The city of Matera, located in Southern Italy, is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of this year’s European Capitals of Culture, Matera has a long history of pilgrimage routes with ancient cave dwellings blending into contemporary life. Matera is a truly unique city that is on the rise and filled with interesting things to do.
Things to do in Matera
Start the day in one of the best bakeries in Italy
Matera is an ancient city surrounded by fields of wheat. The love story locals have with bread goes back thousands of years so perhaps it’s no surprise that Matera is said to have the best bread in all of Italy. It’s slightly yellow-tinged, soft, moist but firm and springy.
If you’re on the lookout for the best Italian bread in the area, you must visit Bakery Perrone. It’s busy throughout the day but come in for breakfast so you’ll get to choose from the loaves of freshly-baked bread. Try the splendid focaccia topped or stuffed with ingredients like spinach, hazelnuts, peppers, and tomatoes.
Hike Murgia National Park to see ancient pilgrimage routes and shrines
Also called Parco Regionale Archeologico Storico Naturale delle Chiese Rupestri del Materano (yes, it’s a mouthful!) this historic park located on the fringes of Matera is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Although it boasts beautiful natural scenery and wildlife such as hares, porcupines, wild boars, wild cats, and foxes, it also has beautiful archaeological sites to visit, too.
A former pilgrimage route during the Middle Ages, there are over 150 rock churches in the park that you can still explore.
Explore the old caves of Matera
The two areas of the city (Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso) are known as the Sassi di Matera, one of the first human settlements in Italy said to go back to 7000 B.C. The natural caves in this region made it the perfect place for early settlers to take shelter. You can still see these cave dwellings of Matera in the older parts that face Murgia National Park.
The caves used to be where many poor locals lived with their livestock. Fires and diseases were rampant and the government forced settlers to move out. Many of these abandoned caves still exist and many have been converted into restaurants, shops, and hotels. If you want to know what the caves used to look like, visit Casa Grotta nei Sassi to see a living example of how people used to live.
Check into a cave turned boutique hotel
If you want to get the full Sassi experience, check into Sextantio Le Grotte Della Civita, a stunning boutique hotel that inhabits Matera caves.
With 18 unique rooms lit by warm candlelight come evening and with lovely touches like locally-made soaps, designer bathtubs, and traditional antique furnishings with minimalist sensibilities, this hotel comes highly recommended. You can also have a delicious breakfast at the small ancient church where you’ll see remnants of the past.
Take some amazing shots of the city from the Matera Cathedral
There are rarely any cars that are allowed into the old city as the streets are too narrow and steep and there is limited parking. Instead, take your walking shoes to the top of the hilly city to the Matera Cathedral. Step inside and see beautiful frescoes but it’s the view outside of the cathedral which is worth the visit.
Come during sunset when the weather is cooler and you’ll see beautiful pinks and purples in the sky as the city begins to twinkle with evening lights from the houses below.
Try local specialities at Baccanti Ristorante
One of the highest-rated restaurants in Matera, Baccanti Ristorante is located in the old part of the city and also takes up space in ancient caves. It’s scenic, quiet, and offers great service. Baccanti cooks up local dishes such as baked potato under ashes with stracciatella, rapini, and taralli crumbs and stuffed ravioli with local pork sausage and Sarcone’s beans cream.
Take a day trip to the eerie abandoned town of Craco
Visit Craco to see what a ghost town truly looks like. Visits to this hilltop town have to be planned as you need a guide and a hard hat and you need to be careful where you walk as the town continues to crumble. The reason for this is that this once-bustling town was abandoned after being hit by a series of natural disasters such as a flood and earthquake.
In 1980, the town was completely desolate as it was unlivable and unsafe. It’s an interesting place for photo taking for sure, but don’t expect to eat, drink, or buy anything here – it’s truly a ghost town!
Matera Travel Tips
Best time to visit: The summer months have a lovely climate which makes for great meals on the terrace. But, as you need to walk to most parts of the town, visiting in spring or fall make for a much cooler and more comfortable trip.
How to get around: There are a few public shuttles around Matera, but it’s a city that demands a lot of walking as roads are not accessible to cars. Rent a car and drive to get in and out of the city.