Matera city guide: Where to eat, drink, shop and stay in Italy’s European Capital of Culture 2019

Zara Sekhavati

Matera is the world’s third-longest continuously inhabited human settlement and the 2019 European Capital of Culture.

The city is known for its winding sassi, caves and grottoes carved out of limestone, which have given Matera an ethereal Holy Land look. So much so that the city has been used as the setting for Biblical scenes on screen, notably The Passion of the Christ, released 15 years ago.

What to do

Catch some culture

Matera is one of two European Capitals of Culture for 2019, alongside Plovdiv in Bulgaria. There are events happening throughout the year, including gospel choir, jazz and opera performances, poetry readings and dressmaking workshops. Check out if there’s anything scheduled during a visit on the website: matera-basilicata2019.it. Most of the events throughout the year can be accessed by buying a Matera 2019 Passport for just €19.

Matera has events throughout the year for its stint as European Capital of Culture (matera-basilicata2019.it)

See what life was like

Located just off Via Buozzi, the historic sasso Casa-Grotta di Vico Solitario provides visitors with fascinating insight into life in old Matera. The historic site is filled with furniture, artefacts, tools and a room which was once used for livestock. Entrance €3.

Explore the churches of the Sasso Barisano district

Check out the holy sites of Sasso Barisano, including the Chiesa di Madonna delle Virtù and Chiesa di San Nicola del Greci (0039 0835 319825), a monastic complex comprised of dozens of caves that cover two floors. Chiesa di Madonna delle Virtù was constructed around the 10th century and later restored in the 17th century. Above the church is Chiesa di San Nicola del Greci, which was once used by Benedictine monks originating from Palestine. Give yourself time to marvel at the intricate frescoes on the walls.

Matera is home to numerous sassi, cave dwellings carved out of limestone (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Discover a crypt of frescoes

Book a tour to see the Cripta del Peccato Origniale, the Crypt of Original Sin, an impressive Benedictine site from the Lombard period around 7km south of Matera. Its eighth-century frescoes show vivid scenes from the Old and New Testaments. It is the oldest evidence of rock art in the south of Italy – a must-see for this region.

Where to stay

In Sasso Caveoso, one of the most fascinating parts of Matera, La Dolce Vita B&B sits between the rupestrian churches of Madonna dell’Idris and Santa Lucia alle Malve. This eco-friendly joint offers a terrace for panoramic views. Doubles from €80 B&B.

Hotel in Pietra is a trendy boutique close to the Sasso Barisano district. Set in a former 13th-century rupestrian chapel, the hotel has incredible interiors, with towering arches, golden stone and rooms carved into the cave. The atmosphere is cosy with low beds and sunken tubs in the bathrooms. A short walk from Sasso Caveoso, it’s a great starting point for exploring. Doubles from €85 room only.

Hotel in Pietra offers boutique digs (Hotel in Pietra)

For a friendly hostel stay in Matera, The Rock Hostel is hard to beat. Situated in a restored farmhouse made of limestone rock, it provides a pleasant setting, kitchen and soundproof rooms. Dorm beds from €20.

Where to eat

For a dose of Lucanian cuisine, try L’Arbbondanza Lucana (0039 0835 334574). Start with tempting local cheese and cold meats, followed by pasta with mushrooms and pistachio cream. Wild boar with herbs and ricotta and amoretti mousse are also dishes not to missed. Diners can sit inside and enjoy the restaurant’s rustic cave interior or spend an evening on the outdoor terrace.

In the central location of Piazza Vittorio Veneto lies Ristorante Il Cantuccio (0039 0835 185 4337), a simple and old-fashioned trattoria with warm and welcoming staff. Select from a wide variety of local cheese and salami and bite into cruschi, fried sun-dried peppers from Senise, a nearby town in the Basilicata region.

Sundried peppers are a local speciality (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Owned by husband and wife team Leonardo de Angelis and Valeria Vizziello, who moved to southern Italy to open up their own gelateria, i Vizi degli Angeli Laboratorio di Gelateria Artigianale is fantastic for dessert. It makes its own organic ice cream and sorbets every morning, in a range of seasonal flavours. Think milk and lavender for summer and mascarpone and marron glacé in the colder months.

Where to drink

Drenched in white paint, L’Arturo Enogastronomia is a trendy little spot for a local glass of wine in the evening. It's a deli too, so the staff can make you an accompanying artisan sandwich to go with your vino. Just a few metres away, L’Artura also runs its own B&B with a range of rooms.

If you’re looking for a more upbeat setting, head to Shibuya (0039 0835 185 4447). By day it’s a quirky CD shop and cafe, and by night it hosts regular DJs. There are a number of tables outside located at the top of an old alley – a picturesque spot for a late-night drink.

Birrificio 79 is the city's coolest microbrewery (Birrificio 79)

Brew dogs should head to Birrificio 79 (0039 328 358 7369), an artisan microbrewery in the centre of Matera. It serves its own beers brewed using local ingredients, as well as prosecco, cocktails and non-alcoholic drinks.

Where to shop

The Elisa and Janna boutique is a special shopping experience. It's owned by an Italian artist and Swedish gemologist who mix impressive stones with materials such as electrical wire to make standout pieces.

Geppetto (0039 0835 331857) is an artisan craft shop that specialises in cucù, a colourful ceramic whistle traditionally shaped as a cuckoo. They symbolise good luck and fertility and make for offbeat souvenirs.

Swing by a traditional market (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The Central Market in Matera is great for a wander on the weekend. Sample delicious cheese, salty cold cuts, fresh fruit and vegetables and delicate seafood. Some stalls are dotted around in the Piazza Ascanio Persio, an open-air meeting spot with glistening copper roofs. There’s an irresistible atmosphere, with vendors shouting out prices while older locals stop for a gossip.

Architectural highlight

The duomo in Matera rises high against the iconic sassi and has recently been renovated. Enjoy the impressive baroque interior, look up to the wonderful gilded ceiling and marvel at the exterior of this 13th-century Puglian-Romanesque cathedral.

Don't miss the city's refurbished cathedral (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Nuts and bolts

What currency do I need?

Euros.

What language do they speak?

Italian.

Should I tip?

Service is usually included. If not, tip 10 per cent.

What’s the time difference?

Italy is one hour ahead of the UK.

What’s the average flight time from the UK?

Just under three hours to Bari; then a 90-minute train to Matera.

Public transport

Car access in Matera is limited; it’s best to walk within the city. However, to explore beyond Matera, renting a car is a good option, as buses don’t run very frequently.

Best view

Head to Belvedere, where you can catch views of the winding sassi. This area was the setting for the crucifixion scene in The Passion of the Christ.

Insider tip

The Festa della Bruna takes place on 2nd July every year for a week in honour of the patron saint, Madonna della Bruna. There are market stalls, processions, fireworks and live music across the town – it’s a great time to visit.