When we sat down to create our most recent tours, Matera, Italy — a cave town in Basilicata — was right at the top of the list of places we wanted our clients to see.
Going to Matera, Italy is like stepping back into Biblical times. Or onto another planet.
And it’s no wonder — Matera is one of the longest continuously inhabited human settlements in the world. First occupied in the Paleolithic Era, it’s said to have been founded by the Romans in the 3rd century BC.
In other words, consider packing a toga and your cutest leather sandals, because this place looks like it’s hardly changed since ancient times. In fact, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was filmed here because it still looks like what Jerusalem might have looked like thousands of years ago.
You MUST see (and sleep in!) the Sassi.
The Sassi is a district in Matera made up of 1500 prehistoric cave dwellings that were home to its inhabitants for thousands of years — until as recently as the 1950s.
The natural caves were dug into and expanded over the millennia, until an intricate network of tunnels, living quarters, underground cisterns, alleyways and even churches was created. The cave town is like one enormous white sculpture — it’s truly stunning.
The extreme poverty in the area meant that by the 1940s, entire families as well as their livestock and other animals were sharing these caves, which had no running water, no electricity, and no ventilation, and which were rife with disease and filth.
In the 1950s the government stepped in, emptying the Sassi of their 16,000 trogloditi (literally troglodytes or cave dwellers) and moving them to modern housing nearby.
The caves lay abandoned for decades, until a group dedicated to restoring them stepped in and began to clean them up. By 1993 they had been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Little by little boutique hotels, restaurants and bars started to open up right in the caves themselves. We share our faves below.
We bring our tour groups now to stay in one of the most enchanting of these hotels, and it is an experience like no other. Barnyard animals and cramped quarters have given way to glossy floors, modern art and flatscreen tvs, but there is nothing like the feeling of sleeping within the same rock-hewn walls that were occupied 7000 years ago. I mean, what other place on earth can offer you that?
Matera is one of the few virtually undiscovered “must see” destinations in Italy.
Because of its complicated recent history, Matera only just started to become a real tourism destination in 2014 — four years ago! That’s virtually unheard of in Italy, one of the most visited countries on earth and home to places like Venice, which are practically (and literally!) sinking under the weight of the masses that tromp through every year.
It’s located in Basilicata, right in the boot’s instep, which has notoriously been one of the least populated and least visited regions in the country. So if you’re looking for that elusive place in Italy that is jaw-droppingly gorgeous but mostly untouched, this is the place for you.
Matera has also recently won the bid to become the European Capital of Culture in 2019, so it is THE PLACE TO BE IN ITALY in 2019.
Where to stay in Matera, Italy
There are tons of boutique-style apartments and hotels that have popped up in Matera in recent years. Most are a great value too!
If you want to stay right in the Sassi, Hotel in Pietra is a great choice. There’s no car access, but the views are incredible and the atmosphere unbeatable.
Alle Conche dates back to the 1700s and features two rooms in an amazing location in the heart of the Sassi.
And if you really want to splurge, Le Grotte della Civita is the most luxe cave dwelling you will ever sleep in!
Where to eat in Matera, Italy
Set in one of the caves, the atmosphere here is cozy and even if it’s full, the staff are always attentive and warm. Be sure to check out the incredible view of the Sassi from the nearby terrace.
We love Baccanti, another cozy cave restaurant, not just because of the delish food but because we love attention to detail, like the soft cloth bags they serve their fresh bread in. Speaking of bread, it’s to die for. They have a very extensive wine list too!
Amazing outdoor patio and who can’t love an vintage vehicles that that function as a D.J. booth or cocktail bar (if you don’t love it, who are you?). Drinks and nibbles served here, till late. We adore the vintage furniture that fills the space. Just cozy and fun. Live music Thursday through Sunday (check their Facebook page for events).
Things to do in Matera, Italy
Go on a walking tour
Get a recommendation from your hotel for a guide who can take you around Matera and show you all the little nooks and crannies, and tell you a bit about the history of this fascinating city. Don’t forget your camera or phone! This is a place you want photos of.
Buzz around town in an Ape Calessino
These are the iconic little Italian vehicles that look like someone enclosed a motorbike inside the body of a tiny car. You can flag them down at the church piazza, just like a taxi. A must-do in Matera!
The Materasum Ipogeo is an entire neighborhood of tunnels and subterranean spaces beneath the city, just up from the main Piazza Vittorio Veneto. Take a tour and explore the way life was here for an ancient civilization. This is one of the few caves that have not been repurposed into modern restaurants or hotels.
Take a trip back in time
The Museo Laboratorio della Civilta Contadina is like an informal cabinet of curiosities. Packed with odds and ends rich in the traditions of this place that have been lovingly preserved and cared for, this museum is an absolute treasure trove.
Explore the outskirts
If you’re in Matera for a few days, you can take some day trips out to the surrounding area too. Like adventure? Go ziplining over the Dolomiti Lucane with Volo dell’Angelo. Fancy a fancy stay at a celebrity’s luxe digs? Book a night at Palazzo Margherita, a stunner of a mansion owned by Francis Ford Coppola in nearby Bernalda. Or visit the famous trulli houses in Alberobello, an hour outside of Matera.
How to get to Matera, Italy
This area is best explored by car, but if you’re driving, we recommend you be very comfortable cruising on roads less traveled.
The nearest airport to Matera is the Bari Karol Wojtyla Airport (BRI). From here you can take a shuttle bus directly to Matera, or you can take a bus to Bari Centrale, and grab a train on the Ferrovie Appulo Lucane line (the FAL is outside of Bari Centrale by Piazza Aldo Moro) to Matera Centrale (travel time: 80 minutes).
Trenitalia, the state railway, does not travel to Matera, so you’ll first have to take a Trenitalia train only as far as Bari Centrale. Once there, exit the station onto Piazza Aldo Moro, turn left and grab a train on the Appulo Lucane Railway line (or Ferrovie Appulo Lucane — FAL) to Matera Centrale. The trip takes about 80 minutes, but train travel in this part of the world is not recommended.
You can get to Matera by bus from many Italian cities. Bus companies to check for schedules are Flixbus, Marozzi, Liscio, Petruzzi, Miccolis and Marino.
You can drive (or hire a private driver) from Bari to the east or Naples or the Amalfi Coast to the west.
Wanna see Matera, and the best of this area?
We deliver Italian experiences without all the headaches on our small group tours for women. We head from the luxe Amalfi Coast to Matera and then on to Lecce on our Southern Italy tour, with day trips to such fairytale places as Alberobello and Ostuni, the “White Town” (these too are must-sees that most visitors to Italy don’t make it to).
We’ve got a few Southern Italy dates in the works for 2019 — drop us a line at ciao [@] italianfix.com to be put on the interest list and for some lovely perks, or sign up for our newsletter. Matera is the European Cultural Capital in 2019 and it’s a great year to come. We want you to join us in one of the most otherworldly holiday destinations on the planet!
Want to see more places we love? Check out the post, 5 best places to travel Italy in 2018.
Have we inspired you to put “Matera, Italy” on your bucket list? Or have you been to Basilicata already? Who knew a cave town in Southern Italy would be THE place to be in 2019, amiright?
Image credit: licensed via @tupungato (top)