There are many reasons people book a trip to Turkey. We find the most common reasons are to explore cosmopolitan Istanbul or to enjoy some sun at the coast, perhaps on an island-hopping cruise. Cappadocia is another incredible drawcard, as are the historic sites of Ephesus and Troy. But the destination that regularly crops up as a highlight of our customers’ trips to Turkey is Pamukkale. A visit to the UNESCO-listed white “cotton castles” of Pamukkale and the adjoining Roman ruins of Hierapolis are a must for anyone exploring Turkey. Read on to find out more!
What is Pamukkale?
In English, Pamukkale translates to “cotton castles”. Which is a good way to describe the white calcite terraces of Pamukkale. Formed over thousands of years by water containing a high density of a mineral known as calcium bicarbonate, the landscape has been transformed by white calcium deposits, with terraces of limestone (known as travertines) and water running down to the thermal blue pools which are so popular with visitors today. Sticking out like a sore thumb amongst the green Turkish countryside, it really is something to behold.
The Romans made good use of the site too, the historic spa town of Hierapolis was built at the top of the travertines; more on taking a Hierapolis tour later! Legend has it that the formations are actually solidified cotton, left out to dry by giants. Hence the name “cotton castles”. Pamukkale was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988.
What to do at Pamukkale?
The main activity at Pamukkale is taking a dip in the thermal pools at the bottom of the travertines. These pools are man-made, though the water in them is the same as the natural terraces at the top. The terraces themselves were once open to the public but erosion and water pollution led to the closure of these, though you can still walk amongst the now pristine terraces.
According to the locals, the water of Pamukkale has healing properties and can help with circulatory and digestive issues. We cannot vouch for this either way, but at the very least you will end your visit to Pamukkale with skin like you’ve just spent the day at a luxury spa!
There are plenty of footpaths around the site for those looking to capture the perfect photo, with fewer crowds once you get away from the pools themselves. And once you’ve had a swim and a walk, you can cool yourself under one of Pamukkale’s waterfalls before heading off to Hierapolis, which is included in the ticket price.
Top tip: There are two entrances to Pamukkale. One at the top of the travertines, and one at the bottom by the pools. The tourist buses almost always arrive at the top, which means the lower entrance tends to be quieter, and you’re right by the thermal pools!
Top tip number 2: The travertines and the thermal pools are SLIPPERY. Be careful and take your time when moving around to ensure you don’t hurt yourself, or more importantly, your pride. Yes, we’ve been there…
What to bring?
The first thing to note is that if you want to walk on the terraces (which you will), this must be done barefoot to protect them from damage. So don’t turn up in clunky hiking boots as you’ll be carrying them around for the day. Our advice is to wear easily removable, lightweight shoes. Flip flops and the like aren’t very suitable if you plan to take a Hierapolis tour afterward. The other important thing to remember is a swimsuit, as you can’t come all the way to Pamukkale without enjoying a swim. Aside from that, try and pack light – sunscreen and sunglasses if you’re visiting in summer, when temperatures can hit 40 degrees Centigrade. And a camera or smartphone for snapping those Insta-worthy pics.
Top tip: Unfortunately, there are no lockers or other storage at Pamukkale. So make sure to only bring what you are prepared to carry around with you!
Cost of visiting Pamukkale?
At the most recent update to this article, in October 2022, the entry cost to visit Pamukkale is around 200 Turkish Lira (approx USD $11). This is an absolute bargain given the inclusions with your ticket. The entry includes the thermal pools, the ancient spa city of Hierapolis, and its archaeology museum. Entry is free for children under the age of eight.
For an additional fee, you can visit the Cleopatra pool. This antique pool is manmade and was allegedly a gift from Marc Anthony to Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. In the 7th century, an earthquake hit the site. This caused the 2nd century Temple of Apollo which stood next to the pool to collapse. Marble Roman columns were thrown into the pool, where they still rest today. There aren’t many places where you can swim amongst Roman columns! Much of this story is disputed. But a visit to the Cleopatra pool is worth it if you don’t mind parting with a bit more cash.
Best time to visit Pamukkale?
This is a difficult question. Turkey’s busiest time for tourists is during the summer from June to August, with people flocking to soak up some sunshine on the coast. A day trip inland to Pamukkale from Fethiye, Marmaris, Bodrum, or other beach resorts is easy. But inland Turkey is scorching in the summer. So, Pamukkale is at its busiest during this time, when temperatures often reach an uncomfortable 40 degrees! It goes without saying that if you are visiting at this time of year, arrive early. You’ll beat the worst of the crowds. Plus, you can be safely back by the hotel pool by the time the temperature gets too hot!
The best time to visit Pamukkale is actually during the quieter months of March to May and September to October, when temperatures are more bearable, but still warm enough to enjoy a swim. It can be too cold for this in winter. But if you’re heading to Pamukkale purely for the scenery and can time your visit with a December or January snowstorm, then you’re in for a treat!
As we’ve mentioned, the ancient Greek and Roman city of Hierapolis is located at the top of the Pamukkale travertines. And entry is included in the ticket price. It was built to capitalize on the natural hot springs and at its peak was home to around 100,000 people. Compared to the Pamukkale thermal pools, you’ll find Hierapolis empty. But don’t make the mistake of thinking there’s nothing to see. This is one of Turkey’s most important ancient sites! Read on to find out more about the history of Hierapolis and what to see at the ruins.
A brief Hierapolis history
Hierapolis was founded by the Ancient Greek kings of Pergamum. Specifically, King Eumenes II (197 BC – 159 BC) is often credited with founding the city, though this is disputed. Even as early as this, the hot springs of Pamukkale were the driving force behind the city. Visitors flocked from across Greece and Turkey, much as they do today. A major earthquake in the year 60 AD, during which time Nero was the Roman Emperor, destroyed the city. All of the Ancient Greek architecture was lost.
Hierapolis was ruled by the Roman Empire in around 129 AD and was rebuilt using Roman styles and techniques. Much of the surviving ruins date from the Roman Empire. Although admittedly, not much survives from these early days thanks to subsequent natural disasters.
A powerful earthquake in the early 7th century flattened most of the city, but it was rebuilt. Yet another earthquake devastated the city in 1354, by which time it had lain abandoned for several hundred years. It wasn’t until 1887 that German archaeologist Carl Humann began the excavation of the ruins of Hierapolis that visitors can see on tour today. Much of the site has been restored, including the refurbishment of large columns along the main street.
What to see on a Hierapolis tour
The Theatre is probably the most impressive attraction at Hierapolis. It was built during the reign of Hadrian, after the earthquake of 60 AD. The Theatre had a capacity of around 15,000. And during significant restoration between 2004 – 2014, several statues of Apollo and other gods were excavated.
The original layout of Hierapolis was a grid system, with streets running parallel or perpendicular to a single main street. The main street was around 1,500 metres long. At each end of the main street was a colossal gate, though much of this was destroyed by earthquakes. One gate, however, the Frontinus Gate, survives.
The Hierapolis Necropolis is one of the best-preserved in Turkey. There are around 1,200 marble and limestone tombs dating all the way back through the history of the city. Some of the graves are large family graves, resembling temples.
Housed in surviving Roman baths, the Hierapolis Archaeology Museum is small but fascinating. It displays statues, sarcophagi, artefacts, pillars, and other treasures recovered during the excavation of the city.
Other highlights of Hierapolis include the Temple of Apollo and the Nymphaeum, from where water was distributed to the city.
You can also visit the Hierapolis Archaeology Museum, (entry included in ticket price). The museum houses valuable artefacts collected from the Hierapolis ruins and surrounding areas including Tripolis and Laodicea. The museum is housed in the restored ruins of the Central Roman Baths, with many of the original mosaics and other original architecture remaining intact.
If you visit Hierapolis on one of our Turkey tours, then you’ll be escorted by one of our expert English-speaking Turkish guides, who will be able to share some of the history of Hierapolis with you.
Pamukkale and Hierapolis deserve a visit on your trip to Turkey. The sites are included on the majority of our Turkey tours or can be easily incorporated into a Tailor-made itinerary for you. Get in touch with our Reservations team today if you’d like to enquire about a trip.