The overlooked town of Demre is worthy of your attention as you make your way across Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. Once a thriving city and prominent member of the Lycian League, Demre was known as Myra in antiquity. In addition to its impressive Lycian tombs, Demre is also home to the Church of St. Nicholas, now better known as Santa Claus. In the following Demre guide, we’ll be going over the town’s main attractions, including the former port of Andriake.
Learn more about Demre transport and accommodation below.
St. Nicholas Church
Right in the center of modern Demre is the Church of St. Nicholas, built in honor of the beloved bishop who once lived here. Born in 280 AD in the Lycian city of Patara, Nicholas later moved to Demre, then known as Myra.
The current church was built in 520 AD over the original site where Nicholas worked as bishop. After a large earthquake in 529, the church was reconstructed the following year.
It then had to be reconstructed again in the 9th century and was regularly repaired and expanded throughout the next few hundred years.
Few authoritative sources about St. Nick have survived. And when examining his life, it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. Be that as it may, St. Nicholas was primarily known for two things: his generosity and his miracles.
One of the most famous legends tells of him liberating a trio of child prostitutes. Each night, St. Nicholas anonymously left sacks of gold in their father’s house, and he eventually accrued enough funds to pay the dowry and free his daughters.
One of the more fantastical tales, likely developed during medieval times, involves St. Nick resurrecting three murdered children who’d been killed to be sold as meat.
According to another miracle, he persuaded sailors delivering wheat to Rome to leave some of it behind in Myra, as the city was experiencing a famine. Though they feared eventual punishment, the sailors reluctantly agreed. Miraculously, upon arrival in Rome, they discovered the load’s weight to have remained the same.
While there’s enough evidence to prove that St. Nick was indeed a real person, scholars have pointed out similarities between his legends and the miracles attributed to Apollonius of Tyana, a 1st-century ascetic and philosopher.
Historical accuracy aside, stories surrounding St. Nick still inspire generosity and selflessness to this day. And walking through the Church of St. Nicholas, you’ll find many colorful scenes of his life along the walls.
The extant murals largely date to the 12th or 13th centuries. In addition to the various miracles and acts of charity performed by St. Nick, they also depict scenes from the life of Jesus.
Exploring the church, you’ll find a spacious courtyard in the back, while the aisles surrounding the central nave are worthy of close examination. In addition to colorful frescoes on the ceiling, don’t miss the impressive mosaic pavements on the floor.
Following the Byzantine era, the Church of St. Nicholas was further restored in the 19th century with help from Russian Tsar Nicholas I, who added the bell tower.
In the central nave, meanwhile, you’ll find semicircular stepped seats behind the altar. Known as a synthronon, the feature is quite common at Eastern Orthodox churches.
The stone altar is surrounded by four Corinthian columns, while the ceiling contains a well-preserved fresco of what seems to be St. Nicholas giving alms to the poor.
Before leaving, be sure to check the southern side aisle, where you’ll find a stone sarcophagus. This space likely once housed the remains of St. Nicholas himself. According to legend, he was entombed at the site before the church’s reconstruction in the 6th century. But the box is now empty.
St. Nicholas has long been revered by both Orthodox and Catholics throughout Europe. And in the 11th century, a group of Italian merchants did much more than make a pilgrimage to the church. They ended up walking away with St. Nick’s remains, bringing them to the southern Italian city of Bari!
But how, exactly, did St. Nicholas, an actual Christian bishop, evolve into the mythical figure of Santa Claus?
In the Netherlands, St. Nick became associated with the character of Sinterklaas, a bearded man who rode a white horse. Each year on St. Nicholas Day on December 6th, a man dressed as Sinterklaas has appeared at the festivities.
When large numbers of Dutch people emigrated to the United States, they brought their traditions with them. And Sinterklaas eventually evolved into the Santa Claus we know today – but not until 1823.
While Santa Claus, like St. Nicholas, is a very generous man with a white beard, he’s from the North Pole – likely due to Christmas’s association with cold weather. Many are surprised to learn that all this time, the real Santa Claus was from the hot and humid Mediterranean coast!
Myra Ancient City
Long before Christianity’s arrival in the region, Myra was a thriving city in the ancient kingdom, and later Roman province, of Lycia. Situated near the Myros River, it was founded in the 5th-century BC. And it later became one of the six most important cities (of a few dozen) of the Lycian League, giving it three votes instead of one.
The archaeological site of Myra Ancient City is now mostly known for its impressive Lycian-style tombs, and it can easily be reached in about 15 minutes on foot from central Demre.
Myra’s history is similar to that of neighboring cities. It was conquered by the Persians, then Alexander the Great and later the Seleucids. Though it was later annexed by Rome, the Lycian League maintained a great deal of autonomy for centuries.
Sadly, much of the city has been lost, as the changing course of the Myros River covered most of it with alluvial silts. As such, the current archaeological site is surprisingly tiny when compared with other Lycian cities. There are essentially just two things to check out here: the theater and the tombs.
Outside the theater, you’ll find some well-preserved carvings of theatrical masks. Walking ahead, you’ll encounter an ancient staircase leading directly to the upper seats. Alternatively, you can choose to enter the theater from the stage area.
Partially carved into the natural hill, Myra’s theater was capable of seating up to 13,000 people. It was reconstructed during Roman times following an earthquake in 141 AD, and remains in great condition today. With that being said, it can’t compete with the theaters of places like Aspendos or Termessos.
From the upper seats, you can get a clear view of the greenhouses of rural Demre, a town currently known as Turkey’s tomato capital.
Walking over to the theater’s opposite end, you can even access some miscellaneous rooms between the walls. This area also provides a clear view of some scattered rock-cut tombs carved away from the main cluster.
And once finished with the theater, the central necropolis is the only place left to go.
After being colonized by Alexander the Great and the Romans, few native Lycian structures have survived. But one distinctly Lycian feature we can still admire is their fascinating tombs.
While rock-cut tombs were prevalent throughout the ancient world, the Lycians gave theirs a particularly unique and elegant flair.
These tombs are said to date back to the 5th-3rd centuries BC – well before any surviving written record of Myra. While many of the tombs belonged to native Lycians, others belonged to Greek colonists.
Lycian tombs typically imitated wooden houses, complete with pediments and what appear to be wood beams. Royal tombs, on the other hand, were modeled after temples, featuring representations of pillars.
With tombs like these, one can only wonder how marvelous Lycian architecture would’ve looked. Aside from rock-cut tombs, Lycians also buried their dead in large sarcophagi, as can be seen in neighboring cities.
Some of the tombs at Myra are adorned with very detailed relief carvings. But with the tomb area roped off, the best reliefs are unfortunately too high up to observe clearly. Hopefully, these tombs become accessible to visitors in the future, as is the case in Fethiye.
Like many Anatolian cities, the prominent deity worshipped here was Artemis. While now lost, an Artemis temple and colonnaded street once existed somewhere in Myra as well.
Myra’s port, known as Andriake, was located about 5 km to the south. And today it’s an additional archaeological site that can be visited during your stay in Demre.
As a former port, Andriake is located near the Mediterranean coast. But due to considerable siltation, it’s surprisingly far inland. It’s this siltation, in fact, that eventually resulted in Myra’s decline.
The best way to reach Andriake from central Demre is by car, as no public transport goes there. In my case, after returning from a boat tour to Kekova Island, I decided to walk there from the port, following a shortcut on the Maps.me app.
On the way, I encountered a large number of interesting ruins. But as I’d later learn, they were located outside the official archaeological site.
As I got closer to the center, I only found a locked fence instead of a ticket gate! To my relief, the chain was fairly long, allowing me just enough space to squeeze through.
To visit Andriake on foot from the port using the regular roads, expect the journey to take around 30 minutes.
The largest structure by far in Andriake is the former granary, built to commemorate the visit of Emperor Hadrian. The building has recently been restored to house a nice little museum dedicated to Lycian culture.
The artifacts on display aren’t especially noteworthy, but you’ll find items from Myra, the Church of St. Nicholas and the nearby sites of Xanthos and Patara. The museum is well-lit with comprehensive English info.
Just in front of the museum is a replica of a typical boat used during Myra/Andriake’s heyday. The ship now overlooks the modern swamp under which more of Andriake’s ruins are surely hiding.
Andriake is well-signed, while a paved walking trail cuts through the center of the ruins. Ironically, despite this merely being a suburb of Myra, the archaeological site here is considerably larger.
While nothing in Andriake can compete with Myra’s rock-cut tombs, it still makes for an interesting visit. Spread throughout the site are things like a cistern, monuments, churches, a synagogue and Roman baths.
Andriake was the place where many broke up their onward journey to Jerusalem so they could make a visit to the Church of St. Nicholas. Centuries prior, St. Paul even transferred here on his way to Rome.
As at neighboring Phaselis, the harbor agora was of special importance considering all the exotic goods coming in and out of the city. Not far away are two elaborate bathhouses. But most of the structures around Andriake remain unnamed.
As interesting as it is, Andriake is by no means essential. If you’re visiting Demre as a day trip from elsewhere, you’ll be fine just sticking to Myra Ancient City and the Church of St. Nicholas.
But for those staying a night or two in Demre, it’s worth going a bit out of your way to see this archaeological hidden gem.
Note: Demre was known as Kale until just recently, and most Turkish people still call it that. But you’ll still see Demre written on the regional buses.
Situated along Route 400, Demre is easily accessible by bus. Coming from Olympos, I had no problems hopping on a direct bus from the main highway there. There are also frequent direct buses to and from Kaş.
While direct buses between Demre and Fethiye supposedly exist, that wasn’t the case during my trip. I needed to transfer in Kaş to get there (and pay for both buses!).
The Demre otogar (bus terminal) is situated right in the center of town. It should be an easy walk to your hotel. And if you’re just visiting Demre as a day trip, the bus station is within walking distance of both St. Nicholas Church and Myra Ancient City.
Few tourists actually stay in Demre, as those coming to see Myra and the Church of St. Nicholas often do so as a day trip from elsewhere.
My original plan had been to stay in Kaş. But with the neighboring Greek island of Kastellorizo inaccessible due to the pandemic, I decided to save Kaş for a future Turkey trip.
Looking back, having based myself in central Demre, I’m happy with my choice. Most visitors only pass through for an afternoon, allowing Demre to retain much of its local charm (and local prices!).
Furthermore, the local port is where most boat tours to Kekova Island depart. By staying in Demre, you won’t have to wake up extra early just to make it in time for the boat.
Where to Stay
I stayed in a charming hotel called Bayraktar Konağı, located right in central Demre. It’s a restored historical house, and the nightly price includes a hearty breakfast. It’s easily walkable from the church, tombs, and Demre’s bus terminal.
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.