The two sassi districts – the more restored, northwest-facing Sasso Barisano and the more impoverished, northeast-facing Sasso Caveoso – are both extraordinary, riddled with serpentine alleyways and staircases, and dotted with frescoed chiese rupestri (cave churches) created between the 8th and 13th centuries. Modern Matera still contains some 3000 habitable caves.
The sassi are accessible from several points. There's an entrance off Piazza San Francisco, or take Via delle Beccherie to Piazza del Duomo and follow the tourist itinerary signs to enter either Barisano or Caveoso. Sasso Caveoso is also accessible from Via Ridola.
For a great photograph, head out of town for about 3km on the Taranto–Laterza road and follow signs for the chiese rupestri. This takes you up on the Murgia Plateau to the belvedere, from where you have fantastic views of the plunging ravine and Matera.
Exploring the Gorge
In the picturesque landscape of the Murgia Plateau, the Matera Gravina cuts a rough gouge in the earth, a 200m-deep canyon pockmarked with abandoned caves and villages and roughly 150 mysterious chiese rupestri (cave churches). The area is protected as the Parco della Murgia Materana, an 80-sq-km wild park formed in 1990 and, since 2007, included in Matera's Unesco World Heritage Site. You can hike from the sassi into the gorge; steps lead down from the parking place near the Monasterio di Santa Lucia. At the bottom of the gorge you have to ford a river and then climb up to the belvedere on the other side; this takes roughly two hours.
Cave churches accessible from the belvedere include San Falcione, Sant'Agnese and Madonna delle Tre Porte. The belvedere is connected by road to the Jazzo Gattini visitor centre, housed in an old sheepfold. Guided hikes can be organised here, as can walks to the nearby Neolithic village of Murgia Timone. For longer forays into the park, including a long day trek to the town of Montescaglioso, consider a guided hike with Ferula Viaggi.
Beware: paths and river crossings in the park can be treacherous during and after bad weather.
The New Town
The nucleus of the new town is Piazza Vittorio Veneto, an excellent, bustling meeting point for a passeggiata (sociable evening stroll). It's surrounded by elegant churches and richly adorned palazzi with their backs deliberately turned on the sassi: an attempt by the bourgeois to block out the shameful poverty the sassi once represented.