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Why You Need to Visit Matera Italy Now

In Food Travel, Italy by Daryl & Mindi Hirsch34 Comments

Matera, a stunning city in Basilicata Italy, is rich with history, cave hotels and authentic Italian food. The time to visit Matera is now.

Matera Skyline - Visit Matera Italy

The ancient city in Basilicata could be Italy’s next great attraction.

Have you heard of Matera Italy? If so, did you ever visit Matera?

Probably not if you’re an American. Most Americans who travel to Italy visit the Italian trifecta of Rome, Florence and Venice. Don’t get us wrong – these are all world-class cities. But there’s so much more to Italy than these three popular cities to the north. As an example, Naples is the home of pizza, Neapolitan pasta and other edible delectables. And then there’s Matera.

Canyons of Parco della Murgia Materana - Visit Matera Italy

A view from the Ledge of Matera’s Sasso Caveoso into the Canyons of Parco della Murgia Materana

We entered Matera in search of our hotel after a long day of travel. At first glance, Matera looked like any small Italian town with churches, small boutiques and a strolling array of citizens enjoying the nightly passeggiata.

Matera Passeggiata - Visit Matera Italy

The evening passeggiata enlivens Matera’s provincial center.

Before we parked our rental car, Daryl dashed down a stairway searching for our small cave hotel. After finding the entrance to Antico Convicino, he returned to the idling car and a skeptical Mindi who was starting to think that the visible town center was all there was of the ancient town.

“It’s a cute town, but it’s not so special,” she said.

Stairs to the Sassi di Matera - Visit Matera Italy

Steep passageways lead from Matera’s classic Italian city center to the ancient world of Sassi di Matera.

Daryl laughed as he led her down the undulating stairway of thousand-year-old stones that revealed the ancient cityscape of converted cave dwellings also known as Sassi for the first time. Mindi quickly changed her mind.

Check Matera Hotel Rates

What To Do in Matera

We were drawn to visit the city that was tagged a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. We had first heard about Matera in Italian cookbooks not to mention the visually stunning (despite its subtext) Mel Gibson movie ‘The Passion of Christ’. Based on the food and the movie’s scenery, we just had to visit Matera during our most recent Italy trip.

Take Lots of Photos

It hit us as we were exploring Matera the next morning. The city truly is a photo opportunity at every angle. The hilly landscape provides vista after vista. With or without Matera maps, the cave dwellings provide surprise after surprise.

Laundry between the Caves - Visit Matera Italy

Stepping Back into Time in Matera – Laundry between the Caves

Ironically, the glorious city has a storied past. Until the 1950’s, Matera was a wretched place – a sort of Italian Gulag where political prisoners were sent to live in the dreary sun-scorched desolation of rocks and stone. Today, in an odd and imaginative twist, gentrification has transformed the previously impoverished colony into a landlocked Mediterranean paradise filled with boutique hotels and charming restaurants. The renewed city also brings tourists of all ages, even the hipsters.

Matera Rock Band - Visit Matera Italy

A Matera “rock” band finds inspiration on the side of the caves.

The Matera landscapes and skylines are breathtaking, filled with a craggy mosaic of spires and uneven rooftops. It’s especially gorgeous at dawn and dusk as the sun breaks over the stone filled Sasso center. The opportunities for awesome Matera pictures are endless.

Sun Streaming in Matera - Visit Matera Italy

Sun Streaming in Matera

Tour buses only travel through the town for a few hours a day. Sightseeing crowds are generally gone by early afternoon and it’s easy to find solitary landscapes among the stone filled desolation. There is no shortage of spots for a peaceful moment for reflecting on Matera’s vivid past and present.

Sasso Caveoso - Visit Matera Italy

A View of Matera’s Sasso Caveoso where Ancient Caves were Converted into Hillside Dwellings.

Pro Tip:  When walking through Matera, be sure to carry a fully charged camera and a wide-angle lens. The city is a living time machine. As you walk through its dense, narrow passageways you will surely be in awe at each twist and turn, and you will literally want to click your camera at every step.

Matera View - Visit Matera Italy

Yet Another Lovely Matera View

Eat Great Food

We didn’t choose Matera for its food scene, but we were pleasantly surprised by the great dining options in the city of caves. When we visited some of the best restaurants in Matera, we found homey, simple food with deep flavors built around the classic Italian concept of Cucina Povera – the idea that great food is built on ingredients that are cheap, accessible and local. Along with wonderful bread and charcuterie, the Lucanians in Matera make extensive use of mild sun-dried chili peppers that impart deep earthy flavors to much of their cuisine, especially the brilliant handmade cavatelli and orecchiette pasta.

Wondering where to eat in Matera? We found great Matera food at family-run restaurants like Trattoria del Caveoso, a casual trattoria that we stumbled upon while wandering around town on our first night. We savored the cavatelli con pepperoni cruschi with its crunchy dried Lucani peppers, ricotta salata and fried breadcrumbs in the dimly lit cavern (a repeated theme in Matera) filled with colorful a mix of locals and tourists. We washed the hearty food down with a bottle from the restaurant’s affordable list of local Basilicatan and Puglian wines. This is the type of restaurant that deserves a second visit, and we enthusiastically obliged.

Pastas and Wine at Trattoria del Caveoso - Visit Matera Italy

Pastas and Wine at Trattoria del Caveoso

Pro Tip: The charcuterie in Matera is second to none. When you eat at Trattoria del Caveoso, be sure to try the lonza. Their take on the cured pork loin is as buttery as sushi.

Charcuterie Plate at Trattoria del Caveoso - Visit Matera Italy

The charcuterie plate at Trattoria del Caveoso in Matera features house-made lonza (bottom right).

We never thought we would taste better gelato than the gelato that we enjoyed in Bologna on a previous trip, but Matera came close. Our favorite gelato was the organic (biologico) gelato served at trendy Lounge Caffè. The nutty pistachio and chocolate cherry flavors and creamy textures were spot-on.

Gelato at Lounge Caffè - Visit Matera Italy

Gelato at Lounge Caffè – Roasted, Salted Pistachio and Chocolate Cherry

Trattoria del Caveoso is located at  Via Bruno Buozzi, 21, 75100 Matera MT, Italy.
Lounge Caffè is located at Via del Corso, 60, 75100 Matera MT, Italy.

Dig Deeper

As if the ancient city with its caves isn’t enough, Matera is situated over a ravine. This topography makes the city perfect for hiking and exploring.

Matera Ravine - Visit Matera Italy

Matera Ravine

The bend of Matera’s main road through the Sassi empties into the Parco della Murgia Materana, a mini Italian version of the Grand Canyon, where adventurers can rock climb and less adventurous travelers can hike through many of the cities nearby ravines which wind through a network of caves, picturesque hills and peaceful streams. (We fell into the latter category.)

Matera Hikers - Visit Matera Italy

Hikers enjoy a peaceful moment aside a stream in the Parco della Murgia Materana. The park is just a short hillside walk down from the center of the Matera Sassi district.

We also visited Chiesa San Pietro Barisano, an ancient Matera church, and Casa Noha, a preserved 16th century home. Both sites provide fascinating views of the city’s storied history and unique architecture. We also shopped in cute stores where local artisans sell souvenirs, art and jewelry. (We bought a necklace as well as pasta and dried peppers as our Matera souvenirs.)

Despite the many fun things to do in Matera Italy, one can only explore so much in a day. Luckily, Matera has plenty of cafés for chilling out and enjoying a drink or two. Then again, drinking a bottle of wine on a Matera hotel terrace looking out on the city is the ultimate chill-out experience. After a busy day doing a city tour, this is the ultimate way to partake in local Italian culture.

Chilling Out at a Matera café - Visit Matera Italy

Locals chill at a Matera café.

Matera Picnic - Visit Matera Italy

Picnic in Matera – Wine, Charcuterie and Cheese (not in photo)

Pro Tip:  Go to Il Buongustaio for wine, cheese and charcuterie. You can purchase all necessary provisions for a memorable picnic. Then go back to the shop later to buy edible gifts to take home for friends, family and yourself.

Il Buongustaio in Matera - Visit Matera Italy

Some of the Gourmet Delicacies at Il Buongustaio in Matera

Il Buongustaio is located at Piazza Vittorio Veneto, 1, 75100 Matera MT, Italy. 

Why You Should Visit Matera Now

Without a direct train line to Matera, the city has a delightfully non-touristy vibe. This situation won’t last forever since Matera has been designated the 2019 European Capital of Culture in Italy. It’s inevitable that the crowds and trains will come in droves.

Where else can you stay at a cave hotel? It’s a unique experience that you will never forget. Matera has cave hotels ranging from basic hostels to fancy hotels in former palaces. It truly is a unique experience.

There are tourists in Matera now, but not too many, with most coming and leaving by bus long before the sun sets. As more and more cave hotels are built and with people like us spreading the word, Matera will rival the popular northern cities in terms of tourism.

Tourists in Matera - Visit Matera Italy

Tourists in Matera

The Matera experience will still be special but less so, as happens when a place is crowded with tourists. In other words, now is the time to visit Matera.

Transportation and Logistics

Antico Convicino Sassi Hotel - Why You Need to Visit Matera Now

We stayed at Antico Convicino, a lovely sassi hotel in Matera.


Getting to Matera

Matera is not the easiest Italian city to visit since it’s not on a train line. We recommend renting a car and driving to Matera from Naples, which is what we did. The drive is under four hours and can be modified to include stops along the Amalfi Coast or in Basilicata. Another option is to take a train from Naples to Bari and then a bus from Bari to Matera. However, the Bari Matera bus line has limited service.

Pro Tip:  Map out a parking lot before you arrive in Matera since driving in the city can be confusing.

When to Plan Your Visit

Don’t wait to visit Matera! As you can tell, we loved visiting this Southern Italian city and recommend a visit before it explodes with tourists. Like much of Europe, the best times to visit are during the shoulder seasons of spring and autumn when the weather is optimal and crowds are smaller.

Hungry for More? Check out our articles about our day trip to Puglia and eating the world’s best pizza in Caizzo.

Book Your Matera Hotel

Have we convinced you to visit Matera before it’s too late? Click here to research the best rates for cave hotels in Matera Italy.

Book a Tour

You know you want to explore the Matera caves! Click here to find an awesome Matera tour or try one of these tours:

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  1. Wow, Matera really is a beautiful city! I had never heard of it before, and I am definitely guilty of 1/3 of the trifecta- I’ve been to Rome several times, and Venice is next on my list! I’ll have to look into Matera though. I can definitely see from your photographs that it really is a picturesque and beautiful city, with photo ops at every turn. How did you ever select which pictures to display?! That is always my challenge when exploring new places. Thanks for sharing your tips on Matera!

    1. Author

      We took so many photos that it definitely was a challenge to narrow them down. We tried to pick ones that gave a feel for the city. It sounds like you can relate.

  2. I long to get back to Italy and see all of these wonderful places you talk about on your blog 😀

  3. I’ve never heard of Matera before. We’re exploring options of places to visit or see in the next five years. This one looks so awesome with those amazing views from the movie’s scenery. The landscape is like a photograph so we should make sure to have a fully-charged camera and also carry extra batteries while traveling.

  4. Never heard of Matera before! I really need to get there this year. From your story and photos, I understand that it is still relatively undiscovered by tourists. Thank you so much for sharing these useful tips!

  5. Oh my goodness, this looks like an incredible city! I’ve wanted to visit Italy since my sister went years ago, but always thought I’d visit the traditional American hot-spots- Venice, Rome, etc. I have to say that, now, if I ever find myself traveling to Italy (pre-2019), Matera will definitely be #1 on my list. What an incredible gem you’ve shared today, thank you so much!

  6. I have to admit… I have actually never hear of Matera before. At least not that I can remember. I would love to travel and I have to say this place looks so beautiful. Your photos are amazing and I think I would love it there. I hope one day the opportunity to travel comes available! And when it does I will have to consider Matera. Thank you so much for sharing this place with us!

  7. Matera is a really beautiful city!! Your pictures are amazing they catch so much of the city’s character and beauty. I love to try new foods when we travel it’s always so rich in culture and fun to try new things.

  8. I saw a gorgeous cave hotel online not too long ago in Matera and it put Matera firmly on my list of places to visit. It’s so nice to see a blog about the place. Thank you.

    1. Author

      Staying in a cave hotel is a truly unique experience. You should try to do it when you visit Matera.

  9. I love architecture, I started out in college in that field, following in my uncle’s foot steps but I let my counselor change my mind to switching to nursing. I don’t regret my decision but when I see buildings like this {the balconies are ahhhhhmazing}, I want to see them in person. Thanks for your photos, I could look at travel photos all day long. I’ve never been to Matera but now that I’ve gotten a glimpse of it, I’ll add it to my list of places to see.

  10. Thank you for taking us along on such a special virtual tour of Matera – I’ve been to some of the larger cities in Italy (including the usual suspects of Venice, Florence, Rome, etc.), but haven’t yet had the opportunity to get some some of the smaller, idyllic cities. So much of the charm of Italian life is the warmth of the people, the beauty of everyday life, and the joy of amazing pasta… Matera looks like it has all of the above (I particularly love shot of the musicians hanging out in little wall niches and jamming). I don’t know if I’ll be able to make it there, but thank you for introducing it to me. It looks like a lovely, bucolic place to explore… Now I’m dreaming of getting away…!


  11. I loved reading about Matera and viewing your wonderful pictures. My trip to Italy will have to include Matera and I will stay in a
    Cave Hotel. You make it sound fascinating and when I am there, I will remember this wonderful post.

  12. I actually have never heard of Matera before but UGH what I would do to visit ANY part of Italy!! This town looks absolutely stunning and I really love the look and feel of it. It just looks so relaxing! And that gelato… I bet it was amazing

    1. Author

      The gelato was beyond amazing. We’d love a scoop or two right about now. Oh well…

  13. Matera looks like such a beautiful place, I can’t believe that I’ve never heard of it before. I’ve been to Florence before but I can’t say I enjoyed it. My other half is itching to go back to Italy soon though, I’ll have to show him Matera and it’s beautiful landscapes. I love the old feeling the place has and it doesn’t look as though it’d be too infused with tourists either so you get the true Italian experience. Some gelato and wine would be delightful right now!

  14. Oh my goodness – you have totally convinced me! I love the caves that were turned into homes – they look awesome. But then I saw the charcuterie. I’m like the world’s biggest charcuterie nut. My husband lived near Naples for three years – I’ll have to ask him if he’s been here.

  15. Actually this looks like an amazing place to go to on vacation! The Matera Ravine looks freaking amazing! It would make for some really great pictures and postcards. All that food looks really amazing as well, Matera is on my bucket list of places to go to!

  16. I am ENCHANTED! i was born in Naples. I will now have to stay in a cave hotel.I think this will become my new obsession. and thank you for the Food Porn. It would not have been the amazing post it is with out that.

  17. Yet another reason to visit Italy! I keep putting off going because there is so much I want to see and eat that it would be hard for me to narrow down an itinerary.

  18. Can’t believe I’ve never heard of Matera before! It looks like a beautiful slice of Italy. I will have to add it to my itinerary when I finally get around to backpacking Italy!

  19. I sounds – and looks – lovely! I haven’t actually heard of Matera until now but it’s on the list of places I’d like to visit the next time I’m in Italy.

  20. What a great blog! We are visiting Matera in May any I will use the information you wrote about to plan our visit. Thank you! Did you visit any other towns in Puglia?

    1. Author

      You will love Matera! Although Matera is in Basilicata, it’s quite close to Puglia. We spent a day exploring Puglia, specifically Martina Franca and Alberobello. We also stopped in Cisternino for drinks with a view. If you’re interested, you can search this site to read about the day and see our photos.

  21. Hi, I visited Matera with a super guide Mariangela and it was amazing!!!!
    Can you suggest something about Rome? I will go in September! Thanks in advance

    1. Author

      We haven’t been to Rome in seven years but we have fond memories of food in the Jewish Ghetto, especially the sweet pastry call ‘Jewish Pizza.’ Also Trastevere has a number of great enotecas and restaurants. We hope to get back to Rome and write a guide soon.

  22. Matera is absolutely stunning! I remember thinking every turn was a new photo opportunity! Staying in a cave hotel was the best, I stayed in the Le Grotte della Civita on the edge of the Sassi. A wonderful town that I hope isn’t ruined in the future!

  23. I intend to rent a car from Bari to Matera, wondering how to park in Matera, it seems to be challenging.

    1. Author

      Actually, there are a number of paid public parking lots in the city and there’s even a parking lot in the Sassi (ancient) area. Our best recommendation would be to ask your hotel or host about the easiest location to park. You’ll probably need to drop your bags at or near your hotel and park your car afterward. We parked in a garage just off the main piazza in the upper town. Italians love to drive so there are always options. Once situated, it’s easy to walk around the city.

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