Matera is an interesting city in the Basilicata region of southern Italy known for its picturesque sassi districts, a large ravine divided into two parts with cave dwellings and rupestrian churches dug into the soft limestone. The sassi date from prehistoric times and were used as housing until the 1950's when residents, primarily living in poverty-stricken conditions, were relocated.
Today the sassi districts are a fascinating sight that can be viewed from above and explored on foot. There are several rupestrian churches open to the public, a reproduction of a typical cave house that you can visit, and refurbished caves made into hotels and restaurants. The sassi districts are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Because of its similarity to Jerusalem, several movies have been filmed in the sassi including Mel Gibson's, The Passion of the Christ. The city of Matera has been chosen to be the European Capital of Culture in 2019 and is one of the recommended places to go in Italy.
The more "modern" city, dating from around the 13th century, is also nice and has several interesting churches, museums, big public squares, and a walking area with cafes and restaurants.
Where to Stay in Matera
Staying in one of the cave hotels in the sassi is a unique experience. I stayed at Locanda di San Martino Hotel and Thermae, a former church and cave dwellings made into a nice hotel with an unusual thermal pool. If you want to stay above the sassi, I recommend Albergo Italia. When I stayed there many years ago, my room had a fantastic view over the sassi.
Matera Highlights - What to See and Do
- Sassi: The sassi district is Matera's top attraction. You'll find viewpoints to look out over the sassi in the upper town near Piazza Vittorio Veneto and Piazza Sedile and stairways near them leading into the sassi. Walk down through the cave houses to the church of San Pietro Caveoso at the bottom of the sassi district. It's also possible to drive to San Pietro. From the church, there are good views of the sassi above, the canyon and stream below, and caves across the ravine.
- Rupestrian Churches: Monks settled in these caves as early as the 7th century. You can visit several of the old cave churches (admission charges apply) but they have fairly limited visiting hours. In some of them, you can see interesting frescoes that are centuries old.
- Guided Tours: For those who would like a guided tour of the Sassi, the Cave World of Matera half-day or full-day tour can be booked through Select Italy. Or take a guided full-day Basilicata wine tour that includes 2 wineries, a visit to Venosa to see its castle and Jewish catacombs, lunch at a farmhouse, and the castle in Melfi. For a private guide, we recommend Dr. Cosimo Rondinone, a local who speaks perfect English. Contact him by telephone at +39 327 6192580.
- Cathedral: The 13th-century Romanesque cathedral is dedicated to Santa Maria della Bruna. The interior is mainly decorated in 18th-century Baroque style but a Byzantine style 14th-century fresco of the Last Judgement has been found. It's worth visiting in early July for the Festival of the Madonna Bruna, one of the best festivals I've been to in Italy, that culminating in a spectacular fireworks display over the sassi.
- Historic Center: Piazza Vittorio Veneto is a lively and lively square with several churches and cafes and Roman remains. The square's fountain has a colored light display at night. A little way from the square, the church of San Giovanni Battista is a good example of Romanesque style and its interior still retains Romanesque features. Via del Corso is a main shopping street linking the square with Piazza San Francesco and Piazza Sedile, where you can visit the Auditorium del Sedile. Several other interesting churches are scattered around the city.
- Museums: Museums to visit include a museum of peasant culture, the Domenico Ridola National Museum of Archaeology, and Palazzo Lanfranchi modern art museum.
How to Get to Matera
Matera is a little out of the way so it can be difficult to reach. The city is served by a private rail line, Ferrovie Appulo Lucane every day except Sundays and holidays. To reach Matera take a train to Bari on the national train line, go out of the station and around the corner to the smaller Ferrovie Appulo Lucane station where you can buy a ticket and take a train to Matera. The train takes about 1 1/2 hour. From the Matera station, you can take a linea Sassi bus to the Sassi area or it's about a 20-minute walk.
Matera can be reached by bus from nearby towns in Basilicata and Puglia. There are a few buses from major cities in Italy including Bari, Taranto, Rome, Ancona, Florence, and even Milan.
If you're driving, the closest autostrada is the A14 between Bologna and Taranto, exit at Bari Nord. If you're coming down the west coast on the A3, follow the route to Potenza across Basilicata to Matera. There are parking garages and a few free parking lots in the modern city area.
The closest airport is Bari. Shuttle buses connect Matera with the airport.