Let’s face it – those of us who decide to wander half-way across Turkey to the fairytale land of soft eroded volcanic rock ecoscapes have likely made the sojourn for the principal purpose of experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime balloon flight over Cappadocia’s fairy chimneys.
But these multi-colored canyons full of cave dwellings, churches, underground cities, and pigeon houses have a lot more to offer for those with an appetite to explore. We quickly discovered Cappadocia is an extensive region with many different towns, attractions and outdoor activities. And the best way we found to explore the sights was on a DIY Cappadocia Red Tour.
Why Self-Guided Cappadocia Day Tours?
After researching the various guided day tour options around Cappadocia we came away feeling a bit like Goldilocks, nothing quite fit what we were looking for.
On the one hand the organized tour group options felt too big – big buses, big groups and big daily agendas that packed too much in. Plus bus tours aren’t really our style to begin with and we hate feeling constrained for time at places that we want to explore deeper.
On the other hand, a private tour hiring a taxi driver for the day felt too small – mostly small in terms of money left in our pockets at the end of the day after paying for a private driver. While we liked the idea of having someone take care of the logistics and hassle of driving from one place to the next, this option was cost prohibitive for our budget.
So we were thrilled when Tarik from our Cappadocia cave hotel suggested a self-guided option to explore Cappadocia by renting a car and guiding ourselves around the region. Immediately we knew this felt just right. We liked having the freedom to explore on our own time table and we were pleased that the total cost to hire a car (US$40) and pay entrance fees to the attractions was less than both of our other options. Esbelli Evi even equipped us with a hand drawn map and descriptions of the major points of interest so we would know where to go and what to see.
If this sounds like your dilemma as well we suggest you load up your day pack with some munchies, water, sunglasses and a sturdy pair of hiking shoes and hit the open road using this DIY Cappadocia day tour roadmap, complete with a google map route (see end of post), attraction descriptors, hours and entrance fees.
Stop #1 – Devrent Valley (Imagination Valley)
Start your day in Devrent Valley, a short ten minute drive from Urgup and Goreme towns. Let your imagination run wild as you wind your way through this open air sculpture park. With a little creativity you will start to spot the tails of reptiles and humps of camels amidst a valley of rosy rocks.
Devrent Valley, also known as Imagination Valley, is a relatively small valley of fairy chimneys for this area. So what makes it so unique? The darker, harder top layers of rock here have protected the softer layers beneath from erosion, over time creating unique shapes resembling a zoo of animal sculptures. Here, if you let your creativity go, you can find snakes and seals, dophins and dragons. I’m embarrassed to admit that Adam was far better at the game of animal spotting than I was though it was fun to try to see what he was seeing.
A word of advice to our fellow Cappadocia DIYers – follow the trail beyond where the tour bus crowds go. Though it may seem impossibly crowded at first, the tours only stop here briefly so if you venture far enough from the road you can have the valley to yourselves.
Devrent Valley Logistics
Stop #2 – Zelve Open Air Museum
You’ll love exploring the Zelve Valley and Zelve Open Air Museum next. Surprisingly this ended up being one of our favorite stops for the day.
This remarkable cave town was home to one of the largest cave-dwelling communities in the region. It is so large, in fact, it takes hours to circumnavigate. What makes Zelve’s cave dwelling community even more special is that Christians and Muslims lived here harmoniously until the 1920’s when the Greek-Orthodox Christians were driven out of Turkey. Muslims continued to live in their Zelve cave homes until 1952 when they were deemed too dangerous to inhabit for structural reasons.
What we liked most about the Zelve Open Air Museum is how freely we were able to explore the various abandoned homes and churches, some allowing us (er, Adam) to climb stories high. There were also very few people visiting Zelve at the time, so we were able to roam freely and really imagine what it might have been like to live in this extraordinary homes only a short 65 years ago.
Zelve Open Air Museum offers three different converging walking paths to explore the its three valleys. On Path 1 remnants of village life can be seen including the old değirmen (mill), with a grindstone and graffitied wooden beam. On Path 2, explore what’s left of the Geyikli Kilise (Church with Deer) and on Path 3 visit the simply adorned rock-cut mosque. Beware certain paths may be closed off due to rock-fall caused by continuing erosion.
Zelve Open Air Museum Logistics
Stop #3 – Pasabag Valley (Monks Valley)
It is in Pasabag Valley where you’ll really get a feel for Cappadocia’s striking and iconic fairy chimneys. The tuff stone pillars of Pasabag are easily recognizable, standing at 10-15 meters high often with twin and triple rock caps.
Pasabag Valley is also commonly referred to as Monks Valley. This name was given due to the St. Simeon and the monks who decided to seek refuge and shelter here after attracting unwanted fan fair for being supposed miracle makers. To make their home, the monks would start by carving rooms for themselves at the bottom of the fairy chimney and working their way to the top. They were said to only descend to receive food and drink from their disciples.
For our fellow rock climbers out there, you can still climb and explore the upper rooms of the fairy chimneys.
Pasabag Valley Logistics
Stop #4 – Goreme Open Air Museum
From the Pasabag Fairy Chimneys, make your way back towards Goreme village and find a restaurant for lunch. From here you’ll be detouring a bit to visit the infamous Goreme Open Air Museum.
Most visitors to Cappadocia visit the Goreme Open Air Museum for good reason. Where else in the world can you find a grouping of 1,000 year old cave churches with magnificent Byzantine era paintings of Biblical scenes? However, we have to say, after exploring the Zelve Open Air Museum, Goreme’s Open Air Museum was a bit of a let-down. Maybe it was the extreme mid-afternoon heat or the obnoxious crowds trying to push and squeeze themselves into the narrow entryways of each church cave dwelling, but we felt rather underwhelmed and a little put off.
The Goreme Open Air Museum is a massive monastery complex, home to multiple monasteries from the 10th-12th centuries lined side by side, each with their own fresco-filled church. We were sad and a little alarmed to see that the eyes of each of the figures in the frescos had been scratched out. However despite this the churches have been well preserved.
We know it would be a lot to ask to tell you to come to Goreme and not visit the Goreme Open Air Museum, but in hindsight were we to do this day tour over again we would have saved our time and 20TL and gone on a hike through the Red Valley or Ilahara Valley instead.
Visiting the Frescos of the Dark Church (Karanlik Kilise)
Unless you haven’t yet had your fill of frescoes, we don’t suggest paying the extra 10TL per person entrance fee to visit the Dark Church (located inside the Goreme Open Air Museum).
Goreme Open Air Museum Logistics
Stop #5 – Uchisar Castle
Your next stop, Uchisar Castle, is hard to miss as it stands high above the rest of the Cappadocia region. Even from afar you can make out its plethora of cave dwellings and pigeon houses carved into the great solo-standing fortress.
Upon visiting Uchisar Castle up close you’ll see that many of its rooms are connected via a network of stairs, passages and tunnels. However, due to erosion most of this maze-like castle is closed off to tourists now.
Luckily the castle does serve an important, albeit completely different, modern-day purpose. Today, many of the rooms on the north facing side of Uchisar Castle have been converted to pigeon houses or dovecuts. The droppings from pigeons, which are an nutrient-dense natural fertilizer, are collected by local farmers to spread across their orchards and vineyards.
From the top of Uchisar, you’ll be rewarded a beautiful 360-degree panorama of the surrounding valleys. If it is clear, you may even have the chance to see Mount Erciyes off in the distance. However, while Uchisar Castle was interesting to visit, the views from the top no where near compared to what we experienced during our hot air balloon flight. For this reason, if you are short on time we wouldn’t suggest you go out of your way to hike to the top.
Uchisar Castle Logistics
Stop #6 – Kaymakali Underground City
From the lofty cave dwellings of Uchisar make your long drive south to the fascinating troglodyte underground cave-cities of Kaymakli and Derinkuyu.
Cappadocia’s widest underground cave city, and suggested largest in the region is Kaymakali. Initially excavated under the Citadel of Kaymakali during the Hittite times this underground city was built out further over the centuries as new armies scoured, sacked and plundered the region and its inhabitants. Archeologists believe that as many as 3,500 people could have lived in the city at one time. Nearly 100 houses near the Citadel of Kaymakali have access points to the tunnels from their properties where they still use the cool, dry spaces as cellars and storage units.
Today only four of the eight floors have been opened to the public including the first floor stable, second floor church, third floor kitchen and coppersmith and fourth floor storage. Kaymakali is far less claustrophobic than Derinkuyu making it more enjoyable to explore. We enjoyed learning about the 80 meter ventilation shafts around which the larger spaces are organized.
Kaymakali Underground City Logistics
Stop #7 – Derinkuyu Underground City
If you still have the energy and time, a little further south of Kaymakli Underground City is the equally intriguing Derinkuyu Underground City. Derinkuyu is deep as Kaymakli is wide, making the narrow passageways of its 85 meter depth more than a little unnerving for those who get claustrophobic. Derinkuyu has roughly 600 outside surface-level doors connecting to this hidden city which are still accessed to store food, wine and belongings today.
While unlikely that Derinkuyu or the other underground cities were ever built for long-term or permanent dwelling the structures were established to support large numbers while withstanding attacks. As an example of this, Derinkuyu Underground City has more than 15,000 ventilation ducts that provide access to fresh air deep beneath the ground.
Note that passageways are very narrow in Derinkuyu, often allowing one person to walk at one time. It is useful to have a guide to explain one of the underground cities but due to the claustrophobic nature of Derinkuyu we might suggest hiring a local guide at the cave entrance for Kaymakli instead.
Derinkuyu Underground City Logistics
Stop #8 – Red Valley Sunset (Kizilcukur)
Spend your last 30 minutes of daylight in the company of hundreds of other weary Cappadocia travelers as you overlook the stunning Red Valley for sunset. If you can grab a seat early enough, enjoy a beer from the tables of a cliff-top restaurant. Or venture further over the plateau and stake out your own perch . After seeing the brilliancy of colors over the red valley as the sun descended on the horizon, it was no wonder why brides were lining up to take their wedding photos here. This was the perfect way to end a long and adventurous day exploring Cappadocia on our own.
Red Valley Sunset Logistics
More Time? More to Explore
While we were really happy with what we were able to cover over the course of a day in on our self-guided Cappadocia day tour, there is so much more to see and do in this region, from the pottery makers of Avanos to the Ilhara Valley. There are also a handful of well-known hikes around the region including the Red and Rose Valleys and Pigeon Valley.
About Museum Pass Cappadocia
- Goreme Open Air Museum – 20TL
- Zelve Open Air Museum – 15TL
- Kaymakli Underground City – 20TL
- Derinkuyu Underground City – 20TL
- Özkonak Underground City
- Nevşehir Museum
- Cavusin Archaeological Site
- Hacibektas Museum
You should be able to purchase the pass from any of the locations requiring an entrance fee. Though we found conflicting information online, during our visit the Cappadocia Museum Pass did not allow us entrance into the Uchisar Castle or Dark Church.
Cappadocia Day Tours Roadmap
Our amazing cave hotel was kind enough to provide a hand drawn map for us to help navigate between the attractions. This was necessary as you’ll quickly see roads are not well marked (except for the direction) and as far as we could tell most don’t have names. So we hope the google map we’ve put together below comes in handy for your day tour. We also highly recommend staying at Esbelli Evi who can help you plan your day.
If You Go: Self-Guided Cappadocia Day Tours Logistics
What: Take a full-day to explore the Cappadocia region on your own schedule. This Self-Guided Cappadocia Day Tour Roadmap highlights some of the region’s most fascinating sights, both above and below ground.
Where: Cappadocia region, Turkey
When: You can explore Cappadocia year round, although there there is a period when there is snow on the ground requiring long periods exploring in the cold.
How: As this is a self-guided tour, it is up to you to drive yourself around the region. We found driving through Cappadocia to be very easy. If you don’t feel comfortable with hiring a car but still want the flexibility and freedom of a self-guided tour, you can hire a taxi driver for the day, though we were quoted this would cost US$90 excluding entrance fees to any of the sights.
Cost: Our 24-hour car rental through Sixt cost us US$40. They dropped the sedan off and picked it up from our hotel when we were done. We also purchased the Museum Pass Cappadocia for 45TL (US$15.50) which granted us access to the Goreme and Zelve Open Air Musueums and Kaymakli and Derinkuyu Underground Cities.