The area of what is now Matera is believed to have been settled since the Palaeolithic (10,000 BC). This makes it potentially one of the oldest continually inhabited settlements in the world. Matera has gained international fame for its ancient town, the "Sassi di Matera". The Sassi originated in a prehistoric troglodyte settlement, and these dwellings are thought to be among the first ever human settlements in modern-day Italy. Because of the ancient primeval-looking scenery in and around the Sassi, it has been used by filmmakers as the setting for ancient Jerusalem.
Matera preserves a large and diverse collection of Christian buildings, most famously the Matera cathedral, built in 1270, San Pietro Caveoso and San Pietro Barisano. There are many other churches and monasteries dating back throughout the history of the Christian church. Some are simple caves with a single altar and maybe a fresco, whereas others are complex cave networks with large underground chambers, thought to have been used for meditation by the monks.
The Sassi and the park of the Rupestrian Churches were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. In 2014, Matera was declared European Capital of Culture for 2019, together with Bulgaria's second-largest city, Plovdiv.