With so many things to do in Matera, Italy, it’s easy to see why visitors frock to this city and why it’s regularly prize by media.
It took me about a split second to fall in love with Matera. After parking my rental car outside the city center, I walked towards the famous Sassi di Matera, where my hotel was located. A quick turn from Piazza Vittorio Veneto and a few steps down along a narrow alley and the view opened up in front of me, leaving me speechless.
There it was – the city I had been dreaming of visiting and heard so much about; the city I had seen countless beautiful photos of, somehow fearing I had too high expectations about it. That’s when I realized that Matera is actually even more beautiful in real life than it is in photos. This is to say, you should visit, ASAP!
Yet, Matera hasn’t always enjoyed such a glorious reputation.
Before I go on to tell you everything about the things to do in Matera and share some useful tips that will help you plan your trip, let me share some background information about the city and its past.
A Brief History Of Matera, Italy
Matera is known to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world – along with Aleppo, in Syria, and Jericho, in Palestine. The name of the city, Matera, is said to come from the Ancient Greek “meteoron,” which means starry sky and which is a reference to the view one used to get at night, when people living there would place oil lamps outside their doors to illuminate the way.
People in Matera have lived in caves for millennia (it’s estimated they used to live there already in the Paleolithic) and until around 70 years ago.
That’s when things changed.
Right after World War II, the degrading living conditions of the inhabitants of the Sassi became known throughout Italy.
It was Italian writer Carlo Levi who first – and pointedly – described the poverty and the living conditions of the Sassi di Matera in his book, Christ Stopped at Eboli, which was published in 1945 after he had spent some years in exile in the region. I read that book some 20 years ago, when I was an undergraduate, and still remember the horror I felt at what Levi described.
Levi spoke of people who lived in cave homes along with their animals – usually a donkey or a mule, occasionally a horse, as well as chickens and at times even pigs. The cave homes had no running water or electricity and hardly any ventilation. Locals literally only slept and ate indoors – every other aspect of life was lived outside, in the “vicinati” – the small courtyards that scatter the landscape of the Sassi di Matera.
It didn’t take long after the publication of the book for Matera to become “the shame of Italy.” Unable to explain the unacceptable living conditions of the Sassi di Matera, Italian politicians and experts worked together in an effort to clean up the area, and from May 1952 more than 17000 people were moved to neighborhoods that were built ad-hoc for them.
It took it around 70 years to go from being the shame of Italy to one of its jewels, and a place all Italians are proud of.
The Sassi di Matera were cleaned up and renovated; an appropriate sewage and electricity system put in place; and with time many caves turned into beautiful homes, boutique hotels, holiday apartments – though worry not, locals still live in the area!
Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, Matera quickly became a popular filming destination among Italian and foreign directors – one of the most famous being Mel Gibson, who found the city to provide the ideal landscape for his The Passion of The Christ.
To further increase the fame of Matera, the city became the European Culture Capital in 2019.
A popular tourist destinations for Italians, Matera has now become a dream travel destinations for foreigners, who are captured by its sheer beauty. For those of you considering adding Matera to your itinerary, this post provides a selection of the best things to do in Matera, and a few tips that will help you plan your trip.
Matera isn’t exactly a disabled friendly city. This is an incredibly old city, with lots of staircases and cobbled streets. If you aren’t up to walking, perhaps it is not for you.
13 Unmissable Things To Do In Matera, Italy
Take the Silent City Experience
The Silent City Experience is by far one of the coolest things to do in Matera. It is a tour of the city, but with a unique twist during which you will be involved in activities that will help you experience the city in unexpected ways. The aim is that of creating your own story of Matera, one that you will remember each time you will be thinking about the city.
At the beginning of the tour you will be given an illustrated book. You will follow an itinerary that was put together by L’Albero Theater Company, a group of artists (actors, musicians and the like) who produced an opera called Silent City to celebrate Matera becoming the European Capital of Culture.
The opera tells the story of a child who in the 1950s, when the inhabitants of the Sassi di Matera were being moved to the outer areas of the city, got lost and stuck in the city. He was never found, but when the Sassi came back to life, he became the guiding spirit of children in search of adventure and fun in Matera.
During the tour, you will be collecting small things you find – for example, I collected a flower. You will be drawing, writing stories, eavesdropping on passersby conversations, and more. You will be taking the booklet home with you – it’s a great souvenir. Make sure to listen to the opera as well – you just have to search it via the QR code on the booklet.
The Silent City Experience costs €35 per person for groups of two; prices go down for larger groups – so for example, a group of 5 pays €25 per person. You can book it here or via email at email@example.com.
TIP: I recommend doing the Silent City Experience first thing when in Matera, so that you will experience the city with a completely unbiased attitude.
Learn about the history of the city at Casa Noha
Once you are done with the Silent City Experience, head to Casa Noha, which is located in a beautiful historical home in the Sassi di Matera: the two families who used to live there donated to the city. Through three documentaries – each shown in a different room – you will be able to learn about the history of the city, and how it went from being the “shame of Italy” to its proud jewel.
Casa Noha is open Thursday to Monday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. Admission is €6 per person and can be booked here.
Explore the Sassi di Matera
You really can’t miss the Sassi di Matera – not even if you want to!
The Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano pretty much correspond to the historic center of Matera. They are divided by the Civita – a rocky outcrop. Sasso Barisano is where you will find Piazza Vittorio Veneto and a multitude of bars, cafés and restaurants with views over the city, and which is significantly more lively than the Caveoso. Wandering around the Sassi really is one of the unmissable things to do in Matera.
But, after you tour the Sassi, comes what I believe is the best part: simply wandering around the maze of narrow alleys, stairways, cobbled streets, tiny squares and more. You will see lovely quaint shops; cats resting in the shade (or the sun, depending on the season!); and pass by about a million viewpoints.
The Sassi are great at any time of day – with a different hour comes a different light and the experience you get changes. I loved exploring them right before sunset, and taking in the views at night.
Visit Palombaro Lungo
Among the unmissable things to do in Matera there’s visiting the Palombaro Lungo. Accessed from Piazza Vittorio Veneto, one of the most beautiful city squares, this is a system of cisterns that were first excavated from underground caves in the 16th century – but keep in mind the Palombaro Lungo was completed in 1882 – to store spring waters, which were abundant in the region.
When Piazza Vittorio Veneto was being refurbished in 1991, the cisterns were finally explored by a group of divers, who found all sorts of objects people had lost throughout time when bending to get water from the source – things such as watches, bracelets and, most typically, buckets.
Before walking in for your visit, you will be invited to read a short leaflet that better explains the history of the cistern.
The Palombaro Lungo is open daily from 10:00 am to 1:30 pm and from 3:00 to 6:00 pm. Tickets cost €3 per person. Once you buy the ticket at the counter, you will be assigned a time for visiting – usually the earliest available. Visits last around 15 minutes.
TOP TIP: Once you get out of the Palombaro Lungo, head to Belvedere Luigi Guerricchio, right by Piazza Vittorio Veneto. This is a small balcony on the other side of three arches by the Mater Domini church and the views from there are superb!
Visit the Duomo
The Duomo of Matera is a must-see! Dedicated to Sant’Eustachio and to the Madonna della Bruna, the two patron saints of the city, the church is located at the peak of the Civita. The views from such a vantage point are simply stunning.
The Duomo was built on the site of a former Paleochristian place of worship in Apulian Romanesque style and dates back to the 13th century. Yet, its interior – which dates back to the 16th and 17th century – is in Baroque and Renaissance style.
If you are a fan of local festivals, you may want to visit Matera for its Festa della Bruna, a festival that takes place on July 2nd each year during which a decorated carriage carrying a papier-mache statue of the Virgin Mary is taken around the narrow alleys of the Sassi, which are beautifully lit for the occasion. Keep in mind it’s not exactly a private celebration, so expect lots of crowds!
Visit Santa Maria de Idris Church
I feel like I should mention Santa Maria de Idris church separately because it’s truly unique – make sure to add it to your list of things to do in Matera!
Located in the upper part of Montirone, near San Pietro Caveoso, this 15th century church is part of a rock complex which includes two churches, one of which is home to the crypt of San Giovanni in Monterrone and which is known for its recently restored frescoes painted between the 12th and the 17th century.
The church is dedicated to Idris, which comes from the Greek Odigitria (guide of the street, or of the water). This was how the Virgin Mary was referred to in Constantinople and its cult was introduced in southern Italy by Byzantine monks.
The Church is open daily from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm from April to September and from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm in the winter months. Admission is €3,50 and can be bought directly at the counter or online on the website of Oltre L’Arte. Keep in mind that the cumulative ticket for Rupestrian churches, which also includes a visit to the Cave House (Casa Grotta) of Via Fiorentini is €13. Photos aren’t allowed inside the church.
And all the other churches
With around 150 cave churches, you really won’t have a shortage of things to do in Matera.
Other than the already mentioned Santa Maria de Idris, you may want to visit San Pietro Barisano church, built in the 12th century and which has undergone several renovations. Inside the church you can spot the tunnels where the embalmed corpses of clerics are kept.
Another church worth popping in is that of Madonna delle Virtù, which is built on two floors, and Santa Lucia delle Malve, where Matera’s first convent was located.
The Parco della Murgia Materana is scattered with Rupestrian churches, so you may want to head there specifically to explore them – it’s one of the unmissable things to do in Matera. The most impressive one is the Madonna delle Vergini church, which is on the other side of the ravine and from where you can enjoy great views of the city.
Parco della Murgia is free to access and you can go there independently, but keep in mind that private cars will have to park well outside the park boundaries, from where it is quite a walk to the churches and the viewpoints. To get there, follow the Taranto-Laterza road (SS7) and the signs for the Chiese Rupestri. Guided tours are in the range of €20. I recommend this one.
Finally, if you have a car make sure to get out of town to visit the Cripta del Peccato Originale, thought to be the Sistine Chapel of cave churches and located at about 20 minutes drive from Matera.
Should you not have a car, you may want to consider such as this sunset tour.
Visit the Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario
One of the most interesting things to do in Matera is visiting a cave house (locally known as “casa grotta”). There are several scattered around town but the most interesting one to visit is the Antica Casa Grotta located in Vico Solitario, in the Sasso Caveoso.
A family used to live there until 1956, when the house was eventually donated to the city. The owners left behind most of the furnishing, along with photos and other belongings, and other items have been placed to give visitors an accurate idea of what life in the Sassi used to be like.
The Antica Casa Grotta is open daily from 9:00 am till sunset. Tickets are €3.
There are many cave houses to visit in Matera. I also visited one in Via dei Fiorentini. Admission is €2 or you can get the cumulative ticket that also includes a visit to the churches for €13.
And the MUSMA
Among the top things to do in Matera there’s visiting the MUSMA, Matera Museum of Contemporary Sculpture. It’s located in a beautiful 16th century cave palace in the Sasso Caveoso.
MUSMA is open daily from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm October to March and 10:00 am to 8:00 pm April to September. Admission is €7 per person.
Take in the views from Parco della Murgia
This was by all means one of my favorite things to do in Matera. Make sure to head there early enough to walk around the park – there are plenty of walking trails – and visit the Rupestrian churches (mentioned above), and when the sun is about to set, head to the cliff to admire the city as the light changes and becomes first golden, then pink and finally purple and blue.
You will be able to notice that as soon as the sun starts to set, lights in the city are lit and it will look like a giant nativity scene. Spend some moments in silence, as the bells around town will start ringing and the atmosphere is simply magic!
The best views are from the Belvedere di Murgia Timone, the location of the crucifixion in The Passion of Christ.
Make sure to bring a torch as the park can get dark fairly quickly once the sun sets! If you are driving to Matera, you may want to visit before you get to town, so that once you park your car you don’t have to touch it again until you leave the city. Alternatively, join a guided tour. I recommend this one.
Hike to Parco della Murgia
If you look from the Sassi di Matera you will notice a ravine crossed by a river and a hill with lots of small caves – which date back to the Paleolithic. You can walk across the ravine from the stairs located in Porto Pistola, cross the suspended bridge and pick one of the many trails that go all the way up to Parco della Murgia where you can explore the Rupestrian churches and take in the incredible views of the city.
By all means, wear appropriate gear if you intend to hike to Parco della Murgia as the trail is uneven, and bring enough food and water for the hike as there is nothing on the way. Wear a hat and sunblock and avoid hiking at peak hours in the hot summer months. It may also be best if you joined a guided hike. There is at least one departing every day from the Sassi.
Stay in a Cave Hotel
This is by far one of the must-do in Matera, although it can be quite expensive. The atmosphere is incredible, and going to bed and waking up with the impressive views of the Sassi di Matera is a truly special experience.
For more options head to the end of the post, in the “where to stay” section. Check out my post La Dimora Di Metello, Matera: A Complete Review.
You have probably heard me say this for pretty much any place I visit, but eating is truly one of the best things to do in Matera.
Where do I start?
The bread – call me dough girl, because I love bread in pretty much any shape and form and texture. Matera bread is delicious. It’s made with durum wheat flour and according to a centuries old tradition. It’s the perfect thing to accompany cheese and meats, but it’s also used in traditional recipes such as polpette di pane, bread balls cooked in tomato sauce, or cialledda, a salad made with cucumbers, tomatoes and onions and – duh! – bread.
Matera is also famous for its peperoni cruschi – sun-dried red peppers which are fried until crispy. They actually have a very mild taste and are usually added to salads, pasta dishes and soups.
If you visit in the colder months, make sure to try capriata, a very earthy soup made of broad (fava) beans, greens and vegetables.
Since Matera is really close to Puglia, Apulian dishes such as orecchiette with cime di rapa (ear-shaped pasta with turnip greens) or fave e cicoria (pureed fava beans with chicory or bitter greens) are commonly found on the menu.
Finally, here is a selection of excellent restaurants in Matera:
VITANTONIO LOMBARDO – If dining at a fine restaurant is on your list of things to do in Matera, this is the place. This Michelin Star restaurant is located in a gorgeous cave. It features a fantastic wine cellar (which guests can visit), and dishes prepared with ingredients of the local tradition, with a contemporary twist. Service is spot on and Vitantonio, the chef, a real star. Expect to pay €100 per person as a minimum for a 5 courses tasting menu (including drinks).
LE BUBBOLE – One of the best restaurants in Matera, close to the Duomo and with a terrace from where, during the summer months, you can enjoy the most stunning nighttime views of the city. Service tends to be on the slow side, but the delicious food and the charming atmosphere will make up for that. Expect to pay between €50 and €70 per person.
TRATTORIA DEL CAVEOSO – I had lunch at this fun trattoria and wholeheartedly recommend it. Portions are earthy, service quick and easygoing and the vibe very friendly. Their orecchiette with mushroom are mouthwatering. It’s budget friendly.
ZIO NINI – Lovely osteria style restaurant where you can get quick meals for very reasonable prices. They have a great selection of bruschetta, salads and sandwiches and daily specials. It’s very budget friendly.
L’ARTURO – This local enogastronomia has a good selection of traditional specialties, cheese and meat platters, bruschetta, focaccia and soups. It’s the perfect spot for lunch or for aperitivo.
Practical Information To Plan Your Trip To Matera, Italy
Guided tours of Matera
To make the most of Matera, you may want to consider joining a guided tour. I have already mentioned a few above, but here is a quick overlook:
- 2-hour guided tour of Sassi – the most classic option is also the most popular one, and will give you some good background knowledge of the city to continue exploring on your own afterwards.
- Guided walking tour of Matera – another popular and well reviewed option.
- Panoramic tuk-tuk tour – the Sassi di Matera aren’t accessible by car, but tuk-tuks zip around town and take you to all the most beautiful places. If you are after beautiful photos, this is definitely a good option.
- Guided cave and Sassi walking tour – this tour also goes to the rock hewn churches.
- Rock churches park waking tour – a sunset tour that goes to Parco della Murgia, from where you can enjoy spectacular views of the city. Keep in mind that many of the churches are currently being restored.
- Crypt of Original Sin tour and transfer – the Crypt of Original Sin is a bit outside of the city, and one of the most beautiful churches in the area.
How to get to Matera
The easiest access point to Matera is Bari, whose airport is well connected to the rest of Italy and Europe via regular and budget flights. Once in Bari airport, you have various options to travel to Matera.
BY SHUTTLE BUS – Shuttle buses depart from Bari airport at regular intervals. The journey to Matera lasts about 50 minutes. You can also hire a private driver such as this one.
BY TRAIN – If you want to get to Matera by train, you will have to go via Bari FAL station which is located opposite Bari Centrale train station. From there, take the Ferrovie Appulo Lucane. The journey takes just over an hour.
BY CAR – You can rent a car directly at Bari Airport to drive to Matera. This is the best option if you are planning a longer trip across Basilicata and Puglia. However, keep in mind that only residents can access the Sassi di Matera by car – you will have to park outside the city center and either walk or take a shuttle to the Sassi.
The best parking spot is probably the one in Via Saragat. It costs €0,50 per hour and from there you can take the Linea Sassi that goes all the way to Via Fiorentini, one of the main streets in the Sassi. Buses depart every 30 minutes and tickets cost €1.50.
I recommend packing a small backpack rather than a suitcase (with or without wheels) for your time in Matera, and leave your other stuff in the car or at a locker. The city is not exactly waking friendly if you have luggage!
When to visit Matera
Matera is a fantastic destination year round, but keep in mind that it tends to get cold during the winter months, and terribly hot in the summer. I visited in October and thought the weather was perfect to explore the city and enjoy staying out.
The local Saint Patron celebrations are held on July 2, so that week is by far the busiest in town. If you plan to visit at that time of year, make sure to book your accommodation well in advance!
How long to stay in Matera
Matera is small enough that if you set out nice and early you can get a good feel of its Sassi and Parco della Murgia (for views of the city) in a day.
Having said that, I recommend a minimum of two days there, and possibly even more to enjoy all the things to do in Matera at a slow pace, and explore the city surroundings and go on a hike or two too. You won’t regret it!
Where to stay in Matera, Italy
There is no shortage of excellent accommodation option in Matera. I wholeheartedly recommend staying in the Sassi di Matera for a truly unique experience. As they are closed to traffic, they are incredibly quiet at night, and the atmosphere is truly special.
Below is a list of my top recommendations:
La Dimora di Metello – a small boutique hotel with only four rooms, all of them incredibly stylish and comfortable. You will enjoy stunning views of the Sassi. During the summer months, breakfasts is served on the terrace. Book your stay with La Dimora di Metello here. Check out other guests reviews here.
Fra i Sassi Residence – one of the best boutique options in the city, at mid-range prices. Rooms have impressive views of the Sasso Caveoso and are incredibly spacious. Book your stay with Fra i Sassi Residence here. Check out other guests reviews here.
Sextantio – Le Grotte della Civita – is the best luxury hotel in Matera. It’s located in a former monastery, so the experience is really unique. Book your stay with Sextantio – Le Grotte della Civita here. Check out other guests reviews here.
Ostello dei Sassi – by far the best budget option in the Sassi di Matera; it offers a selection of private rooms and dorms, all of them designed for a comfortable stay. Book your stay with Ostello dei Sassi here. Check out other guests reviews here.
Nel Cuore dei Sassi – a beautiful Airbnb in a cave, which has been fully equipped to guarantee a wonderful stay in Matera. It’s not the cheapest option around, but it’s truly worth checking out. Book your stay here.
Planning to visit Italy? Make sure to check out these posts:
- A Guide To The Best Places To Visit In Italy
- A Perfect Italy Itinerary: What To See And Do With 10 Days Or More
- What To Do And What To Avoid When Planning A Trip To Italy
- 17 Reasons To Visit Italy As Soon As Possible
- 13 Cool Things To Do In Bari, Italy
- What To See And Do In Alberobello, Puglia
- A Quick Guide To Locorotondo, Puglia