17 Cool Things to do in Matera, Italy

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Welcome to Matera, Italy — a city carved entirely from stone, thought to be the third-oldest settlement in the world after Aleppo and Jericho. Matera and its ancient cave houses known as sassi sit on a rocky canyon in Basilicata, Southern Italy.

People lived in these caves in Matera, with neither electricity not running water, as late as the 1950s. When this came to light, the city of Matera was referred to as “Italy’s Great Shame.”

Matera escaped the radar of foreign travelers for decades. However, being designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993 put the City of Caves on the map for tourism — and movie scouts. Parts of The Passion of the Christ and Wonder Woman were filmed on location in Matera. 

And then came 2019 — when I finally visited Matera as part of a Puglia road trip. (While Matera is technically part of Basilicata, it’s just barely over the border from Puglia and is one of the most popular destinations for travelers in Puglia. I’m categorizing it in my Puglia content for that reason.)

That year, Matera was designated a European Capital of Culture; shortly after, a car chase in the James Bond movie No Time to Die was filmed in the stone city. Visitor numbers skyrocketed as travelers “rocked” up to photograph the vistas and sleep in luxurious cave hotels.

Matera lived up to my sky-high expectations — and I think it will for you, too. There’s not a single place in Italy that looks like Matera. That’s exactly why you should plan a visit. 

This post was published in December 2023 and co-written by Adventurous Kate and Hannah Cooper.

Kate wears a red dress with an asymmetrical hemline and poses in front of the city of Matera: stone towers and homes built on top of a row of sassi (caves).
This Matera shot will always be one of my favorite photos of me in Italy!

Best Things to Do in Matera, Italy

Stroll through the Old Town

For all first-time Matera visitors, I recommend getting the lay of the land with a wander around the historic center. Piazza Vittorio Veneto is the natural starting point for your first time in Matera, as this large public square is home to several attractions on this list, including Palombaro Lungo and Belvedere Luigi Guerricchio detto dei Tre Archi. Look out for Salvador Dalí’s Space Elephant, too.

Matera is great fun to explore independently, although this historical walk with a local guide will deepen your understanding of Matera’s unique history. As a private guided tour, some customization to the itinerary is possible. Generally, the route focuses on the Sassi di Matera side of the ancient town and provides an opportunity to hear more about the culture, history, and architecture as well as the “Shame of Italy.”

And if you’re a photographer, this sunset tour in Matera coincides with sundown when the city is saturated in gold and amber light. This activity is one of the best things to do in Matera in summer.

If you’re a photographer, you should absolutely prioritize photographing the city at sunset (or sunrise, if you’re an overachiever), because there’s nowhere else in the world like this.

A simple church facade carved into a big, flat piece of rock in Matera.
Chiesa di San Pietro Barisano, via Shutterstock.

Visit the Church of San Pietro Barisano

Matera contains around 150 religious sites, many of which are rupestrian churches: rock churches dug into the tufa stones of Matera. That’s an ambitious number to tick off, so make a beeline for one of the big ones: Chiesa di San Pietro Barisano.

As the largest of Matera’s rupestrian churches, this is one of the key sights to locate while roaming the old town. Its foundations date back to the 12th century, although the frescoes marking the entrance are from the 16th century. Step inside and you’ll see a sequence of burial niches. 

It’s free to visit the Church of Saint Peter Barisano.

A small white tuk tuk driving through the stone streets of Matera.
Tuk Tuk in Matera Italy, via Shutterstock

Tour Matera by Tuk Tuk

Hurtling around Matera in a tuk tuk is an experience you won’t forget anytime soon! This private panoramic tuk-tuk tour of Matera lasts 45 minutes. The route focuses on such major landmarks as the Piazza Vittorio Veneto, the sassi of Matera, and the rupestrian churches.

Note that this isn’t an educational tour; it’s more of a whirlwind photo expedition. Regular stops are factored in for photography and selfies. Also, you should know that the drivers may not be fluent in English.

Even so, it’s a cool way to see the old town within a limited timeframe or on a baking hot summer day. It’s also one of the best things to do in Matera with younger children or anyone with who may struggle being on their feet all day.

A tall, square-looking stone church in Matera, Italy.
There are nearly 150 churches in Matera Italy!

See the Churches of Matera

Out of the other 149 churches in Matera, Chiesa Rupestre di Santa Maria di Idris is one of the most spectacular rupestrian churches. Teetering over the ravine on the Monterrone hill, you can appreciate it from a distance but it’s worth visiting the crypt to see the frescoes. Admission is 4 EUR ($4.40 USD).

Chiesa di San Pietro Caveoso sits just below in a curious juxtaposition with the rock church. It’s free to visit and you can see an excellent view of both churches at the Belvedere where Via Muro meets Via San Giacomo.

The Cattedrale di Santa Maria della Bruna e Sant’Eustachioc (or simply, Matera Cathedral) commands attention with its Romanesque rose window. Chiesa del Purgatorio is unusual as it was intended as a place of prayer for those in purgatory. These are both free to visit.

While exploring Piazza San Francesco, it’s also worth checking out the Baroque Chiesa di San Francesco d’Assisi.

Inside a cave home in Matera: a tiny bed in the corner, lots of tools hanging on the walls, a stuffed donkey, and a mannequin of a woman spinning wool.
Life in the caves of Matera Italy was not easy.

Visit the Sassi of Matera

The Sassi di Matera are divided into two categories: the Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano. Evidence suggests these cave houses have been around since the Paleolithic era, which is what helped earn that coveted UNESCO World Heritage status. 

It’s a good idea to visit Matera’s sassi as part of a tour; there is so much information that gives you the historical context you need. This Sassi di Matera tour explores both cave districts and includes visits to churches and houses. It hones in on the history of Matera and the natural caves with a fair bit of walking.

As an alternative, this official open bus tour spares your feet. It’s a tad shorter and commentary is via an audio guide. While not as thorough as the walking tour, it’s still an insightful experience and includes admission to Casa Grotta Sassi di Matera.

Casa Noha is interesting, as the minimalist exhibition is delivered through videos. These recordings don’t shy away from the difficulties faced by inhabitants of the caves. I’d recommend following up with a visit to Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario. This is a more traditional experience where rooms are laid out with furnishings and homeware.

A long suspension bridge hanging between two sides of a canyon, people walking across it.
Tibet Suspension Bridge in Matera Italy, via Shutterstock

Cross the Tibetano Suspension Bridge

Stretch your legs by hiking to the Ponte Tibetano della Gravina, a suspension bridge strung across the Gravina di Matera. It’s not as high up as you think, so even if you’re a bit afraid of heights, you might be okay with this bridge!. 

The Tibetan-style bridge is accessible via a short but strenuous hike from Via Madonna delle Virtù. Proper footwear is mandatory and caution needs to be taken in the heat or after rainfall. Matera gets hot through much of the year, especially summer. Be sure to bring a bottle of water and wear sun protection.

The views are outstanding here, and it’s free to visit. 

The Palombaro Lungo, a gateway to an underground area in Matera with arched columns covered with overgrown vegetation.
Entrance of the Palombaro Lungo in Matera Italy, via Shutterstock.

Head underground to Palombaro Lungo

Matera is full of surprises, and few places are more shocking than this whopping big underground cistern. Palombaro Lungo was carved into the caverns beneath Piazza Vittorio Veneto and once held 5 million liters of water. While it’s not the only tank lurking beneath the city, it’s the largest by far.

This was one of my favorite places to visit in Matera, and it gives insight to the engineering marvel that the city was in the past and today.

Coined the Cathedral of Water, Palombaro Lungo is a vast labyrinth where you can cool down on a hot summer’s day. (For that reason, I recommend saving this for the hottest time of day — the early afternoon.) Despite the size, it only takes 15 minutes to wander through the exhibition. 

Admission is 3 EUR ($2.50 USD).

The belvedere (view of Matera) with layers of stone buildings and a church steeple, in black and white.
I had to get the Belvedere of Matera Italy in black and white.

Take in the Belvedere

In a hilly town like Matera, every street corner is worthy of belvedere status. However, the Belvedere Luigi Guerricchio detto dei “Tre Archi” claims the top spot for truly spectacular views. 

These sweep right across the Sassi di Matera and frame the cathedral. Honestly, there’s no bad time to visit the belvedere. Sunset is the obvious time, but the views are gorgeous at all times of day. If you’re staying a few days in Matera, I recommend visiting at different times of day to get photos with different kinds of light.

The Belvedere di Piazza Giovanni Pascoli is another option.

Explore Ipogeo MateraSum

Ipogeo MateraSum is another underground attraction near the cistern. As it’s lesser known, it’s often skipped off a typical day trip to Matera and is one of the best unusual things to do in Matera.

The museum illustrates the way of life in the cave complex. It’s not quite as impressive as Palombaro Lungo or the cave houses, but it’s still worth visiting if you have more than a day in Matera.

Admission is 7 EUR ($7.50 USD) and includes an audio guide. 

People walking down a stone street in Matera next to a church with a Dali exhibit.
Madonna della Virtù, via Lucamato on Shutterstock.

Check out the Rock Complex a Madonna della Virtù

Constructed in the Middle Ages, the Complesso Rupestre Madonna delle Virtù e San Nicola dei Greci is a monastery and church complex. It teeters on the edge of the sassi and grants sneaky views of the city and ravine at certain points.

The Salvador Dalí installation ushered in the crowds for a couple of years. Even without the exhibition, the caves are adorned with carefully preserved frescoes to pore over. The simplicity of the church makes it all the more beautiful and the compound has fallen quieter since the removal of the Dalí exhibit.

A path edged with purple and green shrubs leading through a rocky landscape near Matera.
Murgia Materana Park in Matera Italy, via Shutterstock

Hike in Murgia Materana Park

Situated east of the Sassi di Matera, Murgia Materana Park is a huge regional park on the opposite side of the Matera Ravine. You basically cross the suspension bridge and just keep walking. 

Once there, you’ll spot a cluster of viewpoints and rupestrian churches on the highest point of this side of the park. It’s a well-trodden path and there’s no need to enlist a guide unless you want to venture deeper into the wilderness. 

Hiking in Murgia Materana Park is one of the best things to do in Matera if you have longer than a day. The payoff is epic views of the whole area surrounding the beautiful city. 

A bowl full of Italian panzanella (bread salad) and an aperol spritz, overlooking a view of Matera, with the stone houses and the church tower pointing upward.
Matera isn’t a bad place for lunch with a view! Via Shutterstock.

Book a Restaurant with a View 

Round off a busy day of sightseeing with dinner spent feasting on the caves and churches of Matera. 

Regiacorte is one of the best places for upscale dining with views galore on the seasonal terrace. Opt for the degustation menu and wine pairing if you’re looking to splurge. Portions are on the smaller side but they’re packed with flavor with a presentation as delicious as the taste. 

Sample regional specialties like burrata and orecchiette pasta at Osteria al Casale – the pizza isn’t half bad either. Popular with local families, the restaurant sits on the edge of the Sassi di Matera with the option to sit inside the cave or on the terrace. 

Friendly and fuss-free, Vicolo Cieco is the perfect place to enjoy aperitivo on the patio in summer, just before sunset. The vintage-style interior is cozy on a cooler day in Matera. 

A tall museum in Matera, with a clock perched on top of the building.
There are plenty of museums in Matera Italy — via Cineberg on Shutterstock.

Learn (and Play) at Local Museums

Pad out a longer itinerary (or a rainy day) in Matera with one or two extra museums. The Museum of Contemporary Sculpture (MUSMA) is contained within the 17th-century Palazzo Pomarici. Emphasis is placed on modern statues which strikes a kooky contrast with the palatial cave setting.

Laboratory Museum of Rural Life is a treasure trove of tools used by craftspeople in the region. It’s deceptively large – especially considering the marginal entry fee of 4 EUR ($4.35 USD) – and somewhat chaotic. Although, it’s the cheerfully chaotic nature that makes it so much fun to explore. 

The Matera Olive Oil Museum (MOOM) takes you down to an underground olive oil mill. MOOM can only be visited on a guided tour, which lasts about 20 minutes. You must make your reservation at least 3 days in advance. Get more information, and the link to make your reservation, on the official website.

Mission to Matera, anyone? Sparkme Space Academy is an immersive museum of astronomical proportions! Perfect for the entire family, this tour of the Museum of Space in Matera is the antidote to all the history. 

A close up of a tiny model of the cave homes of Matera maybe 1000 years ago.
Sassi in Miniature might be a gimmick, but it’s a cute one.

See Sassi in Miniatura

If wandering around Matera’s sassi isn’t enough then you can examine the caves in micro-form. Sassi in Miniatura is a souvenir store with a limestone replica model of the Sassi di Matera. Just pop in and you can visit it for free in the rear of the shop.

Seeing as Sassi in Miniatura is first and foremost a gift store, this is one of the best places to pick up mementos or trinkets.

The sculptures come in all different sizes with prices catering to backpackers and luxury travelers. 

A bowl of cavatelli pasta with tomatoes and basil.
Pasta is better when enjoyed with a local family! Via Shutterstock.

Dine with Locals

Being invited to dinner in an Italian home is just about one of the best things that can happen to you in Italy. This dining experience is a way to do just that — and it takes place at the home of a local cook in Matera. 

Huddled around the kitchen table, glass of wine in hand, you’ll observe a cooking demonstration and chow down on a four-course meal. The activity is supported with cooking tips, tricks, and wisdom — plus mountains of anecdotes. 

This unique cultural experience in Matera is available for lunch or dinner. 

A cave filled with paintings of saints in Matera Italy.
The Crypto of Original Sin in Matera Italy, via Gimas on Shutterstock

Enter the Crypt of Original Sin

The Crypt of Original Sin is a 15-minute drive southwest of Matera. This church is hewn into the natural caves and was part of a Benedictine rock monastery when the Lombard tribes were in Italy.

Richly decorated with frescoes from the Middle Ages, the church is nicknamed the “Sistine Chapel of Rupestrian Art.” Wall paintings depict typical scenes of the Apostles, the Archangels, the Virgin Mary, and baby Jesus. However, it’s the illustration of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden that hogs the limelight.

Public transport doesn’t go here so you’ll need to drive or join a tour from Matera. Keep your eyes peeled for signs saying “Cripta del Peccato Originale” and remember to make a reservation if you visit independently.  

A small Italian street with arched lights in a lace-like pattern.
The Puglia town of Altamura is well worth a quick stop.

Visit Altamura 

Twenty minutes north of Matera, Altamura is a Pugliese town with beautiful architecture and a legacy for bread-making. If you’re doing a day trip from a town on the coast to Matera — or moving on to your next location — this is the perfect stop after leaving.

At the very least, stop briefly at Antico Forno Santa Caterina to pick up some focaccia. They have the oldest oven in town, dating back to medieval times. Their focaccia is stupendously good — probably the best I’ve had in my life (sorry, Liguria) — and comes topped with an assortment of regional meats, cheeses, or veggies. 

If you’d like, carry your slice to Piazza Duomo and admire the carved facade of the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta. The church blends Romanesque and Gothic elements and is free to enter. If you have time, wander around the old town and medieval gates. 

A ramp leading around a stone church topped with purple flowers in Matera.
Matera Italy is a popular day trip, but a few days would be nice, too.

How Much Time to Spend in Matera, Italy

Matera is arguably the most popular day trip destination in and around Puglia — and indeed, one day in Matera is enough to see the main sights and the sassi. There are plenty of options to go about your day trip either independently or with a tour.

That said, you can absolutely enjoy yourself and explore Matera in greater depth if you spend a few days here. And if you’re able to do so, I’d recommend staying in a cave hotel. They have plenty at different price points, which I go into below.

If you’re a photographer, it’s essential to have a few days in Matera to take advantage of multiple sunsets and give yourself a buffer in case of bad weather. (But of course, if you’re a photographer, you already know that.)

Layers upon layers of square stone buildings in the city of Matera.
Note that this is not an easy place to drive.

How to Get to Matera, Italy

Bari International Airport (BRI), Puglia’s primary airport, is the closest airport to Matera. It’s around an hour’s drive in a rental car or private taxi. Direct buses from Bari Airport to Matera take 1.5 hours and are easy to arrange at the airport.

If you want to have someone waiting for you at the airport, you can pre-book a shared transfer to Matera Centrale or a private transfer to your hotel.

If you’d like to book a day trip to Matera from another town, there are plenty of group tours, like this day trip to Matera from Bari.

Some travelers do a southern Italy road trip that starts in Naples and ends in Bari. If that’s your plan, Matera makes a good midway point and is two hours and 45 minutes from Naples. I’d recommend staying two nights in a cave hotel to give you a full day to explore Matera (not to mention two different sunsets).

There are trains and buses to Matera, but nothing high-speed. Keep in mind that in this part of southern Italy, if it’s not a high-speed train, it will be pretty slow.

A luxury hotel room inside a cave, with a four-poster bed and couch, all surrounded by sand-colored stone walls.
If you’re staying overnight in Matera, make it a cave hotel! Via Shutterstock.

Where to Stay in Matera, Italy

If you plan to overnight in this ancient stone city, a cave hotel is a MUST! Keep in mind that much of Matera is closed to car traffic, and you may have to carry your luggage to your hotel from the closest drop-off.

I picked out three different cave hotels in Matera at three different price ranges. Here they are:

Luxury: Rooms at the Corte San Pietro are carved directly into the stone of an old cave in the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The decor is kept simple with minimal embellishments besides sunken whirlpool tubs in the private bathroom. Breakfast is served in the courtyard in summer.  

Midrange: Comprising four units, Endea Suite Rooms is one of the boutique hotels in Matera for intimacy. The best suite has a grotto spa tub for easing the muscles after a day of hills and hiking. This part of Sasso Barisano is quiet yet moments from the main churches. 

Budget: Bring the entire family to Hydria Rooms where sizable rooms feature cave elements and traditional materials. Couples can go for a room with a balcony or splash out on the spa suite. All the Sassi sights are within strollable distance of this modern hotel. 

Another angle of stone square buildings piled on top of each other in Matera, Italy.

Best Time to Visit Matera, Italy

If you can choose anytime to visit Matera — or southern Italy as a whole — I’m a big fan of shoulder season, spring and fall. These months are perfect for exploring the sights without struggling through the searing heat.

July and August are extremely busy and I recommend avoiding Italy at this time if possible. If you’re looking to enjoy summer weather in Puglia and southern Italy, I recommend planning your trip for early June or late September.

Winter is an interesting time to visit Matera. It can drop into the 30s on the coldest days which means bundling up in warm clothing but the depleted streets are a major advantage. While Matera is a year-round city, the old town of Matera is not — and keep in mind that many hotels and restaurants will be closed in the winter.

A brilliant sunset in Matera Italy, with pink and blue clouds above and each building in the layered stone city lit up with glowing lamps.
If you’re a photographer, Matera is worth it for photos like this. Via Shutterstock.

Is Matera worth it?

I think that Matera is an absolute must for any Italy-phile. Not just for its beauty and unique attributes — but because of the history. It’s absolutely shocking that people were living in the caves of Matera for so long, including people who are still alive today. It’s important to acknowledge the tougher parts of life in Italy along with the nicer parts.

No matter whether you visit for a day or a few days, Matera is an absolutely bewitching destination. I’m sure you’ll get some of your favorite photos of Italy here.

I hope you have the most wonderful time in Matera! I know it’s cliche to keep saying it, but there’s really nowhere else in Italy like it.

More on Puglia, Italy:

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Have you been to Matera, Italy? Any suggestions? Share away!

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