Are you traveling to Basilicata and wondering what to see and do in Matera? I’ll help you! Follow me and let me take you on this trip around Matera in Italy.
Before we begin our virtual tour through Matera and its surroundings, it is necessary to make an introduction about this unique city!
Where is Matera in Italy? Matera is located in Basilicata, specifically on the border between Basilicata and Puglia. It is furrowed by the Bradano River, which, in the late 1950s, was dammed up. This led to the formation of an artificial lake, called Lake San Giuliano, which is part of the San Giuliano nature reserve.
Visiting the Sassi di Matera
Matera is known worldwide as the “city of the Sassi”, but… What are the Sassi di Matera? They consist of ancient dwellings carved into the tuff and dating back to prehistoric times – a jewel that has come intact to this day! It is therefore easy to understand what a spectacular place it can be, where walking around the town is like visiting an open-air museum.
The origins of Matera are indeed very ancient, as evidenced by the discovery of several nomadic settlements as far back as the Palaeolithic age. In the Neolithic period, settlements became more stable, so much so that there are clear traces of several villages dating back to that period. With the Metal Age, the first urban nucleus was created, that of today’s Civita, probably of Greek origin.
Today, the Sassi of Matera are recognised as a UNESCO heritage site, yet it was not always so… There was a time, before the 1950s, when the city was referred to as a “national disgrace”, due to the disastrous situation in which the town was plunged. The population lived in very poor conditions. The area was later restored and today it is one of the jewels of Southern Italy…
It has fascinated many writers, such as Giovanni Pascoli, and has been the set of numerous films, such as Pasolini’s The Gospel according to St. Matthew, or Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ!
Now we are ready to begin… I will create an itinerary that will allow you to discover what to see in and around Matera, starting with the city and then talking about the surrounding areas…
I suggest you take a weekend or a longer holiday to enjoy everything at its best! 😍
You will realise during this guide how this city is the perfect place for anyone: from history, nature and art lovers to sports or food and wine enthusiasts. Let’s get going! 👇
What to see in Matera?
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I will now list the most beautiful places and attractions in Matera!
It takes at least two or three hours to see the whole town, but I recommend that you carve out a whole day to enjoy it all. Also, know that the city offers many vantage points from which to observe these beauties, perfect especially if you are a photography lover!
The best time to visit the city is in spring, but you can also choose to enjoy the city during one of the typical festivals I will tell you about later.
SASSO CAVEOSO AND SASSO BARISANO
Carved entirely out of the rock along the hollow of the Gravina, they are two small valleys separated by a promontory, on which stands the original nucleus of the Civita. On the north-western slope is the Sasso Barisano, while on the opposite side is the Sasso Caveoso.
The latter is characterised by the presence of the cave-houses, dwellings entirely excavated in calcarenite… A unique marvel! Moreover, if you walk in this district, you cannot miss the Santa Maria De Idris church. It stands on the highest peak of the district with its typical shape carved into the rock. Inside you will find medieval and 17th century frescoes.
From the cave dwellings, typical of the Sasso Caveoso, in Sasso Barisano the inhabitants have moved on to the tufa houses that characterise this area. Here, the Church of San Pietro Barisano represents one of the largest cave-monastic settlements in the Sassi di Matera… Absolutely a must-see! Please, note that admission is 2 euro per person or 3.50 euro, if a guide is requested.
The Civita of Matera represents the beginning of the urban organisation of the city of the Sassi. It develops in the central area and covers a vast rocky area between the Sasso Caveoso and the Sasso Barisano. On its summit, we find the Matera Cathedral dating back to 1200. It houses inside works of extraordinary importance, such as the nativity scene by Altobello Persio, the fresco of the Madonna della Bruna and the Last Judgement, as well as paintings and sculptures of great value.
Walking along the Civita, you can also admire the marvellous craft workshops, which characterise this place, making it magical.
THE RUPESTRIAN CHURCHES OF MATERA
The rupestrian churches in the Matera area, founded mainly in the early Middle Ages, are buildings carved into the rock. Initially they were religious structures, but over time they underwent several transformations, becoming dwellings or animal shelters.
Those rupestrian churches are widespread in the Sassi of Matera and in the Murgia highland plateau. A total of 155 have been ascertained to date, but not all of them are easily accessible. Among the most beautiful are the Crypt of the Original Sin, the Convicinio di Sant’Antonio complex, the rupestrian complex of Madonna delle Virtù and San Nicola dei Greci.
If you are traveling near Matera, you cannot miss these wonderful sites!
PIAZZA VITTORIO VENETO AND THE PALOMBARO LUNGO
Piazza Vittorio Veneto is considered the centre of the city, a place for meeting and strolling, often criss-crossed by markets and invaded by portrait painters in a generally cheerful atmosphere. It is overlooked by the historic Palazzo dell’Annunziata and the Church of San Domenico, with the adjoining Convent of the Preaching Fathers.
From here you can visit the Palombaro Lungo, an imposing cistern for collecting water located under Piazza Vittorio Veneto. It is an artificial excavation built in several stages from the 16th century onwards and has a capacity of five million litres of water! It was first explored in 1991 and today it is possible to visit this masterpiece thanks to easy walkways suspended over the water.
The castle was built by Count Giovanni Carlo Tramontano. He began the construction of the castle on a hill near the old town, from which he could easily defend himself and attack. But the work was never completed due to the death of the Count, who was killed during a popular uprising at the end of December 1514. Today it stands in Aragonese style, with a central keep and two lower side towers.
This palace is the most important monument representing the 17th–century period in Matera. It was built between 1668 and 1672 at the request of archbishop Vincenzo Lanfranchi to house the diocesan seminary. After the Unification of Italy, Palazzo Lanfranchi housed the Emanuele Duni state high school, where Pascoli also taught from 1882 to 1884. Since 6 May 2003, it has become home to the National Museum of Medieval and Modern Art of Basilicata. I recommend that you take the time to visit this wonderful museum!
CHURCH OF SAINT FRANCIS OF ASSISI
It is in a magnificent Baroque style, located in the central Piazza San Francesco. The name goes back to a visit to the church by St Francis of Assisi in 1218. The first nucleus of the church was an ancient underground church dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul. Today it can be visited by accessing it through a trapdoor from a chapel and contains a fresco depicting the 1093 visit to Matera by Pope Urban II.
It is a church that I highly recommend you visit, if you are near Matera!
IL PIANO DISTRICT
Constituting the Baroque and 19th century part of the town, several churches and palaces can be found here. The Ridola Museum, established in 1911 at the behest of Senator Domenico Ridola, can be found here. He was a great lover of archaeology and carried out numerous excavations throughout the territory of Matera and the Murgia, donating his important archaeological collections to the State, which are still housed in the museum today!
BELVEDERE OF PIAZZETTA PASCOLI
As I told you at the beginning of this article, Matera offers its visitors marvellous views to be admired in all its splendour. In Piazzetta Pascoli we find one of the most panoramic views of the entire city… Here we have an amazing view between the two districts, perfect to observe from above all the particularities of this wonderful city!
THE TIBETAN BRIDGE
If you are looking for breathtaking views, but at the same time for a fun and adrenaline-pumping activity in the middle of nature, this is definitely the bridge for you!
The Tibetan Bridge was built in 2015 to join the Sassi di Matera side with the Murgia side. The bridge is 22 metres long. Once crossed, you can continue the path up the Murgia slope to the Belvedere di Murgia Timone, where there are rupestrian churches and natural caves to visit.
What to see around Matera
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Having talked about everything you can see in the city, I will now help you understand what to see around Matera. Here you can dedicate yourself to visiting fantastic villages, practising sports activities, or you can visit museums and churches or enjoy food and wine tastings and guided tours.
In addition, there are a variety of activities suitable for children, such as horseback riding or cycling or in the San Giuliano oasis.
GRAVINA DI MATERA
If you love trekking, I have here a very nice place to recommend you! Ravines are canyon-like erosive incisions, typical karst morphologies of the Murgia. In the territory of Matera there are two streams that flow at the bottom of ravines: the Gravina di Matera, which has its source in the reclaimed water reservoirs in Pantano, north of the city of Matera and runs along the Sassi di Matera, and the Gravina di Picciano, which has its source in the territory of Gravina in Puglia.
PARK OF THE MURGIA MATERANA
This park is a protected natural area, characterised by the presence of about 150 rupestrian churches scattered along the Murgia and the Ravines. Moreover, there are 923 animal species, among which about a hundred are rare and very rare… In short, it is a real treasure chest of wonders!
It is a wonderful village where you will find four monastic complexes, among which the Abbey of San Michele Arcangelo stands out.
Moreover, in an absolutely delightful place surrounded by nature, there is the sanctuary of the Madonna della Murgia, which is the most important church of Montescaglioso’s rock heritage… Visiting this sanctuary will give you the sensation of being taken back in time: it is an experience not to be missed if you are travelling around Matera!
LAKE SAN GIULIANO
I mentioned it at the beginning of the article… Lake San Giuliano is an important nature reserve in Basilicata. In 1989 the WWF Italy obtained a concession for the area and thus an oasis was created… Furthermore, since 1991 the part of the Bradano ravine has been part of the Murgia Materana Park and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I highly recommend visiting this wonderful oasis, even with children… It is an exciting activity suitable for all ages!
📚 If you want to know more about the lakes in the region, read the article on the Lakes of Basilicata
Its name comes from the Greek, meaning “beyond the sea.” In fact, it was founded by the Greeks and soon became one of the most important cities of Magna Graecia.
Today it is one of the most beautiful and well-known seaside resorts on the Ionian coast of Lucania. It offers wonderful bathing facilities with many services such as hotels, campsites and tourist villages serving the beaches. Here we also find the Metaponto nature reserve, an amazing place where numerous animal species live and a varied and luxuriant flora grows.
It is known for the events linked to the Malconsiglio Castle, where the Conspiracy of the Barons against King Ferdinand I of Naples took place. It was a plot hatched as a reaction to the Aragonese, who had taken the throne of the Kingdom of Naples.
Miglionico is located in the Bradano valley and stands on a hill between the Bradano and Basento rivers. In its territory there is the San Giuliano regional reserve. The castle of Miglionico dates back to the 8th-9th century and is the symbol of the town… I recommend you visit it!
Altamura is a municipality in the province of Bari in Apulia. It is known, on the one hand, for its delicacies such as the Altamura bread PDO or the Altamura lentil PGI, and, on the other hand, also for the discovery in 1993 of a Homo Neanderthalensis skeleton in a cave, along with other fossil remains of other animals.
In addition, footprints imprinted by dinosaurs that lived around 80 million years ago were found in a cave. Due to the presence of these two sites, the Murgia di Altamura was nominated for the UNESCO “proposal list” in 2006, but without success. If you find yourself visiting this area, I recommend you also take a look at the cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta!
Staying in Apulia, we go to Alberobello, part of the Itria Valley and the Murgia dei Trulli. It is famous for its characteristic trulli, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.
The district of Rione Monti, with about a thousand cones, is the largest and most famous trulli district, located on the southern side of the city… In my opinion, it is one of the most characteristic places in the entire region, it is really worth it!
Returning near Matera, we find Aliano, known for being the setting for the novel “Christ Stopped at Eboli”. The village is called “Gagliano”, in imitation of the local pronunciation, in the book by the writer Carlo Levi, who spent part of his period of exile there and was later buried there.
Aliano is also affiliated with the National Association of Olive Oil Cities. Its surrounding area is characterised by the typical landscape of the calanchi: deep furrows in the ground along the side of a mountain or hill, which make the landscape unique!
GRAVINA IN PUGLIA
It is a municipality characterised by the fact that part of the city extends on the banks of a deep crevasse carved into the limestone by a small river, the Gravina torrent, which I mentioned earlier… In this area, with its numerous karstic cavities, there are several beautiful and characteristic churches.
And gastronomy also plays a very important role. In fact, there are many Slow Food-certified products here, such as the legendary Gravina Pallone!
Suspended over the Ionian Sea in the province of Matera, Pisticci dominates a hill supported by gullies. It is S-shaped and appears as a sort of natural amphitheatre. That’s why it is called the “balcony on the Ionian Sea” or the “amphitheatre on the Ionian Sea”.
Here you will find a perfect example of the Mediterranean landscape. You can stay in one of the small white houses in the old town centre and walk through the typical narrow streets that give off all the essence of the place! I also recommend a walk along the arches of the Terravecchia district. These arches take the form of a true city wall, which succeeds in harmonising the large difference in height between the Terravecchia district and the Dirupo district, created after the severe landslide of 1688.
One of Puglia’s brightest pearls is certainly Taranto, a city that overlooks the Gulf of the Sirens and straddles the Mar Grande and Mar Piccolo. For this reason, it is known as the “City of the Two Seas”. Taranto is characterised by a spectacular seafront promenade and wonderful beaches at any time of day… The ideal destination for a romantic outing.
A characteristic place in the city is the Gulf of Taranto… Well worth a visit! In addition, the old town is an enchanting place that will leave you breathless with its Aragonese Castle or the Underground Taranto.
The history of this town dates back to the end of the 3rd century BC, when the city of Metapontum was sacked and destroyed by the Romans. Part of its inhabitants, in order to escape the devastation, moved to a hill, where the town of Camarda was founded.
The name Bernalda, instead, dates back to 1497, when it was decided to move the village of Camarda to the area of the Castle, built in the 4th century by the Romans… The castle can still be visited today and I suggest you carve out a few hours to see it!
Bernalda is also the hometown of the family of a well-known American director, Francis Ford Coppola, who directed Apocalypse Now and The Godfather trilogy.
THE LUCANIAN DOLOMITES
The Lucanian Dolomites form the heart of the regional nature park called “The Little Lucanian Dolomites.” They are called “Dolomites” because of their resemblance to the real Dolomites. This park consists of the municipalities of Castelmezzano, Pietrapertosa, Accettura, Calciano and Oliveto Lucano.
Noteworthy is Castelmezzano, which has preserved its original medieval urban layout. We find here, in fact, many houses perched in a rocky basin according to the ancient form of terracing. This town, together with Pietrapertosa, is part of the most beautiful villages in Italy.
They both deserve a visit, particularly for their unique architecture, made entirely in the rock!
In 1963, following a serious landslide, the town began to suffer depopulation… By the early 1980s, Craco could be considered a real ghost town.
As terrible as it was, this phenomenon contributed to making the town of Craco a very special place, which became a tourist destination, but also a coveted film set. Indeed, several films were shot here, such as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and Francesco Rosi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli.
The Vulture Melfese area is located in the northern part of Basilicata, dominated by the now extinct Vulture volcano. Here we find two jewels: Melfi and Venosa, where you can retrace much of Lucanian history from prehistoric times to the heyday of the Normans.
Situated on the slopes of Mount Vulture, we find Rionero in Vulture, a wonderful town with the Palazzo Fortunato or the Monticchio Lago Piccolo. Then we also find Barile, a town of Greek-Albanian origin, which preserves their cults and traditions. It is also considered one of the cities of olive oil and wine. In the Vulture area, you can also visit the castles of Frederick II. In particular in the Avigliano area, we find the Lagopesole Castle, one of the most beautiful!
This is also, of course, the land of Aglianico del Vulture wine… So, for all these reasons, it is absolutely worth a visit!
You should know that there are many beautiful beaches around Matera. Here are some of them: Lido di Metaponto, Nova Siri Marina, Marina di Pisticci and the Bosco Pantano beach. I recommend you drop in or spend a day or more there, as they are the ideal place for a swim in the midst of nature!
10 things to see in and around Matera
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I now bring you the 10 best things to see in and around Matera, in case you have little time to visit this wonderful corner of Southern Italy.
- The Church of Santa Maria De Idris
- The Civita with its craft shops
- The rupestrian churches
- The belvedere of Piazzetta Pascoli
- The Tibetan bridge
- Gravina of Matera
- The Lucanian Dolomites
What to do in and around Matera
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After talking about what to see in and around Matera, let’s now move on to the activities you can enjoy during your stay. 👇😎
MATERA FOOD AND WINE
The local cuisine is characterised by being simple and authentic, made up of poor dishes that stem from the peasant tradition.
Among the best-known typical dishes are broad beans with chicory, Ferrandina olives (they are a Slow Food presidium), different types of fresh pasta such as maccheroni, cavatelli, fusilli lucani, tagliolini and the typical orecchiette, to be served with turnip tops or ragu sauce.
We then continue with Lucanian pistachios, Matera bread PGI and excellent wines such as Aglianico del Vulture and Matera DOC wines.
TOP EVENTS AROUND MATERA
Notable events include the feast of the Madonna della Bruna (2 July), when a procession of horsemen parade together with a large float in honour of Matera’s patron saint.
We then find the feast of Sant’Eustachio (20 September). Together with the Madonna della Bruna, this is the town’s other patron saint and became such after saving the population from the Saracen invasion.
September sees the Women’s Fiction Festival, with an all-female writing festival. Finally, at Christmas between 8 December and 8 January, the Nativity scene exhibition takes place.
Getting to and around Matera in Italy
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As a last thing, I will explain how to get to Matera and how to get around within the city. The nearest airport is Bari Palese, 50 km from Matera.
Alternatively, you can also reach Matera by train or car. Once you arrive, it will be easy for you to get around as the city is small and easily walkable. Alternatively, you can use the public transportation provided by the municipality.
My guide ends here! I hope I have provided you with all the information you need to understand what to see in and around Matera… I would like to remind you that Italia Delight allows you to book tailor-made food and wine experiences and trips all over Italy, directly with the best Food Experts who live in the local destinations. Do not hesitate to contact us!
At this point, it only remains for me to wish you a happy trip to Basilicata! 😉