The historical city of Matera should feature prominently on your southern Italy travel itinerary. With caves transformed into chic accommodations, fun restaurants and bars built into rocky outcrops, and a history like no other, there are numerous reasons to visit Matera.
Nick and I recently spent 5 days exploring the narrow alleyways, dining on the regional cuisine, and enjoying all of the interesting things to do in Matera.
Initially, it wasn’t on our radar, but after this visit, it’s safe to say that we’d return in a heartbeat.
Matera is located in Basilicata, right on the border with the more popular Puglia region of Italy. Many travelers combine a trip to Matera with an extended stay in Puglia (ourselves included), but there’s enough to see and do in Matera to spend 5 days or so here.
From being impoverished and considered the disgrace of Italy, to gaining UNESCO status and being a top Hollywood film site, Matera has been through it all and has risen to become a must-visit place in Italy.
Not to mention, Matera has been inhabited since the Palaeolithic times (10th millennium BC), meaning it’s one of the oldest, continuously inhabited places on earth!
Don’t miss this magical destination, it’s unlike anywhere we’ve been on our travels.
Best Things To Do in Matera
For such a small place, there are many activities for tourists in Matera. The city revolves around its caverns and you’ll spend a lot of time looking at caves, dining in them, and (if you choose) spending the night in one.
During our 5 days here, we were able to cover most of the top things to do in Matera. Here’s a list of my recommended things to do, foods to try, and experiences to have during your stay.
1. Join a Walking Tour
There’s so much to know about Matera and if you don’t do some sort of tour, you won’t have any idea of what you’re looking at — it’ll just be a bunch of rocks and caves. Bring the city to life with a walking tour.
No matter where in the world we travel, we always try to start our visit off with a guided stroll around the streets. This is the best way to get to know the destination through the eyes of a local guide.
We visited Matera in the month of October (which is considered the shoulder/off-season) and found that many of the guides were only offering tours in Italian. Unfortunately, our options for English-speaking walking tours were a little limited.
Luckily, we were able to meet up with Antonio to explore the Sassi (two distinct districts), while learning about the geology, plants, and history of the city from a local who was born and raised in Matera.
2. Have Cocktails in a Cave
This has to be the coolest thing to do in Matera. As the sun sets, head to Zipa Cafe, pull up a beanbag chair, and enjoy a handcrafted cocktail in a cave bar.
Walk up a few steps and you’ll find a classy bar built into the rock with a couple of tables and mixologists creating some unique drinks. Inside is great for when it’s raining in Matera, but I recommend sitting outside if you can.
Opt for a beanbag seat, or one of the many rock-cut benches, with cushions that keep you from getting too cold or uncomfortable.
You can come to Zipa Cafe any day of the week from noon until 8:00 pm. If you visit earlier in the day or don’t feel like having booze, they have fruit smoothies, juice shots, and coffee on offer too.
I suggest coming around sunset for one of their extraordinary cocktails made from gin, mezcal, rum, or scotch. We tried Zipa’s variations of the classic spritz cocktail and can highly recommend those as well. Drinks range from €5 – €9. Find Zipa here on the map.
3. Vist the Underground Cistern
Matera offers spectacular sights above ground, but when it’s raining, or when it’s particularly hot outside, a great activity in Matera is to head underground and check out the cistern, known as the Palombaro Lungo.
The city’s complex water system extends all around Matera, which is part of the reason the city has UNESCO status.
This particular cistern was abandoned in 1920 when an aqueduct was built and the Palombaro Lungo was made redundant. It wasn’t discovered again until the 1990s after the excavation of the Vittorio Veneto Square.
When we visited, we didn’t take a guided tour but simply read the information in a brochure given to us at the entrance. The cistern isn’t all that long and it only takes around 30 minutes to walk to the end and back.
We thought the Palombaro Lungo was really interesting and worth a visit. It costs €3 to enter, and it’s open 7 days a week. Click here for directions and details.
4. Cross The Ravine and See the Caves
When you’re in the Sassi where all of the remodeled hotels, bars, restaurants, and shops are, and you look across the ravine, you’ll notice some small neolithic caves carved into the mountainside.
Make sure to get an up-close view of these by crossing the Tibetan bridge and walking up the hairpin turns to the top of the cliffside.
While the caves and the hike are interesting enough on their own, the view looking back at Matera is amazing, especially at sunset. This is one of the best free things to do in Matera for sure.
There are three ways to cross to the other side of the ravine.
1. Hike: the hike takes around 2 hours to return. Make sure to bring water, sunscreen, and a hat. Here’s the trailhead from the Sassi side to cross the ravine. Or, you can follow this hike on AllTrails.
2. Drive: if you don’t feel like going for a hike (simply walking around Matera’s hilly streets is challenging enough), you can drive to the other side, or take a bus. From the center of Matera to the Belvedere Murgia Timone viewpoint, is about a 15-minute drive.
3. Cycle: a great way to get some exercise after eating all the amazing food is to join this morning cycling trip. It’s about 16 kilometers in total (return) and includes equipment, a guide, croissant, and coffee. This is one of the more unique things to do in Matera.
5. Sample the Traditional Food of Matera
As with all regions in Italy, Basilicata is home to some unique, must-try dishes. Matera is sticking to its roots and offers elevated versions of dishes typical of past times.
Matera is located in the mountains and holds onto its strong agricultural traditions. Wheat is the main crop, plus the farming and cultivation of olives, vegetables, legumes, and cheese. For livestock, sheep and lamb are the most prominent.
We were quite naive in thinking that during our trip to Matera we’d be dining on what we consider “typical” Italian food. We were on the lookout for Neapolitan-style pizza, rich risotto with truffles, and fresh pasta with ragu, caccio e pepe, or amatriciana sauce.
What we found was a much lighter, and healthier cuisine with flavor combinations that were new to us.
Don’t miss the fava bean puree with chicory, orecchiette (pasta shaped like little ears) served with a mild tomato sauce, Matera country-style bread, dried cruschi peppers, and antipasti which offers a tasting of many local specialties at once.
6. Join a Cooking Class at a Farmhouse
A better way to enjoy all of the local specialties of Matera and the Basilicata region is to learn how to make some of the dishes for yourself.
We’ve taken cooking classes in many places in the world, with some of our favorites being in Italy. During this cooking class, you’ll meet up with Greg and Silvia at their farmhouse just 15 minutes outside of Matera.
The city itself is stunning, but there’s something special about the countryside.
Together, you’ll learn how to make a few traditional dishes, while sipping on local wines. Not only will you learn how to cook, and gain insight into life in Basilicata, but you’ll enjoy the fruits of your labor together at the end.
This is the perfect activity in Matera for groups, couples, or solo travelers. Learn more about this cooking class in Matera.
7. Visit The Churches
There are more than 150 religious sites in Matera. Obviously, you won’t be able to cover them all during your stay, but there are a few you shouldn’t miss.
1. San Pietro Caveoso
San Pietro Caveoso is one of the best places to visit in Matera. From the outside, this 13th-century catholic church is quite the sight. It’s built right on the edge of the cliffside and has a beautiful baroque exterior.
You can go with a guide to learn more about the church, but we went independently and just enjoyed wandering around and gawking at the stunning details.
In order to see the ornate wooden ceiling with frescos, you (or another visitor) will have to pay €1 to turn on the lights…
2. Church of Saint Mary of Idris
Also known as the Chiesa di Santa Maria di Idris, or the Madonna de Idris, this is one of the most interesting churches we’ve ever been to.
The church is literally a cave cut into the rock and has no outstanding decorations like most churches. What this cave church does have, however, is incredible frescos on the wall.
The only possible downside is the €4 entrance fee. The area is extremely small so per square meter, this has to be one of the pricier sights in Matera.
On top of that, photos aren’t allowed inside. Regardless, this is a top tourist attraction in Matera you won’t want to miss.
3. Matera Cathedral
Also known as the Cattedrale di Maria Santissima della Bruna e Sant’Eustachio (that’s a mouthful!). From the outside, it looks like quite a basic cathedral.
However, once you step inside, you’ll be blown away by the touches of gold, the rose-colored columns, and the gorgeous frescos. This imposing cathedral is a must-visit in Matera and is just €1 to enter.
8. Explore by Ape Car (Tuk-Tuk)
I have to admit, we were very surprised when we saw a bright red tuk-tuk zip past us while in Italy.
But, as it turns out, these tuk-tuks (or ape-cars as they’re called here), are actually quite typical for southern Italy. Made by Piaggio, the same company as the Vespa, these 3-wheelers were typically used as light commercial vehicles to transport goods.
These days in Matera, they’ve been transformed into a fun way to get around the city.
The streets are very hilly and can be exhausting to walk all day (especially in the hot summer heat). A fun way to get around and learn a bit more about Matera is to join a tour aboard an Ape Calessino.
If you’re looking for things to do in Matera for families, or with groups, this is a fun idea. Tours are around an hour long and are affordable. Have a look at this highly-rated tour.
Fun fact: when translated from Italian, Vespa means “wasp” (due to the buzzing sound the scooter makes), and Ape means “bee” (because they’re used for working, like a worker bee).
9. See Matera From Above in a Hot Air Balloon
Matera is an enchanting city to walk around, but seeing it from above would be spectacular.
While we were admiring the golden sunrise colors from the deck of our accommodation, a couple of hot air balloons soared above us.
While not for the faint of heart, or for those on a budget, a hot air balloon ride in Matera is an activity you won’t forget. This is one of the best things to do in Matera for couples, especially if you’re celebrating an anniversary, a birthday, or planning a proposal.
10. Enjoy the Viewpoints
Since Matera is situated on a hill, it’s no surprise that there are some incredible viewpoints throughout the city.
One of the best things to do in Matera in the early evening, and at night is to enjoy the view. At sunset, the buildings are lit up in a golden hue, and in the evening, the twinkling lights of the city create a magical scene.
11. Explore the Hidden Alleyways
The Sassi in Matera are the two stone-dwelling districts: Barisano and Caveoso. Each of these neighborhoods has a unique feel, a different style of cave homes, and lots of hidden streets and alleys to discover.
Our walking tour guide was born and raised in Matera and admitted that even he hadn’t been down all of the narrow streets in the Sassi.
Some of the streets lead to dead ends, and when that happens, just backtrack and take a different route. Since the Sassi is located on a hill, you’ll be doing some up and down for definite, but you can try to walk laterally.
I loved slowly meandering around the streets away from the main tourist sights and soaking up the atmosphere of Matera.
The main road at the bottom of the Sassi (Via Madonna delle Virtu), which overlooks the ravine, is a mostly flat route you can take to get from Barisano to Caveoso. However, cars are allowed on this road, so it’s not as peaceful of a walk when compared to the narrower streets.
The views from each district are different, so make sure you walk the length of the Sassi, and if you see an interesting-looking road, take it! You never know where it will lead.
12. Party the Night Away
In the Sassi, you won’t find a lot of nightclubs or crazy nightlife, but there are some really great cocktail bars. If you’re looking for fun things to do in Matera at night, head to one of these cocktail bars.
We came across Area 8 one night after a late dinner and the place was packed with people enjoying handcrafted cocktails, food, and music.
Area 8 often has live DJs and is a great place to go for a drink, whether you’re traveling by yourself, or with friends. Cocktails start at €8, while a glass of wine is €5. Find Area 8 on the map, here.
Another cool spot serving up sophisticated cocktails is Charlie’s Speakeasy. It’s located near Area 8 so you could do some bar hopping. Find Charlie’s here on the map.
13. Experience What Life Was Like in a Cave
These days, Matera is a romantic destination. With renovated cave homes, golden lights in the evening, and Aperol Spritz with fantastic views, it really is a beautiful place.
But, it wasn’t always this way. We wanted to get a better understanding of what living conditions were like in Matera before tourism.
It’s hard to imagine now, but for thousands of years, people were living in these small cave homes without running water, or electricity. Families were large, and it wasn’t uncommon to have 5 or more children, parents, chickens, and even donkeys all living inside one small cave dwelling.
The Sassi was overcrowded, people were impoverished, living conditions were unsanitary, and disease was rife.
It wasn’t until the 1950s, after author Carlo Levi visited Matera and wrote about the squalor that people were living in, that the government decide to step in.
In the mid-1950s, 15,000 people were moved from cave homes into government-built, modern accommodations outside of the Sassi.
The Casa Grotta nei Sassi di Matera is a replicated cave home, with typical furnishings of that time. There’s an audio guide that really brings the place to life. This is one of the top things to see in Matera, and costs €5.
14. Sample the Local Wine
We were blown away by the quality of red wines from the Basilicata/Matera region. We’ve sampled wines all around the world, and in other parts of Italy as well, and honestly, the local Aglianico variety was superb, as was the Primitivo.
If you’re into red wines, you’ll be happy to hear that 82% of wines produced in this area are reds, and 80% of those are using the Aglianico grape.
The waiters at the restaurants in Matera typically suggest excellent local wines.
For bold, intense wines with lots of tannins, I recommend the Physis Anglianico 2017, and the Martino Aglianico del Vulture Superiore Riserba 2012.
For having such incredible wine, I was surprised that I couldn’t find lots of wine tours on offer. So, we just drank the great wines at the restaurants. There is one wine tour that I came across; you can check it out on Viator.
15. Go to The Spa
Sure, you can go to the spa anywhere in the world, but there aren’t many places where the spa is inside a cave! If you’re wondering what to do in Matera when it’s raining, this is a great activity.
The nice thing about the Aquatico Cave Luxury Hotel and Spa is that you don’t have to be a guest of the hotel to enjoy a day of wellness and relaxation at their spa.
The underground, adults-only facilities include a heated pool, sauna, and Turkish bath. Plus, you can get a massage, facial, or other body care treatments.
A visit to the spa is one of the best things to do in Matera for couples. Find out more about the spa and hotel here.
Quick Travel Itineraries For Matera
We spent 5 days in Matera, but wish we had stayed a week. Even if you only have enough time for a day trip to Matera, it’s worth it. Here are some suggested itineraries.
1 Day in Matera Itinerary
With one day in Matera, I think the best plan is to join a walking tour in the morning to get orientated with the city and learn about its history.
After the morning walking tour, grab a tasty sandwich at Il Rusticone, before visiting two or three churches. I recommend seeing the ones listed above: San Pietro Caveoso, the Church of Saint Mary of Idris, and the Matera Cathedral.
If you’re staying until the evening, don’t miss having a Spritz or a hand-crafted cocktail at Zipa Cave Bar, and dinner at Trattoria del Caveoso (try the ravioli with burrata and tomato sauce, and the pasta with pistachio and cruschi peppers).
2-3 Days in Matera Itinerary
With a few days in Matera, you’ll be able to see and do quite a bit.
I still recommend starting with a walking tour to learn about the history of Matera. Make sure to ask your guide for local food and drink recommendations.
A couple of lunch options for 2 days in Matera are Il Rusticone for pucce sandwiches, and Bella Vista pizzeria for tasty wood-fired, Neapolitan-style pizza (which is hard to find in this part of Italy).
Try the “Napoli Mia” (margarita with buffalo mozzarella) and the Diavola (with spicy salami) – both are fantastic.
In the afternoons, as with the one day in Matera itinerary above, check out a church or two on your first day. The rock church (Church of Saint Mary of Idris) is the most unique, while the Matera Cathedral is the grandest.
You could also head out on an Ape tour of the city, visit the Palombaro Lungo cistern, or visit this recreated cave-dwelling, which would have been typical of how people lived in the past before the town was abandoned and residents were moved into more suitable accommodations.
Your evenings can be spent either enjoying a sundowner with a view at Crialoss, Zipa Cafe, or Terrazza Cavaliere. Or, maybe your accommodation has an amazing view and you can simply enjoy a glass of wine from your deck.
Make sure to wander around and enjoy Matera whilst it’s lit up at night.
1 Week in Matera Itinerary
With a full week in Matera, you’ll be able to cover all of the sights, and even do a day trip or two.
Start with the same itinerary for 1-3 days: go on a walking tour, visit the churches, wander around and simply enjoy the sights, and eat some tasty meals.
Another half day can be spent crossing the ravine on foot to check out the caves, and hiking along the many trails.
A visit to a farmhouse to learn how to cook traditional food from Basilicata is a great way to spend a day as well. Find out more about that cooking class here.
Finally, you could spend a morning or an afternoon relaxing at this cave spa. Treat yourself to a massage or facial treatment, or enjoy a swim in the heated pool and sauna.
In the early evening, cross the ravine by bus or car and have a look back towards Matera — which will be glowing in the sunset. The lighting in the late afternoon / early evening is the best.
For a late afternoon, or pre-dinner dessert, don’t miss Cremes Bureau – Vero Gelato Artigianale for some incredibly creamy, flavorful gelato and sorbet.
Enjoy dinners at either Ristaurante Baccus, Trattoria Caveoso, Il Rusticone, Stano, or Bella Vista Pizza. For late-night drinks, head to Area 8 or Charlie’s Speakeasy.
Where to Stay in Matera
There are two main areas of Matera for travelers; the Sassi, and the new town. The Sassi (old town) is divided into two parts, but you could stay in either one of them and enjoy an excellent location.
If you’re looking for more modern accommodations, and aren’t interested in sleeping in a renovated cave, then you might consider staying in the modern area of Matera. We stayed in the Sassi and were happy with that choice.
Note: make sure to read reviews before choosing a cave stay. I recommend checking to make sure there are windows and good lighting, and that no reviews mention it being damp. Also, make sure to ask about heating for the cooler months, if air conditioning is needed for the summer, and confirm the property has a dehumidifier.
These are a few of the best places in Matera for tourists.
The Old Town (Sassi): Best for First-time Visitors
If you’re a tourist looking to see all of the main sights and places to visit in Matera, I suggest staying in the old town. If your budget allows, make sure you book a room with a balcony or deck of some sort as the views of Matera are incredible.
Here are a few top Airbnb stays in Sassi.
1. Holiday Home with Terrace: This is where we stayed during our trip to Matera. We booked last minute and couldn’t believe this place was available. The 2-level home is a one-bedroom, but there’s also a sofa bed in the living room.
The kitchen is well stocked for a short stay and there are two bathrooms (one upstairs and one downstairs).
The bedroom was fine, but the main draw and the best part about the house was the huge deck with an amazing view of the ravine and the Sassi.
We enjoyed many coffees and glasses of wine there and found it hard to peel ourselves away. Learn more here.
Here are a few top cave hotel stays in the Sassi:
1. Palazzotto Residence & Winery: The luxurious cave rooms at this hotel have to be seen to be believed. The staff here are helpful and welcoming and a delicious breakfast is served to guests. Read reviews and see the latest prices here.
2. Il Belvedere: The rooms here have beautiful exposed stone walls, and offer air conditioning in the summer and heating in the cooler months. A typical Italian breakfast of pastries and coffee is served on the patio, which boasts incredible views of the Sassi. Find out more about the hotel here.
3. Aquatico Cave Hotel and Luxury Spa: If you’re looking for accommodations with a spa in Matera, this is a superb choice. Guests receive a complimentary 60 minutes at the spa to enjoy the sauna, hammam, and heated indoor pool. The rooms are modern and comfortable and the onsite restaurant is a nice bonus. Learn more about this spa hotel here.
Matera New Town
Here are some options outside of the Sassi.
1. Casa Sul Boulevard: This two-bedroom apartment is a great option for two couples, or a family traveling to Matera. This modern accommodation is located just a few steps from the Sassi. Find out more here.
Best Restaurants in Matera
For us, the restaurant scene in Matera was a bit hit-and-miss. Once you’ve been in Matera for a few days, you’ll start to notice the same dishes (or versions of them) appearing on every menu.
But, we did end up finding some great places to eat in Matera. Here are my top restaurant picks for a meal in Matera.
Bella Vista Pizza (The Best Place To Eat Pizza in Matera)
If you’re craving a proper Neapolitan-style, wood-fired pizza with a fluffy crust and fresh ingredients, Bella Vista has you covered. Service is good and they offer inside and outside seating.
There are numerous types of pizzas to choose from, but we had the Diavola and the Bufala, and both were flavorful and cooked to perfection. Most places in Matera don’t serve pizza for lunch, but Bella Vista does.
Pizzas are around €9. Find it on the map here.
Ristorante Baccus (Best for Elevated Cuisine)
Even in October, we needed to make a reservation for this restaurant. While it’s not the cheapest place to eat in Matera, the food was tasty, the service was prompt, and the atmosphere was lively.
Together with friends, we ordered many dishes, but standouts include the cruschi peppers, cod souffle, lasagna, pasta with roasted red and green pepper sauce, pasta with pistachios, and the sporcamusi (hot cream puff) for dessert.
This is a great place to go to try elevated, traditional food from Matera. Pasta dishes start are around €15 each, while meat dishes are around €15-20. Find Ristorante Baccus here.
Il Rusticone (Best for Sandwiches)
Il Rusticone is a busy restaurant that serves up tasty sandwiches by day and pizza by night. We enjoyed a pucce sandwich each on fluffy bread with salami, pecorino cheese, lettuce, and tomato.
The owner and chef here are so welcoming and kind, and the kitchen serves up high-quality food. I recommend this place to grab a quick bite. Pizzas are around €7, while the sandwiches are €8.
Trattoria del Caveoso (The Best Restaurant for Traditional Food)
This trattoria is an excellent restaurant that serves traditional food. The staff here is welcoming and when we visited, the restaurant was buzzing.
Don’t miss the ravioli with burrata and simple tomato sauce, the bacon-wrapped pork skewers, and pasta with caciocavallo cheese cream, pistachios, and cruschi peppers.
To round off your meal, order the dessert plate, which includes samples of a few tasty sweets.
Cremes Bureau – Vero Gelato Artigianale (Best Gelato in Matera)
This gelateria serves up proper artisanal gelato with fresh, natural ingredients. After trying a few different spots, this was my top choice for gelato in Matera.
All of the flavors are good, but hazelnut and chocolate are my go-to. Find the gelato shop here.
Getting To Matera
The main hub in the area is the city of Bari. Located about an hour’s drive from Matera, this coastal city is home to the main airport in the region with service to many destinations in Europe.
If you’re flying with Ryan Air (like we were), search for Bari and you’ll probably find quite a few flight options.
Once you’re in Bari, you can take a taxi, train, or rent a car to get to Matera. Trains leave regularly from the Bari FAL station.
We were doing a longer trip around Puglia and decided to rent a car at Bari airport and I highly recommend that you do as well. Having your own wheels is the best way to explore Matera and the Puglia region.
Keep in mind that you can’t drive a car in the Sassi, so the best way to explore the old town is on foot. But there are many places you can park on the street for around €1 per hour (free at night), or at parking garages like this one for €25 per day.
If you don’t plan to do any exploring outside of Matera, then it’s probably best to take the train or inquire with your hotel or Airbnb host about a pick-up service from Bari.
Things To Do in Matera: FAQs
Here are some answers to commonly asked questions about visiting Matera.
Matera is known for being one of the longest, continuously inhabited places in the world. It’s famous for its cave dwellings, and more recently, for being the film location for the Passion of the Christ and James Bond “No Time To Die” movies.
The best time to visit Matera for the sun is in the summer, but temperatures soar. Winters are cold and many things are closed. The shoulder seasons of May, June, September, and October are the best times to visit Matera.
Matera is absolutely worth visiting. The old town is incredible, the cave accommodations are so unique, and the history is unreal.
I recommend 3-5 days in Matera so that you don’t have to rush around to see everything and can enjoy Matera at a leisurely pace. Plus, you’ll be able to do a day trip or two.
Yes, Matera is very safe for travelers. The only thing to be mindful of is all the uneven stairs, and the intense sun in the summer.
The most popular thing to do in Matera is to experience sleeping in a renovated cave home and to visit the unique rock churches.
The must-try, traditional foods in Matera are Orecchiette pasta, Materan bread, cruschi peppers, Fave e cicoria (fava bean puree), and lamb dishes.
I hope you found this guide to the best places to visit and things to do in Matera useful in planning your trip.
As you can see, the regional food is unique, the scenery is outstanding, the people are welcoming, and if you’re interested, the day trips from here are plentiful.
But most of all, the fact that Matera is one of the oldest, continuously inhabited places on earth is a reason to visit in itself! Enjoy your trip to this magical city.
Like This Article? Pin it!
The post 15 Best Things To Do in Matera, Italy appeared first on Goats On The Road.