How to visit Matera, Italy: how to get there, what to see, where to stay and why you should add this unique UNESCO city to your travel bucket list.
Matera is one of the most unique and beautiful places I have ever visited.
Famous for its peculiar rock dwellings and troglodyte houses (‘i sassi di Matera‘) still nowadays in use, it is a place with a distinct otherworldly feel and a peculiar history.
This is my practical guide on how to visit Matera, Italy.
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What is special about Matera
Matera is a small town in Basilicata, in the South of Italy, with a very special appearance and history.
Rather than ‘built’ as such, the city has been excavated our of rocks! Let me explain.
The area of Matera is characterized by two rocky natural amphitheaters facing each other, called ‘i sassi‘.
These are made of a type cream-colored stone that is easily carved and ancient inhabitants made the most of this characteristic to excavate caves that they could use as shelter
Over the course of millennia, unlike other locations that evolved so to speak into different types of housing solutions, Matera stayed quite isolated and therefore the dwellings stayed in use from the Paleolithic until now.
Matera: from ‘shame of Italy’ to Capital of Culture
Matera is now regarded as a wonderful city and tourist destination but this wasn’t always the case.
Almost unbelievably, until 1945 the sassi where a place of heartbreaking misery: they had no running water, no facilities, no electricity and would operate as a shelter for often very large families.
Around that time, author Carlo Levi published a now famous memoir called ‘Christ stopped at Eboli’ about the area and it caused such an uproar that the Italian Government ended up ‘discovering Matera’ and its living conditions.
The result was first a label that branded Matera as ‘the shame of Italy’ and then action.
In the 1950s, they started a massive regeneration project that, over time, turned Matera into a shiny jewel that now mixes peculiar history, incredible landscapes and unbelievably high number of wine bars and tourist facilities!
How many days to visit Matera?
I believe you need two full days to visit Matera.
While compact, there is a lot to see and you will need this time to feel like you are not missing out on the most important things to see.
How to visit Matera: getting there
Matera is in a rather isolated part of the South of Italy, in the Basilicata region.
The easiest way to reach Matera is by private car.
The roads in this area are good and well kept and the city is equipped with several parking options that make it easy to leave the car and explore i sassi on foot (the historical area of Matera is not accessible to traffic).
Rome is about 5 h away by motorway, Naples about 3hours and Bari and Brindisi between 2 and 2.5 hours.
Car rentals are available in all these cities: you can find providers and prices here (we usually book with Avis or Hertz).
Getting to Matera by public transport is a little less straight forward although the nomination as Capital of culture brought a strengthening of the transport options.
Currently, the best public transport option for getting to Matera is a combination of train and bus (AKA ‘Freccialink): combined tickets allow you to reach Salerno and Bari and then hop on the bus to Matera, all within the same tickets.
How to get around Matera and orientation
Matera can be described as having two parts: a Medieval part, flat and with a standard city layout with beautiful streets and churches and i Sassi.
I sassi, as I mentioned, are excavated on the flanks of two mountains facing each other and are respectively called Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso.
You access the sassi area from Matera main street and you get around on foot: i sassi are fully accessible via beautiful roads and while they are sometimes steep and sometimes slippery, they are easy to tackle for most visitors.
What to see in Matera
The main thing to see in Matera are i sassi but, within them, there are several specific places and attractions you should seek out.
Santa Maria de Idris (rupestrian church)
Probably the most impressive of all sites in Matera is the church of Santa Maria de Idris, which is entirely excavated in Matera’s rock.
The church is perched on the top of a rocky formation and you can easily see it from the Sasso Caveoso, just in front.
It is the most peculiar sight: from the distance, the first impression is that of just a mountain peak with a cross ton op but as you get closer, you can see that it is a proper church, with a door and steps to enter.
Inside, you have beautiful ancient frescoes worth seeing (sadly, no photos allowed inside).
The church is one of several rupestrian churches in the area and the easiest to access: others can only be reached via long hikes and require special permits and well as the aid of expert guides.
The church already existed in the XIV century and is a must-see in Matera: if you visit nothing else, this is the one thing to seek out!
The Sasso Caveoso and the case-grotte
The Sasso Caveoso is the one of the two amphitheaters with the original rock dwellings, called case-grotte (houses-caves).
You can see the entrance of all of these houses taking a stroll around the Sasso Caveoso but some are open to the public and operate as museums.
We visited two and they are indeed worth seeing.
The first entered was on Vico Solitario and while really interesting, it was so packed with people you could hardly connect with the place at all
The second one we saw, smaller, was on Via dei Fiorentini and truly gave us a sense of what life there must have been like,
I recommend you make a call about which one of the many to visit depending on the crowds on the day
San Pietro e Paolo al Caveoso
Matera has several wonderful churches and one that truly struck a chord with us for its incredible position is San Pietro e Paolo in the Sasso Caveoso.
The church dates back to the XIII century and opens up onto a large piazza overlooking a deep ravine.
The inside is interesting but it is the outside that steals the show.
Take your time to take a stroll behind it: you will quickly find yourself fat Santa Maria de Idris, just around the corner.
The Sasso Barisano faces part of the Caveoso but it is very different.
Rather than cave dwellings, here you have traditional houses and even palazzi excavated from the rock and the result is beautiful.
Come in the late afternoon to explore its alleys and churches: the sunset over the Caveoso from here is magical!
As well as the Sassi, you should take some time to visit the ‘plain’ of Matera, the part of the city that sits at the top of the Sassi and with a more standard layout.
This area is beautiful and has many churches, some worth seeing.
The cathedral of Matera (XIII century), the Church of San Francesco d’Assisi (XIII century) and the Church of San Giovanni Battista, a wonderful example of Apulian Romanichal architecture, are just some of the most noticeable ones.
This last one now hosts an exhibition showing the history of Matera, maybe the best place of all to learn about the unique fate of this peculiar town.
The Sassi in Miniatura (the Miniature Sassi)
In Via dei Fiorentini, we came across a museum/shop with a beautiful miniature of the Sassi.
This is a wonderful, easy place to visit that gives a great understanding of the geography and topography of Matera: the skills of its makers are also impressive!
This is a great place to seek out and a hit with kids in particular.
Where to stay in Matera
The most beautiful area to stay in Matera are the Sassi, either of them.
We stayed in a wonderful hotel/apartment called Casa del Sole right in the Sasso Caveoso and we had from the window one of the beautiful views over Matera and Santa Maria de Idris we could have ever asked for.
If you have severe mobility issues, Matera can be hard to navigate so this would be the only case when I would suggest looking for accommodation outside the Sassi instead (or at the bottom of them)
How to visit Matera: need to know
- Matera is very hard on people with any mobility issues. The roads and often steep, the ground uneven and often slippery (it is made of very polished stone).
- Proper walking shoes such as sneakers are a must
- Fo the same reason, I advise against bringing a stroller to Matera: if visiting with very young kids, you won’t be able to use a stroller at all in the sassi: bring a carrier instead.
I hope you enjoyed this post it helped to answer questions about hoe to visit Matera Italy. Safe travels!