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The southern Italian city of Matera looks as if it is frozen in time—and parts of it are. The historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most popular attraction in the small region of Basilicata (a roughly 2.5-hour drive from Naples) owing to its hillside series of prehistoric cave dwellings that are believed to date back thousands of years. It is thought that the so-called Sassi di Matera were occupied by some of Italy’s first humans, and many are still in use today, serving as restaurants, bars, hotels, and even art galleries. While travelers can visit many of the sassi (stones) independently, signs and information plaques are sparse so it’s best to go with an expert guide who can shed light on the area’s long history. Just outside Matera, the Murgia Materana Park is home to some 150 ancient churches that were carved right out of the limestone. Take a sightseeing tour that includes entrance fees, the services of a guide, and round-trip transport from Matera for a hassle-free visit to the rupestrian churches. If you’re visiting Matera from elsewhere in Italy, the small city is located about 1.5 hours away from Bari, the capital of Puglia, by train.
Though slightly cooler than its southern Italian neighbors, Matera is still hot in the heart of summer, with average July highs hovering around 86°F (31°C). Travelers braving the heat can see the costumed processions and fireworks of the Festa della Bruna—the town’s most important religious festival—in early July. April tends to be rainy. May and June are drier, warmer, and beat the high travel season by a month or two.
Matera is served by buses and trains, but it’s in a relatively remote part of the Basilicata region where public transportation is not always reliable. Renting a car makes the most sense, but know that parking in the center of Matera is limited. Guided tours on foot or on Italian tuk-tuks (called Api) are a great way to experience the famed sassi—cave dwellings that were inhabited for nearly 7,000 years.
Nothing completes the Matera experience like spending the night in the sassi. Once dishonoring Matera with the nickname “the shame of Italy” for their squalor, the cave dwellings are now a local point of pride, with some having been converted into hotels. Accommodation options range from modest to luxurious—the budget-minded Locanda di San Martino and the four-star Hotel Sant’Angelo are good places to start.
The haunting cave city of Matera entranced writer Rebecca on her first trip, long before the UNESCO site hit the travel headlines. She continues to visit regularly as the old town restyles itself as a chic A-list destination.
time your visit right. One of the reasons that locals long lived in caves here was to escape the searing midday temperatures, so explore the steep city in the early morning or late afternoon.
begins by waking up in one of its stylish cave hotels that have transformed the prehistoric dwellings into luxe accommodations. From there, it’s an easy stroll to explore the Sassi districts’ upscale dining and galleries.
Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario, a museum that offers a poignant look at life here two centuries ago, when entire families inhabited these dwellings along with their farm animals.
explore the clifftop Piano and Civita districts, where locals live, shop, and dine. The Sassi along the cliffsides were abandoned in the 1950s and only recently reclaimed to house hotels, restaurants, and shops.
drive about 15 minutes away from town to the Belvedere Murgia Timone scenic overlook, one of the most postcard-perfect viewpoints over the historic Sassi.
is that the Sassi underwent gentrification that displaced local residents. Instead, the cave dwellings had been abandoned for decades before enterprising locals realized they could be reclaimed for hospitality and commercial space.
Matera, a hill town in Italy’s Basilicata region, is famous for its prehistoric cave dwellings. Its historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where restaurants, hotels, and galleries are carved into hillside caves. You may recognize it as a backdrop to several movies set in Biblical times, including The Passion of the Christ....More
Matera is a popular day trip destination for travelers staying in nearby Puglia, though it’s not the easiest to get to. It’s accessible via train from Bari’s Centrale Station. You might visit on a private tour, too....More
Matera is best explored on foot. This city is home to many winding, narrow, and pedestrianized streets made up of steps. Join a tour to follow a guide through Matera or wander through the city independently to explore art galleries, shops, and restaurants at your own pace....More
Plan to stay overnight in Matera. While some travelers visit on a day trip from nearby Puglia, the atmosphere of Matera comes alive at night. The luxury cave hotels are a unique experience worth an overnight stay. Travelers with more time will find that Matera has enough to offer for two or three days....More
Matera’s stones and caves make it a special place to see the glow of a sunset. There are several scenic places to watch the sunset including the Church of Sant’Agostino. Travelers with a car may want to cross the gorge to Murgia Materana Park for a view back at Matera....More
No, Matera is not the oldest city in the world. But it is home to prehistoric cave dwellings that are believed to date back thousands of years. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has a striking historic center with landmarks including churches, museums, art galleries, and more....More
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