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Why You Need to Visit Matera Italy Now

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.

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Have you heard of Matera? 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 in 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.

Passeggiata in 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 in 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.

What To Do in Matera

We were drawn to visit the city that was named 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 visit, these were our favorite things to do in Matera:

1. Take Lots of Photos

Laundry between the Caves in Matera Italy
Stepping Back into Time in Matera – Laundry between the Caves

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.

Rock Band Playing in the Rocks in Matera Italy
A Matera “rock” band finds inspiration on the side of 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.

Sun Streaming in Matera Italy
Sun Streaming in Matera

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.

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

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.

Matera View in Matera Italy
Yet Another Lovely Matera View

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 stony desolation. There is no shortage of spots for a peaceful moment for reflecting on Matera’s vivid past and present.

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.

2. Eat Great Food

Pastas and Wine at Trattoria del Caveoso in Matera Italy
Pasta and Wine at Trattoria del Caveos

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.

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

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. Yes, we ate at Trattoria del Caveoso twice during our time in Matera.

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.

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

We never thought we would taste better gelato than the gelato that we enjoyed in Nortern Italian cities like Bologna, Venice and Verona, 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.

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.

3. Dig Deeper

Matera Ravine in Matera Italy
Matera Ravine

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.

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 in 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 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.

Beyond these sites, Matera has a slew of cute stores where local artisans sell crafts, art and jewelry. While shopping, we bought pasta and dried peppers since local food products are some of the best souvenirs to buy in Italy.

Chilling Out at a Matera cafe in Matera Italy
Locals chill at a Matera cafe.

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.

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

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.

Il Buongustaio in Matera Italy
Some of the Gourmet Delicacies at Il Buongustaio in Matera

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

Why You Should Visit Matera Now

Tourists in Matera in Matera Italy
Tourists in Matera

Without a direct train line to Matera, the city has a delightfully non-touristy vibe. This situation won’t last forever since Matera was designated a 2019 European Capital of Culture along with Plovdiv. With this distinction, it’s inevitable that crowds 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.

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 to Matera

Antico Convicino Sassi Hotel in Matera Italy
We stayed at Antico Convicino, a lovely sassi hotel in 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 Visit Matera

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.

Plan Your Matera Stay

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.

If you want access to a kitchen or don’t like caves, click here to find an Airbnb apartment.

Hungry for More Italian Food?

Check out our food guides for the Italian cities of Bologna, Modena, Parma, Venice and Verona.

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Pinterest image: images of Matera with caption reading 'Matera. Go there! Go now!'
Red Beach Selfie in Santorini

About the Authors

Daryl & Mindi Hirsch

Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.

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We update our articles regularly. Some updates are major while others are minor link changes and spelling corrections. Let us know if you see anything that needs to be updated in this article.

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Rodger Smithington

Friday 6th of September 2019

I’m in Matera right now. It’s neat and all but not worth more than 1 full day of your time (2 MAX). The Sassi looks neat but that’s it. Really bored on day 3 in our cave hotel which was the highest rated and most costly. The neat factor wears off very quickly, but I’ve been everywhere.

Maria Acito

Monday 24th of June 2019

I was born in Matera and now live in US. I go back for summer and Christmas. Anytime of the year is great for me. Looking at the Sassi covered with snow is astonishing. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and pictures about my beautiful hometown! Thank you!!

Lily

Monday 18th of March 2019

To the author - Actually, Matera(Italy) and Plovdiv(Bulgaria) are the European Capitals of Culture for 2019, for the whole contitent Europe, not just Italy or Bulgaria. The article is interesting, but this part of the information is inaccurate.

Daryl and Mindi Hirsch

Thursday 11th of April 2019

Thanks for your comment. We have updated the article to make this information more clear.

Martin

Sunday 3rd of March 2019

I have a doubt. When does Matera close? I can't find informations about opening and closing times. Is there a seasonal closure ?

Daryl and Mindi Hirsch

Saturday 9th of March 2019

It's a real town. It never closes.

Debbie

Monday 22nd of October 2018

Matera was not a gulag in the 1950s, more of a ghetto as the people were so poor they couldn't afford houses so had to live in dwellings hewn out of the hill. Their animals were kept there too!