Cappadocia is the type of place you see in a photo once and it stays with you forever. At least, that’s what happened to me. Years after seeing an online photo of Ortahisar, one of the fortresses cut into Cappadocia’s iconic rock formations, I finally booked a flight to Cappadocia on our way home from South Africa.
It’s interesting to see another side of Turkey. Previously, I’d only been to Istanbul, one of my favorite cities in the world, partly because it seems like the center of everything. Meanwhile, Cappadocia is so dependent upon international tourists that it very much feels like not the center of the world; instead, Cappadocia is a reflection of the rest of the world. We were two of the few non-Chinese/Russian tourists, and almost every Cappadocian we met is learning Mandarin because Chinese tourism is so vital to the region.
Our flight from Istanbul only took an hour and a half, and from there, a shuttle that we had booked through our hotel drove us an hour into Göreme, one of the towns that makes up Cappadocia. Cappadocia refers to an entire region, and while the name originated during the 6th century B.C., only those in the tourism industry still use it today to characterize the region.
Cappadocia plays a critical role in the history of Christianity and is dotted with hundreds of churches. Christians fleeing religious persecution during the Holy Roman Empire moved here, building monasteries and homes inside chimney-like rock formations, which are a product of volcanic eruptions and erosion.
We hired a private guide for a full day since we only had a short time there, and the sites are fairly spread out. Our first stop was Kaymakli, an underground city connected by dozens of tunnels. We learned first-hand how impeccably planned these cities were. Stables were located on the top floor to direct animal smells to the outside, as well as to trick enemies into thinking only animals were housed there. These cities were eight floors deep, but only a fraction of them are currently open to the public. We had fun scurrying through the tunnels, which led past chapels, bedrooms, kitchens, storage rooms, and graves.
After climbing back up to daylight again, we visited Love Valley, famous for its phallic-shaped rock formations. (Yes, rock-hard penises!) It’s hard to believe that these are natural, but they really were formed as a result of ancient volcanic eruptions millions of years ago, covering the region with thick ash that solidified into soft rock, which was then eroded into these odd shapes due to wind and rain.
For lunch, our guide took us to Büyük Adana Kebap, where we tried adana kebap (grilled ground lamb) spread over a long soft pita, served with roasted pepper and tomato, all of which we rolled up to bite. I can’t think of a more ideal lunch than this. In typical Turkish style, our entire table was covered by little plates of dishes I couldn’t name.
Our next hour was spent at Goreme Open Air Museum, a vast complex of monasteries. If you’re religious, this will probably be the highlight of your time in Cappadocia. This UNESCO World Heritage Site contains a series of stunning rock-cut churches with impressive frescoes dating back to the 10th to 12th centuries. As atheists, what Anthony and I probably enjoyed most was listening to our Muslim guide describe passages from the Bible.
After a few more sites, we finally made our way toward Ortahisar, the very site that is to blame for our entire side-trip to Cappadocia. We didn’t actually go into Ortahisar; our guide instead drove us to an outdoor cafe that had a perfect view of the fortress. At almost 300 feet high, Ortahisar stands proudly above the cascading town below. It was just like the photo I’d seen years ago.
To end our tour, our guide brought us to Rose Valley to watch the sunset. As usual, we weren’t quite impressed by the sunset (this is what happens when you’re from Hawaii!), but we loved hiking through the valley as we waited for the sun to set, winding our way along narrow paths and treacherous cliffs. It was especially nice to stretch our legs out for a few hours after being cooped up in a car throughout the day.
Our dinner at Topdeck Cave Restaurant was probably the best meal I’ve ever had in Turkey — and this is including our first trip to Istanbul last year. From our hotel, it was just a five-minute downhill walk to the restaurant, and as we made our way through the dark, adhan began. If you’ve never visited a Muslim country before, you’re in for a treat. Adhan is the Islamic call to worship that occurs five times a day. It’s projected through a loudspeaker from a mosque, summoning Muslims to mandatory worship. When we first heard adhan in Marrakech last year, I was slightly terrified. Now, whenever I hear it, though, it’s music to my ears — like church bells in Paris.
At Topdeck Cave Restaurant, we took our shoes off and sat on beautiful Turkish rugs and pillows. We started with a comforting bowl of yoğurtlu çorba (yogurt soup cooked with mint, spinach, parsley, rice, and chickpeas). Then we shared a plate of börek (baked, stuffed phyllo rolls) and a succulent lamb platter. For dessert, we shared baklava and dondurma (sticky ice cream made of mastic). Contrary to popular belief, baklava was invented in Turkey, not Greece. Turkish baklava is typically cut into small rectangles, as opposed to the large triangles we find at Greek restaurants in America. Anthony also tried a glass of raki, an alcoholic anise drink, and the national drink of Turkey. Anthony was not a big fan.
As soon as we woke up the next morning, I ran out to the rooftop of our cave hotel, Sultan Cave Suites. Our rooftop is actually one of the things I was most excited for in Cappadocia. It’s basically a blogger’s wet dream, with unobstructed views of the city, lots of stylish rugs and furniture, and an adorable dog who silently strolls through the hotel. Every morning (if the weather is nice), dozens of hot air balloons fill the sky to watch the sunrise. It’s a magical sight. We hung out on that rooftop — with a handful of Chinese tourists — as long as we could. It was too cold to have breakfast up there, but the hotel provided food props just for our photos! (I’m a big fan of people who understand the gram.)
There are so many places that look better in photos than in real life (e.g., Santorini), but Cappadocia is not one of them. Cappadocia blew my mind. I came to take a few photos, but the history, geology, religious significance, and even just the shrewdness of its tourism industry captivated me as well. I don’t typically recommend traveling to places just for photographic purposes, but sometimes these types of trips can be absolutely worthwhile.
Tips for future travelers:
Stay at Sultan Cave Suites. If you’ve seen any photo of a hotel in Cappadocia on Instagram, chances are it’s this one. Besides the picture-perfect rooftop, Sultan Cave Suites has lovely rooms (our suite consisted of a huge bedroom, living room, foyer, and tiny bathroom) and a lavish complimentary breakfast buffet. Unsurprisingly, the Turks brunch hard. If you can’t get a room here, as this small hotel is extremely popular, make sure you at least stay in a cave hotel — otherwise, what’s the point?
Hire a guide. We used Cappadocian Guide, which we recommend, though I think all tour companies here are about the same. We paid about $80 for a full day.
Book your airport transfer either through the hotel or guide.