Visiting Cappadocia and seeing the famous caves and fairy chimneys in the area had been on my bucket list for years (and featured in my 2019 places I’m dying to visit). And after my trip, the one place I invariably told people had completely surprised me was Zelve Open Air Museum.
It hadn’t been on my radar at all, and barely showed up in my research as more than a mention. My taxi driver decided to take me here on a 3-4 hour itinerary after we visited Avanos and Pasabeg Valley, and I’m so happy he did!
I was bummed that I had a gloomy and overcast day for my Cappadocia explorations—imagine how this would pop with blue skies!—but it did lend a moody and dramatic air at times.
Two of the things I loved about Zelve was its size (it’s about 4x bigger than the famous Open Air Museum in Göreme), and how empty it was. There were a handful of people scattered throughout the park but I felt like I had it all to myself. It’s a very different feel from the smaller and more claustrophobic Open Air Museum…which I still enjoyed, but just contrasting the experience.
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What is Zelve Open Air Museum?
The cliffs and caves of Zelve once housed one of the largest communities in this region, with an insane cave town. The cave houses and churches dot the landscape as far as the eye can see, and showcase the oldest examples of Cappadocian architecture and religious paintings.
The valley was a monastic retreat between the 9th and 13th centuries, and Cappadocia’s first seminaries to train priests were located here at the monastery. Both Christians and Muslims lived here as a peaceful integrated community until 1924 (when Christians had to leave), and the Muslims had to leave in the 1950s when safety became an issue due to erosion and an earthquake.
Weird fact: apparently they filmed the Nicholas Cage film “Ghost Rider 2” here. So if you’re a fan…
How to get to Zelve
Zelve Open Air Museum is about 6 miles from Goreme, near Avanos (about 3 miles from Avanos and only a half mile or so from Pasabeg, or Monks, Valley). You’ll either want your own car, or you can hire a taxi to take you—it shouldn’t be expensive from Goreme or the surrounding towns, and will take about 15 minutes. Another option (what I did) was to hire a taxi driver for a few hours…they can take you around to several different sites for an agreed-upon price.
There is parking on site (2 TL fee I believe). As of 2019 it cost 15 TL (about $3 USD) to enter the museum.
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I entered the park and came to a fork in the main path. You can go to the left toward Valley I, or to the right toward Valley III. It doesn’t matter which you choose because it’s a full loop either way. But I took the left fork and went around clockwise.
Zelve Valley I
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You’ll see signs for the Church with Grapes (Uzumlu Kilise), a symbol representing Christ and the Church with Fishes (Balikli Kilise). This valley also includes the town square and larger cave where they believe the community held important events. I was obsessed with this view…you can seen a couple people in the pics below for size perspective.
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As you start up the steps toward Valley II, make sure you turn around and snap a few pics of Valley I from that angle…it really shows you how big it is! I love those spiky fairy chimney tops too.
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One thing that Zelve Open Air Museum does not have is the really vivid paintings and frescoes that other places have…if you’re looking for that, Zelve might not be your best bet.
From here you’ll head up a staircase toward Valley II. This part of the hike is cool in aggregate but there aren’t as many specific things to point out. The valley opens really wide and so you get to see how vast it feels.
It was about this time I was kicking myself for not bringing any water with me…thank goodness it wasn’t a hot day!
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My energy levels picked up here, because Valley 3 is really cool! All of the sudden the amount and variety of caves and fairy chimney peaks went nuts. There’s also a mosque and a monastery.
I believe this structure is called the Church of the Deer. Zelve had a few plaques and postings throughout to let you know about bits of the history and the buildings, but it’s not super thorough. So if you want to know more about what you’re looking at I’d recommend doing some research ahead of time.
I loved this view in particular. I was struck by how great of a visit this would be for families with active kids. As long as you keep an eye on them and don’t let them fall off a cliff or get lost in the caves, it’s really a very wild-feeling place and perfect for exploring.
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Watching traditional gozleme made
When I came out of the museum, my taxi driver asked me if I wanted a snack (always YES) and if I’d like to see gozleme made the traditional way (UM YES). He took me over to a small cafe (on your left as you’re driving into the parking lot) and introduced me to the women there.
Gozleme is an Anatolian flatbread filled with cheese, meat, or a combination of fillings. It’s very simple and delicious, and you’ll find it all over parts of Turkey. I got to watch as they rolled out the dough CRAZY thin with sure, practiced movements. I could tell she’d done it literally thousands of times. Then she added some fillings, folded it, and they cooked it on a special convex griddle.
So delicious and satisfying with a cup of hot sweet black tea!
Zelve was such a surprise and I’m so happy that I visited…I can’t believe it didn’t really show up at all in my research before my trip, so I wanted to share my experience so you don’t make the same mistake!
Tips for visiting Zelve Open Air Museum
- You could spend as much time here as you want, exploring tons of tiny paths. But if you’re going the main loop path at a fairly brisk pace then about an hour should do it.
- The entry fee was (as of 2019) 15 TL or about $3 USD.
- No drones are allowed here.
- Tennis shoes or something comfy with a good grip are recommended, but the path is good quality. If it’s a sunny or warm day, I recommend bringing water in with you. And sunscreen!!
- You can stay anywhere in the area, but I absolutely loved Mithra Cave Hotel in Göreme
Other landscapes you’ll love:
- A Breathtaking Sunrise at Bryce Canyon National Park
- Iceland’s Reynisfjara Beach & Dyrhólaey Cliffs
- Ascending Colombia’s El Peñol Rock
- An Otherworldly Desert Adventure in Wadi Rum
- Exploring Historic Fort Jefferson In Dry Tortugas National Park
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