Recommended Stay: At least 5 days.
If I could rank Turkey more than 5 stars, I would. Being the archeological junkie that I am, the entire country is as close to an ancient playground as it gets. It certainly gives Egypt, Angkor Wat, Ancient Rome, and Ancient Greece a run for their money. I’ve read somewhere that Turkey possesses more Greek and Roman ruins than Italy and Greece combined and I honestly believe that assertion. I had visited a total of 8 extraordinary archaeological ruins while backpacking around the entire country through public buses. The network is awfully extensive, incredibly comfortable, and the locals were extremely hospitable to a fault. I only took one plane ride, which was the short flight between Istanbul and Izmir. Since I was not able to find a map that can outline public transport routes, I utilized gcmap.com to attempt to roughly illustrate the trajectory I took while circumnavigating this jewel of a country.
Day 1: Pergamon
I took an early morning flight to Izmir from Istanbul. From the airport, I boarded a bus to the main bus station where I caught a bus to Bergama for the ancient sites of Pergamon and Asclepion.
Izmir is the gateway to a multitude of astonishing ancient ruins. It is smack in the middle of Bergama and Selcuk (for Ephesus). Bergama was my first destination outside of Istanbul. Mesmerized by the outstanding Pergamon Museum in Berlin, I was determined to track down where the artifacts from that museum originated from. Pergamon is perched atop a hill overlooking Bergama. Majority of the relics were “stolen” by German excavators but the remaining columns continue to be evocative and atmospheric, making it worthwhile to visit the place. I hired a cab to take me around the ruins in town.
The next stop was the Asclepion, which was strategically located below the cliff. This was one of the well-renowned medical centers of Ancient Rome. There were still several existing structures within the complex, including a well-preserved theater and a fountain which spills out healing waters.
The sites can be comfortably explored in a half a day. I walked around Bergama to check out the lesser known sites. I also experienced some first hand genuine Turkish hospitality around town. I kept on getting invited left and right by well-meaning locals to have tea or have a chat. Everybody was so friendly! (Some authentically, some with ulterior motives– to sell carpets). I also had some of the best Turkish delights here in Bergama. Yum!
Day 2: Ephesus
From Bergama, it was a 3-hour bus ride, via Izmir, to Selcuk, the gateway for Ephesus and three relatively diminutive, but equally marvelous trio of ruins – Priene, Miletus, and Didyma. Upon arrival in Bergama, I made a beeline for the remarkably outstanding well-preserved ruins of Ephesus.
It is recommended to hire a guide or rent out an audioguide to aid you in bringing this enormous ancient city to life. Considered to be the best preserved classical city in the Eastern Mediterranean, Ephesus is worth half a day on a whirlwind visit. There are so many highlights, but the Library of Celsus takes the top spot and deserves to be the ubiquitous poster child of souvenir magnets and postcards.
After Ephesus, I still had enough time to browse through the excellent collection at the Ephesus Museum and then hike up to St. John’s Basilica, where St. John’s tomb was purportedly interred. Dinner followed at a restaurant located next to the ancient Byzantine aqueduct where gigantic storks appear to have formed their nests. After dinner, I looked for a travel agency that can take me to the archaeological ruins of Priene, Didyma, and Miletus.
Day 3: Priene, Didyma, & Miletus and the Aegean Sea
Priene is the Ancient Greek City of Iona. The ruins were believed to be from 350BC. The site includes remnants of the Temple of Athena. Didyma was also an important sacred site in the ancient Greek world. It boasts an oracle that was second in importance to the one located in Delphi. It also has impressive standing columns from the Temple of Artemis. Miletus, a vital Greek port city, possesses outstanding ruins of the Temple of Apollo and a Greek theater.
After the trek, I took a dolmus to go to Pamucak, which was a beach town located 10 minutes away from Selcuk. I just had to dip my feet in the Aegean sea.
Day 4: Pamukkale and Hierapolis
The most famous site in Pamukkale is the travertines, created by frozen calcium formed by water heated by volcanic lava. I do not know exactly how they are configured but they were certainly a strong tourist magnet. The small town was filled with vacationers swimming in the travertines pools.
Little did I know that the travertines were not the only jewels in this neck of the woods. A little farther afield is the vast ruins of Hierapolis. A Greco-Roman town constructed in the 2nd century as a sanctuary for those seeking relaxation and medical attention during the ancient times. The travertines pools were considered the spa back in the day and the heated ancient pool in the center of Hierapolis was well regarded to have had healing powers. Hierapolis is a top-notch archaeological site with an impressive Roman theater and other well-preserved structures. A definite must-see.
Day 5: Afrodisias
I took a chance if I could get into an Afrodisias tour the night before at the hotel. The tour requires a minimum of four people before it can go forward. Luckily, there were three other tourists who were interested.
Afrodisias was the 8th and last ancient ruin I visited and only next to Ephesus with regards to grandeur. Touring Afrodisias was definitely a fantastic way to end my archaeological expedition. It boasts a Roman stadium that I have not seen in the other ruins I’ve visited. It was also sprawling and, due to its distance, far less visited by tourists so there were plenty of opportunities to experience the site without distractions. The tour lasted for a couple of hours, then we were jetted back to our respective hotels.
After this fantastic archaeological expedition, I pressed on eastward towards Cappadocia from Pamukkale.