocated in apartments, and the caves were taken from their inhabitants and made state property.
The work on the ‘sassi’ didn’t bring immediate solutions and it is only in the 1990s that Matera’s fate seems to turn.
The inclusion of the ‘sassi’ in the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites and later the nominations of Matera as Capital of Culture 2019 brought money and attention to the city.
Now, the caves are clean, beautiful and interesting museums, luxury accommodation, wine bars and the whole city sparkles, making its dramatic history hard to believe.
Several tours are on offer. Check out:
Visit Santa Maria de Idris – the most accessible of Matera’s Rupestrian churches
Probably the most impressive of all sites in Matera is the church of Santa Maria de Idris, which is entirely excavated in Matera’s rock (in the photo below, you recognize it by the cross, the church is the rock under it!)
The church is perched on the top of a rocky formation and you can easily see it from the Sasso Caveoso, just in front.
It is the most peculiar sight: from the distance, the first impression is that of just a mountain peak with a cross ton op but as you get closer, you can see that it is a proper church, with a door and steps to enter!
Explore Sasso Caveoso and its cave-houses
The Sasso Caveoso is the one of the two amphitheaters with the original rock dwellings, called case-grotte (houses-caves).
You can see the entrance of all of these houses taking a stroll around the Sasso Caveoso but some are open to the public and operate as museums.
We visited two and they are indeed worth seeing.
The first entered was on Vico Solitario and while really interesting, it was so packed with people you could hardly connect with the place at all
The second one we saw, smaller, was on Via dei Fiorentini and truly gave us a sense of what life there must have been like,
I recommend you make a call about which one of the many to visit depending on the crowds on the day
Admire the church of San Pietro e Paolo al Caveoso
Matera has several wonderful churches and one that truly struck a chord with us for its incredible position is San Pietro e Paolo in the Sasso Caveoso.
The church dates back to the XIII century and opens up onto a large piazza overlooking a deep ravine.
You can visit the church inside and I also recommend you take a stroll around it as the views from there are incredible.
Take an evening stroll in Sasso Barisano
The Sasso Barisano faces part of the Caveoso but it is very different.
Rather than cave dwellings, here you have traditional houses and even palazzi excavated from the rock and the result is beautiful.
Come in the late afternoon to explore its alleys and churches: the sunset over the Caveoso from here is magical!
Visit Matera’s Piano and Civita
As well as the Sassi, you should take some time to visit the ‘plain’ of Matera, the part of the city that sits at the top of the Sassi and with a more standard layout.
This area is beautiful and has many churches, some worth seeing.
The cathedral of Matera (XIII century), the Church of San Francesco d’Assisi (XIII century) and the Church of San Giovanni Battista, a wonderful example of Apulian Romanesque architecture, are just some of the most noticeable ones.
Take your time in Matera’s Museums
For a small town, Matera packs a punch in terms of museums.
Some worth seeing are the National Archaeological Museum and the interesting Casa Noah (Website in Italian only), which is a local home now turned museum with incredible films and photos that make the history of Matera come to life.
Check out the miniature sassi
In Via dei Fiorentini, we came across a museum/shop with a beautiful miniature of the Sassi.
This is a wonderful, easy place to visit that gives a great understanding of the geography and topography of Matera: the skills of its makers are also impressive!
The miniature at the museum entrance is free to see and helps putting in context the otherwise hard to grasp geography of the town.
Visiting Matera with kids: what you need to know
We visited Matera with school aged kids and they adored it.
The town is so peculiar and evocative, with the rocks, the Rupestrian churches and the caves, it sparked their imaginations and a string of questions and they adored being able to run around and climb without the fear of cars (‘sassi’ are mostly car-free).
Very young kids are also likely to enjoy the freedom this city grants however, this is a seriously stroller un-friendly place!
I sassi are impossible with strollers so if you have a baby, you should opt for a carrier.
If traveling with young kids, you may want to check out our tips for using a stroller in Italy here.
Where to eat in Matera
Matera nowadays is full of wonderful restaurants and wine bars and you will have no difficulties finding excellent meals here.
The best of all we had in town was at Bollicine Bistrot, which I highly recommend.
Where to stay in Matera
Matera is not entirely geared towards tourism and offers many different typs of accommodation options to suit all typed of travelers .
If you want to be in the heart of i sassi like we did, we can recommend Casa del Sole: on a lovely opening right in the heart of Sasso Caveoso, it has lovely apartments view the most incredible views over Matera you can ask for!
Practical tips for visiting Matera
Matera is best reached by car and then explored on foot.
You can see how we included it in our Southern Italy itinerary here.
Parking is available outside of the main sassi area (which is not accessible by car) either on street or in one of the several parking lots around.
The flat part of Matera doesn’t pose mobility issues but the sassi do.
Make sure you have proper walking shoes, do not bring a stroller if you have young kids and do evaluate carefully what you cannot or cannot do if you are at all unsteady on your feet.
Plan for warm summer day but potentially very cold winter days.
Stay a minimum of one night / two days.
I hope you enjoyed this quick travel guide to Matera and it inspired you to go visit. Safe travel planning!