The remnants of Antalya's Roman and pre-Roman history are littered around the city and nonchalantly absorbed into its modern fabric. Head out of the city and you'll find the ancient sites of Perge, Termessos, and Aspendos, where the rubble of some Turkey's finest civilisations can be clambered over and explored, as if for the very first time.
Antalya's origins can be traced as far back as 150 BC, coming under Roman rule in 133 BC. When the Roman Emperor Hadrian visited the city more than two centuries later, in 130 AD, he entered the city via a triumphal arch (now known as Hadrian's Gate), built in his honour. Today the renovated arch marks the entrance to Kaleiçi – literally 'within the castle' – and is flanked by the crumbling remains of the Roman and Byzantine era walls which once encircled the town. Today enough remains of the walls for you to get a sense of the scale of Roman settlement and its importance.
A stroll downhill takes you to Antalya's Roman harbour, built in the 2nd century BC and now home to yachts and an array of particularly un-Roman pirate-themed excursions boats. The Club Arma restaurant dominates one side of the harbour in more than size, at night beaming its name onto the cliffs opposite. On a hot Antalya night the terrace's sea breezes make this a nice spot to enjoy meze and local seafood.
Antalyans are fiercely proud of the important part their city and wider Antalya province have played in some of history's grandest civilisations and events. The finest statues, columns and carvings are kept safe in the Antalya Museum, a comprehensive collection of artefacts dating from the stone and bronze age to Byzantium. This fascinating museum is situated about 2km west of the Kaleiçi district and accessible on the old-fashioned tramvay (tram) from Kale Kapısı tram stop. Soak up the glorious statues and sarcophagi on display here and try to hold them in your mind for your visit to Perge, where many originated.
Antalya was part of the Ottoman Empire from 1391 until after WW1 when it was ceded to Italy (eagle-eyed visitors might spot the odd Italian letterbox). Kaleiçi's Ottoman houses have largely been converted into hotels and restaurants so very few locals now live in the area, as a result most businesses are aimed squarely at tourists. Squint at the shops selling fake branded handbags and it's not too difficult to imagine the town as a bustling commercial centre. Ottoman houses are recognisable for the square, wooden bay windows on the upper floors, and a walk through the attractive streets of Kaleiçi offers plenty of photo opportunities. There's been a huge drive over the past 20 years to rescue and renovate the neighbourhood, and while there are still houses in need of repair, tourism has brought much needed money and protection to the area.
For a good example of a restored Ottoman building head to the Antalya Kültür Evi, this has a particularly beautiful stone-pebble entrance. The exhibition inside depicts scenes from daily life under the empire, albeit using some pretty scary mannequins!
The best of the ancient sites are situated just outside the city. Hire a car or join a tour (such as that ran by Nirvana Travel Service) to visit them. Termessos, a ruined city situated in a mountain valley, 34km northwest of Antalya is accessed via a winding mountain road that takes you through the pine and cedar forests of Güllükdağı Termessos National Park. In the heat of a Turkish summer, Termessos is a welcome relief from the humidity of the city and, depending on the time of year, you might be lucky enough to have it pretty much to yourself. Neither Greek nor Lycian, the inhabitants were Pisidian, fierce and prone to warring. They successfully fought off Alexander the Great in 333 BC, and the Romans (perhaps wisely) accepted Termessos' wishes to remain independent and an ally in 70 BC. Divided into the lower and upper city, these ruins require 2 hours to appreciate their scale, a little more to allow enough time for scrambling over boulders and ancient columns.
Built during Aspendos' golden age in the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (AD 161–80), the amphitheatre at Aspendos is considered the most complete Roman theatre of the ancient world. There are other ruins to explore here, but if you can, try to time your visit with a performance at the theatre. A 1930s restoration was a little clumsy in places, but there are few things as magical as taking a seat in the audience and joining millennia of theatre-goers. The Aspendos Opera & Ballet Festival runs either through June or in August and September (depending on the year) and if you can get tickets it is well worth timing your visit to coincide.
Some 17km east of Antalya, Perge was one of the most important towns of ancient Pamphylia. The scale and quality of the atmospheric ruins here give some indication why. With the remains of the town's water channel visible down the centre of a long colonnaded street (clay pipes and all), and baths and shops clearly discernible, what strikes you most about the site is how easy it is to imagine daily life here. Excavations began in the 1940s and continue to this day, but the majority of the site is open to explore – it is astounding to look around you and see, even touch cherubic carvings, ornate colonnades and get a sense of the splendours of a once great civilisation. Visit towards the end of the day for the added glory of seeing Perge without crowds, and with the sun setting behind you.
Further ruins can be found at Side and Selge.
Jo Cooke is Lonely Planet's Destination Editor for Spain, Portugal & Turkey, and loves exploring ancient ruins. Follow her tweets at @joannacooke1.
Jo travelled to Antalya with support from Go to Turkey (www.gototurkey.co.uk). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in return for positive coverage.