Despite being one of the best-preserved archaeological sites in Turkey, Aphrodisias remains off the beaten path for most visitors. If you’re looking for something on par with Ephesus but without the crowds, Aydin Province’s Aphrodisias is the place to visit.
Walking among the ruins today, the city still exudes luxury. In ancient times, it was a major center of Aphrodite worship. And accordingly, Aphrodisias was known for the beauty of both its monuments and sculptures, many of which made their way to Rome.
In the following guide, we’ll cover each major landmark, including a unique public pool and the world’s best-preserved stadium. And be sure to check the end of the article for info on reaching the site via public transport.
Aphrodisias: A Brief History
As evidenced by discoveries at the mound near the theater, Aphrodisias was inhabited from around 5000 BC. And it was long a major center of goddess worship, with traces of a temple dating back to the 6th century BC.
As the city grew, planners implemented a grid system complete with housing blocks surrounding the center. But the population never expanded beyond 15,000, with the city encompassing an area of just 1 square km.
The Aphrodisians seemed to prefer keeping their city small and cozy rather than continually grow outward. That way, they could focus their energy on producing exquisite monuments and sculptures.
Conveniently, the nearest marble quarry was just about 1.5 km away. And Aphrodisian sculptures were in such high demand that they’ve turned up in places like Greece, Italy and even Portugal.
Many major monuments were constructed from the 1st-3rd centuries AD, a highly prosperous and peaceful time for Aphrodisias. In fact, no fortification walls were even constructed until the mid-4th century, when Aphrodisias was the capital of the Roman province of Caria.
In Christian times, the city was renamed Stauropolis, or City of the Cross, and it became a thriving center of early Christianity. But after a major 7th-century earthquake, the city would never live up to its former glory.
Having functioned as a small town for centuries, Aphrodisias was sacked by the Seljuks in the late 12th century and then ultimately abandoned.
Excavations have been ongoing since the 1960s, and archaeologists are continually making new finds. As several areas are still under heavy excavation, expect more exciting announcements in the coming years.
Arriving at the site, the ticket gate is located in the eastern section of the ancient city. Visitors then have the option to head south, starting with the Sebasteion to tour the site in a clockwise direction.
Or, one could start north with the Tetrapylon. I opted for the latter, and the following Aphrodisias guide follows the different landmarks in a counterclockwise order.
Before starting your journey, there are a couple of things you’ll notice by the entrance. Around here is the Aphrodisias Museum, which is absolutely worth visiting. But unsure of how long my tour around the ruins would take, I saved it for last.
Also around the central hub, you’ll notice a collection of friezes. These decorative elements were once placed above the long colonnades that surrounded many parts of the city.
They’re decorated with theater masks and garlands, providing a first glimpse of the major importance the Aphrodisians placed on aesthetics.
Past the museum, head northwest and you’ll pass by the Atrium House on your left. This was a prominent private residence where numerous important pieces of art were discovered.
Continuing north along the trail, you’ll soon encounter one of the city’s most iconic landmarks.
The Tetrapylon is one of Aphrodisias’s most unique features. The elaborate gate was placed along a major north-south street, and it marked the separation between the secular and sacred portions of Aphrodisias.
Upon walking through the 16-columned gate, visitors would find themselves within the sacred precinct of Aphrodite.
The structure was built around 200 AD. And miraculously, nearly all of the marble pieces were discovered intact, allowing archaeologists to reassemble it in 1991.
While it looks like one piece from a distance, it’s actually comprised of two separate facades. Looking up, note the elaborately carved pediments.
The carvings once featured scenes of Eros, Nike and Aphrodite hunting amongst the acanthus leaves. But some of the carvings were later effaced during the Christian era, as they were deemed too lewd.
Moving further west, you’ll pass by a large collection of stones spread throughout the grassy field. And up ahead you’ll notice the tall columns of the temple – once the focal point of the city.
The Temple of Aphrodite
A temple is believed to have existed here since at least the 6th century BC – then a spot of veneration for a forgotten indigenous goddess. Later, once Hellenized, the local goddess came to be identified with the Greek Aphrodite.
The version of the temple we see today was first constructed around the 1st century BC, and it was commissioned by a wealthy local named Zoilos. For hundreds of years, it was an important pilgrimage spot for Aphrodite devotees from both Anatolia and Greece.
Aphrodite, one of the six female Olympian deities, was the goddess of love, fruitfulness and the generative power of nature. Originally born of sea foam near Cyprus, she was also a favorite goddess of the seafarer. And she was closely associated with beauty, which the craftsmen and artisans of Aphrodisias clearly took to heart.
Aphrodite represented the concept of a higher, spiritual love in the form of ‘Aphrodite Ourania.’ But she also symbolized physical desire and pleasure in the form of ‘Aphrodite Pandemos.’
This worldly aspect of the goddess is famously represented in the myth where Paris must choose the most beautiful among three goddesses: Aphrodite, Athena and Hera.
Foregoing a potential reward of spiritual wisdom from the other goddesses, he chooses Aphrodite, who’d promised him the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen. And it was Paris’s carnal impulses that directly resulted in the long and bloody Trojan War.
Local Aphrodisias artisans developed a unique style of sculpture known as ‘Aphrodite of Aphrodisias’ which became popular throughout the Greco-Roman world.
In contrast to the realistic, human-like Aphrodite sculptures of the Greeks, these sculptures depicted various figures and shapes carved across the goddess’s body. It was likely influenced by more ancient sculptures of the local fertility goddess. And it’s rather similar to the ‘Lady of Ephesus,’ or the Ephesian depiction of Artemis.
The images include depictions of the Three Graces (Persuasion, Longing and Yearning) who often accompanied the goddess, in addition to Gaia and Uranus and other mythological figures.
Now on display at the local museum (more below), one can imagine the vivid Aphrodite imagery that would’ve adorned the main temple in ancient times.
Interestingly, worship of Aphrodite took place here for quite some time after the region’s conversion to Christianity, as the temple wasn’t changed to a basilica until around 500 AD.
Much of the original temple structure had to be dismantled for the project, while some of the larger columns were displaced.
Leaving the temple, head right down the path taking you north. You’ll soon arrive at the massive stadium, which just happens to be the best-preserved ancient stadium in the entire world!
The stadium consists of 30 rows of seats and is 270 meters long. This makes it not only the best-preserved, but also among the largest of its kind.
In fact, the stadium could seat as many as 30,000 people – almost triple the number of Aphrodisias’s total population! As the largest stadium in the region, spectators from neighboring towns would frequently come to view the events.
Events like boxing, wrestling, javelin throwing and foot racing competitions took place here. In the Roman period, around 400 AD, a separate area was constructed on the stadium’s eastern edge.
This arena was home to beloved Roman pastimes like battles with wild beasts and bloody gladiatorial fights.
Interestingly, the stadium bordered the city wall, and surviving portions of it still run along the top rows to the north.
Ancient inscriptions on the seats, meanwhile, have revealed that certain sections were reserved for different workers’ associations as well as certain prominent citizens.
The stadium truly has to be seen to be believed. Outside of somewhere like Egypt, it’s incredibly rare to see something this big and old in such an excellent state of preservation.
The Administrative Area
Leaving the stadium, head south past the Temple of Aphrodite. You’ll eventually arrive at a cluster of important administrative and religious buildings situated just across the North Agora. The largest among them is the Bishop’s Palace, occupying a large space of 35 x 40 meters.
While not easy to make out in its current condition, the palace once contained a spacious open-air courtyard, a large dining area and an additional reception hall.
Interestingly, the palace was constructed around 400 AD, meaning that local bishops possibly resided across the street from an active pagan temple for quite some time. On the other hand, the palace may have been constructed in the pre-Christian era before later being converted.
At the time of my visit, most of the buildings around here were off-limits and could only be admired from a distance. Further east, however, is a notable structure that visitors can go and see from up close.
The central administrative area was also home to the Bouleuterion, or Council House. This is where the local city government would meet to discuss civic matters. Its size reflects Aphrodisas’s modest population, and it’s considerably smaller than the Bouleuterions of cities like Ephesus or Patara.
Nevertheless, it’s in an impeccable state of preservation, with much of the stone appearing original. Constructed in about 200 AD, the structure was also occasionally home to small concerts.
Notice the empty pedestals behind the stage, where numerous statues of prominent citizens once stood. As we’ll go over below, many of them are now on display at the local museum.
And speaking of sculptures, it was just behind here that archaeologists discovered remnants of a sculptor’s workshop.
Across from the administrative center was the spacious North Agora, completely inaccessible at the time of my visit.
In total, it stretched out to 202 x 72 meters, with colonnades surrounding the entire square. Their friezes would’ve been adorned with the mask and garland design pictured above.
The square once contained things like a fountain, an altar and a marble courtyard.
The main portico was likely built in the 1st century BC, around the same time as the Temple of Aphrodite. As a whole, the North Agora remained in use until the 7th century AD.
The Hadrianic Baths
Heading further south from the agora, you’ll eventually encounter the Hadrianic Baths in the western part of town. As the name suggests, the elaborate bath complex was built to commemorate Hadrian’s visit in the 2nd century AD.
The complex consisted of multiple vaulted halls. According to the Roman tradition, different rooms were used for certain temperatures of water, such as warm, hot and cold.
Walking around, you’ll find some of the marble flooring almost exactly as how it appeared in ancient times, largely thanks to restoration works in 2010.
In front of the buildings was a spacious colonnaded forecourt containing sculptures of mythological heroes, emperors and prominent locals. And to the north of the baths was a fountain.
The baths were not only important due to the cultural importance placed on cleanliness. They also played an important role in local social life – much like the role of the hammam in modern Turkish society.
Place of the Palms
As if the baths weren’t enough, the long space to the east was home to a huge 170-meter long pool. Also known as the South Agora, the area was added to the city around the mid-1st century AD.
Unfortunately, it was completely off-limits during my visit. But just to the south is a hill which visitors can walk up to take in the views from above.
The huge pool was dedicated to the Nymphs, the female Greek spirits who were bound to certain places of nature, such as freshwater ponds or forests.
As we know from an epigram found at the gate, the whole area was referred to by citizens as the Place of the Palms. While no palm groves can be seen today, archaeologists have found evidence of their existence.
The entire space – like many other parts of the city – was once entirely lined with colonnades. And the area probably also featured elaborate gardens, with the whole thing being freely accessible to the public.
Notably, very few other Greco-Roman cities seem to have this feature. Clearly, the ancient residents of Aphrodisias were certainly living the life!
According to the epigram, the Place of the Palms was refurbished around the year 500 AD. The pool has now only been under excavation since around 2012, so lots more should be known about the space in the near future.
Continue walking east along the hill, which happens to be the prehistoric settlement mound where the city’s very first inhabitants lived. You’ll soon find yourself overlooking the theater, which could seat around 7,000 people.
Like much else at Aphrodisias, it remains in great condition. The building behind the stage was originally three stories, the first of which has been reconstructed by archaeologists.
The theater was first constructed in the 1st century BC. And its benefactor was the wealthy local named Zoilos, the same man who commissioned the Temple of Aphrodite.
An inscription on the architrave reveals more of his fascinating story. It turns out that Gaius Julius Zoilos was a freed slave of none other than Octavian Augustus, the first Roman emperor!
Likely a native of Aphrodisias, Zoilos was enslaved by pirates before being purchased by Augustus. And the emperor surely thought highly of him, as Zoilos was able to return to his hometown as both a free and wealthy man.
Just to the south of the theater was an additional bathhouse. Also nearby is an impressive colonnaded street, along with countless blocks of marble laid out all over the ground.
This area was likely home to the local philosophical school where Neoplatonic teachings flourished in the 2nd century AD.
From the theater area, head northeast back toward the entrance. You’ll pass by another set of mask and garland friezes collected from around the site. And up on a hill to your right is what appears to be a small Byzantine structure.
Continue north, and on your left you’ll find the Sebasteion.
The Sebasteion was a temple dedicated to the Roman Imperial cult. The platform you arrive at was the spot of the temple itself, while visitors would enter from the opposite end of the long avenue.
Nothing but the raised platform of the temple remains, but it once consisted of six Corinthian columns and an ornamented roof.
The temple was originally dedicated to Emperor Tiberius (r. 14-37 AD) and his mother Livia. Aphrodite was also honored at the temple as the primordial mother of all the emperors.
With the main temple missing, the most impressive feature is the collection of carvings above the colonnaded buildings which took up three whole stories.
Only one section remains in place, though it was actually restored using replica carvings. The many carvings discovered amongst the rubble are now on display at the nearby museum.
The raised reliefs depict both scenes from Greek mythology as well as stories from the emperors’ lives.
The Aphrodisias Museum
The Aphrodisias Museum is a great little museum which displays some of the most interesting findings from around town.
Not far from the entrance is a collection of ‘shield portraits’ from the late Roman period, discovered at a private residence to the north of the Sebasteion.
They depict numerous influential philosophers and important historical figures from the ancient Greek world.
Sadly, as is the case with many important works from Aphrodisias, many of them were desecrated by Christians.
Also near the entrance is a sculpture of Satyr with baby Dionysus discovered near the sculptor’s workshop. And nearby is an ornate sarcophagus (many others are on display outside) along with a head once belonging to an Aphrodite of Aphrodisias statue.
Other rooms are entirely filled with life-size statues. Many of them depict prominent citizens of the city who had their statues placed around town. Apparently, in ancient Aphrodisias, there was nowhere that wasn’t filled with statues or other public art.
The museum, of course, also houses the Aphrodite statues pictured above.
The hallways are filled with glass cases containing smaller artifacts. And walking along, you’ll encounter even more rooms filled with statues.
Additionally, the carvings from the Sebasteion are housed somewhere at the museum, but the space didn’t seem to be accessible at the time of my visit.
Also be sure to enjoy the vast collection of sarcophagi outside, discovered in various parts of the city. Originally created during the Roman Period, many of them were usurped and reused in the Middle Ages.
As Aphrodisias isn’t too big, a couple of hours should suffice for those in a hurry. But for those with more time to spare, give yourself as much time as possible to take in all the details.
It’s only a matter of time before word gets out about Aphrodisias, so don’t miss this overlooked gem before the crowds start pouring in. In my personal opinion, it’s the best Greco-Roman site in all of Turkey – even slightly edging out Ephesus.
In normal times, there are regular group tours departing from Pamukkale to Aphrodisias. Though I asked at several different tour agencies, they all told me there were no tours due to the pandemic. (This didn’t stop every other person from offering me paragliding tours, however!)
I spoke with a couple of private drivers as well, and the quotes ranged from 350-500 TL for the return trip.
I ultimately decide to get there myself using public transport. While I succeeded, it was a long and difficult journey.
Despite a direct car trip only taking around 90 minutes, the bus journey between Denizli and Aphrodisias requires multiple transfers. You will, at least, save a lot of money. All of my bus trips throughout the day added up to 78 TL – a fraction of what a private driver or tour costs.
Here’s what to do:
If you’re staying in the village of Pamukkale, you will first need to take one of the regular minibuses to the Denizli bus terminal.
In the lower level of the terminal, look for a bus to the town of Nazilli, about 80 kilometers to the west.
(Looking at the map, it seems a lot quicker to first head southeast to Tavas. And this is what you should do if you’re renting a car. But my hotel manager recommended starting with Nazilli, as many more buses head to and from there.)
In my case, the journey from Denizli to Nazilli took nearly two hours. The driver stopped frequently, and he veered down many village side streets to pick up passengers.
Arriving at the Nazilli bus terminal, you then need to find a bus taking you southeast. This is a fairly large terminal, and many of the destinations are written on signs above each bus. But while I’d read that one should find a bus bound for Tavas (past Aphrodisias), no such buses seem to exist anymore.
If you can’t find a Tavas-bound bus, you’ll need to find a bus headed for Karacasu. While Karacasu is in the direction of Aphrodisias, it’s located about 13 kilometers before it.
At Karacasu, you will then need to transfer to yet another minibus taking you further southeast.
The driver drove me right up to Aphrodisias, and I arrived there around 12:20. This was after leaving my hotel at 8:20 that morning!
Unfortunately, the return trip isn’t much easier. There is a bus timetable posted at Aphrodisias, and also at a bus stand along the highway. But during my visit, the timetables were wrong, as no buses appeared at all.
Knowing I could take a bus toward Tavas in the opposite direction, I even stood in the middle of the highway and looked both ways. But no bus appeared at all for over an hour.
Eventually, a friendly driver stopped and gave me a ride to the Karacasu bus terminal. And once there, I only had to wait about 10 minutes for the Nazilli-bound bus to depart.
The return trip was then fairly straightforward, but the ride took ages due to rush hour traffic. I finally made it back to Pamukkale around 7:30 PM. In total, it was an 11-hour journey for just a few hours at the ruins.
But as Aphrodisias is one of the best sites in Turkey, it was, of course, worth it.
Looking back, I don’t think there was much I could’ve done differently coming from Denizli.
One thing I could’ve done, though, was booking a night at a hotel in Nazilli by the bus terminal. That way, I would’ve had an easy return trip from the ruins and then a shorter onward journey to Selçuk the following day.
Most people visiting Aphrodisias are basing themselves in either Pamukkale or Denizli. While I stayed in Pamukkale, I’d choose Denizli if I had to do it over again.
The positives of staying in Pamukkale are that it’s quiet at night and within walking distance of the travertine pools. But that’s about all.
Far from being a laidback local experience, Pamukkale is the worst place for touts I encountered in all of Turkey. They’re very pushy and persistent, and you’ll constantly be approached with offers for paragliding tours.
You can’t even walk past a restaurant without being hassled, prompting me to mostly eat at my hotel.
I stayed at a hotel called Dort Mevsim (which translates to Four Seasons) and had a good experience. The family who runs it was friendly and spoke good English. They also provided helpful transport advice regarding how to visit Aphrodisias.
But considering how the hotel was a little over twenty minutes on foot from the travertines, staying in Pamukkale didn’t save me any time. Minibuses from the Denizli bus terminal can reach the travertines area in about 15 minutes.
For those visiting Aphrodisias, it’s better to stay in Denizli, eliminating two minibus rides from your total journey. (And now having made the trip to Aphrodisias via public transport, I also recommend spending a night in the town of Nazilli – especially if you’ll be traveling to or from Selçuk.)
If you choose Denizli, just be sure to find somewhere within close walking distance to the bus terminal.
Denizli is a fairly large city that is easy to reach from most other major cities in Turkey. You’ll likely find direct buses from any large city in the Aegean region, while there are also frequent buses to and from Fethiye.
Understand that if you buy a bus ticket for Pamukkale, you will invariably need to exit the coach bus at the Denizli bus terminal and transfer to a minibus. This even applies to the popular ‘Pamukkale’ coach bus company!
Minibuses between Denizli and Pamukkale run frequently, and the ride just takes about 15 minutes. They depart from the lower level of the bus terminal.
Denizli also has an airport with direct flights to Istanbul. And the city is also linked by rail to Izmir as well as Selçuk.
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.