Last updated: January 2022
While most travelers flock to Southern Italy for the sparkling Amalfi or Apulian coastlines, there’s a new – or rather, renewed – star in town: the enigmatic, history-riddled and above all remarkable stone city of Matera. Situated in the “arch” of Italy’s distinctive boot, Matera lies within the largely agricultural region of Basilicata – nestled between Puglia to the east and a series of seemingly boundless mountain ranges to the west. Once considered the national shame of Italy due to astonishingly dire, poverty-stricken living conditions, to say Matera has made an extraordinary transformation is an understatement.
As it was centuries ago, life in Matera today is centered around the Sassi (literally, “the stones”) referring to the city’s winding, stone-built center lined with ancient cave dwellings (not to mention rock churches, monasteries and even medieval-era palaces) all carefully balanced on the edge of a dramatic, cliffside ravine. The difference is that as recently as the mid-1900s, the inhabitants of such dwellings were living in shockingly primitive conditions. Cramped cave quarters were shared by large families (livestock included) with no ventilation, running water, plumbing or electricity to speak of. Widespread illiteracy, hunger, disease, even infant mortality burned like wildfire through the Sassi.
By 1948 Justice Minister Palmiro Togliatti called Matera a “national shame” and by 1952 the Italian government forcibly displaced all residents to newly built public housing on the outskirts of town. Fast forward to 1986 and a law was passed allowing people to move back in – namely, descendants of Matera residents looking to restore and regenerate the crumbling Sassi.
Thanks to a renaissance of interest from entrepreneurial visionaries ranging from hoteliers and chefs to artists and shopkeepers, plus the powerful film industry – Matera has set the stage for such films as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), the recent reboot of Ben-Hur (2016) and of course, Daniel Craig’s final turn as James Bond in No Time to Die (2021) – the reborn city has evolved to such a level that it not only landed UNESCO designation in 1993, but earned the prestigious title of European Cultural Capital in 2019.
Today, Matera has emerged as a fascinating destination filled with stylish boutique hotels, restaurants ranging from authentic to hip to Michelin star, a vibrant arts and culture scene, a dizzying amount of ancient archaeological sites, romantic piazzas and of course, beautifully restored, tuff-carved architecture at every winding, cobblestone turn.
Here, our top picks for a visit to the reawakened city that’s sure to be just as magical as it is mind-boggling. We give you our self-attested LAMA LIST: Matera.
Editor’s Note: Travel is complicated right now. While there are many factors that will result in your decision of whether or not to travel, this decision is ultimately your responsibility. Travel rules, restrictions and entry/exit requirements, as well as Covid policies, are subject to change frequently. Please check with both your home country’s official advisories as well as those of Italy prior to traveling for up-to-date information.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links, which means if you follow the link and make a purchase, we may get a little something in return – at no additional cost to you. This helps us keep the keyboard clicking over here so we can continue churning out helpful travel guides, features & tips!
BUT FIRST – TRAVEL INSURANCE
Whenever, and wherever, you might be traveling, travel insurance is always a good idea. We personally love SafetyWing for their transparent, easy to understand and thorough coverage starting at just $40.00 USD/month. Their two-tier coverage offers medical benefits in the event of an accident or illness while abroad, in addition to travel benefits such as compensation for delayed trips and lost luggage. Plus, all new SafetyWing policies automatically include COVID-19 coverage. Please note testing for COVID-19 is not covered unless deemed medically necessary by a physician. This means pre or post-flight tests do not count, nor do antibody tests. Find out everything you need to know about SafetyWing travel insurance, here!
From thriving medieval empire to poverty-stricken slum to internationally celebrated tourist destination, the history of Matera is truly mind-blowing. For a true appreciation of just how far the Sassi has come, we strongly encourage you to visit either, or both, of these cultural destinations.
Casa Noha: Eye-opening insight into Matera’s rise, fall and newfound rise again via multimedia exhibition in a converted, historical Sassi home.
Storica Casa Grotta: Transport yourself to early 1900s Sassi life by visiting a furnished, peasant cave dwelling once inhabited by a family of 7 (plus farm animals).
STAY // BEST BOUTIQUE HOTELS IN MATERA
From restored stone suites to romantic cave rooms, here are our picks for the best boutique hotels in Matera:
Pietragialla: Imagine waking up in your contemporary king suite made from restored Sassi stones, stepping out onto your sprawling private terrace (40 square meters/430 square feet, to be exact) and soaking in panoramic views of Matera’s spectacular cityscape, hilltop cathedral and endless Gravina Canyon beyond. This was our personal experience in the Belvedere Suite at Pietragialla, which also offers authentic cave rooms boasting ancient cisterns-turned-showers. Making the experience even more memorable is the property’s wonderful owner Giacomo, who will go out of his way to make sure you have an unforgettable stay in the heart of the Sassi.
Book Your Stay at Pietragialla
Locando di San Martino: A mix of traditional cave rooms, vaulted stone suites and contemporary rooms, some equipped with private balconies and jacuzzi bathtubs, make up this historic property’s 40 accommodations. An impressive breakfast spread is served on the terrace with Sassi views, but the real crown jewel of Locando di San Martino can be found by looking even deeper. Underground, that is, where the soft glow of a traditional thermal bath beckons. Book the Ancient Termae Romanae to immerse yourself in a circuit of heated, purifying passages and cisterns, where tension melts away and time itself remains elusively suspended.
Book Your Stay at Locando di San Martino
Palazzo degli Abati: This 5-room boutique hotel is housed in a beautifully restored, 1700s palace once inhabited by religious nobility. Choose to stay in either of two excavated, arched cave rooms, one partially excavated cave room (featuring the palace’s original kitchen-turned-unique bathroom) or two vaulted suites lined with original terracotta floor. You can’t go wrong with any choice, further highlighted by elegantly appointed furnishings, hydromassage showers and a shared terrace offering jaw-dropping views of Matera beyond.
Book Your Stay at Palazzo degli Abati
Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita: Book a room at this luxury retreat to experience troglodyte living as its finest. You’ll feel as though you’ve stepped back in time upon entering any of the cliffside property’s 18 cave rooms, where old-world aesthetics blend seamlessly with romantic luxuries: think soaking tubs, fireplaces and in some, balconies overlooking the majestic Murgia National Park. Don’t miss the exceptional on-site restaurant, where elevated Basilicata fare is served by candlelight inside an ancient rock church.
Book Your Stay at Sextantio: Le Grotte della Civita
EAT & DRINK // BEST RESTAURANTS & BARS IN MATERA
While you can certainly find pizza, pasta and further Italian staples in Matera, you won’t want to miss trying out the Basilicata region’s own local cuisine: cucina povera. Translating to “peasant food,” seemingly modest dishes pack a punch with bold flavor stemming from smartly utilized ingredients. Our personal favorites? Crapiata (a hearty, bean-based stew), pasta con i peperoni cruschi (featuring the region’s popular, sweet, sun-dried pepper) and cialedda calda (a hot dish where stale bread comes to life with egg, bay leaves, garlic and more). Wash it all down with a glass…or bottle, we don’t judge, of full-bodied Aglianico (“alli-yawn-nico”) red wine – the region’s star, earthy grape.
We recommend trying the unique cuisine at top spots Taverna La Focagna, Pane & Pomodoro, Trattoria della Caveoso (best to book a table for this one in advance) and for traditional dishes with an elevated, contemporary twist, Vitantonio Lombardo (this one’s earned a Michelin star).
Synonymous with Italy, indulging in handmade gelato in Matera is no exception. In the Sassi, i Vizi degli Angeli is where you want to satisfy your sweet tooth.
Is there anything not to love about the art of aperitivo? Not really. You’ll be happy to know the Italian pre-dinner ritual is alive and well in Matera, and we recommend getting your spritz on at Nocelleria (where you’ll also want to graze on the locally-sourced cheese & charcuterie board), Quarry Lounge Restaurant & Terrace (aperitivo with a VIEW), Bonacchi (drinks only) or Area 8 (hip spot open Thurs-Sun; equally excellent for post-dinner cocktails).
For such a small city, Matera offers an impressive array of things to do – ranging from cultural to archaeological to anthropological (including Casa Noha and Storica Casa Grotta, mentioned above). Here, our top see & do picks to put at the top of your list:
Explore the Sassi: Wandering Matera’s “Sassi” – it’s winding, cave-carved and stone-built center – is one of the best things to do here. You’re bound to get lost, which is arguably the best way to discover the historic district’s hidden nooks & crannies.
Or, get your Sassi crash course with this 3-hour, guided walking tour led by a local expert.
Prefer to explore in style? You can also opt for this fun, 45-minute express excursion through the Sassi while riding in an “ape” (pronounced “ah-pay”), the region’s beloved, puttering tuk-tuk.
Walk Through a Subterranean Cistern: Get an immersive look at brilliant, 18th-century hydraulic engineering by walking along the suspended pathways of Matera’s Palombaro Lungo: a massive subterranean cistern lying directly below Piazza Vittorio Veneto – one of the city’s main squares. Featuring soaring, 15 meter/49 foot high ceilings accented by tuff-carved archways, pillars and beautifully rounded walls, the cistern is so visually impressive it’s earned the nickname “Water Cathedral.”
Due to the region’s history of low rainfall, water was a highly coveted resource. One this cistern supplied to Matera residents not only in the 1700s, but continuously through as recent as the early 1900s. The largest of a complex system of rock-carved cisterns stretching like tree roots all throughout the city’s underground, the remarkable Palombaro Lungo is one of the primary features that contributed to Matera’s UNESCO World Heritage designation in 1993.
Visit Rupestrian (Rock) Churches & Panoramic Viewpoints in Murgia National Park: The official name of this place, so given upon the park’s establishment in 1990, is a doozy: Parco Regionale Archeologico Storico Naturale delle Chiese Rupestri del Materano (Natural Historic Archaeological Regional Park of the Rock Churches of the Matera region). Now, the vast rocky landscape – stretching a whopping 8,000 hectares/19,000+ acres – is known as Parco Regionale della Murgia Materana, or even more simply: Murgia National Park.
Boasting numerous panoramic viewpoints, a series of scenic hiking and biking trails, endless ancient cave dwellings and over 150, centuries-old rock churches featuring faded frescoes, you could spend days here and still not see everything this park has to offer. You can DIY your visit by crossing this suspended footbridge and trekking up the hillside, but given the vastness of the park and probability of getting lost (forget about relying on Google Maps here) hiring a seasoned guide is easily your best bet to streamline, and enhance, your experience – plus benefit the local community.
This immersive tour of Murgia National Park, including pick-up and drop-off right in the heart of Matera, takes you to a Neolithic (Stone Age) village, two rock churches and a panoramic viewpoint – that you may even recognize from the crucifixion scene in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
Visit Medieval Churches in the Sassi: Matera counts a dizzying number of churches (over 170!) all carved into, or built from, the Sassi’s malleable tuff rockface.
Perched at the highest point in the city in beautiful Piazza Duomo – quite literally carving out its spot as the centerpiece of Matera’s awe-inspiring skyline – the Cattedrale di Maria Santissima della Bruna e Sant’Eustachio (Cathedral of the Madonna della Bruna and of Sant ‘Eustachio) should be at the top of your list. Known more simply as the Matera Cathedral, this Apulian-Romanesque masterpiece dates to the 13th century. Wander inside to find original frescoes, stuccos and sculptures still in-tact, as well as an impressively preserved stone nativity scene constructed by Altobello Persio.
Further can’t-miss rupestrian churches include:
Chiesa di Santa Lucia alle Malve (Church of Santa Lucia alle Malve): An 8th-century female monastery once housing Benedictine Order nuns; now featuring numerous, colorful frescoes.
Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista (Church of Saint John the Baptist): Located in the quiet Piazza San Giovanni, this Gothic-Romanesque church originally belonged to Benedictine monks in the 13th century. In 1695, it was reopened as a place of worship dedicated to St. John the Baptist.
Chiesa di San Pietro Barisano (Church of Saint Peter Barisano): The largest rock church in Matera, dating to the 12th century and complete with underground “draining” rooms. If the name sounds ominous, that’s because it is. This funerary practice involved placing the bodies of deceased priests, dressed in sacred attire, on tuff-carved seats – where they would remain until the end of decomposition. You can visit such rooms today and even take a seat yourself, should you feel so inclined.
Chiesa Rupestre di Santa Maria di Idris (Church of Saint Mary of Idris): A 14th-century rock church perched atop a raised, rocky outcrop known for it’s otherworldly exterior and breathtaking, 360 views.
Chiesa di San Pietro Caveoso (Church of San Pietro Caveoso): Located on a dramatic plateau just below Church of Saint Mary of Idris, this 13th-century house of worship features a beautiful baroque exterior and stunning cliffside scenery.
Museum Hop: Between Matera’s historic stone architecture, ancient cave dwellings and fresco-preserved rock churches, not to mention a series of outdoor sculptures depicting everything from 20th-century courting customs to surrealist representations, it’s no wonder the city was named European Cultural Capital in 2019. While wandering through this living museum, you’ll want to enhance your visit with stop into any of Matera’s spectacular indoor institutions as well.
Located along popular stretch Via Domenico Ridola, pop into Museo Nazionale di Matera (National Museum of Matera, also known as the Domenico Ridola National Archaeological Museum) to view archaeological finds and ancient art stretching all the way back to Paleolithic times.
If you can tear yourself away from the adjacent scenic viewpoint, enter the ornate Palazzo Lanfranchi (more formally, Museo Nazionale d’Arte Medievale e Moderna della Basilicata Palazzo Lanfranchi or National Museum of Medieval and Modern Art of Basilicata) to view a fascinating collection of medieval and modern art. The 17th-century palace originally housed a seminary and is considered to be on the city’s best examples of medieval architecture.
At MUSMA, Museo della Scultura Contemporanea (Contemporary Sculpture Museum), you can view modern and abstract sculptures juxtaposed against the old-world backdrop of a 16th-century cave palace.
In a place like Matera where the irrational not only can be, but has been, transformed into a dreamlike reality, it’s fitting the town pays passionate homage to Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dalí. Seen through a series of towering open-air sculptures dotting the Sassi, this devotion is further evident in the dedicated exhibition Salvador Dalí – “The Persistence of the Opposites”. Authentic Dalí maquettes are brought to life by masterful bronze casting, resulting in a collection of imaginative sculptures showcased alongside fanciful Dalí furniture, gold objects, hand-signed graphics and more – all housed in the 12th-century rupestrian monastery Church of Madonna delle Virtù and San Nicola dei Greci.
While olives are synonymous with the neighboring region of Puglia, did you know there’s a growing olive oil scene (literally and figuratively) in Basilicata too? If you don’t have time to visit an olive grove itself, considering squeezing in a stop to MOOM Matera Olive Oil Museum. Here you can tour the ancient caves and chambers of a 15th-century underground mill, learn about the olive pressing process and enjoy a tasting of extra virgin oils.
Headed to Matera? Pin this image and SAVE this travel guide for easy reference!
All photos in this post courtesy of your favorite pair of @travelinglamas.
Per our Terms & Conditions no written or photographic content in this guide may be republished, either partial or in full, without written permission from the content creators, Lauren and Alberto Lama.