A Complete Guide to Matera, Italy | Visiting the Sassi di Matera

A Complete Guide to Matera, Italy | Visiting the Sassi di Matera

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A hidden gem in Italy’s southern region of Basilicata, Matera is an amazing ancient city that will transport you back in time and allow you to experience how our ancestors lived for thousands of years.

With its unique UNESCO World Heritage site, the Sassi di Matera, Matera is famous for its many ancient cave dwellings carved into the cliffs that have been converted into luxurious hotels, restaurants, and bars.

Wander through the narrow streets, explore the stone churches, and find yourself captivated by the enchanting views from every corner. Immerse yourself in the history and culture of this remarkable city as you step back in time at Casa Grotta and go underground at Palombaro Lungo.

Whether you’re a history enthusiast, an architecture lover, or simply seeking a unique travel experience, Matera is a unique must-visit Italian destination that promises to leave a lasting impression.

Matera Travel Tips & Info

Where is Matera?

The city of Matera sits on the edge of the Murgia plateau in the southern Italian region of Basilicata.

While Matera may be located within the Basilicata region, the city’s nearest airport is in Bari in the neighbouring Puglia region.

Because of this, many people choose to visit Matera as part of a wider Puglia road trip. There are plenty of fascinating cities and beautiful towns to visit in Puglia too – check out the best places to visit in Puglia.

More on how to get to Matera below.

How old is Matera?

Matera is an ancient city with a rich history that spans thousands of years.

In fact, it is widely considered one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world, with evidence of human presence dating back to the Paleolithic era.

What is Matera famous for?

Matera is renowned for its incredible UNESCO World Heritage site, the Sassi di Matera.

Matera’s Sassi (Italian for “stones”) are a series of ancient cave dwellings carved into limestone cliffs on the edges of a steep gorge. They showcase a unique settlement style that has persisted here for centuries.

Across the gorge from the city center, you can even still see some of the original Neolithic caves where our prehistoric ancestors lived over 7,000 years ago.

Many of the ancient cave dwellings have now been converted into luxurious hotels and stylish restaurants, catering to visitors who come to experience the unique landscape.

The city has also been featured in many famous movies, such as the recent James Bond film “No Time to Die,” Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” and “Wonder Woman 1984.”

Matera History

Matera wasn’t always the desirable tourist destination it is today.

Up until the mid-1900s, Matera was an overcrowded poverty-ridden slum. It was even known as “the shame of Italy.” Many people lived in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in the caves, with no running water, electricity, or sewage systems.

In 1952, the government stepped in and evacuated much of the population to the new part of the city. A couple of decades later, the renovation of the ancient sassi began.

After a lot of work, Matera became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993 and a European Capital of Culture in 2019, contributing to its increase in popularity.

Is Matera busy?

While Matera’s recent fame has certainly increased tourism in the city, it’s still nowhere near as busy as other popular tourist destinations in Italy.

You may come across small crowds and a few tour groups at the main attractions. But you won’t be standing in line for too long.

There’s generally enough space for everyone to enjoy the peaceful streets of Matera.

Is Matera worth visiting?

Absolutely! A visit to Matera is an unforgettable experience that transports you back in time and offers a unique perspective on human history and architectural ingenuity.

It’s a remarkable ancient cityscape with narrow winding streets and many amazing cave churches and monasteries. There’s truly nowhere quite like it!

How to get to Matera, Italy

If you’re arriving by air, the closest airport to Matera is Bari Karol Wojtyła Airport in the Puglian capital of Bari. From here, you can easily reach Matera using a car, taxi, or bus.

The drive from Bari Airport to Matea takes around one hour and a taxi will cost you at least €100. So while a taxi may be convenient, it’s certainly not the cheapest option.

The cheapest way to get from Bari to Matera is the Pugliairbus which runs from Bari airport and takes just 1hr 15m. Tickets cost as little as €3.40 one-way if you pre-book.

Or if you’ve been travelling around Puglia using public transport and are coming from Bari city center, you can also check out Flixbus and MarinoBus. Both companies run routes between central Bari to Matera in as little as one hour.

There are currently no direct trains running between Bari and Matera.

How to get around Matera

Once in Matera, it’s best to explore the city on foot.

The narrow ancient streets mean that there’s limited vehicle access. Plus walking around Matera is the best way to fully experience the unique landscape and cave dwellings.

Layout of Matera

There are only a few areas of Matera that you need to be aware of as a visitor.

There’s the new area of the city, centered around the town square, Piazza Vittorio Veneto, and filled with Baroque churches and palaces (much like the nearby city of Lecce). This is also where you’ll find the entrance to Palombaro Lungo (more below).

If you’re coming from the train or bus station (as well as most car parks), you’ll probably arrive in this part of the city.

Then there are the Sassi.

The Sassi di Matera are split into two main districts, Sasso Caveoso (east) and Sasso Barisano (west) sitting on either side of a hilltop that holds Matera Duomo.

Things to do in Matera, Italy

Wander Around and Get Lost

Confession time… Writing a list of the top things to do in Matera was actually a pretty challenging task. Because, really, there’s only one thing you need to do to enjoy your visit to Italy’s most ancient city – wander!

Wander through the labyrinthine of narrow ancient streets, up and down uneven staircases, discovering hidden churches, monasteries, and quaint artisan workshops. Stumble across amazing viewpoints and stop for an aperitif overlooking the Sassi.

There’s really no better way to experience the unique beauty of Matera than by allowing yourself to get lost in the streets of this ancient city.

Find the Best Viewpoints

View from Piazza Duomo

Something I very quickly realised after arriving in Matera is that no matter where you are in the city, there’s guaranteed to be another amazing viewpoint right around the corner.

Matera is blessed with countless viewpoints that offer breathtaking vistas of the city and its surrounding landscape.

As you explore, keep an eye out for these stunning vantage points that showcase Matera’s beauty from different perspectives, whether it’s a panoramic view of the Sassi di Matera or a glimpse of the gorge below.

View from Quarry Lounge Restaurant

Some of my favourite viewpoints in Matera are:

  • Quarry Lounge Restaurant (here) | As you walk down from the Duomo, past Casa Noha and the MUSMA, you’ll eventually arrive at this lovely cliffside lounge with fantastic views over Sasso Caveoso, with its amazing rock church and backdrop of the gorge. You don’t even have to go into the restaurant to enjoy the views (although it is a lovely spot) – you can see everything you need from the terrace outside.
  • Belvedere Luigi Guerricchio detto dei “Tre Archi” (here) | Located just off Piazza Vittorio Veneto, this is the view that greets you as you first approach the Sassi from the new part of the city. It’s not the best view of Matera, but it’s one that will definitely stick with you!
  • Piazza Duomo (here) | The terrace surrounding Matera’s cathedral offers amazing panoramic views over Sasso Barisano.
  • Chiesa di San Pietro e Paolo (here) | A 12th-century church with a wrap-around terrace that offers some of the best views over the gorge and over to the ancient caves on the other side.

Explore Matera’s Stone Churches

Matera is home to a remarkable collection of stone churches that perfectly showcase the city’s ancient architectural wonders.

One of the most notable examples of a rock church in Matera is Chiesa Rupestre di Santa Maria di Idris (here). This 15th-century church is carved into the upper part of Monterrone, a large limestone cliff in the middle of the Sasso Caveoso.

The church is most impressive from the outside. Its clifftop position also boasts fantastic views back over the city. So a walk up to the terrace on which the church sits is a must.

If you are interested, you can head inside to see the unusual rock interior and the church’s fading frescoes, such as the 17th-century painting of Madonna with Child that embellishes the altar.

Santa Maria de Idris is also connected to the rock crypt of Chiesa San Giovanni via a tunnel. The crypt holds many precious frescoes from the 12th to the 17th century.

Tip: Many people don’t notice the tunnel and end up missing the second church. Don’t make this mistake – the frescoes of San Giovanni are more interesting than Santa Maria di Idris.

Entrance to both churches costs €4.

Visit Matera Duomo (Cathedral)

In addition to the ancient stone churches, Matera is also home to numerous other churches that offer a contrasting perspective. These architectural marvels stand as a testament to the city’s evolving identity and the blending of old and new.

If you don’t have long in Matera, it’s not worth visiting every church – the stone churches are the most interesting. But the one you shouldn’t miss is the iconic Duomo, a.k.a. Cattedrale di Maria Santissima della Bruna e Sant’Eustachio.

The magnificent 13th-century cathedral sits on the highest point in the city, marking the divide between the two Sassi and offering fantastic panoramic views.

The church boasts a simple Apulian-Romanesque facade, with an exquisite rose window in the center and a bell tower that dominates the city skyline.

The cathedral’s baroque-style interior is much more ornate, with a grand altar, stunning golden details, and many amazing frescoes. It also has an ancient stone carved nativity scene that dates back to the 1500s and was inspired by the Sassi.

Entrance to the Duomo costs €3.50.

See Matera in Minature

For a unique experience in Matera, visit Sassi in Miniatura (here). The workshop museum houses an impressive miniature model of Matera made from the very same limestone rock the Sassi were carved from.

This intricately detailed model provides a unique opportunity to see the layout of Matera’s Sassi from above. It’s a fascinating way to gain a deeper understanding of the unusual cityscape.

Don’t forget to take a minute to appreciate the remarkable craftsmanship that went into creating the model. The entire miniature city was created over 3 years between 1996 to 1999.

The model is completely free to visit, but you can support the business by buying something from the craft shop on the way out!

Step Back in Time at a Casa Grotta

To truly immerse yourself in the daily life of the people who once inhabited the Sassi di Matera, visiting a Casa Grotta (cave house) is a must.

There are a handful of well-preserved cave houses in Matera that provide a glimpse into the past. They allow you to fully immerse yourself in the humble living conditions of families in Matera right up until the 1950s.

The museum houses have all of the original finishings and tools, as well as plenty of signs and multi-language audio tours that provide valuable insights into the history and culture of Matera.

Some of the best Cases Grotta to visit are:

  • Casa Grotta C’era Una Volta | Location: Sasso Barisano (here) | Price: €2.
  • Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario | Location: Sasso Caveoso (here) | Price: €3.
  • Casa Grotta del Casalnuovo | Location: Sasso Caveoso (here) | Price: €3

Learn About Matera’s History at Casa Noha

Another great way to learn about Matera’s history is with a visit to Casa Noha, an ancient cave house with a twist.

Case Noha retraces the city’s history through a 30 minute film projected on the walls, ceilings, and floors of different rooms of this historic Sassi house.

The multimedia journey tells the fascinating story of Matera, from architecture and the history of art to archaeology and the history of cinema.

Casa Noha is branded as the visitor’s “gateway” to the city and is a great way to begin a trip to Matera – especially if you’re not doing a guided tour and are interested in learning more about the city before you explore.

Tickets cost €6.50 for adults.

Spot the City’s Many Statues and Sculptures

While most people visit Matera to admire the views of the unusual city as a whole (and it is pretty impressive!), try to take some time to hunt out the small details too.

Something we came across was these unusual little statues of girls overlooking Sasso Barisano, which we later found out was an art piece called “Gazes Among Sassi” by the sculptor Margherita Graselli.

And these aren’t the only sculptures around the city. Keep an eye out for:

  • The Drop” | A bronze sculpture of a water droplet in Piazzetta Pascoli that symbolizes the relationship between Matera and water.
  • The Fountain of Lovers” | 5 bronze statues that depict a courtship scene set in the last century when people were living in the old neighborhoods of Matera.

And if you are interested in art and sculptures, you can also visit Matera’s MUSMA (the Museum of Contemporary Sculpture), the only cave museum in the world and the most important Italian museum entirely dedicated to sculpture.

Go Underground at Palombaro Lungo

Matera is certainly most famous for its Sassi. But there’s another reason the city was given UNESCO status. And that’s Palombaro Lungo.

Also known as the “Cathedral of Water, “Palombaro Lungo is a giant network of subterranean cisterns under Piazza Vittorio Veneto.

The impressive system dates back to the 16th century and was used for collecting water for the city until the Apulia Aqueduct was built in 1920. Locals would use buckets and wells to gather the water to use in their daily lives.

Today you can travel underground and visit this masterpiece of ancient hydraulic engineering thanks to easy walkways suspended over the water.

Only a section of the cistern is open to the public, so you’ll only need 10-15 minutes to view it.

Tickets to enter cost €3.

Hike the Gorge

The hiking path from Matera through the gorge

If you have some extra time in Matera and want to get out of the city, why not take a hike along the gorge?

The Belvedere Murgia Timone hiking trail in the Parco Regionale della Murgia Materana is the most popular hike from Matera.

The trail begins at Porta Pistola in Sasso Caveoso. It takes you over the suspension bridge and up to the hilltop on the other side of the gorge, which offers amazing views back over Matera. From the viewpoint, you can also take the trails down to explore the ancient caves below.

The round hike to the viewpoint takes around 2 hours. But don’t forget to add time on for exploring and taking photos.

Stay in a Cave Hotel

Photo from Aquatio Cave Luxury Hotel & SPA

If you’re staying in Matera overnight, treat yourself to a unique stay in one of the city’s cave dwellings.

Many of the ancient structures have been converted into luxurious hotels and B&Bs. Most accommodation has retained its unique historic charm, with the addition of all of the modern amenities you could possibly need.

Some great cave hotels in Matera:

  • Caveoso Hotel | A beautifully renovated cave hotel excavated in the rock with spacious suites and an unbeatable location in the heart of Sassi Caveoso.
  • Aquatio Cave Luxury Hotel & SPA | A luxurious 5* cave hotel just a few minutes from the Duomo, with a sleek minimalist design and a cool cave spa featuring a sauna, hammam, and heated indoor pool.

Interested in staying in unique places? Why not combine your visit to Matera with the unusual trulli houses of Alberobello in nearby Puglia?

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London City Calling

Emily is a born and raised London girl, starting life in the north of the capital then moving down to Fulham in the southwest. She has a master’s degree in Social and Cultural Anthropology from University College London and now works full-time running this blog and as a freelance travel writer, splitting her life between London and travelling the world as a digital nomad.

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