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Uncovering Matera, Europe's Oldest City

Discover the timeless charm and rich history of Matera, Europe's oldest city. Uncover ancient cave dwellings, vibrant culture, and stunning landscapes.
A view of many stone buildings atop a rocky cliffside at dusk.
View of the Old City from across the gorge. Photo by Emily Fata.

Nestled in the rugged terrain of Basilicata, Italy, lies a city steeped in history—a place where time seems to stand still, and every corner tells a story. Matera is the oldest city not just in Italy but in all of Europe, positioning itself as a UNESCO World Heritage city in addition to being 2019's European Capital of Culture. Fun fact: with over 10,000 years of history, it’s also the third-oldest city in the world, behind Aleppo and Jericho.


It’s no surprise that this was one of the most recommended places I had been told to visit. In this ancient city, millennia-old cave dwellings and labyrinths of cobblestone streets call to travellers like a siren, inviting them to uncover its secrets and immerse themselves in its timeless charm.



Matera: A Living Museum of History


A long suspension bridge across a gorge. On either side are hills of burnt grass with a bit of greenery.
The Tibetan bridge from Matera's Old City to the Sassi across the gorge. Photo by Emily Fata.

Matera's history stretches back thousands of years, with evidence of human habitation dating as far back as the Paleolithic era. Its most iconic feature, the Sassi di Matera (Sassi of Matera), is a complex network of cave dwellings carved into the limestone cliffs, earning Matera the title of “the Underground City.” The Sassi are thought to be some of the earliest human settlements in Italy, having emerged from a troglodyte village in prehistory (with proof that this area was inhabited as early as 7000 BC)!


The Sassi, typical of Basilicata and Apulia, are buildings carved out of the calcarenitic rock itself. In certain areas of the Sassi, streets frequently cross over one another and, on one of the ravine's slopes, the ancient settlement rose where the Gravina River formed. On your way into the city, you can reach the undeveloped side of the Sassi by pulling off the highway into a parking lot and traversing along the paths on foot. You can also walk down into the gorge and cross the Tibetan bridge from the Old City to reach this area, if you prefer.


Here, you’ll find emptied caves that were once inhabited, and you can envision what could have happened within its cool, damp walls. Maybe it was a space to perform ancient magick, or for local women to gather and cook a meal together for their families, or even something as simple as being a place to sleep for the night before heading off and hunting and foraging.


A woman in a short blue dress stands in the mouth of a cave.
A "hello" from a sasso. Photo by Emily Fata.

Either way, people continued to live across the river in the Sassi within the Old City until the 1950s. It was then that the Italian government forcibly transferred the majority of the Sassi to parts of the newly constructed modern city. The English Fodor's guide even stated that “Matera is the only place in the world where people can boast to be still living in the same houses of their ancestors of 9,000 years ago.”


The poor living circumstances were plagued by malaria and severe poverty though, which was viewed as inhumane and an insult to the contemporary young Italian Republic of Alcide De Gasperi. Thus, everyone had to be moved. Now, though, you can visit these cave dwellings—many of which have since been turned into hotels, restaurants, and museums—simply by walking through the old city.


You can wander through these ancient alleyways, all meticulously preserved, and catch a glimpse into the daily lives of Matera's past inhabitants. From the prehistoric cave dwellings of the Paleolithic era to the elegant palazzi of the Renaissance, Matera's architecture tells a rich and varied tale of its storied past.


An old bicycle stacked with flowers stands in front of a ladder. To the left is a green door and prickly pear cactus.
A storefront in Matera's Old City. Photo by Emily Fata.

Cultural Crossroads


Throughout its history, Matera has been a melting pot of cultures, shaped by successive waves of civilizations—from the ancient Greeks and Romans to the Byzantines, Lombards, and Normans. This diverse heritage is reflected in Matera's vibrant cultural scene, where traditional folk music, art, and cuisine come together in a captivating tapestry of flavours and traditions.


When walking through the city, there are so many opportunities to visit its many museums, galleries, and artisan workshops, where local craftsmen continue age-old traditions passed down through generations. From intricate lacework to artisanal ceramics and delicious regional specialties like orecchiette pasta and lucanica sausage, Matera offers a feast for the senses that celebrates its rich cultural heritage. In fact, you’ll find stunning works of art by Italian sculptor Andrea Roggi, depicting human forms intertwined within olive trees across the Old City—try to spot them all!


Architectural Marvels


Matera's architectural beauty is unparalleled, with stunning examples of Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque architecture throughout the city. We stayed in the new part of the city, which—when walking around that immediate area—makes you wonder, Where is all the history? However, the beauty of the Old City will strike suddenly, as quickly as turning a relatively modern corner of a building to walk into a feast of historical beauty.


A woman in a white off-shoulder shirt and blue skirt sitting on a stone wall. The ancient city of Old Town is in the background.
Enjoying sunset in Old Town. Photo by Vittoria Urzetta.

Here in the Old City, you can marvel endlessly at the majestic façades of Matera's churches, including the breathtaking Cathedral of Matera, which boasts a striking blend of Romanesque and Apulian architectural styles. Be sure to explore the ancient rock-hewn churches of the Sassi, adorned with intricate frescoes and Byzantine mosaics that offer a glimpse into Matera's religious heritage. Wander the streets, both up and downhill, weaving throughout the area. As you do so, don't miss the Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario, a meticulously restored cave dwelling that offers a fascinating insight into traditional Materan life.


Plus, take a moment as you meander along the walkways to stop and admire the view beyond the Gravina River, or the city below from one of the high points throughout Matera. You’ll be able to capture the most gorgeous photos!


Culinary Delights


No visit to Matera would be complete without indulging in its world-class cuisine, which reflects the region's rich agricultural heritage and culinary traditions. Sample local delicacies at Matera's many trattorias and osterias, where farm-fresh ingredients and time-honoured recipes come together to create unforgettable dining experiences. Savour the flavours of Basilicata with dishes like caciocavallo podolico cheese, peperone crusco (sun-dried peppers), and aglianico wine, produced from grapes grown in the fertile valleys surrounding Matera.



After spending a length of time exploring on the first evening, we decided to stop for an aperitivo at a patio to watch the sun set over the city. When it got dark, we continued walking around until we reached Sottofondo Gustoteca, a restaurant that lured us in with an incredible menu. Whether you're dining in a charming restaurant tucked away in the Sassi or enjoying a leisurely meal al fresco in the city's historic centre, Matera's culinary scene is sure to delight even the most discerning palate.


All in All


With its rich history, vibrant culture, and stunning natural beauty, Matera is a destination unlike any other. From exploring its ancient cave dwellings and wandering its labyrinth streets to savouring its delicious cuisine and soaking in its breathtaking landscapes, this city offers a wealth of experiences waiting to be discovered.


Whether you're planning a weekend getaway or a longer stay, Matera promises to pull you back into a time long gone by and inspire you at every turn.


 

13 Comments


Julie Ann Shahin
Julie Ann Shahin
13 hours ago

I take it from your tags that this is in Italy? We are planning to travel there within a few years. I'm totally adding this to our list. I love such historical sites, and had no idea that this existed. I love the photo with the bicycle, beautiful place!

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Prajakta Palkar
Prajakta Palkar
5 days ago

I hadn't heard of this city before, and I definitely did not know that this is the oldest city in the world. It will be a very nice place to visit.

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Great Beer Now
Great Beer Now
May 11

I hadn't heard of this city, which is unusual for me because I try to keep up on trivia facts like this! Those photos of the old city look amazing!

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simplysensationalfood
May 10

Matera looks like an amazing city . I love visiting places where you can experience and history .Nayna - simplyfood

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Tameka Heath-Harding
Tameka Heath-Harding
May 09

Wow, what a great lead. Now I have to look into this place as a must see. I love off the beaten track travel locations.

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