Turkey is sometimes described as ‘the biggest outdoor museum in the world’ – and when you discover the huge number of ancient ruins in Turkey you quickly understand why.
Sitting at the intersection between East and West, Turkey was a central hub, and over many centuries it was occupied by everyone from the Greeks to the Romans to the Persians and the Huns. Between them they built remarkable cities and monuments, many of which still stand today.
There are so many archaeological sites in Turkey it’s impossible to see them all, even if you visited several times. So how do you choose? Well, I’ve been lucky enough to visit some of them myself, and I also reached out to other travel bloggers for their tips on which are the best ancient ruins to visit in Turkey.
So here are our combined recommendations, in no particular order. Which one(s) you choose to visit will depend on where in Turkey you’re planning to go, and what specifically interests you.
All prices correct at time of writing. If you’re planning to visit several historic sites and museums, you may be better off buying a Turkish Museum card which gives you admission to 300+ museums operated by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. It’s valid for 15 days and costs 315 Turkish Lira (about 36 USD).
Hierapolis is arguably the pinnacle of all the ruins in Turkey: a magnificent Greek and Roman-era city that sits on top of the world-famous Pamukkale travertine terraces. If you’ve seen the photos of the stunning white rock formations with dazzling turquoise pools of water, that’s Pamukkale, and Hierapolis sits at at the top.
The city was founded by Greek settlers in about the 2nd century BCE and taken over by the Romans four hundred years later. Thanks to the stunning landscape and mineral pools it became a bustling spa town, with bath houses, temples, a huge necropolis full of ornate tombs, and one of the most beautiful Roman amphitheatres still standing in the world today. Later it was said to be the place where St Philip the Apostle was martyred, and you can also visit the ruins of the church dedicated to him.
It’s a large site, so you should stay at least one night in the nearby village of Pamukkale and allow a whole day if you want to see it all, and bring water, a hat and suncream for all the walking you’ll need to do.
Hierapolis is about 3 hours drive from İzmir, and you can also do tours from Istanbul. Entry costs 110 Turkish Lira (about 12 USD).
Troy is not the most magnificent set of ruins in Turkey, but while it may lack the splendid columns and monuments of Hierapolis, it more than makes up for this in atmosphere and history. Because this is the actual city of Troy from the books and movies: the real place where, if the stories are to be believed, a huge Greek army laid siege to the city, all for the sake of the beautiful Helen.
A large wooden horse stands at the entrance to the site, a nod to the tale of how the war was won with the trick of the Trojan Horse. Beyond that, a boardwalk takes you round the ruins. The strong walls that defended the city from attack are still visible in some places, and with a bit of imagination you can almost picture the Trojan defenders ready to face the Greek army. The site also boasts a brand new and very well-put-together museum featuring artefacts from the site and across the region.
Entry to Troy costs 50 Turkish Lira (about 6 USD) per person. Children under eight get in free.
There’s much more information about the ruins and how archaeologists managed to prove Troy was a real place, in my post Hunting for the Ruins of Troy, Turkey, and How to Visit
One of the most underrated and fabulous ruins in Turkey is Aphrodisias, about a two hour drive inland from İzmir on the western coastline of Turkey. The historic site is expansive and is modelled after a small Hellenistic city that is named after Aphrodite, the goddess of love. The city was the ancient capital of the Roman province of Caria whose beautiful white and blue marble was famous across the Roman world and used extensively in ancient sculpture and architecture.
The ruins of Aphrodisias are vast and laid out in a way that you can explore on your own. Highlights include: the Temple of Aphrodite, the Monumental Gateway, the bouleuterion or council house, the stadium, the Sebasteion or Augusteum, the Roman theatre and a very large museum housing all the main statues and other artefacts found at the site. It really is impressive visiting Aphrodisias and because the site is less well-known, you don’t have the hordes of tourists you get at places like Ephesus and Cappadocia.
A visit to Aphrodisias is possible as a day trip and there are some tour organisers that do tours from İzmir or Kusadasi. But there is so much to see that it would be worth doing an overnight stay to give this site a slower pace that lets you enjoy the wonderful buildings and ruins at your own pace.
By Noel Morata from Oahu Travel Now
Compared with other ruins in Turkey, Sardis doesn’t get a lot of hype, so when you get there you’ll be very pleasantly surprised by how much there is to see and how pretty it is.
The city was once the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia before being taken over by the Persians in the 6th century BCE. It’s known as the place where the world’s first coins were minted; the king of Lydia, Croesus, was said to be so rich that his name appears in the saying ‘as rich as Croesus’.
Sardis is also home to another legend. It’s close to the River Pactolus, which is where King Midas is said to have washed his Golden Touch away.
Later Sardis was also a Roman and Byzantine city – meaning that there are impressive ruins and remains from all these different eras all in one site. Especially unmissable are the stunning Temple of Artemis, which has been recently cleaned up, the magnificent gymnasium complex (now restored) and the 3rd century Jewish synagogue.
The ruins are located near the village of Salihli, about 50 miles from İzmir, so can easily be done in a day trip, or combine it over a couple of days with a visit to Hierapolis which is about 2 hours drive south of Sardis.
Ephesus is one of the most historically significant sets of ruins in Turkey. It is shrouded in legend, some saying that it was founded by an Ionian prince while others say the Amazons led to the city’s creation. Now all that remains of one of the most important Greek cities in the world are the well-preserved ruins and a plethora of cats.
Visiting Ephesus gives you the sense that you’ve gone back in time. The slick marble streets and looming columns along the roadways takes you back to the ages of the Romans and the Greeks. You’ll climb a preserved amphitheatre, see the remains of their great baths, and visit the well-maintained Library of Celsus. The library is the highlight of any visit, with two storeys of columns and marble facades that show the epic scale of the buildings in the area.
Don’t miss a visit to the nearby Temple of Artemis, one of the remaining wonders of the ancient world. Its proximity to Ephesus helped the city thrive in ancient times.
You can drive from Ephesus to İzmir in about an hour. It’s also a popular site on tour buses from Istanbul, but the drive takes about 9 hours. It costs 100 TL (about 12 USD) to visit Ephesus. If you also intend to visit the House of Mary, you will need to add on 60 TL (about 7 USD).
By Nina of ninaoutandabout.ca
Once a rich and powerful ancient Greek City in Aeolis, Pergamon was the capital of the Kingdom of Pergamon in the Hellenistic period.
It was ruled by the Attalid Dynasty, which peaked in the Hellenistic Period (281-133 BCE). After the Attalids allied themselves with Rome during the Roman-Seleucid War, they were rewarded with almost all the land of the former Seleucid Empire. Later, when Attalus III died in 133 BCE, he left the kingdom in his will to the Roman Republic, in an attempt to avoid bloodshed.
Two thousand years later, in the early 20th century, the German excavation team moved most of the important artefacts, sculptures, and even the Pergamon altar to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. However despite this loss the archaeological site in Turkey is still very impressive, with the ruins of the acropolis, Roman theatre, Temple of Athena, Temple of Dionysus, and Temple of Trajan all still accessible.
Look closely, you can still see a hint of the scale of this city from the giant pillars and foundation of the buildings. Pergamon’s library was once the second-largest library in the world, filled with 200,000 pieces of scrolls owned by Attalus. At the Roman theatre, you will have a panoramic view of Pergamon as well as the city of Bergama below.
Pergamon is located on the west coast of Turkey, about 2-3 hours drive from Hierapolis, Troy and Ephesus. The best way to visit Pergamon is as part of an Aegean Coast road trip, or you can sign up a guided day trip from İzmir. There is an inter-city bus available if you want to visit on your own. The entrance fee for the Acropolis is 50 TL.
By Kenny Chow of Knycx Journeying
On the summit on Mount Nemrut, giant stone heads lie directly on the ground, towering over visitors to the site. These ruins are thought to be the tomb of the Hellenistic king, Antiochus I, built over 2,000 years ago. While the tomb itself was never found, huge statues of ancient Greek and Persian gods dominate the mountaintop.
The monument was designed to be visited either at sunrise and sunset. Seeing the statues at these times is remarkable, however sunrise is particularly magical, the golden light slowly illuminating the statues. The views from the mountain are also spectacular, with the Euphrates River visible in the distance.
The easiest way to visit Nemrut is from the town of Kahta, either by driving yourself or on a tour. If you’re planning to visit Mount Nemrut for sunrise, a tour is a good idea as you’ll need to leave in the early hours of the morning to be at the summit in time for the sunrise, and road signs can be harder to spot in the dark. For sunset, driving yourself is a good option. Entry to the site is 25 TL per person and is free for children under eight.
By Roxanne de Bruyn from Far Away Worlds
Gordion is another set of ruins in Turkey that doesn’t get much glory, but is interesting because of the history and legends behind it. The city was once the capital of the Phrygian kingdom which ruled what is now central Turkey around the 8th century BCE. Its most famous king was a man named Midas, thought to be the famous King Midas from the myth of the Golden Touch. It’s also said to be the place where Alexander the Great came to cut the famous Gordian knot.
Not much is left of the city now, but a pathway takes you round the top edge of the citadel mound, from which you can see into the excavations with the remains of walls and buildings. The main gate has been restored and huge and impressive. Nearby are dozens of huge burial mounds, some of the largest in Turkey; one of them is thought to be the tomb of King Midas’s father, Gordias, after whom the city was named. Head inside to see the tomb, which at 3000 years old is the oldest wooden structure still standing in the world.
Gordion is located at the site of modern Yassıhüyük, about 50 miles from Ankara. Entry to the ruins is free, and there’s a small museum just down the road, for which there is a nominal entry fee. The site is rarely visited so you’ll almost certainly have the place almost entirely to yourself.
Derinkuyu Underground City
Derinkuyu Underground City is indeed an underground city! It is about 60 metres underground and is big enough to have housed as many as 20,000 people, along with their food stores and livestock. It is the largest excavated underground ruins in Turkey and touring it is one of the best things to do in Cappadocia.
The city of Derinkuyu was built in the Byzantine era. The Christians also used it for hiding in the 14th century.
Derinkuyu was opened to visitors in 1965, although you can only tour about 10% of it. At some points, the tunnels are quite narrow and you will need to crouch to go through them. They were made this way to force invaders to go single file into the city, making them easy to pick off one by one.
To tour the Derinkuyu Underground City, there are regular local buses from Nevşehir to Derinkuyu every half hour. The underground city can also be visited as part of the ‘Green Tour’ in the Cappadocia region of Turkey.
The city is open daily from 8 am to 5 pm in winter, and 7 pm in summer. Entry costs 15 TL (about 2 USD).
By Lindsey Puls of Have Clothes, Will Travel
The site is a collection of standing stones on a remote hillside about 15 km northeast of Sanliurfa, Turkey. The standing stones have an amazing collection of relief carved animals. Everything from bulls to foxes, unknown large birds and even scorpions, can be found on the massive pillars.
The best way to visit is by driving your own car (the best way to see Turkey) or taxi. As another alternative, the Sanliurfa Museum offers buses operating at different times throughout the year. Entrance to the site is open every day during daylight hours and costs 55 TL (about 7 USD). Regardless of how you get there, be sure to make your way back to the Sanliurfa Archaeology Museum where several of the artefacts from the dig are on display.
By Jim Vail of Reflections Enroute
Lycian Rock Tombs
Fethiye is perhaps best-known for its position lying in the shadow of Mount Babadağ, which is widely regarded to be one of the best places to paraglide in the world. Set within a bay of the same name, the city of Fethiye is popular among holidaymakers due to its access to nearby beautiful beaches and crystal clear waters.
One of the best things to do near Fethiye is to visit the Lycian Rock Tombs, the easiest of which to visit is the Amyntas Rock Tomb. This is named for an authenticated Ancient Greek inscription on its side which refers to ‘Amyntas, son of Hermagios’ and dates back to 350 BCE. What makes this rock tomb particularly special is the fact that its exterior is the same size as a full-sized temple (most Lycian rock tombs are fairly small in size).
There is not a huge amount known about the Lycians, with the exception of their tombs – which were carved high into the cliffs as it was believed that this meant their dead could be carried to the afterlife by winged creatures.
The Amyntas Rock Tomb can be visited by hiking up from the city of Fethiye or alternatively driving up and parking nearby. A ticket to reach the entrance is a nominal 10 TL, which is reflected by the fact that inside there is just a small space to visit and the beauty of the site really lies in its historical importance and fantastic view over the rest of the city.
By Sophie Nadeau from Solo Sophie
The Basilica Cistern is a huge water container underground in Istanbul. It was built in the 6th century by the Emperor Justinian I and is the largest of several ancient underground water cisterns beneath the city.
When you descend into the cistern you will be amazed by its enormous size. It is 138 metres long, 65 metres wide and 9 metres high, and when full can contain up to 80,000 cubic meters of water (but don’t worry, it’s empty now, to allow visitors to enter).
The most impressive features are the 336 marble columns that support the ceiling. These pillars were harvested from ancient Roman ruins so you can see capitals in Ionic, Corinthian, or Doric style. Two columns are supported by the head of Medusa, one head is turned sideways and the other set is upside down – they are said to be arranged this way so that Medusa’s power to turn people to stone will be defeated.
The Cistern is located in the Sultanahmet historical part of Istanbul, 150 metres west of the Hagia Sofia. The ticket price is 30 TL (less than 4 USD).
By Džangir Kolar of Dr Jam Travels
Göreme Open Air Museum
Take a trip back in time with a visit to the Göreme Open Air Museum. A must-see attraction in any Cappadocia itinerary, the Göreme Open Air Museum consists of ancient monasteries and chapels that are carved out of soft rock and fairy chimneys. Now designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, these ruins are remarkably well-preserved and have an impressive collection of frescoes.
While the area was originally settled by small anchorite communities in the 4th century, most ruins in the museum today date from the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries. The Göreme Open Air Museum features eleven refectories including the Nunnery, Apple (Elmali) Church and the Snake (Yilanli) Church. The highlight of the visit is the Dark Church (Karanlik Kilise) which includes frescoes decorated with scenes from the New Testament.
The Göreme Open Air Museum is located 1 mile (1.5 km) from the village of Göreme. While you can take a taxi, walking is recommended as the landscape is dotted with scenic fairy chimneys along the way. The fee to enter the museum is 25 TL (about 3 USD) plus an additional 8 TL to visit the Dark Church. During the summer months, avoid visiting the ruins during the hottest part of the day.
By Katy Shaw from A Rambling Unicorn
In Turkey, caravanserais were spaced every 30 or 40 kilometres along the ancient ‘Silk Roads’ crisscrossing Eurasia. Seljuk rulers saw caravanserais as essential to economic development and trade by offering safe and secure overnight accommodation to caravaneers, their animals, and trade goods.
One of the best-preserved caravanserais is near Ağzıkarahan, 70 kilometres from Göreme in Cappadoccia. Built between 1231 and 1239, Ağzıkarahan Han eloquently communicates the power of the period and the importance of its place in history. It invites visitors to picture what life might have been like for these early travellers. The high walls, massive doors large enough to accommodate loaded caravans, stables, and sleeping quarters all point to a safe and secure overnight stop for caravaneers and their animals.
Bordering the central courtyard are the service rooms housing a hammam (Turkish bath), repair shops, and kitchen. In the centre is a small pavilion mosque resting on an arched base. These meant that caravaners could enjoy two meals a day, sleep, bathe, and pray in a secure environment, and trade with other merchants.
The caravanserai at Ağzıkarahan is an ideal site for today’s travellers to connect with the rich history of the ancient Silk Road.
By Anne Betts of Packing Light Travel
If you’re interested in Turkey or archaeological sites, why not check out some of my other posts?
- Hunting for the Ruins of Troy, Turkey, and How to Visit
- A Turkey Road Trip On The Aegean Coast
- Gordion in Turkey: City of King Midas and the Golden Touch
- An Unhelpful Guide To… Aztec Ruins In Mexico
- An Unhelpful Guide to… Herculaneum