I’ll be the first to admit, the only thing I really knew about Matera before I visited was that Mel Gibson had been there to film Passion of the Christ… and that was reason enough for me. By the end of the day though, Matera had quickly become one of the most unique and beautiful places I had visited in Italy.
This old gal loved Matera too, but mainly because she was carried everywhere! Matera is full of stairs so definitely come prepared.
After arriving from a 3-hour drive from Naples, we eagerly set out to explore the city named the 2019 European Capital of Culture. Coincidentally, we had just got back from Valletta in Malta, the 2018 European Capital of Culture. For once we’re ahead of schedule!
Cave dwellers have inhabited Matera for centuries making it one the first human settlements in Italy. People were actually still living in these caves until the 1950s when the city relocated everyone because of widespread malaria and poor living conditions.
Once an area of poverty for most of the 1900s, Matera is now a fascinating destination rich with culture, amazing restaurants and posh cave hotels. The historical Sassi di Matera was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993. As we explore the ancient city, I didn’t feel like I was in Italy at times and could see why it’s the film location for movies like Ben Hur.
Most of the streets are pedestrian only and it’s easy to get lost in the labyrinth of winding staircases and passages. Matera is studded with incredible lookout points offering stunning views.
How to get to Matera
The closest airport is about an hour away by car in Bari. The drive is about three hours from the Naples airport. It’s possible to take a train to Salerno and then complete the trip by bus (more info on italo).
I personally drove and renting a car is a good option. Matera would make a great stop if you’re building a Puglia road trip itinerary.
Where to stay in Matera
We decided to visit Matera at the last minute and booked the day before during a popular weekend, so most places were full. We stayed at a forgettable hotel on the outskirts of the historical center. I hope we can go back, book ahead and stay in one of the restored caves.
Ai Maestri Rooms has all the cave vibes, but with more light, a modern twist and a breakfast terrace.
Sextantio le Grotte della Civita for a unique luxury experience in a cave.
Where to Eat in Matera
There are so many cute bars and cafes lining the cobblestoned streets of Matera. We spend the evening at a few different spots around town, snacking and watching the people go by.
Ridola is the perfect spot for people watching because it’s located right on the main walkway. We sat outside on the trendy patio and watched families on their evening stroll. It was Easter weekend so there seemed to be a mix of religious tour groups and Italian families celebrating the holiday together.
Area 8 is ideal for having a dinner on their vintage outdoor patio. Alfie approved.
Birrificio 79 has an impressive snack selection with their aperitivo. This is definitely the spot if you are missing some craft beer on your travels in Italy.
I’m never surprised by how many gelato shops a small town in Italy can have though! I must have passed 6 or 7 just in the historical area alone. We had gelato at I Vizi degli Angeli Laboratorio di Gelaterai Artigianale and Gelida Voglia di Artigianeria dei Sassi. Both gelaterias make delicious flavors. I suggest you try both to pick a favorite!
The next day, we had just enough time to hike around the caves on the opposite side of the valley. This was really one of the highlights of visiting Matera. You can freely explore this whole area and see the caves up close.
If we had more time, I would have done a formal tour on a tuk-tuk. I was definitely a little jealous when I saw people driving around in one. There is so much history in Matera and I’d love to know more. So, I guess I came for Mel Gibson, stayed for the views and want to go back for more.