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For many people (myself included), the area of Turkey known as Cappadocia, home to cosmic-like landscapes, underground cities, houses carved in the rocks, and dream-worthy hot air balloon rides, is a major reason why they travel to Turkey in the first place. Sure, Istanbul, the former capital of the Ottoman Empire is one of the most incredible cities you will ever visit in your lifetime, not to mention, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll fly there first when coming from outside of Turkey. But the allure and charm of Cappadocia, a place like no other, awaits you there. So if it’s your first time traveling to this magical spot, here’s everything you need to know with the First Timer’s Travel Guide to Cappadocia.
Where exactly is Cappadocia? Is it a city?
Cappadocia is located in Central Anatolia (also known as Asia Minor, it makes up the majority of modern-day Turkey) and as I mentioned above, it’s not a city but rather a region. But until you get knee deep into the specifics of research, Cappadocia is the name you’ll most commonly hear, as opposed to the names of the towns that comprise the touristy areas of this region.
How do I get there? What’s the name of the airport?
If you’re arriving from Istanbul, you have two airports in Cappadocia to fly into, Nevşehir Kapadokya Airport (Kapadokya is the name for Cappadocia in Turkish, fyi), and Kayseri Erkilet Airport. Turkish Airlines and Pegasus Airlines each operate between the two destinations; however, there will be more flights a day on Turkish Airlines. It’s roughly an hour flight from Istanbul to either of these airports.
Although Kayseri Airport seems to have more flights from Istanbul (both arriving and departing), I found both airports to be similar in terms of size and services (i.e. one small baggage claim, very limited food and drink options, only a couple of gates, and to my horror, the dreaded “pit” toilet; thankfully there were Western style toilets as well).
I flew into Nevşehir and flew out of Kayseri due to schedule changes. My advice is choose the airport that has the best ticket price and works the best for your schedule. One is definitely not better than the other. In terms of location. Nevşehir Airport is closer to the more touristy areas of Cappadocia (it will be around a 40 minute drive), versus with Kayseri, more like an hour. But it’s a toss up since more flights arrive into Kayseri Airport, fewer options for Nevşehir.
What town should I stay in?
Göreme, Uçhisar, Nevşehir, and Ürgüp are all names of towns in Cappadocia that you’ll come across when doing your research. I stayed in Uçhisar which is a settlement situated at the highest point in Cappadocia. Looking back, I wish I had stayed elsewhere. Although Uçhisar occupies a beautiful location, in terms of food and drink you are severely limited being at the highest point of the mountain. As I was without a car and not about to undertake an hour-plus hike each way anytime I ate a meal, I was restricted to the meager and sub-par food options available in Uçhisar. For instance, at one place I dined at there, I watched the staff take food from a packaged box out of a freezer and then proceed to fry it. Nothing like non-homemade cooking…
Göreme is a much larger town and more importantly, is located on relatively flat terrain. So those two things alone equate to easier access to a great many more dining choices. I had the most delicious pide for lunch on my private guided tour of Cappadocia sights. Although I saw a few tourists, the restaurant was filled more with locals than anyone else, always a good sign.
Pottery kebab, a must try specialty in Cappadocia
Should I stay in a cave hotel?
The thing about Cappadocia is that most hotels you come across will be cave hotels. What’s a cave hotel exactly? Just like its name suggests, a hotel built out of a cave. In theory, it’s cool. In actuality, it’s not as cool as it sounds…
I booked a cave room at Kale Konak hotel which is in Uçhisar. Besides not being a fan of Uçhisar, I was quite disappointed by Kale Konak, even though it had received quite favorable reviews both online and in guidebooks. After being shown to the cave room I had reserved, I was dismayed by the damp smell and the lack of ventilation (there were humidifiers running, not something you really want to see in early September when it’s quite warm outside). That’s the thing about cave rooms; there won’t be windows so no natural light or air coming in. Be sure to do extensive research on any potential cave hotels you’re considering. And if you’re staying during the summer months, I’d try to find a hotel with air-conditioning if that’s what you’re used to and find sleeping with it in warmer weather a necessity.
Thankfully there was another room available, one with air-conditioning and without a smell that I happily switched to. However, nothing more than tepid water came out of the whirlpool tub which I tried out the first night, and it also flooded the bathroom floor, water seeping out from the bottom. I love staying in rooms with whirlpool tubs so this was quite the disappointment.
The power also went out countless times, a real nuisance, especially when you’re trying to get ready at 3:30 in the morning for your hot-air balloon ride, but I can’t blame this solely on the Kale Konak hotel. It was more an issue with the electrical grid, a downfall of staying in an extremely rural area in a developing nation.
The complimentary breakfast was lovely and the owner was always prompt in replying to all the email queries I sent. But for food options and ease of getting around, I’d recommend staying elsewhere, including in Göreme.
Is a hot air balloon ride truly worth it?
Yes. Absolutely, positively yes. I’m not going to lie when I say that a hot air balloon ride over Cappadocia’s mythical landscape is the main reason I wanted to come here. It was definitely one of the priciest activities I’ve ever done on a trip, not to mention there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to take off if flying conditions are too unstable, so you risk being hugely disappointed (as I would have been), but there’s no way I could have gone to Cappadocia and NOT done it.
It took me 34 years to go up in a hot air balloon but I’m so thrilled that my first (and maybe my only time, who knows) was in a place as magical as Cappadocia.
There are so many hot air balloon companies, how do I choose?
I have no reason to tout the company I went with except that I had the most favorable and positive experience and would recommend them to others. I first came across Butterfly Balloons in my Lonely Planet Turkey guidebook and saw that they’ve been in business for nearly a decade, although they had even more piloting experience before that too. They also had rave after rave of positive reviews on TripAdvisor.
The thing that I really liked about them is that they take a maximum of 16 guests on their flights, although it can also be anywhere between 10 and 16. I was lucky and there were only 12 people on my flight. I spoke to a couple at my hotel who had gone with a different company and they said there were 24 in their basket, which I can’t even imagine.
Butterfly Balloons offers two flight options, the Butterly Flight and the Butterfly Beyond Flight. The difference between the two (besides cost) is that the latter will have a maximum of three people in your compartment, is capped at 12 people total for the basket, and that it flies longer. I had booked the Beyond option thinking this will be a once in a lifetime experience. Well, the day before flying, I received an email that due to unstable weather conditions, the Beyond flight wouldn’t happen and that I would just be on the standard Butterfly option. (A note about the Beyond option-when you book this one, you’re automatically guaranteed a spot on the standard flight; you don’t have to worry about it being sold out if the Beyond option is canceled.)
I will say in hindsight, I’m glad the Beyond trip was canceled because I felt that I had more than enough time on the regular balloon ride, I was able to take dozens of incredible pictures, and didn’t feel like my time up in the air was rushed or too short. It being canceled also meant I saved a decent amount of money (190 euros per person versus 270 euros per person).
The most important thing when booking your balloon ride is do your research. Don’t automatically choose the cheapest company. Be cognizant of cost but also of a company’s safety record, how long they’ve been in operation, credible reviews-things like that.
What should I expect for my hot air balloon ride experience?
Most balloon companies fly at dawn since wind conditions deteriorate/get less safe as the day goes on, so expect an early wakeup call (mine was at 4:15 in the morning). At least with Butterfly Balloons, after being picked up at my hotel, I was then taken to their offices in Göreme where I paid (you’re never charged in advance) and then had a light continental breakfast of various fruits and sweet breads along with hot and cold beverages.
From there, we were driven into fields where the balloons were tethered. There’s never one single departure point for the balloons; the weather forecast determines where they’ll depart from that day. From there we were given a brief safety tutorial (especially in regards to how to be and sit when landing), then we climbed into the baskets and as the saying goes, we went “up up and away.”
No words can truly describe being so high up in the air and looking down and seeing such an incredible vista.
After about an hour of being “up in the air,” there was champagne waiting for us on the ground, along with everyone receiving a certificate (and a cheesy medal) of completion.
What else is there to do in Cappadocia besides hot air balloon rides?
If you have a fear of heights or perhaps a hot air balloon ride isn’t in your budget, there’s still a bevy of incredible things to see and do when you’re in Cappadocia, everything from hiking to visiting ancient churches and exploring underground cities.
I ended up booking a half day private tour which was quite affordable at only 65 euros per person (it was me and a friend). I am well past the stage of large group tours, not to mention, I curate my itineraries to see exactly what I want, not being somewhere I have no interest in being. So for all those reasons, I can’t recommend New Göreme Tours enough. The office always promptly responded back to my emails and my guide, Inci, was fabulous. I can’t comment on their group tours, but for private ones, I had zero complaints.
Here’s all that I saw and did:
-Kaymakli Underground City
This dates back to the Hittites (circa 1200BC) and was used by the local populations until the 13th century AD at which point it was not needed anymore (i.e. to hide against invaders) except for storage on the first couple of levels. It’s not the deepest underground city in Cappadocia, but it is the most spread out. Traipsing throughout, you will see everything from ventilation shafts, small tunnels, a food storage room, massive stone doors, and even a winery!
Although you can visit on your own, either go with a prearranged tour guide or hire one at the entrance. (Just be sure you talk to them and determine that they speak decent enough English; I found many Turks in the tourist industry didn’t really speak proficient English which semi-shocked me.) You’ll find once inside, there’s very little signage, so yes, you would essentially be looking at a lot of rocks without a guide telling you the history of the place you’re in.
Claustrophobic and tall people beware-there are some extremely low roofs and extremely narrow tunnels.
-Rose Valley Hike
Originally I had wanted to hike here but there just wasn’t enough time in the half day itinerary I had planned. So instead, I got to visit the “start” of it and take some beautiful pictures of the unique landscape. Apparently, it’s also the best place to see a sunset as the rocks turn the most stunning shade of pink (hence the name). It very much reminded me of the landscapes I saw when I was in Utah.
– Göreme Open Air Museum
This is home to a collection of Christian monasteries and churches, all of which were carved into the stone hundreds and hundreds of years ago and some of which feature absolutely breathtaking biblical frescoes (and others that look a bit more elementary). The thing about Göreme Open Air Museum is that it contains some of the earliest churches in history (not just in Turkey, but anywhere).
The two slight disappointments-Photography even sans flash of the interior frescoes isn’t allowed and the museum is overrun with large tour groups. It is what it is…
This castle is literally a stone’s throw from the hotel I stayed at, so in hindsight, I should have omitted this from my tour and chosen someplace else to visit since it’s something I could have easily done on my own (not to mention there wasn’t a whole lot of history there- it was basically a citadel that provided a great lookout of approaching invaders at the top of a mountain).
But as I said, the views from the top were spectacular.
How much time do I need in Cappadocia?
I stayed two nights and that was enough but I think some of that had to do with my disappointment with my lodging selection and the dismal food options. But I think even if I had loved my hotel, two nights would still have been more than sufficient to one, take a hot air balloon ride, and two, see the other highlights of this incredible region of Turkey. Some people will say you could spend much more time there, but I’m a city person and glad I had more time to see and explore Istanbul.
Trust me when I say there’s no area of the world you’ll visit more unique than Cappadocia.
Have you visited Cappadocia? What was the best thing you did there? What hotel did you stay at too?