Matera is one of the wonders of Southern Italy. This unusual, and until recently almost unheard-of city in Basilicata, has been awarded the European City of Culture 2019 and it is a great opportunity to spend some time getting to know the UNESCO World Heritage site during a year full of events. However, it hasn’t always been this way.
Matera used to be a source of shame for Italy – as recently as the 1950s people lived in the town’s caves without electricity, water, or a sewage system, and the rate of infant mortality was high. Carlo Levi’s book Christ stopped at Eboli alerted many people to the plight of Materans, and people were moved into new homes.
Now, these caves are boutique hotels and restaurants, serving the finest Italian food in these very peculiar locations.
Although tricky to get to, it’s one of Italy’s most stunning locations, and you certainly won’t regret a trip to learn about the history of this spellbinding little town. Here we listed the best locations you cannot miss for an outstanding visit of Matera.
If you wish to explore the South of Italy, do not miss our 9 day tour to Sicily, Matera and Apulia: accommodation, transfers and guided visits included!
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Matera is in Basilicata, the region between the toe and the heel of the boot of Italy. The closest city is Bari, which is reachable both by train and by plane from Rome or Naples. From Bari, you can easily find a train or bus direct connection.
From Roma, there are daily bus services which reach Matera in 6 ½ hours. There are also daily bus services from Napoli, which take just under 4 hours. Please note that the closest railway station is not located a 20-minute bus ride from the town.
For those who prefer more comfortable transportation, please contact us for a private transfer service!
Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano are two natural amphitheatres carved out of the rock in the town's Civita district.In fact, they're what the city is named after – La Città dei Sassi (the city of caves).
The Civita district is the oldest part of Matera and divides the two sassi. Sasso Caveoso is made up of cave houses, whereas Sasso Barisano consists of more traditional houses, built with complex techniques.
Walking through the district, you'll now find galleries, boutique hotels, and shops, as well as the rock churches and belltowers that have been there for much longer. During the day, see how the light reflects upon the white rocks, before admiring the hundreds of twinkling lights as darkness falls.
You can spend hours just strolling around the "Sassi", feeling like travelling through time! Then, relax in special places you will encounter across the alleys, such as Area8, a multi-functional space hosting a cafè and an array of cultural events (from cinema to concerts) where you will enjoy great cocktails and food in a trendy yet cozy atmosphere. The type of place you don't want to leave in a hurry!
The caves are Matera’s main attraction, so it’s only logical that you’d want to go inside one.
Well, the best option is Casa Grotta, or the Cave House. Casa Grotta has been preserved so that you can see how peasants lived when Matera was the ‘shame of Italy.’ Not only will you see living quarters complete with a bed, and a loom, but you’ll also see a section for the pigs and donkeys (which lived in the caves with their owners) and a section where manure was kept.
You can find this unusual and enlightening experience on Via Bruno Buozzi, where there’s access to neighbouring caves and the chance to watch a black and white film about the town’s dark history.
La Palomba, which means the Dove in English, is located less than half an hour out of Matera on foot (or 5 minutes by car) and it represents a hidden gem off the beaten track of Matera.
You’ll find it in an abandoned quarry which has been transformed into an open-air sculpture park. Although nature has reclaimed part of the quarry, you’ll see many metal sculptures through the quarry, the most famous being by Italian artist Antonio Paradiso. His 2013 artworks are made from the steel girders, bars, and twisted metal left over from the World Trade Centre attack in 2001.
It’s free to enter the park, and you can enter at any time you like.
You’ll find more than 150 rock churches in and around Matera, thought to be carved into the rocks during the Middle Ages.
The churches are decorated with sculptures and frescoes, and their uses over the years have not only been religious, but also used as homes or shelters for animals.
The most important rock churches in Matera are Santa Maria di Idris, found on top of a limestone cliff in the Sasso Caveoso, Santa Lucia Alle Malve, which dates back to the 8th century and is the first female Benidictine monk settlement, and San Pietro Barisano – the largest rock church in Matera.
Hidden in a ravine on the Murgia plateau, the Crypt of the Original Sin is also known as the Sistine Chapel of Rupestrian art, thanks to the thousand-year-old biblical frescoes that remained uncovered until relatively recently.
It was inhabited in the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras, and in the 1960s was used as a shelter for shepherds. It was only in 1981 that archaeologists finally explored it, before UNESCO declared it a World Heritage site in 1993.
It has been open to the public since 2005, meaning you can see the beautiful prehistoric art for yourself.
A trip to Matera is not complete without visiting the huge “subterranean cathedral” that is Palombaro Lungo.
You don’t even need to leave the city centre, as it’s located right underneath the town’s main square! It’s not actually a cathedral – it’s a giant cistern, and it used to supply Matera with its water only a couple of generations back.
To learn more, take a 25-minute tour of the cistern, and don’t worry if you don’t speak Italian – as there are multilingual guides available.
We’ve mentioned 6 things in an Italian city, and none of them are food, but don’t worry – we were going to get to it eventually!
Matera has a number of mouth-watering specialities, the first being its bread – a symbol of the city which has a crunch, aromatic crust with grey streaks, and a tantalising yellow inside. It’s made of durum wheat, just like the delicious handmade pastas on offer here – cavatelli are small pasta shells served with organic tomato sauce or other tasty toppings, while everyone knows tasty ravioli!
The other famous local delicacy is peperoni cruschi also known as senise peppers, which are crunchy and sundried.