A beautiful region in the heartland of Turkey, Cappadocia entices travelers with unbelievable sights, delicious cuisine, and sunrise hot air balloon rides. Transport yourself to another world to discover underground cities, vivid Byzantine frescoes, and spectacular landscapes!
There is no shortage of activities or cultural experiences in Cappadocia. Nature lovers will be enthralled by the towering fairy chimneys, epic views, and moderate hiking trails. History buffs will appreciate the rock-cut churches, gritty local architecture, and whirling dervish ceremonies. Luxury connoisseurs can choose to stay in a glamorous cave suite, relax in a pampering haman (Turkish bath), or partake in a colorful photo shoot.
Cappadocia is a popular tourist destination with modern infrastructure similar to Istanbul. Most visitors arrive by bus or airplane to begin their adventure. Attractions are walkable depending on where you stay, but consider renting a car if you want more freedom. Taxis are trustworthy and reliable, but verify the meter before departing and keep cash on hand to pay.
Tour companies are plentiful if you want to book excursions or sunrise hot air balloon rides. Only have a few days in Cappadocia? The Red Tour, Green Tour, and Blue Tour include hard-to-reach areas, popular landmarks, and artisan shops. There isn't any overlap between the three and each one lasts approximately eight hours. Check multiple agencies to compare prices and routes.
Brad and I spent one week in Cappadocia after completing our road trip to three ancient archaeological sites around Sanlıurfa. Below I've organized our top things to do along with tasty restaurant recommendations and tips to help take your trip to great heights!
Where to Stay
There are five main towns to rest your sleepy head in Cappadocia. Each one has its own pros and cons. Consider dividing your stay into multiple places if more than one looks appealing. In retrospect, I wish we stayed in a cave suite even if it was only for one night.
• Göreme - A popular town with nightlife, shopping, and plenty of restaurants. Ideal for visitors without a vehicle since most attractions are within walking distance. Main launching point for the sunrise hot air balloon rides.
• Uçhisar - Offers panoramic views from the highest lookout point in Cappadocia (Uçhisar Castle). More quiet and less touristy compared to Göreme. Luxury hotels and stunning views of the hot air balloons.
• Ürgüp - An authentic and tranquil town with an array of cave suites. Highly rated eateries and picturesque homes tucked along the hillside. Renting a car is recommended since it's on the outskirts.
• Çavusin - Located in a remote area with easy access to hiking trailheads (Pasabag Valley). Perfect for a peaceful stay with only a handful of accommodations.
• Ortahisar - Great for budget travelers seeking low hotel prices. Traditional Turkish character without the crowds. Growing in popularity due to its charming cobblestone streets, castle, and monasteries.
And the winner is...Göreme! Our pick's geographic location made it possible to walk to the attractions and the number of restaurants provided enough variety during the trip. Brad and I opted for a mid-range hotel which included breakfast on a rooftop terrace.
Göreme has a laidback vibe with just the right amount of buzz. The center of town is full of al fresco cafés, wine bars, taxis, and tour companies. Hotels mix with soaring stone peaks and fairy chimneys are easy to find.
Listen to the serene calls to prayer echoing throughout the valley five times a day. There are several mosques to visit if you'd like to learn more about Turkey's Islamic religion and traditions. To enter, women have to conceal their hair with a headscarf. Both men and women need to cover their shoulders and legs.
Stroll the narrow alleyways and touch the weathered façades tucked around hidden corners. Watch out for loose rubble, potholes, and construction areas. Strike up a conversation with the friendly locals while sipping a comforting çay (tea) in a no-frills café.
Spend a few hours browsing for quality souvenirs. Keep your eyes peeled for Turkish rugs, hot air balloon ornaments, nazars (blue eye protection amulets), miniature fairy chimneys, sterling silver jewelry, and hand-painted ceramics.
Step inside Galerie Ikman for a one-of-a-kind space exploding with vibrant handwoven Turkish rugs. The open-air courtyard is covered with intricate geometric patterns, textures, and beads ideal for a memorable photo shoot. Play with the pillows, chairs, and stairway to compose different shots.
Brad and I paid $30 USD for a 15-minute time slot with our own camera. Reservations are required if you want a 30-minute time slot which includes a photographer and drone for $100 USD.
Cappadocia has some of the best cuisine in all of Turkey. One of the most iconic dishes to try is a testi (pottery) kebab; a vegetarian or meat stew cooked in a sealed clay pot for a minimum of four hours. The waiter opens the pot at the table by tapping the sides with a small hammer. It's a novelty experience!
Below are my favorite spots for a mouthwatering meal in Göreme. Most restaurants serve a generous basket of chewy ciabatta-like bread with every order. Brad and I couldn't get enough of the pillowy carbs!
• Lunch - Satisfy your hunger with the marinated tavuk şiş (chicken kebab) plate at Cappadocian Cuisine. Split a rich kayseri yaglaması (layered flatbread with minced meat tomato sauce) after sampling the tangy tzatziki and hummus at Göreme Han Restaurant. Affordability meets authenticity at Nazar Börek; a hidden gem partially carved into the rock peaks. Take in the views as you munch on a cheesy gözleme (stuffed turnover) and spinach sosyete böregi (rolled puff pastry with tomato sauce and yogurt).
• Dinner - Toast your adventure in Cappadocia with a glass of the house red wine at Mozaik. Excite your palate with the warm hummus appetizer topped with crispy pastrami. The fresh smoked salmon salad with pomegranate seeds and lemon vinaigrette is a healthy option full of pizazz. For a romantic ambience, make reservations at Topdeck Cave. The tavuk etli sigara böregi (chicken pastry rolls stuffed with corn, herbs, and red peppers), tender beef stir fry with rice, and flaky baklava are scrumptious.
Sunrise Hot Air Balloons
Cappadocia's biggest draw is undoubtedly its hot air balloons. Visitors from all over the world come to the region to marvel at the colorful orbs floating against the breaking dawn. The fairy chimneys, deep ravines, and rock-cut dwellings offer an unforgettable landscape to appreciate from above. If riding in a hot air balloon is on your bucket list, Cappadocia has you covered!
Takeoff depends on the weather and isn't guaranteed every day. Reserve your ride as soon as possible and at the beginning of your trip so you have wiggle room just in case cancellations happen. Rates fluctuate depending on the season, but expect to pay between $100-300 USD per person.
Partaking in an exciting flight isn't the only way to experience the beauty. Since Brad and I already rode in a hot air balloon in Egypt over the Valley of the Kings, we opted to skip the opportunity in Cappadocia. Make your way to either the ground-level view at Balloon Point or elevated lookout at Sunrise Point to watch the magic unfold.
An early alarm is essential if you want to witness the balloons from a prime spot. You can go back to bed if you don't see multiple shuttles picking up participants from hotels at least an hour before sunrise. Serenity isn't guaranteed once all of the balloons are in the sky. Be aware of horseback riding tours, photo shoots, and obnoxious jeep tours blasting party music. One driver almost ran over our camera tripod!
Trade light for darkness and explore the mysterious underground city of Derinkuyu. This multi-level complex is approximately 85 m (279 ft) deep and functioned as a shelter to protect up to 20,000 people from frequent enemy raids. Visitors have access to 10% of the city.
Even though recovered artifacts date back to the Byzantine era, the exact age of Derinkuyu is unknown. Soft volcanic rock was carefully removed to create narrow passageways leading to stables, kitchens, churches, living quarters, wells, and storage rooms. Ventilation shafts supplied fresh air to the occupants and large rolling stone doors added an extra layer of protection.
More than 200 subterranean settlements (some connected by tunnels) have been discovered around Cappadocia. Kaymakli is another underground city open to the public. These attractions may not be the best idea if you dislike tight spaces or musty air.
Some of the finest fairy chimneys in Cappadocia are found just outside of Göreme in Love Valley. Millions of years ago, volcanic eruptions covered the landscape in a thick layer of ash which compacted into soft porous rock (tuff). Phallic-shaped rock formations eventually emerged with time and erosion, inspiring the playful name of the valley.
The most condensed area of fairy chimneys is about a 15-minute walk from the start of the trailhead. Follow the gravel trails along the lowest part of the valley towards Uçhisar. The hike takes approximately 1-2 hours depending on your pace. Be sure to admire the crimson poppies, insects, and Hoopoes during the journey!
As you near the opposite end of Love Valley, you'll notice Uçhisar Castle in the distance. Although Brad and I didn't combine these two activities in the same day, I recommend doing so. You can hike back to Göreme via Pigeon Valley or take a taxi if your legs need a break.
The town of Uçhisar has a lot of rustic charm and its main attraction requires a small entrance fee. Navigate between hollowed nooks and crannies to reach the highest 360-degree viewpoint in Cappadocia! Survey the surrounding towns and vast geography before heading back down. Celebrate your climb with a Turkish ice cream (dondurma) from one of the enthusiastic vendors.
Göreme Open Air Museum
A 15-minute walk from the center of Göreme is all it takes to reach a jaw-dropping cluster of Byzantine frescoes and rock-cut churches. The Göreme Open Air Museum deserves top priority on your itinerary for its dazzling religious scenes and exquisite craftsmanship!
Christianity in Cappadocia peaked during the 10th and 11th Centuries. Patronage in the spiritual area increased as more pilgrims came to pray, resulting in the construction of additional monasteries and chapels. Masons meticulously carved uniform archways, domes, and pillars from the volcanic rock. Artists subsequently covered the walls with brilliant hues, ornate designs, and iconography.
Scenes of St. George slaying the dragon, Christ Pantocrator, and Helena holding the true cross with her son Constantine the Great took my breath away! The Dark Church is the most impressive and intact. Access requires an additional ticket, but it's absolutely worth the money. Renovations are ongoing to preserve these fantastic structures and not all are open to the public at the same time.
Red and Rose Valleys
Ready for a quest full of natural wonder and unparalleled vistas? Embark on a magnificent trek through the Red and Rose Valleys! Weave between meringue-like peaks and over smooth formations which resemble melting globs of ice cream. You'll encounter a plethora of hand-carved treasures and share the trails with only a few other hikers.
The side-by-side valleys are full of markers and signs, but download Maps.me or Google Maps offline to avoid getting lost. Bring plenty of snacks, water, and sunscreen. Brad and I decided to pack a lunch to enjoy along the trails. Please take out what you take in and leave no trace, including biodegradable food which can harm wildlife.
The Red and Rose Valleys have an abundance of small tunnels, rooms, and decorated churches. I recommend plotting a course to visit three exceptional examples. Cross the wooden bridge and enter Direkli Kilise aka Column Church to see the largest cruciform cave church in Cappadocia. The impressive architecture makes up for the lack of paint!
Don't be intimidated by the rickety ladder leading to Haçlı Kilise aka Crusader Church. The captivating colors of the semicircular apse depict Jesus Christ on his elaborate throne flanked by Archangels Michael and Gabriel. The twelve apostles with vandalized faces form the frieze underneath.
Direct your gaze upwards to the protruding cross on the ceiling. Take a seat and soak in every detail. Rehydrate with a freshly squeezed pomegranate or orange juice at the outdoor café around the corner. It's the perfect beverage on a hot sunny day.
Scale the sandy hillside to enter the faded apse of Aziz Agentangeus aka Three Crosses Church. Seraphim (six-winged angels) and creatures representing the four Evangelists surround Jesus Christ's heavenly throne. Mark is the lion, Luke is the ox, Matthew is the man, and John is the eagle.
In the adjacent room is a scene depicting Jesus Christ's baptism. John the Baptist wears a red robe on the left while two angels observe on the right. The outer layers of soot and paint have been removed to reveal the preliminary red/green sketch. Three carved crosses with twisted rope, concentric circles, and palm leaves span the ceiling.
Whirling Dervishes Ceremony
A cultural highlight of our stay in Cappadocia was attending a whirling dervish ceremony at the Saruhan Caravanserai. Originally built in 1249, the interior stone space provides an ethereal backdrop to watch the seven parts of the Semâ ritual unfold.
Mevlanâ Celâleddin-i Rumi (1207-1273), founder of the Mevlevi Order, inspired the movements of the ceremony. Dervishes spin while pivoting around the heart to embrace all of humanity with love and affection. The right hand reaches openly towards the sky to receive God's grace and the left hand passes it on to the Earth. Dervishes abandon their egos during their spiritual journeys to find truth, maturity, and ultimate perfection.
Reflect on your experience in the courtyard with a cup of herbal tea after the hour-long service. We made reservations with our hotel for the 6:00 PM ceremony, but inquires can be made directly via the website. Our tickets with round-trip transportation cost $45 USD per person.
Another style of fairy chimneys can be found in Pasabag Valley aka Monks Valley. The mushroom-shaped rock formations are adorably plump. Climb the southern ridge to see the fairy chimneys from a unique perspective. I felt like Alice in Wonderland as I explored the towering giants!
Our walking route from Göreme took us through farm fields full of grape vines, abandoned rock-cut dwellings, and the town of Çavusin. Pasabag Valley is conveniently right off the roadway, so you can take a taxi instead if you don't want to hike. Consider visiting early in the morning or late afternoon to bypass the crowds.
Göreme was the right base for us to complete our jam-packed DIY itinerary. I believe you could fit all of the aforementioned activities into four busy days. As luck would have it, we spent our first day hanging out with Ulrike and Marco; a kind German couple at our hotel who offered to let us tag along in their rental car to explore the area!
Cappadocia has a radiating energy felt in its distinctive geography and mystical history. I woke up each day eager to satisfy my hungry spirit with adventure. The invigorating hikes, majestic hot air balloons, and splendid Byzantine frescoes will forever hold a special place in my heart.