Your first question: Have I landed on another planet or woken up in a Salvador Dalí painting? Spread across 1,500 square miles in the middle of Turkey, Cappadocia (which locals pronounce "cap-pa-doe-ki-a") might be Mars: Picture naturally formed drip castles the size of apartment buildings, meringue-like hills, and fields of capped stone cones aptly called fairy chimneys. Standing amid it all, you can't help but wonder how such a landscape came to be.
It's thanks to a perfect storm of sorts: The soft, porous rock that covers the region is the deposit of volcanoes that erupted as many as 70 million years ago. Over the aeons, wind and rain carved it into curious shapes. And so, too, have the many people who have taken shelter here in man-made cave dwellings. In the eight centuries after the birth of Christ, hordes of Christians literally holed up in Cappadocia to escape Roman persecution. They created some 150 subterranean settlements, complete with churches, monasteries, and trapdoors to block invaders.
Skip to the present and you'll come across people who continue to live as their ancestors did. But all is far from archaic: Canny locals and foreigners have been turning abandoned cave dwellings into smartly designed hotels, with bold contemporary touches like Dutch chandeliers and swooping lounge chairs. Still, Cappadocia has yet to be overrun by tourists. Until recently, the area's biggest fans were archaeologists, geologists, and backpackers. And it took a soap opera that was shot in a tiny Cappadocian village in 2002 and 2003 for Turks themselves to start making the pilgrimage.
Ready to join them in the heart of fairy-chimney country? Take in this mysterious place by car, by hot-air balloon, and on foot, following our three-day plan.
Day 1: The big-picture tour
Fly into Cappadocia, via Istanbul, in the morning and arrange a straight-from-the-airport outing with Argeus Tourism & Travel. Thirty minutes in, you can see your first cave construction, Snake Church. The crumbling chapel is decorated with Greek and Armenian graffiti—and a 10th- or 11th-century ceiling painting of Saint George slaying a serpentine dragon. (According to legend, the actual slaying took place in Cappadocia atop Mount Erciyes, the highest peak in central Anatolia.)
Nearby, in the rock-hewn village of Soganli, time seems to bend more than a little. Locals moved into dwellings with electricity and plumbing only within the past decade, and some remain in hillside caves. At the small market, you'll notice piles of colorful rag dolls—believed to have been first created to memorialize a lost child, they've since put Soganli on the crafts map. Townswomen here still bake their family's pide (flatbread) in community ovens; each household has an assigned day. If your guide spots one of the telltale smoke plumes, he'll take you to the source so you can taste the delicious sourdough-like results.
But don't fill up: A midday feast awaits at the family-run restaurant Aravan Evi. Sit under a grapevine-covered pergola and admire the whitewashed hamlet of Ayvali. The cooking here is wonderfully homey Turkish fare made by the wife of the owner: bulgur wedding soup, white beans in tomato sauce, and lamb stews cooked in a tandir, a traditional earthen oven.
After four courses, you might be inclined to nap; instead, let a cup of rich, sweet Turkish coffee revive you. You're on your way to the underground city of Kaymakli, which once sheltered 3,000 beleaguered Christians. Prepare to duck and crouch: A low passage leads from aboveground stables to eight subterranean levels, four of which are open to the public. Inside, a maze of tunnels connects dark caverns that hold identifying clues: Churches have carved-out altars, kitchens come with fire-pit remnants, and rooms with basins cut into the ground were wineries (judging by the sheer number of these, wine was both a sacrament and a saving grace).
You can stay in caves in far better condition at today's final stop: either the intimate and upscale town of Ürgüp or, 20 minutes away, the bustling, backpacker destination of Göreme. Both are well-located places to book a room. Ürgüp is home to Serinn House, the area's first high-style hotel; designed by Istanbul architect Rifat Ergör, its interior is largely sculpted out of a sandy cliff. (Among Serinn's other pluses: the daily breakfast spread of cherries, apricots, yogurt, cheeses, and tomatoes.) In Göreme, Kelebek Pension has 16 grottoes kitted out with antique rosewood chests and locally woven kilim rugs, as well as views of the town and surrounding mountains from its two-tiered terrace. Budget aside, the question is how you like your Flintstones-style dwelling: timelessly cozy or gorgeously up-to-date?
Day 2: Take off
Today's hot-air balloon ride requires a dawn launch, but it's worth it: Cappadocia's spectacular topography puts it at the top of every balloonist's list. There are scores of outfitters; among the most respected is Kapadokya Balloons, run by British expat Kaili Kidner and her Swedish husband, Lars-Eric Möre. As you float 1,500 feet above the earth, villages look like giant anthills, green gardens hidden in narrow canyons reveal themselves, and you can see that entire valley walls are pocketed with pigeon roosts. When your balloon dips near the ground, you can even reach out and pick apricots from the trees. On clear days, the view stretches hundreds of miles to Mount Erciyes and beyond.
Back on terra firma about three hours later, return to your hotel in time for breakfast. Consider a nap and then an outing to the Göreme Open-Air Museum. This extraordinary monastic complex dates back to A.D. 900–1200 and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. You don't need a guide; just wander through its 10 excavated churches and refectories, ending at the Girls' Tower, a six-story convent that once housed up to 300 nuns. As you go, look for examples from two major eras of art history: Geometric patterns brushed directly on the rock (the best of which are in St. Barbara Church) are said to date back to the iconoclastic period, when the depiction of living forms was forbidden; plaster frescoes of the life of Christ (such as the Nativity and Crucifixion scenes in the Dark Church) are representative of Byzantine-era painting. Notice the vandalism: Many years ago, locals wary of the evil eye scratched out the eyes of the saints.
Back in Göreme, have lunch on the terrace of Alaturca, a lively restaurant with a menu that zigzags from mezes to Italian pasta. Next door, at Gallery Anatolia, you can watch women extracting silk from cocoons, dyeing and spinning wool, and weaving kilims.
Devote the evening to poking around the boutiques and jewelry shops of Ürgüp. End the night at Ziggy's, a popular café and gift shop in a stone house with carved decorations. Sofas and tables are set on three open-air terraces, and there's a great meze menu—plus a mille-feuille pastry with a secret, addictive filling for dessert.
Day 3: Walk this way
Approach Cappadocia on foot, and the cliffs and ravines that look impenetrable from a distance turn into fruit-tree fields, rivers, and vineyards. You'll be in expert hands if you sign on for a half-day hike with guide Mehmet Güngör. A Göreme native, Güngör is a one-man operation, Walking Mehmet, with a sales pitch: "I bet walking with me will be the highlight of your trip." He's right, especially if you ask him to lead you from Göreme to the astonishing red-banded pillars and chimneys of Rose Valley. Along the way, you'll pick walnuts from trees, stop to chat with farmers, and hear about Mehmet's childhood escapades. Be sure to ask him to show you the White Church, a cave with high ceilings and soaring columns that look as though they're made of ivory.
Ease back into city life with a visit to the slow-paced village of Mustafapasa. In the 19th century, many Ottoman Greek Orthodox families inhabited the town, and although they were expelled in an agreement between Turkey and Greece in 1924, their legacy remains in the intricately decorated stone mansions lining the streets. Check out the grapevines carved on the colorful façade of the Church of Constantine-Elene, and then sip mint tea at a café on the main square, where village elders play backgammon all day.
You'll witness the region's mixed heritage firsthand at the Old Greek House, a hotel in a mansion full of tiled arches and Turkish carpets that was built by a Greek family more than 250 years ago. The in-house restaurant serves first-rate stuffed vine leaves and meatballs in a large courtyard. But its claim to fame is that it was the main set of Asmali Konak, the soap opera sensation that introduced contemporary Turks to Cappadocia. Early Christians would be incredulous to learn that their dark lairs are now the inspiration for the travel plans of thousands. But then again, they weren't able to get out much to appreciate the views.
GETTING THERE Turkish Airlines flights leave up to six times a day from Istanbul to Cappadocia's Kayseri Airport (thy.com). The trip takes about 80 minutes and costs from $65 round trip.
WHEN TO GO Cappadocia's summers are scorching, and its winters decidedly raw; the best months to visit are April through early June, and September. Days are typically in the 70s, but the temperature drops after dark.
WHAT TO PACK Hiking shoes, a sun hat, and shorts, plus a sweater for cool nights and cave prowling.
TOUR OPERATORS Argeus Tourism & Travel (011-90/384-341-4688, argeus.com.tr, daylong tour with airport transfer, lunch, entry fees, and an English-speaking guide—ask for Edip Özcan Arslan—$340 for two people). Kapadokya Balloons (011-90/384-271-2442, kapadokyaballoons.com, 90-minute flight $350 per person). Walking Mehmet (011-90/384-271-2064, walkingmehmet.com, half-day guided hike $50).
SOUVENIR A rag doll with bright embroidery from Soganli's daily market, about $15.
WHERE TO SAVE If you're willing to brave the extreme temperatures of the off-season, you'll cut your hotel bill by up to 40 percent.
36 Esbelli Sokak, Ürgüp, 011-90/384-341-6076, serinnhouse.com, $150 including breakfast
31 Yavuz Sokak, Göreme, 011-90/384-271-2531, kelebekhotel.com, $60 including breakfast
Ayvali, 011-90/384-354-5838, entrées from $15
Göreme, 011-90/384-271-2882, entrées from $5
Ziggy's Shoppe & Café
24 Yunak Mahallesi Tevkif Fikret Caddesi, Ürgüp, 011-90/384-341-7107, entrées from $16
Old Greek House
Mustafapasa, 011-90/384-353-5306, oldgreekhouse.com, prix fixe menu $17
Nevsehir, 011-90/384-218-2500, entry from $9
Göreme Open-Air Museum
Göreme, 011-90/384-271-2167, entry from $9
Göreme, 011-90/384-271-2005, rugs from $150