When you arrive for the first time in Matera, you do not believe your eyes. Sun, rocks and water – these are the three elements upon which Matera, from very ancient times, has built its identity and this fascination still remains today. Are you ready to take an unforgettable journey through an engaging Matera walking tour?
The city is a maze of zigzagging staircases, steep lanes,cave dwellings and tiny courtyards: it’s a magical and unique landscape in the world. Halfway between the Calabria and Apulia, Matera is also known as the “City of stones” or the “Underground City”.
During your Matera walking tour, you will discover that Matera is famous all over the world for its archaic structures that constitute one of the oldest existing inhabited centres (since around 15,000 B.C), as well as the first site in southern Italy to be included in the list of World Heritage sites by UNESCO.
Matera is so beautiful and inimitable that high-caliber directors, both Italian and international, have seen in this city a great scenographic potential. With its extraordinary layout, dense with winding alleys, stairways and houses carved into the rock, the Sassi di Matera has become the backdrop for auteur films and major film productions like The Passion of the Christ, Ben Hur or Wonder Woman .
So once in the city, during your Matera walking tour, go along the alleys of the Sassi: you will find houses inserted in ancient caves such as those of Vico Solitario, small rupestrian churches and see who will recognize the set of a movie first!
When it comes to exploring Matera, the best course of action is to ditch the map and just get lost, you are bound to come across the major attractions without necessarily looking for them.
But be careful, during your Matera walking tour, you will involve a lot of walking, and as the city is hilly, hot—especially in the summer—and completely out in the open, you’ll want to make sure you pack comfortable shoes and plenty of water.
In Matera you will come across an incredible landscape and 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.
Here is a list of the 10 best things to do in Matera for a weekend, a good starting point to live the magic experience of this city.
Take Pictures of the Sassi and get lost in the streets
One of the most gorgeous things you can see in Matera while strolling through its fabulous city centre are the famous “Sassi”, which literally mean ‘stones’.
The Sassi of Matera take their name of their conformation: dug into the friable rock typical of the place, the Sassi are the ancient cavernous villages located between the “Murge” plateau and the “Gravina” stream, where the local population lived, for centuries, along with his cattle.
These are real cave houses created inside the stone, where even very numerous families lived in conditions of extreme poverty. This traditional architecture is the reason why it has been included on UNESCO’s heritage list.
The Sasso Barisano and the Sasso Caveoso are the two “neighbourhoods” that surround the central nucleus of the Civita, the historic city whose first settlement seems to date back to the prehistoric age.
In Sassi Barisano you will find cafes, restaurants and hotels. Sassi Caveoso is the more historic side of Matera and you will visit its cave dwellings and rupestrian churches.
You could spend a whole day exploring the Sassi on foot!
In the maze of Matera’s streets the pleasure is walking at random and getting lost, especially at night, when the old town is a magical stage-set of shadows, medieval alleys and sudden vistas.
During your Matera walking tour, choose one of the several panoramic viewpoints and get ready to take a lot of pictures. For your best picture, we suggest a hidden panoramic viewpoint that few tourists know. Walking from Via San Biagio to Via Santa Caesarea, on the right some steps will lead you on a small roof.
You will be just behind the bell tower of San Pietro Barisano church and in front of a stunning view of the Sassi.
Visit Matera’s Cathedral
On the top of the Civitas hill, you can locate the town cathedral, a beautiful church dating back to the 13th century. It’s totally worth a visit, not only for its majesty, but also because it offers an amazing view of the Sasso Barisano, one of the most stunning areas of Matera.
The exterior of the church is simple yet elegant, whereas the interior is an architectural splendour, with gilded fixtures and ornate religious painted ceilings. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, this cathedral remains an important place of worship for Matera’s inhabitants.
Visit Casa Grotta of Vico Solitario – “the cave house”
One of the oldest houses of Matera is Casa Grotta,in the heart of the Sasso Caveoso. Here you can see how people used to live in the caves in the 18th century.
Casa Grotta was the home of a large family and several kinds of animals, such as pigs, chickens and mules who lived together in the tiny cave. Time seems to be still in this old house.
The inside is still furnished and made to reflect the living conditions of the past.
The house offers an interesting glimpse into what life would have been like living in the Sassi. Ticket € 3 per person
Don’t miss: Opposite the house on the other side of the ravine is a wonderful view of a group of Neolithic cave houses dug into the rock. It’s a perfect point do make a wonderful picture!
Be Amazed by Palombaro Lungo – “The Water Cathedral”
Palombaro Lungo is one of the highlights of Matera, located under the main square in Matera. It is the largest underground water cistern of the town, built in 1864. Today it’s visible to tourists, so be sure not to miss this amazing place during your tour. Known as “The Water Cathedral,” this tank was once the biggest water drinking reserve used by inhabitants of Sasso Caveoso.
With a complex network of water collection systems made up of various water channels, this 19th-century cistern holds a big part of Matera’s troglodyte past.
Ticket € 3 per person
Admire the Rupestrian Churches
Matera, and the surrounding archaeological park of Murgia Materana, are home to more than 100 churches, which host exceptional decorations and works of art.
The Gravina conceals whole villages first excavated in the soft stone in prehistoric times and even more populous in the Middles Ages, as the rock churches testify.
Don’t be surprised if you see Greek-Orthodox churches built near Roman-Latin temples; here, it’s totally normal and if you have time, we suggest you visit as many churches as you can.
If you’re feeling adventurous, go down to the opposite side of the ravine and cross the Tibetan bridge to find the magnificent Murgia Materana Park.
Continue on your adventure and explore this park where you will find ancient Neolithic caves, churches and ruins. Be prepared to work up a sweat as the steps are steep, and the paths unmarked but the breathtaking view of Matera from this perspective will be worth the effort of this rocky hike.
Access to the paths of the Park is now free, but the guided tour is the best way to visit the rock churches of Murgia Timone.
The footpaths in the ravine itself are comparable to mountain paths, not suitable for anyone who suffers from vertigo. The terrain isn’t particularly difficult and you don’t need to be a seasoned hiker: just wear comfortable walking shoes.
The Belvedere viewpoint: Belvedere di Murgia Timone
For a great photograph of the Sassi, take the Taranto–Laterza road (SS7) and follow signs for the Chiese Rupestri. In the heart of the Park of the Murgia of Matera, the Belvedere is a very exciting panoramic point from which it is possible to enjoy a complete and extremely suggestive view of the Sassi.
Being “inside” the Sassi and walking through them is a fantastic experience, but seeing them from afar is what really makes one comprehend the amazing uniqueness of this place.
From the Belvedere, especially at the end of the day, when the first lamps start to light up on the city streets and in the houses, you can enjoy the suggestive nativity scene effect, that the old districts raise, and makes them famous all over the world.
A curiosity: The crucifixion scene in the Passion of The Christ of Mel Gibson was filmed here and you can see how befitting it was because Matera looks almost Biblical in the background.
The living crib in Matera: feel the magic of Christmas
Whether or not you live Christmas as a believer, the experience of the nativity scene in Matera is a unique experience to try at least once in your lifetime. If you combine the magic of Christmas, with its lights and its scents, to the magic of Matera the mix is explosive.
The Living Crib in Matera is a long path through narrow streets, alleys and squares of the ancient quarters. It is an alternative way to visit the old districts of Matera and fully understand its history. Discover the each detail in the suggestive scenes, skilfully rebuilt with loads of actors.
You will feel you are in the real Bethlehem: rock dwellings, dug caves and ravines fit perfectly for an ancient times scenario. Don’t miss the opportunity to live the magic experience of this crib, perhaps one of the greatest living nativity scenes in the world!
Evening walk in Matera
After a day of long and tiring Matera walking tour, you will need some relax. We suggest you to take a walk in via Ridola, one of the main streets of the old town, full of places where you can taste the typical dishes of Basilicata.
For the best gelato in Matera, taste the one of “I vizi degli Angeli”, this place has unique and delicious flavours.
A couple of tall tables outside allow for a few minutes to enjoy your selections. If occupied, get a cone and some napkins and walk the main passeggiata watching tourists and locals enjoy this lovely walking street.
A typical souvenir: In bygone Matera, bread dough used to be kneaded at home and then taken to a communal oven for baking, but not before each loaf was marked with a signature stamp in order to make it recognisable among the many others. Today, these peculiar wooden stamps are one of the city’s typical souvenirs, crafted on the spot and personalised for each customer.
Dine in a restaurant carved into rock
A place where you can taste the typical menu of Matera is the Francesca Restaurant, carved into the rock, very romantic and intimate, the venue where to enjoy dishes like cavatelli with broccoli, fava beans and chicory purée and “cruschi” peppers, meaning dried at the sun, a peculiarity of Lucania that you’ll remember for the crunchiness and the slightly bitter aftertaste.
If you are looking for an original wine bar: Enoteca dai Tosi is an eccentric wine bar and its cellar is shaped by a wide circular staircase descending three levels underground where before there were cisterns for rainwater.
No usual tables, but small alcoves where you are sitting comfortably. The food menu is inspired by the local ingredients and recipes, we recommend the fried peppers.
Spend the Night in a Boutique Hotel Built Inside a Cave
The most romantic thing to do in Matera is to book a hotel room in the Sassi. So, choose one of them and get ready to live one of the coolest experiences of your life. For a truly memorable stay, book a suite at “Aquatio Suite Hotel“, a charming new 5-star hotel that brings the unique experience of a relaxing break in one of the world’s oldest cities to life.
The hotel, offering 35 rooms and suites, occupies a unique position set into a tufa ridge in the city’s Sasso Caveoso district located in the heart of UNESCO’s Sassi World Heritage site.The hotel also includes a wonderful spa with a swimming pool carved into the rock and a restaurant with an outdoor courtyard.
If you want to feel like in a movie set, consider “Le Grotte della Civita”. Built into the sheer rock face, this hotel’s 12 rooms and 6 suites are vaulted caves – so you sleep surrounded by lovely pale sandstone. If it sounds chilly, don’t worry, there are log fires and generous stand alone bathtubs to keep you feeling cosy. A unique breakfast: you will have breakfast in the rupestrian church of the thirteenth century beside the hotel.
For history lovers: “Basiliani hotel” a designer hotel in the historic centre of Matera. The rooms blend bright minimalist styles with the ancient traditions of the “Sassi” houses. Red wooden furniture is set against carved white limestone walls and all rooms boast views over the prehistoric caves of Matera.
Did you know? For the beauty of its historic heart and its lively cultural life, Matera was the first city of southern Italy to be nominated as European Capital of Culture for 2019.
Matera Travel Tips: Things to know before you go!
- Because of its complicated recent history, Matera only just started to become a real tourism destination in 2014! So if you’re looking for that elusive place in Italy that is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, but mostly untouched, this is the place for you.
- When packing, be sure to bring comfortable flat shoes featuring, possibly, rubber soles.
- Every corner, every street or alley of the city offers an interesting opportunity to take pictures to remember, so we always recommend to keep your camera with you. If you can wait for the sunset to start shooting, the result is guaranteed, you will have a postcard-like photo!
- For a truly unique experience, live Matera by night: the white stone turns to golden reflections, thanks to the city lights and it all becomes unreal, it is such a perfect combination of dramatic panorama and architectural beauty!
- Driving? If you are staying in the historic Sassi, your rental car will not be with you, but in a parking area in the modern part of town. Sassi roads—most more foot path than the road—are not built for cars, except for a few perimeter roads that help make business deliveries and that are restricted to a few hours a day.
- Buzz around town in an Ape Calessino. These are the iconic little Italian vehicles that look like someone enclosed a motorbike inside the body of a tiny car. You can flag them down at the church piazza, just like a taxi. A must-do in Matera!
- Don’t miss: Madonna della Bruna Festival. Held annually on the 2nd July in Matera, this is one of Basilicata’s most important festivals. From first light the city of the Sassi honours their patron saint, beginning with the procession of the shepherds which wakes the ancient quarters to greet the image of the Virgin. The festivities end late in the evening with a firework contest above the ancient quarters of the Sassi.
- Like adventure? Go zip lining over the Dolomiti Lucane with the angel flight.
- Visit the ghost town of Craco, one hour drive from Matera. The atmosphere is surreal, especially at sunset.
The best time to visit Matera
Matera is best visited in the springtime and autumn. In the summer, the temperatures tend to be high and the city can be humid and sweltering.
The benefit of the cave dwellings is that caves often maintain cooler temperatures in the summer and keep in the warmth in the winter. The highest average temperature in Matera is 35°C in July and the lowest is 11°C in January.
The best time to visit Matera is in early autumn, from September to October, when prices for accommodation are slightly cheaper. Summer is often the most expensive time to visit.
How to get to Matera
If you’re flying nationally or within Europe, your nearest airport is Bari, Puglia, while if you’re flying internationally, your nearest is Naples. Because Matera is landlocked, your only options for getting there are either by train or by car. We suggest renting a car as the most comfortable way of getting around.