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Best of Matera (Italy): The Ultimate Travel Guide

Matera – what a city! The first time you lay eyes on the rock city of Matera, you can’t help but be amazed.

It’s like something out of a detailed picture book, with sand-coloured house facades stacked side by side and on top of each other. The scene leaves you speechless, reminiscent of a stage set or a movie backdrop. It’s all in shades of tone, thanks to the nearly “colourless” stone Matera is renowned for, creating a memory that deeply imprints itself in your mind.

Believe it or not, behind these facades lie ancient cave dwellings. Once (and not too long ago), people here lived in the most impoverished conditions in tiny cave homes.

In this travel guide, we’ll introduce you to the spectacular rock city of Matera. We’ll show you the most beautiful sights and share our personal tips for your journey. Here is your complete travel guide to Matera.

Matera Travel Guide

1. Matera in Italy: First Travel Tips at a Glance

Key Information & Fascinating Facts about Matera

  • Matera’s old town is made up of cave dwellings, known as “Sassi”, which were carved into the tuff stone and later covered with facades.
  • It’s no surprise then that “Sassi” translates to “stones”. When you first see Matera, a literal sea of stones unfolds before you. Don’t be confused: “Sassi” also refers to the two old town districts, Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso.
  • Matera is ancient. The area has likely been inhabited since the Neolithic period, making it one of the oldest cities in the world.
  • Until the 1950s, the people of Matera lived in extreme poverty – without running water, sewage systems, electricity, and with a child mortality rate of nearly 50 percent. Consequently, the Sassi were evacuated.
  • It was only in the 1980s that the Italian government recognized the cultural value of Matera’s old town. With the help of subsidies, the caves were gradually renovated.
  • Today, Matera is a UNESCO World Heritage site and was the European Capital of Culture in 2019.

How Many Days Should I Plan for Matera?

While some may visit Matera only as a day trip, we strongly recommend staying overnight. The atmosphere in the evening and morning hours is truly special, plus there’s quite a lot to see.

One night is the bare minimum for a stay in Matera, in our view. Two nights are much better, and with three nights, you might even have a chance to explore some of the scenic surrounding areas.

2. Matera Travel Guide: Top Things to See

Old Town of Matera = A Total Work of Art

Let’s start our Matera Travel Guide with Matera’s most significant attraction, which acts as a grand unifier: The Old Town. Before we delve into specific buildings in Matera, we’d like to share some general info about the Old Town.

Matera’s Old Town is a sprawling labyrinth of stairs (loads of them!), narrow alleys, and squares. The Old Town consists of two districts: Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso. Hence, Matera’s historical Old Town is also known as Sassi di Matera.

Don’t even try to keep your bearings. It’s basically impossible to truly navigate Matera. Google Maps was our best mate here, and yes, you might end up climbing stairs in vain because you’ve hit a dead end.

A little tip: Matera has marked routes (“itinerario”). They lead you along the main routes to the most important attractions. So, if you don’t want to get completely lost in the maze of alleys, you can stick to these markers.

Rock Churches in Matera

The impressive rock churches (“Chiese rupestri”) are among the most famous attractions in the historic Old Town of Matera. As the name suggests, these are churches carved into stone.

Their unique cave architecture is nothing like the interior of a church as you’d typically imagine. Therefore, visiting at least one of Matera’s rock churches is, in our eyes, a must. The three most renowned rock churches are:

  • San Pietro Barisano
  • Santa Lucia alle Malve
  • Santa Maria de Idris

What’s especially remarkable, apart from their unique ambiance, are the frescoes inside these churches. If you’re visiting the rock churches without a guide, be sure to grab the info folder available in each church (in several languages). This way, you’ll at least get to know some historical details.

Overview of Visiting the Rock Churches of Matera

Admission: 1 church 4 Euros, combined ticket for 3 churches 8 Euros
Photography: Not allowed inside – even without a flash.

Rock Churches in Matera

Cathedral of Matera

Perched at the highest point of the city, nestled between the districts of Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso, stands the colossal Cathedral of Matera.

This imposing structure dates back to the 13th century and was built in the Apulian-Romanesque style. The cathedral is not just striking from the outside; we also recommend a peek inside. You can visit the cathedral for a euro.

Also worth noting is the view of Matera from the square in front of the cathedral, the Piazza Duomo. From up here, Matera looks like a movie set.

Cathedral of Matera Viewpoint

Palombaro Lungo

Quite impressive: Beneath Matera, there once were five public cisterns (and numerous private ones) for the city’s water supply. The largest of these, Palombaro Lungo, is open for visits.

From Piazza Vittorio Veneto, stairs lead down into the massive cave system. This cistern dates back to the 16th century. Like everything in Matera, these caves were made by human hand.

A narrow path takes you over water through the cistern and back again. You’ll quickly see everything but might want to linger longer because the dimensions are truly impressive.

Overview of Visiting Palombaro Lungo

Admission: 3 Euros
Opening hours and more info: Palombaro Lungo (official website)

Casa Grotta nei Sassi di Matera

Want a glimpse into life in the cave dwellings of the past? In Matera, there are several accessible homes that have been converted into museums. We visited one of the most famous of these rock dwellings, known as Casa Grotta nei Sassi di Matera.

Don’t expect a classic, spacious museum – quite the opposite. Remember: the cave dwellings of the past were small and dark. The whole family, including livestock, lived in just a few square meters. Unimaginable!

You can play an audio guide on your smartphone. We personally found the additional background information quite fascinating.

Overview of Visiting the Casa Grotta

Admission: 5 Euros
Our Tip: It can get pretty cramped inside. If you don’t want to step on each other’s toes, it’s probably best to visit early or late.
Opening hours and more info: Casa Grotta (official website)

3. The Most Beautiful Viewpoints in Matera

If you ask us, the most spectacular thing about Matera is the breathtaking view of the city. From any perspective, the sea of stone houses is just such an impressively stunning photo op. No words!

Don’t worry: As you explore Matera, you’ll likely come across most of the viewpoints anyway. But we still want to share our favourite vistas in this chapter.

Convento Sant’Agostino

We like to call it the “signature view”. Or postcard shot. Either way, one of the most famous views of Matera can be enjoyed from the forecourt of the Convento Sant’Agostino. From a distance, you get a really great panorama.

Our tip: Just a few minutes from here is the Crialoss Café. From its terrace, you enjoy a very similar view, but you can celebrate it even better with a drink.

Viewpoint Matera

Belvedere Luigi Guerricchio

From this small, hidden observation terrace, you also have a fantastic view of Matera. This viewpoint is located right at the expansive Piazza Vittorio Veneto, is free of charge, and accessible around the clock.

View Point Matera

Belvedere of Piazza Giovanni Pascoli

Located in the southern part of the Old Town, this small square offers another splendid panoramic view over Matera. We were there in the evening, just after the city lights came on – very atmospheric!

Belvedere di Piazza Giovanni Pascoli

Belvedere Murgia Timone

Last but certainly not least: The Belvedere Murgia Timone. This one is a bit different as it’s not located in the Old Town but on the other side of the canyon. From here, you get a distant view of Matera.

Another unique aspect is the hike to get there. This viewpoint can be reached after about a 40-minute walk. It starts with a descent from Matera’s Old Town into the canyon to the Ponte Tibetano della Gravina. After crossing this suspension bridge, you then ascend in switchbacks on the other side to the viewpoint.

For those who are fit and mobile, we highly recommend this hike. The entire scenery in the canyon and the view from the lookout are extremely worthwhile.

A little tip: If you prefer not to tackle so many elevation changes, you can alternatively drive to the other side. From the car park, it’s about a 1.5-kilometer walk (but flat). Personally, we find the hike down into the valley very rewarding and would choose it again (provided the hiking trail is open!).

Belvedere Murgia Timone

4. Food & Drink: Culinary Travel Guide for Matera

The bad news first: The culinary offerings in the Old Town of Matera are quite touristy. Or in other words, you’re more likely to find tourists than locals at many of the restaurants. But no worries, we still ate very well. Here are our favourites:

Osteria al Casale: A very nice osteria built into a rock with rather minimalist decor. When the weather’s good, you can also sit outside at one of the tables in front of the restaurant. They serve classic Italian cuisine (antipasti, pasta, pizza, lots of meat and fish). Good value for money and very friendly service. Definitely recommended.

La Lopa: A very popular, somewhat hip restaurant in the Old Town of Matera. The menu features Italian classics – some with a modern twist. Make sure to book in advance!

Crialoss: “The place to be” for a drink with a view. From the terrace of this café, you enjoy a fantastic view over Matera. Especially in the evening, when the setting sun bathes Matera in beautiful light, it’s worth a visit.

I Vizi degli Angeli: One of the best ice cream parlours in town. They have both classic and more unusual flavours.

Area 8: A pretty cool retro-style bar. If you’re looking for a cocktail in the evening, this is the spot. If you arrive hungry, they also offer food, including tapas and burgers.

5. Our Accommodation Recommendation for Matera

The most authentic way to stay in Matera is, of course, to choose accommodation directly in the historic Old Town (Sassi di Matera). Many stylishly renovated cave dwellings are particularly popular.

But be careful: It’s not uncommon for these cave rooms to have a moisture problem and very little (to no) daylight. So, we opted for a “happy medium” and booked a “Deluxe Room” at Ai Maestri Rooms & Cafethe best decision!

They’ve wonderfully combined the cave ambiance with modern, stylish elements. The entire setup (bed, beddings, TV, etc.) is of very high quality, and the bathroom is an absolute highlight.

Two minor drawbacks: Our room was on the ground floor next to the breakfast room. If someone talks loudly in the morning, you might hear it. And the breakfast, considering the price, could have been better – especially compared to other accommodations we stayed at in Apulia.

Aside from that, we highly recommend this place. You feel very welcome and comfortable, largely thanks to the extremely helpful owners. We would return in a heartbeat.

You can book the accommodation here: Ai Maestri Rooms & Cafe

6. Map: An Overview of All Attractions and Tips of this Travel Guide

To make navigating Matera a bit easier, we’ve marked all the attractions and our tips for Matera on this map. A little tip: If you click on the rectangle at the top right, you can save the map in the Google Maps app on your smartphone.

7. Matera Travel Guide: Additional Tips on Arrival, Parking, Safety, etc.

Location: Where is Matera?

Matera is located in Southern Italy, more precisely in the Basilicata region. It’s a great idea to visit Matera as part of an Puglia road trip. Strictly speaking, Matera is just outside of Apulia, but the short detour is definitely worth it.

Arrival: How Do I Get to Matera?

The nearest major airport is in Bari. There are direct flights from many cities in the German-speaking region (including Vienna, Frankfurt, Berlin, and many more).

If you’re planning a road trip, it’s best to rent a car directly at Bari Airport. The drive from the airport to Matera takes about an hour. We personally like to book our rental cars through Sunny Cars.

You can book your rental car here: Sunny Cars

If you’re “only” traveling to Matera, we would rather suggest booking a private transfer from the airport to Matera (or taking a train/bus). In Matera itself, a car is pretty much useless – more on that shortly.

Parking: Where Can I Park in Matera?

First and foremost, the historic Old Town of Matera is a restricted traffic zone. This means only selected vehicles are allowed to drive there (and even then, only along a few streets, as most alleys are simply not drivable).

So, you’ll need to park your car outside the restricted zone. The closer the parking garages are to the Old Town, the more expensive they typically are. Theoretically, you can walk from some parking garages to your accommodation (if you have little luggage). But be warned: it’s often uphill and downhill. We would only choose this option if your accommodation is really close by.

We opted for the much more comfortable valet parking from “TA&Co autoparcheggio” (booked through our accommodation). This parking garage is located outside of Matera. We were picked up from the garage and taken directly to our accommodation. The price is 35 Euros per day – including shuttle to the hotel and back.

Safety: Is Matera Safe?

A quick Google search will reveal numerous horror stories about car thefts and break-ins in Southern Italy. And it should not be sugar-coated: this is indeed a problem in the south of Italy.

There’s a reason why you get a folder with safety tips along with your rental car contract. But, to offer some reassurance: nothing of the sort happened to us. Niente!

Here are some tips for traveling safely through Southern Italy, including Matera:

  • Always carry valuables like phones, money, etc., securely and not visibly. For example, the back pocket is off-limits. Valuables should never (!) be left in the car. Not even hidden in the glove compartment.
  • If your hotel room has a safe, you can also store valuables in it.
  • We personally did not make any stops with luggage in the trunk (e.g., to visit a city for a few hours). We always checked in first and then continued with an empty car.
  • Regarding driving: we can only advise driving as defensively as possible. The driving style of the Italians can be hair-raising at times.
Matera Puglia

Disclaimer: Affiliate Links

This travel guide contains our personal recommendations in the form of affiliate links. Which means if you book or purchase something via these links, you still pay the same (nothing changes for you) — while we receive a small commission for sharing! So it really means a lot to us and we want to say a massive thank you from us both!

Have you already visited the impressive city of Matera? How did you find it? Do you have any more tips you’d like to share with us? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below this travel guide!

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