What are the top things to see in Matera? First things first… Matera was on my travel dream list since very long. I finally managed to visit it and I must say it is a unique, magical city.
Matera basically lies on two separate Sassi (Rocks), two hills riddled with caves. For 10.000 years, people lived in these caves. Matera is in fact the third most ancient city in the world, after Jericho and Aleppo.
The two Sassi are called Barisano and Caveoso. Other than these two Rocks, there is a a third part, located in the highest point, called Civita (from the Latin civitas, meaning city). The Civita was once the only true city, while the Sassi were outside the city walls. Nowadays, the majority of the Sassi are used as hotels, restaurants and shops for tourists.
Matera is a succession of stairs going up and down, very slippery. So, please, follow my advice and choose comfy shoes, with non slippery soles. The daughter of the couple staying in the room next to mine broke her ankle the day before we arrived. I saw her with the cast. She was so sad to waste the last day of vacation, poor thing.
Matteo and I explored the city, and took a lot of pictures. But we didn’t visit all the museums and landmarks, just the ones that inspired us the most. We didn’t visit the Palombaro Lungo, Matera’s largest water cistern, excavated under the central Piazza Vittorio Veneto. I was afraid for my already “put to the test” ankle.
Top things to see in Matera
They’re quite suggestive. In Matera’s center you can visit three of them: Santa Maria De Idris, Santa Lucia alle Malve e San Pietro Barisano. No photos allowed, so you’ll have to see for yourselves.
Santa Lucia alle Malve
Santa Lucia alle Malve (mallows, very common in this area) was the first female monastic settlement of the Benedictine Order, dating back to the VIII century. And used until 1280s. The frescoes date back to the XI-XVII century.
Santa Maria De Idris
Not far from Santa Lucia is Santa Maria De Idris, which is extremely evocative, since it is located on top of a limestone cliff, the Monterrone. You can’t miss it, it is very peculiar.
San Pietro Barisano
Since there’s a convenient ticket that includes 3 churches we also visited the third one, located in the sasso Barisano, opposite to the Caveoso. But I admit, after the other two, it was less impressive.
Other Churches – top things to see in Matera
San Pietro Caveoso
The name creates confusion, since the previous church I quoted is San Pietro Barisano. Well, first of all San Pietro Caveoso is not a rocky church. It ia a baroque church. Second, the name Caveoso suggests its location, in the Sasso Caveoso area, very close to Santa Maria De Idris. While the interior wasn’t that special, the setting was breathtaking. Just below the Monterrone cliff, on the edge of the ravine.
The cathedral is located in the highest point of the city. In Romanesque style, it dates back to 1200s. Notable in the interior are the Last Judgement, the Madonna della Bruna, protector of Matera, and the nativity scene dating back to 1500s.
Purgatory Church (Chiesa del Purgatorio)
Built in the 18th century, it is very quaint because the facade is full of skulls. And skeletons, too. It is in fact dedicated to the souls in purgatory. I sadly found it always closed and couldn’t see the colorful interior.
San Giovanni Battista
San Giovanni Battista was my husband’s favourite church in Matera. Located in a small piazza with an overlooking café, we loved it for the mix of different styles (romanesque, arabic, gothic), the adorned portal, the capitals with vegetal and animal figures.
San Francesco is a baroque church with an extremely elegant facade. It was built on an underground church dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul. The underground church can still be visited through a trapdoor.
Top things to see in Matera: Other stuff
Casa Grotta di Casalnuovo
It was the first thing we visited, located in the Sasso Caveoso. A typical Sassi dwelling is here reconstructed. So that you are able to understand how people of Matera used to live. The visit is quick but I think is important to get an idea of what a Sasso home looked like.
I warmly suggest you to visit this peculiar museum if you’re interested in modern sculpture. The works are quite interesting. Plus, the setting is unique. They used some caves for the permanent exhibitions. And it’s extremely suggestive. Sadly, photos were not allowed so I have nothing to show you and you only have to trust my word.
Piazza del Sedile
Piazza del Sedile was once Matera’s market square, surrounded by shops, warehouses and taverns. In the 16th century it became the seat of the Governor’s offices, with prison and town hall, the so called sedile (seat). It now hosts the Conservatory’s Auditorium.
It is the seat of the medieval and modern art museum. We had not the time to visit it, but the palace is really nice!
Panoramic points – top things to see in Matera
At every corner there’s a panoramic point in Matera! In fact, the best part of visiting this city is to explore at a slow pace, going up and down the many stairs, stopping here and there to take pictures. Because breathtaking views are around every corner. The most famous panoramic points are:
1. The one in front of the Cathedral facade
It allows you to see the Sasso Barisano.
2. Belvedere Luigi Guerricchio
It is past the arcades in Piazza Vittorio Veneto. From here you see the Duomo.
3. Piazzetta Pascoli
On the left of Lanfranchi Palace (Museum of Medieval and Modern Art). From here you can see the Sasso Caveoso. The small peak in front of you is the Monterrone.
All beautiful. But in my opinion the best were two less acclaimed spots:
The view from the Agostini church parvis
You may remember it from my Facebook photo.
The terrace along via Santa Cesarea.
Coming from Piazzetta San Biagio, you will see a fountain on the left and some stairs on the right. Take the stairs and there is the panoramic view, next to the top of the San Pietro Barisano belltower.
Honorable mention to:
Belvedere di Murgia Timone.
10 minutes by car from Matera, it is absolutely worth a stop to see the whole city in front of you, surrounded by the Murgia Park, where you can also spot some rock caves.
Where to eat in Matera
Il Rusticone: focaccia, pizza and other bread-based stuff. Everything was delicious and the owner was a lovely, kind girl. I loved the blackboard full of messages from the customers. And the phone chargers!
Zio Ninì: panino buonissimo and also a fresh cialledda, which is a local dish made of bread, onion, tomatoes, basil and a local type of cucumber (we don’t have it in Padua and I have never heard of it before).
About the bread, it was Matera’s pgi bread, a very quaint bread. Its long leavening grants it to last more than 15 days. And it is highly digestible. If you want to learn more about Italian pgi, dop and doc food go to: What does dop mean?
Right in front of it, there’s a good gelateria, Cremes Bureau.
Stano is a simple trattoria, where also the locals go, with genuine local dishes and a friendly atmosphere. Located just outside the Sasso Barisano.
Abbondanza Lucana is located in the Sasso Caveoso area, this restaurant is quite famous among Italian celebrities. The name means Basilicata Abundance (Lucania is another name for Basilicata). But the fact is that Abbondanza is the actual surname of the owner. Local food like at Stano, but more refined atmosphere.
Where to sleep in Matera
I was utterly happy of my choice regarding the accommodation, since the BB, called Hoplites, is located inside the city center, but at the border with the modern part. So that we could park in the modern part and reach the BB by foot in 5 minutes. I can assure you, in a city with lots of narrow and slick stone staircases, being able to carry your bags just 5 minutes is an incredible plus.
The warmth of Simona and her family is incredible. She explained us where to grab a quick bite for lunch, what to visit pointing everything out on the city map, and she even escorted us to the restaurant she recommended for dinner, cause the owner’s son was at school with her when they were kids. And she showed us the view from her terrace.
But the best part was to sleep in side a cave. The ceiling of the bathroom was very high, carved in the stone and it is really impressive. Moreover, it was one of the quietest places where I have ever slept in my life. Everything was perfect (and I’m very fussy!) but one thing: the light coming from an aperture towards the exterior, without tent or shade. But I know that it’s not a problem for many foreigners. (Whereas I’m used to sleep in deep dark).
Last tip: Matera must be slowly explored. It is nice to walk around and about the Sassi, admiring by the many charming corners, elegant baroque architectures and superb views.