Cappadocia, ancient district in east-central Anatolia, situated on the rugged plateau north of the Taurus Mountains, in the centre of present-day Turkey. The boundaries of the region have varied throughout history. Cappadocia’s landscape includes dramatic expanses of soft volcanic rock, shaped by erosion into towers, cones, valleys, and caves. Rock-cut churches and underground tunnel complexes from the Byzantine and Islamic eras are scattered throughout the countryside.
The name Cappadocia is now commonly used in the tourism industry to refer to the area that extends roughly from Kayseri west to Aksaray (95 miles [150 km]), where the largest number of monuments are situated. The most-visited attractions include the sprawling underground cites of Derinkuyu and Kaymaklı and Göreme National Park, where there are a large number of rock-cut churches and dwellings. In 1985 Göreme National Park and other rock sites in the area were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Located in the central Anatolian region of Turkey, Cappadocia meaning “the land of beautiful horses” is best known for its unique lunar landscape, underground cities, cave churches and the hot air balloon ride. There are direct flights from Istanbul to Kayseri in Cappadocia that take about 1.5 hours or you can also travel by the overnight bus from Istanbul, which takes about 11 hours. Here’s a list of things to do in Cappadocia:
1. Underground Cities
eneath Cappadocia’s rock formations are underground cities, not just one or two, but 36 of them! Believed to have housed up to 10,000 people each, they were used by the first inhabitants of Cappadocia to escape the harsh winter and wild animals. Later, they became the place of hiding of the first Christians who escaped persecution at the hands of Roman soldiers. I visited Kaymakli Underground City, believed to be the widest one, which consists of eight floors below, out of which only four are open to the public. I was amazed by this architectural masterpiece and the excellent engineering. There was a winery, ventilation shafts, storage rooms, bedrooms, stables, even a church; hard to imagine how they could have built all this with hand tools and no electricity!
Travel Tip: Between rooms there are tunnels where you would need to bend and crouch to get through, so be prepared.
2. Goreme Open Air Museum
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is definitely on my list of top things to do in Cappadocia. From being an important Byzantine monastic settlement that housed monks, to a pilgrimage site from the 17th century, the Goreme Open Air Museum houses some of the finest rock cut churches. These are beautifully painted from inside with murals dating from 900-1200 AD. Even today these wall frescoes retain their original freshness.
Travel Tip: Visit the Dark Church whose walls were long protected by pigeon droppings. Here you will get to see the best examples of Byzantine art, including scenes from the New Testament.
3. Pasabag (Monks Valley)
Pronounced Pah-shah-bah, the area is famous for its peculiar fairy chimneys. These stunning natural structures are the result of erosion that took place millions of years ago and locals often refer to them as mushroom-shaped fairy chimneys. According to folk tales, the area was inhabited by fairies who lived underground, hence the name. Later, monks took refuge there in the early period of Christianity, around 4th to 5th Century.
Travel Tip: In one of the three-headed fairy chimneys, there is a chapel and a seclusion room dedicated to St. Simeon. You can visit the inside of this fairy chimney and even climb to the top.
4. Devrent Valley
As my tour group and I reached the site, our guide told us to let our imagination run wild, for we were in Devrent Valley, also known as Imaginary Valley. Unlike other valleys of Cappadocia, this one does not have cave churches, Roman castles or even tombs; in fact it was never inhabited. What makes it special is the fact that it resembles the moonscape! There are rock pillars that resemble a camel, snake, penguin, seals and dolphin. Don’t believe me? Look closely at the picture above.
Travel Tip: See if you can spot the rock pillar that resembles Virgin Mary holding Jesus Christ, or ask your guide to point it out to you.
5. Pottery And Ceramics Shop In Avanos
The town of Avanos is a bustling area in the city and is located on the shore of the Red River, the longest one in Turkey. It has been the centre for pottery and craft making since the Hittite period. The reddish-brown clay that is harvested from this river is used in the workshops to make exquisite handmade ceramics. You can witness a demonstration by a potter in one of the many family-run pottery shops, and then visit the demonstration workroom, before making your way to the main showroom. I was amazed to learn that the most elaborate pieces can take months to make!
Travel Tip: You will find an endless variety of vases, jugs, ashtrays, figurines and plates here. This is also a great place to shop for souvenirs for friends and family.
6. Stay in a Cave Hotel
Ever wonder how the locals of Cappadocia lived in caves for thousands of years? The many cave hotels give you the opportunity to experience troglodyte lifestyle in luxury. Unlike the hardships faced by the locals then, these boutique hotels come complete with amenities such as Hamams (Turkish baths), fast speed Internet and modern bathrooms. Other features include rock-cut arches, walls patterned with volcanic colour and panoramic terraces with views of the valley.
Travel Tip: Even if for a day, stay in a cave hotel for a unique lodging experience and enjoy Turkish hospitality at its best.
7. Horse Riding
Cappadocia is derived from the ancient Hittite word ‘Katpatuka’, which means “land of beautiful horses”. Clay tablet scriptures dating back to 1460 BC depict the area’s devotion to expert horse breeding. Today, one can explore the unique landscape of Cappadocia on a native Anatolian horse or Arab horse and visit areas where even tour buses can’t pass through.
Travel Tip: Choose between a 2- or 4-hour trail ride and traverse the many fascinating valleys and mountains, ride among apple, apricot and walnut orchards and meet local Turks as you cross ancient villages.
8. Turkish Night
A traditional Turkish night marks the perfect end to a day of sightseeing in Cappadocia. The show highlights the dance traditions of Turkey, complete with traditional costumes and of course scintillating belly dancers. Most of the shows take place in Cappadocia’s cave restaurants. It was fascinating to watch the dancers as they performed the traditional way in which a girl gets married in Turkey. The highlight of the night was the Belly Dancer. Here’s a sneak peek of what I’m talking about.
Travel Tip: To add to the entertainment the belly dancer invites volunteers from the crowd to replicate her dance moves. Join in if you want to be part of the fun!
9. Pottery Kebab
I had read about Cappadocia’s local speciality, the Pottery Kebab, which takes about five hours to cook and requires prior booking. I was obviously not going back without having tasted the dish. FYI: The locals call everything cooked with meat kebab, so don’t get confused. One of the most traditional meals, available in almost every restaurant here, the clay pot meal consists of a ceramic pot filled with meat, vegetables and spices. It is then sealed and baked until all the flavours come together. The end result is a delicious slow cooked meat and vegetable stew.
Travel Tip: You can choose from a range of options: lamb, beef, chicken or vegetables and enjoy it with a serving of rice pilaf.
10. Hot Air Balloon
If you’re wondering why I left this to the end, well the reason is quite obvious; this experience left me on a high (quite literally!). It is one thing to see the dramatic landscape of Cappadocia from the ground, but a whole new experience to see it from above! Soaring above the valleys and dramatic rock formations, peeking into pigeon holes and caves, and floating among a hundred multi-coloured hot air balloons was nothing short of spectacular! There were moments of ooh-ing and aah-ing and at one time all 15 of us on the balloon went absolutely quiet, as we tried to absorb the incredulous beauty that lay before us.
Travel Tip: If weather conditions do not permit, the flight may get cancelled and delayed to the next morning. However, if you do not have another day to fly your money will be refunded.
– As you probably know Cappadocia as we know it today is a result of volcanic eruptions and the erosion that followed. In the summer tours are offered to climb one of the two volcanoes (Hasan Dağ near Aksaray and Erciyes near Kayseri). Join a group for an overnight climb to the top. None of the volcanoes in the area are currently active so you do not need to fear an Iceland adventure.
In winter rent skis and hit the slopes. Erciyes offers a number of runs for the skiing enthusiast. Don’t expect the Swiss Alps, but you can ski on real snow on a volcano at a reasonable price. Take a day and let us know what you think.
* In the heat of summer, you may want to just hang by the pool. If your hotel does not have one, I recommend Göreme Camping (a little off the road to the Open Air Museum, go left after passing the Tourist Hotel) which has a nice pool with 2 fun waterslides. They charge a daily fee. If you want something a little more peaceful many places offer a day rate for their pools.
* One thing that is desperately needed here is a rock climbing / rapelling tour. Much of the rock is difficult because of the flaky sandstone but for someone who knows what they are doing, this is a great place to test your skills.
Turkey is shrouded in history, mystique and legend, and Cappadocia is the jewel in its crown. Come and live your very own Cappadocian dream. I’m glad I did.