From Ephesus to Sagalassos: a road trip around the ancient cities of Turkey

I could be standing on the very spot Alexander the Great once stood after conquering Sagalassos, the first city of Pisidia.

Located 1,500 metres on top of the mighty Taurus Mountains, Sagalassos was once a thriving metropolis, a place of power and wealth, decorated with large-scale monuments covered with intricate designs. A series of earthquakes left most of the city under rubble until its recent discovery in the 1980s.

On a crisp Monday morning when we visit, the city is deserted. Layers of half-built marble walls, horizontal pillars, and pieces of limestone remain scattered like an unfinished museum. But somehow, despite its ambiguous appearance, there is enough to give you a sense of what it used to be. An uneven marble path guides you through the Hamman and gymnasium to the colonnaded street and Lower Agora, and follow that way up to reach the more upmarket section of the settlement.

Behind the Upper Agora, facing the town of Aglasun, is the jewel of this ancient city: the Antonine Fountain. Built between 160 and 180 AD by the Flavius family, the working nymphaeum depicts rich decorations using different types of stones and iconic patterns symbolic of the Hellenistic era. Between the tabernacles are two larger-than-life statues of Dionysus, god of wine and fertility. These are the only ones original to the fountain; others are on display in the Museum of Burdur.

Sagalassos is one of the lesser-visited ancient cities. The most famous is Ephesus, three hours away, where our road trip began.

Antonine Fountain in Sagalassos (Amey Bapat)
Antonine Fountain in Sagalassos (Amey Bapat)

Archaeology in the Aegean

We flew into Izmir from Istanbul and drove 45 minutes to the sleepy old town of Selcuk, home to the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. All that remains of it is a marble column, but artefacts from the temple are at the Ephesus Museum in the heart of town. A short walk away, the castle and the Basilica of St John offer sweeping views of lush green fields and undulating hills, the typical topography of the region.

Most people come here to explore Ephesus, the well-documented ancient city in Turkey and by far the busiest. At 10 in the morning, the place is already heaving with tourists nudging past you to join their respective groups. Be prepared to navigate through people (lots of people), guides, photographers, and cats while dodging slippery, uneven 10th century BC marble floors.

Temples, terrace Houses, and exquisite carvings in stone, including the goddess Nike, line the path until you get to the showstopper that is the Library of Celsus. The two-storey facade with windows and Corinthian columns is a masterclass in Roman architecture, covered with botanical motifs and sculptures representing wisdom, intelligence, knowledge, and virtue. Back in its heyday, the library was home to 12,000 scrolls, making it the third-largest library of the ancient world. Also within Ephesus is a magnificent marble theatre with a capacity to accommodate 25,000 spectators. Take a bow on centre stage and soak in the atmosphere and echo.

Library of Celsus in Ephesus ancient city (Amey Bapat)
Library of Celsus in Ephesus ancient city (Amey Bapat)

Just minutes from the ancient site, a cluster of small, narrow restaurants start filling up with the tired and hungry. Women in headscarves are rolling dough into paper-thin circles to prepare freshly made gozleme, Turkish pancakes stuffed with potatoes, meat, or vegetables. It is a light lunch dish best consumed with ayran, a cold, savoury yoghurt-based beverage.

Food is at the heart of Turkey, both culturally and strategically. Half the country is agricultural, providing millions with employment and contributing a substantial chunk to its GDP. It is the biggest producer of apricots and hazelnuts and the fourth-largest grower of olives. You’ll find plenty of this fresh produce along roadsides as you drive between provinces.

White travertines of Pamukkale

Three hours east of Selcuk in Denizli Province is a site known for its Instagram-worthy snow-white travertine terrace. Pamukkale, meaning cotton castle, has mineral-rich thermal waters that create shimmering turquoise beds on white limestone deposits. It was used as a thermal spa in the 2nd century BC and attracts hundreds for the same reason today.

Behind the travertines is the ancient city of Hierapolis, also known as the Holy City. “There are several theories as to why it was deemed holy,” our guide, Yagmur, tells us. “Some believe the waters in the hot spring on which the city stands are holy, while others think it was after a lady called Hiera.’ The theory behind the name is as complicated as its past. From Phrygians to Greeks and then the Roman province of Asia, Hierapolis changed many hands since its inception. The theatre, baths, and temples of Apollo, Pluto, and Poseidon we see today are from Roman times.

The best way to experience Hierapolis is to walk along the cliff edge until you reach the most well-preserved necropolis in Turkey. Most of the 1,200 graves date back to the Hellenistic period, but there is also evidence to show the presence of Romans and Christians. At first glance, the graves look like collapsed and cracked ruins. However, archaeologists think thieves may have excavated them for valuables buried with the dead.

Lycian fishing village called Kaleköy, opposite Kekova Island (Amey Bapat)
Lycian fishing village called Kaleköy, opposite Kekova Island (Amey Bapat)

Sunken ancient city

We’re leaving behind the Aegean region and heading towards the coast in search of sun, sea, and a particular sunken city in the province of Antalya. The journey to Kekova Island takes four to five hours via winding mountain roads and lush green forests.

The uninhabited island, also known as Kekova Adası, is visible from the mainland but only accessible by boat. This Lycian city was a busy port along the Mediterranean trade route until the Byzantine period. Surveys show a gradual decline in population and eventual abandonment of Kekova Island by the end of the eighth century, thought to have been caused by natural disasters and a conflict with the Arabs.

Traces of that bustling port remain visible through the quays dotted along the fringes where water touches land. Other architectural remains resemble stone-built houses, churches, stairs, pipes, and water channels. Beneath the translucent waters, in the corners where light is sparse, lie fragments of ships and amphorae dating from the fifth to seventh centuries BC.

Your day-long boat trip will also take you to another Lycian fishing village, called Kaleköy or Simena, accessible only by foot or boat. Unlike Kekova, this village has locals living in tiny stone houses along the hillside and it boasts a castle at the top with sweeping views of the Mediterranean.


Next up is the city of Antalya, a modern metropolis with an ancient soul.

Forget the resorts and head to the maze-like streets of Kaleici (old town), where the triumphal arches of Hadrian and Ottoman mansions are guaranteed to charm you. Hidden in its narrow cobbled streets, between spice markets and pottery stores, is the 18th century Tekeli Mehmet Paşa Mosque and Yivli Minare (fluted minaret) built by Seljuk sultan Alaeddin Keykubad. All roads in the old town lead to the harbour, where the locals gather to watch boats and yachts drift as the sun sets.

Over in the modern part of the city, the Museum of Antalya is a one-stop shop for all things ancient. Here you will find relics such as coins, ceramics, statues, and sarcophagi, all collected from excavations around the region. Among the 5,000 works of art displayed across 13 exhibition halls are marble statues of Artemis, Hermes, Hercules, and Trajan. In the centre of the Hall of Imperial Statues is Plancia Magna, the most influential female of Perge.

Tomb of Sufi poet Mevlana Rumi in Konya (Amey Bapat)
Tomb of Sufi poet Mevlana Rumi in Konya (Amey Bapat)

Spirituality and Sufism

From Antalya, we drive seven hours north to the spiritual city of Konya, via Sagalassos. The history of Konya, previously known as Iconium, became a spiritual hub under the Seljuk Turks, whose enlightened rulers developed it as a centre for arts and theological studies. The buildings are now home to museums, such as ceramics and antiquities.

Thousands flock here each year to visit the tomb of Rumi, Mevlana Jalal al-Din Muḥammad Rumi, the Sufi poet known for preaching tolerance and the inspiration behind the Order of the Whirling Dervishes. Mevlâna Museum, where his body rests, is a place of pilgrimage, both for his followers and lovers of his poetry and philosophy. His coffin, placed next to his father under a turquoise dome, remains draped in green cloth with gold calligraphy under an oversized conical hat.

Next to the mausoleum is the mosque where his most prominent work now sits. Masnavi, meaning the Spiritual Couplets, is considered one of the most influential scriptures in Sufism. It is a series of six books comprising 25,000 verses and 50,000 lines. Rumi died in 1273 before he could complete the final book.

Caves of Cappadocia

From the poetic to the otherworldly, we head three hours north-east to Cappadocia or Katpatuka, the land of beautiful horses.

Some 2,000 years ago, Mount Erciyes erupted, covering the land in thick ash, which later solidified into soft rock called ‘tuff’. We’re staring at holes in the tuff, which our guide points out are dovecotes or pigeon houses. There are hundreds of these carvings around us in a place aptly known as Pigeon Valley.

“Pigeons were significant for the people of Cappadocia for several reasons, but mainly because their poop could fertilise the volcanic soil,” she explained. The birds have long stopped fertilising, but the holes remain more for photographs than anything else.

Like everywhere in Turkey, Cappadocia has a complicated past, too. During Roman and Byzantine rule, it acted as a place of refuge for Christians forced into religious exile. To remain in hiding, they built interconnected underground cities. Many of these still exist and give a fascinating insight into how they lived, where they slept, and how they communicated.

A short distance away, the small village of Gerome is surrounded by surreal landscapes known as “fairy chimneys”. Erosion of the volcanic tuff eroded the soft elements, leaving behind honeycombed structures towering several feet into the sky. The open-air museum of Gerome showcases several of these, as well as beautiful churches covered in frescoes.

There is plenty to do in Cappadocia, apart from staring at strange-shaped rocks. You could visit a traditional Turkish carpet maker or have a go moulding local mud into decorative pottery. If the cave-like structures have intrigued you, stay at locally owned hotels designed to give you that exact experience. We end our time in Cappadocia with a delectable home-cooked meal surrounded by lovely locals – in a cave home, of course.

Intrepid Travel’s 15-day Premium Turkey in Depth trip starts from £2,176pp, including accommodation, transport, selected meals, and activities. International flights are extra. Book at or call 0808 274 5111.