Perfect guide to the best things to see and do in Matera Italy, in one day or more. How to get to Matera, best cave hotels, top restaurants, sunset viewpoint.
Matera Italy, is a unique and unmissable destination, and you should do your best to squeeze it into your Italian itinerary.
Matera is getting more and more importance as one of Italy Must Sees, and for excellent reasons. Unesco site, 2019’s European Capital of Culture, movie set for Mel Gibson The passion of Christ, 7000 years of history. What else would you ask for?
Matera highlight are the Sassi, the cave-dwelling districts . Local residents stayed in the Sassi until the 50’s in unbearable living conditions. Writer Carlo Levi described their state of poverty and illness in the novel “Cristo si è fermato a Eboli”, and Matera rapidly became “the shame of italy”. Media and popular pressure grew strong enough to convince the Italian government to expropriate houses and palaces in the Sassi and to evacuate the population to new, more salubrious houses. This transformed the Sassi in a ghost town for more than 4 decades.
The Sassi (and Matera) renaissance started only in the 90’s, when Matera was inscribed in the Unesco World Heritage site list. Since then, Matera has kept on investing on its cultural heritage, renovating houses and churches, opening elegant hotels with vaulted cave rooms and opening restaurants to taste the delicious local food.
Matera will be 2019’s European Capital of Culture, so do your best to visit it before it becomes a mainstream touristic destination!
It can be visited in one day (very full!) or, better, over 2 days. 3 days would allow you to visit hidden cave churches in the Murgia plateau with a guided tour.
Where is Matera located in Italy?
Matera is located in the Basilicata region, one of the less known Italy territories, squeezed between Puglia, Campania and Calabria.
Here is a Matera map to help you understand where Matera is located.
How to get to Matera from Bari and from Naples
The easiest way to reach Matera is from Bari airport, which many low costs airlines serve regularly. Getting there from Naples is an option as well, even though less convenient.
You obviously don’t need a car to explore old Matera. However, a rented car could be an option to consider. It will give you enough flexibility to reach the sunset viewpoint and to visit charming Altamura or Gravina neighboring towns. The Castellana caves and the Alborobello trulli could be an optional visit destination as well. Just consider that finding a proper parking place close to the Sassi could take a little bit of time (and a lot of your patience!).
Matera could actually be a stop in a one or 2 weeks fly and drive Puglia tour, so consider adding it you are planning to visit Puglia.
Public transports to Matera
If you don’t plan to drive, public transports are a convenient alternative to get to Matera:
- Bari – Matera Bus: there is a fairly convenient bus which connects Bari airport and Matera in roughly one hour. Check out schedule, since it usually operates mainly in high season.
If you are staying in Bari, then the Bari – Matera railway line is the best solution for you. Tickets are cheap and the one and a half journey will give you the opportunity of enjoying the gorgeous scenery. Check here the Appulolucane railwaysweb site.
Get down at Matera Centrale station and head to Piazza Vittorio Veneto along via Roma (200 meters). Here you will be just on top of the Sassi. Asking your hotel to come and pick you up could be a good idea, since finding your way in the old town is not an easy business.
- From Naples / Amalfi coast: getting to Matera from Naples is not the easiest option, but the logical one if you plan to visit it after you are done with the Amalfi coast. Visiting Matera could actually be an exciting 2 or 3 days extension.
If you are leaving from Naples, you have a bus service which will get you to Matera in a little more than four hours. Check here the Marino bus web site for their schedules and to reserve your tickets,
If you decide to rely on public transportation, try to avoid week ends and bank holidays, when trains and buses reduce their runs.
Top thing to do in Matera #1: sleep in a cave Hotel
Where to stay in Matera is a no brainer, you should absolutely do your best to sleep in a cave hotel or apartment. Most of the hotels occupy former rupestrian houses and caves, and are among the most fascinating and romantic accommodations you could think of.
Note that the availability is still scarce, so book with as much advance as possible.
Great options are:
Gorgeous cave hotel in the Sassi, just down piazza Vittorio Emanuele. It offers traditional accommodation carved out of the rock and a welness center including an amazing indoor pool with hydromassage, sauna and Turkish bath. A truly romantic accommodation for a special occasion.
The Hotel Basiliani is located close to the Santa Lucia at the Malve church, one of the most scenic area of the Sassi, and overlooks the prehistoric caves of the Chiese Rupestri Archaeological Park. It offers a stunning contrast between the ancient stone facade and the modern design rooms. It conveniently offers a parking space nearby the hotel.
Amazing cave hotel featuring rooms and suites set in large caves, with stone floors and antique furniture. Le Grotte della Civita is located in the lowest part of the Matera’s Sassi area, its panoramic terrace overlooks the Murgia National Park.
Excellent value for money for this B&B overlooking the Sassi, a few steps away from the cathedral. Clean simple rooms and great views. This is not a cave hotel.
Feel like a local in this lovely cave apartment recently refurbished including a living room, a kitchenette and a bathroom with free toiletries. Perfect solution if you are travelling with your family. Extremely kind and helpful owners, they will pick you up at your arrival and give you many useful tips for your stay (including best guides contacts).
Top thing to do in Matera #2: explore Matera by foot or by Tuk Tuk
Matera could be nearly as complicated as Venice to visit. It’s a fascinating maze of streets, stairs and overlapping houses, churches and palaces, many of which partially excavated into the soft Matera rock.
There are 2 areas to visit: the historical center and the Sassi, the cave district. Surprisingly enough, what is normally called “the historical center” is the “newest” renaissance and baroque district. Its main sights are located around Piazza Vittorio Veneto and Via Ridola. They overlook the actual “old” town, the Sassi.
The Sassi area is divided in three parts: Sasso Caveoso , Sasso Barisano and the Civita district. They are composed of individual dwellings carved into the soft pale gold limestone (“calcarenite”) and stacked on top of each other like a gigantic crazy Lego. The Sassi are with Petra, Giordany, one of the oldest inhabited settlements on hearth!
The best way to appreciate the city’s labyrinthine layout is on foot. However, you can also charter local lovely three-wheeled motor vehicle used as tourist taxi.
You can use the following google map to help you locate the main attractions in Matera maze of small lanes, alleys and stairways. I drafted a counter clockwise one day itinerary that touches all the main sites, hotels and restaurants. Just click on the image to open it.
After you have visited the main sights, my suggestion would be to spend some time just walking around, to discover Matera secrets at your own pace.
Start your day in Piazza Vittorio Veneto, where you will find the tourist office and the first of the many amazing viewpoints you will discover during your explorations: the Palombaro lungo.
Top thing to do in Matera #3: the amazing Palombaro
Palombaro lungo is a giant cistern, one of the many used until not so long ago to provide water to the old city. Carved out of the existing rock below the square, it looks looks like a gigantic cathedral, with sun light coming down form holes in the roof. The breathtaking visit is only possible in group, book your entry at the ticket office below the square. Guides will explain the cistern history and construction, multilingual tours available.
Top thing to do in Matera #4: visit the Duomo and the old Civita
The Civita neighborhood, with the cathedral built in Romanesque style, is a natural fortress situated in the heart of the ancient city, at its hist point. Built on a spur overlooking the old city and the ravine, it ideally divides the Sasso Barisano from the sasso Caveoso.
The 13th-century Pugliese-Romanesque cathedral displays a surprising neobaroque interior. Notice the 13th-century Byzantine Madonna and the two 12th-century frescoed crypts.
The cathedral is an easy to spot landmark if you get lost, and a souce of inspiration for great pictures.
Top thing to do in Matera #5: understand Matera history in Casa Noha
Casa Noha is located a few steps down the cathedral. The owners of the palace gave it to the FAI, who transformed it into a Matera exhibition place. The 25-minute multimedia exhibit, spread across three rooms of this 16th-century family palace is a perfect introduction to your stay in Matera. Click here to know more.
Top thing to do in Matera #6: meditate on human destiny in Chiesa del purgatorio
While walking down via Ridola to palazzo Lanfranchi, pay attention to this small church on your right. The chiesa del purgatorio is a late Baroque church built by the Confraternity for the Poor Souls in Purgatory (hence the name). The façade is totally inspired by death, a rather unique example of its kind in Italy.
Top thing to do in Matera #7: enjoy Matera best viewpoint at Palazzo Lanfranchi Belvedere
Palazzo Lanfranchi is one of the most important palaces in Matera, and the square in front of it a fantastic viewpoint to admire the Sassi and the Murgia landscape. The Palazzo Lanfranchi, a former seminary, now houses a interesting painting and sacred art museum.
Top thing to do in Matera #8: admire middle age frescoes in Santa Lucia alle Malve
This cliff-face church has a number of 13th-century frescoes, including an unusual breastfeeding Madonna. It dates from the 8th century, when it was built as the Benedictine Order’s first foothold in Matera.
Top thing to do in Matera #9: understand life in the Sassi at Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario museum
The cave-house of Vico solitario, in Sasso Caveoso, is a fantastic opportunity to know what life looked like in the Sassi up to the 50’s. The house consists of a single room, partly excavated and partly built, with antique furniture and tools. , inhabited until 1957 by a family of 11 people (plus animals)!!!.
Top thing to do in Matera #10: Visit amazing Santa Maria de Idris
The Santa Maria de Idris overlooks San Pietro Caveoso and is entirely carved into the rock. On top of some nice 12th- to 17th-century frescoes, you will enjoy some of the best views on the Sassi.
Top thing to do in Matera #11: Admire San Pietro Caveoso, the largest rupestrian church in Matera
Built in the 12th century, San Pietro Barisano is the largest rupestrian church in Matera. Its Romanesque – Baroque style façade hides an inside completely dug into the tuff. Many of the altars that once enriched the church were removed after the church was abandoned in the 50’s. Underneath the church a crypt with the ossuary.
Top thing to do in Matera #12: visit the unique monastic complex of Chiese di San Nicola e Madonna delle Virtu
Top thing to do in Matera #13: enjoy the best Matera sunset over the Sassi and the rock churches frescoes
For an unforgettable view of Matera sassi, take the Taranto–Laterza road (SS7) and follow signs for the chiese rupestri (troglodyte churches). This road takes you to the Belvedere, the location of the crucifixion in The Passion of the Christ, which has fantastic views of the old town and of the plunging ravine and Matera. It’s especially impressive at sunset.
Top thing to do in Matera #14: discover Matera rock churches
This area is also dotted with amazing troglodyte churches, many of which displaying marvelous middle age frescoes. Some of these had been stolen in the sixties, recovered from a German museums and put back in place. A great guide, with deep knowledge of the area and a fantastic way to involve children is Mario Montemurro, from Matera Escursioni
If you don’t have a car, then join one of the many Chiese rupestri tours, they include transportation. Here is the path to the Belvedere (click on the image to open Google map).
Top thing to do in Matera #15: taste Matera delicious cuisine
Matera dishes are an delicious combination of the neighboring regions culinary traditions, especially Puglia and Campania, with a local peculiar flavor.
It’s hard not to eat well in Matera. Here are the restaurants were I ate and that I warmly recommend.
Panecotto : a simple bistrot build in a cave, with a passion for local products and delicacies. You can actually purchase most of them in the shop if you liked what you had for lunch or dinner.
Trattoria del Caveoso : delicious restaurant on the main alley going down from the Civita to San Pietro Caveoso. Don’t miss the scialatielli al pesto del caveoso and the salsiccia con le cime di rapa
La grotta nei sassi : a few steps away from piazza Vittorio Emanuele, the Grotta nei sassi is a tiny restaurant specialized in sea food. Nice terrace overlooking the Sassi in the summer time.
Matera can be a stop in a one or two weeks trip to visit Apulia: click here for a one week itinerary you can easily combine with your visit to Matera.
Enjoy your stay in Matera!
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