The Best Things To Do In Matera | Italy’s Cave City

Feature image for Best Things To Do In Matera - couple standing in front of the cave city of Matera

Matera is one of those places that you can instantly fall in love with. There were so many things to see and do on our long weekend away that we wish we’d had an extra day or two!

The old city is rapidly becoming the place to visit in southern Italy. When I first saw photos of this ancient cave city a few years ago, I just knew I had to visit.

Stunning landscapes, delicious food and beautifully preserved rock churches. These are just some of the reasons why Matera’s been named one of the European Capitals of Culture in 2019.

Matera didn’t always have such a positive image though. Not so long ago, in the 1950’s, the old city was referred to a national embarrassment!

Sassi di Matera

The main city of Matera itself is like your typical southern Italian city. However, it’s the unique landscape of the historical centre that everyone’s come to see! The Sassi, or stones, are named after the two districts – Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso. These districts make up the area known as Sassi di Matera.

The Sassi of Matera showing a labyrinth of stone house

The Sassi are a maze of grottoes, or dwellings, that are dug into the rock surface. There is even evidence that people were living in these caves as early as 7000 BC. The caves would potentially be continuously inhabited until modern times. Imagine living in the same place that your ancient relatives lived in, thousands of years ago!

Up until the 1950’s, Matera was relatively unknown to the rest of Italy. Large families lived together with their farm animals in their disease-ridden caves without electricity or clean running water. That all changed with Carlo Levi’s memoir, Christ Stopped at Eboli.

The word was out and Italian prime minister Alcide De Gasperi then forced out most of Matera’s residents to the ‘new town’. Meanwhile, the government, with the help of the EU, began the regeneration the Sassi.

View of the Sassi from the Chiesa di Sant'Agostino

Some 70 years later and Matera, along with Parco della Murgia, have been added to the UNESCO World Heritage list! A result of the continued work in making Matera an attractive choice for tourists. And the number of visitors, especially internationally, are increasing every year too. Not bad for a city once known as ‘the shame of Italy’.

How To Get To Matera

An orange and a red Vespa in the a car park in Matera

If, like us, you are visiting Italy just to see Matera, then you’ll be flying into Bari International Airport. In fact, arriving in Bari might be the best option for those travelling from Rome, Florence or Venice. There is also a direct bus from the airport. Due to our flight landing at night, we made our way to Matera the next morning by train.

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The train to Matera is run by Ferrovie Appulo Lucane and is a completely separate line to the one at Bari Central Station. To find it, leave the central station so you’re facing the fountain and walk to the building on your left. The FAL entrance in on the far right (you’ll see Ferrovie Appulo Lucane faintly above the entrance.)

A one-way ticket costs €5 and the journey is roughly 1.5 hours to Matera Centrale. The train moves quite slowly through the first sections of the journey. Check the timetable on the FAL website. It can be a little confusing (or is it just me?) Just look for BARI C.le for the departure times.

From Matera Centrale, you will need to follow the signs for the Sassi for about 10 minutes.

Tip | If you are travelling on the FAL to Matera you may need to change trains at Altamura station. The train announcements are in Italian so we had to ask another passenger, who also only spoke Italian, but we understood her in the end.

Things To Do In Matera

Stroll through Piazza Vittorio Veneto

If you arrived from the train station then one of the first places you’ll see is the main square of Piazza Vittorio Veneto. There is a chance to catch your first glimpse of the Sassi from the (sometimes busy) lookout point. There are also museums, cafes, and souvenir shops in the square as well as an impressive fountain. The square is particularly lively at night and we couldn’t believe how busy it was compared to the day.

Explore the Sassi

Zuzi walking through the streets of the Sassi in Matera

This is, in my opinion, the best thing to do in Matera. Not only is it a free activity, but it’s also good exercise. That’s because the Sassi are a labyrinth of small streets and stairs. But it’s worth every effort as around each corner will be another building or view you won’t get anywhere else. Just don’t forget to stretch your calves!

The northern Sasso Barisano seemed a little more developed than Sasso Caveoso to the south. We noticed many of the dwellings were uninhabited in Sasso Caveoso. Probably waiting to be turned into some nice cave hotel in the future.

Visit Duomo di Matera

Interior of the Duomo in Matera
Inside the Duomo

Sitting on top of the Civita Hill, the highest point between the two Sassi, is the Matera cathedral. You’ll know it very well as its bell tower can be seen from all around the Sassi!

Built in the 13th century in Apulian Romanesque style, the cathedral has recently been reopened to the public after a long 10-year renovation project. Inside there are sculptures and frescos dating back centuries. Make sure you take in the magnificent views of the Sassi too as it’s a long way back up.

Learn about Matera at Casa Noha

Casa Noha is a locally-run, small museum where you can watch a 25-minute multimedia presentation. Being the only two non-Italians there, we were given English language headsets as we learned about the history of Matera. For some strange reason, the film is broken up into four parts and we moved into a different room for each part.

If you really want to understand the history of Matera then Casa Noha should be one of the first places you visit. The building is small and can be difficult to find but, if you leave from the cathedral, you can just follow the signposts for 5-mins and you’re there. Entry is €6 and the presentations are every 40-minutes.

See How The People Lived At Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario

Inside Casa Grotta showing old bed and furniture in a reconstructed dwelling

You may have noticed the many Casa Grotta signs as you walk around Matera. Literally meaning cave house, there are many of these grotta located around Matera, and they’re a great way to experience what it was like to live in these dwellings.

Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario is the most popular and is the one we visited. Entry is €3 and you have access to the main room, a video presentation room and a rupestrian church. Just be aware that the commentary in the main room is in Italian, although the video presentation does have subtitles.

See The Chiesa di San Pietro Caveoso

The only church in Matera not built into the rock surface

The Chiesa di San Pietro (Church of Saint Peter) is the only church in the Sassi not to be built into the rock surface. Located at the Piazza San Pietro Caveoso, it’s a great place to visit as you can walk around the church and take in the views of the ravine and the rupestrian churches on the hill opposite.

See The Frescoes Of Madonna de Idris e San Giovanni in Monterrone

Image of Monterrone, a stone church carved into the rock

On top of the limestone rock, Monterrone, are two connected rock churches – the Madonna de Idris and the San Giovanni. These stunning churches are carved into the rock face and located next the Piazza San Pietro Caveoso. Guided tours are available to learn more about the frescoes that date back to the 12th century (although no photography is allowed.) Entry is €3.50 but you can save money and buy a combined ticket for €7 that also includes entry to Santa Lucia alle Malve and San Pietro Barisano.

Enter A Rupestrian Church at Santa Lucia alle Malve

The cave church of Santa Lucia alle Malve dates back to the 8th century and is probably the best example of an ancient rupestrian church. During our visit, part of the church was closed off for restoration but we could still view some wonderfully preserved frescoes. Photography is not allowed in the church, even without flash.

Take In The Views From Chiesa di Sant’Agostino

Jeff and Zuzi and the view of Matera from the Chiesa di Sant'Agostino

On the northern edge of Sasso Barisano you’ll find the Chiesa di Sant’Agostino, a church dedicated to Saint Augustine. This has to be one of the best viewpoints of the Sassi as you’ll be able to see the ravine and all of Sasso Barisano, including the duomo.

Admire Sculptures at MUSMA

MUSMA, or the Museum of Contemporary Sculpture, is located in the heart of the Sassi. There is an impressive collection of sculptures here and you get a unique experience as they’re located inside a cool cave palace. Entry is €5.

Learn About Cisterns At Palombaro Lungo

Lying under the city square of Piazza Vittorio Veneto is the giant cistern of Palombaro Lungo. Due to the low rainfalls in the region, it was essential to conserve what water that fell. Guided tours are €3 but the English speaking guides are only available on a few tours each day.

See The Sunset From Parco della Murgia

Matera during sunset viewed from the Parco della Murgia

You may have noticed some small caves across the ravine on the hillside. That is Parco della Murgia, a national park of over 150 rupestrian churches. The park is also great for hiking but, unfortunately, the rope bridge was closed off during our visit. To access some of the churches you will need to hire a local guide.

Try and time your visit for the late afternoon. After exploring the churches you can witness one of most spectacular sunsets you’ll ever see. As the sun sets you’ll see the Sassi light up across the ravine! It’s absolutely magical! Just remember to bring mosquito repellent!

Eat A Lot Of Pane di Matera

Sandwich made with Matera bread in the shape of a heart
Made with love!

The ancient bread of Matera is something I’m sure you will eat more than once. There are many stores with huge, odd-shaped, dark crusted lumps on their shopfront. Made from local ingredients, the crumb has a slightly yellow colour and is very similar to sourdough. One local told us that the thick crust meant that the bread won’t start to spoil until it is cut. Whilst we weren’t sure that fact, we did enjoy the bread many times during our stay.

Stay In A Cave Hotel

Inside of a cave in Matera that's been converted to a hotel

One of the things you absolutely have to do when visiting a cave city is, of course, stay in a cave! Many of the dwellings have been made into clean, comfortable (and really cool) rooms for visitors. The cave hotels cost more than what we would usually like to pay for accommodation but there are some decent rooms on AirBnb if you book early. We found ours early on for a really good price on Booking.com.

Eat In A Cave Restaurant

Many of the cave dwellings have also been expertly converted in restaurants. There are many to choose from and, being in Italy, you know that you can’t really go wrong as the food is alway delicious. Just be aware that you may have a Euro or two added onto your bill just for sitting!

Watch A Movie… Being Made

The Sassi di Matera has retained a certain Biblical look and this has led to many films using the stunning backdrop for their movies. Films such as Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ and Wonder Woman were shot in the Sassi and it’s surprising that the film crew of Game of Thrones didn’t visit during their eight seasons.

We literally just missed the filming of the new James Bond movie. Although from we were told, we were lucky to avoid the cameras as whole streets were closed off during the shooting of the scenes. We did see a rather strange film being shot at the Duomo that involved a lot of religious looking men dancing on squashed tomatoes!

Witness The Festa della Bruna

This is a festival we learned about at Casa Noha. As well as the usual fireworks and celebrations that go along with festivals, it was the finale that really stood out!

For the last 600 years, on the 2nd of the July, Matera celebrates the feast of Bruna. It is one of the most important days in the calendar for the residents of Matera and involves a chariot being escorted into the main square before being torn apart by the locals. Coming away with a piece of the wagon as a trophy will bring good luck for the year to come.

Why You Need To Visit Matera Now!

Jeff and Zuzi pose in Matera

Matera is an absolutely stunning place and we’re so happy we could see it now while the place is still relatively unknown.

Walking around and exploring the Sassi was one of my favourite things do in Matera and, at times, there were hardly any tourists around (compared to our previous trips to Italian cities like Florence and Rome). That’s because the place isn’t completely overrun by tourists yet. Although there were occasional crowds at the Duomo and Casa Grotta. Many of the visitors were actually Italian tourists in small day-tour groups.

There were so many things to do on our visit to Matera. We honestly could’ve stayed longer and learned even more about the city’s history. The city has come a long way from the days of being labelled the shame of Italy. Today, it’s seen as one of the most unique landscapes in the world and more than worthy of being a 2019 European Capital of Culture!

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I hope that you guys enjoyed this post. There are many things to do in Matera, making it a great place for a weekend trip. If you liked this post, or want to know anything else, please leave a comment. Thanks.

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