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The Goreme Open Air Museum: The Essence of Cappadocia

The Cappadocia region of Turkey has become famous for strange looking rock formations. Yet Cappadocia is more than a quirk of geology, it plays an important cultural role in the early spread of Christianity. And any visit to the Cappadocia area involves a visit to the Goreme Open Air Museum.

Goreme is regional hub in Central Turkey for all tourism in the area. You’ll find the town full of small inns, restaurants, and tons of tour providers offering everything from guided tours to a hot air balloon rides over Cappadocia. The town has a charm to it and makes a great base to explore the region.

However, what makes this area unique is that is downwind from the Mount Erciyes volcano. After the last massive eruption, hardened lava rock was left on the surface, with soft ashen rock below. Over the centuries, the ashen rock was eroded leaving strange rock formations. Locals call these fairy chimneys.

Rock formations, known as fairy chimneys in Cappadocia, Turkey
Fairy chimneys in Cappadocia

However, the soft ashen rock proved to be a godsend to the people of the region. It is easy to carve out caves from the ash rock. And that’s exactly what the people did: carving cave complexes that serve was homes, churches, and now hotels. The churches that survive from this Byzantine period are some of the most unique in the world. And you will find them in a valley just outside of Goreme.

Caves in the rock at Goreme

Goreme is a large collection of cave dwellings and early Christian churches in a shallow valley from the monastic period in the Christian tradition. Hermit Christians secluded themselves away from others and spent considerable (all) their time at prayer.

For these hermits, the focus was on the spirituality within. These early Christian churches were sparsely decorated, usually only paintings of crosses on the walls. Iconography or paintings of people their were not done in these early houses of worship.

The churches at the museum document this transition from strictly symbolic decorations to more literal imagery. Because of its importance to early Christians, Goreme is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The highlight is the Dark Church with its stunningly restored frescos. I was able to be alone there for nearly 15 minutes before other tourists arrived. It is an impressive place to ponder.

Paintings of Christian symbolism in the caves
Christian symbolism in the caves

After exploring the cave dwellings of the Goreme Museum, we recommend heading to Pasabag, or the Valley of the Monks. Nestled at the base of the mountain looking out across the plain in the direction of the town of Avanos, these are the mythic fairy chimneys of the postcards.

If you see a picture of Cappadocia, it’s probably Pasabag. With giant mushroom heads, these fairy chimneys invite the obvious comparisons. We overheard several tour guides making the comparisons and cracking a few jokes about it. However, if you can get past the childishness, they are extremely impressive and very picturesque.

The fairy chimneys or stone pillars at Pasabag in Cappadocia
Pasabag fairy chimneys

The final stop on any Cappadocia visit is the Zelve Open Air Museum. This small valley stretches up away from the plain and the hike can be quite steep at times. The community of Zelve was more built up than Pasabag, but from a later period than Goreme.

This area tells the story of the people of Cappadocia continued to adapt to their surroundings. The Zelve valley was inhabited until 1952 and it is amazing to think that people lived in these small cave dwellings.

The Zelve Open Air Museum in Cappadocia
The Zelve Valley

The town of Goreme makes a great base for exploring Cappadocia, Turkey. The small town is tourism central and you can find vendors selling excursions, lots of restaurants, and many hotels. If you are going to spend any length of time in Cappadocia, Goreme is more centrally located than Urgup and Avanos.

Cappadocia can take a bit of effort to visit from the capital, but is completely worth it. And the Goreme Open Air Museum is the highlight of any visit to Cappadocia.

The cave dwellings at the Zelve Open Air Museum

Cappadocia, Turkey Visiting Information

Cappadocia isn’t the easiest region of the country to get to and the borders aren’t clearly defined. So, where is Cappadocia? The easiest way to find it is smack in the middle of the country. Getting there, on the other hand, can be a time consuming challenge. Either long layovers at the airport in Istanbul or a long drive from Izmir, Ankara, or one of the other major cities.

Goreme Open Air Museum

Located on Museum Road just outside of the town center of Goreme, Turkey. If you want, it takes about 15 minutes to walk from town to the museum, or there is plenty of parking. Hours are from April to October 8:00am-7:00pm and from November to March from 8:00am-5:00pm. Be sure to allow at least 2-3 hours for your visit. Admission to the Dark Church requires a supplemental ticket. There is a small café on site for any snacks or a light lunch.


Located on the road to Zelve (east of the main Goreme-Avanos roadway). The site is generally open during daylight hours. We read in guidebooks and heard from other travelers that there is supposed to be a fee for parking, but we couldn’t find anyone to pay and just walked right in. The roadway is lined with numerous concession stands selling all manner of Turkish food and also cheap souvenirs.

Zelve Open Air Museum

Take the Zelve road and follow the signs (it is well marked). The Zelve site is supposed to keep the same hours as the one in Goreme (April to October 8:00am-7:00pm and from November to March from 8:00am-5:00pm), however, some visitors have reported finding the site closes early. There is a small café near the parking lot.

If you’re looking for other things to do in Cappadocia, be sure to take in a hot air balloon ride!

Have you been to Goreme? What did you think?

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Thursday 16th of March 2017

I want a lot of sharing from Turkey. Turkey has got a big country and a lot of travel destinations.=)

Travel Addicts

Monday 16th of September 2013

Thanks, Carmen! We nearly skipped it but were really glad we were able to fit it in. Hopefully you can get there next time. It's gorgeous!


Monday 16th of September 2013

Great photos! We wanted to go here when we were in Turkey but never got there. Have to make sure it's on our list for next time.

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