Pamukkale, one of Turkey’s most popular travel destinations, is an enormous site comprising of two main sections: the travertine pool terraces and the Roman spa town of Hierapolis above them. In the following Pamukkale guide, we’ll be covering everything there is to see, along with the nearby archaeological site of Laodicea.
Be sure to check the very end of the article for general visiting tips, where to stay and how to reach Pamukkale.
But first, a quick historical overview: Hierapolis was officially founded in 190 BC by King Eumenes II of Pergamon, a member of the Attalid dynasty. And several decades later, Hierapolis (like most of Anatolia) was officially ceded to Rome.
As the natural thermal waters were long believed to have curative properties, Hierapolis quickly grew into a prosperous city with a population of around 100,000.
After two major earthquakes in the 1st century AD, the city was largely rebuilt in the 3rd century. Later on, Hierapolis would become an important center of early Christianity and it was even the place where St. Philip was martyred.
The city later suffered from Persian invasions in the 7th century, after which a large earthquake destroyed many important monuments. Following the Byzantine era, the Seljuks built a castle here in the 1200s, but the city was eventually abandoned after yet another large earthquake in the 15th century.
Hierapolis remained largely forgotten for centuries until being rediscovered by Western travelers in the 1700s.
The Pamukkale Travertines
Pamukkale is the Turkish word for ‘Cotton Castle’ – an apt description for how the travertines look from a distance. But how was this 330 meter-high milky white hill formed?
The travertine pools came to be as a result of thermal water flowing over the cliffside for millennia. The mineral-rich water is largely comprised of calcium bicarbonate which hardens upon cooling.
What eventually resulted were the hundreds of natural basins along the cliffside we see today.
As pretty as the travertine pools are to look at, most of the bathing took place at designated bathhouses constructed throughout Hierapolis. From ancient times until today, the thermal water was believed to cure a variety of ailments such as rheumatism.
The geology of the region also provided an abundance of travertine stone quarries that were used to build much of Hierapolis.
There are a couple of different entrances to Pamukkale/Hierapolis, one of them being via the Cotton Castle itself. You’ll easily find the ticket gate at the edge of the modern village.
The following Pamukkale guide assumes you’ll be entering this way, though it’s not too hard to navigate if you come via the necropolis entrance instead.
The Barefoot Ascent
After paying the entrance fee (see more below), you’ll soon be required to take off your shoes and carry them with you. It’s best to come prepared with a plastic bag for your footwear which you can then place in a backpack.
While some parts of the hill feel soft and mushy, other sections are rock hard. It’s a strange experience, especially considering the whole place looks like one giant cloud.
Before long, you’ll encounter some of Pamukkale’s famous turquoise pools. Most of them are surprisingly shallow, barely coming up to one’s knees.
Unfortunately, the water doesn’t appear nearly as clean up close as it does in photographs. But the scenery is beautiful nonetheless.
Given how packed the travertine pools can get, be sure to arrive early enough to beat the crowds.
This is also the same way you’ll eventually exit. And while the lighting is much better in the afternoon, just about every pool will have transformed into an Instagram modeling studio by then.
All in all, only around 10 or so pools were accessible during my visit. And confusingly, some of them appear to be artificial.
In total, Pamukkale is home to hundreds of natural travertine pools. But in years past, tourists were given free rein to walk wherever they pleased, causing tremendous damage to the hill. As a result, most of the site is now blocked off to allow the travertines to heal.
The walk from the ticket gate to the top of the hill is surprisingly short, taking no more than 10-15 minutes. There are, however, plenty of scenic vantage points along the top. Just don’t expect to see quite what you saw in the promotional posters!
Around the Top
Turning around, I encountered quite an unexpected sight. Nearly all of the travertine pools were bone dry!
From my understanding, this has nothing to do with preservation. Rather, the local authorities, who have total control over the water’s flow, are now diverting it to nearby luxury hotels and other parts of the modern town.
Continuing north along the hill, you’ll encounter a small section that still has its water intact. But not long after is yet another dry section.
It’s frustrating to realize that Pamukkale continues to attract hordes of tourists largely due to false advertising. But as disappointing as the travertines are, you should still consider coming here.
If you’re into archaeology, the ruins of Hierapolis more than make up for the dry travertines. It’s a massive site that stretches out to over 3 kilometers, and exploring the ruins will occupy the large majority of your day.
Approaching the ancient city of Hierapolis from the Pamukkale travertines, one of the first sections you’ll encounter is the remains of a huge Roman bath complex from the 1st century AD.
Around Frontinus Street
If you’ve traveled to other Roman ruins in Turkey, you’ll have noticed that bathhouses were an essential feature of Roman cities. And they were often among the most elaborate buildings in the city center.
Hierapolis was no exception, with many of the bathhouses having been built alongside the city’s main avenue, Frontinus Street.
Large travertine blocks were used for the outer walls and smaller stones for the interior structures. Sadly, however, the complex was completely toppled over by an earthquake in the 4th century. To make matters more confusing, the space was resettled in the 11th century and used as a residential area.
Looking down, you can still see some of the ancient pipes used to direct the flow of the thermal water.
On the other side of Frontinus Street, meanwhile, is what remains of the Nymphaeum of the Tritons. Archaeologists call it that due to the carvings of the fish-tailed sea divinities found here.
Nymphaeums were monument/fountain hybrids that were a common feature of Greco-Roman cities. While they typically contained numerous statues in their niches, parts of the fountain are all that remain today.
Walking along, you’ll pass under the North Gate, an early Byzantine-era structure from the 4th century. The next section of the street was once lined with things like shops, warehouses and private residences, all connected by a long travertine facade.
On the right-hand side was the latrine – once destroyed by an earthquake and now almost entirely reconstructed. Dating back to the 1st century, this ancient toilet was quite an elaborate one, with elegant columns separating two of its rooms.
At the end of the road is the imposing Frontinus Gate, formerly the city’s main entrance. The arched gate is flanked by two round towers on either side.
It was likely first constructed around 84 AD during the reign of Roman Emperor Caracalla. And it’s arguably one of the most impressive surviving structures of Hierapolis
Beyond the gate are the ruins of an oil press, some tombs and various other structures. The largest among them is the Basilica Bath, constructed just outside the city gates.
As the name suggests, it was originally built as a bathhouse in the 3rd century, at a time when visitors to cities were required to clean themselves off before entering the city limits.
Oddly, the baths were converted to a church in the 6th century when an apse was added.
Also nearby is the old agora, of which hardly anything remains. In antiquity, however, it was among the largest public squares in Asia Minor, measuring 170 by 280 meters. With much of its stone usurped for later structures, it’s little more than a grassy field today.
It was situated right in between Frontinus Street and the nearby foothills. And it’s past the agora and up these foothills that you can find the Sanctuary of St. Philip.
But don’t go there just yet. You don’t want to miss the vast necropolis to the north, one of Hierapolis’s most remarkable features.
With all the attention given to the travertines, the fact that Hierapolis is home to the largest necropolis in Anatolia often gets overlooked. Stretching out to nearly 2 kilometers, the vast necropolis contains over 1,000 sarcophagi!
Just about every different tomb style that was popular in Greco-Roman times can be seen here. Walking along, you’ll also encounter detailed informational signage about the more significant tombs.
Tomb A6, for example, was built in the 1st or 2nd century AD. It consists of a unique sarcophagus placed in the middle of a larger U-shaped structure.
Other impressive tombs include Tomb 56, which had two sarcophagi resting on its large base. Tomb 65, meanwhile, consisted of two chambers divided by a wall. The inscription outside names the deceased as Flavia Mettia Theophiliana.
Tomb 81 also once had two sarcophagi atop its tall platform. And Tomb 162 was a large building that contained two funerary chambers.
The massive tomb housed multiple sarcophagi, all belonging to members of the association of linen workers. According to Greek historian Strabo, the thermal waters of Hierapolis had the power to permanently dye fabrics.
While I seem to have missed it, the necropolis also contains the sarcophagus of a man named Marcus Aurelius Ammianos. It’s significant because carved on its lid is what’s likely the first-ever depiction of a crank and rod mechanism – in this case, a water-powered sawmill.
Eventually, you’ll reach the North Entrance, at which you’ll have to turn back. Another reason to use the travertines entrance is that when approaching the necropolis from the south, the lighting is perfect in the morning. But those arriving via the North Entrance have to walk right into the sun.
The Sanctuary of St. Philip
Returning from the necropolis, head back over to the agora. Though hardly evident today, a small Byzantine basilica was built here. But there are many better-preserved Christian monuments further up the hill.
The general area is named after Philip, one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus who preached and died here at Hierapolis.
Heading east from the agora, you’ll eventually spot a bridge in the distance. Given Pamukkale’s popularity as a tourist destination, the path here is surprisingly rough and overgrown.
Only the foundations of the arched bridge remain, but it’s been entirely reconstructed with metal rods. Next, walk up the hill and proceed to cross the bridge. Around here once stood the St. Philip Gate, built in the 4th century under Emperor Theodosius.
Crossing the bridge, you’ll encounter a 4th-century staircase taking you further upward.
Next, you’ll pass by the ruins of an octagonal bath and the remains of numerous other Byzantine-era buildings. Then, over to the right, is one of the area’s top highlights.
This was the Church of the Sepulchre, a three-nave church built over the 1st-century tomb of St. Philip himself. Before entering, visitors would wash themselves at the Pilgrims Fountain built in the 6th century.
The tomb of St. Philip was a major object of veneration in early Christian times and for centuries thereafter. Today, though, it’s a rather unassuming site that many modern visitors seem to completely miss.
If you’re wondering, the tomb is now empty, with the remains having been taken to Constantinople or Rome at some point. Next to the travertine tomb were two pools of water, likely used for religious rituals.
Opposite the church and further up the hill is the Martyrion of St. Philip, built in the early 5th century. In the center of the church once stood a large octagonal room topped with a large dome.
It surely would’ve been an awe-inspiring structure in its day. And though largely in ruin, its large symmetrical layout can still be appreciated.
After the death of Jesus, Philip went on to preach in places like Syria, Greece and Phrygia – of which Hierapolis was once part. According to legend, he managed to convert the wife of a high-ranking official here.
The husband, enraged, tortured Philip, going as far as crucifying him upside down! And the crucifixion is said to have occurred at this very spot.
From the Sanctuary of St. Philip area, you should be able to see the theatre in the distance. It definitely should not be missed, as it’s among the finest in all of Turkey. Perhaps only Aspendos Theater in Antalya Province is in a better state of preservation.
The theater was built in the 3rd century during the reign of Septimius Severus. It replaced an earlier, smaller theater commissioned by Hadrian.
Consisting of 50 rows of seats, the massive theater could host as many as 15,000 people.
The wall at the back, or the scaenae frons, is especially impressive, featuring multiple Corinthian columns. And while hard to make out from a distance, the carved figures in the pediments represent Apollo and Artemis – arguably the two most popular deities in Asia Minor. Another relief, meanwhile, depicts Septimius Severus himself.
The theater was extensively restored from 2009-13 with help from the Italian Archaeological Mission. It’s now one of the only ancient theaters to feature statues in its niches. They may be modern replicas, but one wonders why more archaeological sites don’t do this!
Just next to the theater are a few interesting structures that were off-limits at the time of my visit.
The first is simply called the ‘House with the Ionic capitals.’ Built in the 2nd century AD, it likely belonged to an aristocratic family.
And beyond that is the Apollo Temple, one of pre-Christian Hierapolis’s most important buildings. The temple lies across multiple terraces connected by marble staircases. And like many Apollo temples, it had an oracular function.
But most unusual of all is what’s called the Ploutonian, or Pluto’s Gate – a natural cave which emitted toxic fumes!
The fumes, caused by natural geological activity, were so potent that they were commonly used for ritual animal sacrifices. Appropriately, the cave was associated with Pluto, the god of the underworld.
Prehistoric civilizations that once occupied the hill were also believed to have shown reverence for the natural opening. A temple was built over the small cave entrance in Roman times before the Christians eventually filled it in.
Next, it’s worth checking out Cleopatra’s Pool, even if you’re not going in the water. Entry to the pool costs an extra of 100 TL on top of the basic Pamukkale entry fee – ridiculous if you ask me.
But even without swimming, you can walk around and see the ancient Doric columns that collapsed into the water centuries ago.
This is the only natural thermal spring which visitors can enter on-site. The water maintains a constant temperature of around 35° C (95° F) and is believed to have healing properties
It’s named after the final Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt, Cleopatra VII, who bathed here during her travels around Anatolia with Marc Anthony. In fact, according to legend, Marc Anthony had this particular pool created as a gift to her.
Decades ago, the pool was once part of a hotel complex that existed in the middle of Hierapolis before archaeological excavations began. Thankfully, it’s since been dismantled.
The Bathhouse / Museum
If you started relatively early in the morning and followed the itinerary above, it should now be around the hottest time of the day. For those not taking a dip in Cleopatra’s Pool, there’s no better place to take refuge from the midday sun than the Hierapolis Archaeology Museum.
The museum is situated in one of the city’s former bathhouses, which is in the best condition by far. Originally constructed in the 2nd century, it was made out of large blocks of travertine.
The museum has a few different rooms to explore. Inside, you’ll find things like carved reliefs from the necropolis, ornately carved sarcophagi, and sculptures recovered from around the agora.
Inside the glass case, meanwhile, are collections of tools, jewelry, pottery and glassworks. Most unique of all, though, is a broken Egyptian block statue from the reign of Psamtik I of the 26th Dynasty.
Discovered in a nearby town, it was created in the 7th century BC. An inscription in Classical Greek reveals that it was the pharaoh’s gift for a local Anatolian king.
Off to the side, an additional room largely focuses on sculptures and relief carvings found at Hierapolis Theater. Some of the mythological scenes depicted include the war between the Titans and Olympians, Hades kidnapping Persephone, and the myth of Niobe.
The Southeastern Area
There are a few additional ruins spread out among the southeastern section of Hierapolis. While not essential, it’s a good place to escape the afternoon crowds before heading back down.
Some of the surviving Doric columns once belonged to the former gymnasium, built in the 1st century AD. As physical fitness and sport were big parts of life in the Greco-Roman world, every major city had one.
Nearby is the South Byzantine gate, built of large travertine blocks. You’ll also encounter a similar gate back toward the terraces.
When finished, it’s time to return to the village barefoot. And while you’re likely already exhausted, ruins enthusiasts should not miss a trip to nearby Laodicea.
Situated about 10 km south of Pamukkale, you can easily reach Laodicea by hailing one of the minibuses that run between Pamukkale and Denizli. Be sure to tell the driver where you’re headed. From the main highway, it’s about a 15-minute walk to reach the ticket gate.
Founded in the 3rd century BC by the Seleucid Empire, the city is actually older than Hierapolis, and it was already established when there was nothing but a Phrygian temple there. Like Hierapolis, it was later controlled by the Kingdom of Pergamon and then the Romans.
Laodicea also became a major center of early Christianity, and its basilica was mentioned in the Book of Revelation as one of the ‘Seven Churches of Asia.’
As with Hierapolis, Laodicea suffered from frequent earthquakes, and the city was largely abandoned after a major one in the 7th century.
Laodicea was laid out on a grid plan, and its central colonnaded street, which runs east-west, was called Syria Street. Given the site’s size, there are numerous routes you can take. But I began by turning right and exploring the northern half of the city.
The buildings around here include a street water distribution center, a peristyle house and various unnamed buildings, many of which were off-limits due to excavations.
One of Laodicea’s most unique features is its theater. Once capable of seating 12,000 people, it’s in a pitiful state compared to that of neighboring Hierapolis. But while seated, audience members could get a clear view of Pamukkale off in the distance.
No less than two theaters were constructed in the city, with the other one located somewhere in the west. I didn’t end up encountering it, and it might’ve been in a closed-off area.
Not far from the theater are the ruins of an early Christian church. Known as the North Church, only the foundation walls have survived, but it was once a three-aisle basilica.
The north part of town was also home to the expansive North Agora. It was attached to temples for Zeus and Athena – both of which were later dismantled by Christians.
Many of the massive columns which surrounded the agora have been re-erected, offering a glimpse of what an imposing structure it once was.
Back on Syria Street, I came across one of the North Agora’s former entrances, the Central Propylon. It was originally fully decorated with detailed carvings.
Some of the Corinthian capitals have been found, and archaeologists recreated some of the missing pieces to rebuild the entrance facade. Not far away is another propylon which led to the Central Agora.
After briefly exploring some of the structures in the center of town, I walked over to the far western edge of the city. Here are the remains of fountains and Nymphaeums that were constructed along yet another wide colonnaded street.
Nearby is the ancient latrine. And just outside the city borders are the West Baths – or what’s left of them.
Returning east down Syria Street and back toward the entrance, I passed one of Laodicea’s most significant structures, ‘Temple A.’ While some of the original columns at the entrance are now standing, one has to imagine the large triangular pediment that would’ve rested on top of them.
The temple was originally consecrated to multiple deities, including Artemis, Apollo and Aphrodite. Additionally, the Roman imperial cult was worshipped here, giving Laodicea the coveted status of ‘neokoros.’
Visitors can now walk along a fancy glass floor which offers views of the crypt below. As the temple was later converted into a church, most of the bricks are from the Byzantine era.
And speaking of churches, you’ll pass by the foundations of the Central Church on your way out.
Laodicea has been under excavation for decades, and older sources might mention there being not much to see. But the site far exceeded my expectations. And with intensive restorations still ongoing, expect even further progress by the time of your visit.
A quick ride from either Pamukkale or Denizli, Laodicea should not be missed by anyone visiting the region.
While some visit Pamukkale as a day tour from neighboring cities such as Bodrum, staying in the area for a few nights is highly recommended. As mentioned above, there’s a lot to see and you’ll want to take your time.
Visitors have the choice of staying in the modern village of Pamukkale or the nearby city of Denizli. But which one to choose?
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 laid back 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 the ruins of 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.
If you also plan on visiting Aphrodisias during your stay (which you really should), it’s better to stay in Denizli, eliminating two minibus rides from your total journey. Just be sure to find somewhere within close walking distance to the bus terminal, which is where you’ll find the minibuses to Pamukkale.
About 7 km to the north of Pamukkale is a village called Karahayıt, known for its red-colored hot springs. Though I didn’t visit, it also seems to be a popular area to stay, and many of the region’s hotels are based there. The location doesn’t seem very convenient, however.
Regarding entry fees, it would be wise to purchase a combined ticket allowing entry to the main site, the Hierapolis Archaeology Museum and Laodicea. At the time of my visit, the combined ticket cost 100 TL while access to the site alone cost 80 TL. But prices are always changing due to inflation.
Pamukkale opens at eight in the morning. If you want to beat the crowds, arrive early. I arrived at the site entrance around 8:40. There were few people there at this time, and I had some of the travertine pools all to myself for a little while. Even earlier is ideal if you’re a morning person.
Many people recommend sunglasses, as the white travertine terraces can be extremely bright under the sun. Not traveling with a pair, I managed to find a kiosk selling very cheap sunglasses nearby the entrance. While sunglasses are indeed helpful, it’s not the end of the world if you don’t have some.
Be sure to wear sandals/flip flops and bring a plastic bag with you. As mentioned above, the travertine area can only be traversed barefoot. Rather than carry your shoes in your hand the whole time, you’ll thank yourself for having something to store them in.
If you plan to take a dip in the travertine pools, you should also arrive in your swimwear. But most of the travertine pools are only knee-deep, so you can easily walk through them wearing shorts.
There’s a changing area near Cleopatra’s Pool if you decide to swim there, but not at the travertines.
As with any long outing, be sure to put on sunscreen and bring enough water. It would also be a good idea to come prepared with snacks.
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.
In short, yes, but come for the ruins, not for the travertines.
The unique Pamukkale travertines are widely regarded as the highlight, with the Hierapolis ruins a mere bonus feature. But I found the opposite to be true.
This was largely due to the atrocious handling of the travertines by local officials, leaving most of them without any water. During my visit, the area hardly looked anything like what you see in the promotional posters and it was a major letdown.
But while the travertines are overrated, the ruins of Hierapolis are vastly underrated. Sure, there are archaeological ruins all over Turkey. But if you’re someone who loves exploring ancient lost cities, Hierapolis and neighboring Laodicea won’t disappoint.
It’s also worth mentioning that Denizli is the closest major city to the ruins of Aphrodisias, one of Turkey’s most overlooked attractions. I’d even go as far as saying it’s the most interesting Greco-Roman archaeological site in the country, so don’t miss it.
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.