The 9 best experiences in Cappadocia, Turkey

Cappadocia is one of Turkey’s most iconic destinations, with instantly recognizable landscapes and outstanding historical sites just begging to be explored.

There’s so much to do here that you may struggle with where to start – delving into the region’s rich cultural heritage or taking in the beautiful and distinctive views on a hike amidst the fairy chimneys? Start planning your trip now with our round-up of the nine best experiences in Cappadocia.

1. Hot-air ballooning in Göreme

Göreme’s fairy chimneys look amazing from ground level, but they’re incredible from above: taking a hot-air balloon ride amongst them is a unique experience that offers a whole new perspective on Cappadocia.

Pilots expertly guide balloons between rocky outcrops and head up to magnificent heights, allowing passengers great views of the surreal landscape framed against the sunrise – it’s a trip that manages to be both thrilling and serene.

Planning tip: Due to high demand, most balloon companies offer two trips per day. It’s much better to get a spot on the earlier one, even though this will mean getting up at about 4:30am. That early start means that you’ll be able to see the sunrise from your balloon, and also reduces the risk of cancellation – weather conditions later in the morning often mean trips can’t go ahead. You can also book your trip before leaving home, as the popular companies fill up quickly during high season.

2. Check out the churches in the Open-Air Museum

Cappadocia was an early adopter of Christianity but its followers were often subject to persecution, which meant that their places of worship had to be concealed. The fairy chimneys around Göreme were perfect places to hide a church – they could be hollowed out and Christians could worship inside undetected.

Over the centuries, these rock churches were expanded, and during the Byzantine era, the monks decorated them with astonishingly beautiful frescoes. Cave churches can be seen all over Cappadocia, but there’s a particular concentration in Göreme, where you can see many examples in the Open-Air Museum. The highlight is the Dark Church (Karanlık Kilise), in which the frescoes are simply stunning.

Detour: The churches at Göreme are remarkable, but they’re no secret, and the Open-Air Museum gets pretty busy. For a similar experience without the crowds, head to the St Jean Kilisesi in Gülşehir, 25km (15.5 miles) northwest of Göreme. The frescoes here are stunningly clear and you’ll be able to admire the depictions of the Last Supper, Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, and the Book of Revelation without having to jostle for space.

3. Walk among the phalluses in Love Valley

Cappadocia’s landscapes are ideal hiking country and there’s no better place to take a walk among the fairy chimneys than Love Valley. This route from north of Göreme up to Uçhisar is particularly iconic thanks to the unique shapes that the rock formations here have taken: they resemble nothing so much as a collection of enormous phalluses pointing up into the sky. There can be very few places in the world where you can walk amidst such a suggestive landscape.

4. Make like a troglodyte at Kaymaklı

At first glance, Kaymaklı appears to be a small and fairly nondescript Turkish town, but it’s home to an astonishing historical site – extending 80 meters (262ft) deep, across eight levels, is a vast underground city.

Thought to have been initially tunneled out more than 2500 years ago, this subterranean labyrinth still contains relics of everyday life – visitors will see wine presses, bread ovens and even stables for horses. Most impressive of all are the gigantic circular stone doors, which could rumble securely into place, allowing the inhabitants to conceal themselves in times of danger.

5. Saddle up for a ride through Güllüdere Valley

One of the most beautiful valleys around Göreme is Güllüdere (Rose) Valley, so named for the color that its rock turns in the late afternoon and evening sunlight. It’s a good hiking route, but a great alternative is to take a horseback-riding trip along the sandy tracks, allowing you to admire the gorgeous scenery from the saddle. Trips typically take you through the valley to a small tea house, where you can enjoy a drink and watch the sunset, then head back before the light fades.

Planning tip: There are a lot of horse stables in Göreme, so it pays to shop around to find out what each offers. Take the time to make sure you use a stable that has healthy, well-cared-for horses – although most are ethiccal, there are a few operators where animal welfare regrettably seems not to be a top priority.

6. Hike the Ihlara Valley

Devout Byzantine monks fashioned their cave churches all over Cappadocia, but some of the most impressive can be found clustered in the Ihlara Valley. Far from the bizarre fairy chimney landscapes of Göreme, Ihlara is a beautiful river canyon flanked by high cliffs dotted with cave churches.

There’s a well-maintained path running for about 10km (6.2 miles) between the villages of Ihlara and Selime, which is a joy to walk – it offers a perfect combination of gorgeous scenery and cultural highlights. Don’t miss the Yılanlı Kilise (Snake Church), in which you’ll see vivid frescoes of sinners being tormented by a pack of snakes.

Detour: The nearby village of Güzelyurt also offers a walk down a pretty valley lined with cave churches in its cliffs, which is considerably less touristed and is free to visit. More expensive Ihlara has an entry fee for the valley.

7. Birdwatching at the Sultan Marshes

South of Göreme, there are fewer fairy chimneys and Cappadocia’s landscape becomes flatter – here you’ll find Sultan Marshes, an important stop for birds on their migratory routes. If you’re a birdwatcher, it’s a perfect place to visit, with an observation tower, hides and walkways among the marshes.

You can even take evening boat trips along the waterways to spot the local wildlife, which ranges from the common teal to the greater flamingo and the short-toed snake eagle.

8. Let your imagination run wild

Devrent Valley, just northeast of Göreme and known locally as Imagination Valley, is one of Cappadocia’s most popular tourist spots. It takes its name from the rock formations here, which have been eroded over the years into evocative shapes. The most iconic is the Camel, which can be seen from the roadside, but there are countless other shapes to see – take a walk amongst them and you’ll find your imagination quickly begins to do the work for you.

Planning tip: Imagination Valley is popular with tour groups, and in the afternoon there are usually several coachloads of people here. If you’re under your own steam, visit in the morning instead, as you’ve got a better chance of having the place to yourself.

9. Explore the past in Kayseri Archaeological Museum

Cappadocia’s largest city is Kayseri and it has a storied history – it was known to the Romans as Caesarea and was prominent in the early Christian period and under the Seljuk Empire. The city’s archaeological museum, found on the lower floor of Kayseri Castle, walks you through this extensive history – from the Bronze Age to the modern day – with excellent and well-laid-out exhibits. Don’t miss the incredible Hercules Sarcophagus, decorated with friezes depicting the Twelve Labors of the mythic Greek hero.

Detour: Kayseri’s Seljuk heritage is on display throughout the city – check out the Mahperi Hunat Hatun Complex, across the road from the castle, which boasts beautiful intricate carving on its portal entrance. The Museum of Seljuk Civilization, in a park north of the castle, is a great place to dig deeper into the Seljuk era.

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