High on every visitor’s Turkey hit-list, Cappadocia is an enchanting region of swirling volcanic-rock landscapes that seem to have been fashioned by mischievous elves. Humans have settled in this area since the Bronze Age and have left their own mark on this weird and wacky moonscape by burrowing into the soft volcanic-rock to live. The star tourist attractions are villages carved out of the hillsides, Byzantine era rock-cut churches with dazzling frescoes, and labyrinth underground cities where early Christians once hid from invaders. It’s a magical wonderland that both nature-lovers and history-buffs can appreciate.
1 Göreme Open-Air Museum
Just outside of Göreme village is the UNESCO protected site of Göreme Open-Air Museum; a monastery cluster of rock-cut churches and monk-cells that hold fabulous frescoes. The complex dates from the 10th to 12th centuries when Cappadocia was an important Byzantine religious centre. There are several churches and chapels within the complex but the most important are the Elmalı Kilise (Apple Church) with its Ascension fresco above the door; the Azize Barbara Şapeli (Chapel of St Barbara) with its red-ochre interior decoration; Yılanlı Kilise (Snake Church) with its wall-paintings of St George and interesting fresco of the hermetic hermaphrodite St Onuphrius; the stunning and superbly restored frescoes of the Karanlık Kilise (Dark Church); and the cavernous Tokalı Kilise (Buckle Church) with its dazzling wall-paintings that cover the entire barrel-vaulted chamber. The museum is one of Turkey’s top highlights and Cappadocia’s most famous tourist attraction. Some of the frescoes have been badly defaced, as until 1964 the chapels were not supervised and the value of the frescoes was not appreciated.
Müze Caddesi, Goreme
Incredibly photogenic and definitely unique, Göreme has been voted one of the most beautiful villages in the world by several travel magazines for good reason. The village is half-buried into the hill. Its stone house facades hide a maze of cave-rooms below. For most visitors, hot-air balloon tours are the main activity here. Balloons take to sky above Göreme every morning, swooping over the lunarscape of valleys on the outskirts of the village. The fresco-adorned El Nazar Kilise (Evil Eye Church) and Saklı Kilise (Hidden Church) are both on Müze Caddesi, a short walk from the centre on the way to Göreme Open-Air Museum.
3 Kaymaklı Underground City
Cappadocia’s underground cities first began to be chiselled out of the ground in the Bronze Age Hittite era but they are most famous for their early Byzantine history (6th and 7th centuries) when the region’s Christians took to living underground for long periods to escape from Arab and Persian invaders. Kaymaklı Underground City is Cappadocia’s largest example with a labyrinth of rooms connected by tunnels that extends for eight levels. Four of these levels can be explored by visitors.
4 Zelve Open-Air Museum
With its knobbly-topped rock cliffs speckled with cave dwellings, walking through Zelve Open-Air Museum is an experience of the Cappadocia of old. The settlement began life as a monastery in the 9th century and by the 20th century was a thriving village. Due to erosion and rock-fall dangers, the village had to be abandoned in 1952. Now the entire valley is a museum. There are a couple of interesting chapels to see – the Üzümlü Kilise (Grape Church) being the most intact – and a rather picturesque rock-cut mosque. But the real joy of this site is meandering down the cliff side paths, exploring the fire-blackened interiors of the cave dwellings and staring out at the magnificent vistas over the surrounding countryside.
5 Derinkuyu Underground City
Derinkuyu Underground City is Cappadocia’s deepest underground shelter and just likeKaymaklı, was used by the early Christians to hide from attack. The tunnels here are quite claustrophobic in places as they travel deeper and deeper into the ground. There is a cavernous chapel area and many living and storage areas to explore in this below-ground maze. The ingenious ventilation shaft system used by Derinkuyu’s inhabitants can also be seen.
6 Red and Rose Valley
Cappadocia’s most beautiful intertwining valleys lie between the villages of Göreme andÇavusin. Here the rolling and rippling rock faces arc out across the countryside in a palette of pastel pink, yellow and orange cliffs, formed by volcanic explosion and millennia of wind and water erosion. Between the cliffs are lush orchards, vineyards and vegetable plots still tended by local farmers while carved into the rock are hidden churches and hermit-hideouts which date back to the Byzantine era. There are dozens of hiking trails so it’s the perfect opportunity to grab your walking shoes and head out onto the paths. Three particular attractions within Rose Valleyare the Kolonlu Kilise (Columned Church), Haçlı Kilise (Church of the Cross) with its mammoth cross carved into the cave ceiling, and the Uç Haçlı Kilise (Church of the Three Crosses) with its amazingly preserved ceiling carvings and interesting (though severely damaged) frescoes.
7 Ihlara Valley
The narrow, verdant valley at the bottom of this deep (100 m) gorge in southwest Cappadocia is a nature-lover’s delight. Hemmed in by rugged, steep cliffs Ihlara Valley is a lush Eden of tall poplar trees and fertile farming plots beside the babbling Melendiz River which runs for 14 km from Ihlara village to Selime village. During the Byzantine period, this was a favoured retreat for hermitic monk communities who carved churches and monastery complexes into the cliff face. The Kokar Kilise (Fragrant Church), Yılanlı Kilise (Snake Church) and Kirk Dam Altı Kilise (St George Church) are three of the best but there are plenty of others to see along the way. At Selime village, the craggy rock pinnacle of Selime Monastery is also worth a visit.
The main attractions in the tiny village of Çavusin are two lovely Byzantine churches. By the entrance into town is the Çavusin Church with a stunning interior of frescoes while in the old village centre, high up on the ridge, is the Church of St John the Baptist. This is thought to be the oldest church in Cappadocia and its basilica-like proportions and fat columns are an impressive sight.
The twin valleys of Soǧanlı are scattered with pyramid-shaped rock pinnacles that were first hollowed out in the Roman era. By the time the Byzantine period was in full bloom, Soǧanlı had become a major monastic centre, its rock pinnacles home to chapels and monk cells. TheKarabaş Kilise (Black Hat Church), Yılanlı Kilise (Snake Church) and Saklı Kilise (Hidden Church) have the best preserved frescoes in this chapel cluster.
The mushroom shaped rock needles of Paşabaǧ Valley have made it one of Cappadocia’s most famous landmarks. In the early Byzantine period a religious community who were disciples of St Simeon Stylites (a 4th century monk who spent his life on top of a pillar, in northern Syria) devoted their lives to their own stylite practices here. Instead of pillars though, they carved monk cells high up in the pinnacles to lead a hermitic life of prayer. One of these monk cells can still be visited.
The village of Uçhisar is dominated by a mammoth rock-cut fortress, riddled with tunnels and caves. Just like the region’s underground cities, this rocky outcrop provided villagers with protection from invaders during the Roman and Byzantine eras. The fortress can be climbed and the sweeping panoramas from the top are well worth it if you have a head for heights.
Avanos is a bustling provincial town beside the Kızılırmak River. The older part of the town winds up the hillside in a maze of cobblestone roads lined by dilapidated Ottoman mansions. There are no sights as such but Avanos’ main attraction is its pottery. This town has a pottery industry history that stretches back to the Hittite period and now, like then, local artisans utilise the distinctive red clay of the Kızılırmak River for their craft. There are potters’ workshops and shops along the main road in the town centre, beside the river; many of which are happy to let you watch them work, or let you have a go at creating a simple pot yourself.
Most visitors only see Kayseri on their way to and from the airport but this bustling city has a handful of interesting Seljuk and Ottoman monuments for those with some spare time. TheCitadel is right in the centre of town, squeezed between modern shops and busy roads. The well-preserved Çifte Medrese in Mimar Sinan Parkı is one of the world’s first medical schools, and the Archaeological Museum is worthy of a peek for its exhibits from the Hittite excavation sites of Kültepe. Mount Erciyes glares down at you from wherever you are in the city. The town is only a short drive from the mountain (Cappadocia’s highest) and its winter ski slopes. Just to the southeast is the Seljuk caravanserai of Sultanhanı, which is a good stop if you’re driving onwards to Sivas.
14 Eski Gümüşler Monastery
Barely 10km northeast of the town of Niǧde in Cappadocia’s far south is the Eski Gümüşler Monastery. This rock-church has some very impressive frescoes that rival those of the more famous churches near Göreme. The paintings date from the 11th century and include the Annunciation, and the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus flanked by the Archangels Gabriel and Michael.
Other Points of Interest
Hacibektaş is a pilgrimage centre for the followers of the Bektaşı order of dervishes, founded by the Iranian philosopher and Sufi Haci Bektaş Veli. The museum here is a place of great devotional worship including Haci Bektaş Veli’s tomb as well as many interesting exhibits about the faith.
St Jean Church and Açık Saray
On the road between the towns of Nevşehir and Gulşehir are these two interesting attractions. The rock-cut monastery of Açık Saray was probably utilised by monks in the 6th and 7th centuries and contains a number of interesting cave-cut rooms. A little further down the highway is the 13th century St Jean Church which is rarely visited despite having an interior absolutely covered in gloriously colourful and well-restored frescoes.
Until the 1923 Population Exchange Mustafapaşa had a mixed community of Greeks and Turks and many of the old stone houses that still line the quiet cobblestone streets are the remnants of its now departed Greek inhabitants. The Ayios Konstantinos-Elini Church is right in the centre of town while the 12th-century Ayios Vasilios Church is found by walking up the hill to the ridge. There are also some small cave-churches just out of town in the aptly named Monastery Valley.
The small agricultural hamlet of Ortahisar is centred around a rock-cut citadel that pokes dramatically over the landscape. On the northern outskirts of town is rock-cut Hallacdere Monastery while to east is the peaceful Pancarlık Kilise with some unique frescoes.
Ürgüp hasn’t got many of its own actual sights but it’s a popular place to stay for visitors to Cappadocia because of its lovely boutique hotels and good restaurant scene. Relics from the Seljuk period include the Karamanoǧlu Mosque (which dates to the 13th century) and the Altı Kapı Türbesi (a tomb built by a Seljuk prince for his family). The old town section, which runs up the hill away from the modern centre, also has some lovely old Ottoman stone houses, many of which have been finely restored and now are boutique hotels.