A 2024 Matera Travel Guide: From Cave Dwellings Slump To Hollywood Big Shot

Matera is tucked away in the remote corner of southern Italy where the lesser-known region of Basilicata is located. You won’t find the hustle and bustle of Rome or Venice here but only the quiet luxury of a getaway. The nearest airport is 65 kilometers away in Bari where a scenic car drive takes you to Matera in no time. This place…

Nguyen Oanh

Matera is tucked away in the remote corner of southern Italy where the lesser-known region of Basilicata is located. You won’t find the hustle and bustle of Rome or Venice here but only the quiet luxury of a getaway.

The nearest airport is 65 kilometers away in Bari where a scenic car drive takes you to Matera in no time.

This place has serious bragging rights as one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements on Earth, dating back to the Palaeolithic period. From there, the history of Matera has been woven into a tapestry of events, from the massive expansion of the Serbs and Albanian refugees to the rescue of Carlo Levi.

Today, this hilly town is a haven for digital nomads who come here to work remotely. Their laptops light up the old caves, injecting a modern pulse into this ancient city.

This ultimate Matera guide arms you up with practical travel tips, including how to get to Matera, do’s and don’ts, as well as the best places to visit and accommodations.

Matera History At A Glance

Matera’s story began when people carved homes into the rugged cliffs of the Matera Grotto area. This unique way of living in natural caves served them well. However, as time flowed like a river, the population swelled.

Fast forward to the 15th to the 16th century, many Serbs and Albanians sought refuge from the Ottoman Empire and found residence in Matera. From there, the size of Mater dwellings enlarged, eventually forming what we now know as the “Sassi di Matera,” one of the most important neighborhoods in Matera known widely by global travelers.

As the population grew, some residents began to migrate to the plains of Piano, including nobles and wealthy families. By the late 18th century, only those who failed to seek a new homeland remained in the old caves of Matera.

Fast forward to the 1950s, the left-behind residents have earned Matera an unfortunate nickname “the shame of Italy.” In the 1930s, Carlo Levi, a renowned writer, was exiled to Matera by Mussolini’s regime. At that time, living conditions were dire – tiny grottoes with one entrance, no windows, no electricity, no running water, and no sewage systems. Sanitation was appalling, and diseases like malaria ran rampant, trapping Matera in a cycle of poverty and despair.

In one of Levi’s best-seller books, “Christ Stopped at Eboli” published in 1945, the shocking living conditions in Matera drew the world’s attention to the city’s plight, forcing the Italian government to take action. Matera’s Sassi was deemed uninhabitable, and its residents were forcibly relocated to the Piano Plain for a fresh start. The ancient city was abandoned.

In 1993, Matera became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Shortly two decades later, this cultural significance beckons the curious eyes of Hollywood filmmakers, with movies like “The Passion of the Christ” (2004), “Wonder Woman” (2017), and “No Time To Die” (2020) breathing new life into this historic city.

3 Best Ways To Get To Matera

Travel To Matera By Train

The train is the most convenient public transportation to reach Matera. There’s no direct train unless you set out to Bari first. Here, take the private train “Ferrovie Appulo Lucane (FAL)” at Appulo Lucane Railways Srl Station (two minutes walk northwest of Bari Centrale) for 90 minutes to the Matera Centrale Station. The train runs every hour except for Sundays and national holidays when there are fewer to no trips operated.

No reservation is required for the tickets. They are available for purchase over the counter, at a Tabaccheria grocery store, or at a vending machine.

Updates on fares and timetables are on the official website. Those wishing to purchase the train tickets by card should set a PIN code in advance and there’s a chance the vending machine setup asks for your PIN upon payout.

The FAL train bound for Matera is located at the first platform called Matera C.le (there are three in Bari Central Station). They ring a bell to notify passengers when a train arrives.

About an hour and 15 minutes into the ride, you’ll stop at Altamura to switch trains. This part comes with a little confusion but I’ll show you how.

There are two scenarios:

One, you get off your current train and head to the opposite platform where the train bound for Matera is waiting.

Two, stay on the same train and don’t need to move anywhere.

If you’re clueless, ask the guard or the cabin crew. They are glad to show you what to do.

Trains from Bari to Matera are crowded so chances are you may not find an available seat to steal. 

Matera Central Station is a 20-minute walk from Sassi di Matera on a steep downhill walk. You’ve got to rely on your foot to get around as there are mostly stairs and elevations throughout.

If you stay at one of the cave hotels in the core of Matera, make sure to arrange a pick-up service to have your luggage collected and dropped off directly at your room. This advance notice will save you lots of sweats from dragging your bags on the slippery stairs.

Last but not least, sturdy and anti-slipping shoes are highly recommended!

Travel To Matera By FlixBus

The departure bus stop in Bari is adjacent to Bari Central Station on bus #1586. It’s nearly 90 minutes including walk time. The final stop is Terminal bus Via Don Luigi Sturzo Matera across the street from the Church of Saint Paul Apostle.

However, note that this bus stop is only on the outskirts of Matera. Keep walking to Matera – Via Dante Lisurici Bus Stop just two minutes away from Via Don Luigi Sturzo and switch to a local bus # 710R.34. This one will take you to Matera – Viale Aldo Moro Bus Stop just across the road from Mater Central Station.

Travel To Matera By Car

Having a local driver? Perfect! All you need to do is contact your hotel beforehand, ask for a proper parking lot and they will inform the police department before you come. The reason is that unauthorized vehicles or non-residents are restricted from entering, which is written in the Limited Traffic Zone (Zona a traffico limitato) Law.

Alternatively, park your car outside of the city center at Parking Via Saragat and take a local shuttle bus called BusMiccolis to Piazza Giacomo Matteotti within one to two minutes. Click here to view bus lines and timetables. If taking the shuttle bus is too much of a hassle, a walk to the downtown core is only ten minutes away.

Things To See And Do In Matera

Start The Morning At Sassi di Matera – Matera’s Oldest Neighborhood

Known as Sassi for short, this is an ancient neighborhood of Matera, home to the two inner districts called Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano.

This area is 20 minutes on foot from Materna Central Station. Sassi di Matera is chock full of breathtaking grottoes carved out of limestone. The series of ancient houses jut out from the edge of a ravine.

Sasso Barisano, one of the two districts of Sassi di Matera, plays host to a whopping collection of renovated grottos where art galleries, hotels, and restaurants reside.

The Church of Saint Peter ‘Barisano’, Matera Cathedral, and the Subterranean cistern of Palombaro Lungo are major attractions in this area.

Sasso Caveoso, meanwhile, is where all the original grotto houses remain intact.  It was once the poorest area of the region back in the 1950s. Many of these houses were part of the urban planning scheme established by the state. For that reason, families were sent to a new residential quarter and left behind their home sweet homes.

Today, the houses have entered a new chapter when artists and new owners put them out for short-term rentals.

Historical landmarks in Sasso Caveoso can be listed as San Pietro Caveoso Church, Casa Grotta nei Sassi di Matera Museum, and Momart Gallery.

Watch The World Go By At Piazza Vittorio Veneto

This square isn’t just a meeting point. If you wanna engage with the local families or simply watch people and rest your legs amidst a tired walk, this is where you wanna be. Whether you’re starting or ending your Matera adventure, this is where group travelers gather.

On any given sunny day, people flock here with their kids, spilling in boutique stores, keeping up with the daily match at one of the churches, and watching the sun setting over the Duomo in its glory.

Set Out Beneath The Surface At Palombaro Lungo

Ever wondered how Matera stays hydrated in its arid climate? Meet Palombaro Lungo, the underground cistern tucked beneath Piazza Vittorio Veneto. This marvelous underground structure gives your trip to Materna a fresh spin. If you ever get tired of churches and mountains, then it’s time to venture out to a different world unseen.

Palombaro Lungo has been around since the 19th century before water pipes graced the city. This colossal tank collected rainwater and snowmelt, holding up to five million liters.

Entrance tickets are required. Even better, opt for a guided tour and set out through the cistern’s depths fully understanding how residents once collected water from the four holes in the ceiling.

Soak Up The View From Belvedere Luigi Guerricchio – The Three Arches

There are multiple viewpoints in Matera looking down to the massive series of cave houses perched above the hills, but the best vantage point I recommend is Belvedere Luigi Guerricchio on the east side of Piazza Vittorio Veneto. It’s the perfect spot to capture the essence of this unique city in a photograph.

Be Blown Away At The Picturesque Gravina di Matera

Capturing the bird’s eye view of the Sassi from above is a dream come true. But have you ever tried seeking out another great angle? Get in the car and venture further afield to Gravina di Materna the Canyon with a short half-hour’s drive. Keep an eye out for caves on the opposite hill where monks once resided, leaving behind captivating murals.

Visit The Monastic Complex Of Casa Noha

Save the best for last, this is my favorite spot to visit in Matera. Casa Noha is a small complex housing a gallery inside that offers a deeper dive into Matera’s history and the formation of the Sassi. This 16th-century residence, perched in the upper part of Sasso Caveoso, now houses a multimedia exhibit, shedding light on the city’s past.

Take On Matera’s Culinary Delights

At the end of the day, no trip to Materna is complete without blasting out all the best eats.

Orecchiette, Scialatielli, Pane di Matera are all traditional staples. My favorite is Lucanica sausage with a delightful mashup of salt, pepper, fennel seeds, and the Aglianico wine.

There aren’t many restaurants in Matera but Osteria al Casale and Trattoria del Caveoso stand out from the crowds. Dining hours here typically fall between 12:30 – 15:30 and 19:30 – 23:30 so plan accordingly.

Best Places To Stay In Matera

Other than a few hotels, Materna accommodations are mostly centered around BnBs with stairs that require fitness levels. If staying in a cave is not your jam, consider staying near the train station.

MaisonSilvi: A small, well-organized hotel that beholds a great location. Modern facilities plus a quiet neighborhood make it a delightful stopover for a night or two.

Sextantio Le Grotte Della Civita: Game it up with a fancy stay at a four-star hotel. Amazing breakfast is a big shot here and the cozy setting makes up for the damp and heavy air.

Final Words

Matera is more than just a postcard. Its ambiance, history, and atmosphere can’t be fully captured in photos. For me, Matera is a hidden gem full of surprises, relaxation, and a longing to stay.