From the sun-drenched shores of the Mediterranean to the snowy plains of Anatolia, Turkey is packed with ancient ruins and historical sites to visit. Here are the best!

Turkey’s landscapes are potted with ancient ruins. From early Neolithic societies right through to the Byzantines, Seljuk Turks and Ottomans, countless peoples, kingdoms, empires and nation states have left their mark for archaeologists and history-loving tourists to delve into.

In Göbekli Tepe, you can find some of the earliest examples of Megalithic stone structures in the world, structures which could have been raised as far back as 9500BC. Ancient ruins abound along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers while Mediterranean civilizations like the Lycians flourished along Turkey’s coast. Cappadocia is home to ancient, underground cities carved deep into the soft rocks below the Anatolian plains, while the fabled ruins of Troy are thought to have been found near the Dardanelles.

And of course, the great city of Istanbul (formerly Constantinople), the capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, is packed with ancient sites just waiting to be explored. If you love visiting historic sites on your travels, then keep reading, as I count down the best ancient ruins to visit in Turkey.

The best ancient ruins in Turkey

What is ancient? The Cambridge Dictionary defines the term ‘ancient’ as being something ‘of or from a long time ago’. More specifically, historians class anything as being ‘ancient’ in reference to the period before the end of the Western Roman Empire in the late 5th century AD.

Broader definitions may include later historical periods, up to and sometimes including the medieval era (which in Turkey, covers the Byzantine and early Ottoman eras), but typically, when talking about ancient civilizations or ancient ruins, we mean earlier human societies like those of ancient Mesopotamia, Greece or Rome, all of which flourished in what’s now modern day Turkey.

Regardless of how you define the term ‘ancient’, there’s no doubt that Turkey is packed with ancient sites built by ancient civilizations, and in this article, I’ve tried to present a broad spectrum of the many ruins left behind by our early human ancestors.

The oldest I’ve included are neolithic sites (like Göbekli Tepe) which predate recorded human history. There’s a smattering of Greek, Lycian and Roman ruins, which are largely concentrated around the Mediterranean Sea. I’ve also included the odd medieval site (crossing into the Byzantine era), like Ani, but I haven’t strayed into the Ottoman era, by which point I think we can all agree, the ‘ancient’ world has been left far behind!

1. The Theodosian Walls

Let’s start with Istanbul, where the ruins of the Theodosian Walls are still strewn around a modern city steeped in ancient history. Constructed in the 5th century AD under Emperor Theodosius II, these formidable fortifications were designed to protect Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, from invasion. Stretching approximately 6.5 kilometres from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn, the walls consist of a double line of defence with an inner and outer wall, punctuated by impressive towers and gates.

Walking alongside the Theodosian Walls is a chance to connect with the tumultuous Byzantine past. Key points of interest include the Golden Gate, the grand triumphal arch used for imperial ceremonies, and the restored sections near Yedikule Fortress. Walking along these ancient defences, you can appreciate the strategic importance and architectural ingenuity that made Constantinople one of the most impregnable cities of the medieval world; until the Ottomans brought the city to its knees in 1453.

The Theodosian Walls in Istanbul. Photo credit: depositphotos.com.

Read more: Is Turkey in Europe or Asia? Everything You Need to Know.

2. The Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern (known as Yerebatan Sarnıcı in Turkish), is a remarkable subterranean structure located beneath the streets of Istanbul. Constructed in the 6th century during the reign of Emperor Justinian I, this vast underground reservoir once supplied water to the Great Palace of Constantinople and surrounding city. The cistern, measuring approximately 138 metres by 65 metres, could hold a staggering 80,000 cubic metres of water.

Visit the Basilica Cistern, and you’ll immediately be awed by the 336 marble columns, each standing 9 metres tall and arranged in 12 rows. These columns, many repurposed from older Roman ruins, create an almost eerie atmosphere below ground. Important features to look out for include the two Medusa head bases, whose origins and purposes remain shrouded in mystery.

The Medusa head in the Basilica Cistern. Photo credit: depositphotos.com.

Read more: 18 Historic Places to Visit in Istanbul

3. Troy

Troy is a name that’s been passed down through the ages. Thought to have been located near the Dardanelles, Troy was one of the ancient world’s most legendary cities. Immortalised by Homer’s epic ‘The Iliad’, Troy’s archaeological site (if indeed, it is the correct site; debate still abounds!) reveals a complex layering of settlements dating back to 3000 BC. The site, also known as Hisarlik, showcases nine distinct layers of ruins, each representing different periods of occupation.

Highlights of a visit include the city walls, and remnants of towers and defensive gates that evoke a sense of the scale of ancient warfare. The iconic replica of the Trojan Horse provides a link to the mythological tale of the Trojan War, although of course, it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction. The site’s small museum displays artefacts unearthed during excavations, offering deeper insights into the daily life, warfare and culture of ancient Troy.

The Trojan Horse. Photo credit: depositphotos.com.

4. Ephesus

Ephesus was one of the most renowned ancient cities in the ancient world. The city’s origins can be traced back to the 10th century BC, when it was founded by Greek colonists, however, the area had already seen human habitation as far back as the Neolithic period. This early settlement quickly grew into a major city of the Ionian Greeks, becoming a centre of commerce and culture, close to the Mediterranean coast (the ruins are now located near the modern Turkish town of Selçuk, just south of Izmir).

In the 6th century BC, Ephesus came under the dominion of the Lydian King Croesus, whose reign brought significant development to the city. This period of prosperity was followed by Persian control after the conquest of Lydia, before the arrival of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC marked a new era for Ephesus. Under Hellenistic influence, the city flourished, notably becoming home to the grand Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The city’s zenith came during the Roman Empire, from the 1st century BC to the 3rd century AD, when Ephesus was transformed into a major port city and served as the capital of the Roman province of Asia until its demise in later years. Today, Ephesus is famed for its remarkable architecture, including the grand Library of Celsus, which once housed over 12,000 scrolls, and the Great Theatre, which could accommodate up to 25,000 spectators.

Celsus Library, Ephesus. Photo credit: depositphotos.com.

Read more: The Eastern Express: How I Survived Turkey’s Epic 26-Hour Train Ride

5. Pergamon

Pergamon, which is located near modern-day Bergama, was founded in the 3rd century BC by Greeks. Pergamon flourished under the Attalid dynasty, particularly during the reign of King Eumenes II, when it became renowned for its Acropolis, which was perched high on a hill. The city housed the grand Altar of Zeus, a marvel of ancient architecture, and an extensive library that was second only to Alexandria’s.

In 133 BC, Pergamon became a Roman province when the last Attalid king willed it to Rome. Under Roman rule, the city continued to thrive, with the construction of notable structures such as the Asclepion, a famed medical centre dedicated to Asclepius, the god of healing. Today, you can explore the remains of these ancient landmarks. The Acropolis still stands as a testament to the city’s grandeur, with ruins of temples, palaces, and the impressive Hellenistic theatre.

The Roman theatre and the Temple of Trajan highlight the city’s continued importance during the Roman era. Despite its decline during the Byzantine period due to invasions and changing trade routes, Pergamon’s ruins offer a profound glimpse into its historical and cultural legacy, making it a fascinating destination for history enthusiasts.

The ruins of the Temple of Trajan. Photo credit: depositphotos.com.

6. Aphrodisias

Aphrodisias is an ancient city named after Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Aphrodisias was a prominent artistic and religious centre from the Hellenistic period through the Roman and Byzantine eras, and the city thrived from the 1st century BC to the 3rd century AD, becoming well known for its skilled sculptors and beautiful architecture. The Temple of Aphrodite attracted pilgrims from across the ancient world, while the city’s fame grew under Roman rule, when it enjoyed the patronage of Roman emperors.

Visit Aphrodisias today, and you can explore a range of impressive ruins like the Sebasteion, an ornate temple complex which showcases elaborate reliefs depicting gods, emperors, and mythological scenes. The ancient theatre, which could accommodate thousands of spectators, and the agora, the city’s marketplace, further illustrate the urban sophistication of Aphrodisias. The site also features the Tetrapylon, a monumental gateway with intricately carved details.

The nearby Aphrodisias Museum displays a remarkable collection of statues and artefacts excavated from the site, providing deeper insights into the city’s historical significance.

Aphrodisias. Photo credit: depositphotos.com.

Read more: Places to Visit in Turkey

7. Hierapolis

Hierapolis is situated near modern-day Pamukkale, and this ancient city was (and still is) renowned for its therapeutic hot springs. Founded in the 2nd century BC by the Attalid kings of Pergamon, Hierapolis became a prominent spa town in the Roman Empire, and its thermal waters, believed to possess healing properties, attracted visitors seeking cures for their ailments.

The city’s archaeological site features a well-preserved theatre, with a capacity of about 12,000 spectators. The extensive Necropolis, one of the largest ancient cemeteries in Turkey, provides insights into burial practices over several centuries. Other significant structures include the Temple of Apollo, the Nymphaeum, and the Plutonium, a cave associated with the god Pluto, where toxic gases emanate from the earth.

Hierapolis, together with the travertine terraces of Pamukkale, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. This unique combination of natural beauty and historical significance makes Hierapolis a fascinating destination, not least because you can also still bathe in the hot springs after exploring the ruins.

Hierapolis. Photo credit: depositphotos.com.

Read more: I Went Swimming In The Ancient Ruins of Hierapolis

8. Demre

Demre is located on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, just north of Antalya. It’s a town steeped in history, and is famously home to the Lycian rock tombs and the Church of St. Nicholas (the real life saint who inspired the legend of Santa Claus).

The Lycian rock tombs, carved into the cliffs above the town, are striking examples of ancient funerary architecture. These tombs, dating back to the 4th century BC, reflect the Lycian civilisation’s unique approach to honouring their dead, with intricate facades and grandiose designs that have withstood the test of time.

The Church of St. Nicholas, built in the 6th century AD, is another major attraction in Demre. St. Nicholas, the inspiration for the modern-day Santa Claus, served as the bishop of Myra (ancient Demre). The church, adorned with frescoes and mosaics, is a pilgrimage site for many Orthodox Christians, reflecting Turkey’s complex religious heritage.

Ancient Lycian rock tombs. Photo credit: depositphotos.com.

9. Mount Nemrut

Mount Nemrut is found in south eastern Turkey, and despite its remote location, it’s an awe-inspiring historical site renowned for its colossal statues and monumental tomb. Constructed in the 1st century BC by King Antiochus I of Commagene, this ancient site is perched 2,134 metres above sea level, and it’s one of the most astounding places I’ve ever visited in Turkey.

The peak of Mount Nemrut is covered in massive stone statues, including representations of Greek, Armenian, and Persian gods, along with King Antiochus himself. These statues, each standing up to 10 metres tall, originally adorned a grand tomb-sanctuary built as a testament to the king’s legacy and his eclectic cultural beliefs. The site also features an impressive tumulus, a man-made mound of crushed rock covering the royal tomb.

Visitors typically ascend Mount Nemrut at sunrise or sunset to witness the statues illuminated by the sun’s golden light, creating a surreal, almost mystical atmosphere.

The west terrace of Mount Nemrut. Photo credit: depositphotos.com.

Read more: The Giant Heads of Mount Nemrut

10. Göbekli Tepe

Göbekli Tepe is one of the most extraordinary archaeological discoveries of the 20th century. Dating back to approximately 9600 BC, this ancient site is considered the world’s oldest known temple complex, predating Stonehenge by several millennia.

Located near Şanlıurfa in southeastern Turkey, Göbekli Tepe is home to massive stone pillars arranged in circular formations, some of which reach up to six metres in height. These pillars are intricately carved with depictions of animals and abstract symbols, showing the artistic sophistication of early human societies. The site challenges conventional understanding of prehistoric human development, suggesting that complex religious structures were built before the advent of settled agricultural communities.

Visit Göbekli Tepe and you can explore these enigmatic stone circles and be awed by the advanced construction techniques of a supposedly primitive society. The site’s significance lies not only in its age but also in its implications for the study of human history, offering profound insights into the spiritual and social practices of our ancient ancestors.

Göbekli Tepe. Photo credit: depositphotos.com.

11. Ani

The ruins of Ani are found near the Turkish-Armenian border, just outside the city of Kars. Once known as the ‘City of 1001 Churches’, Ani was the capital of the Bagratid Armenian kingdom in the 10th and 11th centuries, when it reached its zenith as a major cultural, religious and economic hub before nomadic invasions and earthquakes spelt its downfall.

Ani is now a sprawling archaeological site. Among the most notable ruins are the Cathedral of Ani, a splendid example of medieval Armenian architecture, and the Church of St. Gregory, with its intricate frescoes. The city’s fortifications, including impressive walls and gates, reflect its strategic importance, although they couldn’t keep out the Seljuk Turks who captured Ani in the 11th century AD.

Ani’s ruins are remarkable, not least because the surrounding landscapes, which mark the border with Armenia, are absolutely spectacular. If it wasn’t so far from Istanbul, or even Ankara, this would be one of the most visited ancient sites in the world. Chances are though, you’ll have the place to yourself.

The ancient ruins of Ani.

Read more: Ani: The Ruins of an Armenian Kingdom

12. Cappadocia

Cappadocia is one of Turkey’s most visited destinations, largely because of its unique geological formations and hot air balloon rides. But much of Cappadocia is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site, home to a landscape dotted with fairy chimneys, cave dwelling and rock-cut churches, and packed with ancient ruins and archaeological sites.

One of the most remarkable ancient sites in Cappadocia is the Göreme Open-Air Museum, a monastic complex of rock-hewn churches and chapels adorned with stunning frescoes dating from the 10th to 12th centuries. The Dark Church, in particular, is famed for its well-preserved Byzantine frescoes.

Underground cities like Derinkuyu and Kaymakli are must-visits when you’re in Cappadocia. These multi-level subterranean complexes, used for centuries as refuges during invasions, are home to vast networks of tunnels, living quarters and communal spaces. No one’s quite sure how many more cities are waiting to be found beneath Cappadocia, or how extensive the tunnels really are.

Kaymakli, an ancient multi-level underground cave city in Cappadocia. Photo credit: depositphotos.com.

Read more: The Ultimate Guide of Things To do In Cappadocia

13. Hattusa

Located near the village of Boğazkale, a short drive from Ankara, Hattusa is an extraordinary archaeological site that served as the capital of the Hittite Empire during the 2nd millennium BC. This ancient city, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, offers profound insights into the Hittite civilisation, which was one of the great powers of the ancient Near East.

The ruins of Hattusa are notable for their impressive city walls and monumental gates, such as the Lion Gate and the King’s Gate, both of which are adorned with detailed stone carvings. The site also features the Great Temple, dedicated to the storm god and the sun goddess, while the royal citadel, known as Büyükkale, was once the home of Hittite kings.

Ruins of old Hittite capital Hattusa, Turkey. Photo credit: depositphotos.com.

Read more: 14 Things to Do in Ankara, Turkey

14. Xanthos

Xanthos, which is located near the town of Kınık in southwestern Turkey, served as the ancient capital of the Lycian League. Established in the early first millennium BC, Xanthos became a key political and cultural centre in Lycia, known for its distinctive blend of Lycian and Hellenistic influences.

The city’s history is marked by dramatic events, including its famed resistance against Persian conquest in the 6th century BC, when inhabitants chose mass suicide over surrender. Xanthos later flourished under Roman rule, continuing to be an influential city until its decline during the Byzantine period.

The Harpy Tomb, a striking monument adorned with intricate carvings, is one of the city’s most famous landmarks. The Nereid Monument showcases beautiful reliefs that highlight the artistic achievements of ancient Lycia. The acropolis offers panoramic views and contains remnants of ancient fortifications, temples, and an amphitheatre.

The site also includes a Roman theatre, well-preserved city walls, and various rock-cut tombs that reflect Lycian funerary practices. Nearby, the Letoon sanctuary, dedicated to the goddess Leto and her children Apollo and Artemis, is protected as part of a joint UNESCO World Heritage Site with Xanthos.

Ruins of the ancient city of Xanthos. Photo credit: depositphotos.com.

15. Patara

Patara is an ancient city dating back to the 5th century BC. Founded by the Lycians, Patara was an important maritime and commercial hub due to its strategic position along trade routes and its status as the principal Mediterranean port of Lycia. The city became the capital of the Roman province of Lycia and Pamphylia, and in the 3rd century Ad, was the birthplace of St Nicholas.

Today, visitors to Patara can explore a wealth of well-preserved ruins that reflect its illustrious past. The ancient theatre, with its impressive seating capacity, offers a glimpse into the city’s cultural life. The Bouleuterion (Parliament Building) is another highlight, showcasing the city’s political importance. The partially restored Roman lighthouse, one of the oldest in the world, stands as a testament to Patara’s maritime heritage.

The site also features extensive remains of Roman baths, a triumphal arch, and the main street lined with columns, all showing the urban sophistication of ancient Patara. Patara Beach, located nearby, is a stunning stretch of Mediterranean coastline, and the perfect place to unwind down after your daily dose of history!

Patara, Turkey. Photo credit: depositphotos.com.

Map of the best ancient ruins in Turkey

Here’s a map of the best ancient ruins to visit in Turkey:

There you have it, the best ancient ruins you can visit in Turkey. What’s going on your archaeological bucket list?