After two days of traveling to visit Puglia, we continued our journey to explore the South of Italy in a well-known city in Europe: Matera. Although not a famous destination, this small city in the Basilicata region has been voted as the European Capital of Culture in 2019 for its unique archaeological and cultural values. Before that, Matera took a step into the sky when it was chosen by Mel Gibson as the setting for one of the most controversial films of the 2000s, called “The Passion Of The Christ”. So, is Matera worth visiting, what is Matera Italy known for and how to plan a perfect budget trip to Matera town for the first-time? Let’s check out our Matera travel blog (Matera blog) with the fullest Matera travel guide (Matera guide) from how to go to Matera (how to get to Matera), when to come, where to stay, what to do in Matera, Matera Italy what to see, what to eat and things to do in Matera to find out the answer!
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There are few places in the world where people still live in caves, but in Matera anything is possible. The city was born in the Stone Age, is one of the first settlements of the Italians, to this day, they still consider this place their home and become a tourist attraction attracting millions of people to explore each year. If you want to “change the wind” and return to the ancient times, coming to Matera is the right choice for this exciting journey.
Matera travel blog: Overview of Matera
We often think of Rome with its 3,000-year-old history as a relic of the glorious antiquity of Italy. But actually the age of it is still very modest compared to Matera’s 9,000-year milestone. This city of 60,000 people is located at the heel of the Italian boot and has appeared in the background of many famous movies such as “The Passion of the Christ” (2004), “Ben-Hur” (2016) and “Mary Magdalene” (2018), “No Time to Die” (2021). Such a long history and special context, but “European Capital of Culture 2019” has been considered “the shame of Italy” in the past.
What people say about this place is Sassi – ancient cave dwellings (ancient stone houses). They are carved and hewn in caves and cliffs that are estimated to be 9,000 years old. Sassi lies under the edge of a ravine yawning like a giant reincarnated Christ. Without Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion Of The Christ”, Matera would probably be forever hidden in the world.
Seen from a distance, Sassi appears as a mess with stone huts, narrow alleys and winding stairs leading to every street, even to the roof of a neighbor’s house. Behind the house-like facade, however, are ancient caves once inhabited by primitive people. The life of this place is inherently surrounded by “poverty, backwardness and war”.
Matera really flourished in 1993, when it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and when the city was “played” to an alternative setting for Jerusalem in Mel Gibson’s controversial 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ”.
Until the end of the 20th century, Matera was one of the poorest places in Italy. Life without electricity, tap water, or sewage facilities. The villagers live in a situation of lack of basic goods necessary for daily living because there were no shops in the village. A typical diet consists of bread, cooking oil, crushed tomatoes, and chili peppers. Large families with many members have to live with their cattle.
After World War II, the new government tried to move the inhabitants of the city from the caves to more comfortable modern neighborhoods but many were reluctant to leave the place. Some of them are still clinging to the land where their ancestors lived for thousands of years. In the end, the government had to forcibly relocate the people to the new town at the top of the cliff.
The fate of the city of Matera really turned a new chapter when in 1993, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognized Sassi di Matera as a World Heritage Site. And in 1950, the Italian government planned Sassi di Matera into restaurants and hotels to serve tourists.
Matera is located in the Basilicata region, a southern region bordering Puglia to the west, and Matera roughly lies on the border between the two regions. If you traveling to Puglia, you can easily combine a day visit to Matera. Unlike Puglia, which is open to the sea, Basilicata in general and Matera in particular are located deep inland with the nature of high mountains. So, in contrast to the poetic seaside cities of Puglia, Matera has a rough, fierce look that does not suggest any mellow. Matera is a testimony of the arduous life of the people of Southern Italy and the presence of backwardness in a developled European country.
Matera has so many special things, that when discovering this city, people surprise and admire how this city has existed for thousands of years. Matera is one of the world’s oldest cities continuously inhabited since the Stone Age, rivaling Jericho, Jerusalem or Istanbul. Matera is located in the most remote countryside of Italy with an economy based on agriculture. After World War II, Matera residents still lives in caves, with no medical facilities, no school, no factory. People used to call Matera as “the shame of Italy”. During the last years of the 20th century, Matera had another not-so-proud title: the ghost city, when the inhabitants could not stand the poor infrastructure and left the city most of the time. Matera really became the desire of visitors after Mel Gibson chose this place as the setting for the movie The Passion of the Christ in 2004. While searching for the setting of Jerusalem in the early years of AD, Mel was surprised to see a ruined Matera, original and dense with the atmosphere of the Middle Ages. In 1993, the stone city of Matera was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A city built on a hill rock in Italy is not uncommon, but a city with houses carved in caves is found only in Matera.
Some things around Matera
- Matera has been continuously inhabited since the Paleolithic period, when woolly mammoths were still alive on the earth, when the Ice Age had just ended (about 15,000 BC). Unlike other cities found from the Stone Age, the ancestors of the people here have never moved elsewhere. Instead, Matera became the forever land. During the Bronze and Iron Ages, they made tools to carve holes into the rock to making houses, churches, and cemeteries.
- If you don’t like climbing stairs, don’t go to Matera. Built, or rather hewn into the mountainside, the whole old town does not have a straight road. Most of them are alleyways and spiral staircases.
- The city also has many churches, including more than 150 churches carved in the rock between the 8th and 14th centuries.
- The year of 2015, the blockbuster “Ben Hur” was filmed. Matera was chosen as a “stunt” for Jerusalem in the exterior scenes.
- Matera’s biggest festival is the festival of floats (Festa della Bruna), held on July 2nd.
- Matera has been selected as the European Capital of Culture in 2019.
Matera blog: The city was once forgotten by God
I came to Matera on an early autumn afternoon, when the sun was almost gone. The city lies on the edge of the barren and poorest province of Basilicata in Italy. Matera is lost in the middle of the road connecting the deep blue Amalfi Coast with the eastern province of Puglia.
On the appearance, Matera resembles a second Bethlehem, like an ancient Palestinian city lost in the South of Italy – a Palestine that stepped out of the pages of old books, to end up lying in the arid plateau, exposed to resignation under scorching sun. That’s why, in 2004, Mel Gibson came here, found the faded white houses lying on the cliffs to film the movie “The Passion of the Christ”. From there, Matera became famous on the screen.
After checking in at the hotel, we looked closely at the map pasted on the door, then walked straight to the street. The city is small, but due to wandering, I reached the old town when it was already dark.
Matera is famous for its sassi, roughly called “stone houses”. Formed more than 9,000 years ago, Matera is one of the oldest cities in the world still inhabited, older than Jerusalem. At that time, people carved holes into the rock to create houses to live in. The ramshackle half-stone, half-walled houses still exist today, creating a unique feature of the city. Called the old town, but the old Matera’s sassi area was a slum. In the early years of the twentieth century, this place was the embodiment of poverty and extreme. People and livestock live overlapping each other into a mess. Published in 1945, Italian writer Carlo Levi’s “God Stopped at Eboli” depicts life in Matera, a place steeped in poverty and disease with no way out. It seems that this place has been rejected or forgotten by God.
In 1950, the Italian government forced residents to leave the sassi to move to a new, more comfortable neighborhood. Some of them are still clinging to the land where their ancestors lived for thousands of years. Since being recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site in 1993, the dilapidated cave houses have been restored as tourist attractions. Up to now, half of the sassi is inhabited, becoming a symbol of the revival of an ancient city.
Matera’s sassi area doesn’t have proper roads but consists of a dense network of alleys and stairs up and down, twisting, intertwined like a maze. The alley floor is completely stone. The stones were only the size of a hand, becoming slippery after centuries of grinding under the heels of passersby. In the dim light, I crept on tiptoe, clinging to the wall to keep from falling. Placing my hand on the stone, I clearly recognized each patch of moss, each rough surface, each horizontal and vertical crack. Matera was covered with wounds that marked the bloody wars between the Goths, Lombards, and Franks from the North; the Saracen, the Byzantines from the East… Sometimes, the openings in the wall let out a cool, moist air, with a fishy smell like in a cemetery. The night fog swooping down to the bottom of the sassi area, plus the sound of wild cats meowing in the distance and near, chills me. Unconsciously, I found myself lost, just lost in the space of all the nooks and crannies, all the same, all the houses built of stone covered with moss; just lost in time, between the present and the melancholy past from thousands of years ago.
Groping for a while, about to find my way out of the dark sassi area, I suddenly heard a piano sound. The sound of the piano was fast, sweet, very clear, coming from a lighted window, and then come straight into the mist. The gloomy atmosphere from before suddenly disappeared. The feral cats that were clamoring before suddenly fell into silence. The melodious sound caresses each stone, bringing a new breath, awakening the rhythm of life of the whole city. The street lights turned on into soft, warm yellow spots. The creepy atmosphere of the neighborhood at night gave way to a romantic and nostalgic look I had never seen elsewhere.
Strolling a few more steps on the deserted road, I clearly felt the two bright and dark shades of Matera, between a world of poverty, murky and scary and a world of youth and life. One old, one new. Why are those two worlds so strangely opposite and harmonious at the same time.
The next morning, before the first rays of light had time to creep up on Matera’s musty walls, we rushed to the hill opposite the city to catch the dawn. The view from the courtyard in front of the church of Santa Maria De Idris covered the entire sassi area where I groped yesterday. The thin misty scarf placed indifferently on Matera’s shoulders was slowly being torn by the cold rays of the sun. The ancient walls in the morning radiated a blue-gray, pale color. Squinting at the city waking up in the clear, crisp morning sun, I didn’t realize what I was seeing. Yesterday, at dusk, Matera was an old ascetic, buckling under the burden of time. At night, Matera is a charming, sweet guy. And now, before my eyes, Matera is a cold woman with mysterious beauty full of magic.
On my past journeys, I have never stood before a place like Matera: a place that is both cold and warm; both scare and fascinate us; a place where when we think back, we can’t distinguish whether we hate it or love it.
Perhaps that is why when coming here Giovanni Pascoli, an Italian poet wrote (which I temporarily translated into English):
More than all cities I’ve ever been,
Matera smiled at me.
Even better I’ve seen,
Through the veil of poetry and melancholy.
Matera travel blog: What to do in Matera Italy?
Cave church and impressive frescoes
To be able to experience Matera, visitors should wander through the alleys and streets of the districts of Sassi, Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso, these landmarks hold historical sites, cave houses and its traditional facade as we mentioned above. In which, visitors will see large stone slabs at the foot, under which is a huge water tank where residents used to store water and many stone churches and hermits in the ravine.
The Chupe Rupestri – cave churches erected by Basilian monks during their escape from persecution by the Byzantine Empire. Inside the cave church, frescoes painted between the 8th and 13th centuries still have faint traces. The Cripta del Peccato Originale (Crypt of Original Sin) is the best-preserved of the century’s frescoes, depicting dramatic Old Testament scenes.
The most beautiful is the Murgia plateau, surrounded by abandoned caves, ancient cities and stone churches that make them overall extremely harmonious, attracting the eyes of photographers and wildlife enthusiasts.
The sorrowful way of Jesus
In the movie The Passion of Christ, the melancholy Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem was recreated in Metera in the most complete way. Indeed, Matera resembles Jerusalem in a strange way, from the winding cobblestone streets up and down the high hills to the deep alleys of the Middle Ages. If you’ve seen this movie before, you’ll be even more curious to come to Matera. When we came here, we hired a local guide for about $25, narrated in Italian. He will guide visitors on the right path that Christ took in the movie and explain each section to you.
This is definitely the highlight of our trip to Matera. The houses once the shame of the people in Matera, to the point where they had to leave their homes because they didn’t want to be called cavemen. The houses with bedrooms, bathrooms, toilets and donkey stables are now preserved intact for tourists to visit.
On the way to strolling around Matera, stop to admire the beautiful churches with a very sophisticated Baroque architectural style.
This is a huge water tank, located just below the main square of the city. You will see it first when traveling to Matera. The Palombaro Lungo dates back to 1846, providing water for the entire population of the city until the advent of the modern water system.
After that, the water tank was forgotten and became a tourist attraction since 1991. The water tank is likened to an subterranean church because of the huge walls that protrude into the arch, you will have to go on a bridge to the dark and cool cave. It is a very strange feeling, any visitor wants to experience.
Matera travel guide: What and where to eat in Matera?
Southern Italian cuisine is commonly known as “cucina povera”, which means the dishes of the poor/frugal cooking/cooking of the poor, but by no means poor, on the contrary, they are actually very rich and hearty. Sweet and crunchy Senise peppers, grown in the town of the same name more than 90km south of Matera, are often ground into powder and served with cheese, meat dishes and soups.
You can enjoy a plate of local cheese at Ristorante del Caveoso, along with pork tortellini and savory caciocavallo cheese with a curd-like texture. Enjoy dishes topped with caciocavallo cheese and sauces with a glass of Primitivo wine.
Address: Via Santo Stefano, 31, 75100 Matera MT, Italy.
It was rebuilt from a Sasso (rock cave restaurant), a restaurant with typical Matera architectural style but offering a taste of modern 21th century cuisine, with a specialty of brasato di capocollo all’aglianico (grilled beef with Aglianico wine sauce).
The restaurant is open from 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., located on the edge of the city, away from crowded places. The restaurant’s recipes use ingredients typical of the Basilicata region, such as roast beef with Aglianico wine sauce. The restaurant’s main course starts at $11. The restaurant is closed on Wednesdays.
Address: No. 27 Via Casalnuovo, Matera.
An elegant restaurant with outdoor seating and fusion, refreshing local dishes, like saltimbocca with lemon and pistachio sauce. The restaurant is closed every Thursday.
In Matera you must try the pasta orecchiette with goat cheese, the specialty of the city. Restaurants in Matera are often decorated like a cave house so that customers can feel like they are living like an old Matera. The address of the restaurant is here.
Matera guide: Where to stay in Matera?
I visited Matera during the day and returned to Bari for the night so I didn’t rent a hotel in Matera but Matera at night has a lot of cultural activities so you can stay to have more experience in the European Capital of Culture.
Below we recommend more best budget, mid-range and upscale hotels with good ratings and reviews you can refer to.
- Le Origini (Agoda.com or Booking.com)
- Palazzo Del Duca Luxury Hotel (Agoda.com or Booking.com)
- Fra i Sassi Residence (Agoda.com or Booking.com)
- Fra i Sassi Residence (Agoda.com or Booking.com)
- Locanda di San Martino – Hotel e Thermae (Agoda.com or Booking.com)
- Corte San Pietro (Agoda.com or Booking.com)
- Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita (Agoda.com or Booking.com)
- Hotel Sassi (Booking.com)
Matera guide: How to get to Matera Italy and how to go to Matera?
By self-drive car
Matera is very suitable as a stopover on a roadtrip exploring Southern Italy, on the route from Naples or the Amalfi Coast to the Puglia region.
If you go to the Italian railway ticketing website Trenitalia, and select a route, for example, «from Rome to Matera», you will not see any results. Matera is not linked to the Italian national railway system. To get here, the easiest way is to go from Bari, the capital of Puglia province:
Go to the website of the province’s private train company Ferrovie Appulo Lucane (FAL) (https://ferrovieappulolucane.it) to find trains from « Bari Centrale » to « Matera Central ». The train takes about 1 hour 30 minutes, every hour with a trip, ticket price €4.9.
From Matera train station to sassi area, you can walk, almost 15 minutes.
- Trains from Bari to Matera do not depart from the main station but from the nearby Bari North station. This building is on the left side of the main station, it says « Ferrovie Appulo Lucane ».
- Matera Central train station has no signs, you need to be careful not to miss the platform.
- Trains from Bari to Matera do not run on public holidays and weekends. In this case, you can take the bus, also of FAL (ask staff at Bari station or check on the firm’s website).
- From Perugia, Turin, Bologna, Milan, see: https://www.marinobus.it/
- From Siena, Florence, Pisa and Rome, see: https://www.marozzivt.it/
You can catch a plane to Bari airport and then take a train or bus from Bari to Matera by means of transport mentioned above.
Attractions around Matera
Belonging to the province of Basilicate but Matera is located on the border of the province of Puglia, the heel of Italy. Not too far from Matera, you can go to:
- Ostonie, the white city.
- Castel del Monte, octagonal citadel, UNESCO heritage since 1996.
- Dwarf trulli houses in Alberobello, UNESCO heritage site since 1996.
- Bari, capital of the province of Puglia.
- The hundreds of years old olive groves in Puglia with 50 million olive trees, green gold of Italy.
Suggested roadtrip to Matera
10 days to visit 8 UNESCO sites is possible in Italy, the country that owns the most heritage in the world. Journey through the most beautiful destinations of the South:
- Days 1 and 2: Napoli
- Day 3: Pompei
- Days 4 and 5: Amalfi Coast (Detail: Amalfi – Walking the Path of the Gods)
- Day 6: Paestrum
- Day 7: Matera
- Day 8: Alberobello
- Day 9: Castel del Monte
- Day 10 : Caserte Palace, back to Naples
Notes: Matera is located in a rocky valley, so there are no big trees or much shade, so be sure to drink plenty of water to avoid electrolyte loss if planning a trip in summer.
Matera travel blog: Some best day tours, trips, activities and transfer services, tickets in, from and to Matera you can refer to
- Matera Tour from Bari
- Guided Walking Tour in Matera
- Sassi di Matera Guided Walking Tour
- Matera: Panoramic Tuk-Tuk Tour
- The Crypt of Original Sin Tour from Matera
Read more Italy guide here.