One destination that’s been at the very top of our travel bucket list for a while now is Matera, and on this trip to Italy, Sam and I were determined to make it happen!
Known as “The Stone City” and “The City of Caves”, Matera is a sight to behold. The city has quite literally been dug out of the rock, and when you first view it from one of the many lookouts, you’ll feel like you’ve travelled back through time. After all, this is the third-oldest continually inhabited settlement in the world after Aleppo and Jericho, which also explains why it’s often used to film movies set in biblical times!
Located on the slope of a rocky ravine, the landscape is dominated by cave dwellings, zigzagging staircases, and early churches that hold some incredible frescoes.
We stayed in the “sassi”, which is the ancient town, and in our opinion, the best way to soak in the vibe of this place. This travel guide will give you a little taste of what Matera has to offer!
What to see in Matera
When it comes to exploring Matera, the best course of action is to ditch the map and just get lost. The city is a maze of zigzagging staircases, steep lanes, and tiny courtyards. If you walk the sassi thoroughly, you are bound to come across the major attractions without necessarily looking for them.
Our plan each day was to set out in a new direction and see where that took us.
A few cool places to visit include:
Churches with frescoes
Matera is full of rupestrian churches carved into the stone and covered in beautiful frescoes. These churches date back to the Middle Ages and there are plenty to choose from:
- Convento di Sant’Agostino
- Chiesa di Santa Maria di Idris and San Giovanni
- Chiesa rupestre di Santa Lucia alle Malve
- Chiesa rupestre di San Pietro Barisano
- Chiesa rupestre di Santa Maria de Armesis
- Chiesa rupestre di Santa Barbara
- Chiesa di Madonna delle Virtu and Chiesa di San Nicola dei Greci
- Convicinio di Sant’Antonio
These are probably more churches than you’ll be able to cover in one visit, but they’re a good place to start. Some charge admission, while others are free of charge, but they are all impressive.
Palombaro Lungo is a massive water cistern that sits directly under Matera’s main square. It dates back to 1846 and it supplied the townspeople with water until the advent of modern plumbing reached the sassi. Then, the cistern was almost completely forgotten, and it wouldn’t be rediscovered until 1991.
Today it’s a tourist attraction to add to your Matera itinerary! Our guide compared the cistern to an underwater cathedral, and it’s easy to see why – the walls rise up into arches, and with the water level being low, we felt tiny inside.
In order to visit, you have to enter the cistern with a guide. The cost is 3 Euros per person and the tour runs 25 minutes. You can purchase your tickets right at the gates.
Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario
Another attraction I really enjoyed in Matera was the Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario, because you can see what life in the sassi would have been like.
It’s hard to believe, but cave dwellings like this one were inhabited up until the 1950s when the government forcibly relocated the population to more modern developments in the city.
At that point, the living conditions in the sassi had become uninhabitable; poverty was rampant, families were sharing quarters with their animals, and disease was a constant threat – particularly malaria.
Today, many of the cave dwellings in Matera have been updated and upgraded for a tourist clientele with boutique hotels and cozy bistros popping up, but the reality of life in the sassi just a few decades back, would have been completely different.
The lookout points
One of the highlights of my visit to Matera was simply wandering around the town and stopping to soak in the views any time we came upon a lookout point, and there were lots of these!
There were two views I particularly loved: one was the terrace right in front of Matera Cathedral and the other was the terrace right next to the Convent of Saint Agostino. These two spots offered postcard-perfect views.
Hiking to the caves
Another activity that we had really been looking forward to was hiking in Murgia National Park.
There’s a ravine that runs just east of the Old Town and the landscape is covered in caves that beckon exploration. There’s an access point to the trail along Via Madonna delle Virtù and there’s a hanging bridge that leads you across the river.
Unfortunately, the path was closed when we visited in winter. The sign mentioned “safety reasons” – perhaps loose rock? – so we weren’t able to do this, but hopefully, it’ll reopen to the public soon!
The streets, staircases and back lanes
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. Getting lost may be your best plan of action! This city is best enjoyed on foot and you’ll be surprised at every turn no matter which direction you walk in. Here are a few more photos to show off the beauty of this town.
Where to eat in Matera
Our favourite way to explore a city is through its food, and that was no different in Matera. From pastries to pastas, and cheeses to deli meats, we made sure to eat as many local dishes as possible.
Here is a list of the restaurants and bakeries we most enjoyed in Matera:
Panificio De Paolo
This is a little bakery not too far from the main square and it’s a great spot to grab breakfast. We would go here in the mornings, and in true Italian fashion, drink our coffees standing up right at the bar. They made a tasty cappuccino, but what kept us coming back were the pastries, especially the Sfogliatella, a flaky shell-shaped pastry filled with cream.
La Finestra Sui Sassi – Kappador
La Finestra Sui Sassi was the first restaurant we visited in Matera and it was a fun little introduction to Materan pasta, where we got two different dishes to share. The first was the Strascinati with sausage, red peppers and breadcrumbs, and the other dish was the Cavatelli with peas, onions and bacon – both of them delicious, but especially the one with bacon!
These two dishes would start a bit of a pasta love affair for the rest of our time in the city as we sought out different local pastas with a variety of sauces.
La Grotta de Sassi
Another restaurant that we absolutely loved was La Grotta de Sassi, which was located in a cave-like setting.
Once again, we opted for Materan pasta, ordering the Orecchiette with cardoncelli mushrooms and pork sausage, and the Ferricelli with porcini mushrooms, a cheese fondue sauce, and chopped pistachios. Both were absolutely mouth-watering and I tried to slowly savour each bite!
It was a fantastic meal that we somehow managed to follow up with two desserts: a pear and ricotta cheesecake and a chocolate lava cake.
We found Ristorante Nadí by chance while seeking cover from the rain, and it was a hit! Sam and I decided to order a 4-course Italian meal to share.
We ordered the Antipasto Lucano for our starter, which was a platter with a variety of deli meats and cheeses from the region. We worked our way over from soft cheeses to hard cheeses, and also sampled some deli meats that were completely new to us. We paired this with a red wine from the region.
This was followed by the primo piatto, where we ordered a sampler plate with three dishes: Cavatelli, Ferricelli, and Crapiata. We had already tried the first two pastas at the other restaurants, and were happy to see them make a reappearance, but the Crapiata was completely new to us. This is basically a peasant soup that blends various herbs and legumes. It was very hearty and filling, especially on a cold winter day.
For our secondo piatto, which generally features meats or fish, we decided to go for the vegetarian option. This was in part because we were really starting to fill up, but also because the Eggplant Parmigiana was way too tempting! It was cooked in a ceramic bowl and it basically looked like a lasagna with the eggplant used as layers. It was so cheesy!
Moving on to dessert, we ordered a Ricotta Cheesecake which was served warm, with just a little bit of chocolate drizzled over top.
And then came the digestivo in the form of Limoncello. Then we were finally done this feast of a meal!
Where to stay in Matera
If you’re coming all the way to Matera, I would recommend staying in the sassi (this location will allow you to go everywhere on foot) and why not also stay in a cave while you’re at it? The accommodations here are a one of a kind where you can experience a bit of tradition with all the modern conveniences.
We stayed in this cave AirBnB and it was one of my favourite accommodations of the year! It was rustic yet cosy, had a modern bathroom, a fancy espresso machine, and the location was just perfect.
If Here’s a small selection of some cool cave accommodations in Matera:
And that’s a little taste of what we got up to in Matera. Needless to say, we fell head over heels with the city and have been raving about it to anyone who’ll listen. If you’re thinking of travelling in Southern Italy, this is one destination you won’t regret adding to your itinerary!