In the middle of the arid Anatolian steppes, there suddenly appears an otherworldly landscape of bizarre rock formations and fairy chimneys: Cappadocia. The landscape appears so surreal that at first sight, you could easily mistake it for a mirage. Indeed, many visitors will tell you that the first word that comes to mind when looking at Cappadocia’s scenery is magical. The extraordinary landscape is made up of a soft kind of lava, known as tufa, which has been carved into distinctive shapes by years of winds and rains, the results of which resemble a moon-like landscape.
With its unique terrain, history, and natural beauty, it’s no wonder that the area is a major highlight on Turkey’s tourist trail, attracting visitors from all around the world. Cappadocia has been endowed with a history that is almost mythical, dating back thousands of years. The first known inhabitants of Cappadocia were the Hittites, whose kingdom lasted from 2000 BC to roughly 1200 BC, after which remnants of this empire remained in Anatolia. This unusual terrain was also a cradle for Christianity, home to the early Christian communities escaping persecution first from the Romans, then from the Persians and Arabs, giving the area an added allure for many of the foreign tourists who visit. These communities built intricate networks of underground cities, which included many churches and monasteries, and managed to live in harmony in this strange landscape, which they in fact used to their advantage.
Spread over the central Anatolian planes, Cappadocia is located in the Nevşehir province, and is dotted with a number of towns and many small villages. It offers something for everyone, and is pleasant to visit in any season, making it a popular year-round destination. Spring and fall offer pleasantly warm days and cool nights, and are ideal for trekking, particularly in the fall when there is still some greenery and the leaves on the trees are starting to turn. Winters are cold, but enchanting; layers of snow drape the landscape and create a dramatic and picturesque scenery. While the summer days are very hot, the underground cities and caves offer respite from the heat and visitors who come at this time of the year often choose to drive around, taking in some of the lesser-known nearby villages. The area; which attracts adventurous backpackers, those interested in the rich, Christian history, and in recent years, more up-market cultural tourists; has been able to retain its charm and avoid the cultural ruin often associated with mass tourism. Because the distances between the various towns and sights are significant, pensions carved into the caves to boutique hotels.
The Lykia Lodge Hotel is an established and popular option for tour groups, and has recently been renovated, with architecture that has been designed to blend with the nature surrounding it. On the one hand, Ürgüp has also become a popular destination in recent years, especially among high-end tourists, due to its concentration of charming boutique hotels and good restaurants. On the other hand, Göreme now serves as a preferred home base, particularly for backpackers and budget travelers. It is nestled between the Pigeon, Rose, and Honey valleys, and despite the abundance of tour operators and tourists, traditional village life manages to continue here. Even those who are not staying in the area will pass through Göreme at some point to visit the Göreme Open Air Museum, a must-see when in Cappadocia. A UNESCO world heritage site, this complex houses the greatest concentration of churches, chapels, and monasteries in the region, many with beautiful painted frescos. The most famous church in the museum is the 11th century Karanlık Kilise, or Dark Church. The church received its name due to the few numbers of windows it has, which has resulted in exceptionally well-preserved frescos that have largely retained their vivid colors.
Another must-do when in Cappadocia is visiting the extensive network of underground cities at Kaymaklı or Derinkuyu, which offer insight into the daily life of the early Christian communities who lived there. Built during the 6th and 7th centuries, these cities extend several stories underground, and provided refuge for Byzantine Christians hiding from Persian and Arabian armies. Exploring the underground cities, one can imagine what life must have been like for these communities who often spent months in these cramped and claustrophobic dwellings along with their animals. Today, we can still see evidence of their living and cooking quarters, and even their complex ventilation systems. Everything was carefully designed to prevent detection and block invasions, with large stone slabs that could be wheeled to cover entryways at the first sign of an intruder. Many of the passages are quite narrow with low ceilings, and can sometimes become uncomfortably crowded on weekends or during high season. Those who suffer from the occasional claustrophobia attacks, consider yourselves forewarned, this is not the place for you.
One of the most memorable and special ways to experience Cappadocia is from above with a hot air balloon ride. Early risers will notice the morning sky filled with a colorful array of hot air balloons, which in itself is a beautiful sight. However, it is the view from above that is truly spectacular, without a doubt a highlight of any visit. From this perspective, you can fully appreciate just how vast and unique the landscape is. Balloons take off at dawn or very early in the morning, not only so you can enjoy the sunrise, but also for safety reasons, as winds pick up and become unpredictable later in the day. Be sure to fly with a reputable company that won’t cut any corners when it comes to safety. Anatolian Balloons is one of the oldest and most established companies, and comes recommended.
After you’ve explored the caves below and taken in the amazing views, there are still many more activities to enjoy and places to visit in Cappadocia. You can head to a pottery studio and watch talented artisans use age-old ceramic techniques for their creations. These studios are usually attached to a shop, and offer ample opportunities for gift and souvenir shopping. Visiting one of the local wineries for wine-tasting is another option. For those who are looking for more of an adventure, riding through the valleys by horseback, ATV, or bike is a fun way to enjoy the landscape. There are also a number of smaller villages that make for pleasant stops. One such village is Mustafapaşa, which was a predominantly Greek village until the First World War, and this history is evidenced in its pretty architecture. Many of the old houses here are now being converted into boutique hotels, some featuring excellent restaurants, thus putting this sleepy little town on the tourist map. Even if you don’t stay here, it’s worth visiting in order to enjoy a meal and stroll along streets, visiting the churches and the 19th century Medrese (religious school).
Given the surreal and positively Daliesque terrain, trekking is one of the most popular activities for visitors to the region. Göreme is a good base for trekking some of the valleys in the area, as it is surrounded by the gorgeous Göreme National Park. When hiking you will find churches cut into rocks, pigeon houses, and such a range of carved structures that you could spend hours spotting the various animal shapes in the rock formations. To see some of the most interesting shapes and famous fairy chimneys in a range of colors, visit the Devrent Valley, also sometimes referred to as Imagination Valley, and you’ll be able to see why. For serious trekkers, there is no better place than the Ihlara Valley National Park, where a series of beautiful ancient churches and the 13th Century Selime Monastery can be found. For those who are interested in a more leisurely trek, shorter routes are also possible.
With airports now open in Nevşehir and Kayseri, visitors no longer have to transit through Ankara, meaning Cappadocia is more accessible than ever. With such a concentration of incredible natural beauty, rich history, and an abundance of things to see, do, and experience, it is no wonder that Cappadocia has earned a spot as a highlight of any visit to Turkey.