Today, Turkey may be known for its dreamy cave cities in Göreme and insta-touristy hot balloon rides in Cappadocia, but Turkey’s ancient landscape has seen its fair share of history. From Ephesus, the best preserved ancient Greek cities in the world, and The Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World to Şirince, a city famous for it’s seriously delicious fruit wine: ancient Turkey is a one stop shop for history, culture, and a really good time. Here’s a guide to exploring all of ancient Turkey (Selçuk, Ephesus & Şirince) in 3 quick days:
Day 1: Ephesus
This one is a no brainer and is the reason so many travelers make the stop in Selçuk at all. The ancient city of Ephesus used to be one of the most important commercial hubs in the world, a straight up metropolitan city for its time. Ephesus is only 15% excavated and is still the largest excavated site to date.
If you’re not on a time crunch, you can spend the day wandering through the ancient city, seeing the pillars of the agora, leisurely exploring the massive grounds, and imagining what it was like to walk around them in a toga. Or you could walk around them in a toga—we’re not judging. On one of the main boulevards, if you catch yourself looking down at the street instead of the ruins, it might be because you spotted a pair of footprints in the stone: a lady footprint and a man’s, pointing the way to the town’s brothel. Nice.
If you are on a time crunch, and I was, there are three spots you can’t miss. The Library of Celsus, the terrace houses, and the ancient theatre. Prior to the discovery of the terrace houses, the Library of Celsus was the big draw to Ephesus because of the incredibly well-preserved marble fronting. It was also the second largest library in the ancient world. The two-story marble façade is stunning and no trip is complete without seeing this part of the city.
Today, the most exciting part for archeological enthusiasts are the Ephesus terrace houses. These villas belonged to the super rich and were as comfortable as modern day houses are, each with its own plumbing and heating systems. The floors are covered in mosaics and the walls are painted with frescoes. There’s even ancient graffiti!
You’ll have to pay a few lira extra to get into the terrace houses, but we can’t recommend it enough. Plus, once you’ve finished, you can stop for a beer at the cafe outside.
Day 2: The Temple of Artemis
If you decide to make the leisurely 4 km walk from the center of town to Ephesus, the site of the Temple of Artemis is on the way. The Temple of Artemis was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and for good reason. In its time, the temple was huge. It was twice the size of the Parthenon in Athens and had 127 massive columns. We’re talking 60 feet high with a 4-foot diameter; construction took 120 years to complete. It’s an almost unimaginable scale.
Now all that remains on the site is a single reconstructed column and a lot of rubble, with a mausoleum nearby. Just imagining what it once was is mind blowing. Once you’ve visited the Temple of Artemis, definitely make the trip to the Ephesus Museum. If you found the temple site underwhelming (it does require a bit of imagination), the museum has a model of what the temple would have looked like and, more excitingly, it has the statues of Artemis that were actually inside of the temple!
If you need a break from all the badass ancient Greek history, Selçuk has a lot to offer in terms of Turkish history as well. Perched on a hill overlooking the city and draped in massive Turkish flags and paternal Ataturk banners, the Ayasuluk Castle is the most notable part of the Seljuk skyline.
Leading up to the castle, you’ll pass through some the ruins of St. John’s Basilica. It’s fun to wander through and I was surprised to stumble upon the tomb of St. John himself.
The castle itself is heavily fortified, with thick walls containing a small mosque and a few cisterns, including one church turned into a cistern. There are also the ruins of houses that you can explore. It’s interesting to see the difference between the architecture of the castle’s fortress structure and what’s inside. Definitely worth spending an hour or two exploring this whole site!
Isa Bey Mosque
The Isa Bey Mosque is famous for being one of the best examples of Selçuk architecture in the world, as well as the oldest Turkish mosque that has a courtyard design. If you’re leaving the Ayasuluk Castle, it’s an easy addition to your trip because it’s nestled at the bottom of the hill the castle is perched upon.
The mosque has a unique, asymmetrical style and the outside is beautiful in a very different way from the massive mosques of Istanbul. You’re free to go inside, outside of prayer times, but remember to be dressed appropriately. If you’re a woman and you didn’t bring a scarf with you because you didn’t expect to find a famous mosque at the bottom of the hill, it’s okay. They have scarves you can borrow, free of charge.
Day 3: Şirince
If you like wine and cute Aegean villages, Şirince has both of those things. Snug in the mountains and an easy bus ride outside of Selçuk, this tiny town is known throughout Turkey for its fruit wine.
Şirince was originally a Greek village, so it differs from the architecture of much of Turkey and is super photogenic if you want to snap some pics for the Insta. It’s a super popular tourist spot for locals, with narrow, cobbled streets and little wine shops dotted all along it where you can sit and order a taster of the different fruit wines that are available. It’s a great way to spend an evening after a morning spent exploring castles.