Matera: The Most Spectacular City in Italy

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In Matera you’ll spend a lot of time in caves. You’ll sleep in a cave, eat in a cave, drink an aperitivo in a cave, and even view modern sculpture in a cave. The ancient neighbourhoods, known as sassi, are a series of grottoes carved out of limestone, teetering on the edge of a ravine. It’s one of the most unique and spectacular places we’ve visited in Italy or anywhere in the world.

Until the 1950s, Matera was a source of shame for Italy, a place of poverty, malaria and high rates of infant mortality, where people lived in caves without electricity, running water or sewage. Carlo Levi’s book Christ Stopped at Eboli raised awareness of the desperate conditions people were living in and about half of the 30,000 population were moved to new homes in the modern part of the city between 1953 and 1968.

Matera is located in a remote corner of southern Italy in the small region Basilicata. It’s not the easiest place to reach which is why it has managed to remain relatively unknown, especially to foreign tourists, although since it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993 visitor numbers are slowly growing and many of the caves have been transformed into stylish hotels and restaurants.

It still has an undiscovered air and as we wandered the ancient sassi we marvelled that Matera wasn’t on everyone’s “must visit” list, that we rarely heard English voices, and only saw a couple of tour groups.

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A Walk Around Matera

From Matera’s train station we walked through the modern city of Baroque churches and graceful palaces. The first glimpse of the sassi stops you in your tracks, looking down at the dramatic tangle of grey stone houses; a contrast with the elegance of the new town. Walking down a steep staircase we plunged into the magical world that doesn’t quite feel real.

Sassi of Matera, Italy

Buildings climb up and down the hillside, houses piled on top of each other, the roofs of some acting as streets for those above. They were carved out of the rock and the original caves extended with facades that look like normal homes.

Matera Sassi

The best way to explore the neighbourhoods Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso is on foot, roaming through the labyrinth of narrow alleyways, up and down uneven stone staircases, discovering dead ends and tiny courtyards adorned with flower pots, cave churches and expansive views of the sassi.

Streets of Matera's sassi
Streets of Matera's sassi
Streets of Matera's sassi
Streets of Matera's sassi

Sassi of Matera

Sassi of Matera

The cave church Madonna de Idris, Matera

The cave church Madonna de Idris

With stormy skies the grey city is haunting, its location bleak on the edge of a rugged ravine, parched grasses and spiky cacti amongst the outcrops descending to the trickle of river below. You imagine the struggle of life here just decades ago.

Sassi Caveoso, Matera

But in the morning light on a sunny day the edges are softened, the stone glows golden. You notice signs of life, the red fichi d’India or prickly pears amongst the spikes of the cactus, the bounty of figs overflowing in the trees at the end of summer, their green globes smashed onto the floor.

Sassi Caveoso, Matera, Italy

Most of the caves are now homes, hotels, restaurants and bars, but on the edge of town in Sasso Caveoso you can wander through uninhabited caves and get a sense of what it was like to live here years ago. It’s a rawer side of town and for us the most fascinating.

Uninhabited caves in Sasso Caveoso, Matera

Uninhabited caves in Sasso Caveoso

Uninhabited caves in Sasso Caveoso

Uninhabited caves in Sasso Caveoso

You can walk inside many of the old caves

Matera is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in history dating back to the Palaeolithic period. On the other side of the ravine you can see the simple forms of the Neolithic caves where people lived 7000 years ago.

Neolithic caves in Matera

Neolithic caves on the other side of the ravine

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What to Do in Matera

Matera is the perfect place to wander and get lost. Some people recommend getting a guide and this might be worthwhile but we preferred exploring alone.

MUSMA (€5) is an art museum with modern sculptures scattered in the nooks and crannies of a 17th-century cave palace. It’s an extraordinary setting and definitely worth a visit.

The Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario (€2) is touristy and gets crowded with tour groups but it’s worth a look to see how people lived in these caves in the 18th century. The entire family (on average six members) including animals like mules, chickens, and pigs lived together in the cave and it has been furnished how it would have been.

Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario

Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario

It looks daunting but the walk down into the ravine and the return back up isn’t too difficult. It’s very quiet down there and gives another perspective of the city looming above. If we had more time we would have walked up to the other side of the ravine for views back across at Matera. You can also get there by car.

Matera on the edge of the ravine

Matera on the edge of the ravine

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Where to Stay in Matera

The most atmospheric and welcoming places to stay in Matera are cave B&Bs and there are some excellent options. On our latest trip we stayed at Bed and Breakfast La Corte dei Pastori run by the friendly young couple Tiziana and Mimmo. We stayed in the largest room with a spacious living area with couch, table and fridge, and a bedroom at the other end. It’s been lovingly restored with an arched ceiling from rustic creamy stone and the decor is kept simple with just some lovely details like a carving of the city along the wall.

B&B La Corte dei Pastori, a cave hotel in Matera, Italy

Our cave room at B&B La Corte dei Pastori

B&B La Corte dei Pastori review, a cave hotel in Matera, ItalyThe cave is cool inside but doesn’t feel damp. There’s good WiFi and the new bathroom has a powerful rain shower and is decorated with a colourful mural of the Basilicata countryside.

B&B La Corte dei Pastori, Matera
B&B Bathroom of La Corte dei Pastori, Matera

The best thing about the B&B is the location, right next to San Pietro Caveoso church on the edge of the ravine, with wonderful views of the sassi through the glass door in our room and from their terrace. I don’t think we’ve ever eaten breakfast in a more scenic location, and the food is delicious—a big spread of focaccia, bread, jams, croissants, biscuits, yoghurt, fruit, juice, and coffee, far more than we could eat.

Breakfast with a view at La Corte dei Pastori cave hotel in Matera, Italy

Breakfast with a view at La Corte dei Pastori

The view from La Corte dei Pastori in Matera, Italy

The view from La Corte dei Pastori

La Corte dei Pastori was the perfect place to stay in Matera—it’s affordable (from €60 a night), unique, friendly, and has an incredible location.

Don’t miss out on staying in a Matera cave hotel. You can find more B&Bs and hotels in Matera here

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Where to Eat in Matera

The food in Matera is on a par with our favourite Italian food in neighbouring Puglia and uses lots of fresh seasonal vegetables. You’ll find the same huge plates of antipasti as well as orecchiette pasta and fava bean puree with chicory. We ate at two restaurants very close to our B&B and recommend them both:

Ristorante Francesca – A classy cave restaurant with a contemporary twist from the modern lampshades and purple chairs. We shared the five antipasti of the house plate which changes daily and is more creative and refined than your usual antipasti. We had a zucchini flower tortino, melanzana parmigiana, fava bean puree with chicory, bread balls in a tomato sauce, and figs stuffed with orange ricotta and mint. We followed that with orecchiette with fave bean puree and mushrooms.

 

Antipasti at Ristorante Francesca: figs stuffed with orange ricotta, bread balls in a tomato sauce, zucchini flower *tortino*, and *melanzana parmigiana*

Antipasti at Ristorante Francesca: figs stuffed with orange ricotta, bread balls in a tomato sauce, zucchini flower tortino, and melanzana parmigiana

Trattoria del Caveoso – This is a simpler, less expensive restaurant but the food is still excellent. The €10 antipasti plate was delicious and varied, and there was a good choice of vegetarian pasta dishes— we had orecchiette with cherry tomatoes, caciocavallo cheese and rocket, and cavatelli with the local dried red chiles, caciocavallo and fried bread. We even got a complimentary limoncello after our meal.

Antipasti plate at Trattoria del Caveoso, Matera

Antipasti plate at Trattoria del Caveoso

Cavatelli pasta with dried red chiles, caciocavallo cheese and fried bread at Trattoria del Caveoso, Matera

Cavatelli pasta with dried red chiles, caciocavallo cheese and fried bread

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How to Get to Matera

Matera is the ideal place to combine with a visit to the neighbouring region of Puglia (here are the Puglia towns we recommend). On both of our trips Bari, 70 km from Matera, was our access point—there’s a major train station and an airport served by budget airlines. Search on Kiwi.com for the cheapest flights to Bari.  

From Bari you can either hire a car if you are planning to tour the area—parking and navigating the streets can be tricky, but we managed it on our first visit—or take the train.

The train from Bari to Matera is run by a private company and is a slow commuter train that doesn’t run on Sundays. You can see the timetable on the Ferrovie Appulo Lucane website; tickets cost €4.90 each way and it takes about 1.5 hours. Trains leave from the FAL station next to the main station in Bari. From Matera Centrale you can walk to the sassi in about 15 minutes (which is what we did) or take the “Linea Sassi” bus.

Matera is truly special—with a spectacular setting, fascinating history, and excellent cuisine, it’s made even better by the undiscovered feel. That won’t last as it’s on Lonely Planet’s list of top 10 cities to visit in 2018 and will be European Capital of Culture in 2019, so visit now before the crowds arrive. 

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Guide to Matera: the most spectacular city in Italy

Thank you to B&B La Corte dei Pastori who hosted us for our two nights in Matera.

Are you looking for Christmas gift ideas? See our 47 Useful Gift Ideas for Carry-On Travellers. They are ideal for travel lovers who want to pack light and include something for every budget.

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51 Comments (3 pingbacks)

  1. Thank you for visiting our beautiful home town of Matera and thank you for such a beautiful blog post about our special town.

    Matera is just the start of what our region, Basilicata, has to offer. It is a region rich with beautiful places, incredible countryside and hospitable people. Truly you can experience a more authentic Italy here and for the last year we’ve been developing a project that will let you see the culture, taste the food and meet the people through the eyes of our Italian family and the local people. We’d love to welcome everyone to see an Italy Undisturbed with us at http://www.lalucana.com

    Thanks again for a great post about our unique city!

    Reply

  2. I have booked a 2 night stay in Matera mid-september 2017… so looking forward to it.
    The information and pictures on this site only serve to pique my curiosity even more! It will be awesome to get lost in Matera!

    Reply

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