Unlike in No Time to Die, our first visit to Matera did not involve machine guns, Aston Martins or jumping off bridges. But, despite this, we jolly well enjoyed it. So much so, that we returned. I believe that Mr Bond would have too, perhaps on one of his quieter days when he’s romancing a lady friend and not being chased by baddies. I don’t feel that words can do Matera full justice. It is truly one of the most unique and special places that we have visited and something you need to experience in your own way in order to appreciate the quiet beauty of this place. Here’s how you can get the most from visiting Matera.
- Why is Matera so famous?
- What to do in Matera
- Where to stay in Matera
- How to get to Matera from Bari
- How to get to Matera from anywhere in Italy
Why is Matera so famous?
“You must go to Matera!”. The cry that goes up from your friends and family once you mention you will be within day trip range of the place. And yes, you must go to Matera. Go twice, if you can. We did. Or, stay for a few days!
Matera is a complex destination. You will have seen the photographs of medieval dwellings cascading down a hill towards a deep ravine where there are caves once lived in by humans. A place once deserted and now a UNESCO city of the year.
What is Matera?
It is a place of human occupation since the Paleolithic (more than 10,000 years ago) whose inhabitants lived in rock cut dwellings. By the Middle Ages it had developed a civic centre (“Civita”) on the highest ground (where the current cathedral stands). And two poorer settlement areas called the Sassi – one facing Bari – the Sasso Barisano, and one facing Montescaglioso – the Sasso Caveoso.
These settlements faced and tumbled down the slopes towards the ravine. Their inhabitants took advantage of the easily carved rock to create caves next to their houses, initially for their own storage purposes. These caves were not initially for human habitation, but in the 18th century, an increase in population of peasants led to these caves being rented out to them.
In the 20th century, a book by Carlo Levi described the peasants of Matera, their poverty, overcrowding, ignorance, the scourge of malaria, and their cave-dwelling habits. This differed little form the lot of peasants elsewhere in this part of Italy at that time, apart from the aspect of dwelling in caves.
This aspect of Matera plus poor sanitation induced the government to relocate the inhabitants of the Sassi en masse to new housing from the 1950s onwards, with the intent of later renovating the area. This left the Sassi subject to degradation. But in 1986 restoration and reoccupation was permitted, and in 1993 the area became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and – in 2019 – European Capital of Culture.
Its new life as tourist magnet had begun! Welcome.
What is the history of Matera?
Matera is one of the the three oldest inhabitations in the world, alongside Aleppo and Jericho. Of the three, Matera is clearly the most accessible currently.
The short version of Matera’s history is this:
- Roughly 9000 years ago, the first inhabitants of Matera moved into Cave Dwellings which are carved into vast rocks. Over time, the caves and Matera itself was inhabited by the usual suspects, Greeks, Romans etc etc);
- In the latter part of 1800, Matera had developed into an area with poor sanitation, widespread poverty and disease;
- Matera was becoming a source of shame for Italy, and in 1952 anyone living in the caves were relocated (there are various interpretations of this ranging from residents to being kindly evacuated or forcibly moved) into more modern housing a few miles away from Matera.
- Fast forward to 1993 and UNESCO recognised Matera as a World Heritage Site, and in 2019 it became the European Capital of Culture.
Quite a tale of two halves!
Is Matera where James Bond was filmed?
Matera was fully catapulted into popular lexicon in 2021 when No Time to Die eventually hit the screens. Seeing James Bond hurtling through the historic streets was sure to make everyone Google “where in Italy is this” (I know I did!) If you’ve not seen the movie, then watch one of the clips on YouTube, the car chase is sure to get your blood pumping
But a note of caution, don’t expect to see the bridge that Bond jumped off when you visit Matera. This was actually filmed elsewhere in Italy, Gravina in Puglia. By some clever production trickery it looks like one town, but it’s not. Gravina is not far from Matera though, so you could visit this too if you want the full experience!
But it’s not just Bond, if you’re a film buff you may recognise Matera from other movies. It’s been used as a location for more films than you can count on two hands. See how many you remember as you explore!
What to do in Matera
Like all Italian towns, Matera is all about the mooching. You can spend hours getting lost in the Sassi (ancient town), just taking in your surroundings and imagining all who came before you.
But, if you are looking for a more detailed itinerary for your day, you can find one below!
A guide to visiting Matera in one day
This is a packed one-day tour of the highlights of Matera, avoiding steps where possible and sticking to the main thoroughfares. It emphasizes the experience over stopping for a leisurely lunch, so bring your choice of portable food with you. Looking at your Matera map, you may spot apparent shortcuts via staircases. Beware. In our experience this invariably end in dead ends, tired legs and frustration.
Visit Palombara Lungo
An excellent first port of call is the Palombara lungo. Stand with your back to the large Tourist Info building and directly in front of you there is a triangular area with arches below street level. A small staircase takes you down and left to the Palombara lungio – a giant underground water tank. And when we say “giant” we are talking cathedral sized proportions.
The soft rock of the area lent itself to excavations to channel and store rainwater, and this is the biggest of them all. Hand carved, all of it. You get a self-guided there-and-back exploration of the huge, hollowed-out space, well-lit with attractive, coloured lights. The water level has been dropped to almost nothing so you descend a network of staircases (all very secure) to near the base of the water cistern, and walk along its length and up the other side before retracing your steps. It’s about 3 Euros to enter.
Visiting the Sassi in Matera
Exiting, do not return to the main Piazza immediately but walk through the central arch to get your first view of the Sasso Barisani. Return up the steps to the main square and turn left. There is a WC there and little way further after the Cazedonia shop, some curved steps down. The steps have brown signs either side saying “Sassi”.
Take the steps down, turn left and reach the Via Fiorentini , a comparative wide road with no further steps. Follow the Via Fiorentini as it descends and curves gently to the left. On the right you will come across “Sassi in Miniatura’ which features a hand carved model of the Sassi (free entry but donation appreciated) downstairs and hand-carved articles upstairs should you be in need of a souvenir of your visit.
Just after the Sassi in Miniatura take the road on the left – the Via D’Addozio – up to the Convento di Sant’Agostino. There is an excellent view of the Sasso Barisano, the cathedral on its hill, and also of the ravine – the Torrente Gravina – with the rock-caves tunneled into cliff face opposite.
Visit the ravine
Follow the road back down but take the first staircase on the left – it cuts off a corner – and descend to the bottom, the Via Madonna delle Virtu. This wide, flat road follows the edge of the ravine, and is the best way to manage the transition from the Sasso Barisano to the Sasso Caveoso. The ravine is the big photographic attraction here as it snakes around the valley below. For the well-shod (walking boots), fit and adventurous, there is a way down into the ravine, just after the Piazza Porta Postergola car park. When we were there in March 2023, part of the path down had crumbled away and the way down was firmly barred.
When the path is open, the torrent at the bottom of ravine can be crossed using a Tibetan rope bridge, which you can see (and photograph) far below from the road. In our view, entering the ravine and going up the other side to explore the caves is definitely not an activity that fits well with a one-day highlights tour of Matera, and should not be undertaken lightly.
Visit the rock church of Matera
Following the Via Madonna delle Virtu takes you to the Piazza San Pietro Caveoso. The church is a welcome relief from the sun. To the right of the church is a large rock on which is perched a small rock-church, Madonna de Idris, which is not visible. The church has the best view in all Matera, in our humble opinion, and this itinerary takes you there – but not quite yet!
To the right of the San Pietro Caveoso church, take the path, the Vico Solitaro, through an arch. Follow this until on your right you see the Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario, essentially examples of typical peasant cave dwelling (entrance fee). We resisted their charms to carry on the Vico Solitario a short way to reach the rock-church of Santa Lucia alle Malve.
This is one of three rock-churches that are open and provide a downloadable audio guide for your mobile (Entry 4 Euros). This particular church has three bays with wall paintings and two of the bays were used as a home by peasants, who at one point scraped a mosaic off the wall and used the pieces to decorate their worktop. They don’t allow photos inside the church, but you can find plenty online.
The best view point in Matera
Exit the church and return the way you came back to the Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario. Climb up to that level and then take the diagonal slope heading upwards. Then ascend via whatever stairs and slopes you find to the summit (there are multiple ways up) on the way, take time to look back to catch a view of the medieval Necropolis. At the summit is the church of Madonna de Idris and the best view of Matera we promised you. Enjoy. The church also contains rock-art and is open (4 Euros), but if you have seen Santa Lucia alle Malve, you may wat to give it a miss.
Museum and Art Gallery
Descend from Madonna de Idris via the obvious broad steps down to the Via Bruno Buozzi and turn left. Walk along the road as it curves slowly to the right and uphill until it comes to the Via Casalnuova where you turn right. Where the road ends go up the small flight of stairs and enter the Piazetta Pascoli. This long and slender square houses multiple restaurant opportunities as well as the Palazzo Lanfranchi housing medieval and modern art (immediately on your right) and the further along on the left, the Museo Nazionale di Matera. Both art gallery and Museum are closed on Mondays.
You probably will not have time for either (or the restaurants), but mentally note for another day if you plan to stay or return to Matera. Walk to the end of the Piazetta Pascoli following the Via del Corso. Turn right into the attractive Piazza San Francesco Ipogei and at the far end enter the Piazza Sedile. At the other end of the Piazza Sedile take the road to the left, the Via della Beccherie (If you have time and energy, the road to the right leads uphill to the Piazza Duoma, the Cattedrale and another fine view of Matera).
Heading back to the station
Follow the Via della Beccherie downhill until you reach the Piazza Vittorio Veneto, where you originally started out. If you are in need of retail therapy, the parallel Via dei Corsro is available.
Retrace your steps to reach the station by way of the Via Ascanio Persio and Via Don Giovanni Minzoni. If you need to kill half an hour or so, at the rear the market to your left in Via Ascanio Persio has a unassuming but welcoming bar – the Colorado Caffe – where for 4 Euros you can get an excellent glass of Primativo with a bowl of fried local bread thrown in. Enjoy the journey back to Bari.
Eating and drinking in Matera
If you do find yourself with time for more food and drink in Matera, or you are staying for longer, then there are plenty of bars and restaurants in town.
In the Sassi area, Via Cassalnuovo has a glut of bars and restaurants. Try Area 8 for drinks and Dottoni 3.0 for Pizza. If you’re in the new town and looking for drinks, we would recommend Materia Primo Bistro, which occupies a prime spot in the shade of the church square for maximum people watching. If you’re lucky, you might spot a wedding taking place in the gorgeous church.
Guided tours in Matera
If you’d rather have your guided tour totally taken care of, you can book an organised walking tour of Matera.
This tour, here, has some of the best reviews on Get Your Guide. It is available in multiple different languages and lasts up to 2.5 hours. The tour also includes access to one of the cave houses and the church.
Where to stay in Matera
If you decide that one day is not long enough (and you’d be right) then why not stay a few nights in Matera to fully enjoy it. Here are a few options.
Where to stay in Matera on a budget
Fra I Sassi Hostel is the top rated hostel in Matera. A small place with only 8 beds and epic views of Matera – you’d be lucky to stay here and enjoy the view of the city. Available to book here on Hostel World.
L’Ostello dei Sassi is another option in Matera. This budget hostel has great communal space and cosy bunk beds. Book here on Hostel World.
Mid-range accommodation in Matera
If you’re looking for a mid-ragen option, quaint B&B Antica Mateloa comes in under 100 Euros per night and is highly recommended.
Luxury accommodation in Matera
Matera is spoilt for choice when it comes to luxury accommodation. Saint Angelo Luxury Resort is one such option, a 5* hotel situated in the historic part of town with incredible views over the ravine. Or, if you fancy a super traditional option, then Aquatio Cave Hotel is the one. Be sure to enjoy the spa whilst you are there.
How to get to Matera from Bari
Assuming you don’t have a car and are travelling from Bari, there are two options – coach and train. Coach is faster; train is more fun. We went by train. Whichever your mode of travel, wear stout shoes or boots – definitely not flip-flops. A bit like visiting Petra, make sure your camera phone is well charged – you will be taking many, many pictures.
The bus to Matera
Coach services in Bari run from Via Giuseppe Capruzzi. Coming from the seaward/town side of Bari, go to the main Bari Centrale railway station and take the tunnel on the right-hand side of the terminal building under the platforms, surface to street level, turn left and cross the road. Coach stops for Matera are outside the Dea Café, which sells tickets for the journey.
You can also buy tickets online in advance here.
The train to Matera
Train services to Matera do not run from the large Bari Centrale station, but rather from the Ferrovie Del Sud Est station (“Stazione FSE”) nearby, which has a bright blue entrance. There are ticket machines in the entrance that dispense a single ticket to Matera Centrale. It is about 5 Euro.
Confusingly, the FSE station has platforms on two levels, one a level down, one a level up. The Matera train leaves from the upper platform level. The first train to Matera leaves at 7.50am (but it may show its ultimate destination as Gravina). To make the most of a day in Matera, try and catch this one.
How long does the train take?
The journey takes about one- and three-quarter hours, and the journey is sedate. It starts by executing a slow, nearly 180 degree, turn to get across the main railway tracks. The journey passes through the coastal olive groves to the grass fields on the plateau. The train will stop at Altamura and you may have to cross the platform here to take the train to Matera. Or not. Either way, railway officials will come down the train asking “Matera?” and will direct you accordingly.
Matera Centrale is underground with steps up to the surface. Exiting the electronic gates to leave the station, you may want to double back around the building to buy your return ticket. On exiting the station, locate a nearby newsstand, the Edicola Mazzone, ahead of you; turn right downhill onto a small road, the Via Don Giovanni Minzoni. At the crossroads go straight ahead on to the Via Ascanio Persio.
At the end, turn left onto the Piazza Vittorio Vento. You have arrived at the starting point for your journey. Your first stop should be the Official Tourist Information Office housed in the large building on your left that dominates the square (not the smaller Tourist Information one opposite that looks like a gift shop). Ask them to tear off a town map with the sites and major routes; it will come in handy. Then have that cup of coffee. You will notice all is very tidy and modern, for the photogenic areas are elsewhere…
How to get to Matera from anywhere in Italy
You can get to Matera by bus from pretty much anywhere in Italy. From Taranto and Bari in the South, or from the larger cities of Naples and even Rome.
Bus tickets are available here on Book Away here. It’s easy to book and inexpensive.
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