Three volcanic peaks – Erciyes, Hasan and Melendiz Dağları – dominate Cappadocia. Their compressed volcanic ash has eroded over millions of years, forming dusty valleys and fairy chimneys. With a stay in Göreme – one of few local settlements where cave dwellings are still inhabited – it’s possible to explore the highlights of Cappadocia in two action-packed days.
Hoping to experience this unique landscape for yourself? Book a spot on Culture Trip’s exclusive 12-day tour of Turkey, where you’ll glide above Cappadocia in a hot-air balloon, hike through Koprulu Canyon National Park and navigate the thronging markets of Istanbul.
Start your day at Sunrise Point to watch the early-morning hot-air balloons set off across the Göreme valley. From here, make your way uphill to the rock-cut churches of the Göreme Open-Air Museum. These chapels, built during the Byzantine era around the ninth and 10th centuries, house colourful biblical frescoes – from the Karanlık Kilise (Dark Church), named for its lack of windows, to the nine-domed Elmalı Kilise (Apple Church), with scenes of bishops, saints and martyrs. The largest church in Göreme, Tokalı Kilise (Church of the Buckle), features murals in its main nave.
Venture into the dusty wilds of Göreme National Park after lunch, stopping at Zelve Open-Air Museum. Zelve was once a monastic retreat and village inhabited until the 1950s; now abandoned, the sinewy slopes of the valley hide caverns, hoodoos and chapels – such as Üzümlü Kilise (Grape Church) and Balıklı Kilise (Fish Church). You’ll find stalls selling gözleme (stuffed flatbreads) and fresh fruit juice nearby – the perfect respite after walking the trail that loops around the valley.
From here, continue on to Devrent, a seven-minute drive away. Unlike other Cappadocia valleys, Devrent, or Imaginary Valley, was never inhabited. Instead of caverns and churches, here you’ll find incredible pink rock formations carved by the wind. Many of these fairy chimneys are shaped like animals – look out for a dolphin, praying Mary and the camel that guards the entrance.
After an afternoon exploring the almost lunar landscape, you can catch the sunset at Aşıklar Vadisi, otherwise known as Love Valley. This valley is euphemistically named for its phallic rock formations, which stand tall above the dusty soil. These weathered pillars are best viewed in the gentle rose hues of sunset. Most visitors stay on the overlook, but an amble between these giant rock spires is worth it if you have more time. A taxi ride back to Göreme will only take 10 minutes.
Rise early for the essential Cappadocia experience: a sunrise hot-air balloon tour. Balloons fly for around 250 days every year thanks to consistently good weather, with more than 100 balloons setting sail every morning. It’s the most popular activity in the region, so make sure to book far in advance.
They reach heights of up to 900m (2,952ft), allowing you to float in the morning stillness above pillars, ridges and spires – gaining a bird’s-eye perspective of the valley networks you likely explored the day before. Expect to be airborne for 60-90 minutes, with some glorious views over the region’s famous valleys: Red, Rose, Meskender, Love and Pigeon.
A hot-air-balloon ride is included as an optional activity on our small-group Turkey adventure, curated specially for culturally curious travellers.
Take the short, 30-minute journey south of Göreme this afternoon to explore some of Cappadocia’s subterranean cities. Derinkuyu and Kaymaklı, a two-hour walk apart above ground, were once connected by miles of tunnels. Both are astonishingly complex labyrinths, inhabited since the eighth century BCE; at its peak, Derinkuyu was large enough to shelter 20,000 people along with their food stores and livestock. Underground, you’ll encounter stables, churches and grape presses – although only a fraction of the caves have been rediscovered.
Originally a stable, this restored 475-year-old building now houses a traditional restaurant serving local food. Enjoy homemade mantı (Turkish ravioli) and kurufasulye (dried white beans) while seated on floor cushions – and don’t miss the kayısı tatlısı (stuffed apricots) for dessert. The highlight of the menu is the testi kebabı (pottery kebab), an Anatolian speciality cooked in a sealed clay pot for at least four hours – when served, the pot is cracked open with a hammer at the table.
Where to stay
With this central Göreme stay, you’ll have easy access to the sights. Carus combines restored historic buildings and ancient rock dwellings to offer 39 terraced suites and 11 cave rooms. Each of these spaces highlights unique historic features – rock alcoves, vaulted ceilings and original fireplaces – offset with modern furniture, art and, in some, standalone baths. Carus is one of the best hotels in Cappadocia, and the concierge will arrange your hot-air-balloon tour as well as private transport to the underground cities.
This is an updated version of an article originally by Feride Yalav-Heckeroth.
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