What to See in Cappadocia, Turkey
Resembling the set of a fantasy adventure movie, Cappadocia enchants visitors with its stunning geological wonders. It's a landscape shaped by both nature and man; valleys eroded by wind and water play host to troglodyte dwellings carved out by human hands, while fairy chimneys reach up into skies filled with colourful hot-air balloons.
A Cappadocia holiday will not only give you plenty for your Instagram feed, it will also make you question whether you are still on planet Earth.
What is Cappadocia?
Cappadocia is a historical region of central Turkey that's famous for its stunning rock formations, in particular the fairy chimneys (also called hoodoos) that protrude throughout the semi-arid landscape. The formation of the fairy chimneys began millions of years ago with the eruptions of local volcanoes including Mount Erciyes, Mount Hasan, and Mount Göllü. The area was covered with tuff — a soft rock made from volcanic ash. This was later overlaid with much harder basalt, and when the landscape was eroded over time by water and windborne sand, the tuff wore down quicker than the basalt, resulting in the distinctive mushroom shapes of the hoodoos.
The area is also home to cave dwellings, the first believed to date from the Bronze Age. However, many underground cities were carved out of the rock between the fourth and 13th centuries, and visitors can explore them today. In 1986, the almost 100-square-kilometre Göreme Historical National Park was established to protect the landscape, and the area is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
What to see in Cappadocia
Cappadocia's most distinctive features are its fairy chimneys, some of which reach 40 metres in height, that dot the landscape. Just outside the town of Göreme, one of the area's most distinctive sights is Love Valley, which got its nickname due to the phallic shapes of the fairy chimneys within it. It's not just the hoodoos that make the national park so special, as you will discover when you visit one the many viewpoints that give you spectacular vistas of geological formations such as the Red and Rose valleys, with their cliffs bearing coloured layers.
The area also has a fascinating human history, and you can learn more by visiting some of the many cave houses. It is believed that subterranean dwellings existed in Cappadocia as far back as the Bronze Age when the region was part of the Hittite Empire. However, underground cities began to develop when reclusive Christian anchorites began to live in the area in the fourth century AD. In the seventh century, it became a place of refuge for Christians fleeing Arab attacks — the region was an eastern part of the Byzantine Empire and was subject to regular raids. The dwellings became more complex, developing into what were self-sufficient cities whose facilities were interconnected by corridors. As well as homes, they contained granaries, churches, stables, ventilation systems, water wells, wineries, and kitchens.
Among the sites you can visit today is Derinkuyu, which was uncovered by excavations in 1966, and is one of the deepest settlements, with eight levels. The underground city at Kaymakli is one of the largest and has four levels open to visitors. Özonak’s subterranean city was discovered in 1972 by a farmer investigating why his irrigation water was disappearing. Excavations revealed a vast complex of tunnels and rooms that could have accommodated 60,000 people for periods of three months during sieges.
Visiting these sites is an eerie experience that leaves you in admiration of the communities who sought refuge over the centuries. Some of the most memorable sights are in the churches that were carved out of the tuff, many of them featuring colourful frescoes depicting Christ, the Virgin Mary, and saints. By the 11th century, a total of about 3000 cave churches had been built.
At the heart of the national park is the charming town of Göreme, home to Göreme Open Air Museum, an impressive collection of churches, chapels, and monasteries. These churches have some of the best artwork in the region. Göreme also has many hotels (including cave hotels), restaurants, and shops.
A few kilometres from Göreme, Uçhisar is dominated by its castle, which is in fact a hill out of which defences were dug. It is one of the most spectacular sights in the area, and the views from the top, especially at sunset, are incredible.
Another beautiful site is the Ihlara Valley, about an hour’s drive from Göreme. This 16-kilometre-long gorge, cut out of the volcanic rock by the Melendiz Stream, is home to many Byzantine churches, chapels, monasteries, shelters, and tombs that are carved into the rocks, and feature some wonderful frescoes. The gorge, which reaches 150 metres in depth, is an ideal place to explore on foot.
Best ways to explore Cappadocia
There are many tours and excursions that allow you to get the best out of a visit to Cappadocia; the most iconic is hot-air balloon flights over Göreme National Park. These can be romantic trips for two, or you can climb aboard bigger baskets capable of carrying up to 20 people. Most last 1-2 hours, and can include extras like a glass of champagne on landing. Sunrise and sunset are wonderful times to take to the air. Every July, the sky above the national park fills with balloons during the annual balloon festival held in the town of Ürgüp. You can even take a balloon ride in winter; if the day is calm and clear, the sight of this unique landscape dusted with snow is unforgettable.
You can also go on mountain bike rides along the gravelly trails that cut through Cappadocia's valleys, explore the geological features close-up on a guided walking tour, or saddle up for an excursion on horseback.
There are many organised tours that include the fairy chimneys and underground cities, plus give you a glimpse of local culture and traditions. They can include music festivals, visits to wineries to sample local wines, and trips to shops selling carpets — something local craftspeople are noted for. The area has also long been famous for its pottery. The town of Avanos is a popular tourist stop because of its pottery workshops, where you can learn about the craft, which the ancient Hittites practised in the area, and even try your hand at making your own creation.
Accommodation in Cappadocia
While some of the caves have been restored as homes, others have been converted into hotels and holiday suites, and staying in one is among the most memorable experiences you can have in Cappadocia. Rather than being the austere places in which Byzantine Christians sought refuge, many now provide luxury accommodation. However, they feature the same stone walls that were dug out many centuries ago, and the addition of soft lighting and beautiful local rugs help to create a special atmosphere. Some rooms even feature private terraces where you can take in the view across the surrounding landscape.
Where is Göreme Historical National Park, Cappadocia?
Göreme Historical National Park is in Turkey’s Central Anatolia region, about an hour west of the city of Kayseri by bus or taxi. Kayseri is around a 90-minute flight from Istanbul and an hour from Antalya.
Before travelling, be sure to check out our travel guide to Turkey.
Then read about what to do in Istanbul
Indulge in Turkey's best foods
Study up on customs and safety in Turkey
Be sure you know when to visit Turkey
Dream about what to expect on a Turkish gulet cruise
Find out what to take in along the Turquiose coast
Plan what to see in Marmaris
And see our tips for the best archaeological sites in Turkey
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Nick Elvin contributed to this post.