What do you think of when you hear or see the word Cappadocia? Do you think of the towns? I expect they are not the first thing to enter your mind. More likely, pictures of hot-air balloons and fairy chimneys come to mind.
Map of Cappadocia towns
Cappadocia is a vast region covering five Turkish states in inner Anatolia. However, the heart of the area centers around three towns, namely the Göreme-Ürgüp-Avanos triangle.
The vast majority of visitors spend their time within this domain. Included in this neighborhood are four other towns/villages: Uçhisar just above Göreme, Ibrahimpaşa and Ortahisar above Ürgüp, and Çavuşin between Avanos and Göreme. Within 20 minutes of this triangle in different directions lie Nevşehir, the capital of the state by the same name, Mustafapaşa (aka Sinasos) an old Greek town beyond Ürgüp, Özkonak with its underground city, and rarely visited but very friendly Gulşehir. Go a bit further (40 minutes from Avanos) and you will arrive at Hacı Bektaş.

Each town has a distinct personality and reputation. In this post I give a general picture of each.

As well each town has historical sites, touristy shops selling the same “authentic Turkish” items, and friendly people. Do a little searching and you will find what sets them apart from their neighbors.

(Listed according to a nice circular route except for the side trip to Özkonak)
* Uçhisar – Known for its 1400+ meter rock “castle” that makes swiss cheese look solid, Uçhisar sits on prime real estate with its view of the whole Göreme valley all the way to Avanos. And with the Argos and CCR well placed on the hill it boasts two of the nicest hotels in the region. The tourist shops selling rugs and trinkets are worth visiting and the entrance to Pigeon Valley is located on the backside of the town. Step a few paces away from the center and the town looks like any normal Turkish village.

Head down the hill stopping on the way to take in the view…
* Göreme – A tad larger than Çavuşin, unearthly Göreme sits amid giant rock cones like some elf village straight out of Lord of the Rings. People do live in this town, but their homes are hard to find as every rock is slowly being turned into a hotel or restaurant. I expect Göreme is close to being the world leader in overnight visitor to resident ratio with its many cave hotels.

Also, you will find the Open Air Museum, and within a few hundred meters every hot-air balloon ascends to the skies. This is important if you like to sleep and ride the balloons. The rides usually begin before sunrise. If you stay 15-20 minutes away in Ürgüp you must awake that much earlier. This may only be a big deal for the teenagers. In addition the ATV/Quad rentals are based here and most of the popular valleys (except for Ihlara) are within walking distance.

Continue down the road for a few kilometers…
* Çavuşin – This sleepy village has its two magnificent rock “churches” with a smattering of hotels and restaurants. The mesa above the village offers magnificent views (after a hefty climb) and the road leading out of the backside of the village runs into the beautiful Red Valley heading towards the Panoramic View reached by the road from Ortahisar. Also, around the corner from Çavuşin you will find Paşabağ and the Zelva Open Air Museum (not to be confused with the more popular Göreme Open Air Museum mentioned above).

Just five more kilometers…
* Avanos – Pottery. This quaint town of 14,000 souls sits on the Red River (Kızılırmak) and is home to countless potters offering their handmade wares. All of them will allow you to try your hand at the wheel. Do you have skills? This is your chance to shine. Of course you can find carpets and trinkets and get good food and a shave, but pottery is their bread and butter.

In the last couple of years they have renovated the river banks making beautiful walkways and a nice park along with cafes, Jet Boats, and Gondolas. The river development gives Avanos much potential for the future.
Now you need to make a side trip before rejoining the circle…

* Özkonak – meaning “the essence of a house or mansion” or “the epitome of a place of lodging”. The town is just 15 minutes by car, or 25 minutes by bus (don’t know how long by bike but there’s a monster climb difficult for trucks and busses!), from Avanos and boasts a great underground city, Ottoman era bridge, and an amazing church rumored to be from the 8th century. Be sure to head down to the center of town near the bridge and check out the valley lined with cave houses. The people are quite gregarious, and don’t be surprised to run into someone who speaks your language as the population of the town nearly doubles in the summer when all of its residents living outside the country return to visit. Someone may even suggest you sample the wine from the “şarap evi” in the adjacent village of Göynük. Because the town is set on a hill you get great views of the fertile farm land below and Mt. Erciyes in the distance towards Kayseri.

Go back to Avanos and then head up the road out of town for 20 kilometers
* Gulşehir – My guess is that 99% of visitors do not make it to Gulşehir, which is unfortunate as it is maybe the most friendly town in the region. With the Mushroom Rock (Mantar Kaya), the 800 year old St. Jean’s Cave Church full of breathtaking paintings, the troglodytic hill at whose base the city sits, and the former Greek neighborhood with a renovated church building this town of 10,000 hospitable people has much to offer.

Please allow me to share two anecdotes from my visits to Gulşehir. We were walking around town and entered a shop to buy a snack. Next thing we knew we were having tea with the owner and learning about his life and the history of the town. We left there and walked up the hill to the closed hotel. The security guard gave us a full tour, offered us some tea, and told us the legend of the buried treasure and its connection to the Italian Mafia. On the way out of town we stopped at the St. Jean Church and met an overly friendly sheep who was standing by my car as we were leaving. As the picture below shows he had an interesting ritual for making friends!
Another half hour down the road…
* Hacı Bektaş – This 13th century Alevi spiritual leader allegedly settled in this area (not all accounts agree) and spread his teaching throughout the region. He was a man of peace and wisdom according to official historians and his followers had great influence in the Ottoman Empire.

The town centers around the excellent museum and cultural center which contains his grave and the graves of other leaders of the movement. Many rooms give a good picture of the life of the community when Hacı Bektaş was alive. Besides the museum we did not find much in the town, but honestly nothing else was needed. The best time to go is in mid-August when they have their annual festival, a weekend of music, dancing, and cultural events with visitors from all over the world.

For a much fuller description of Hacı Bektaş check out this post on the Turkish Travel Blog

Jump in your transport and return the way you came for about 45 minutes…

* Nevşehir – This provincial capital with a population near 100,000 has a different feel from the smaller towns of the region. Although a number of significant sites are included within its boundaries, it does not have the touristy feel of the rest of the region. It is similar to any city that has a few historical attractions but does not define itself by them, more like Ankara than Istanbul in that regard.

Other attractions include the Seljuk fort which overlooks the city, the Ibrahim Paşa Mosque named after the Grand Vizier to the Sultan in the early 1700s along with the ancient Madrassa and Hamam (Turkish Bath) and the museum which gives an excellent history of the region.

We generally only go to Nevşehir for the mall and big grocery stores or when we have government business. However, it is on our list to explore once the weather gets better.

Catch the road to Ürgüp and exit before you arrive at the sign to…
* Ibrahimpaşa – This little village between Üçhısar and Ortahısar is a hidden treasure in Cappadocia. Not because of its restaurants and not because of its hotels. No, simply the opposite is true. This village is so untouched by the tourist trappings of its neighboring towns that it warrants a visit. But once you get here you will get a feel for what it was like to live in a Turkish village at the turn of the century. You will see how people built their new stone houses right out of the caves that were there before. You can take a walk down the narrow cobblestone streets passable only by foot or donkey. Take a hike down one of the many valleys in the village and end up in Ortahısar. Or just drive into the village square, park your car, and have a cup of tea with the male* villagers who will enjoy your company.
* Being a true Turkish village, no women would dare be seen with all the men in the village tea houses.

Head back out to the main road and drive a couple of kilometers to…
* Ortahisar – This town is mostly hidden from the main road except for its namesake rock “castle” which is visible from miles around. Not as strategically placed as Uçhisar, Ortahisar is better known for its cold storage. Apparently much of Turkey’s produce is stored in the underground caves which have been renovated as storage rooms. With a constant cool temperature they make perfect low-cost cold containers. As you drive around be on the lookout for chimneys sticking out of the ground as well as for trucks from Mersin and other parts of southeastern Turkey.

Locally Ortahisar is known for its barbers, and it boasts some excellent hotels, shops and restaurants. Besides the rock tower, however, they do not offer other historical sites.

Continue down the hill…
* Ürgüp – The most developed and biggest town outside of Nevşehir with a population approaching 20,000, Ürgüp has much to offer the tourist with its spacious city center full of excellent restaurants and Turkish carpet/rug and gift shops. But Ürgüp’s specialty is it wines sold in small shops and bigger wineries like Turasan. I highly recommend stopping in for a tasting when you visit.

In addition the towering cliffs overlooking the city house the former fortress and all around the outskirts of the town the explorer will find much with which to keep busy (especially on the road towards Mustafapaşa). I encourage you to visit the shops in the center of town and have tea with the owners. Due to the movement towards guided group tours, these shops are oft overlooked. Each has a story to tell and is worth a visit.

Head out of town past the open market and in a few minutes…
* Mustafapaşa (Sinasos) – This unique town with its Greek church buildings and houses is worth a visit as well. Find an English speaker and learn about the history of the town including the people swap of the early 20’s. Be sure to eat at the Old Greek House if you are there at a meal time. Travel around the outskirts of the town and you will find some restored cave churches.

Honorable Mentions:

* Ihlara – This amazing valley offers a great hike through a green canyon. Hiking the whole canyon is very difficult to accomplish without two cars or a driver. One of the guided tours may be the best option for many (Green Tour – also includes the underground city mentioned below). The surrounding village has a couple of restaurants and hotels and little else.

* Kaymaklı and Derinkuyu – These two underground cities are only a few kilometers apart and apparently have a tunnel connecting them. I think you only need to visit one of these cities. Kaymaklı is wider and Derinkuyu is deeper. The entry fee is the same (15TL as of February 2012) and the surrounding town has little else to offer the tourist.