One of the most ‘Insta-famous’ locations in Turkey is the cascading thermal pools of Pamukkale. Known as the Cotton Castle, these natural pools have been a UNESCO heritage site since the 1980s. However Pamukkale has been popular with visitors for quite literally thousands of years.
The site is hugely popular with day trippers, meaning it is often extremely crowded. We chose to actually stay in the town to try and beat the day trippers, as Craig had actually visited previously on a day trip so wanted do it differently this time. I will explain why I think our way was best, but will cover the main information on the site if you do only have time for the day trip.
There are two entrances to the Pamukkale site, one up at the top of the travertines (cascading pools) and one at the bottom. The top is where the tour buses tend to arrive, the bottom entrance is on the edge of the town.
It costs 80 TL to go into the site, and this includes entry to the cascading pools and the ancient city of Hierapolis. There is a museum which you can pay a small extra fee for, as well as Cleopatra’s pool. I will cover the pool later in the post as this also costs extra.
Unfortunately, there is no 24 hour ticket or anything like that. So if like us you want to go in the evening for sunset then again the next day, you have to pay twice. This is unless you have purchased the Turkey Museum Pass, which we didn’t and we really should have, as it gets you into hundreds of sites across Turkey. Top tip, if you are going to be in Turkey going to these sites, buy the museum pass!
The travertines can be seen from the valley where the town sits. Calcite mineral water flows down over the limestone, giving the rocks their distinctive white colour.
When entering from the lower entrance, you walk up the hill to a rock with a bubbling spring which runs across the path. Here you must remove all footwear. Shoes are not permitted so as to preserve the rock. It feels very odd and cool underfoot, but in places it can be a bit spiky and the tiny ridges can get quite painful to walk on eventually. By the end of our second visit our feet were pretty sore!
Now, from doing a bit of research, it would seem that this path is actually on top of an old man made road. This led to hotels which were built at the top, damaging some of the ancient ruins for the benefit of tourists. When it became a UNESCO site, these were knocked down and the road covered, with some man made travertines built down the side into the rock.
So all the pictures you see in the large pools down the main path, the ones you are actually allowed to go in, aren’t actually naturally formed. Which makes sense as they are relatively uniform in size and spread. The roped off pools you often see though, the close together formations, are natural. I have seen people with pictures on those, however I have no idea if they are photoshopped or people just went under the barrier, but was interesting to see that you cannot actually go in those. Sadly when we were there there was very minimal water flowing down into those pools, so we didn’t get any of the cool pictures you see looking out across them with the bright blue coloured water. Maybe if we ever go back…
Travertine Thermal Pools
The pools were not all that full when we were there towards the end of September. In fact those nearer the bottom of the hill were completely empty. However as you walked up there was water in the pools, which had a strange pale blue/green colour. The lower ones were much cooler than those higher up closer to the thermal spring, and had less people in them.
We initially went around 5pm, having arrived at the town in the afternoon and stopped for a bite to eat first. We wanted to have a wander when it would be a bit quieter as most of the day trippers would have gone or be heading off. It is a few hours to the nearest popular towns such as Antalya and Bodrum, so the tours tend to leave around 4pm onwards.
We assessed and picked a quieter pool to take some photos and it wasn’t long until we had one all to ourselves. The GoPro was the camera with us for this excursion given all the water! We sat in the pool and watched people go by and just enjoyed the place, playing with the mud under our toes. Top tip: bring swimming stuff so you can get all the way into the pools!
As the sun started to go down we got out to allow ourselves to dry and cracked out the beers we had bought with us to enjoy. We aren’t sure if this is allowed but there was nothing saying otherwise and of course we took all of our rubbish with us. We dangled our feet in the warm stream running down the hill and watched the sky turn dusky. It was incredibly beautiful.
Best time of day to visit Pamukkale?
People recommend you go to the travertines for sunrise, as they have balloons like in Capadoccia. However there aren’t as many and I dread to think how cold it would be in little floaty dresses or bikinis at that time for your shot! Plus you do not have to wake up super early and there aren’t that many people around! Sunset is a great time to go and would absolutely be my suggestion if you want the experience with less people.
In the day time when we got there around 10am, there were already more people than the evening before. And it only got busier in the hour we spent snapping more pictures and exploring the top pool. The top pool has a little waterfall and is the warmest. But also the most popular!
Weirdly there are people with parrots who want to take photos to buy. We saw that in a few places, made no sense. Despite Covid-19 it was actually quite busy, mostly with what we think were Russian tour groups from the snippets of conversation. So the middle of the day is definitely the time to avoid if you want to escape the crowds.
At the top of the travertines before you have to remove your shoes the top of the naturally formed pools was almost deserted, and we had a really nice time wandering through those. They really are stunning and fascinating to watch, plus it’s interesting to feel all the varying temperatures from neighbouring pools!
At the top of the travertine hill, you will find all the usual tourist traps. There are multiple cafes, some bathrooms and changing facilities for those not wanting a soggy 3 hour bus back. However as well as all the ice cream sellers, there is a very unique thermal pool.
Cleopatra’s pool allegedly was swum in by the lady herself, back when Pamukkale was an ancient spa town. The pool was apparently once situated inside a temple. Meanwhile these days, the temple lies in ruin, with columns having fallen down into the pool itself. The stone structures still lay strewn about the pool for visitors to swim around. Some are totally submerged, others stick out in the shallows.
It is a fascinating place to see, and it did look like a lot of fun. Initially we thought we wouldn’t pay to go in as it was quite expensive at 100 TL per person, but in the end I really wanted to so we did choose to go in having walked around the ancient site already. I was surprised just how warm it was given the pools lower down the hill had mostly been lukewarm at best. But getting into cleopatra’s pool feels like swimming in a bath. It is also full of algae/moss stuff so you come out covered in green stuff.
Professedly the water has healing powers, but either way it makes for a really interesting place to take a dip. Most of the pool is at standing height, with a clearly marked deeper section with handrails around the side.
You aren’t allowed to take phones or cameras in, because they want you to pay for the photos they offer to take in the pool. So best to have one of you go in first and then get out first so you can get shots if there are more than one of you to beat that game!
Hierapolis Ancient City
Although many people just come for the cascading pools, the ancient city at the top of the hill is well worth a look around. It is actually a pretty mysterious place, as not much is known about the origins of the city, beyond that it was likely built to be a thermal spa town.
The city runs along a central parallel line with gridline sections coming off of it. Much like Perge as well you are largely free to walk about the ruins and let your imagination take you back to the BC era. Several of the structures are still at least partially standing here which is cool, such as some of the gates. It also has the tomb of Paul the Apostle, as well as many other tombs.
One of the best parts is the large amphitheatre, which is up a deceptively steep hill! Definitely take some water on your exploring of the city as there is no shade whatsoever! It is one of the more together amphitheatres you can see in this region of Turkey which is cool.
Next to this there is a ruined temple for the sun god Apollo, and a shrine to Pluto. Sadly these were fenced off due to ongoing archeological work so we didn’t get to have a look at them up close.
They think the city collapsed around the 7th century, however bits have been preserved and you can learn much more in the museum. We didn’t have time to go in as we had to get our bus to Selcuk, but I am sure it would have been very interesting to learn more about this city!
The town of Pamukkale isn’t much to be honest. It is pretty tiny and largely made up of a few hotels and restaurants for tourists passing through. Given we were there in September of 2020 at the height of Covid-19, a lot of places were closed due to lack of tourists. So it was very quiet. The hostel/guesthouse we checked into called Mustafa’s was pretty dead and very basic. The food there however was pretty good and quite cheap. I finally tried the lentil soup and had some falafel which I enjoyed.
There is a cute little lake and a swimming pool at the base of the hill. We didn’t investigate but we assumed you could pay for the pool if you wanted, though not sure why you would. The lake had pedal boats you could hire and lots of water birds bobbing along around the central fountain. We wanted to have a drink here in the evening but they only served soft drinks at the little cafe, so we headed to a restaurant across the road with a terrace to enjoy the view from there instead.
The open restaurants were quite quiet, we were never one of more than 3-4 groups in a place for the three meals we were there. The restaurants all had similar looking menus with the usual koftes and so on. We picked one for a late lunch which had a mural on the wall with angel wings, clearly looking for the insta crowd!
It also had a view of the most tragic water park I have ever seen in my life. It had one big pool with 3 small flumes in the corner, a tiny kids pool with slides and some sun loungers. We therefore gave Pamukkale waterpark a miss, it was no Aquaventure Atlantis.
We only had one night here, arriving in the afternoon to see the travertines at sunset then heading back up in the morning to explore the city before moving on to Selcuk for more ancient history at Ephesus the next morning. To get here we had gotten a coach from Antalya to Denizli, the nearby much larger town, and then a shuttle minibus to Pamukkale. Our coach onwards was also from Denizli. You definitely do not need more than one night here to see the city and cascading pools! But if you want to be here for sunrise or set, you need to be staying here, or have a car.
Should you visit Pamukkale?
Absolutely yes! It is a little out of the way from the nearby places people choose to stay generally, but it is definitely worth going and experiencing for yourself. I would recommend doing as we did and staying overnight to make the most of the site without the masses of day-trippers around. Although I completely appreciate many people only factor in time for a day trip, and it would still be worth seeing if that is your only option I would say.
The town isn’t that exciting so if you have a car maybe stay in Denizli instead, there is a big university here so I am sure there would have been a bit more going on in the evenings. Although perhaps it was just so dead due to Covid and usually would have had a bit more of an atmosphere. If I ever go back I will update you accordingly! If you have been and experienced a fun side, do let me know in the comments, I would be very interested to hear!