Matera is essentially divided into three districts. At the top of the ridge is the center of the modern town, or Civita, where the Duomo stands amid squares and palaces. Below spread the Sassi (literally, “stones”), the cliff-hugging districts of cave dwellings. Sasso Barisano is to the north and Sasso Caveoso to the south, though the lanes and alleyways of one meander into the lanes and alleyways of the other.

The best way to appreciate the Sassi is to plunge in and wander, following one of the well-marked stone staircases off Via Duomo in the Civita. At the foot of the cliff in each sasso is one street with a cluster of shops and cafes—in Sasso Barisano, Via dei Fiorentino; and in Sasso Caveoso, Via Bruno Buozzi. No need to rush down to these, though. Along the way are wonky staircases, blind alleys, crumbling stone courtyards with a profusion of greenery, and many remarkable vistas.

Trying to find a specific address in the Sassi can be challenging, but a few sights are worth seeking out. The Casa-Grotta di Vico Solitario ★, off Via Bruno Buozzi in Sasso Caveoso (www.casagrotta.it; tel. 0835/310118), re-creates a dwelling from the 1950s, when the government cleared out the Sassi and moved 20,000 residents to new quarters in modern Matera. The crude authentic furnishings include a ridiculously high bed that kept occupants well off the frigid stone floor and provided storage space beneath. It’s not as filthy as it must have been when residents shared the space with pigs and donkeys, but accompanying film footage captures the district’s former squalor. The house is usually open daily 9:30am to 9pm; admission is 3€. Also in Sasso Caveoso is another relic of the district’s past: the ancient underground passages of La Racolte delle Acque ★ (www.laraccoltadelleacquematera.it; tel. 0340/6659107; enter at Via Bruno Buozzi 67), which carried the city’s often-unhealthy water supply, channeling rainwater collected from streets and roofs into deep cisterns. They are open daily, April through October, 9:30am–1pm and 2–7pm (Nov–Mar mornings only); admission is 3€.

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One of Matera’s best-preserved rock church complexes, Madonna delle Virtù e San Nicola dei Greci ★★, is in Sasso Barisano on Via Madonna delle Virtù (tel. 377/444-8885). A maze of 10th- and 11th-century frescoed chapels and living quarters, it held a community of nuns on one level and monks on another; at one point the low-slung caverns open to an almost majestic apse with a domed ceiling. The complex is open daily, June through September 10am–8pm; October, April, and May 10am–1:30pm and 3–6pm; and November through March 10am–1:30pm; admission is 5€.

Some of the best views of the Sassi are from the Parco della Murgia Materana ★ (www.parcomurgia.it), along the gorge of the Gravina River just below town. High ground affords sweeping views, while the ravines are riddled with caves that have been used as churches, stables, and shepherds’ shelters. Enter the park off Via Madonna delle Virtù.

Cave Art

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The Palazzo Pomarici is a wonder in itself, a 16th-century palace with frescoed salons and—since it sits in the middle of the Sassi—many cave rooms. Today it’s the evocative setting of the Museum of Contemporary Sculpture Matera (MUSMA), displaying works by an international roster of artists. The museum is in Sasso Caveoso on Via San Giacomo (www.musma.it; tel. 0835/330582; admission 5€; open daily Apr–Sept 10am–2pm and 4–8pm; Oct and late Mar 10am–6pm; Nov–mid-Mar 10am–2pm). Meanwhile, in the Civita on Piazzetta Giovanni Pascoli, the Museo Nazionale d'Arte Medievale e Moderna della Basilicata (www.visitmatera.it/palazzo-lanfranchi.html; tel. 0835/256-2540) displays, among various paintings and religious objects, colorful paintings by artist and political activist Carlo Levi (1902–1975), who was exiled to this region in the 1930s for his anti-fascist activities. Levi’s autobiographical novel, Christ Stopped at Eboli, brought the region’s poverty and squalid living conditions to world attention, and his hard-hitting paintings here capture the hardships of peasant life in the Sassi. The museum is open Thursday through Tuesday 9am to 8pm and admission is 3€.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.