Pamukkale is a village in the Southern Aegean region of Turkey, famous for its hot springs, Roman spa town of Hierapolis, and white terraced pools: the village name means "cotton castle". It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the country's top sights, mobbed in summer. The nearest town is Denizli, 20 km south.
Carbon dioxide dissolves in water to make it slightly acidic, so it dissolves limestone - calcium carbonate - when it comes into contact. The limestone is re-deposited if the water evaporates or if the carbon dioxide bubbles out, and in karstic caves this creates stalactites and stalagmites. Travertine is created when hot volcanic springs, heavily charged with carbon dioxide from deep in the earth, flow through limestone then emerge at ground level and blow off their gas. Travertine rocks are found in dozens of places and take their name from the Tivoli district of Rome, where of old they were quarried for building material. At Pamukkale the water cascading down the hillside has deposited travertine in spectacular terraces, glistening white and with each terrace lip retaining a shallow pool.
Early people were drawn by the scenery, the hot mineral waters, and the mysterious vapours from below, with the earliest known settlement from 7th century BC. The town became Hellenised and known as Hierapolis in the 2nd century BC, with a lively trade in therapeutic use of the waters, and ritual observances at the smelly vent of the Ploutonion. Many Jewish and other peoples settled, and the Romans and Byzantines further embellished the place. The waters and smelly rituals had limited success as therapy but fortunately there was plenty of room in the huge necropolis. The town however suffered repeated severe earthquakes, and after the quake of 1334 was abandoned.
Visitors were few until 1980, so their impact on the place was sustainable, then mass tourism set about wrecking it. Hotels encrusted the plateau above and the valley below, while visitors energetically hacked off bits and crunched the rock terraces beneath their Birkenstocks. Tighter protection came in 1988 when Pamukkale was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Most of the terraces were then placed off-limits, and the plateau hotels were removed leaving accommodation in the valley village.
Late spring / early summer is the best time to visit. Pamukkale has a subcontinental Mediterranean climate, so summers can be fiercely hot, there's no shade, and there's a dazzling white light from the terraces. The pools may be dry in late summer, and in winter ascending the cold cascades barefoot is misery.
For intercity public transport, travel via Denizli, which has frequent buses from Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and elsewhere. Tour buses run from all the coast resorts within a 100 km radius.
Denizli bus station is downtown, and intercity buses arrive and depart on its upper level. Go downstairs for local buses: the service to Pamukkale runs from Platform 76 every 20 min, taking 20 min, and in 2023 costs 24 TL.
1 Cumhuriyet Meydanı - Republic Square - is where the public bus deposits you. No bus station, it's just a wide section of Turgut Özal Cd, with ticket offices and cafes scattered around.
Walk: the main sights are within 15 minutes. From the bus stop walk east along Atatürk Cd and cross the main road for the path to Town Gate entrance to the travertines.
Dolmuşes ply to Karahayit and run past North Gate. For South Gate take a taxi - tour buses go there direct.
- Travertines and Hierapolis are within the same ticketed area. There are three gates and you can enter, buy tickets or exit at any. Entry for adults or children costs 700 TL in 2023, and the site is open daily 08:00-20:30.
- 1 Town Gate (aka Lower Gate) is convenient if you're staying in town or dropped off there. It leads into a 15-min ascent through a cascade of dazzling travertine pools, where you have to go barefoot and carry your shoes. At the top is the museum, where you join the trail from South Gate.
- 2 South Gate is the main entrance for motorists, and anyone with restricted mobility should enter here. From town follow Yeniköy Yolu and the cavalcade of tour buses. From the gate you walk straight into Hierapolis.
- 3 North Gate is the other car and bus park - dolmuşes to Karahayit pass this way. It's then a 2 km walk on a poor trail, slowly descending through the necropolis past a series of tombs and monuments.
- Gymnasium is the first structure encountered past South Gate. It was built in 60 AD; five columns have been re-erected. These Greek institutions inspired the gymnasium school system of Germany and Denmark.
- 1 Sunset Spot is a look-out with a grand vista over the travertine terraces, impressive at any time of day if the sun's out. However in winter and in dry spells the pools are dry - there's enough natural piping hot water to keep them flowing, but too many hotel spas have tapped into the source.
- Pools and terraces fill the scarp below the plateau but are mostly off-limits to protect them. The exception is the cascade from the museum to Town Gate, which in effect has been sacrificed to create an access route and let tourists get their feet in the water. The pools are shin deep, wear a swimming costume or waterproof shorts. There is no path to / from Town Gate other than through these pools, they're often mobbed, and it feels like walking on an icy ski path with dozens of wobbly skiers coming at you.
- 2 Archaeology Museum, ☏ . Daily 08:00-18:30. This is within the Roman bath house, and displays artifacts found during local excavations, including ornate sarcophagi. One of these (not always on display) is 3rd century and has an intricate depiction of a crank-driven sawmill, the first known example.
- 3 Cleopatra Pool. This naturally hot swimming pool would feel like Disney if only it was clean - you'll wonder where's the crazy-golf and the popcorn cart? Supposedly founded by Cleopatra, it was part of an ugly rash of hotels built from the 1980s, so being 2000 years old she'd be wizened beyond hope of any spa cure. The hotels were later cleared away leaving only this pool, with fluted column pieces sunk within it for extra authenticity. The shop sells bathing suits and towels, and there are lockers. Adult or child 130 TL.
- Temple to Apollo is just east of the swimming pool. A few broken columns are standing. One wall is the remnant of a Nymphaeum - nymphs were minor deities associated with springs.
- Ploutonion just south of the Temple to Apollo is a shrine to Pluto or Hades, ruler of the underworld. Several such sites existed in the classical world and their common feature was noxious vapours from the realms below. Useful to know: Tehlikeli zehirli gaz means "dangerous poisonous gas". At Hierapolis it's carbon dioxide off-gassing from the spring waters plus a niff of sulphur, so it suffocates rather than poisons. You can thus enter the underworld at such portals for free, but the hell-dog Cerberus ensures that no wealth on earth can ransom you out again.
- 4 Roman amphitheatre is a highlight, a well-restored 12,000-seat amphitheater. It was built in 129 AD ahead of a visit from the Emperor Hadrian; the whole town needed rebuilding after the earthquake of 60 AD.
- 5 Martyrium is within the Roman necropolis extending 2 km towards North Gate. It's the church and tomb of St Philip the Apostle, who was described in the Gospel of St John and martyred at this spot in either 54 or 80 AD. Later legend jazzed this up: he converted a talking goat to join his preaching team, turned devil-snakes into black men so they could be ordered (in an inclusive sort of way) to build a church, and preached non-stop even while being crucified upside down - it's not clear whether even beheading shut him up, or if the goat completed his sermon. None of these scenes are nowadays re-enacted.
- Hellenistic amphitheatre hasn't been restored so it's just overgrown rubble north of the Martyrium.
- Agora between that amphitheatre and the cathedral was the central square of town. You'll have to imagine its porticos and embellishments.
- 6 Cathedral is a large basilica of which only low walls remain.
- Frontinus Street was the main drag of Hierapolis, heading north from the Temple of Apollo and Cathedral. It's uneven going and the access lane parallels it west. Domitian Gate is an impressive triple arch on the street next to the town latrines.
- 7 Basilica Baths was built as a bath house just outside the city gates in the 3rd century AD and converted into a church in the 5th.
- 8 Karahayit 4 km north of Pamukkale is a separate geothermal area outside the ticketed zone. A trace of iron in the water has created rusty or russet travertines, not nearly as impressive as the white ones, and smaller. The village has become a spa strip encrusted by hotels - from the bus turnaround head north to the springs.
- Laodikeia: see Denizli for this ruined Roman city 10 km south. Buses to town drop you off 1.5 km east of the site.
- Kaklik Caves: see Denizli for these caves 30 km east with both dripstone and travertine formations.
- Alanı Park is next to Town Gate but is outside the ticketed area. It's a pleasant picnic spot with a view of the travertines and its own pool. There's a cafe terrace, where the geese will bug you for food.
- Pamukkale Flights waft you over the area by hot air balloon, tandem paraglider or gyrocopter. They pick up from local hotels.
- Pamukkale Market at the bus stop is open daily 11:30-22:00.
- Cotton and homewares are local produce.
- 1 Aliş Restaurant, Memet Akif Ersoy Blv 25, ☏ . Daily 08:00-22:00. Excellent open-air restaurant at the foot of town, with trad Turkish fare and views across the valley.
- 2 Kayaç Wine House, Atatürk Cd 3, ☏ . Daily 10:45-00:00. Very central so it's popular, but the food is only so-so.
- Kale Hotel at Atatürk Cd 16 gets dismal reviews for its restaurant and its rooms.
- Seven Spices, Turgut Özal Cd 24 (100 m south of Kayaç Wine House), ☏ . Daily 11:30-22:30. Occasional lapses, and it's not the cheapest, but most customers reckon this is quality authentic Indian food.
- 3 Mehmet's Heaven, Atatürk Cd, ☏ . Daily 08:00-00:00. Friendly restaurant with good Turkish food.
- Gürme Restaurant, Memet Akif Ersoy Blv, ☏ . Daily 08:30-23:00. Mostly good reviews for this trad place by the lane up to Town Gate entrance to the travertines.
- No free-standing pubs, the cafes and restaurants serve beer (usually Efes or Tuborg), wine, and rakı the anise-like spirit. Ayran is a salty yogurt drink similar to lassi.
- Pamukkale is a wine-producing region, mostly fruity reds such as Shiraz. Turkey doesn't have geographical denominations as in western countries.
- Artemis Yoruk Hotel, Atatürk Cd 2, ☏ , email@example.com. Simple hotel opposite the bus stop with a pool, garden, and rooftop restaurant. Clean rooms with en-suite, TV and air-con. B&B double 800 TL.
- 1 Melrose House, Vali Vekfi Ertürk Cd 8, ☏ . Friendly pansiyon with clean comfy rooms with air-con and pool. B&B double 1500 TL.
- Hotel Dört Mevsim, Hasan Tahsin Cd (50 m west of Melrose), ☏ . Friendly but basic place; their name means "Four Seasons". B&B double 800 TL.
- 2 Venus Suite, Hasan Tahsin Cd 19, ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. Great reviews for this comfy clean place with a thermal swimming pool. B&B double 1000 TL.
- Sinter Terasse Hotel, Hasan Tahsin Cd 22 (next to Venus), ☏ , email@example.com. Simple efficient hotel, rooms are en suite with air-con. B&B double 1000 TL.
- Karaca Termal Pansiyon, Atatürk Cd 76, Karahayit, ☏ . Simple friendly place with pool. B&B double 800 TL.
- Hierapark Spa Hotel, Kızılseki Sk 15, Karahayit, ☏ . Comfy mid-price hotel with pool. B&B double 2000 TL.
- Herakles Termal Otel, Kızılhamam Sk 8, Karahayit, ☏ . Smart hotel with pool, rooms are small but comfy. B&B double 2000 TL.
Pamukkale, Denizli and their approach roads have 4G from all Turkish carriers. As of Oct 2023, 5G has not rolled out in Turkey.
- Denizli the nearby transport hub is modern but has several old mosques.
- Aphrodisias is one of the best preserved Roman sites in this region. It's 30 km west across the mountains, but reckon 50 km winding around by road.
- Kuşadası is a big resort town on the Aegean coast. It's close to the ruins of must-see Ephesus; also impressive are the ruins of ancient Didyma, Miletus and Priene.