Top 10 Archaeological Sites in Turkey

Last Updated on: 31st October 2023, 09:37 am

Few countries in the world have as huge a variety of historical and archaeological sites as Turkey. The country contains significant ruins from every era of human civilization, from the world’s oldest Neolithic temples to lost capitals of mighty Bronze Age empires. The western part of the country, meanwhile, is home to some of the world’s best-preserved Greco-Roman cities. In the following list, we’ll take a look at the very top archaeological sites in Turkey that you shouldn’t miss.

This list takes things like historical importance, state of preservation and overall visiting experience into account. While narrowing it down to only ten items is incredibly difficult, ranking the sites in order is an impossible task. The following list, therefore, is ordered geographically from west to east.

Troy

While many scholars doubted its existence for centuries, Troy is indeed a real place that you can go and visit. While not the largest or best-preserved of Turkey’s ancient ruins, it’s undoubtedly one of the most historically and culturally important.

Troy Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey
Troy Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey

Troy was continuously occupied for thousands of years, and the city’s history goes back way further than the time of the Iliad and the Trojan War, which was believed to have occurred around 1180 BC. 

While some features from the Trojan War period, such as the city’s legendary defensive walls, remain standing, much of the site uncovered thus far dates back to the early Bronze Age.

Troy Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey
Troy Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey
Troy Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey

Additionally, you’ll also spot remnants from the later Greek and Roman periods. Centuries after the Trojan War, Troy was revered throughout the Greco-Roman world for its role in Homer’s Iliad, and it could even be considered the world’s first tourist destination!

Also during your visit, you can learn about the fascinating quest to find the real Troy throughout the 19th century. And nearby the archaeological site is the excellent Troy Museum which opened its doors in 2018.

Pergamon

Spread throughout the modern town of Bergama are various sites associated with ancient Pergamon, one of Anatolia’s most important cities from the Hellenistic and Roman eras.

In the lower portion of the city is the Asclepion, an ancient healing center that was among the most famous of its kind. Entered via a colonnaded ‘sacred road’ which partially survives today, the hospital complex contained lodging rooms and pools in which patients would bathe in curative water.

As healing and religion were inseparable back then, the Asclepion featured numerous temples, including the Temple of Telesphorus, which has largely survived intact.

Pergamon Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey

The Asclepion even contained its own theater, revealing the importance the ancients placed on emotional healing. Elsewhere around lower Bergama, meanwhile, is the Red Basilica, a Roman-era temple dedicated to the Egyptian pantheon.

Pergamon Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey

More excellent ruins can be found atop the Acropolis, including the theater, the very steepest in the ancient world. Many of the ruins here date to Roman times, including the elaborate Trajaneum, built in honor of Roman Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117 AD).

While a cablecar can take you up to the top, be sure to walk down to see even more ruins, such as elaborate gymnasiums and houses containing well-preserved mosaics.

Pergamon Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey

All in all, the variety of different landmarks and their historical importance makes Pergamon one of the top archaeological sites in Turkey.

Ephesus

Ephesus is Turkey’s most-visited Greco-Roman archeological site, and for good reason. After all, it was the capital of the entire Roman province of Asia Minor and the empire’s most thriving city after Rome itself.

Ephesus Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey

Ephesus is most known for the amazing Celsus Library, constructed around 100 AD. The huge facade, which was reconstructed in the 1970s, features multiple pillars and statues that reveal the city’s high level of sophistication.

Ephesus Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey

Many additional landmarks and temples can be found along the main road, Curetes Street, which connected Lower and Upper Ephesus. With an additional ticket, you can visit the Terrace Houses, the well-preserved peristyle homes inhabited by the Ephesus elite.

Ephesus Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey
Ephesus Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey
Ephesus Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey

Upper Ephesus is home to an impressive Bouleuterion, or council house, along with numerous Roman temples. And at the northern end of Lower Ephesus, you’ll find the theater, the largest in all of Anatolia.

Another popular feature of the archaeological site is the large community of friendly cats who live amongst the ruins. 

Before or after your visit, also be sure to visit the Ephesus Museum in the neighboring city of Selçuk. Selçuk is also home to the lost Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Aphrodisias

While never reaching the size or status of neighboring Ephesus, Aphrodisias is arguably the best-preserved Greco-Roman city in all of Turkey. As its name suggests, the city was a major center of Aphrodite worship, and it was famous throughout the Roman Empire for the beauty of its monuments and sculptures.

This is evidenced by unique structures like the Tetrapylon gate, which marked the separation between the secular and sacred portions of the city. Not far away is the Temple of Aphrodite, which was largely dismantled during the Christian era.

Interestingly, a temple is believed to have existed here since at least the 6th century BC – then a place of worship for a forgotten indigenous goddess. The local goddess only came to be identified with the Greek Aphrodite later on.

Aphrodisias Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey
Aphrodisias Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey

Aphrodisias residents weren’t solely concerned with beauty and the arts but were also great lovers of sport. The city’s massive stadium is said to be the best-preserved of its kind in the entire world. 

Amazingly, it could seat as many as 30,000 people – almost triple the number of Aphrodisias’s total population!

Aphrodisias Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey
Aphrodisias Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey

Elsewhere around the site, you’ll encounter elaborate Roman baths and even a gigantic public pool. Stretching out to 170 meters long, few other Greco-Roman cities have this feature, indicating the luxurious lifestyle of the Aphrodisians.

You can also find a well-preserved theater, while an on-site museum display’s the city’s famous ancient sculptures.

While rather difficult to reach via public transport, Aphrodisias is easily one of the top archaeological sites in Turkey and well worth the effort to see.

Termessos

Antalya Province is full of impressive Greco-Roman ruins. But Termessos, a vast ancient city constructed atop a mountain, stands out among the rest. 

Dubbed the ‘Eagle’s Nest’ in Hellenistic times, it was the only place in Anatolia that Alexander the Great was unable to conquer.

Termessos Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey
Termessos Ancient City Antalya

Throughout the city, you’ll find many of the features you’d expect to see at Greco-Roman ruins, such as a theater, gymnasium and various temples. But few other archaeological sites offer such outstanding views.

Standing atop the theater and admiring the Taurus mountain range in the distance is the highlight of the day for many.

Termessos Ancient City Antalya

Termessos is also home to multiple necropolises. And hiking around the area, you’ll encounter countless stone sarcophagi strewn about the forest as a result of numerous earthquakes.

One particularly notable tomb is said to belong to Alcetas, a former general of Alexander the Great who was betrayed by the town elders. The local youth then decided to create an elaborate tomb for him, complete with detailed high relief carvings.

Termessos Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey
Termessos Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey

Despite often being overlooked by tourists in favor of Antalya’s seaside ruins, Termessos should not be missed by those visiting Turkey’s Mediterranean coast – especially if you’re a fan of hiking.

Hattusa

In the center of the country, hours away from the nearest major city, lies one of the world’s most important Bronze Age sites. Originally established by the Hattian civilization, Hattusa later served as the capital of the Hittites as they controlled most of Anatolia and the Middle East.

Hattusa served as the Hittite center of power from 1650 BC until the empire’s mysterious collapse around 1200. And the massive size of the archaeological site reveals what a prosperous city Hattusa must’ve been.

Hattusa Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey

Highlights include an accurate recreation of the original city walls, a mysterious green stone in the middle of the main temple, and the iconic Lion Gate, named after the two lion sculptures on either side of the entrance.

Hattusa Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey

One of the most exciting experiences of Hattusa is walking through a long and dark tunnel to the opposite side of the hill. And turning around, you’ll see what appears to be a massive truncated pyramid.

The site is also home to numerous smaller temples, the former royal palace and a chamber covered in Luwian hieroglyphs. Within walking distance of Hattusa, meanwhile, is an additional site called Yazılıkaya. It functioned as an open-air temple and is covered in relief carvings of Hittite kings and gods.

Hattusa Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey

Situated in the town of Boğazkale in Çorum Province, Hattusa is perhaps the most difficult ancient city to reach on this list. But it’s undoubtedly one of the top archaeological sites in Turkey and is definitely worth the trip. You can also visit the nearby site of Alaca Höyük along the way.

Mt. Nemrut

One of the most enigmatic archaeological sites in the world, Mt. Nemrut is known for its broken stone sculptures discovered on either side of a massive manmade mound. It’s all part of the elaborate tomb of King Antiochus I, ruler of the little-known but prosperous Commagene Kingdom (163 BC-72 AD).

Mt. Nemrut Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey

On either side of the tumulus, Antiochus erected the same set of five statues. The figures include Zeus/Ahura Mazda, Apollo/Mithra, Heracles, the goddess Commagene, and king himself. 

As members of the Orontid dynasty, the Commagene rulers could trace their ancestry back to prominent Greek, Persian and Armenian monarchs. And their various monuments, including Mt. Nemrut, paid homage to both their Eastern and Western heritage. 

Mt. Nemrut Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey

The western side of the mound contains giant stone heads scattered all over the ground, exactly as they were first found. They appear especially mysterious right before sunset.

The Eastern Terrace, meanwhile, is where crowds gather each morning to catch the sunrise. And the statues on this side remain largely intact, minus their heads.

Given the site’s altitude and remote location, it’s amazing to consider the amount of labor required to haul these large pieces of stone up the mountain. 

The 49 m-high mound in the center is also an impressive engineering feat. Antiochus I’s tomb is believed to be somewhere in the center, but the loose rocks would trap any potential tomb robber in an avalanche. As such, his body has remained undisturbed to this day.

Göbekli Tepe

Nicknamed the ‘Zero Point of History,’ Göbekli Tepe‘s discovery has reshaped everything we thought we knew about the origins of human civilization. At 12,000 years old, this megalithic temple was started much earlier than scholars had previously thought possible.

Göbekli Tepe also reveals that large-scale construction projects came before agriculture – not the other way around.

Göbekli Tepe Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey
Göbekli Tepe Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey
Göbekli Tepe Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey

Situated about 20 km outside the city of Şanlıurfa, Göbekli Tepe is rather hard to comprehend at first glance. The site consists of four main circular enclosures and several outer ones, all constructed over the course of thousands of years.

Interestingly, the largest circle, now known as Enclosure D, is believed to be the oldest. Its central pillars stand at 5.5 m tall and weigh over 15 tons. Furthermore, many of the pillars are adorned with carvings of foxes, vultures, lions, spiders and other animals.

Göbekli Tepe Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey
Göbekli Tepe Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey

While we don’t know for sure, the symbolism – along with the alignment of each enclosure – likely holds some kind of cosmological significance.

Not only is Göbekli Tepe one of the top archaeological sites in Turkey, but it’s also among the most important in the entire world. Interestingly, however, nearby Karahan Tepe may be even older!

Van Castle

With so many excellent ruins in Turkey, the appearance of Van Castle on this list may come as a surprise to many. But while it may not be among the most known or even best-preserved archaeological sites in Turkey, it’s certainly one of the most fun to explore.

That’s not to say that Van Castle is historically insignificant. The site long served as the capital of the mighty Urartu Kingdom, an Iron Age empire that lasted from the 9th-6th centuries BC. At their peak, they controlled much of eastern Anatolia, Armenia and northwest Iran.

Van Castle Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey

Built atop a huge natural outcrop, the fortress stretches out to 1250 long, making it the largest castle you’ll encounter in Turkey. Sadly, not a whole lot from the Urartian period remains, and most of the extant walls date to the Ottoman period.

But you can find some ancient Urartian tombs and temples if you know where to look. And seeking out all of Van Castle’s secrets is a big part of the fun.

What’s more, is that from atop the castle, visitors can take in clear views of the strikingly blue Lake Van.

Van Castle Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey
Van Castle Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey

Van Castle is a rather unusual archaeological site for a number of reasons. Even if you’ve bought a ticket, you’ll have to do some sneaking around to see the entire site.

Passing through an opening in a fence by a nearby park, you’ll reach the other side of the fortress, home to an area known as Eski Van. It’s full of ruins of Armenian churches and Turcoman mosques.

Van Castle Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey
Van Castle Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey
Van Castle Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey

And from here, looking at the other side of the outcrop, you can spot an inscription by Persian Achaemenid ruler Xerxes the Great. Inscribed in the 5th century BC, it’s the only inscription in Old Persian to have been discovered outside Iran.

This side of the fortress also reveals the secret passageway that one can take to reach the tomb of Urartian king Sardur II (r. 765–733 BC).

Before your visit, also be sure to stop at the excellent Van Museum at the castle’s base.

Ani

The easternmost site on this list is also the only one to date from the Middle Ages. Situated right on Turkey’s border with Armenia, Ani rose to prominence in the 5th century AD before becoming the Armenian capital in the 10th century.

Dubbed ‘The City of 1,001 churches,’ Armenia reached its zenith with Ani as its capital. And the prosperous city was once home to as many as 100,000 people.

Ani Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey
Ani Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey
Ani Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey

But why is Ani now an abandoned ghost town, and why does it lie in Turkey? The city was eventually abandoned after Mongol raids and a devastating earthquake in the 14th century.

Much later in 1920, the Treaty of Kars signed between Turkey and the Soviet Union designated the Arpaçay River which surrounds Ani as the new border. To this day, Ani remains just a stone’s throw out of Armenia’s reach.

Ani Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey
Ani Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey

Despite its somber backstory, Ani remains one of the top archaeological sites in Turkey and shouldn’t be missed by those traveling around the east. Highlights include the Cathedral of Ani designed by legendary architect Trdat, and the Church of St. Gregory, which retains many of its colorful frescoes. 

Also be sure to see the former citadel and the Church of Grigor Pahlavuni, the best-preserved structure of the site. The Church of the Holy Apostles and the Church of Gagik I also remain impressive despite their ruined state.

Ani can be reached as a day trip from the nearby city of Kars.

Honorable Mentions

As mentioned above, narrowing down the top archaeological sites in Turkey to only ten items was no easy task, and a lot of significant sites had to be left off. But here are some honorable mentions that are well worth visiting during your travels.

In central Turkey, those with an interest in the Neolithic era shouldn’t miss Çatal Höyük, one of the world’s oldest cities. While not a temple like Göbekli Tepe, the ancient settlement is over 9,000 years old and offers a fascinating glimpse into how people from this era lived.

Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey
The Neolithic city of Çatal Höyük
Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey
The vast underground city of Derinkuyu

While traveling through the popular Cappadocia region, take a short break from the otherworldly landscapes and head underground. Derikinuyu Underground City extends at least eighteen stories beneath the earth’s surface, though visitors only have access to eight.

Used as a refuge by local Christians to escape persecution and wars, the vast subterranean complex contains things like churches, kitchens, living rooms, horse stables and wineries.

The well-preserved theater of Hierapolis
Top Archaeological Sites in Turkey
Harran Castle, the site of an ancient Sabian temple

The ancient city of Hierapolis, while largely overshadowed by the nearby travertine pools of Pamukkale, could also be considered one of the top archaeological sites in Turkey. In addition to its well-preserved theater, the site is also home to Anatolia’s largest necropolis and the tomb of St. Philip.

Back east, those visiting Göbekli Tepe should also be sure to make a day trip to Harran. One of the prominent cities of the Sabian cult, a group of moon worshippers and master astronomers, Harran was also a former dwelling place of Abraham of the Old Testament.

Additional Info

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.

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