A First-Timer’s Guide To Cappadocia, Turkey
I’ve said this before, but getting to visit a place that is #1 on your personal bucket list is quite the heady experience. There’s always a worry that somehow it can never live up to your expectations. But visiting Cappadocia did not disappoint in any way (except some weather, which is what it is).
Ever since I crossed my previous bucket list #1 off (the astounding Petra), Turkey’s Cappadocia has been at the top of the list. I’ve been fascinated by the idea of the caves and fairy chimneys, the history and mystique, and dying to get back and experience Turkey’s amazing food, people, and culture again! So when my 35th birthday rolled around, I planned myself an epic trip through a few parts of Turkey that I wanted to explore.
I spent one full day and two nights (with two mornings) in Cappadocia at the beginning of my week in Turkey. The main pieces are very compact, so this time is adequate for seeing a lot of things in a short time, but you could easily spend a week there and really deeply explore different sites and get out to some lesser-known valleys and caves.
How this post is structured:
- A little history
- How to get there
- How to get around
- Where to stay
- Tips for visiting Cappadocia
- What to see and do
- Sunrise watching the hot air balloons
- Take a hot air balloon ride
- Usichar Castle
- Pigeon Valley
- Panorama Viewpoint near Uchisar Castle
- Love Valley
- Pasabag (Monks) Valley
- Zelve Open Air Museum
- Dervent Valley
- Avanos (and pottery)
- Open Air Museum
- Watching the sunset
- Where to eat and drink
Whew! That’s a lot for a day and a half. So let’s get started.
A history of Cappadocia
Many believe that the name Cappadocia came from a Hittite word meaning “land of the beautiful horses” (though honestly I’m not sure why, because I didn’t really uncover much about horses). The area sat at a crossroads of many highways and cultures, settled by the Hittites in the second millennium BCE, followed by the Assyrians and many others.
Once the Asia Minor region came under Christian influence, the region became a haven for those facing persecution, and Cappadocia has a rich and long Christian history in a largely Muslim country (and region/culture).
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Getting to Cappadocia
While renting a car and driving, as well as taking a bus, are possible, Cappadocia is pretty remote relative to other well-known sites so most people will fly. There are two airports close to equidistant from Cappadocia, Kayseri and Nevşehir. Of the two, Nevşehir is a little closer to Göreme but either will work.
I had booked transportation through my hotel, and it turned out to be a shared shuttle (and, Murphy’s Law, I was the very last drop-off). Given how late I was arriving and the fact that I wasn’t on a tight budget, I’d just do a taxi or private transfer next time…particularly after almost 24 hours of travel to get there. Most hotels do offer transportation for a reasonable fee, so definitely ask.
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How to get around once you’re there
In terms of getting around Cappadocia once you’re there, you have a few different options. Some people come there with a rental car, or rent one. Definitely a solid option, as it gives you complete flexibility on timing and distance. The roads are good and navigating with signs and a map program should be easy enough.
You can take a guided tour, like the famous Red or Green tours, Heritage tour, and more. These are group tours with set itineraries, and definitely give you bang for your buck in terms of getting around and hitting a lot of different places in a short time. I’d considered doing one of these, but wasn’t able to commit to timing and so I hadn’t pulled the trigger.
Lastly, you can do what I did, and use taxis to get around. These can be one-off rides or you can negotiate a fee with one driver for a certain time period and/or to visit a certain number of places. Because I didn’t get started until about 11am, my driver and I negotiated a fee of 300 TL, or about $50 USD (I think it’s usually around 400 TL for the day). Quite frankly I probably could have negotiated him down a bit more but I wasn’t on a tight budget and I felt it was a fair price.
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You’ll see below how many different places I went, including some I didn’t know about (having a local is helpful!), and I was completely in control of timing and itinerary.
There are also some public buses that go between the towns and to some of the famous sites…this wouldn’t be the most time-efficient option, but if you’re on a super tight budget and time isn’t as important then it’s definitely an option.
Where to stay in Cappadocia
I knew I definitely wanted to stay in a cave hotel for my first time in Cappadocia, and after lots of research ended up choosing Mithra Cave Hotel. Overall I loved it and wish I could have stayed longer and actually spent more time in the hotel itself.
The location is perfect, with beautiful panoramic patio views, and the rooms felt cool (though not as “authentic” as my mind wants a cave hotel to be). The service was just fine, not as amazing as the reviews I’d seen indicated. Only real complaint is that the bed and pillows were terrible, but that may not be unique to this hotel. I’ve written a separate post with a detailed review of Mithra (including what other hotels were on my short list) if you’re interested!
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Know before you go: tips for visiting Cappadocia
- Cappadocia refers to a giant region covering five states, and is not an actual town.
- There are 10+ towns that comprise Cappadocia, though when tourists refer to Cappadocia the main towns they usually mean lie within a triangle with Göreme, Ürgüp, and Avanos as the “points”. So towns like Uçhisar and Ortahisar fall within this.
- Cash is king. You will definitely want to make sure you have Turkish lira on you, though finding an ATM at the airport was difficult (I arrived very late at night).
- There were two ATMs right outside Kayseri airport, but I couldn’t get either to work, and I hadn’t been able to find one in the Istanbul airport domestic terminal either.
- Finding ATMs in the town of Goreme is very easy though, and I had my taxi driver take me to one so I could pay him. For my shuttle driver from the airport, I threw myself on his mercy and he was fine taking U.S. dollars (I tipped well!).
- While tipping isn’t as common in Turkey, Cappadocia is a tourist mecca so it’s become fairly normal there. You should be fine with 5-10%, or rounding up.
- If you book hot air balloon, they usually make a call by around 2:00pm the day before on whether they will go, based on the weather—though it can still get derailed in the morning based on conditions.
- It’s very important to have the contact info for the company and call them right away to try and re-book if it gets cancelled. They will not automatically re-book you, and I recommend having several back-up companies to call in that case as well. I wasn’t able to go because I didn’t have my act together here and my balloon flight was cancelled.
- Looks can be deceiving. Restaurants that look really cheesy are often the better ones and ones that look “authentic” are crap.
And a few additional tips on packing…
- Glad I brought my sweater and jacket! I was visiting in mid-September and the mornings were quite cold…it was 36 F the morning I went out and watched the sun rise.
- Proper shoes are important if you’re planning to explore any of the rock formations, hiking trails, or even just panoramic viewpoints. The rock can get very slippery, so be careful and definitely avoid flip flops and anything with slick soles.
- The sun is quite strong here, even when it’s not summer. Make sure to always have water with you, and wear sunscreen! Here are some of my favorite sunscreens for travel in summer, as well as Korean face sunscreens I’m in love with year-round.
What to do in Cappadocia
I knew I would have two mornings in Cappadocia, so planned to do a hot air balloon ride the first morning and then watch the balloons rise at sunrise the second morning—if everything worked out. Sadly, neither of those worked out due to wind conditions. I did get a gorgeous sunrise (minus balloons) as a consolation prize, though.
First and foremost, watch the sunrise
As I mentioned at the outset, Cappadocia was a bucket list trip for me, and one of the things stuck in my head was watching the sunrise…over those cliffs and valleys…like people have on that spot for millennia. Ideally with hot air balloons rising in the air, but you can’t win ’em all.
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I got up early and threw on jeans, a sweater, and my coat and ventured out into the cold. Seriously, COLD. It was about 36 F (mid-September) and I was so glad I hadn’t gone the glamorous dress and photoshoot route.
The hotel (like most that have a rooftop) offers an area you can reserve and they bring out a fancy-looking table of food for your photos. It’s not for actually *eating*, just for show.
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If you want your own photo shoot with the fruit later, they usually leave the “breakfast” out for a while…I stumbled upon it mid-morning and snagged a couple shots.
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On my first morning in Cappadocia, after my hot air balloon ride was a no-go, I got showered and dressed and decided to go see as much of the area as I could.
Caffeinate, then get out and see the sights
But first—coffee. I found a coffee stand near the taxi drivers that had a good rating (called Black World) and then grabbed a taxi over to Uchisar Castle. I had a few places on my list for the day and just planned to cab between them, but my driver, Osman, asked me what I had planned. I told him a few places, and he asked if I just wanted him to take me around all day, and then rattled off a longer list of sights.
We negotiated price (I got a break since it was later in the day, so wouldn’t be an all-day thing) and then were off…and I’m so happy I did! My only bummer for this day full of sight-seeing is that it was a gloomy and overcast day—imagine how gorgeous these pics would have been with blue skies behind them!!!
About 5 km from Goreme, Uçhisar Castle is the highest fairy chimney around, so you’ve got some great panoramic views (which makes it a popular sunrise or sunset spot). There’s a small entry fee (9 TL or about $1.50 USD).
All of the holes you can see in the tower used to be rooms and passageways in the castle (though now home to some very posh pigeons). You do climb up inside part of it, but most of what you can see is outside, as the rooms aren’t accessible due to erosion.
This is walkable from Goreme, on a scenic 2.5-mile path. I didn’t do this, but apparently it’s still pretty easy to get lost, and if you do, a friendly local named Ahmet will rescue you and show you the way (many people rave about him, and it’s nice to tip him if he helps you).
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I didn’t spend tons of time here (partly because the gray sky made it less photogenic), but this post from Wanderers and Warriors has more info on some great photo spots if you’re interested.
Very close to Uchisar Castle is Pigeon Valley, which…I don’t think it’s hard to see why it’s named that 🙂 It’s actually named for all the man-made tiny pigeon cave houses (dovecotes) that were used to attract pigeons to the valley, both for food and because their poop was used to help fertilize the soil. Ah, the things you learn…
This was a short stop for me, but grabbed some nice photos. It definitely was more crowded than the castle had been (and is easily walkable from the castle). Many people walk and hike through the valley as well.
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Panoramic Viewpoint (base of Uchisar Castle)
Our next stop was just a couple minutes away. This is annoying because the name is so generic, both Google and people in general can get confused about it. So this is effectively a viewpoint of a valley that connects Uchisar Castle to somewhere, and it was one of my favorite photography stops (though again, imagine this with blue skies!!!).
Osman dropped me off above where there were some little stands and some crowds, and I was able to walk down a set of stairs and explore all the paths through the caves and fairy chimneys.
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Our next stop was Love Valley, which is about 10 minutes from Goreme and 15 from Uchisar. While the landscape here is stunning, the stop itself definitely felt more touristy, with little spots set up as “Instagram shots”.
It’s called Love Valley because the fairy chimneys are in the shape of a man’s private parts. Yeah, I’m going to just leave that there…
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If you have time, you can hike down into the valley and see everything up close. In general, the area is very open to people hiking and walking wherever they want…but always at your own risk!
Pasabag (Monks) Valley
This is one of the most famous places to visit in Cappadocia (along with the Open Air Museum), and is free to enter. The fairy chimneys here are quite peculiar, with “mushroom heads” that were formed millennia ago due to erosion (and have inspired many fairytale legends as well).
Because of that, there are more crowds, but only in a few spots…if you break off on your own, you can feel like you have the place to yourself. Most people come here with tour groups of anywhere from 20 to 40 people, but just be patient and they’ll wander away (and you’ll have a few minutes before another arrives).
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The nickname “Monks Valley” is the result of monks living in these caves during the early 2nd and 3rd century AD, and you can see the tiny windows and rooms at the top of the fairy chimneys where they lived.
There are quite a few local legends tied to the fairy chimneys here. One of them is St. Simeon Church (the first pic below), named after a hermit who lived near Aleppo during the 400s AD. Because they heard he could perform miracles, many people sought him out, and he hated it so much that he decided to live at the top of one of the columns here in Pasabag Valley and only come down occasionally for food and drink.
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Zelve Open Air Museum
This one was a total surprise for me, as it hasn’t come up in my pre-trip research at all. 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. It was a monastic retreat between the 9th and 13th centuries, and a peaceful integrated Christian and Muslim community into the 1920s.
The rock formations, cave houses and churches, and more are absolutely amazing and I think a visit here is a must. I’ve written a detailed post on visiting Zelve if you’re panning your visit!
One thing that’s great about Zelve is how big it is (about 4x bigger than the famous Open Air Museum in Göreme). It’s also almost empty compared to some of the well-known sites, which is awesome…I felt like I had it all to myself.
There’s a little food shop in the parking lot of Zelve where you can see gozleme made the traditional way. Gozleme is an Anatolian flatbread filled with cheese, meat, or a combination of fillings. It’s simple and delicious, a perfect snack.
I watched as these women rolled out the dough CRAZY thin with sure, practiced movements that proved how they’d done this thousands of times. Then some fillings, folding, and they cooked it on a special convex griddle. Delish!
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Avanos used to be a Hittite/Assyrian settlement famous for their pottery, and it still is famous for that today in Turkey. I hadn’t planned to purchase any ceramics on this trip, to keep my luggage manageable (and because I bought tons in Istanbul a few years ago), but there was a stunning, delicate turquoise owl that I couldn’t resist.
I don’t have any photos of this, because my stop here, which was at a well-known pottery store. I got to watch an apprentice “throw” a vase with lid on the pottery wheel freeform (and powered with just his feet), and it was SO COOL. I didn’t take video or photos even though I was dying to, because it would have felt weird and touristy to do so, but it was a super cool thing to watch. He was so confident and skillful!
Let me drop a little history on you, because I found it fascinating: “The name Avanos was originally “Venassa-Nanassa” during the Assyrian period, then changed to “Zu-Vinessa” during the Hittite era, which then evolved into Enez – Evenez – Uvenez during the Seljuk times, and to Vanote during the Byzantine rule. It was changed to Avanos during the Ottoman times.” I wish I could remember where I sourced that from so I could link to it. My taxi driver told me the exact same thing though. I basically found out that my niece Vanessa’s name is Hittite 🙂
This was a quick stop, and fine but incredibly skippable in my opinion. Devrent is famous for rock formations in the shape of animals, like the camel below. That was the only one I really saw that looked like an animal, but also at a certain point all the rock formations start to look the same 🙂 Kids would probably love it here.
Gorëme Open Air Museum
The Open Air Museum was one of the first UNESCO World Heritage sites in Turkey, and has been part of that list since 1984. This is probably the most iconic view and most popular place to visit in Gorëme, full of rock-cut churches, monastic complexes, frescoes, and more. The majority date back to the 10th-12th centuries.
Osman dropped me off here, but it would have been easily walkable from Gorëme otherwise (about a mile from the main hotels). Generally the museum is open from 8a to 6p (5p in winter) and cost as I recall was 45 TL (or $8 USD) per person, but it may vary. If you’re trying to avoid the crowds, get there right when it opens, as the big tour groups start pouring in around 8:30. You might also get lucky in late afternoon or early evening, and the light is supposed to be good then for photos. I was there around 3pm and it was still super crowded—I was actually surprised at how small the museum was after experiencing Zelve.
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In addition to all the fairy chimneys, the museum is also known for having dozens of fresco-decorated caves. One that many people mentioned when I was researching was Karanlik Church, where the vibrant depictions of Christ still look crisp and a lot like they would have when they were first painted in the 11th century.
Probably the most famous is the Dark Church, considered the most preserved of the cave churches. There’s an extra fee if you want to visit the Dark Church (10 TL per person), but I skipped this. You should not take photos inside many of the cave churches, and you should be quiet inside to be respectful.
Sunset Point for sunset
There are a lot of great places to watch the sunset, so I’m not saying this is the best one. In fact, several of the places I’ve shown here so far would also be amazing (Uchisar Castle, Love Valley, etc.). But I was short on time and so needed to go somewhere close, and also wanted to try a place I hadn’t been yet.
Pro tip: It gets chilly and windy fast up here, bring a jacket!
Apparently there are two Sunset Points, but this one is in Göreme and locals will generally know which one you’re looking for. I got up there plenty before sunset and walked around. It had been cloudy most of the day, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. It looked like a bust at first, but eventually a bit of a sunset developed.
I had made a dinner reservation, so had to move quickly to get down for it, so didn’t sit and luxuriate in the twilight views.
Where to eat in Cappadocia
Despite doing some research ahead of time, my food experiences in Cappadocia were very much a mixed bag. That’s partly I think due to the factor that I mentioned in my “tips” section…it was really tough to tell what places were good and which were touristy. The ones that looked cheesy often were good, and the ones that looked classy or authentic were usually touristy.
After all my sightseeing, the blue skies finally peeked out, and so I wanted to take advantage of the sunshine. I found Viewpoint Cafe and Restaurant, which has a lovely covered rooftop patio. A glass of local red and some yaprak sarma (stuffed grape leaves) really hit the spot after all the running around.
This is one thing I wish I’d done differently. For my one night in Cappadocia I wanted to do a nice dinner, and ended up getting hooked on the idea of doing the testi kebab, or “pottery kebab”. It’s made of meat and vegetables cooked in a sealed clay pot, and then they break the top at your table as part of the experience. It’s a local specialty that’s been “tourist-ified”, and everyone will tell you a different place is the best.
You have to order it ahead of time since it takes hours to make, and I couldn’t get a reservation at a few places I wanted. I ended up making a reservation at Inci Cave Restaurant. But come to find out, Inci makes their testi ahead and just warm it up…so kind of defeats the purpose. The appetizer I had was really good, hot pastrami on hummus, and I enjoyed the Turkish red wine. The testi kebab itself was just meh though. I wish I’d just picked a restaurant with a great menu and done that instead rather than seeking out the testi kebab.
Pro tip: watch out for pottery shards in your testi kebab…chew carefully!!!
You know I’m serious about my coffee, and the hotel’s wasn’t cutting it for me. The first morning I found a coffee truck/stand called Black World Coffee Shop, near the taxi stands. The people there were super nice and chatty.
On my last morning, it was a Sunday and a lot of places weren’t open. I really wanted to get not just coffee, but also some börek, pastry made of thing phyllo dough and stuffed with cheese, sometimes spinach or meat. Sometimes it’s super crisp and flaky, and other times soft and super buttery. I’d seen Nazar Borek and Cafe recommended, but it wasn’t open that morning.
I finally found M & M Cafe, which looked so cheesy but was super charming inside and had yummy borek and good cappuccino. There were a lot of locals popping in, which is always a good sign in my book.
After my testi kebab dinner, I decided to find dessert elsewhere, and ended up at King’s Coffee Shop for a delicious tres leches cake (made by the owner’s wife) and tea. I wish I could have come back for my morning coffee, but they weren’t open the next morning.
It’s a tiny little cafe with delicious desserts, many unique tea options, and supposedly-amazing coffee. Definitely check this place out!!!
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I hope I’ve shown how much you can see and do in just a day or two in the Cappadocia region! This is such an amazing trip, whether you’re a solo traveler or with friends or family. I hope to return to Cappadocia sometime in the future (particularly since my hot air balloon adventures didn’t work out!) so let me know in the comments if you have questions, or recommendations for my next visit!
Other bucket list places you’ll love:
- My previous bucket list #1: A Guide to Petra, Jordan
- Quiet, Cold, Love: Dog Sledding in Norway’s Arctic Circle
- Snorkeling Between Continents in Iceland’s Silfra Fissure
- An Otherworldly Desert Adventure in Wadi Rum, Jordan
- Hiking New Zealand’s Hooker Valley Track
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