In addition to spending time in Istanbul during our visit to Turkey, we also embarked on a side-trip into the heart of the country to see the stunning landscapes of the Cappadocia region.
I had seen and heard so many great things about this part of the world – I’m sure you’ve seen it too, those awe-inspiring Instagram pics of the hot air balloons soaring over the jagged rocky landscape – so I was very excited to finally experience this place for myself.
Getting In + Where to Stay
Cappadocia, as a geographical term, refers to a region of cultural and historical significance in the Turkish heartland. The main tourist town in the region is known as Göreme, whereas the larger cities nearby are Nevsehir and Kayseri. Both of these cities have major airports with frequent daily services to Istanbul, so I had booked a simple round-trip flight between Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokçen Airport and Nevsehir for an incredibly cheap $75 round-trip.
Cappadocia has a few chain hotels to choose from, but if you ask me, this is decidedly a place where you should avoid cookie-cutter chain hotels and instead stay in one of the region’s distinctive cave hotels, which are sculpted out of the sheer rock surface and designed to imitate the traditional rock-cut housing structures of the Cappadocian peoples.
After scouring a few reviews (read: comparing the Instagram shots from their respective rooftop terraces), Jessy and I decided on the Sultan Cave Suites hotel for our two-night stay. The hotel was going for a surprisingly affordable $120 per night, although the rates can often be much higher than that.
We arranged an airport pickup service with the hotel, which was €10 per person per way in a shared van, and I thought that was a very fair price for the 45-minute drive from Nevsehir to Göreme.
Tall, thin spires of rock begin to crop up along the landscape as you get closer and closer to Göreme National Park, giving you a taste of what’s to come.
Coming into Cappadocia, Jessy and I knew we definitely wanted to spend one of our mornings riding a hot air balloon, and the second morning sitting on the rooftop deck to look at the hot air balloons and of course take a picture (or a few dozen) for the Instagram.
If you’re headed to Cappadocia, I definitely recommend arranging your hot air balloon tour at least a month in advance, because by the time I went on TripAdvisor to try to book a ride, most of the operators with the best reviews had already been sold out. Thankfully, the hotel was able to hook us up with a few spots onboard Turquaz Balloons, an operator that had solid reviews on TripAdvisor, for €165 per person if paid with cash.
(That’s a good chunk of change, to be sure, but I knew that this was one of those special travel experiences that we absolutely did not want to miss out on.)
Even though we managed to book our spots on the balloons, there remained the question of whether the flight would even take place, since several flights during the week before had been cancelled due to poor weather. Jessy and I crossed our fingers in the hopes that the balloons would take to the skies on both mornings, though we’d have to wait and see.
Beyond the balloons, we didn’t arrive with many ideas about what else to do, so the hotel staff were more than willing to help us plan our itinerary for our two days in Cappadocia. They recommended an ATV sunset tour for the first afternoon, so that we’d get to visit all of the most significant vantage points within Göreme National Park during our first day. The ATV tour was €28 per person, which I also thought was very reasonably priced.
The staff also highlighted a few other points of interest that we could check out, either by ourselves or as part of a full-day guided tour on the second day. Jessy and I enjoy taking on new challenges on our own, so we declined the offer for the guided tour.
Exploring the Town of Göreme
After going over the itinerary, we were informed that our hotel room wouldn’t quite be ready until the afternoon, so Jessy and I made the 10-minute walk into the town of Göreme for lunch.
We stopped by a Chinese restaurant (at this point in our travels, we’ve learned that every town, settlement, and locality has a Chinese eatery of some kind), before grabbing a coffee and walking around the town for a little while.
Most of Göreme’s shops and establishments are catered towards tourists passing through, and they reminded me a lot of the stores in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, with lots of visually pleasing lamps and rugs competing for your attention.
It was to no avail, though, because all of our attention was focused on a local dog who “adopted” us and decided to follow us around all the time!
The dog seemed to be quite popular among the shopkeepers too, and all of them seemed to have seen him cheerfully wandering around Göreme before, just like he was doing today in our company.
One of the shopkeepers said his name was “Izmir”, so that’s what we started calling him, and he followed us all the way back to the Sultan Cave Suites.
Our room was ready by now, so we headed downstairs to drop our stuff down. There’s definitely something special about staying in these traditional cave suites – in any other locale in the world, the room might’ve been a little too basic for our liking, but here in Cappadocia it captured the essence of the place perfectly.
Alas, we didn’t want Izmir causing a ruckus inside, so Jessy headed to the rooftop deck to hang out with him.
She happened to fall asleep for a quick nap in the afternoon sunshine, and when she woke up, just like that, Izmir was gone with the wind.
ATV Tour of Göreme National Park
Our ATV tour began that day at 5pm, and would bring us through the striking rocky landscape of Cappadocia to witness the incredible sunset views. Along with a few other hotel guests who had signed up for the tour, we all piled into a van and were driven down to the tour operator’s office in Göreme.
From there, we were all equipped with helmets, and then took our seats in the ATVs to begin our journey. Jessy was a little scared, so we shared an ATV and I drove while she sat behind me.
The ATV tour takes place mostly off-road on Göreme National Park’s sprawling network of dirt trails, with a few stretches on the open road as well. It was a very safe and coordinated experience, and the local drivers on the road are very familiar with these ATV tours and are very accommodating in their driving style.
The park has quite a few well-known scenic vistas, and the tour brought us to each of them one-by-one, where we paused for a few moments to drink in the views.
To tell you the truth, though, even without these vantage points, I found myself utterly transfixed by the views surrounding me from every single angle.
Cappadocia’s otherworldly rock formations are technically known as “hoodoos”, although they’re perhaps better known as “fairy chimneys” – spires of sandstone of about five to seven metres tall, resting upon a thick base of shale, formed over the course of millions of years.
Taken on their own, these rocky shards protruding irreverently out of the valley are rather eerie in appearance –downright ugly, even. Looking at a landscape full of them, though, brings about a sense of beauty that’s quite unlike anything else I’ve seen before.
As our convoy of ATVs swept from viewpoint to viewpoint, the sun dipped closer and closer to the horizon until eventually we witnessed it disappear behind the jagged skyline.
The ATV tour was an engrossing way to get introduced to Cappadocia, and I thought it was incredible value for money at €28 per head. It left us quite exhausted, though, and Jessy and I quickly retreated to our room to get some rest.
We’d have to get up early the next morning, after all, for the showpiece event…
Riding the Hot Air Balloons
Every morning in Cappadocia, weather permitting, dozens if not hundreds of hot air balloons take to the skies at sunrise to give its occupants a birds-eye view of the fairy chimneys at first light.
Luckily, the weather turned out to be fine this morning, so we were picked up by the Turquaz Balloons driver at 4:30am and driven into Göreme to Turquaz’s main building for a quick breakfast.
After that, we piled back into the van for the short drive out beyond the city limits, where the balloons had been set up overnight and were just beginning to take shape.
About 20 of us shuffled into the balloon’s wicker basket, and we were greeted by our pilot for the morning.
Then, just as the day was beginning to break over the horizon, our pilot held down the burner for a few seconds, and we had lift-off.
It’s truly difficult to put this experience into words, so I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking.
At first, the spot where Jessy and I were standing was mostly facing outwards away from the other hot air balloons in the sky, so when our vessel began turning and our viewpoints swung around to face the mass of colourful balloons, just as the sun had fully risen above the horizon, casting the orchestra of colours in a soft warm glow… oh man.
We stood there, spellbound, the world around us briefly melting away for a second, our instincts to capture the moment through our camera lens briefly flittering away. Then we looked at each other, and looked back, as the balloons slowly inched their way across the morning sky.
It was one of those moments that you live for as a traveller, one that stays with you for the rest of your life.
After ascending high up into the sky for the first half of the flight…
…our balloon descended to close to ground level, giving us a closer view of the magical landscape below and bringing us within hand-waving distance of the tourists who had taken to the walking trails in the early morning.
The whole experience was over in about an hour, and if I’m being honest, I still look back on it and wonder whether it was all a dream.
Before I knew it, we were landing in an open field and were treated to some sparkling wine after the flight, after which the van returned to bring us back to our hotel.
Göreme Open Air Museum
After enjoying a hearty breakfast at the hotel, Jessy and I spent the rest of the day wandering through Göreme National Park on foot. Whereas an ATV, car, or horseback ride would’ve definitely been a more efficient way to get from place to place, we’re both active purveyors of getting to know a place by walking around, so we weren’t going to miss the chance to do that in one of the most magical landscapes we’ve ever encountered.
We started off our journey by visiting the Göreme Open Air Museum, which gives visitors an insight into traditional monastic life practiced by the native Cappadocian peoples. The region was first settled during the Roman period, and so not only were houses and public facilities carved into the rock face, so too were the churches and chapels of the community.
The Open Air Museum features over 30 such sites of worship carved directly into the stone, many of them with impressive frescoes on the inside. You can hire a guide to help you understand more about the history of the region, or simply take one of the audioguides and follow along on your own.
After that, we walked north towards Çavusin, another settlement within the wider Göreme National Park, where we had briefly visited the previous day on our ATVs. Here, there was a gigantic rock cliff of about 10 storeys tall, in which a vast network of caves, passages, and lookouts had been carved.
Naturally, we took to climbing up to the very top, just in time to watch the sun setting over the fairy chimneys from a different vantage point.
Looking at the Hot Air Balloons
Our flight was leaving from Nevsehir at around 10am the next morning, although we still got up at the crack of dawn, this time to simply look at the hot air balloons instead of riding on one.
In reality, though, the balloon viewing party was anything but simple. That’s because, as you can imagine, virtually all of the other hotel guests had exactly the same idea of getting the perfect Instagram picture in front of the balloon-filled sky.
Jessy and I spent about an hour on the rooftop deck, competing with fellow guests for the ideal picture spot and snapping away at our photos whenever we got the chance.
All that trouble for this one photo? Hey, that’s the world we live in…
We soon retreated to breakfast as the sun rose fully into the sky and the balloons began to drop away, and before long, it was time to pack up our bags and board the van back to Nevsehir Airport.
Cappadocia is a place of mystery and wonder. The endless fairy chimneys dotting the landscape will forever be one of my happy places, evoking a feeling of being on another planet followed by a deep sense of connection to our Earth when you remember that that’s in fact where we are.
Furthermore, there’s a wide variety of activities for tourists to engage in as they explore the region, from staying in the distinctive cave hotels, to the ATV tours, to horseback riding, to spelunking through underground cave networks, and of course, taking to the skies in a hot air balloon to see Cappadocia in the morning light.
We explored Göreme National Park over the course of two sunsets and two sunrises, and although Jessy and I were both wistful at the thought of leaving after such a short time, we had no doubts that this was a place that we’d return to in the future.
Indeed, I truly believe that Cappadocia is showing early signs of being overrun by tourists in the near future, so I’d encourage you to plan a trip there and experience it for yourself sooner rather than later!