Matera is a gem hidden in plain sight. A sort of diamond in the rough that in a short period of time went from being the shame of Italy in the 1950s to a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993 and the European Capital of Culture in 2019. In such recent years, the city has been called the jewel of the southern Italian region of Basilicata, and for good reason. At the heart of Matera are its sassi, ancient cave dwellings carved into the rocky tufa limestone cliffs high above the Gravina gorge. These single room homes have been inhabited since prehistoric times, making Matera one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world.
It’s not hard to be swept away by the city’s larger than life feel. An optical illusion like an M.C. Escher drawing (see here and here) of mind-bending twists and turns, seemingly endless interconnected stone staircases, walkways and tunnels meandering up and down, down and up, with the occasional door to “nowhere” (similar to what you will also find in Santorini) perched along the side of a street. Churches on top of streets, streets on top of roofs, Matera’s complex structure is truly like nothing I’ve ever seen before. And like Venice, it’s impossible to get lost because even if you go the wrong way and find yourself at a dead end, you’ll likely be treated to a beautiful view or at the very least a colorful worn door or two. A stone maze frozen in time, it’s no wonder that Matera has also served as a cinematic backdrop for movies ranging from The Passion of the Christ to the most recent James Bond film No Time to Die.
Matera is light on obligatory sights, which makes it the perfect place for wandering. We found this a bit challenging to do in the August heat but couldn’t resist setting out to explore in during our 2 days in this incredible city. Read on for more about the magic that is Matera, including some of my favorite highlights and culinary delights that we discovered in the city.
What to See and Do
The sassi are divided into 2 districts, Sasso Barissano in the north and Sasso Caveso in the south. Before you set out to explore, a good place to start to gain a better understanding of the history of the sassi is Casa Noha. The 25-minute video experience shows just how deplorable the living conditions were in the sassi where extreme poverty and squalor were the norm and malnourished families lived along with their animals in the small, dark unventilated spaces. The government eventually came in and relocated a portion of the population, and it wasn’t until many years later that the cave dwellings transformed into the hotels, shops and restaurants of today. We found this to be very impactful and caused us to have a greater appreciation for what we were seeing. Another good place to visit for context is Casa Grotta nei Sassi, a historical site that recreates a cave dwelling to show how the people of the sassi once lived.
You’ll also find no shortage of interesting churches in Matera, including the city’s impressive Cattedrale di Maria Santissima della Bruna e Sant’Eustachio that sits high atop Piazza Duomo on a ridge between the two sassi districts and offers a stunning viewpoint. Other noteworthy churches include Santa Maria di Idris and San Pietro Barisano, which are examples of Matera’s more than 150 chiese rupestri (ruprestian rock churches), as well as San Pietro Caveoso, the only church in the sassi that’s not carved into the rock despite its name. In addition, another interesting site is the Palombaro Lungo, a vast subterranean water cistern under Piazza Vittoria Veneto. Even if you don’t take the undergrounds tour, it’s worth checking out the area and the nearby “Tre Archi” viewpoint.
For a change of scenery, you can also hike across the Gravina gorge to the Parco della Murgia Materana. The slightly strenuous 1.14-mile trail (one-way) begins at the parking lot near the Santa Lucia e Agata alla Civita convent along Via Madonna delle Virtù and steeply makes it way down to the Gravina, across a suspension bridge and up to the top of the belvedere for sweeping 360-degree views of Matera and the surrounding area. You can read more about this hike in my post here.
Where to Eat
Our meals in Matera were some of the best we had in southern Italy, combining both delicious food and incredible ambiance. If I had to sum up our dining experience here it would be “dinner with a view.” On our first night we made reservations at Il Terrazzino (Vico San Giuseppe, 7), where you’ll find a menu of traditional dishes of the region in a setting that showcases the sassi both inside and out. In fact, Il Terrazzio was one of the first restaurants to make its home in the sassi in 1982 before mainstream tourism to Matera took hold. We chose a table on the terrace and arrived early at 7:30pm so we could enjoy the panoramic views before it got dark. As we sipped our Aperol spritz the setting sun blanketed the city in a warm glow, which transformed into a twinkling backdrop for our dinner as the sassi became illuminated. If that’s not magical I don’t know what is. When it came time to order we started with the dried peperoni that were both crispy and mild, along with an insalata mista. While the regular menu had many enticing options to choose from, I couldn’t resist one of the piatti del giorno – eggplant parmesan – which I’ve never actually seen on a menu in Italy before. The small stack was light and sliced thin and full of flavor. My husband ordered the orecchiette al tegamino, the house special of baked orecchiette pasta with tomato sauce and tiny meatballs. Both dishes were wonderful along with the half liter of red vino locale we ordered to accompany our meal. From start the finish the service was welcoming and warm and made us feel at home in more ways than one. We finished our meal with an amaro that we left to the owner to select, as well coffee and a tartufo cioccolato e nocciola that provided just the right amount of sweet to end the meal.
The next night we chose Osteria al Casale (Via Madonna delle Virtù, 29) for dinner, which is located along the main road on the southeastern edge of town overlooking the Gravina gorge. After our pre-meal passeggiata and ceremonial aperitivo of spritz with a bowl of salty olives at I Due Sassi Cafe (Piazza del Sedile) we casually made our way to the restaurant. There were a handful of tables set up on the stony outdoor dining area along the street with views of the Murga park, and since we were once again early we took the opportunity to order another aperitivo to sip on as we soaked up the last bits of evening light.
When it came time to order we started with an insalata mista and the burrata lucana with arugula and tomatoes. For the latter we expected a modest portion but instead what we received was the most incredible grapefruit-sized ball of burrata. After the shockingly large amount of cheesy deliciousness we should have known better than to order 2 pizzas – a Margherita and a Quattro Stagioni with artichokes, olives, ham and mushrooms – but it was our last night in Matera so… Both were very good with light and thin crust but sadly ended up being more than we could finish (I hate letting any amount of pizza go to waste, especially in Italy). After it was clear we couldn’t stuff ourselves with another bite we finished up with un caffè before embarking on our second passeggiata to hopefully digest before we ended the night. Not only was the food great at Osteria al Casale, the prices were ridiculously low and the location provided a relaxing setting with dramatic views made only better by the evening’s full moon.
Where to Stay
Rebooking our trip with less lead time led to limited hotel options to choose from. The original B&B we had reservations for in 2020, La Corte dei Pastori was totally booked for August no matter how we rearranged our itinerary, so we restarted our search for other available B&Bs in the sassi. Despite it being high season, we got lucky and booked a Standard Double room at the appropriately named Hotel Sassi. The cave room itself left a bit to be desired but the location could not be beat with incredible sweeping views as we climbed higher and deeper into the heart of the Sasso Barissano. After arriving in the heat of the afternoon, exhausted and dripping after hauling our luggage across the city (all of the parking garages on the outskirts of town were full, forcing us to park on Via Dante Alighieri), we were grateful to have a spacious, clean and cool respite from the August heat.
Hotel Sassi’s breakfast in the mornings was a treat, served outdoors near the main reception area with a selection of fresh juices, yogurt and made to order coffee beverages. Rather than the typical buffet breakfast, the tables were set with a plate of fresh fruit and each person received a large brown paper bag filled with sweet and savory items including sliced bread, croissants and not one or two but THREE types of focaccia. We appreciated the creative solution the hotel provided despite recent COVID restrictions and followed the lead of other guests who happily took their extra breakfast treats with them to nibble on later in the day.
Check out the map below for all of the places in Matera that are mentioned in this article.