The city is famous for its particular quality of bread, which is sold in numerous other Italian cities. According to the Latin poet Horace: "...for water is sold here, though the worst in the world; but their bread is exceeding fine, inasmuch that the weary traveler is used to carry it willingly on his shoulders.
The 400,000 year old calcified Altamura Man was discovered in the nearby limestone cave, called grotta di Lamalunga.
The region contains some fifty tumuli. Between the 6th and the 3rd century BCE a massive line of megalithic walls was erected. From the following century, however, the importance of the city decayed. It recovered some importance when the Emperor Frederick II refounded the city and ordered the construction of the large Altamura Cathedral in 1232, which became one of the most venerated sanctuaries in Apulia. In 1248, under pressure from Frederick, Pope Innocent IV declared Altamura exempt from the jurisdiction of the bishop of Bari, making it a "palatine church", that is the equivalent of a palace chapel.
Altamura was ruled by various feudal families, including the Orsini del Balzo and the Farnese (1538–1734), the latter responsible of the construction of numerous palaces and churches. In 1748 Charles VII of Naples had a University built in the city.
In 1799 the city rebelled against the Bourbon government: the revolt, however, was suppressed two days later and the city sacked by Fabrizio Ruffo's troops. During theRisorgimento (19th century), Altamura was the seat of the Insurrection Bari Committee and, after the unification, the provisional capital of Apulia.Altamura's main landmark is the Romanesque cathedral, begun in 1232 by Frederick II and restored in 1330 and 1521-1547. It is one of the four Palatine churches of Apulia, the others being the cathedral of Acquaviva delle Fonti, the Basilica of San Nicola in Bari and the church of Monte Sant'Angelo sul Gargano.
The construction is influenced by that of Bari, but also with strong Gothic influences typical of the time of Frederick II. The orientation of the construction was probably changed during the 14th century restoration, to which also belongs the northern portal opening on the square; a second bell tower, the altar area and the sacristy are instead from the 16th century.
Externally, the main features are therose window, with 15 small columns radially intermingling, and the Gothic portal, set into the entrance portico standing on two stone lions. On the arch of portals are sculpted 22 panels with scenes from Jesus' life. The interior, with a nave and two aisles, has stone presepe by Altobello Persio (1587).The medieval walls for which the city has its name, erected by Frederick II, rest upon the megalithic walls of an ancient city of unknown name.
These early walls are of rough blocks of stone without mortar.Ancient tombs with fragments of vases and terracottas have also been found, of which there is a collection at the Museo Archeologico Statale di Altamura. There are caves which have been used as primitive tombs or dwellings, and a group of some fifty tumuli near Altamura.Footprints of dinosaurs have been recently discovered.