Cappadocia: Ancient Churches and Underground Cities

If you read my first post on Cappadocia, you would already know that there is more than one reason to venture out into Turkey’s Central Anatolia.  With mystical landscapes and historical sites that breath life into the past, Cappadocia is not to be missed while in Turkey.  While our last post focused on hiking opportunities in the region, this post will cover all of the historical sites and activities worthwhile when you are there.

Hacli Kilise Cappadocia
Interior of Hacli Kilise

Every hotel and store front in every town that dots the region of Cappadocia will have signs advertising the exact same three tours.  If you tend to be more of an independent traveler, you probably will be turned off to the idea of being ushered around the region rather than doing it yourself.  Good news is that you can see the majority of places listed on the tours independently at a much lower cost and at a much more relaxed pace.  While there are countless places to go and see in Cappadocia, we only go over the ones that are most worth your time.  After visiting the region twice, this is our definitive list of must do’s while in Cappadocia.

Most of the pictures below are from my first trip to Turkey when I only had a point and shoot camera.  The photos are below my standard but they are all I have.

Pigeon Valley Cappadocia
Enjoying the view of Pigeon Valley

Cave Churches

Background of the Churches

Cappadocia’s other defining feature is the overabundance of ancient cave churches that cover the wavy and pinnacle filled landscape.  Starting in the 5th century under the orders of Saint Basil, early Christians began carving cave churches out of the soft volcanic rock that covers Cappadocia.  St. Basil’s words would spark over five hundred years of cave building, leaving the world with one of the most fascinating early christian sites in the world.  Many of the churches retain their artwork and color to this day, making them a highlight to any visit to Cappadocia.

Eski Gumusler
Depiction of the Gospel of Luke in Eski Gumusler

After the churches were carved out, plaster was applied and smoothed along the interior walls from which monks and whomever else could paint on.  Now, even after more than a thousand years later, their artwork breathes life into the dark interiors.

You will notice two contrasting artistic styles in the region.  The earliest churches in the region were constructed mostly during the iconoclastic period and as a result the artwork is rather simple and lacks human figures.  Most of these caves are decorated using a red paint which was used to create a trimming around doorways as well as crosses that you will see throughout the caves.

Some of the early christian art the remains in many of the caves

Following this period, the cave churches drastically changed during the high age of Byzantine Art.  Saints, biblical figures, and depictions from stories of the bible were plastered onto every square inch of space in the newer caves.  The most impressive caves in Cappadocia are from this time period and were used by the religiously devote all the way up until the 1920s when the Greeks who lived in the region were forced out of  Turkey.

Buckle Church
An explosion of colors in Buckle Church

Where to see the Cave Churches

While there are cave churches strewn about the region, the most well preserved churches are a collection of them that surround an old monastic settlement (which was also dug from the rock) known as the Goreme Open-Air Museum.  Located in the town of Goreme, this UNESCO site is easily the top attraction in all of Cappadocia.

St. George slaying a dragon


The open air museum is easy to get around as it follow a circular pattern where you end up where you finish.  It is also important to note that Buckle Church, which lies just down the street from the open air museum entrance, is included on the ticket and should not be missed once you finish the main site.  The cave churches found on the site date back to between the 10th and 12th centuries during the Byzantine period.

Inside one of the churches in the Open Air Museum

Of all the churches within the park, the most stunning church of all is Dark Church which is completely worth the extra 10 lira ticket at the church’s entrance.  The artwork here looks like it was completed yesterday with most of the frescoes intact and the colors still as vibrant as the day they were painted.  You could easily spend half your time in this church, gazing up at biblical scenes as you constantly remind yourself how old the artwork you’re looking at is.

Dark Church
The central apse of Dark Church

Photography is not permitted within the churches and attendants will be quick to call out anyone they catch taking photos.  As my first visit was during the low season in winter, I had the caves to myself without any attendants so I couldn’t help but to take the photos you see here in this post.  I always take responsible photos, never using flash so no damage was done to any of the sites while taking these pictures.

Dark Church
Inside Dark Church

If you do any day hikes in the region, you are bound to stumble upon countless long abandoned cave churches that few people visit these days.  The quality and preservation of most of these churches will pale in comparison to those in the open air museum, but the remoteness, relative lonesomeness, and dilapidated state make these empty caves a bit more of a personal experience than those at the museum.

Cave church at the open air museum

There are several noteworthy churches that lie nearby some of the many trails that you can venture out on from the city of Goreme.  Churches to look out for are columned church and Hacli Kilise in Rose Valley and El Nazar church, Karabukut and Sarnic Churches in Zemi Valley.  To learn more about these churches, check out our post on day hikes in Cappadocia.

Underground Cities

It’s not just what is above the ground in Cappadocia that attracts visitors but also what’s down below.  Underneath the Cappadocian landscape lies a vast network of underground citiesDating back well before the 4th century BCE, the underground dwellings were extensively extended  by Christians some 900 years later.  Locals would hide away for months underground when invading armies such as the Persians or Arabs rolled through.

The dark and eerie tunnels of the Cave cities in Cappadocia

It’s a pretty surreal experience, meandering around the various tunnels and rooms that seem to go on forever.  While there is plenty of space below, I cant imagine having to spend up to several months in the dark and cold confines of these tunnels.  While it’s hard to make out what things once were, it is cool to walk around as you find eerie passageways, old stone doors, and areas that were once used as churches or schools.

Close the door!

The easiest underground city to visit on your own is Derinkuyu Underground City.  There are public buses that head to Derinkuyu and back frequently throughout the day from Nevshire.  The ride takes around 45 minutes and costs 10 lira each way.  For an adventurous day, you could add on a side trip to Eski Gumusler near Nigde (see Off the Beaten Path for more information).

Off the Beaten Path

Most of the hiking trails will be empty, leaving just you, a random church and the surrounding scenery all to yourself.  But if you really want to get away from it all, one worthwhile day trip outside of the main tourist area is to venture out to Eski Gumusler near the town of Nigde.

Eski Gumusler
Courtyard of Eski Gumusler

Eski Gumusler was forgotten by the world until 1963, hiding some of Cappadocia’s most well preserved frescoes for centuries.  Due to its remote location, few visitors get to this old church today despite its breathtaking frescoes and atmospheric grounds.  As you enter, the grounds open up into a open courtyard potted with holes used for storing wine and oil as well as stone cut tombs (what a combination!).

Eski Gumusler
Inside Eski Gumusler

Inside the main church area is stunning, with its huge stone pillars and vibrant frescoes that cover most of the walls.  Most of the artwork in front of you dates back between the 7th and 11th centuries.  With no one else likely around, you could easily take in this room for a long time all to yourself.  On the outer apse of the church is the sites most famous fresco, an image of the Virgin Mary and child with a slight smile on her face.  It is thought to be the only known portrayal of the mother smiling in existence.

Eski Gumusler
A smiling Virgin Mary, nit a common sight to see

Climbing up into the second story is a badly damaged but interesting scenes of hunts and everyday life.  It looks more like caveman art than biblical image storytelling.  Heading back down, you can explore some of the subterranean tunnels that create a maze of rooms and passageways.  It will probably be the most atmospheric church you visit while in the region.

Eski Gumusler
Badly damaged hunting scene in Eski Gumusler

Getting here and back to Goreme is half the adventure.  Your first leg of the journey out here is to get a bus to the town of Nigde from Nevshire.  At the bus station in Nigde, you want to take another bus that heads to Gumusler Belediyesi.  Tell the driver you want to go to the church and he will make sure to stop when you arrive.  Getting back is a little trickier.  The bus back is supposed to arrive at the church entrance roughly every half hour but when I visited in February I waited and no such bus came around.  I ended up having to hitch hike my way to the main road and then to the main highway that leads back to Nevshire where I could flag down a bus.  If the bus does come through, you can take it back to Nidge from where you can get a bus back to Nievshire.

Eski Gumusler
Nativity scene at Eski Gumusler

This was my first time hitchhiking so to say I was a little nervous was an understatement.  My first ride was with two big burly Turkish guys with whom spoke no English and I no Turkish.  I quickly soon realized that most people are friendly and that I had nothing to fearIt has become one of my favorite ways to get around as some of my favorite travel memories have come from hitchhiking Hitching is common in Turkey so it should be no problem but only do it if you are comfortable and are willing to take the risk (no matter how small that risk may be).

Eski Gumusler
Fresco inside Eski Gumusler

Another alternative is to catch a bus from Derinkuyu after you visit the towns underground city.  Just ask a local for the bus to Gumusler Belediyesi and they will tell you when the next one will roll through.  Transfers take a while so you need to start early and expect to be back in Goreme after nightfall.

Hot Air Balloon Rides

Ah, the classic Cappadoica activity that I have never done.  Even after venturing to the region twice, I haven’t had the urge to get up in the air as I have been very content with simply hiking around the mountaintops and enjoying the view from there.  If you are interested in balloon rides expect to dish out around 150 to 180 euros per person.  You should also try to book in advance and plan a few days around as they often do not fly due to weather conditions.

A lone balloon floating over Cappadocia

If you are on the ground, get up around sunrise to see the sea of balloons rising above the horizon throughout the region.  It is a beautiful site for those bound to the earth.

Day Hikes

Cappadocia is blessed with otherworldly landscapes making it one of the best day hiking destinations in the world.  You could spend days here simply walking around the countless valleys that lay strewn about.  To find out which routes were our favorites while in the region, check out our post on Cappadocia day hikes here.

Stunning Rose Valley

Cappadocia: Hiking and so Much More

Cappadocia has something for everyone and if you are into history and nature it will be hard for you to ever leave this place.  After taking two trips to the region I could easily go back for a third.  Cappadocia is the land of your dreams so be sure to make a visit sometime in your lifetime.

Claire outside of Dark Chruch

Let us and others know what you think!