It’s hard to fathom that a place like this actually exists outside of psychedelic daydreams. Cappadocia, a historical region in central Turkey, encompasses some of the most whimsical landscapes you could possibly imagine. The topography is pierced with volcanic peaks and scattered with unique rock formations known as “fairy chimneys”, a name that precisely describes these fantastic structures. They reminded me of the hoodoos found in Bryce Canyon National Park, but are even more unique – many have been carved into caves and utilized as shelter for millennium. As a matter of fact, they earned their name when early inhabitants were discovered living inside the smoking “fairy chimney” formations, keeping warm by fireplaces inside their cave homes.
Cappadocia is an easy flight from Istanbul (just over an hour). It’s the perfect weekend trip for those looking to escape to a fairy tale world, going beyond your hiking and hot air ballooning dreams! If you’re planning for a quick trip to Cappadocia, as we did on this occasion, I recommend arranging guided tours to assist you with a thorough visit. There is more to see than just fairy chimneys – Cappadocia has a fascinating history, with churches from the time of Alexander The Great, Roman ruins, ancient monasteries, and multi-level underground cities! With much to do and little time to spare, we treated ourselves to a full weekend of guided tours through Cappadocia’s most interesting sites, using Turkish Heritage Travel for all our arrangements.
Our weekend started with a quick flight to Kayseri, where we were transferred to our boutique cave hotel in Goreme for the weekend. One of the highlights of staying in Cappadocia is the opportunity to experience 21st-century cave dwellings! Our hotel, The Sultan Cave Suites, had an incredible view and arguably the best restaurant around. I highly recommend dining at their Seten Anatolian Restaurant regardless of which hotel you choose.
We spent two full days touring Cappadocia with phenomenal guides leading our way. Here are the highlights of our fairy tale tour!
Exploring the underground city of Derinkuyu.
This was one of the largest settlements in ancient Cappadocia, large enough to shelter 20,000 people! What’s so fascinating about this complex, is that it extends 200 feet below the ground (the deepest in the region).
The underground city, carved from the soft volcanic rock, has wine and oil presses, stables, cellars, storage rooms, and even chapels. The ‘city’ provided eight levels of shelter for Christians seeking protection during times of persecution. When the region fell to the Ottomans, the city was utilized by Cappadocian Greeks to escape waves of war.
Hiking the Ihlara Valley.
Located in southern Cappadocia, The Ihlara Valley once housed thousands of dwellings and hundreds of cave churches decorated with frescoes. We began our hike by visiting Agacalti Kilise (Church under the Tree), located at the bottom of the stairs from the park’s main entrance. This was the most unique cave church we visited, with beautiful paintings of yellow, red and green, ironically preserved despite no maintenance whatsoever.
After our visit to the church, we hiked along the Melindiz River, which winds its way through the Ihlara Gorge. We stopped for a break at a riverside restaurant in the village of Belisirma, a nice place to lose your shoes and enjoy unique seating areas.
Our final stop in the valley was a visit to the Selime Monastery, the largest rock-cut monastery in Cappadocia. There is even a cathedral-size church inside, which still bears markings and icons from various generations that once occupied it.
From this fortress-like complex, complete with secret passageways and steep, rocky staircases, we discovered phenomenal views in every direction.
The unique landscape surrounding the Selime Monastery was inspiration for George Lucas, who wanted to film Star Wars at this location; however, the Turkish government wouldn’t allow it. Instead, a set was created in Tunisia to mimic this distinctive region.
Enjoying the panoramic view of Goreme.
There are a few lookout points around Goreme, providing breathtaking views of the fairy chimney town. We enjoyed a spot accessible via a small road that climbs high above the town.
You will find local vendors at the top, selling pottery, tapestries and other souvenir knick-knacks, including a tree adorned with the nazar. This symbol comes from ancient Egypt, but it can be found throughout Turkey and Greece. It is believed to protect against the ‘evil eye’, which is a curse that can be cast (via malevolent glare) to unaware recipients, causing misfortune and pain in their life. The nazar provides protection against the evil eye when given to someone as a gift (you can’t buy your own protection).
Hot air ballooning at sunrise.
This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that can’t be missed if you have the opportunity to visit Cappadocia. I’ve heard many protest the high costs of this experience, Bryan being one of them… 175 Euros per person for an hour in a hot air balloon is quite a price tag! Let me assure you, this experience is more than just an hour in a hot air balloon. It’s a magical opportunity to experience sunrise over one of the most distinctive landscapes in the world, floating at an altitude that allows you to fully appreciate the unique environment. This experience is truly priceless!
There are dozens of companies offering balloon rides, all for similar rates, but we were quite pleased with the service and the little details that Butterfly Balloons provides. Shuttled to our launch site around 5AM, we were still waking up while balloons around us started to glow as they filled with hot air.
Our ride began with a low float through the fairy chimneys, providing us with up-close and personal views.
We soared higher and higher, watching the sun slowly creep it’s way over the peaks. Soon we were surrounded by hundreds of colorful balloons, which added even more character to the unique environment.
Our hot air balloon ride ended with strawberries, champagne, and (of course) a toast to an extraordinary sunrise flight.
Even Bryan, who hates mornings even more than he hates frivolous spending (I seriously deserve a medal for convincing him to do this with me!) admits that this breathtaking experience is worth every penny.
Cappadocia was not a destination on our original itinerary. This is a place I discovered after our flights to and from Istanbul were already booked – a spot that we squeezed in to an already hectic travel schedule. I’m known to be a bit stubborn, and this is one of those places I was willing to move mountains to visit. In retrospect, we would have loved to have a few more days in this special place, but we have no regrets in pulling off one of the most magical weekends of our lives!
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails.Explore. Dream. Discover. - Mark TwainClick To Tweet