Follow the Silk Road to Underground Cities and Magic Carpet Rides in Cappadocia
Plus fairy chimneys, thermal pools, and lots of foam.
What would happen if our hot air balloon hit one of the tall, narrow pinnacles of rock? Would the pillowy bag of air just bounce off the mushroom-shaped spire and we’d continue drifting whichever way at the whim of the winds? Would the basket overturn and we’d all fall from thousands of feet to our deaths in the beautiful and strange valley of Cappadocia?
These were the thoughts I innocently mused over long after I watched the ground retreat from under our feet, rising up as objects below got smaller and smaller while, at the same time, the vistas grew bigger and bigger. All the "fairy chimney" rock formations this region of Turkey is known for look even more wondrous when you're able to see miles more of the hoodoos, gliding between them with hundreds of other balloons at your side. And all the while, the light from the sunrise keeps changing the view every five minutes, illuminating all the glowing lavenders and pinks that define the region—the same colors that dominate Cappadocia’s iconic hand-woven rugs.
Travelers often take the ancient Silk Road to get to Cappadocia, once a thoroughfare for spice trading and fairytale thieves. You can wander markets full of oil lamps, perfumes, and Turkish carpets (and hopefully find some magic ones), fill up on fistfulls of hazelnuts, plump fresh figs, fish from the Black Sea, lentil soup with bright bursts of lemon, and juicy kebabs. The former final stop of the old-timey Orient Express train, Turkiye is the place where Europe ends and Asia begins, hovering over the tip top of Africa just across the Levantine Sea, blending together a bit of each of the three continents. Here, cultures and ancient religions once clashed, molding the land into preserved tombs of time.
April through May and mid-September through November are the ideal times to visit, when it’s not too hot—in other words, now is the time to go. Here are all the soaring heights, deep underground depths, wide hoodoo-filled landscapes, long winding roads, dusty ancient cities, and steamy thermal pools to explore on your next visit to Cappadocia.
Wander the Pamukkale terraces and other ruins
Greece has around 200 ancient Roman sites and Italy has about 300—Turkey has 556. You can thank the lack of humidity for preserving those time-honored cities. You can also thank the fact that Constantinople (now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople) was once the capital of the Roman Empire, which used to cover much of Europe, Asia, and Africa.
For a day trip, about a seven hour drive from the Cappadocia region, Pamukkale is an absolute must. The ruins here sit atop bone white cliffs—practically glaring in the desert sun—and dotted with milky blue thermal pools. The ancient city of Hierapolis was built onto the cliffs of Pamukkale (which translates to “Cotton Palace'') in the 2nd century BCE. And while other Helenistic cities have tributes to their Athenas and their Zueses, Pamukkale is the only place in the world that has a temple dedicated to Hades, the god of the underworld—arguably a much more badass deity. People once believed the gates of hell were located here, due to a poisonous gas that rose from the ground and mysteriously killed anyone who came near, sending them to the River Styx with coins on their eyelids to pay the ferryman. The poisonous gas area is now completely closed off, though you can still walk around the ruins and enormous, intact amphitheater, with or without the spooky lore.
But the real reason most people come to Pamukkale might be the thermal pools in the travertine terraces. These pale blue pools cascade down the white cliffs in varying temperatures. In fact, the waters (once thought to be healing) are what turned the rock snow white in the first place, thanks to crystals formed from the calcium bicarbonate. Some of the old pools have solidified into white petrified waterfalls. Though people aren’t allowed to fully swim in them, visitors can wade through the waters barefoot, many clad in bathing suits, soaking up that healing goodness through their toes. Plus, the views simply sparkle.
If you’re willing to venture a little further, the ruins of Ephesus (dating to around 3,000 BCE) is home to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Temple of Artemis, along with one of the era’s largest libraries.
And then, of course, there’s Troy. Whether you’ve seen Brad Pitt portraying the warrior Achillies, had to read Homer’s The Iliad in ninth grade, or only caught the Wishbone version where a precocious Jack Russel acts out the story, you may have heard of the Trojan horse, Helen of Troy, and the city’s fateful fall. There’s not much left of Troy these days, but foundations of the buildings give you a sense of the stories that lurk beneath the dirt (which archeologists are still excavating, by the way). It’s closer to Istanbul than Cappadocia, but Trafalgar tackles the whole route on one of their Highlights of Turkey tours, if you want to see it all.
Get scrubbed down in a Turkish bath
The Romans clearly made a big impression in this region, leaving a column here and a coliseum there across more than 20 countries. One key lasting tradition the ancient powerhouse inspired is what’s now known as the Turkish bath. And it sure would be a shame to leave the country without experiencing a proper hamman.
Utilizing the old Roman bathhouses but wisely nixing the public bathing part, the Turks decided to incorporate individual sessions—and then added a lot of foam. It’s a simple process in which someone essentially washes you while you sit back and relax.
If you want to go the fully private route, you can book your own steam room where you get naked (disposable underwear provided) and lay on top of a warm marble slab. Then your assigned attendant pours jugs of warm water on you, scrubs your skin with an exfoliating pad, and piles about a foot of foam on top of your body. After rubbing in the slippery soap, you’re treated to another round of hot water rinsing until you’re shiny and smooth. From there, you can elect to add in massages, face masks, or a soak in different temperature-controlled pools, if that’s available.
Ascend on a magic (carpet) balloon ride
Why, it’s fair to ask, do so many hot air balloons rise into the sky every single day in Cappadocia? Well, you could say it’s because one person did it and then everyone else realized how great of an idea that was. Or maybe it’s because visitors wanted to experience what it would feel like if one of those hand-woven carpets really did become magic and fly through the air.
But there’s another, admittedly more legitimate reason: You can’t drive the Fairy Chimneys Valley by car, so gliding through from above allows you to make the most of it, covering huge areas and giving an incredible perspective of the hoodoos. Plus, the mountains, volcanoes, and wide open deserts aren’t bad to look at either.
The balloons go up to 5,000 feet in the air, rising with the sun. As with most any hot air balloon adventure, guests arrive before dawn to see their rides being inflated, with jets of fire flashing in the darkness. Then they lift off, flickering like fireflies just as a soft light starts to rim the horizon. As expert pilots steer you through valleys and intimidatingly close to rock formations, the sun creates quite the colorful light show across the sky and the sands.
The balloons land (gently with a soft kiss to the Earth, in my case) about an hour later in full daylight. Some companies like Kapadokya Balloons even offer cherry juice mimosas on the spot to celebrate the landing. There’s also a full-blown hot air balloon festival accompanied by a music festival each May, where hundreds of balloons in strange shapes drift across the sky—but here, almost every day feels like a festival.
Hike like you’ve landed on Mars
So what’s the deal with the Fairy Chimneys? In case you’re wondering how they got here, we’ll do some really fast science: Cappadocia is surrounded by three volcanoes (Erciyes, Hasan and Melendiz Dağları) that exploded at different times and covered the land in volcanic ash. This ash hardened into rock that was then eroded by wind into pillars around 13 million BCE.
Each major explosion created a unique layer of rock that was shaped a bit differently along the column. Because of this, some say the spires look like tall mushrooms. Others might hint at a more suggestive shape, as insinuated in one of the region’s nicknames—Love Valley. But we challenge you to spy other shapes as well, like the one known as “the camel.”
You can hike amid the chimneys across Göreme National Park, Love Valley, Red Valley, Avcilar Valley, and Ihlara Valley. Ihlara also has rivers running through it, the only spot around that’s green and leafy. Red Valley has a gondola and is popular for watching the sunset, the tan hills turning a subtle purple sheen as twilight descends.
In addition to hiking, you can head off on a Jeep safari, ride ATVs, mountain bike, and horseback ride—a fitting activity, as Cappadocia’s name means “the place of beautiful horses.”
Wander around underground cities
After experiencing such great heights, it’s time to dive down below to explore caves and other underground sites. There are 200 underground cities in Cappadocia, places where residents carved out homes below and within the rock formations. People first started going underground in this area around 1700 BCE to escape religious persecution and hide from attacks and harsh weather. At one point, around 1,500 people lived in the area’s largest city.
Climbing into one of the deep ones in Saratli, it’s easy for the mind to fill dark holes with imaginary bats. The residents used oil lamps and torches along the corridors, had food and water supplies for six months at a time if they needed to hide for a while, and built air ventilation and communication systems to send messages echoing underground to everyone. Summers are extremely hot and winters are extremely cold, but the caves stay insulated with the soft volcanic ash.
The underground cities were largely abandoned around the 1600s, but you can still see the windows on numerous rock formations and walk around the old cave rooms. 36 of these cities are open to visitors, and about 35 to 40 families still live in the chimneys today as private homes.
Many caves throughout the region have been turned into hotels and even night clubs. The Museum Hotel in Göreme is a beautiful example, where rugged stone walls meet modern, high-end luxuries. And the tastefully designed Kale Konak in Uçhisar is an extremely authentic cave hotel (AKA you have to climb many steps to get there) and is located right next to a castle.
Eat in taverns along the Silk Road
There’s something romantic about the Silk Road, like a hazy, perfumed dream. Used for moving silk from China and spices from India since about 100 BCE, it was once a hub of activity. Since transporting merchandise over inland roads globally was much more dangerous than going by sea due to OG highway robberies (as fictionalized in stories like Robin Hood or Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves), the government decided to make a route that would be safer. So they made the Silk Road. This road was elevated to help people see further distances, and was littered with numerous protected taverns called caravanserais. Merchants could stop at a caravanserai along their journey and stay the night in the locked building, enjoying a bed and a meal in total safety.
The same road is still used today, while many caravanserais have been transformed into modern hotels, museums, and restaurants. Open since the 1200s, the Sultan Han Caravanserai is now a museum with modern art exhibits inside. Caravanserai Cave Hotel is another former caravanserais that still operates as a hotel. Hungry? Try Hanedan to feel like you’re dining in a great hall among strangers a la Medieval Times. Ziggys Cafe in Urgup is an excellent option, complete with locally made wine and a delicious mezze spread. Take advantage of the outdoor seating on top of the building, spread across different levels overlooking the cliffs, which are lit up in glowing orange lights at night.
For other traditional area restaurants, check out Bizim Ev, where servers light mini clay pot dishes on fire at your table; Sira, where you can get a curated wine pairing with every dish; and the humble Zerdali, a woman-owned restaurant dishing up stellar pide (Turkish pizza) and many vegan options—as soon as you walk in, you can smell spice in the air. For more upscale and contemporary fare, check out Seki in the Argos hotel, Elai, Lil’a, and Seten, where delicately crafted bites come with sweeping outdoor balcony views of the desert and surrounding rock formations.
If you get the chance, one can’t-miss dish to sample is yogurt topped with a dollop of gooey honey and sprinkled with what the area purveyor’s cheekily refer to as opium seeds. Supposedly there’s no real mind-altering effect, since these are just poppy seeds, after all—the drug is in the root rather than the seeds—but it tastes damn good all the same.