Pamukkale, though Turkey’s most popular attraction by numbers, is barely known outside its country borders. It’s the iconic architecture of Istanbul and the cave dwellings of Cappadocia that steal the spotlight, but Pamukkale with its cascading travertine terraces deserves attention as well.
Sweeping limestone cliffs of a blinding white hue rise above pools of powder blue. Petrified stakes of limestone hang from chalky roots – like in Superman’s fortress of solitude or a Tim Burton nightmare if his nightmares were good.
Pamukkale’s surreal landscape was formed over millennia by limestone deposited by 17 hot springs in the area. Sadly, its natural beauty was almost lost when hotels sprung up around the area in the 1960s and a road built to allow motorbikes direct access over the slopes. The hotels drained the thermal waters to fill their swimming pools and the terraces turned a greyish brown.
Thankfully, in 1988, UNESCO stepped in and declared Pamukkale a World Heritage Site. The hotels were demolished and a series of artificial pools built atop the road to hide the damage caused. Today, there are strict controls on development and tourism in the area, allowing you to visit in good conscience. Here’s what to know before you go.
It doesn’t look like the pictures (but it’s stunning anyway)
The lustrous terraces as depicted in guidebooks and tourist board posters do not exist – at least not right now.
Dreamstime; Atlas & Boots
We’re told that spring water has been diverted to allow the terraces time to recover from past mistreatment. When and how (or if!) the terraces will return to their former glory is currently unconfirmed.
With that said, don’t let the difference put you off from visiting Pamukkale. It is still stunning and most certainly worth the stop.
Most foreign tourists visit Pamukkale on a day trip from the coast, which means they arrive late morning or early afternoon. As such, opt to stay in Denizli and take a public minibus first thing in the morning for minimal crowding (see ‘How’ below).
Some tourists stay in Pamukkale itself but it’s a fairly charmless town and, given the past tourist-related issues, we feel it’s better to book accommodation away from the site itself.
Expect crowds as the day draws on, from Speedo-sporting Europeans to overzealous local children. It’s worth noting that Pamukkale is visited by two million people per year which equates to 5,500 people per day!
Start at the lower gate
The public minibus will drop you at the lower gate by default (ground level with the town) which is the better option for visiting Pamukkale. It is less crowded as tours drop off passengers at the upper gate. It also includes a walk up the cliffside offering stunning views.
We looped back to the lower gate at the end of our visit to catch a bus back to Denizli but also to view the scenery again.
To prevent damage to the site, visitors must walk barefoot. You will be expected to place your shoes in a plastic bag and carry them (from the lower gate) or leave them on the wooden decking (upper gate). As such, take lightweight shoes that are easy to slip off.
The travertine floor can be slippery in places with running water underfoot as well as sharp-edged pieces of limestone. As such, take your time walking up the cliffside and tread carefully!
There are no lockers at the lower gate so pack light as you will be carrying your bag for the length of your visit.
If possible, leave valuables at your hotel. Most visitors leave their bags poolside when taking a dip so there’s a chance that your belongings will go walkabouts. If you must bring valuables, consider storing them in stuff sacs to prevent water damage.
Wear swimwear beneath your clothes
There are bathrooms at the site but it’s easier to wear your swimming costume beneath your clothes, so that you can just slip them off and take a dip.
Turkey is liberal compared with other countries in the region so bikinis are okay. You will likely dry off fairly easily in the sun but you may want to take a wrap to pull over your swimwear while it dries.
It’s worth noting that most tourists stick to the pool area. We walked half a kilometre beyond it and found peaceful vistas completely free of visitors. Well worth the extra effort.
If you don’t have sunglasses, buy a cheap pair before visiting Pamukkale. The limestone is so bright, so white that it will hurt your eyes if you don’t protect them.
Similarly, wear sunscreen and take plenty of water. Temperatures soar, especially in the summer, and can leave you dehydrated if you’re not careful.
Skip the Antique Pool
Legend has it that the artificially sculpted Antique Pool was a gift from Marc Anthony to Cleopatra. In the 7th century, an earthquake toppled the surrounding building and the massive marble columns tumbled into the pool where they still rest today.
We considered a dip but the atmosphere was akin to that of a British Butlins (hamburger joints, sunburnt tourists, Macarena playing over the loudspeakers). At an extra $10 USD on top of the entrance fee, we decided to forego the pleasure. You may wish to do the same.
Unlike the Antique Pool, the adjacent site of Hierapolis is worth visiting. Don’t miss the theatre, which is said to have been constructed under the reign of Hadrian after the earthquake of 60 AD.
The facade is 300 feet long and there are 50 rows of seats divided into seven parts. We’ve seen our fair share of Roman theatres (in Amman, Jerash, Petra, Ephesus and Rome) and this is as impressive as any with the exception of the Colosseum.
Don’t ignore Denizli
Most visitors use Denizli only as a conduit for visiting Pamukkale. If you have time, spend some time visiting sights within Denizli and the surrounding area. Try Denizli Old City, Kaklik Cave, Tripolis and Aphrodesias.
We visited the market in the Old City, which was far less touristy that its Grand Bazaar equivalent in Istanbul, hence offering a more intimate look at local life. We spent some time wandering the lanes before stopping for some Turkish tea in a small courtyard cafe tucked away on the perimeter. Spend some time there and you’ll be sure to find it.
Visiting Pamukkale: The Essentials
What: Visiting Pamukkale, Turkey.
- Pamukkale and Hierapolis joint site entry: 25TL ($8 USD). Open Nov-March, 6am-6.30pm; April-Oct, 6am-midnight.
- Antique pool entry: 32TL ($10 USD). Open Nov-March, 8am-5.30pm; April-Oct, 8am-7.30pm.
Where: We stayed at Yildirim Hotel, a clean and airy hotel with easy access to Denizli bus station. The hotel is not only well placed for a visit to Pamukkale but also the various sights in and around Denizli.
A rooftop bar offers refreshing drinks and snacks as well as an expansive view of Denizli town. An in-house restaurant offers a range of tasty options including Turkish staple, pide (wood fired bread cooked with toppings of your choice).
The hotel is family run. If you’re lucky, Namek, the Turkish-German patriarch of the family will be in town to regale you with stories of his youth, his travels and the stark differences between the gregarious Turkish psyche and the buttoned-down German equivalent!
When: The best time for visiting Pamukkale is spring (April to mid June). Summer can be unbearably hot while winter can see snowfall! Autumn (mid September to October) is also a good option, but the days are shorter and there’s more chance of rain.
How: In Denizli, you can take a public minibus from bus terminal #76, which is only a minute’s walk from Yildirim Hotel. The ride is approximately 30 minutes and costs 3.50 TL ($1.20 USD) per person. The minibus stops minutes from Pamukkale; ask the bus driver to point you in the right direction. Make a note of the location as you will need to catch the bus back from the spot across the road.
You can catch a train to Denizli from Istanbul, from Izmir or from Selçuk (check TCDD for latest timetable). There is no train to or from Cappadocia but there are reliable bus services. We caught a Metro Turizm night bus from Denizli to Cappadocia (9pm – 7am; $17 USD).
We arrived in Turkey at Istanbul’s Ataturk international airport and spent a few days in Istanbul before flying to Izmir (1hr) and catching a train the same day to Selçuk (1hr 20m). After a few days at Selçuk for Ephesus, we took the train to Denizli (3hr).
Ataturk airport is international and has connections to a number of domestic destinations throughout Turkey. Book via Skyscanner for the best prices.
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