Things to do in Pamukkale and Hierapolis- an ultimate guide

Things to do in Pamukkale and Hierapolis- an ultimate guide

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This is a well-known place in Turkey, in its western part- a geological wonder with stunning beauty. It is white, like cotton, and its forms and shapes are like forms of a fairy-tale castle. It is watered by a hot spring. This phenomenon was noticed by the ancient people who built a city and created history. The place is called Pamukkale, and the city on it- is Hierapolis. Read below the guide about this place- things to do in Pamukkale and Hierapolis, facts, exploring, and useful tips.

Basic facts about Pamukkale and Hierapolis

It is located in the valley of the Lycus River, a tributary of the Büyük Menderes River. This valley is surrounded by high mountains from the south and the north. In the south are the mountains of Honaz and Babadag, and in the north- Cokelez Mountains. It looks just like a normal terrain, however, if you open the satellite map, you can see a white spot at the southwestern foot of Cokelez.

Pamukkale

This is Pamukkale, the white spot seen from above. Everything starts from a cluster of 17 hot springs, from 35 to 100°C. Their water is highly saturated with calcium carbonate, and it deposits on the slope of a specific area, forming a series of travertines. They are natural pools, formed like stairs on the slope.

Actually, there are such travertines in other spots on the Earth, but those in Pamukkale are the best-known and the most famous. They are incredibly beautiful and seen from the aside, they look like cotton. So, the locals called them the Cotton Castle- Pamukkale in Turkish.

It really looks like cotton!
It really looks like cotton!

Hierapolis

So, the local ancient people decided to build a settlement beside the travertines. And they did it above them, near the hot springs. They noticed the healing quality of the spring water and established an ancient spa center, which quickly turned into a city.

It was named Hierapolis, and today it is an inseparable part of the site of Pamukkale. You can see a lot of ancient ruins. So, this is what you are going to explore- an ancient city with a fantastic white travertine phenomenon. But let’s first dive into the history of this city and the area around it.

History of Hierapolis and the Lycus River Valley

Although, obviously, the locals knew about the hot springs and the travertines, there are no traces from the Bronze Age and the following Dark Age in Pamukkale and Hierapolis. The first sign of civilization dates from the 7th century BC. So, let’s shortly generalize the history of this place.

Phrygian-Lydian-Persian-Early Hellenistic Age (7th to 2nd century BC)

This is the era of the earlier findings around Pamukkale- an ancient temple, probably built in the 7th century BC and some other remains. But there are no traces of an established city yet.

Pergamene Age (early 2nd century-133 BC)

The kings of the Seleucid Empire and the Kingdom of Pergamon noticed the healing features of the hot springs and established a spa center which quickly grew into a large city. It was called Hierapolis and became one of the three main cities in the Lycus Valley- Hierapolis, Laodicea, and Colossae.

Classical Roman Age (133 BC to 314 AD)

Hierapolis continued to thrive during the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. In 17 AD, and 60 AD two strong earthquakes destroyed a large part of Hierapolis, but they were a motivation for bigger renovation. The most significant construction was the Ancient Theater, built during the reign of Emperor Hadrian in 129 AD.

In the middle of the 1st century AD, the Gospel of Jesus reached Hierapolis, Laodicea, and Colossae, and the first local churches (fellowships) were established. Philip the Apostle (one of the 12 apostles) came here and was crucified in 80 AD. His daughters also lived here and were known as prophetesses.

A tomb in the Necropolis of Hierapolis
A tomb in the Necropolis of Hierapolis

Early Byzantine Age (314 to 610)

Christianity became an official religion in the Roman Empire, and in 395, the empire split into Western and Eastern empires. Hierapolis remained in the eastern one, called Byzantine Empire. Some changes were made and many former pagan structures were transformed into Christian structures.

Medieval Byzantine Age (610 to 1105)

The cities in the Lycus Valley were destroyed by another major earthquake. Hierapolis was slowly restored, but it lost its significance and prosperity. It existed as a local bishopric until the invasion of the Seljuks.

Seljuk Age (1105-1354)

The Seljuks conquered the area, followed by the Crusaders for 30 years. Hierapolis continued to decline. In the 13th century, the Seljuks built a castle. But the last stroke came in 1354 by the next devastating earthquake (yes, unfortunately, the whole area is an active seismic zone). It destroyed what remained of Hierapolis, and it was completely abandoned. That was the end.

Ottoman and Modern Age (1354 until today)

The ruins of Hierapolis remained in oblivion, slowly covered by a limestone layer. The place became a part of the Ottoman Empire, but the Ottomans didn’t restore the city.

The first sign of waking up was in 1887 when a German archaeologist called Carl Humann started the first excavations of Hierapolis. In the following years, the excavations proceeded, and in the 20th century, it was noticed by the tourism industry. Eventually, Hierapolis with its Pamukkale became one of the famous tourist attractions in Turkey.

Travertine pools in Pamukkale
Travertine pools in Pamukkale

Exploring Pamukkale and Hierapolis

So, this place is unique in the world- a combination of an ancient city, hot springs, and a fantastic phenomenon. When you enter inside, it is worth spending at least 4-5 hours to taste the best of the site.

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Pamukkale-Hierapolis site

The site of Pamukkale-Hierapolis is a well-developed tourist destination. It has three entrances- northwestern, southeastern, and southern (lower) gates. Normally, those who come from Denizli or just from the south or east, as well as those who first visit Laodicea, go to the southeastern gate.

The northwestern gate is more convenient for those who come directly from Izmir or Kuşadası (Ephesus). And the southern (lower) gate, right beside the town of Pamukkale below is usually used as an exit gate if you want to move from up to down (as most of the tourists do).

Working hours and entrance fee

Working hours:

  • Spring (1 March to 31 May): 6:30 – 20:00
  • Summer (1 June to 31 August): 6:30 – 20:30
  • Fall-winter (1 September to 28/29 February): 6:30 – 18:00

Entrance fee: 200 TL. But if you also visit Laodicea (100 TL), you can buy a combined ticket for the two sites for 250 TL.

Visiting Pamukkale
Visiting Pamukkale

Things to do in Pamukkale-Hierapolis

And this is what you should do there, once you enter inside:

Explore the Ancient Theater

If you enter from the southeastern gate (the most visited gate), this is the first thing you should do. You enter inside, pass through an ancient wall and ascend on one of the trails to the theater.
As mentioned above, the Ancient Theater is built during the reign of Emperor Hadrian in 129 AD. About 80 years later, it was renovated by Emperor Septimius Severus. More improvements were made during the following centuries. As a result, it became one of the largest ancient theaters in the world.

However, the big earthquake at the beginning of the 7th century destroyed the constructions of the theater and turned it into a mess of ruins, as well as the rest of Hierapolis. Later, the city was partially restored, but the theater remained abandoned. Its restoration began in the 20th century, until 2014 when it was turned into what used to look like during its golden age.

You can enter the Theater only from the gate above. Then, you can walk on the rows and beside the seats, you can even descend to the stage, but there is currently no exit below, so you have to ascend back. Anyway, the views of the Theater and the landscape around it from above are spectacular.

The Ancient Theater of Hierapolis
The Ancient Theater of Hierapolis

Visit the place of execution of Philip the Apostle

After visiting the Theater, you can ascend to the uppermost part of Hierapolis. A short trail proceeds to this area. It is called Martyrium- the place of execution of Philip the Apostle. It happened in 80 AD. Philip and Bartholomew (two of the apostles) converted the wife of the local proconsul. He was mad about it and ordered them to be crucified upside-down. Philip preached from the cross, and they released Bartholomew, but not Philip. He died there, and the next generations made a tomb for him in this place.

There are some discussions about whether this Philip was actually one of the 12 apostles of Jesus or the other Philip (Philip the Evangelist) from the Acts of the Apostles who had daughters prophetesses because they are mentioned in the ancient scripts too.

Anyway, this place is a place memorizing an ancient persecution of Christians. The final version of the tomb that can be seen today and the structures around it were built in the 5th century.

The Tomb of Philip the Apostle
The Tomb of Philip the Apostle

Discover the “Gate to Hell”

What’s that “Gate to Hell”? Yes, it is located in Hierapolis, and this is one of the city’s secrets!
The so-called “Gate to Hell”, or Plutonion (Ploutonion) is located about 200 m west of the Ancient Theater. Actually, two Plutonions were discovered- temples for worshiping Pluto, the Greek god of the underworld. And one of them is deadly.

What makes it to be a “Gate to Hell”? Here is one of the hot springs of Pamukkale, coming from a small grotto. And there is an area full of carbon dioxide from underground geological activity, without oxygen, which is suffocating. If someone enters inside, he can quickly suffocate and die there.

This place was used by the ancient oracles and castrated priests. They entered inside knowing where are the pockets of carbon dioxide and holding their breath, and returned alive, which was presented as a miracle. In the 4th century AD, the “Gate to Hell” was covered by stones.

You can easily find this place. If you come from the Martyrium, just descend on the main alley beside the Ancient Theater, and you will see the sign. Of course, today tourists are not allowed to enter inside, but their access is limited by a fence.

Beside the Plutonion, there are also the ruins of the Temple of Apolo, the Nymphaeum, and several other temples. This is actually the oldest part of Hierapolis, the starting core of the ancient city.

The Plutonion- the "Gate to Hell"
The Plutonion- the “Gate to Hell”

Wander around the ruins of Hierapolis

The city of Hierapolis is much larger. If you first explore the Ancient Theater, the Martyrium, and the temple area, you should proceed on the main alley to the north-northwest. Or, if you enter the site of Pamukkale-Hierapolis from the northwestern gate, this area is the first you would see.

If you just walk around the north-northwestern part of Hierapolis, you would see endless dead ruins of various constructions. Walking through them is long, about 2 km in one direction, and if you don’t know what you see, it can be a bit boring.

So, these are the main structures here:

  • The Agora, the Main Street, and Frontinus Gate. Here you can see a straight ancient street with the Frontinus Gate consisting of three arcs. This is a very distinguishable place, and once it was the city center of Hierapolis. The North Byzantine Gate that has been built in the 4th century can also be seen there.
  • The Necropolis. It is located beyond the walls of Hierapolis, and it was a large ancient cemetery. Here you can see the remains of graves of ordinary people, as well as sarcophagi, tumuli, and family graves. Besides them, here you can see the location of a sawmill and a Basilica bath.
Frontinus Gate
Frontinus Gate

Swim in the Cleopatra Pools

After the long wandering around the ruins, is time to enjoy one of the most exciting parts of your Pamukkale-Hierapolis journey- the Cleopatra Pools.

Actually, there were two ancient hot spring baths in Hierapolis- the Antique Pools and Cleopatra Pools. The Antique Pools were destroyed during the 7th-century earthquake, and today they can be seen beside the Archaeological Museum.

Cleopatra Pools were destroyed too, but today they are restored and turned into a special attraction. There is a tourist complex around the pools (there is a sign at its gate- “Antique Pool”, but don’t be confused, it is actually “Cleopatra Antique Pools”), with café-bars, a restaurant, and souvenir shops. There is a large pool inside the complex with a corridor extension. Ancient ruins are left on the bottom of the pools.

The water is warm- between 36 and 57°C, rich in minerals, with healing features, and it is drinkable. However, if you want to swim there, you have to pay an additional fee: 130 TL.

Cleopatra Pools
Cleopatra Pools

Learn more in the Archeological Museum

At this point, probably you could be tired of too much history and ruins? This museum is located on your left side beside the main alley connecting the Cleopatra Pools with the travertines of Pamukkale, so, anyway, don’t skip it!

The Archaeological Museum consists of three main halls (they are not connected, you have to go out from one hall to enter the next hall). The halls present various ancient artifacts, not only from Hierapolis but also from the whole valley of Lycus and even further. Here you can see tombs, sarcophagi, statues, and small artifacts. All of them tell stories from ancient times and bring a different atmosphere to Hierapolis.

The Archaeological Museum of Hierapolis
The Archaeological Museum of Hierapolis

A barefoot walk in Pamukkale

This is the essential part of your exploring, a fantastic reward after the history and archaeology of Hierapolis! The white “Cotton Castle” is spread on a steep slope below the ancient city. There is a main natural alley that gradually descends on the slope to the bottom of Pamukkale and to the lower gate of the site. Here you would need at least 2 hours to enjoy!

Walk on the main alley and “The Cluster”

So, you reach the travertines of Pamukkale and start descending. The first thing you should do is to put off your shoes, even in winter! Although it can be a bit uncomfortable, and the ground is not so smooth (actually, it can hurt your feet!), this sacrifice is good because it protects the natural wonder.

“The Cluster” is the chain of travertine pools beside the descending alley. Unfortunately, they were partially destroyed in the 70th of the 20th century and now they are man-made. But they are still beautiful. And there is a narrow stream beside the alley where you can play and wash in summer.

Walking on "The Cluster"
Walking on “The Cluster”

Wash and play in the travertine pools

Actually, this is only about the man-made pools of “The Cluster”. Don’t expect swimming- the pools are too shallow for that. But you can play and wash there in summer. Winter is not proper for that- the water is actually too cool.

Smear your skin with Pamukkale white mud

This is another attractive thing you can do there. The bottoms of the pools are covered by soft white mud with some healing properties. It is good for your skin. And you can notice many people smear their skin with this mud. It can be fun.

Take amazing photos of Pamukkale

Probably, you have seen some fantastic photos of Pamukkale and its travertines, but when you walk on the alley beside The Cluster, you can notice that they are somehow different? That’s because the most beautiful travertine pools, the natural ones, are located above the alley, and on the other slope west of the alley.

The best of Pamukkale
The best of Pamukkale

These travertine pools are fantastic, like a fairy tale. The water fills them and falls to the lower pools like interconnected vessels, creating hundreds of small waterfalls. This spectacular picture is most beautiful at sunset when the sun directly shines over them.

However, they are restricted to tourists. Although it could be really disappointing, we should confess that it is for the protection of the White Castle. Yes, when we descent to the lowest pools of The Cluster, we climbed to these travertines (there is no warning sign, and many tourists climbed there too), but there was a local guard who persistently called us to descend immediately. Fortunately, we managed to take some photos before descending.

So, how you can take fantastic photos of the best part of Pamukkale “legally”? There is a way. When you back to the upper beginning of the main alley, you can notice a wooden trail, established on the edge of the travertines. Walk on it, and you can find some amazing spots with great views of the most beautiful pools.

Fly over Pamukkale by hot air balloon

This one is fantastic and adventurous. Yes, it is more expensive, but the experience is worth trying. It can reveal more views of Pamukkale and Hierapolis that you can’t see from the ground.

By hot air balloon over Pamukkale
By hot air balloon over Pamukkale

Normally, flying by hot air balloon over Pamukkale is about 1-2 hours. You can try these options:

Find more hot air balloon tours in Pamukkale:

Stroll the town of Pamukkale

Finally, there is a resort town below the site of Pamukkale-Hierapolis. This town is also called Pamukkale, and it is a typical tourist place- with hotels, guesthouses, restaurants, cafes, bars, and souvenir shops. And the most attractive time to visit it is in the evening, the “party time” when you can hear a lot of music and see various lights. There is a typical vacation atmosphere, a great addition to the amazing experience of Pamukkale and Hierapolis.

The town of Pamukkale
The town of Pamukkale

Useful tips

Let’s consider some important tips like how to get to Pamukkale, where to stay, and more.

How to get to Pamukkale and Hierapolis

Pamukkale-Hierapolis is well-connected to the rest of Turkey. Basically, there are two ways to get there. The first way is to arrive directly at the site, from various directions. And the second way is to choose the city of Denizli as your “base camp” for your trip, which is more proper if you want to explore not only Pamukkale but also the other places of interest around- Laodicea, Colossae, and more.

You can travel to Pamukkale by plain. There are flights to Denizli Çardak Airport – a small airport with flights from Istanbul, and seasonally- from Tehran (Iran) and Medina (Saudi Arabia). From there, you can take a shuttle to Pamukkale.

Another option is by train, from Izmir. There are several trains daily that travel to Denizli for about 5 hours. They also pass Selcuk, so it can be a convenient way to reach Pamukkale from Ephesus.

The easiest transportation to Denizli is by bus. There are no direct buses to Pamukkale, but again, you have to reach Denizli, and from there, you should take a dolmuş from the Central Otogar (Central Bus Station), Gate 75 to Pamukkale which is 20 km on the north.

Check for transport options to Pamukkale!

But the best way to travel to Pamukkale and the area is by car. By a rental car, or by your own car, you have the freedom to choose your itinerary as you like. The roads connecting Pamukkale and Denizli are excellent, so you shouldn’t have a problem, just follow the GPS navigation.

Find the best rental cars in Turkey!

Accommodation

This is a touristy place, so there are plenty of hotels, from budget to splurge, guesthouses, and more. You can easily choose the most suitable for you from Booking or Agoda. They are located mainly in Denizli (your “base camp”) and in the town of Pamukkale. So, if your goal is Pamukkale only, better choose a place in the town of Pamukkale. But if you want to spend a longer time visiting the other points of interest- choose a place in Denizli.

Check for accommodation in Pamukkale on Booking!

Check for accommodations in Pamukkale on Agoda!

A good way to stay in the area is by Airbnb. This allows you to get closer to the local people (however, have in mind that most of them don’t know English). At the same time, it is a bit cheaper than hotels, with the same (even higher) quality.

Check for accommodations in Pamukkale on Airbnb!

Another exciting way to spend the night is by camping (but in general, it is convenient only if you travel by car, or even more adventurously- by bike). There is a campsite called Tepe Camping, located 4,7 km above Pamukkale, on the slopes of the mountain. Here you can see more info about the conditions, prices, and more.

Pamukkale at night
Pamukkale at night

Exploring the Lycus River Valley: Pamukkale-Hierapolis, Laodicea, and Colossae

If you don’t have enough time, you can visit only Pamukkale. But a better option is to explore the best of the Lycus Valley. Yes, it consists mainly of ancient ruins, but since ancient history is one of the most essential features of Western Turkey, it is worth visiting.

You can do it by local dolmuş (minibus), or by car, which is a much better way. We did it as a part of our larger Western Turkey itinerary, spending two nights in Denizli. We came from Fethiye, on our way visited Lake Salda, one of the most beautiful lakes in Turkey, and explored the abandoned (currently undeveloped) ruins of Colossae.

On the second day, we spend the whole day, first in Laodicea, and then in Pamukkale, using a combined ticket of 250 TL per person. The time for exploring these two destinations can perfectly fit in one whole day. And after the second night, we left the area.

The northern theater of Laodicea. The small white spot behind it is the spectacular Pamukkale, 11 km further
The northern theater of Laodicea. The small white spot behind it is the spectacular Pamukkale, 11 km further

Tours

Another way to visit Pamukkale and the other destinations in the Lycus Valley is by joining a tour. There are a lot of tours, some focused specifically on Pamukkale, others, as a part of a longer multiday itinerary. Let’s see some of them.

1-day tours. They start from big cities or resorts not far from Pamukkale

There are more similar tours from Bodrum, Izmir, Marmaris, and Fethiye.

2-day tour

Multiday tours

If you want to explore not only Pamukkale-Hierapolis but also Laodicea, you have to join a multiday tour. Usually, these tours are designed for all of the Seven Churches of Asia:

Finally, there are longer tours that include the best of Turkey, or at least Western Turkey. They are much longer- from 4 to 15-20 days:

  • From Istanbul: 10-Day Turkey Highlights Tour with Transfer. This is a different tour. Its starting and ending point is Istanbul. And it is focused not on the Seven Churches but on some of the most popular destinations in Turkey- Istanbul (you stay there for 3 days), Ephesus, Pamukkale with Laodicea, and Cappadocia (again- you stay there for 3 days).
  • Turkey Exclusive Tour. This is a 12 days tour. It starts in Ankara and ends in Istanbul. On your way, you will visit Cappadocia, Konya, Pamukkale, Ephesus, Troy, Bursa, and Istanbul.
  • Magic Carpet Tour. This one starts and ends in Istanbul. It is 10 days long. You will visit most of the destinations from the previous tour but in a counter-clockwise direction.
  • Highlights of Turkey (Twelve Days). This tour again starts and ends in Istanbul but it follows different routes. You will see Ephesus, Pamukkale, Fethiye, Antalya, Cappadocia, and Istanbul. The tour includes cruises, a flight to Izmir, and boat cruises.

Find more tours around Turkey below:

Seasons

The high season in Pamukkale is summer, from May to September. During that time, the weather is hot, mostly sunny, and at noon and early afternoon, it can get very hot, especially among the shadowless ruins, so you’d better bring some water, and a sun-protecting hat. And you can enjoy all the water activities there, including playing in the pools of “The Cluster” in Pamukkale.

The other seasons are cooler, winter can be cold, with occasional snowfalls. During that time there are fewer tourists, wandering among the ruins is much more pleasant, and the hot water of Cleopatra Pools is comfortable. But walking barefoot on the travertines can be chilling, in winter even freezing. You would be still not allowed to wear shoes or boots.

We left the Lycus Valley after two nights spent in Denizli and proceeded on our way to the northwest. We had to visit the rest of the Seven Churches of Asia, so the next goals were Philadelphia (Alaşehir), Sardis, and Thyatira (Akhisar), which we covered in one day. And we were thankful for tasting the best of Pamukkale and the other destinations around it- an unforgettable experience of history and nature.

Take a look at this video for more impressions from Pamukkale and Hierapolis:

Check some travel books about Pamukkale and Hierapolis:

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A guide about things to do in Pamukkale and Hierapolis, with basic geographical and historical info, useful tips, and more. A guide about things to do in Pamukkale and Hierapolis, with basic geographical and historical info, useful tips, and more.

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