As if plucked from a whimsical fairytale and set down upon the stark Anatolian plains, Cappadocia is a geological oddity of honeycombed hills and towering boulders of otherworldly beauty. The fantastical topography is matched by the human history here. People have long utilised the region's soft stone, seeking shelter underground and leaving the countryside scattered with fascinating cavern architecture. The fresco-adorned rock-cut churches of Göreme Open-Air Museum and the subterranean refuges of Derinkuyu and Kaymaklı are the most famous sights, while simply bedding down in one of Cappadocia's cave hotels is an experience in 21st-century cave living.
Whether you're wooed here by the hiking potential, the history or the bragging rights of becoming a modern troglodyte for a night, it's the lunarscape panoramas that you'll remember. This region's accordion-ridged valleys, shaded in a palette of dusky orange and cream, are an epiphany of a landscape – the stuff of psychedelic daydreams.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Cappadocia.
The trails that loop around Güllüdere Vadısı (Rose Valley) are easily accessible to all levels of walkers and provide some of the finest fairy-chimney-strewn vistas in Cappadocia. As well as this, though, they hide fabulous, little-visited rock-cut churches boasting vibrant fresco fragments and intricate carvings hewn into the stone. If you only have time to hike through one valley in Cappadocia, this is the one to choose.
The highlight of Göreme Open-Air Museum is the stunning and fully restored Dark Church, famed for the vivid colours and excellent preservation of its frescoes. The modern name of the church is due to the lack of windows, which is also the reason the fresco colours survived so well. The walls and ceilings here are fully covered with Biblical depictions including Christ as Pantocrator, Christ on the cross and the Betrayal by Judas.
This Unesco World Heritage site is an essential stop on any Cappadocian itinerary. First thought to be a Byzantine monastic settlement that housed some 20 monks, then a pilgrimage site from the 17th century, this splendid cluster of monastic Byzantine artistry with its rock-cut churches, chapels and monasteries is 1km uphill from Göreme's centre. The site's highlight – the Dark Church – has an additional entrance fee. Note that the ticket office closes at 4.30pm October to April.
The road between Çavuşin and Avanos passes a turn-off to the Zelve Open-Air Museum, where three valleys of crumbling cave-habitations and churches converge. Zelve was a monastic retreat from the 9th to the 13th century and then a village. Today its sinewy valley walls, topped with knobbly rock antennae, are a wonderfully picturesque place for poking around.
Kaymaklı underground city features a maze of tunnels and rooms carved eight levels deep into the earth, though only four are open to the public. The caverns here are large and well lit and the tunnels aren't too steep, meaning this is one of the better underground city options for those worried about claustrophobia. The best time to come to beat the tour groups is early or from about 12.30pm to 1.30pm, when they tend to be having lunch.
Some of Cappadocia's best-preserved and most captivating frescoes are hidden within this rarely visited rock-hewn monastery that was only rediscovered in 1963. The lofty main church is covered with colourful Byzantine frescoes, painted between the 7th and 11th centuries. Of particular interest is the striking Virgin and Child to the left of the apse, which depicts Mary giving a Mona Lisa smile – it's said to be the only smiling Mary in existence. Last tickets are 5pm October to March.
One of the best views of Kızılçukur (Red) Valley's fang-like rock cones and wavy cliff ridges is from this lookout point, signposted off the highway, opposite the Ortahisar turn-off road. For hikers there are trailheads into the main valley area from here, allowing you to do a circular loop of Kızılçukur and Güllüdere ('Rose) Valley or finish in Göreme or Çavuşin. Rustic cafes at the viewpoint provide refreshments for those who just want to admire the valley vista.
The Buckle Church is 50m back down the hill towards Göreme and across the road from the main Open-Air Museum complex, but is covered by the same entrance ticket. Don't miss it as this is one of Göreme's biggest and finest churches with an interior completely covered in restored frescoes painted in a narrative (rather than liturgical) cycle.
The 12th-century Apple Church (Elmalı Kilise) overlooks a valley of poplars below. Relatively well preserved, it contains both simple, red-ochre daubs and bright frescoes depicting scenes from the New Testament. The Ascension is pictured above the door. The church's name is thought to derive from an apple tree that grew nearby or from a misinterpretation of the globe held by the Archangel Gabriel, in the third dome.