Inside: Craving a truly unique travel experience? From cave hotels to fairy chimneys, Cappadocia will dazzle you. Here are 6 things you can’t miss!
As we near the end of this 30-day journey from Moscow to the Mediterranean, today the adventure continues in Turkey.
Turkey is home to an astounding 11 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but Goreme National Park and the rock sites of Cappadocia are undoubtedly its most famous. And for good reason.
What makes Cappadocia so unique?
Located in central Turkey, the isolated plateau of Cappadocia is the result of the constructive forces of volcanic activity combined (over millions of years) with the destructive forces of erosion. Continuous volcanic eruptions covered large parts of the area with “tufa,” a soft rock formed by volcanic ash.
Centuries of erosion shaped the tufa into cone-shaped hills in a dazzling array of colors from beige to yellow and pink to deep red. Wind, rain, and snow gradually sculpted the extraordinary landscape across the plateau that wows visitors today.
Cappadocia’s Fairy Chimneys
Perhaps Cappadocia’s most unique geological features are the whymsical “fairy chimneys” – formed when harder rock above the tufa prevents erosion on the top but not the sides. Eventually, the cap falls off leaving the rest of the chimney to erode.
Throughout Cappadocia’s turbulent history of Christianity, the area was subjected to frequent raids. Churches were carved into the rock for camouflage and the oldest of the churches seen today in Cappadocia likely date as far back as the 6th century.
How to Get to Cappadocia
Getting to Cappadocia is difficult over land. There are no trains to the area and from my last stop in Pamukkale, the land journey involved two buses and at least 8 hours.
Luckily, there are low-cost Turkish airlines serving the nearby towns of Kayseri (an hour away) and Nevsehir (20 minutes away).
I found a $45 flight on Sun Express from Izmir to Kayseri which meant backtracking a little from Pamukkale with a 4-hour train ride to Izmir but it was the simplest and most cost-effective way to travel between the two.
If you’re traveling from Istanbul, there are a number of quick and easy flight options into both Kayseri and Nevsehir.
Home base to explore – Goreme, Cappadocia
After researching the myriad hotel options in the Cappadocia region, I chose the town of Goreme as my home base. It was a good central location but it was the pictures of the town that I couldn’t resist.
It looked like something out of a fairy tale.
It’s funny, sometimes when you see fantastic pictures of a place you think, “Well, it can’t really look like that. It’s probably just some sort of creative photography trick.” And I truly thought there was no way Cappadocia could live up to some of the otherworldly images I’d seen.
I was wrong.
As my shuttle from the airport rounded the final bend into Goreme, I was speechless. It was like we had driven into a Pixar movie that couldn’t possibly be real. I may or may not have gaped openly for the next few minutes until we pulled up to my home for the next three nights, the Divan Cave House.
Which brings me to the first of the most awe-inspiring things to see and do in Cappadocia…
6 Things You CAN’T MISS in Cappadocia
The landscape of the Cappadocia region is so extraordinary that at times it feels like you’re on another planet. That’s why you truly have to see it to believe it!
1. The Cappadocia Cave Hotel Experience
One of the coolest things about visiting Cappadocia is the unique opportunity to stay in a cave hotel.
Converted from original homes carved into the soft volcanic rock, enterprising hoteliers have made the cave hotel experience one of Cappadocia’s top attractions.
Options range from budget to luxury but no matter how much you spend, the experience is priceless.
Luxury Hotel Tip: If you’re looking for a splurge, check out the spectacular Argos in Uchisar. Once a monastery, it’s now a luxury cave hotel with jaw-dropping views.
Budget Hotel Tip: Like the Argos hotel, the Cappadocia Cave Suites boasts a terrace with Instagram-worthy sunrise views of the daily hot air balloon show, but at a budget-friendly price.
I chose the mid-priced Divan Cave House. The 19-room boutique hotel has a prime location in Goreme and came highly recommended by previous guests.
I was greeted warmly by owners Ali and Hanife, who took my bags and invited me up to the restaurant terrace for breakfast since it was still only 9:00am.
Over breakfast, Ali gave me an overview of the top sights and suggested renting a car for a day to maximize my three-day stay. He even arranged for the car to be delivered right to the hotel.
Of course, if driving in a foreign country is not your idea of a good time, there are LOTS of tour options to help you explore the best of Cappadocia’s rock sites. Here are just a few:
After finalizing my plan for the day, it was time to check out my room. It was spacious, lovely and one of the most unique hotel rooms I’ve ever seen.
Despite being in a cave, there was plenty of light. It even featured a jetted jacuzzi tub in the bathroom, perfect for recovery after exploring Cappadocia’s many hiking trails.
By 11:00am, with map in hand and my own wheels for the day, I set off to begin my self-guided tour of this incredibly unique corner of the world!
2. Uchisar Castle
My first stop was the Uchisar castle.
Though the map I was working with was less than ideal, my navigation was aided by the fact that the castle is situated at the highest point in Cappadocia, atop a giant hill overlooking the town of Uchisar, and was clearly visible from Goreme.
Even I couldn’t miss it.
Within the multi-level castle, dozens of rooms are hollowed out and connected by a labyrinth of tunnels and passageways. Due to erosion in some places, most of the interior was closed to visitors but stairs scale the exterior and lead up to an amazing panoramic view from the top.
3. The Underground City of Kaymakli
From Uchisar, I headed south to my farthest stop for the day, the underground city of Kaymakli – the largest of the 26 underground cities in Cappadocia.
Like nearby Derinkuyu, the Hittites built the city to take refuge from frequent invasions. These troglodyte cave cities are several stories deep with sophisticated ventilation systems. Amazingly, they once could accommodate as many as 20,000 people.
In Christian times, churches, monasteries and even wineries (now we’re talking) were carved from the rocks and thousands took shelter underground during the Arab invasions of the seventh century.
Though only 4 of the 8 floors of Kaymakli are open to the public, I found the confined, shallow spaces of those four floors to be more than enough for me. After 30 minutes I was ready to be back outside. I’m not claustrophobic but it’s safe to assume I don’t have a bright future as a troglodyte.
4. Cappadocia’s Best Sunset Views
As I drove around the region, I passed several signs for sunset viewing spots. I’m a sucker for a good sunset view so after wrapping up my sightseeing, I set out in search of the perfect sunset view.
The signs led to cliff-side views over the pinkish-peaks of the Rose Valley that were simply awe-inspiring. Along the edge, enterprising vendors selling drinks and snacks set up cozy seating areas with carpets or cushions for their customers to appreciate the view. I bought a glass of wine and settled into a carpeted seat.
Thanks to some late cloud cover the sunset experience wasn’t optimal but it was still such a terrific view to just sit on the edge of that cliff sipping a glass of wine and soaking in the beauty of this incredible place.
I later discovered that the town of Goreme also has a pretty fabulous sunset spot that’s well worth the walk up the hill. Whichever spot you choose, the sunset views over the Cappadocia region are a must-see.
5. The Cappadocia Hot Air Balloon Experience
The next morning started long before dawn.
I hung up the phone from my 4:00am wake-up call just seconds before the main mosque in Goreme blared its first call to prayer.
When I asked for that 4:00am wake-up call last night Ali could have just said, “The first call to prayer is at 4:00am. That’s a mosque next door. You’ll be up.”
I’d done my homework on the dozens of hot air balloon companies before my arrival in town and decided to go with Voyager Balloons based on their excellent reputation and experienced pilots. The Voyager van picked me up right on time at 4:40am for the short drive to their office in the center of town.
Once there, we completed a little bit of paperwork and had a light breakfast while the pilots evaluated the wind direction and determined the best takeoff location.
By 5:30am, the 12 of us going up in one balloon were at the takeoff site and had enough time for a few quick photos while our balloon began to take shape as the crew filled it with hot air.
All around us there were dozens more balloons in various stages of flight. Cappadocia allows a maximum of 100 hot air balloons in the air at any given time. It looked like we’d be close to that limit today.
I admit I was nervous about going up in a hot air balloon. I love to fly but I typically prefer something in the 747 family. But my nerves evaporated as we gently lifted off the ground and I got my first real look at the surreal landscape around me.
The pinkish glow of the rising sun cast on the striking rock formations was simply spectacular. And the blanket of candy-colored hot air balloons dotting the landscape completed the fairy tale picture. It was completely magical.
For the next 90 minutes, our pilot, Halis, guided us expertly over the mountains, towns, and fairy chimneys of Cappadocia on an epic, high-flying adventure I’ll never forget.
We flew over everything I’d seen on my drive the day before – Uchisar castle, my sunset spot overlooking the Rose Valley – at times coming so close to the soaring peaks I felt as if I could reach out and touch them (in a perfectly safe, non-alarming way, of course). The time flew by and before I knew it we were landing in an open field just outside of town.
With our basket now safely back on the ground, we celebrate the experience with a traditional post-flight champagne toast. We gathered around while Halis gave a toast and handed out our flight certificates.
As I sipped my champagne and gazed out at the magnificent landscape around me I couldn’t help but think there was no place in the world that could top Cappadocia for a first hot air balloon experience.
6. Goreme National Park Open Air Museum
With my hot air ballooning adventure complete, I was back at the hotel by 8:30am with a full day on my hands and just one must-see stop left on my list – the Goreme National Park Open Air Museum.
The unique outdoor museum is a section of town containing some of the best-preserved examples of Cappadocia’s early Christian churches. Built between the 4th and 13th century AD, this area of Goreme served as a monastic center to the increasing number of Christians in the region.
The ghostly shapes of the rock churches are striking but their interiors are even more amazing. Defined by a variety of architectural styles from cruciform to columned and transverse, each one is unique. But they all feature intricate frescoes from different time periods adorning the cave walls.
You could easily spend hours wandering in and out of the churches, it’s a fascinating place to explore.
Wrapping up a perfect stay in Cappadocia
For my last day in Cappadocia, I wandered the cobbled streets of Goreme exploring every little corner and thinking that the whole place was simply enchanting, like some kind of theme park.
That evening I walked back up the hill to Goreme’s sunset spot. This time my hike was rewarded as the town’s fairy chimneys glowed orange with the setting sun. I couldn’t have scripted a more poetic ending to my stay in this beautiful place.
I have no doubt that visions of Cappadocia’s otherworldly landscape will stay with me for a lifetime.
But alas, my month-long adventure that began so long ago in Moscow is finally coming to an end. Tomorrow morning, it’s on to Istanbul to begin the long journey home.