Top 7 Must-See UNESCO Ancient Cities in Turkey

The Anatolian Peninsula on which Turkey is founded is often called “the cradle of civilizations” due to its rich and diverse history. Throughout the centuries, countless kingdoms and empires battled to take over the rulership of Anatolian lands. The forefathers of Anatolia, starting from the Hittites, with the Phrygians, the Lydians, the Greeks, the Romans in between, and then finally the Ottomans, all left their mark in various corners of the peninsula.

It is a difficult feat to run out of places to visit and things to do in Turkey. Every inch of the Anatolian soil abounds with history and culture, and is surrounded with ancient cities, natural wonders, trekking routes and many other attractions. Turkey is a travel sanctuary for hikers, nature lovers, history enthusiasts and casual tourists alike.

In this article, we’ll go through 7 of the most spectacular, unique ancient cities in Turkey that are listed in the UNESCO’s World Heritage List.


A city dedicated to the Goddess of Love and Beauty: Aphrodite

Aphrodisias is one of the most important and well-preserved ancient cities in Turkey. It is situated in the town of Karacasu, which is a part of the Western Turkish province of Aydın.

The oldest findings in Aphrodisias allude that the earliest human activity in the area dates back to 5000 BC. The lush valley, cut by the Dandalaz River, upon which Aphrodisias was built was settled by the ancient Greeks in the 6th century BC.

By the 2nd century BC, when the city had received the name of Aphrodisias, it was one of the most important cities in the  Carian Province of the Roman Empire.

Besides its marvelously intact ruins and massive size, Aphrodisias also boasts one of the most well-preserved stadiums of the ancient Greek world, with the seating capacity of 30,000.

Remains of the Temple of Aphrodite in Aphrodisias – Photo by Smirni

Aphrodisias became the center for the cult of Aphrodite, for whose worship the Temple of Aphrodite was constructed. A magnificent sculpture of Aphrodite stood within this temple sanctuary that attracted people from all over Ancient Greece.

You’ll also find Aphrodisias abundant in meticulously carved artisanal sculptures that were produced in the Sculpture School within the ancient city. The art of sculpture was very advanced in Aphrodisias due to the marble reserves around the city. These reserves allowed the city to be relatively wealthy, which is reflected in all the monuments, sculptures and other works that are still gloriously standing. Most of these dates back as early as the 1st century BC, defying the centuries and disruptive natural elements.

Before commencing your visit, I highly recommend you to stop by the Aphrodisias Museum, located inside the ancient city, which has one of the most impressive collections of artefacts unearthed during the excavations in Aphrodisias.

Compared to other heritage sites on this list, Aphrodisias is relatively undiscovered among tourists, yet in times as such during which the world is clawed by the COVID-19 pandemic, you can benefit the unpopularity of this site and safely visit it.

Click to see the working hours and ticket fees of Aphrodisias.


The city of 1001 churches – Pearl of Medieval Armenia

The Ancient City of Ani is situated in the eastern-most Turkish city of Kars, adjacent to the Turkish-Armenian border which is currently closed.

Rising to prominence around the 5th century AD, Ani served as the capital of Medieval Armenia for centuries, starting with the Armenian Kamsarakan Dynasty. At its peak, Ani had a population as high as 100,000 and was one of the main hubs for trade and art in Anatolia, having control over a branch of the Silk Road.

Staring with the Armenians, next followed the Byzantines, and then the Safavids, and later the Ottomans. Like so, many forefathers of Anatolia ruled Ani which resulted in Ani’s characteristic amalgamation of cultures, languages and religions.

When visiting Ani, you’ll immediately be confronted by the long-stretching city wall. Walking around the vast highland Ani is located on can take a few hours, and you’ll be surrounded by breath-taking nature through-out, as well as views of Armenia across over the river that borders the city.

Click to see the working hours and ticket fees of Aphrodisias.

The Grand Cathedral of Ani – Photo by Argun Konuk

Follow me on Instagram for similar content


The capital of the Hittite Empire

Located in the province of Çorum in Central Anatolia, Hattusa was the capital city of the Hittite Empire. Hattusa is primarily known for its advanced city planning, beautifully carved ornaments on the Royal Gate, the Lion Gate as well as the two sphinxes on the Sphinx Gate, which are now found at Boğazköy Museum nearby. Also, not to be missed is the open-air museum of Yazılıkaya (not to be confused with the Phrygian monument of Yazılıkaya in the province of Eskişehir) with well-preserved rock art.

The tourism organization in Hattusa is modern and visitor friendly, allowing you to see all the spots in this vastly-spread city by driving along an asphalted road that covers every nook and corner.

Click to see the working hours and ticket fees of Aphrodisias.

The Sphinx Gate in Hattusa – Photo by Argun Konuk


One of the oldest settlements in human history

Çatalhöyük was a fairly large Neolithic and Chalcolithic settlement considered to be one of the oldest in human history, dating back to over 9400 years ago. It is also considered by many to be the oldest village or town discovered. It is located in the town of Çumra, in the province of Konya.

Excavations conducted in Çatalhöyük shed light on the social and economic life in the pre-historic ages. These excavations also revealed that there were no streets in Çatalhöyük and the dwellings were built closely abutting each other, and many times on top of one another like a honeycomb. They typically buried the dead under the floor of these houses and kept the rooms relatively clean, which was interesting to archeologists who found no evidence of littering. Up to 8000 occupied this huge town at its peak, and it remains a remarkably well-preserved site to see today.

Çatalhöyük – Photo by Argun Konuk


The zero point in history

Göbeklitepe is Turkey’s newest addition to UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Outdating the Stonehenge and Giza Pyramids by 7500 years, Göbeklitepe boats the oldest known temple in history. Apart from illuminating our collective knowledge of the religion history, dynamics of hunter-gatherer society, pre-historic art and agriculture, Göbeklitepe stands out with massive t-shaped pillars surrounding the temple.

This groundbreaking historical site is in the suburbs of province of Şanlıurfa (or Urfa in short) in southeast Turkey.

Göbeklitepe Temple – Photo by Argun Konuk


The pearl of Western Turkey

The ancient city of Ephesus (Efes in Turkish) is undoubtedly the most renowned historical attraction in Turkey and is situated within the colorful seaside city of Izmir on the west coast of the country. Added to UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites List in 2015, Ephesus attracts thousands of visitors every day from around the world and, in 2019, with approximately 2 million visitors, it was the most visited ancient city in Turkey.

The Artemis Temple, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, is located in Ephesus. Unfortunately, except for a single column and a few marble blocks, nothing of the temple has survived the years. The Façade of the Library of Celsus, one of the most impressive constructions of the ancient world, and once home to over 12,000 scrolls, is located here as well. The intricate design on the ceiling of the façade and in the sculptures that guard it astounds visitors. The House of the Virgin Mary and Grotto of the Seven Sleepers are two other attractions that should be seen.

Here you can read more about Ephesus: “The Ancient City of Ephesus Izmir, Turkey”

Library of Celcus in Ephesus – Photo by Nikater

7-Pergamon & Asclepion

The birthplace of the parchment paper and one of the oldest healing centers of the ancient world

Located in the colorful district of Bergama, famous for its numerous well-preserved historical sites and unique cuisine, Pergamon is among the top must-see attractions in Western Turkey. It has two main ancient sites for visitors to see The Acropolis of Pergamon and the Ancient City of Asclepion (or Asklepion).

Founded in the 3rd century BC by the Hellenistic Attalid dynasty, Pergamon served as the capital city of the kingdom for 15 decades. In subsequent centuries, the ruling powers in Pergamon changed often, yet the city remained as one of the most important political, economic and cultural centers in Asia Minor (archaic name for Anatolia).

Today, the ruins of the important structures of Pergamon, which include the Zeus Altar, gymnasium, the library of Pergamon (which once held a huge collection of 200,000 scrolls), the temple of Athena, the theatre (credited as being the most steep theatre of the ancient world, built on the western cliff of the acropolis) are some of the notable spots that the visitors would not want to miss. The Acropolis is located on top of the cliffside, overlooking Bergama, however, visitors can easily access it using cable cars that run from the city center to the ancient city and back.

The theatre of Pergamon – Photo by Ozgur Mulazimoglu

A quick trivia: the parchment paper, made using processed animal skins, was discovered in Pergamon in the 2nd century BC as an alternative to use for writing when papyrus paper from Egypt had been banned. The name parchment was given semi-eponymously, based on the name of the ancient city of Pergamon.

The second main site in the area is the ancient settlement of Asclepion, which is situated in a fertile valley that is adjacent to the base of the hill where the ruins of Pergamon are found.

Asclepion was built in honor of the God of Medicine in ancient Greece, Asclepius, in the 4th century BC. It served as one of the prime healing and medicine centers in the ancient world for centuries. It is said that, back in the ancient Greek and Roman eras, people flocked to Asclepion to get treated from various illnesses. Treatment methods such as psychotherapy, sleep therapy, cupping, dream reading by priests and other experimental ways were applied to find remedies for patients in Asclepius.

Bergama makes for a busy yet exciting day for tourists. It is one of the most recommended sites to visit in Turkey today.

Here you can read more about Asklepion: Asklepion: The Health and Welness Retreat of Ancient

Dislaimer: As published perviously on © 2020

Argun Konuk
Argun Konuk

I am a 24 year old Turkish travel & history enthusiast, sharing my travel experiences in Turkey and different parts of the world!

More about Turkey


Something went wrong. Please refresh the page and/or try again.

More articles like this