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Matera, Italy Travel Guide: The Best Things To Do In Europe’s Oldest City

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If you’re looking for an unforgettable, authentic experience of Italian history, wonder and charm, I suggest you start booking your trip to Matera, Italy.

Matera is a city located in the southern Italy region of Basilicata. A middle-of-nowhere, wanderlust kind of energy fills the air before your arrival as you feel you are about to discover a new world.

The city is the third oldest in the world and the oldest city in Europe, having been continuously inhabited for over 8,000 years. I Sassi di Matera, the ancient town made of cave dwellings from dug-out limestone, are an UNESCO World Heritage site. They are also what earned the city the title of European Capital of Culture in 2019.

If you’re not yet convinced, read on to discover why Matera, Italy is so special and how to make the most of your visit.

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Before it became a wonder of Europe and the setting of the James Bond film, “No Time To Die”, Matera was not in good shape, called the “disgrace of Italy”. Up until the 1950s, the city was poverty-stricken and life in Matera’s caves was grim, marked by disease and hunger. Only until the 1980s after government intervention and later in 1993, when it became recognized as an UNESCO site for being an extraordinary example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region, did renovations begin.

If you want to dive further into Matera’s history, I suggest reading this article from the Smithsonian Magazine.

How to Reach Matera & Getting Around

Matera’s nearest airport is Bari which is a comfortable 45-minute drive away from the city. Bari has lots of flight connections all over Italy, so it is also comfortable and fairly inexpensive to find a low-cost airline servicing Bari every day of the week.

By Car

I recommend reaching Matera by renting a car. Because Matera is so close to other beautiful areas of Italy like Puglia, renting a car will give you more flexibility for exploring. Find your Matera rental car.

Driving in Italy in general can be a tough adjustment, but driving in the south is a whole different ball game! We noted many sizable potholes in the road and, most of the time, there weren’t even lines on the streets! Drivers kind of have a mind of their own but, since everyone is like that, somehow it makes for a hectic yet smooth orchestra of movements on the road.

The Sassi di Matera are a ZTL, or Limited Traffic Zone, meaning only residents can pass through at most times of the day. If you pass through and you are not a resident, you will be fined.

But this isn’t too much of a problem because there are lots of parking options on Matera’s “modern” side. They are typically all paid options. I personally recommend parking at Parcheggio Piazza Cesare Firrao, which is an underground garage just steps from the Sassi. Parking costs up to €10 per day here.

In general, I recommend parking in a covered garage rather than leaving your car out on the streets for safety reasons.

By Bus

If you are traveling Italy by public transportation, then you can also reach Matera, Italy by bus. Companies like Flixbus offer routes to Matera from other major Italian cities.

If instead you are flying into Bari Airport, there are several inexpensive bus options that can take you to Matera that you can find on Omio.

By train

You can reach Matera by train from Bari via the Ferrovie Appulo Lucane.

I don’t necessarily recommend this option because it is limiting in your freedom to explore places beyond Matera and because the railway system is slow. It is a local line, so it makes many stops, making a 45-minute drive to Matera a 2 hour train journey.

Pro Tip: If you are only taking a day trip to Matera, consider making the most of your time by taking a local guided tour.

Getting Around

There is a few things to consider for navigating the city of Matera and, specifically, the Sassi.

The size of the city itself makes it very walkable. You can explore all areas in a day. However, the streets are narrow and vertical. You will be walking up and down a lot, so it gets tiring.

This also contributes to another consideration: accessibility.

There are limited accessibility options provided for exploring within the Sassi. In fact, I saw several couples struggling to get strollers up and down the streets.

The city offers a shuttle bus to get from one side to the other of the Sassi di Matera, the Linea Sassi. Tickets cost €1.50.

Another option are Ape Car or Tuk Tuk tours. The Ape Car is a traditional work vehicle that some services have transformed into a cute and authentic tour vehicle. It could be an alternative to intense walking.

The Best Time to Visit Matera, Italy (And How Long To Stay)

The best time to visit Matera is between March and April.

During this period, the weather is a bit chillier (lows of 40° C, highs in the 60s). But this is actually an advantage to the scorching southern Italian summers. You may catch some of the rainy season of Italy in spring, but I’ll tell you the best part about visiting Matera during this time.

You feel like you have the whole city to yourself.

I kid you not, at 6 pm as the sun was setting and we were at one of the city’s most iconic landmarks, the Church of Saint Mary of Idris, there was not a single person at or around the church with us. It felt like a dream and you can only get that kind of solitude and exclusivity by traveling during the off/shoulder season.

The Best Things to Do in Matera

Matera, Italy is a place to be explored and discovered with kid-like curiosity. Wind along the Via Madonna delle Virtù for the grand perspective of the city and then fearlessly dive into the network of narrow, uphill stone streets, ready to let go and be led by Matera’s maze.

Church of Saint Mary of Idris

One of the most unique places I’ve ever seen is Church of Saint Mary of Idris. It is one of Matera’s many “chiese rupestri”, meaning church carved out of rock.

It is the centerpiece of the Sasso Caveoso, the southern half of the Sassi di Matera. The northern half is called the Sasso Barisano.

You will likely gawk at this church, which dates back to the 1100s, from many angles while exploring the Sasso Caveoso because it stands out from the crowd of beige rock buildings. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the time to go up close to admire it.

Entrance to the church costs €4 but can also be combined with entrances to other churches. You can buy tickets online or in person.

Secret location: Want to know where to find the incredible view in this photo? It’s not along any main road that you will easily walk by!

Visit More of Matera’s Churches

Around just about every corner in Matera you will find some kind of church. From more traditional, grand churches like the Matera Duomo to peculiar and particular stone sanctuaries, each with their own fascinating history.

Here’s a list of some must-see churches:

Eat in a Cave Restaurant

One of the unique and cool experiences in Matera is eating in one of the many hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Now, hole-in-the-wall doesn’t mean cheap or distasteful; I literally mean you are eating in a cave, a hole carved out of the Earth.

I recommend eating at a local trattoria or osteria, where traditional food is served. We ate at the Trattoria del Caveoso, a small, homey locale at a mid-range price level that had all the local eats available on its menu, from traditional cold cuts and cheeses as an appetizer to the nutty and creamy desserts.

The restaurant is located on Via Bruno Buozzi, which is the main pedestrian street of the Sassi Caveoso.

Hike the Gravina Canyon, Cross the Tibetan Bridge and Explore the Parco della Murgia Materana

The Sassi di Matera are set in an incredible location. A deep ravine divides the Sassi from the Murgia, a rugged regional natural park dotted with caves and caverns.

The Murgia park is also home to more rupestri churches, churches built out of the caves. If you are able to, visit the Chiesa della Madonna delle Vergini.

Chiesa della Madonna delle Vergini

You can hike down the Sassi side to the “Ponte tibetano della Gravina”, a suspension bridge, and then hike up the other side to get to the Murgia.

The hike takes about 2 hours to complete.

If you have a vehicle, you can also drive to the Murgia. From the visitor center, it takes about 20 minutes to walk to the Belvedere Murgia Timore, the highest edge of the park with sprawling views of the Sassi on the opposite side.

Check out this caves tour of the Murgia park.

Venture into one of Matera’s many peculiar museums

National Museum of Matera in Palazzo Lanfranchi

If you spend more than one day in Matera, you can use some of your time exploring to visit one of the many interesting museums like:

Take in the views at all the Belvederes

Belvedere Luigi Guerricchio

An incredible viewpoint in Italy is called a “Belvedere” and – you guessed it – Matera is full of them. While nearly anywhere in the Sassi di Matera offers you an incredible view, there are designated overlooks with picture-perfect views. Make it a mini vacation goal to check them all off as you explore Matera:

Go Underground and Explore the Palombaro Lungo

Just when you thought Matera couldn’t get more interesting. Don’t just explore the caves above ground: enter the veins of the city in its largest underground water reserve which played a fundamental role in distributing water to the Sassi’s residents.

You can walk along the cave system for €3 per person.

Practice your Photography

You’ve probably guessed by the photos, but Matera is a playground for photographers. The layers, the angles, the millions of different perspectives make storytelling almost easy in a place as magical and as architecturally playful as Matera.

Some photography tips:

Matera City Center

The Sassi di Matera are no doubt the city’s main attraction but I couldn’t help but also fall in love with Matera’s lively downtown.

Just one street divides the old and the new, the Sassi and modern-day Matera, yet there is a world of difference between the two zones. The Sassi are quiet, solitary and promote a feeling of discovery and exploration; downtown is loud, lively and gives you a sense of belonging.

Listen to live music in Piazza Vittorio Veneto, stroll the Vida del Corso, visit the Matera National Museum and Castello Tramontano and more in Matera city center.

Where to Stay in Matera, Italy

I recommend spending at least one night in Matera, Italy to be able to experience the Sassi lit up at dusk, like a candlelit display.

Definitely stay in the Sassi di Matera area. There are some more modern accommodations in the city center but unless you have accessibility concerns, I highly recommend going for the unique experience of staying in a cave home or cave hotel.

Now this doesn’t mean homes in Matera are literal caves – our apartment stay had the cave vibe going on with few windows, the natural stone interior and a rounded ceiling, but it also had all the modern amenities we needed. I will list it below but I highly recommend where we stayed for both location and price – La Casa di Montegrosso.

Keep in mind that hotel prices vary greatly based on the tourist season.

Pro Tip: House numbers are not the easiest to find in Matera! Especially if you are going with an apartment stay, which may not be as obviously marked as a hotel, get specific info from your host (potentially even a dropped pin location on Google Maps so you can’t make a mistake) about the accommodation location.

Budget-Friendly Stays in Matera

These stays are all ones I considered while planning my trip at around €100 per night or less!

Mid-Range Stays in Matera

If you want more amenities than a budget stay but don’t want to go all out on spending, go for one of these options, at around €100-€200 per night.

Luxury Stays in Matera

Matera is such a unique place, and that comes with some unique and creative luxury experiences. Stays starting at €200 per night.

Where (& What) to Eat in Matera

Matera Restaurants to Try

I already mentioned eating at the cave restaurant Trattoria del Caveoso, but here are some other can’t miss spots for good eats and memorable food experiences.

Zipa Café Cave Bar

The most unique spot in Matera to enjoy aperitivo is Zipa Café. This bar takes advantage of its hidden and cozy position beneath the Church of Saint Mary of Idris to create an open, relaxed atmosphere that lives in perfect harmony with the Sassi of which it is made.

You won’t find chairs in this bar but rather all kinds of pillows and cushions scattered around where you can sit and sip on your pre-dinner drink.

Michelin Star Restaurants

One thing I didn’t expect about Matera is the number of high-quality, Michelin star restaurant experiences in the historic Sassi.

I personally didn’t eat in these restaurants but I had to mention them in case you are a foodie wanting to fully dive into the flavors of Matera presented and reimagined in new ways.

Pro Tip: If you are traveling on a weekend, no matter the time of year, try to make reservations for dinner. Locales are all fairly small in Matera, so they fill up fast.

Osteria MateraMì

I didn’t get the chance to eat here but it was highly recommend by my apartment-stay host. It’s another locale in which traditional dishes are the stars of the menu. No reinventing the wheel or excess bravado: just the rich flavors of southern Italy coming to life how your “nonna” would cook them.

Gran Caffè

You typically can’t go wrong with any dessert places in southern Italy: it’s truly their specialty.

But I absolutely fell in love with the dreamy sweets at Gran Caffé in the city’s more modern center just outside the Sassi. Here you must try “Nun’s Boobs” (more on that in a minute!), the Zeppole and the beignets. (The pastry cream is out of this world good!)

And the cappuccino, dusted with chocolate, was the perfect start to the day.

Matera Foods to Try

Basilicata is historically one of the poorest regions of Italy, so at the heart of their local cuisine is taking advantage of simple, fresh ingredients and making magic with basic yet full-bodied flavors.

Featured food: Nun’s Boobs

I told you I would get to explaining this one! I was surprised to when I saw on the pastry shop menu “Tette delle Monache”, meaning Nun’s Boobs.

It is a pastry native to Altamura, a town just a stone’s throw away from Matera, made of sponge cake and custard. The result is a simple, sweet, soft pillow of goodness!

Travel Tips for Visiting Matera

Final Thoughts

It’s difficult to fit into one blog post the best of Matera. What is most difficult is translating the physical sensation to the written word: the feeling of enchantment while walking through the oldest city in Europe, of discovering what lies beyond each cave entrance, of the sensation of time stopping still.

If I can’t encourage you by the practical tips and suggestions or even by the photos of this otherworldly landmark, I hope I can convince you just that little bit more with my words to make room for a stop in Matera. It’s the bucket list place you didn’t know you needed to cross off.

What are you still wondering about this enchanting city? Let me know in the comments!

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