TRAVEL | 5 Magical Things to See and Do in Cappadocia
Photos of hot air balloons breezing over the incredible drip-sand castle rock formations of Cappadocia had been finding their way into my social media over the past few years. When we planned a Turkey trip, I knew that a few days Cappadocia had to be in our plans.
While the best time to go to the area is either in the spring or fall, from the end of April to June and September and October, when the days are warm, the nights are cool, and there is little rain. Falling into our 2020 tradition thus far of going to cold, snowy locals (see here and here!), we were not surprised to see snow on the ground when we landed in Cappadocia. Needless to say, it made for quite a stunning backdrop to the natural beauty of the area.
We stayed for two whole days, arriving early Monday morning, and leaving early Wednesday morning. While our days were packed, we got to see all the highlights of the region that we wanted to see. I would have been happy with at least another day.
How we got there
We had flown into Istanbul a few days prior and had booked our tickets from Istanbul to the Nevsehir Kapadokya Airport with Turkish Airlines. We paid less than $100 roundtrip for the quick hour and a half flight. The drive from the airport to Goreme where we stayed was less than thirty minutes.
I will note that you can also fly into the Kayseri Airport, which is about an hour’s drive to Cappadocia’s central area. Although we rented a car, we did see lots of airport transfers if self-touring in a rental car is not your thing. We saw plenty of tour guides, taxis, and shuttles in the area, as the area is used to hosting tourists.
How we got around
We rented a car at the Nevsehir airport with Avis, and were on our way! They equipped us with winter tires for a small additional charge, but overall the rental car was much cheaper than what we are used to paying in Western Europe or the U.S. I was a little unsure about road conditions and drivers in rural Turkey, but we had absolutely no issues. The roads were in great shape, and the few drivers we did see were courteous. We also had great cell phone service everywhere, so our GPS was always working. The one time we did get a little turned around thanks to a Google maps mess-up, a kind woman had a translated message on her phone ready to help us find our right way.
As per my usual, I had starred some must-see places in Cappadocia in my Google maps below, and we planned our days around seeing as much as we could in the area. The farthest we drove from Goreme was about an hour and a half but our days were packed!
Where we stayed
There are lodging options aplenty in the Cappadocia region. We decided to stay in Goreme, which is known for its stunning up-close views of the fairy chimneys and hot air balloons, while also serving as a small town with restaurants and nightlife. There are cave hotels with rooms carved right into the rock at all price ranges, from $20/night (Traveler’s Cave Pension, Sultan Cave Suites, or Cappadocia Cave Suites) to $200/night. While our hotel was fine, it didn’t blow me away, so I won’t name it here.
Another option if you’re looking for a bit of luxury is the absolutely stunning Sacred House in Urgup, which is situated in a 250-year-old Greek mansion!
Where we ate
We enjoyed a complete Turkish breakfast every morning, something I had been dreaming about for the last six years since we traveled to Turkey. If you’ve never experienced a Turkish breakfast, you are truly missing out!
Lunch was generally something light to hold us over until dinner. Both nights, we had dinner close to our hotel in Goreme. There was plenty to choose from. We enjoyed a mezze feast in a modern setting at the terrasse of Dibek Restaurant, and vegetarian Tandoori in our own stone cavern at Inci Cave Restaurant.
I had done a bit of research before visiting this region both rich in history and with an abundance of natural beauty. It’s worth a quick brush-up on your history so that you can really appreciate how human settlements intertwined with the region’s geography. Here’s a good starting point for a quick history lesson.
Cappadocia (or Kapadokya in Turkish) is a region in central Turkey where many ancient highways crossed. It is perhaps most recognized in photos for its fairy chimneys, which are tall rock formations created by volcanic eruptions millions of years ago. Legend has it that fairies lived in the surreal-looking towers, which were carved out and occupied by Byzantine monks and other cave-dwellers. The area has a wealth of attractions among the dug-out rock, from monasteries and cathedrals some still with frescoes painted on the walls and ceilings, to underground cities and homes.
Here are five things you must do in this magical place.
1. Get a bird’s eye view in a balloon ride in Cappadocia
With my aversion to heights, I was ok with the hot air balloon rides being canceled due to weather while we were there. They told us that the balloons fly only under good weather conditions mostly in the spring and fall and that you should plan on staying four nights for the best chance of catching a ride. The photos of the landscape from up high do look amazing, though, so maybe next time I’ll build up my courage to fly.
If you do want to take a balloon ride, plan on waking up super early, as the balloons take off before sunrise, usually around 5:00 am. Also, make sure to make your reservation ahead of time to get the best price. Expect to pay about $150 per person.
2. Be awed at Open Air Museum
In the Goreme Valley, lies the awe-inspiring Open Air Museum. This giant UNESCO World Heritage site should be top on any list of must-sees in Cappadocia.
Climb through and take a peek into the cave city that housed monks and later Christians escaping prosecution in the 11th century. Here you can discover churches, kitchens equipped with stone-carved dining tables, monasteries, and living quarters, all carved from the soft stone.
The most impressive of the churches and chapels in the complex is the Dark Church with its bright and fresh-looking frescoes dating almost a millennia. Thanks to the lack of light, as the Dark Church’s name suggests, the walls and ceilings brightly-colored Biblical scenes have been preserved. You'll have to go there yourself to see it since they don't allow photography.
3. Hike in the Ihlara Valley
Climbing down to the river gorge of the Ihlara Valley and hiking a portion of the 14-kilometer pathway, you can visit a number of cave churches and dwellings along the river’s banks. We drove seven kilometers from the Selime Monastery (more below!) and followed the signs to the car park at the Ihlara Vadısı Turistik Tesisleri (Ihlara Valley Tourist Facility) entrance. This is the middle part of the river valley and has the most cave churches in proximity. Unless you’re planning a day-long hike along the river valley, this is a great spot to stop and see some of the highlights.
4. Explore the underground cities
Underground cities were built by Christians in the region under persecution first by the Romans and then by the Muslim Arabs. The hidden cities allowed them to protect themselves and live in secrecy from unfriendly groups. The subterranean cities housed up to 20,000 people and were equipped with ventilation systems disguised as wells at the surface, stables for their animals, churches, cemeteries, wineries, kitchens, and ovens. Rolling round stone doors with levers that could only be opened from the inside served as their last line of defense in case of attack.
We went to the Underground city at Derinkuyu, but there are others in Cappadocia as well. The sprawling city connected with stairs and tunnels much like a human-sized hamster’s cage lies over 200 feet below ground. If you are prone to feeling claustrophobic, maybe you should skip this sight, as some of the rooms and tunnels require a lot of crouching.
After visiting the underground city, we stopped by the village bakery for a few loaves of fresh bread and some baklava. We were shocked at the $1 price tag for everything!
5.Pretend you’re in Star Wars at the Selime Monastery
Star Wars fans will likely recognize the Salime Monastery (this was our mixup with Google maps. It actually shows up as Selime Cathedral, which I've starred in my Google map above), which is a real monastery carved out of the other-worldly rock-formation at the end of the Ihlan Valley. It’s the biggest monastery in Turkey with its own cathedral made up of two floors held up with columns and three separate sections. In the 13th century, the monastery served as one of the hotels on the Silk Road trade route.
Here’s a short clip of some of our highlights on the trip.
While in Cappadocia, I also did lots of rug shopping for vintage and new Turkish rugs. I'll be writing more about what I found in an upcoming blog post, so stay tuned!
If you follow me on Instagram, you can also find more video captures of this trip saved in the “Cappadocia” saved stories.
Have you ever visited Cappadocia or is it on your bucket list? If you have any experience in Turkey, I would love to hear where you stayed and what you did!
Thanks so much for reading and sharing!