Exploring the Highlights of Cappadocia
If you’re thinking about travelling to Turkey and want to visit more than just Istanbul (you should), then there are a variety of different cities, regions and sites you can visit depending on what you’re looking for on your trip. But no matter what, visiting Cappadocia is usually at the top of everyone’s wish list when it comes to “must-see” places in Turkey. Ask anybody why they want to visit Cappadocia and they’ll probably answer something along the lines of wanting to do the famous balloon ride over the region as the sun rises over Cappadocia.
Of course there’s a good reason why this is often the main reason why people choose to visit Cappadocia. The chance to take a balloon ride over Cappadocia is undoubtedly one of the most memorable experiences you can have while travelling the world. The reality though, is that there is so much more to see and do in Cappadocia than just that. Simply put, Cappadocia is one-of-a-kind. There is no other place in the world that has such a surreal landscape, formed by thousands of years of wind & rain eroding layers of tuff rock created by volcanic eruptions as well as a rich history to go along with it. I was lucky enough to spend around 3 days exploring Cappadocia and ended up leaving amazed at how much this region has to offer. So without further ado, here are my top 5 highlights from my time spent exploring Cappadocia.
Göreme Open-Air Museum
A Unesco World Heritage site and something that you absolutely can’t miss if you’re visiting Cappadocia is the Göreme open-air museum. Originally a Byzantine monastic settlement, this area was chosen by a group of Orthodox monks due to the nature of the location. At the time, their religious beliefs had yet to take off, and as such the monks needed a refuge to be able to practice their religion in peace and safety. So they settled in Cappadocia, carving out their homes, chapels, monasteries and churches into the rock formations surrounding them.
Over time, as their religion began to grow, this region became a pilgrimage site, continuously growing as more and more people came to visit, pray & even live amongst the rock-cut religious settlements that had been carved out over many centuries. As more and more people came, the number of monasteries, chapels & churches began to grow in size and numbers, becoming more and more intricate as well. If you take a walk through the different buildings in the museum today, you’ll see remnants of paintings & frescoes that depicted biblical scenes throughout history. In fact, because there was no way to put these stories down in word, the biblical frescoes became the way for the monks of Cappadocia to teach people about the history of their religion, combining art and the spoken word to spread their word.
Unlike most museums, the fact that this museum is outdoors also adds a little something that you won’t see anywhere else. In between exploring all of the religious buildings and marveling at the ancient frescoes, you have the chance to walk through this religious settlement while enjoying the beautiful scenery that litters much of Cappadocia. That being said, no visit to the museum would be complete without entering the Karanlık Kilise, more commonly known as the Dark Church of Cappadocia. While you have to pay extra to enter, the Dark Church is easily the most important and well-preserved church in all of Cappadocia. Built in the 11th century, the church’s frescoes depict many scenes from the New Testament, including the Last Supper itself. What makes it even more stunning though is the fact that nearly all the frescoes are still in near perfect condition, making this church a must-see. Make sure to take your time though; photography currently isn’t allowed so you’ll have to make sure your memory picks up the slack!
One of the most underrated things to do in Cappadocia is to explore one of the many hidden valleys in the region. No valley is more hidden & beautiful than Cappadocia’s Pigeon Valley. The valley has been coined Pigeon Valley by the locals due to the fact that there are countless “dovecotes” that have been carved into the valley walls over the years to house pigeons (which were used as messenger birds back in the day). Today, they valley remains mostly empty as only a handful of travellers make the trek through the valley each day. What that leaves you with, is the chance to explore one of the most beautiful parts of Cappadocia amidst a layer of peace and serenity unlike no other.
The trail itself is no more than 6-7km, which means that you don’t have to devote a whole day (or even half a day) to exploring the valley. The trail runs in between Uçhısar and Göreme, but most people prefer to start in Uçhısar and hike down Göreme as the walk in that direction is downhill and quite a bit easier (not to mention that you end up back in the centre of Cappadocia).
Now for the trail itself. Hiking through Pigeon Valley was by far one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had while travelling. Whether it was because it was a surprise, the scenery was absolutely gorgeous or because the calm & serenity washed over my soul, hiking this trail was an absolute blast. If you enjoy exploring the outdoors, then this is a can’t-miss in Cappadocia. There are few places in the world that provide such a level of beauty, without the downfall of being flooded with tourists, locals or anyone else.
Derinkuyu Underground City
Cappadocia is famous for many things, and one of those things is its abundance of underground cave cities. As with the carved buildings in the Göreme open-air museum, the soft volcanic rock from the volcanic explosions in Cappadocia allowed many ancient groups of people to dig down into the rock and create homes, buildings and even cities that were completely underground. There are a number of underground cities you can visit while travelling through Cappadocia, but if you only have time to visit one, Derinkuyu is the city to visit.
Derinkuyu is currently one of (if not) the largest underground cities that has been discovered and excavated and it is believed that during its heyday, the city had the capacity to accommodate over 20,000 people and all the amenities required for them to live comfortably. Derinkuyu served as a city for so many people, due to the fact that it was able to protect people from harm. Many people inhabited the city during the Byzantine era, as during that time there were many Muslims from the Arab world who would come to Cappadocia during the Arab-Byzantine wars. By having an underground city that could easily be closed off from the outside world, the Byzantine locals could ensure their safety during a time of war.
Today, Derinkuyu welcomes visitors from all over the world and any visit to Derinkuyu will afford you the chance to go down nearly 60-70 metres underground while exploring the different sections of the city that have been excavated and are open to the public. You’ll have the opportunity to see firsthand how the old Byzantine people used to live and how they carved the city out to meet their day-to-day requirements. Some of the tunnels can get tight though, so make sure to always be careful when you’re going from level to level!
Cappadocia Fairy Chimneys
Cappadocia is famed for its unique rock formations, more commonly known as fairy chimneys. In fact when you look at any picture of Cappadocia and its surrounding landscapes, odds are that the landscape will be littered with fairy chimneys as far as the eye can see. As with the rock that Cappadocia’s underground cities have been carved from or the eroded rock that’s paved the way into Pigeon Valley, these fairy chimneys are the result of thousands of years of wind and rain eroding the soft lava rock that covered much of Cappadocia after numerous volcanic explosions.
The best way to get up close and personal with these fairy chimneys is to explore one of the many parks in the region. If you’re based in Göreme during your stay in Cappadocia, this should be easy enough as the city is literally surrounded by fair chimneys wherever you turn. If you have the time then make sure to head over to one of these parks where you’ll have the chance to walk through sets of fairy chimneys and get up close and personal with these natural highlights.
If you’re really lucky, you’ll have the chance to actually visit a local home inside of a fairy chimney. Once again, due to the nature of the soft rock, many houses have been carved into fairy chimneys over the years. This no longer happens, but there are still many old houses inhabited by locals and their families. I was personally lucky enough to have the chance to visit one of these houses and sip tea with the family while they told us some stories about their history in Cappadocia.
Hot Air Balloon Ride
No I couldn’t complete any must-do list in Cappadocia without putting on the famous balloon ride as part of the list. Stereotypical? Maybe. Overcrowded? Sometimes. Worth it? Definitely. Cappadocia may be famous for its hot air balloon rides, but just like with the Taj Mahal & India, or the Eiffel Tower & Paris, there is a reason this activity is synonymous with travelling to Cappadocia.
As amazing as Cappadocia was, there was no greater highlight for me than waking up at 4 in the morning to head over to an empty field and climb into a balloon that would then take me all over Cappadocia as the sun began to rise over the countryside. It’s hard to explain just how breathtaking of an experience this is, although maybe it’s easy to say that it literally just takes your breath away. To be up over 800 metres in the air, with balloons surrounding you for miles and the sun beginning to creep up over Cappadocia’s fairy chimneys is truly a sight to behold.
I was up in the air for about 60 minutes but it was one of those experiences where it simultaneously felt as if I was only in the air for 5 minutes but for an eternity at the same time. At one point we were about one hundred metres in the air and I was snapping away some pictures of the nearby fairy chimneys. I got so caught up in taking pictures that when I looked up from my camera we had somehow gone up to 800 metres about ground level! I saw an article the other day that tagged Cappadocia as one of the most surreal places to visit and if I were to use one word (other than breathtaking) to describe taking a hot air balloon ride over Cappadocia, surreal would be that word. If you’ve made your way down to Cappadocia, there is no way to leave without having had this experience firsthand. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience you’ll never forget.
Bonus – Cappadocia Sunset
Seeing the sunrise over the fairy chimneys is something that cannot be rivaled, but if you want to give it your best shot, make sure to catch the sun setting over Cappadocia at least once. The different shades & hues that you’ll catch reflecting over the Cappadocian sunset is perfect way to finish off a busy day of exploring. Just make sure to grab a glass of chai to enjoy the sunset.
And there you have it! Cappadocia is truly a remarkable place to see in person and if you’re travelling to Turkey it should be at the top of your destination list. In a world filled with similarities, the uniqueness of Cappadocia stands out like no other. Simply put, there’s no where else like Cappadocia in the world.