The ancient Ionian ruins of Priene, the Temple of Apollo at Didyma, and Miletus are three important sites that lack the crowds of nearby Ephesus. And given their proximity to one another, they’re commonly visited in a single day from Selçuk or Kuşadası.
While one can typically join a small group tour, all such tours happened to be canceled at the time of my visit. Though I attempted to visit each site via public transport, I only succeeded in making it to Priene and Didyma, which still made for a rewarding day.
If tours still aren’t running at the time of your visit, check the end of the article to learn more about transportation options.
Priene was one of 12 cities of ancient Ionia, the western Anatolian region founded by Greek settlers. Priene moved a couple of times throughout its history due to earthquakes. But the original city was founded as early as 1000 BC by immigrants from Thebes.
The final incarnation of the city was later established at the southern slope of Mycale Mountain around 350 BC. At the time, it was a satrap of the Persian Achaemenid Empire. But the arrival of Alexander the Great soon put an end to that.
The city was built on a grid-like plan across four terraces, and it was entirely protected by thick walls. Priene was also once a port town, though siltation cut off its access to the sea a few hundred years after its founding.
While Priene would gradually decline, it remained a functioning city throughout the Byzantine period until it was abandoned for good in the 13th century. Even at its peak, it only had a population of around 5,000, but it was known to have been especially wealthy.
For those who’ve already visited Ephesus, there’s nothing here that’s going to amaze you. But places like Priene are for true history and archaeology enthusiasts who enjoy exploring lesser-known sites without the crowds.
Visitors enter from the east. But they first must walk up a long staircase, passing through one of the city’s three former entrance gates.
The city walls were built immediately upon Priene’s move here in the 4th century BC. They remained in use for centuries and were even slightly enlarged in Byzantine times.
You’ll soon find yourself at the eastern edge of the city, a rather dense area where most of Priene’s prominent monuments were placed.
And one of the first monuments you’ll encounter is a rather interesting one. While only the foundations remain, this area was home to an Egyptian temple where the deities Serapis (Osiris), Isis, Anubis and Harpocrates (Horus) were worshipped.
As only an Egyptian priest could recite the sacred hymns, there must’ve been one living here full time. And not just at Priene, but many Greco-Roman cities throughout the Mediterranean.
By this time, Egypt had already been Hellenized under the rule of the Ptolemaic dynasty. But even long before that, the ancient Greeks had derived much of their culture and knowledge from the Egyptians. In fact, one could argue that Western civilization’s true roots lie in ancient Egypt.
A bit further west is the theater, among the most well-preserved monuments in Priene. Built in the 3rd century BC, it could fit up to 6,500 spectators. And like most theaters of its time, it was built into the base of the neighboring hill.
Inside, notice the five ornamented seats which were special seats of honor. The chairs were a gift from the official in charge of organizing public festivals, and they were dedicated to Dionysus, the god of theater and wine.
And there was also an altar for Dionysus in the center of the front row. In ancient times, even entertainment had a religious element to it, and many performances were preceded by a ritual sacrifice.
The bottom level of the stage building remains intact. Interestingly, from the 2nd century BC, performances began taking place on the second story of this structure rather than in the orchestra area. The orchestra was then filled with statues of prominent citizens.
Nearby the theater is a Heroon, a tomb placed in the city center rather than the necropolis outside. The identity of the deceased is uncertain, but it was undoubtedly somebody important.
Just south of the theater is what’s left of the Bishop’s Church, obviously from Byzantine times. It was built as a three-aisled basilica with a narthex at the west and an apse with seats for clergy in the east.
There was also a pulpit with two staircases, and remnants of the bottom steps can still be seen. The church was largely constructed using stone usurped from older buildings, and it remained in use until around the year 1300.
A bit further south is the Bouleuterion, or council house, where city officials would meet. Built around 200 BC, it had room for up to 500 people.
Interestingly, this assembly hall is square-shaped in contrast to the semicircular seating arrangements of those in Ephesus, Aphrodisias or other cities.
Just next door was the Pyrtaneum, the office of the main magistrate. It also housed the sacred fire, an eternal symbolic flame that was commonplace in all ancient Greek cities.
At the southeastern edge of the city, you’ll find more Byzantine ruins, including a medieval castle and chapel.
One of the prominent mounds here is actually a modern mound comprised of dirt that was removed from the theater by archaeologists! It now makes for a nice viewing area from which to admire the surrounding plains.
Nearby is what remains of the Sanctuary of Asclepios, a temple dedicated to the Greek god of healing. Built in the Ionic order, it originally consisted of an altar, a propylon (gateway building) and a columned hall. It was constructed in the late 2nd century BC and measures out to 8.5 x 13.5 m.
Archaeologists believe there would’ve been statues of both Asclepios and his daughter Hygieia, from whom we derive the word ‘hygiene.’
In the center of the city was the agora, a public open space full of shops and monuments. This one stretched out to 74 x 46 m, and was surrounded on all sides by stoa.
In the agora’s center, meanwhile, was an altar for Hermes, part of which can still be seen. Statues of important citizens also once surrounded the space.
While visitors can still get a good idea of the agora’s original size, it’s largely just a pile of stones today.
Located just west of the agora was a food market, added sometime in the 2nd century BC. Previously, most goods were traded within the agora itself. But with the addition of all the public monuments, an extra market became a necessity.
From central Priene, continue heading northwest toward the Temple of Athena, the city’s most significant landmark.
Priene’s patron deity was Athena, and this massive temple for her was among the most impressive structures in all of Asia Minor. In the most sacred part of the temple once stood an image of Athena made of gold and ivory.
The temple’s total area was 37.5 x 19.5 m, and it originally had 6 columns in the front and 11 columns on two sides. The five columns standing now were re-erected in the mid-1960s, while the rest remain in disarray.
The temple’s architect was a man named Pytheos, one of the most influential architects of the ancient world. He built this temple on an incredibly precise grid system. And he was also responsible for the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (present-day Bodrum), one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Pytheos believed master architects should also be adept in the arts and sciences, as good architecture required mastery of numerous disciplines.
Most of Priene was still under construction in the 4th century BC when Alexander the Great drove out the Persians. And while Pytheos had already planned the design, it was Alexander himself who funded the temple’s construction.
The temple was then continually renovated and expanded over the next few centuries, only reaching its final form in the 1st century AD.
Being Ionia, the temple was built according to the Ionic order. The architectural style, which originated in this region around the 6th century BC, is characterized by scroll-like ‘volutes’ at the column’s top capital.
The height of an Ionic structure was divided into five parts. The column, including the capital, should take up 4/5ths of the total height. The remaining fifth is then comprised of the roof, which is made up of an ‘architrave,’ ‘frieze,’ and ‘cornice.’ And all of this is then topped with a triangular ‘pediment.’
The Ionic order was popular all throughout Anatolia and Greece. And following the eastward conquests of Alexander the Great, examples of it can be found in places like Armenia and even India.
The western end of the city was also home to a large residential district. Up to a third of residents had indoor toilets, implying that Priene was a rather wealthy city. Many of the houses also had an indoor water supply.
Also around here are the foundations of a house that Alexander the Great stayed in during his time in town.
And there’s even a synagogue which dates to sometime between the 4th-7th century AD.
Making your exit, you can try walking back east along one of the upper side roads. Along here you’ll pass by countless unnamed structures and even broken staircases leading to higher levels of the city.
Leaving the Priene’s east gate, you’ll walk past a necropolis consisting of numerous barrel-vaulted grave chambers.
Heading back toward the parking lot, another interesting landmark is a restored 19th-century Ottoman house. It was inhabited by Osman Hamdi Bey, a prominent painter and archaeologist who founded the Istanbul Archaeology Museum.
The Temple of Apollo at Didyma
While just a single temple rather than an entire town, the Temple of Apollo at Didyma is absolutely worth visiting. It served as the sacred temple for the thriving port city of Miletus. And approaching the temple, you can spot what’s left of the ‘Sacred Way’ which once connected them.
Established as early as the 7th century BC, the road is 18 km long in total. And processions would follow the entire length of it during important religious festivals.
It was once entirely lined with buildings on either side. And during processions, participants would occasionally stop to perform religious rites at smaller shrines along the way.
The oldest archaeological evidence from the temple dates back to the 8th century BC, making it as old as the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus. After all, Apollo was likely a native Anatolian deity previously worshipped by the Hittites.
The temple was later destroyed by the Persians in the 5th century BC, and it was over a century before a replacement was built.
The new construction would then become the third largest temple in the Hellenic world after the temple of Hera at Samos and the Temple of Artemis. In fact, the Temple of Apollo at Didyma was likely constructed by the same Ephesian architect.
Exploring the outer courtyard, you’ll find things like sculptures, relief carvings, a former altar for votive offerings and the ruins of a Roman building.
Walking up the staircase, it’s time to take a closer look at the temple.
The Temple of Apollo at Didyma was entirely surrounded by double rows of Ionic columns. And visitors can still admire the immaculate carvings around their bases.
The columns once stood as high as 19.7 meters. And while only two are standing today, they help one imagine what a monumental structure this once was.
Two tunnels lead into the inner court, or sekos, home to the oracle spring, and a structure called the naiskos. Inside the columned naiskos once stood was a bronze Apollo statue that Seleucis I had retrieved from Persia.
Also inside the sekos court was a sacred laurel tree. In Greek mythology, Apollo’s beloved Daphne was turned into one upon refusing his advances, and he continued to honor her by wearing a laurel wreath.
In the Hellenic world, it was believed that Apollo could possess a spirit medium, or oracle, and provide her with visions of the future. The most famous oracle, of course, was that of Delphi, Greece.
But numerous other towns were also known for their oracles, including Patara, Delos and Didyma – believed to be one of the world’s best.
The oracle would bathe in the sacred spring water before entering her trance-like state with help from ‘magical’ vapors. Before visitors could get their questions answered, donations and animal sacrifices were often required.
Sometimes the oracles’ responses were so vague that priests would have to help ‘translate’ them! Nevertheless, the tradition of visiting oracles remained highly popular among kings and commoners alike.
After Christians closed the temple in the 4th century, they built a basilica right over the sacred spring in the 5th or 6th century. Only the foundations remain, as it was dismantled by archaeologists studying the site.
Exploring the temple, notice the interesting protrusions, or nubs, along many of the walls. Builders would’ve had to carefully carve all around them to form such a shape. But what was their purpose?
Walking around the sides of the temple, there are countless massive stone pieces of the former Ionic columns. Further to the north, meanwhile, is a smaller temple for Artemis, though it didn’t seem accessible at the time of my visit.
For those who were disappointed with the Temple of Artemis in Selçuk, of which hardly anything remains, the Temple of Apollo at Didyma provides visitors with a much better idea of how these magnificent Hellenic temples once appeared.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, no tour companies were offering the regular Priene/Didyma/Miletus tours during my visit.
Therefore, based on tips from locals, I attempted to visit all three on my own from Selçuk. But as mentioned above, I only made it to two out of the three.
It may be possible for some to see all three sites in a day via public transport (plus one taxi ride), but it depends on a couple of factors, which I’ll go over below.
If you’re attempting this method, consider the city of Söke as your base of operations. It’s from Söke that you can find direct transport to both Priene and Didyma.
Before continuing, it would be helpful to check the map above to see the locations of all three sites, which are all located south of both Selçuk and Kuşadası.
Staying in Selçuk, I was at a disadvantage because I needed to take a minibus to Kuşadası first in order to get to Söke. (Despite what I’d heard, no direct buses from Selçuk to Söke seem to exist.)
No direct transport to Miletus exists at all. And there’s no direct transport between Priene and Didyma, meaning you’ll have to return to Söke again before visiting the other location.
My plan was to start with Priene, return to Söke, take another bus to Didyma, and then inquire about a taxi from Didyma to Miletus. But that’s not quite how things worked out.
From Söke to Priene, you’ll need to take a minibus for Güllübahçe, the town right by the ruins. I had to wait quite awhile on the bus before it finally departed around 11 am (I’d left my hotel at 8:30). Finished with the ruins, you can easily find the return bus near where you got dropped off.
It’s worth noting that in my case, rather than the main otogar/bus terminal, the bus from Priene stopped instead at a bus stop beside a busy road in central Söke. Luckily, it turned out that buses to Didyma also depart from this bus stop, marked as ‘Outlet Bus Station’ on Maps.me. But you can, of course, also find the buses at the terminal.
While I’d expected to get out at the Didyma bus terminal, I realized that the Temple of Apollo would be about a 30-minute walk north. And as the driver would pass it on the way to the otogar, I asked him to drop me off at the nearest stop to the temple. From there it was about 10 minutes to the ruins.
Finished with the temple, I returned to the same bus stop and it wasn’t long before a northbound bus passed by. These medium-sized coach buses seem to depart frequently.
My original plan had been to talk with a taxi driver at the Didyma otogar. But since I didn’t go there at all, I asked the bus driver to drop me off at the village of Akköy, the closest village to Miletus. I could just take a taxi from there, I figured.
The problem was that Akköy is so small that there wasn’t even a single taxi in town! I asked a local shopkeeper and he said that there are only taxis in Didyma.
The ruins of Miletus are 5 km from Akköy. And while I may have had the energy, it was already past 16:00 by this point, and I couldn’t have made it to the ruins on foot before closing time.
To make it to Miletus, I suppose one could walk all the way to the Didyma otogar from the Temple of Apollo and then negotiate with a taxi. Or maybe you could wait and see if a taxi passes you on the highway.
Or, perhaps you could get off the bus at Akköy in the afternoon before visiting Didyma. Then you could make the long walk there and back (or hitchike). And finishing the day with Didyma, you should be able to find return buses to Söke in the evening.
Another option to consider would be staying in Söke for a night, though there is really nothing of interest there for tourists.
For those coming from Izmir, Selçuk is an easy minibus ride from the main bus terminal. The journey lasts around 90 minutes. The route can also be done via regular rail in addition to Izmir’s suburban railway line, the İzban.
As Izmir’s bus terminal is far from the city center, this is a good option if your hotel happens to be nearby an İzban station.
Selçuk, on the other hand, is one of the few Turkish cities with its bus terminal right in the city center. The bus will be a better option for most, and it’s also from here that you can take shorter bus rides to Ephesus and Şirince, along with the resort town of Kuşadaşı.
Selçuk can also be reached by direct coach bus from more distant cities like Denizli.
Selçuk is a pretty small city and all of the locations in the Selçuk guide above can be reached on foot from the center. While location isn’t incredibly important, be sure to stay somewhere within easy walking distance of the otogar (bus terminal).
Conveniently, the otogar is right in the heart of the city. And it’s from here that you can find buses to Ephesus, Şirince, Izmir and the resort town of Kuşadaşı.
As a budget traveler who prefers private rooms, I chose the ANZ Guesthouse, just several minutes on foot from the city center.
The room itself was rather basic. But aside from the convenient location, the real highlight was the owner, who was very friendly and helpful in regards to travel tips and transport advice.
While the Turkish government isn’t quite as extreme as China when it comes to online censorship, you’ll probably want a decent VPN before your visit.
I’ve tried out a couple of different companies and have found ExpressVPN to be the most reliable.
Booking.com is currently banned in the country (at least when you search for domestic accommodation). However, there are actually quite a few Turkish hotels listed on there anyway. And many them don’t even appear on Hotels.com, which hasn’t been banned.
Over the course of my trip, I ended up making quite a few reservations with Booking.com and was really glad I had a VPN to do so.
Another major site that’s banned is PayPal. If you want to access your account at all during your travels, a VPN is a must.
While those are the only two major sites that I noticed were banned during my trip, Turkey has even gone as far as banning Wikipedia and Twitter in the past.