- Wander through the streets in the UNESCO World Heritage Sassi District and take yourself back to the middle ages.
- Visit one of the original cave dwellings carved down into the side of the mountain.
- Enjoy the silence and incredible views as the sun rises over this town that time forgot.
- Sample some delicious and unique dishes from around Matera and Southern Italy.
Matera is located in the province of Basilicata; just above the arch of Italy's boot. It is one of the oldest, constantly settled towns in the world with evidence suggesting that humans have dwelled here since the Patheolithic period (100,000 years ago). The town is situated on the side of a canyon which has been carved out by the Gravina River.
The town is famous for its Sassi district which has been a World Heritage Site since 1993. The Sassi district or La Citta Sotterranea (the Subterranean City) is famous for its cave like dwellings which have been carved out of the limestone hills. Some dwellings, and even chapels, go as deep as three stories down into the mountain.
In terms of tourists the town has been very quiet since the 1950's and 1960's when the Italian government relocated the majority of the people living in the Sassi Caves as it was considered the "shame of Italy" due to the standard of the living conditions. Only in the last five or so years has the town started to see an increase in tourism and you can definitely see why! Now days it is a lively town which has recently been named the 2019 European Capital of Culture. There is so many things to do in Matera.
Things to do in Matera
What are the best things to do in Matera?
1. Private walking tour
We highly recommend beginning your time in Matera with a walking tour. The tour guides are extremely knowledgeable and really paint the picture of what it was like living in the Sassi District. Our tour guide's mother and grandmother both grew up in Sasso Barisano (one of the two Sassi Districts) in the 1950's.
We used Guide Matera (website below) and they were perfect. It costs around €60 (total) for a two hour private walking tour. The guides also advise you on the best restaurants and other things to do and see.
2. Visit an original cave dwelling at Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario
The majority of caves have be uninhabited since the 1950's when then Italian President Alcide de Gasper called Matera the "shame of Italy" and began a relocation program. This dwelling is three tiered; the first level is where the family cooked, ate and slept, the second where the donkeys and other farm animals were kept and the third, which is the deepest, was in essence the refrigerator as it has a constant temperature of five degrees.
Visiting the cave really gives you a feel for what it would have been like living in Matera. The dwelling is located at the southern end of the Sasso Barisano district (Vicinato di Vico Solitario 1), costs €1.50 to enter and is open from 9:30am to 7pm.
3. Experience the sunrise over the Sassi District
Photographing and experiencing a place at sunrise is one of Nick's favourite things to do and Matera was no exception. The silence at that time of the morning, broken only by the birds, really allows you to imagine what the town would have been like to live in. The bonus is that with the sun slowly rising over the town and the light and shadows over the town make for some magical moments!
4. Hike down into Murgia Materana Park
Hike along the Belvedere trail which takes you down into the Canyon below Matera towards the Gravina River, whilst providing amazing panoramic views of Matera. The hike takes you past the Church of Sant'Anese which is carved deep into the mountain and has al fresoc's dating back to the 8th Century.
The hike is very exposed so best done in the morning or evening (also bring fly spray as in summer they are everywhere along the walk).
Where to stay?
Hands down the best hotel we have stayed at in Southern Italy was the Hotel Belvedere. The hotel ticks all the boxes: location, amazing views of the city, delicious breakfast, comfortable rooms and staff who were more than happy to help. It was also decent value - we paid €80 per night. Best of all it was in the perfect location to explore all the things to do in Matera.
Eating + drinking
Matera has some very traditional dishes that you must try. The dried, salted red peppers "Peperoni di Senise" are great for a snack and to take with you on your road trips. Majority of restaurants will serve dishes with oven-baked Pane di Matera which is a firm flat bread made from Durum Wheat (aka high in protein).
One of the most interesting dishes is the pasta 'stracinate di grano arso' or pasta made from burnt wheat. This dish traces its history back over 2,000 years when the wheat fields around Matera were used to feed the Roman Empire. In these times the peasants in Matera had to send all their wheat to Rome and at the end of the harvest the stubble, which was burnt by the sun, was used by the poorest to make pasta. Now days the pasta is delicacy and has quite a nutty flavour.
There are many great restaurants in Matera but our favourite by far is Trattoria Lucana. Trattoria Lucana serves local produce and all the above traditional dishes. The restaurant is located at 48 via Lucana just outside the Sassi District of Matera and you can expect to pay around €25 for a main.