Cappadocia, Turkey: Holidaying in the ancient land of balloons, wine and cave cities

Cappadocia, Göreme, Turkey.
Photo credit: Newshub.

You've doubtless seen photos of it: hot air balloons of all colours as far as the eye can see catching the sun's first rays as they ascend above a desert landscape.

It's a striking image that's attracting tourists to Cappadocia in increasingly vast quantities, as photo-sharing apps like Instagram boost its profile and transform it from little-known outdoor destination to one of the world's most sought-after holiday hotspots.

Despite its obvious beauty, the Turkish region hasn't always been top of travel bucket lists.

Hot Air Balloon Cappadocia.
Photo credit: Newshub.

Cappadocia is in the middle of nowhere - a 14-hour car journey from both the bustling Istanbul in the west and the relaxed beaches of the Turquoise Coast down south.

Despite its inconspicuous location and chilly climate, it now welcomes millions of people every year - more than 3.7 million in 2019, a new record - and they quickly discover it's not just the balloons that make the region so special.

A breathtaking abode for hot-air balloons

They're certainly not the only drawcard in Cappadocia, but let's be clear: the sight of hot air balloons in their hundreds rising out of valleys and filling the sky as far as you can see is deserving of the hype.

Hot Air Balloon Cappadocia 2019.
Photo credit: Newshub.

The jaw-dropping spectacle is like nothing else on the planet, regardless of whether you go up in a balloon or just watch from the surrounding cliffs.

Hot air ballooning in Cappadocia is not a cheap activity, but it's important that if you have decided to fly that you seek out a trusted company.

Scam websites occasionally trick tourists by offering tempting prices but then cancelling last-minute and sending them to another company - a deceitful process they earn a commission from.

Hot Air Balloon Cappadocia 2020.
Photo credit: Newshub.

The reality is ballooning is a costly experience - about NZ$300 per person for an hour, depending on the time of year - and most legitimate companies have an agreement in place whereby they share the same prices all year round.

In contrast, you can get to a lookout in Goreme for NZ$1.50 per person, and enjoy an unobstructed view of the balloons as they ascend around you. It's still magical (and significantly cheaper) so there's no need to be perturbed if flying is out of your budget.

Hot Air Balloon Cappadocia.
Photo credit: Newshub.

Explore the region's monolithic terrain

It's not just the balloons that make Cappadocia such a spell-binding destination. While they're the subject of most of the picturesque photos taken in the region, only about one in six visitors to the area actually go up in one.

What's not as well-known is that the reason ballooning became such a common activity in the first place was so people could get a better view of the astounding myriad of valleys, rock formations and volcanic peaks in the area.

View of Love Valley from Uchisar in Göreme, Turkey.
View of Love Valley from Uchisar. Photo credit: Newshub.

All this natural beauty can also be seen on foot, and there are countless trails in the region ranging from about an hour to an entire day depending on one's fitness. Needless to say, it's worth braving the challenging terrain and baking heat to take in the landscape.

Cappadocia is geologically surreal for a number of reasons - its arid climate, elevation above sea level and millions of years of volcanic eruptions and sediment erosion - all helping to give it a distinctive lunar feel.

Amazing views in Cappadocia.
Photo credit: Newshub.

There are various sightseeing attractions throughout the trails in the region, from the Uchisar Castle carved into a mountain at the end of the Love Valley walk, to ancient church caves in Red Valley, to Monks Valley's incredible (and very phallic) fairy chimney rock structures.

Uchisar Castle, the centuries-old citadel perched on a rock spur, with commanding views of Cappadocia from the top.
Uchisar Castle. Photo credit: Newshub.

Rouse your inner history buff 

Cappadocia's rich ancient history is another significant attraction that goes beyond the grand visual appeal of balloons in vast numbers.

The region has experienced some of the world's greatest shifts in power; it was home to the Hittite, Akkadian, Assyrian, Persian, Ottoman and Byzantine empires, and was for centuries a major trading community along the Silk Road.

Cappadocia, Göreme, Turkey.
Over the centuries, several historical empires have settled Cappadocia. Photo credit: Newshub.

More recently, Cappadocia's largest town Goreme hosted Christian communities that had fled the Roman Empire and taken advantage of the thousands of peaks there to carve out homes and churches - an excellent camouflage that successfully hid them from persecutors.

Amazingly, many of these structures remain intact - often with immaculately preserved frescoes - and one large community of monasteries inhabited by early Christians is now a UNESCO heritage site. It can be visited as part of the Goreme Open Air Museum.

Göreme Open Air Museum.
The Goreme Open Air Museum. Photo credit: Newshub.

Kaymakli is also just a walk away if the troglodyte lifestyle piques your curiosity.

The tourist attraction is the largest of 36 underground cave cities built beneath hills to hide natives from potential Roman oppressors, and it provides a fascinating glimpse at how difficulty inspires human innovation.

Quell your hunger with Anatolian delicacies

Turkey is already known for its distinctive spicy, fragrant, meat-centric cuisine, so it should come as no surprise that Cappadocia has an abundance of top dining options.

Anatolian delicacies can be enjoyed in ancient cave homes in Cappadocia.
Some of Cappadocia's restaurants and homes are built into natural caves and rock formations. Photo credit: Newshub.

But this is exacerbated by the fact that Cappadocia is situated in Anatolia, which has its own delicacies exclusive to the region. This means local dishes keşkek, mantı and gözleme can all be tried out during your visit.

Perhaps the most sought-after and widely available dish, however, is testi kebabi (pottery kebab) - a spicy and delicious meat stew slow-cooked in and eaten out of small vases.

There is also a smattering of popular durum kebab takeaway spots and, perhaps a little surprisingly, plenty of great wine. While Turkey is overwhelmingly Muslim, many still drink alcohol and the country is the world's fourth largest producer of wine grapes.

Most of the country's vineyards are in Anatolia due to its advantageous climate and volcanic soils, and wine tours and tasting is fast becoming a leading activity in Cappadocia as a result.

Cappadocia's climate and volcanic soils lend themselves nicely to the cultivation of wine grapes.
Cappadocia's climate and volcanic soils lend themselves nicely to the cultivation of wine grapes. Photo credit: Newshub.

Cappadocia is very well-deserving of a place on your holiday destination bucket list.