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Matera is a city in the region of Basilicata in Southern Italy, with great history and a bright future. Matera is uniquely built on a rocky outcrop, with cave dwellings carved into the mountainside forming the old town, the so-called Sassi district.
Matera was considered “the shame of Italy” in the 1950s because of the extremely poor living conditions, and widespread disease that prevailed in the Sassi. The old area was evacuated in 1952 and the population was relocated to modern housing. The Sassi remained abandoned until the 1980s when a new vision and investments have given to locals incentives to return and give life to the Sassi.
Why to visit Matera
Over the last 50 years, Matera has managed to transform itself from being the slumdog and the “shame of Italy” to a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the European Capital of Culture in 2019. The Sassi brims with intense history, rich culture, untouched by the time architecture, breathtaking scenery, and award-winning gastronomy, making Matera one of the most sophisticated travel destinations in Southern Italy, still under the radar of massive tourism. Recently, even James Bond paid a visit here.
Matera’s architecture is so spectacular and unique that astonishes even the most aesthete visitor. Originated in a prehistoric troglodyte settlement, the Sassi is made up of white stone caves on the steep slopes of a deep valley. Nicknamed by film directors as the little Jerusalem, the old town’s architecture has inspired many of them to shoot here. From Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ” to the recent film of James Bond, Matera welcomed around 140 Italian and international productions over the last 5 years. Staying in the city is indeed like living on a film set.
What to see in Matera
Even from the pictures, you can realize that Matera is like nowhere else on Earth. The whole old town known as Sassi is like an open museum ready to be explored. The two main districts of the Sassi (Caveoso and Barisano) are uniquely beautiful.
A perfect starting point is at Casa Noha, where in a time-worn dwelling, an innovative video will help you discover the story of Matera and introduce you to everything that you are about to experience in this unique place.
At Casa Grotta you can see a typically furnished cave dwelling and you will gain a better understanding of the customs and life of the peasants before the Sassi was abandoned.
Hiking in Matera is a great activity too. The old town is built on the slopes of the Gravina River, part of the regional park of Murgia Materana – full of limestone cliffs, gorges, rock churches, and caves dating back to the Neolithic era. The park offers amazing hiking trails where you can walk through history and enjoy the apparelled natural beauty and impressive architecture of the Sassi on the opposite side of the gorge.
Your Indiana Jones experience starts as soon as you cross the Gravina river on the Tibetano robe bridge. The terrain is uneven and frequently steep, so be cautious and wear sturdy shoes, a hat, and sunscreen. Make sure you carry water with you, especially in summer. The path may be challenging, but the panoramic view of the Sassi at the top of the cliff will reward you for all the sweat you had along the way.
Pro tip: if you plan to enjoy the sunset from the top of the Murgia park, make sure you have a car to return to the Sassi since the trail can be dangerous to navigate in the dark. I took the way back to the Sassi just before sunset. I was at my hotel on time to capture a time-lapse of the sunset from the terrace.
Where to eat in Matera
Matera is a culinary Mecca for the foodie. Restaurants started to flourish in the Sassi since Matera was awarded the European Capital of Culture in 2019. I have never seen so many Michelin-starred restaurants gathered in one place. But you don’t need to break the bank to taste the local cuisine since Matera offers many options. The local cuisine is based on “Cucina Povera” (poor cooking) – simple food with rich flavor built on inexpensive, accessible, and local ingredients from the soil of Basilicata. Dishes mostly contain meat, dairy, flour, and vegetables, but nowadays Cucina Povera is served with a contemporary twist.
Your first stop should be Ristorante Soul Kitchen to try Saltimbocca pork in lemon cream and pistachio. Yes, it is as tasty as it sounds. The restaurant has a laid-back environment, matching the temperament of south Italy, and offers authentic, traditional cuisine with seasonal products.
Oi Mari’ has a more formal set up with upscale seasonal dishes and a strong cellar in a 17th-century rocky building. There is a variety of options on the menu ranging from Neapolitan-style pizzas to more sophisticated dishes. I had a lamp in porchetta and garden vegetables with oven-roasted potatoes accompanied with a light fruity local white wine and everything was great.
Where to stay in Matera
In an ancient city of stones and caves, staying in a cave hotel in the Sassi is an experience that you should not miss. Fortunately, there are many boutique hotels and apartments in the old town offering such accommodation. I chose to stay at Il Belvedere because of its cave architecture and the panoramic breathtaking view of the Sassi from the hotel’s terrace.
During my stay at the hotel, I was offered early check-in and late check-out without paying extra money. If you are looking for great service, friendly, young staff, a good breakfast, and a fantastic view of the Sassi then Il Belvedere will not disappoint you.
Pro tip: At breakfast try focaccia: an oven-baked bread, seasoned with olive oil, spices, and fresh cherry tomatoes. It is delicious.
When to visit Matera
Matera is a rocky city with no trees in the Sassi area. High temperatures are the norm during summer time and not having a shadow to rest under, can feel unpleasant while wandering around the cobble-stoned alleys of the old town.
I traveled to Matera beginning of June and I can tell you from personal experience that exploring the Sassi from 11:00 to 16:00 was almost unbearable under the hot sun. Thank god that water fountains are widespread in Matera and I could frequently splash my face and head. It was so relieving. Have in mind that shorts, comfortable shoes, a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, and always carrying with you a bottle of water, are essentials to have if you visit Matera in summer.
Ideally, April to early June and mid-September to early November is the best period to discover the city of Matera.
How to reach Matera
The closest airport to Matera is Bari International Airport-Karol Wojtyla which is also the main airport in the Puglia region. The easiest way to reach Matera from Bari airport is of course by car but if this is not an option for you, the second best is by bus. Pugliairbus is a shuttle service connecting the airport with many destinations in the region including Matera. The journey takes 1 hour and 15 minutes, and the bus stops at Matera’s train station. The Sassi is a couple of minutes away on foot.
Matera can also be reached by train from Bari train station but it takes more time since it usually stops at Altamura for a train change.
Pro tip: The Puglia and Basilicata regions have many other small cities and villages that are worth exploring, such as Polignano a Mare, Alberobello, Ostuni, Monopoli, and Locorotondo. Since most of them do not require more than one day to be seen, touring the region as part of a road trip is the optimum. In this case, it is recommended to rent a car which will give you more flexibility and comfort during your journey.
Μatera is an amazing and unique place to explore in the south of Italy. It perfectly combines history, architecture, gastronomy, art, and nature. Surprisingly, It is still one of the most under-discovered cities in Italy. So hurry up and book your trip to Matera. As soon as you step foot in the Sassi, you will realize that this place is out of this world!