Cappadocia travel guide: What to do and where to stay in Turkey’s beautiful, otherworldly region

Watching the fleet of hot air balloons is a  Cappadocia favourite  (Getty)
Watching the fleet of hot air balloons is a Cappadocia favourite (Getty)

Ancient volcanic eruptions and centuries of erosion have given the Cappadocia region of central Turkey one of the most distinctive landscapes in the country, if not the world. Its undulating, rose-tinted valleys are speckled with the towering tufa formations dubbed “fairy chimneys”. The same soft rock that was slowly shaped by nature was also worked by human hands to form thousands of cave dwellings, churches, monasteries and even entire underground cities.

Though it’s one of Turkey’s top tourist draws – just under four million foreign visitors went there in 2019 – the size of the region and the richness of its offerings mean travellers can find plenty of opportunities to escape the crowds. Add in an ancient wine culture, increasingly sophisticated dining and accommodation options, and a wealth of outdoor activities and this is a destination of a lifetime that could be visited again and again.

Here’s how to make the best of a holiday in Cappadocia.

When to visit

Cappadocia’s scenic valleys are especially pretty in spring, when wildflowers are in bloom; autumn weather is equally well-suited for exploring. Temperatures can be unpleasantly hot in summer, when prices and occupancy rates also spike. Winter is sleepy, but magical if you’re lucky enough to catch the landscape covered in snow.

Explore this intriguing region on foot (Jennifer Hattam)
Explore this intriguing region on foot (Jennifer Hattam)

Read more on Turkey travel:

What to see and do

Visit the Göreme Open-Air Museum

Cappadocia’s long history as a centre for Christianity is on splendid display in the Göreme Open-Air Museum, a stunning complex of rock-cut monasteries and churches, mostly dating from the 10th to 12th centuries and many adorned with vivid frescoes. Some of the finest of these paintings are found in the Tokali Kilise (Buckle Church) across the road from the main entrance but by admission to the museum.

Delve into Derinkuyu underground city

Not big on heights? Get a different perspective on Cappadocia deep in the Derinkuyu underground city, one of dozens of subterranean settlements discovered in the area. Narrow – and potentially claustrophobic – passageways wind ever further below ground through carved-out corridors and rooms once used as stables, kitchens, places of worship and wine-making facilities.

Derinkuyu reaches underground to a depth of 85 metres (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Derinkuyu reaches underground to a depth of 85 metres (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Sip and savour some wine

Formerly home to a large population of Armenians and Greeks, Cappadocia has a long history of wine production and its semi-arid plateaus host Turkey’s highest vineyards. The best-known local varietal is the crisp, minerally white wine Emir. Ürgüp-based winery Turasan is the region’s heavy hitter, while smaller producers such as Argos and Kocabağ in Üçhisar, natural winemaker Gelveri in Güzelyurt, and Vinolus in Kayseri are making their mark, too. Advance bookings are required for all tasting rooms.

Explore the landscapes

From hiking to horseback riding to mountain biking, opportunities abound to make Cappadocia’s dramatic scenery the backdrop for an outdoor adventure lasting a few hours or multiple days. The experienced guides at Middle Earth Travel lead a variety of trekking and cycling tours. For a real solo challenge, sign up for the Salomon Cappadocia Ultra-Trail, held each October and with race distances ranging from a 38km relay to an epic 120km.

Greet the dawn on a hot air balloon ride

Early risers often wake to the sight of a sky full of colourful hot air balloons floating over Cappadocia’s already-surreal tufa formations. Flights – weather permitting – usually take around an hour and are one of the most popular activities for visitors to the area, so reservations are a must. Royal Balloon is among the most reputable companies.

Colourful hot air balloons can be found across the sky (Jennifer Hattam)
Colourful hot air balloons can be found across the sky (Jennifer Hattam)

Where to stay

With a wide range of accommodation and eating options, and close access to top sights, the town of Göreme bustles with visitors. For an alternative base, consider the smaller, quieter nearby towns of Ürgüp or Üçhisar.

Serinn House

The intimate Serinn House in Ürgüp has just five individually designed rooms, and personalised service to match, from English-speaking owner Eren and her small team. Choose from cosy cave rooms or one with arched stone walls, each fitted out with all the mod cons you might need. Visitors give high marks to the home-cooked breakfast, served on a terrace overlooking the town.

Kelebek Cave Hotel

A long-standing favourite, the Kelebek Cave Hotel in Göreme continues to draw rave reviews for its charmingly appointed cave rooms and stone suites, as well as its attentive service and expansive views. For extra pampering, book a massage in the onsite Turkish bath/spa (also located in a cave), or simply luxuriate in the rooftop swimming pool. The same owners operate the Seki Cave Hotel in the tranquil village of Cavuşin.

Petra Inn

With its stylish and romantically lit cave rooms – some with hot tubs or fireplaces – the Petra Inn is a serene retreat in Üçhisar, noted for the warm hospitality of its staff. The onsite Ardıç Restaurant serves sophisticated versions of regional dishes along with local wines.

Where to eat – and what to eat

The most iconic dish at Cappadocia restaurants is undoubtedly the testi kebab, or “pottery kebab”, which is lamb (or chicken or beef) slow-cooked with tomatoes, peppers and garlic in a sealed clay jug known as a testi; the best ones have to be ordered in advance. Other local favourites include mantı, small mincemeat-stuffed dumplings served in a garlicky yoghurt sauce that’s sprinkled with dried sumac and mint, and düğü çorbası, a simple soup made with fine bulgur, tomato paste and plenty of spices.

Casual and friendly Pumpkin Restaurant in Göreme is a popular place for well-executed versions of Cappadocia classics, as well as vegetarian options. Nazar Börek & Café is another similarly unpretentious favourite.

One of the best-known and longest-standing restaurants in Göreme is family-run Topdeck, which still deservedly draws crowds for its traditional Anatolian cuisine in a cosy cave dining room. The mixed meze plate – great for sharing – and tender chicken breast and lamb shank main courses come especially recommended; booking ahead is advised.

Claiming to offer the first tasting menu in Cappadocia, elegant Revithia pairs creative takes on traditional flavours with local wines for an five- or eight-course meal that’s worth the splurge. Located atop the Kayakapı boutique hotel in Ürgüp, the dining room has a splendid view from its terrace. Reservations essential.

How to get around

Compact Göreme is walking distance from the open-air museum and the valleys of fairy chimneys, with a public dolmuş (minibus) service to Üçhisar, Ürgüp and other towns. Explore further with a hire car, or book one of the ubiquitous van tours: the “red tour” covers the area’s highlights, the “green tour” includes a short hike in the verdant Ihlara Valley, and the “blue tour” takes in less-visited corners of Cappadocia.

Getting there

There are no direct flights to Cappadocia from the UK. Visitors can fly from either of Istanbul’s two airports on Turkish Airlines/AnadoluJet or Pegasus Airlines to Kayseri, the region’s main hub. A smaller number of flights serve Nevşehir, which is closer to the area’s main sights.

Read more on the best hotels in Europe