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The plains stretch out across the horizon, only halted by hazy mountains marking the edge of the globe. Everything is gold and grey and brown against a bright blue sky, and I’m reminded of the Midwest, and the deserts of my home in Australia.
Landing at last in Kayseri, the gateway to Cappadocia, a historical region in Central Anatolia, Turkey, we rest our feet firmly on the Asian continent. This region of central Turkey has experienced an unprecedented boom in tourism in recent years. It’s known for its fairy chimneys, tall sandstone rock formations carved with caves a millennia ago, but has become most famous for its hot air balloons.
You’ve probably seen it on Instagram; photos of a hundred hot air balloons rising above a dry, desert valley at dawn. Cappadocia has become a bucket list spot for many a traveller, particularly in Western countries.
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The lands here run long and flat until they reach the Eurasian Steppe, and a traveller could follow the roads all the way to China. This landscape has been a hub of trade since before the Silk Roads, people from different nations and tribes crossing from East to West and back again.
As we drive up the highway, Iranian cars pass us by, the border just a few hours behind us. It feels a million miles from the cosmopolitan Istanbul and its European airs.
Kayseri is peppered with towering apartment blocks that look like some architects’ communist dream. The towers are spread out, with glistening new playgrounds empty and not a soul on the streets. In Istanbul, the giant Turkish flags stood tall and proud on the seven hills; here in Cappadocia, the flags hang limply on the poles.
Nothing moves except for the transports and trucks, and a man riding a horse through vacant blocks in the distance.
When we arrive in Göreme – the hub of the hot air balloon flights – it’s a different planet. The town has converted itself into tourist ecstacy: a buffet of balloon rides, overpriced Ottoman restaurants and souvenir shops.
Never was the Instagram effect so potent- thousands arrive everyday to get that photo at dawn with the hot air balloons rising across the valley. You can even watch the balloons from the balcony of the Burger King! Or hire a dress and a photographer for a pre-dawn shoot!
Visitors come to live like the locals who have long fled the onslaught of capitalist tourism. Most Turkish people we spoke to lived in the towns surrounding Göreme, where life was cheaper and they could still make the commute into the tourist centre.
Their ancestors lived in the caves that have made this part of Cappadocia so famous- but they, like most of the world, now live in apartments on the edge of growing towns.
If you want to really experience the Cappadocian landscape, you have to walk. Göreme is surrounded by walking trails, most of which are unmarked, but with the help of a mapping app can take the wanderer through the fairy chimneys and deep into the valleys.
You’ll feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, miles from another human- and then you’ll turn the corner to find an orange juice stand with a cheerful local persuading you to pull up a chair. Thousand-year-old churches are scattered throughout the hills, and you can walk right into caves carved by hand hundreds of years ago.
The walks are one of the few free things left in Cappadocia, and you can explore spots off the main tourist drag.
Of course, the highlight of the Cappadocia experience is the balloon ride. Ingenious locals started the hot air balloon rides in the 1990s, and a hundred balloons now float into the sky above Göreme every morning. I was a cynical passenger at first- the flights will set you back around €150, and last an hour.
But there’s something so childishly delightful about the way the balloon floats through the air, and the thrill as you dodge the rock formations and drift quietly into the sky. We floated up to 1200m, where the captain said we’d hit the level of airplanes.
Göreme was a tiny village beneath us as the sun came over the horizon, painting the hills and valleys a delicate pink and orange. It was glorious.
To go or not to go? Cappadocia is no longer an adventurer’s secret, with tour buses blocking streets and every nationality crowding hostels and hotel rooms. The prices are absurd compared to the rest of Turkey, and every photo you take, you can be sure someone else has snapped first.
But it’s also the kind of place that is very difficult to find anywhere else. The feeling of lifting gently off the earth in a balloon at sunrise with a hundred others filling the sky- that’s a once in a lifetime experience. The countryside looks like a scene from the Martian, and the ancient caves are like walking into someone’s living room, a thousand years too late.
But if that’s not enough of a reason to brave the hype- there’s also a fair chance of stunning new profile pic.
If You Go:
Don’t: book your balloon ride online. They can cost up to €270 on some booking sites. Unless you’re going with a multi-day tour, it’s easiest to book with a local tourist agency in Göreme once you arrive.
Do: plan ahead how to get to Göreme- you can fly into Kayseri and pre-book a transfer, or for those short on cash, there’s overnight buses from most major Turkish cities.
Don’t: fall into the tourist traps. Most of the amazing spots around Göreme are accessible on foot, you just need to find (and stay) on the right trails. Obviously a horse ride or quad bike tour is fun, but you’ll see a lot more by walking.
Do: be prepared for high prices. Restaurants and hotels are much more expensive than elsewhere in Turkey, and there’s limited options for food in Göreme if you’re on a tight budget.
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Author Bio: I’m Lucy, a twenty-something Australian obsessed with exploring, adventuring, and everything in between. I have a degree in communications and international studies, and have spent time working in print and radio. I love hiking, reading, and convincing my friends to come travelling with me.