Hey there, and thanks for stopping by! Some days, you just have to get in the car and take a road trip, right?! This particular week the hubby did not have practice or basketball games, so I packed us in the car and told my family that we had to visit the cave town of Sassi di Matera, Italy. Living in Europe sure has its perks!
A Complete Guide on How to Visit the Cave Town of Sassi di Matera Italy
What is Sassi di Matera
So, what the heck is “Sassi di Matera?” Well, in Italian, “Sassi” means stones. Basically, it translates to stones of Matera. Why stones? Well, this area was first inhabited by cave dwellers who literally dug into the cliff of stones and created their homes. This is the very first human settlement in Italian history, dating back over 7000 years. No, it really is the first group of humans to live in Italy, and you can walk in their footsteps!
Where to Stay in Matera, Italy
First things first – where to stay. If you follow us, you know that I am always looking for a few things when booking hotels or apartments – parking, kitchen, WiFi, and walking distance to where I want to go. Here are a couple of unique things that you really want to think about when picking a hotel in Matera.
The ancient part of Matera, where all the old cave houses and ancient homes are, has one road that is able to be driven on. It makes a big circle from the top of the ravine to the bottom of the town and around. Everything in between has to be walked to via cobblestone steps. It is hard to reach anything in the UNESCO area except by foot… including hotels.
That being said, doesn’t everyone want to stay in an authentic cave dwelling and smack dab in the center of a World UNESCO Site?! If so, my pick for you is Residence San Pietro!
This place literally ROCKS, hee hee. It is built into a rock, and it is as authentic as you can get. It has parking, a kitchen, and WiFi. It is clean and cool in every sense; remember, it’s a cave and an amazing experience. They have a range of apartment sizes to meet your needs. Breakfast is included; they have a restaurant on site, and they have no problem if you bring your furry friends along, too! It is totally worth the hike for this once-in-a-lifetime stay! (See the photo below.) You can compare prices of hotels here.
Okay, now that we have dropped off our bags, let’s visit the cave town of Sassi di Matera, Italy NOW!
History of Matera Italy
The ancient town came about as the cave dwellers dug into the hill above the river below. The ravine, “la gravina”, used to be a grand and lively river full of fish which attracted wild animals, hunters, and gatherers to its banks. Now, it is only a small stream that you see below the town, but you can see how it has carved the valley over thousands of years.
Except for Petra (Jordan), Matera is the oldest settlement in history that has been continuously inhabited from settlement until today! In fact, Matera, Italy, is the only place in the world where people can say they are actually living in the houses of their 7000-year-old ancestors.
In the 1920’s and 30’s, Mussolini exiled his political opponents to this isolated corner of Italy because it was not a wonderful place to live. In fact, Matera was a slum and in an area of horrible poverty. Many of the homes built into the cliffs should have been deemed uninhabitable.
The Cave Dwellings of Matera
A typical cave dwelling would have a dirt floor, a place to cook, one bed for the entire family, and an area for the family donkey. Sewage, living with animals, and poor ventilation caused widespread decay and malaria.
In the 50’s and early 60’s, the remaining cave dwellers were removed from their homes and forced to relocate to cleaner, newer apartments out of the ancient Sassi area. The area became forgotten and abandoned, crumbling into despair.
Then, in the 80’s, the EU started putting money into Southern Italy to restore some of its historical sights. Money meant the ancient homes could be refurbished and roads and utilities could be updated. People moved back to their ancient roots and started to refurbish their properties.
In 1993, UNESCO named the area a World Heritage Site, and the once slums started turning into an incredible tourist destination.
In 2003, Mel Gibson sealed the proverbial deal for Sassi di Matera when he decided to film The Passion of Christ here. If you have seen the film you will recognize many sights as you wander the cobblestone streets.
One sight you should stop to see is the San Nicola dei Greci church where the scene for the Last Supper was filmed.
Matera has over 150 churches, and it’s a gorgeous town to wander through. You can feel the history as you wander. There are some great tours that have locals taking you through the streets and telling you the amazing stories of Matera. My recommendation is the Matera walking tour, it literally ROCKS!
You can find all the tours of Matera and compare prices here
Visit Matera Italy Now
By 2015, tourists began to hear of the town; even publications such as The New Yorker and Smithsonian had Matera on its radar.
In 2019, the city is the designated European capital of culture. Matera will hold this recognition for one year and is preparing for the distinction and celebration as we speak!
Today, it is a chic, authentic, and inviting destination that appeals to history buffs, jet setters, and even family travelers. However, it is still relatively unknown and unspoiled (meaning, you should visit Matera, Italy, now!)
We loved it, and just know that you will, too.
What else can we help you with in Matera?
Getting there – The nearest airport is Bari, which you can fly into from multiple places in Europe. To compare flights and prices into Bari, check JetRadar for hot tickets, specials, and the best prices in Europe.
You can also fly into Rome, or another city, and drive down; it is a beautiful drive and a good way to see a lot of Italy. You can compare price of the best car rentals here.
The city map and app of Matera
There is a local city map, and you can download it here – map of Matera, Italy. The app for Matera is here; it is a free guide to the city. We have used it, and while it is not as complete as a tour, it is helpful and good for those who like to do it themselves. Remember, they are still learning this whole tourism thing!
Just outside of the UNESCO Site is Trattoria Lucana. Their claim to fame is that it was Mel Gibson’s favorite restaurant. There are photos of him on the wall, too! The key to knowing the food is good is if the restaurant is full of locals, which it was! We ate there, and the food is great, the espresso is strong, and the desserts are sweet and creamy. We walked in really late and were lucky to get a table; at the end of dinner, the waiter brought us a slew of desserts so the boys could try everything on the menu! The service was top notch and we would for sure return here!
Language – You will be hard-pressed to find people who speak English. With that being said, brush up on your Italian with an Italian language course! We are able to communicate in seven languages after using the Pimsleur language programs. They are easy to understand, great for traveling conversations, and totally refundable if you are not satisfied with the program!
Have we left anything out on why you should visit the cave town of Sassi di Matera, Italy? Anything else that you want to know? If so, drop me question in the comments. I would love to hear from you!