The first time I went to Matera, I was absolutely blown away. I’d seen photos, but it is impossible to get the true sense of an entire town of cave dwellings from photos and descriptions. Read below for my recommendations on what to do in Matera to get the most out of your visit to this incredible town. If you’d like to include Matera as part of a custom Italy itinerary, contact us, we’d love to help!
Understand Matera’s amazing history.
Anyone who has learned some Italian history might be familiar with the Romans, the Etruscans, the Renaissance, the Medieval times, or even influences from the Spanish, the Normans or the Turkish.
Matera is completely different. Yes, it’s been conquered by many of Italy’s most well-known rulers, but that’s relatively recent history.
Inhabited since the 10th millennium BC (12,000 years!), Matera is known as the underground city. The buildings in the historic area are cave dwellings. They are dug into the rock, with outer walls and facades added. It makes sense that the ancient city is known as the “Sassi”, which translates as “stones”.
The inhabitants of Matera lived in these cave dwellings – with their livestock – until the 1950s. But, disease was rampant and the infant mortality rate was high. The Italian government declared the town an embarrassment and forced the town’s 16,000 inhabitants to move to nearby housing with electricity and running water.
For several decades, the Sassi of Matera were uninhabited, except by squatters and drug addicts. Then in 1993, Unesco listed the Sassi as a World Heritage site, calling it “the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region, perfectly adapted to its terrain and ecosystem.”
The Italian government then had the task of rebuilding the ancient town, and asked the original inhabitants to move back. Some of them did, and over the years, the population has grown to over 60,000 people. Today, the ancient town of Matera consists of many private homes but also hotels, museums, and wonderful bars and restaurants.
Explore on foot: the town is built on 10 levels.
As you can imagine, in a town built on 10 levels, there are lots of stairs and streets going either uphill or downhill. Before my visit, many people warned me to wear good shoes and to watch my footing. The stones can be slippery and many are uneven. The ancient town is not stroller friendly or wheelchair friendly, however there is one main road that goes all the way around the ancient town.
So, wear good shoes, bring a water bottle, and allocate a few hours to explore Matera’s small streets on foot.
Visit cave museums to understand daily life.
Visit a museum of a family home, where multiple rooms have been dug deep into the rock. You’ll see the network of cisterns used to collect water. You’ll see the stall where the animals slept (usually at the back, to keep the cave warm with their body heat). The rock is relatively soft and easy to carve, so these homes were larger than I’d expected, although of course they have no windows!
We also enjoyed exploring the Materasum Ipogeo, a complex of chambers that have had multiple possible uses over the millennia. We wandered through this underground network and explored ice cellars, markets, merchants’ storerooms, and a mill.
Stay in a cave hotel.
I stayed at Sextantio, which was one of the most incredible places I have ever slept. Each room at this hotel has a separate entrance because each one is a renovated dwelling. Sextantio has done an amazing job of creating a luxury hotel while preserving the atmosphere and original materials of the cave dwellings. All the wood found in the rooms (shelves, chairs, tables) are made from reclaimed wood from the original dwellings. A few rooms have original stone sinks, which now flow with running water from stainless steel modern taps.
Note, though, that sleeping inside a cave isn’t for everyone. The rooms were not at all damp, and there was no mold (I looked!). But there are no windows. There is electricity and running water, so we had hot showers. But doing my makeup was somewhat challenging. The atmosphere and experience more than made up for it.
Visit Matera’s rock-hewn “rupestrian” churches.
Matera’s Cathedral is gorgeous, but I really enjoyed visiting the churches dug into the rock. Our guide described these churches as “negative space”. Pillars and columns were created by digging out the rock, rather than building out of materials. The atmosphere was magical, and I was riveted as our private guide explained the history.
There are several of these “rupestrian” churches in the Sassi, but there are many others in the Murgia park (see tip below) and outside of town, some with incredible frescoes.
See the Sassi at sunset or lit up.
This is a reason to stay overnight in Matera itself! Watching the sun set over the ravine and the hills dotted with caves was beautiful. None of the photos I took do it justice. After dinner, we walked up to the Cathedral and looked out over the town, which was all lit up. Bellissimo.
Visit the Murgia Park.
Only a few miles outside of town but visible from the ancient town, the Murgia Materana park is dotted with caves, churches, and walking paths. This is the area with the history that goes back many thousands of years. Spend a couple of hours to explore its many walking paths and enjoy the views back over the ancient town.
If you’d like to visit the insides of the churches, you’ll need to hire a local guide who can bring keys, since the churches are locked.
Or, do a sunset tour: listen as your guide gives a brief history of the area while watching the sunset over the Sassi.
Driving in the countryside in Puglia and around Matera was not bad at all. I personally recommend not driving in big cities in Italy, but the countryside is just fine. (We have a lot of advice on driving in Italy!) Just remember to ask your hotel where to park in advance.
Take the train from Bari
On this trip, we took the train from Bari, which was just under a 2-hour ride. Driving would have been about 75 minutes, but then parking would have been a hassle. If you’re familiar with the Italian train networks of Trenitalia or the newer Italo, note that this area is serviced by a different train line, the Appulo Lucane. Train tickets were easy to book and inexpensive, trains were modern and comfortable, and we had a choice of lots of trains. The Appulo Lucane station was right next to Bari Centrale, but it was not attached.
The other thing I loved about this area was the food, but I need to save that for a separate post!
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