The Italian city that was once so poor it was referred to as “Italy’s shame,” is now a popular spot for Italian tourists but relatively unknown to foreign visitors. Matera, Italy, is famous for its unique sassi (stone houses), its history, and its marvelous beauty. “Old Matera” is a network of cave dwellings carved into the rock that has been inhabited since the Paleolithic era.
While much of the world today is oblivious to Matera’s beauty, its recognition is slowly growing, so now is the time to enjoy the chance to explore this stunning area and marvel at its culture and architecture. This travel guide will cover Matera’s interesting history and some of the best things to do while you’re visiting.
Where to Stay in Matera
Matera was first settled about 15,000 B.C. during the Paleolithic period and is the third oldest continuously-inhabited settlement in history. The early settlers of Matera dug underground caverns, dwellings, tombs, and cisterns into the soft volcanic stone of the landscape. These settlers and their descendants remained in the area throughout centuries of various rulers and empires and are still there today.
Matera’s history is rife with poverty and illness, and in the 1950s, after writer Carlo Levi wrote of the area’s “tragic beauty,” the residents were forced to relocate. In the 1990s, a park was created to protect Matera’s 150 rupestrian churches, and UNESCO granted the city World Heritage status. The city soon became alive again, and the dwellings were transformed into homes, hotels, and restaurants.
Matera’s cave districts are home to about 1,500 people today. In 2004, Matera was used as the filming location for The Passion of the Christ, which has brought new attention to the area from Italian tourists, and in 2019, it was named the European Capital of Culture.
What to see in Matera
Below we’ll lay out a simple step by step guide on what to see in Matera if you are visiting this wonderful city for the first time.
Tour Casa Noha
If you’re planning to visit the Sassi of Matera, one of the first things you should do is tour Casa Noha, a 16th-century house that was owned by the noble Noha family. In 2000, the Lattore and Fodale families donated it to the FAI, an Italian preservation organization that has since restored the premises.
Casa Noha hosts a 25-minute multimedia exhibit that takes you through the history of Matera through videos projected onto the floors, walls, and ceilings of the rooms. It is an incredible and sometimes heart-breaking experience that will help you better understand the Sassi and its culture.
Explore the Sassi di Matera
The Sassi di Matera are the ancient city’s two stone dwelling neighborhoods — Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano. These fascinating cave-like buildings sit as if they’re stacked on top of one another. Both neighborhoods feel like another world, with maze-like alleyways, winding staircases, tiny courtyards, and archways. It’s a great way to spend a day getting lost and exploring.
Sasso Caveoso is an amazing area to see and learn more about the way people used to live here, as many of its caves haven’t been restored since the 1950s. Sasso Barisano now features many refurbished dwellings that have become beautiful boutique hotels, restaurants, and art spaces.
Cross the Ravine
Matera’s two Sassi overlook a ravine, La Gravina, which provides a spectacular view of the river and the small primitive caves in the hill on the other side. These Paleolithic cave dwellings were once homes to monks, and the frescoes they painted still reside on the walls inside.
Visitors to Matera can cross the ravine to explore these ancient caves — just make sure to be careful in the peak mid-afternoon sun and take plenty of water. Remember to bring a camera for the hike back. The other side of the ravine provides a stunning view of the Sassi, especially at sunset.
Tour the Rupestrian Churches
Matera features 150 rupestrian churches carved into the stone that date back to the Middle Ages. These churches are home to beautiful and fragile frescoes that are fading as the years go by. There have been restoration efforts in some churches, but if you visit, be sure to admire without touching to avoid adding to the damage.
During your tour, be sure to visit the most famous one, Madonna de Idris at the top of Sasso Caveoso. Other notable churches are Convicinio of Sant’Antonio Rock Church, Sanat Lucia Alle Malve, and Santa Maria de Armenis.
Spend the Night in a Boutique Cave Hotel
Many of the dwellings, especially in Sasso Barisano, are now home to gorgeous boutique hotels, and they’re the perfect way to immerse yourself in the culture of Matera. These dwellings are stunning and relaxing places to lay down your head at night.
Italy’s Albergo Diffuso, or scattered hotels, provided a way to revive the old Sassi of Matera, and they’re wonderfully cozy. There are plenty of options to choose from, but you may consider Sant’Angelo Luxury Resort or Sextantio Le Grotte Della Civita.
Festa della Bruna
If you plan to visit Matera, Italy, in the summer, consider attending Festa della Bruna. This centuries-old festival spans a few weeks from mid-June to the start of July and honors the protector of Matera, Madonna della Bruna. The festival begins at dawn with processions of “knights” on horseback parading during the day, and at night, the city is entirely aglow with light displays that form archways and beautiful church facades.
The main event occurs on July 2, and it starts with a float parading through the city to the packed Piazza Vittorio Veneto. When it arrives in the evening, the locals attack the float in an attempt to rip off a piece for good luck.
How to Get to Matera
You can get to Matera, Italy by plane, train, or car. Flying will take you to Bari Palese Airport, where you can take a shuttle to Matera Piazza Matteotti Ferrovie. Car rentals are also available at the Bari airport.
To travel by train, you can find regular departures from the Bari FAL train station on the Ferrovie Appulo Lucane train to Matera Centrale. The train takes about an hour and a half, and then it’s about a 15-minute walk to the sassi.
We hope that our simple step by step guide to Matera (Italy) will help you to plan your visit to this amazing city in the south of Italy. Depending on time you will spend in the area you may also consider a visit to the following attractions: the Palombaro Lungo, Musma Museum, Crypt of the Original Sin, the Park of the Murgia, the Regional Reserve San Giuliano and the Colle Timmari. For more free advice on the best places to visit in Italy check our latest articles here