Pamukkale’s white calcium travertines have been described as “stunning”, “unreal” and “otherworldly”, and the name literally means “cotton castle” in Turkish. Pamukkale is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular natural landscapes in the world and one of the most popular tourist destinations in Turkey, attracting more than 2 million visitors each year. Turkey as a whole attracted about 45 million visitors in 2018.
Located in the Turkish inland province of Denizli, Pamukkale is located nearby the spa town of Hierapolis, founded by the kings of Pergamom at the end of the 2nd century B.C. It has a rich history as Hieropolis was once an important religious epicenter following the acceptance of Christianity by the emperor Constantine and his establishment of Constantinople (modern Istanbul) in 330 A.D.
Today, remains of the ancient city include baths, temple ruins, a necropolis and a massive theatre. Pamukkale was formed when a spring with a high content of calcium bicarbonate cascaded over the edge of the mountain cliff, which cooled and hardened leaving white-coloured calcium deposits and aquamarine mineral-rich water.
The calcium-filled travertines cascade down nearly 200 metres and resemble frozen waterfalls, pooling down into shallow natural thermal spring basins – together with the ancient city and ruins of Hieropolis, Pamukkale was inscribed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988.
You can see why millions of visitors flock to the Pamukkale thermal pools for the opportunity to bathe in the warm natural spring and why we absolutely had to add Pamukkale to our 2 week Turkey itinerary. But it wasn’t quite what we expected. Here’s what happened next.
Our experience at Pamukkale
After a glorious few days in Fethiye along Turkey’s Turquoise Coast, we eagerly embarked on a 6-hour drive towards Pamukkale in western Turkey to see the dreamy travertines. We checked into our hotel in the small town of Pamukkale in the early evening, and set out for a quick dinner before turning in so that we could be the first ones to arrive when the gates opened at Pamukkale at 8 AM in the morning.
The sun had barely made it over the mountain, and the Pamukkale travertines were largely still in the shade. With a slight chill in the air, we swiped our Museum Card Turkey to step foot onto the white terraces – the swirling limestone deposits in the mineral water was such a sight to behold, and it wasn’t long before we made it to the main terraces.
But in what feels like the blink of an eye, the entire mountain was full of people. It took no longer than 20 minutes for Pamukkale to get busy and full of visitors.
During our time there, I can only describe the experience as frustrating, as hordes of people flocked to the Pamukkale travertine and thermal pools in speedos and bikinis, the majority of them holding their very own Instagram photoshoot, or blasting techno music from their phones. The vendors there have caught on, and club music can be heard blasting from the shops as early as 9 AM as people clamor for the best photo spots and pose with rented prop parrots.
I had high hopes for Pamukkale and while it is indisputable that the natural wonder of this landmark is breathtaking, the experience was tainted by poorly behaving, inconsiderate fellow visitors. The preservation and conservation of the travertines is at risk due to heavy foot traffic and in fact one of the areas had been cordoned off (see photo above) in an attempt to allow the travertines to recuperate over the next couple of months. The staff were also constantly having to get people to not climb and step on delicate parts of the travertines for that “money shot”.
So, is it worth visiting Turkey’s Cotton Castle? To be candid, Pamukkale is the only place in Turkey that I was itching to get away from, and it all comes down to the ridiculous crowds of people. I came to Pamukkale to see the beautiful terraced pools – I wasn’t exactly looking to have my eyes assaulted by butt cracks and bulges at 9 in the morning. There’s really not much the authorities can do: the staff do the best they can with limited resources, and visitors simply ignore their instructions or wait until they’re not looking to climb on blocked off sections of the travertines.
Notwithstanding that, it truly is a wondrous natural phenomena, and one that I would recommend that you see with your own eyes at least once in this lifetime. Just make sure you are mentally prepared to face the issue of overtourism in Pamukkale, and that you try to reduce your impact during your visit.
Overtourism in Pamukkale and Turkey
Overtourism is on everyone’s minds these days, with places like Boracay shutting down during the peak season and Venice proposing a “day tripper tax”. Turkey isn’t particularly known for the problem of overtourism, especially since some high profile terrorist events in the past years effectively slashed tourism numbers. In fact, during our 2 weeks in Turkey, dealing with tourist-heavy crowds was not an issue even in some of Turkey’s most popular tourist destinations including the region of Cappadocia (which is known for its ethereal landscape of hot air balloons at sunrise), or the capital of Istanbul.
In many places in Turkey, including Ephesus and the ancient city of Tlos near Fethiye, we were one of the only tourists wandering through the sprawling grounds. Throughout Turkey we didn’t experience the same level of oppressive crowds as we have in places like the Acropolis in Athens, Wat Pho in Bangkok, the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto or the five towns of Cinque Terre in Italy.
However, the same simply can not be said of our time in Pamukkale. Unfortunately, the cotton castle in Pamukkale has entirely been overrun by busloads of daytrippers and visitors who head to the very small town to see the mineral-rich deposits cascading down the mountainside and to visit the ancient geothermal pool which Cleopatra herself is rumored to have swum in, now named “Cleopatra’s Pool”.
Conservation of Pamukkale and Hieropolis
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources which tracks the state of conservation of all natural World Heritage sites, “there is a need for better planning with regards to tourism management”.
The natural values of Hieropolis-Pamukkale, as well as its cultural attributes, caused a flood of tourists to visit the site which in turn stimulated the rapid growth of a tourist infrastructure. The diversion of spring water to feed hotel pools, pollution by sewage, mechanical damage to the stone and constant tourist bathing and littering in the pools diminished them and began to turn the travertine grey.
Moreover, the thermal water flow that feed travertine has decreased compared to previous times. The encroaching hotel development was therefore pushed back and the commercial use of water came under control. As a consequence the quality of the travertine deposit is returning.
However, high tourist numbers are still an issue which requires careful management for which the current level of staffing is insufficient. There are some concerns about the clarity regarding the responsibilities of different authorities and lack of cooperation between them. There is an urgent need to establish a management unit with representatives from all relevant agencies. There is also a need of revision of the current management plan with integration of social, cultural, economic and natural values at larger landscape level.
According to UNESCO, Pamukkale is legally protected through national conservation legislation, but there is no specific planning legislation to protect World Heritage properties. The responsibility for managing and conserving Pamukkale and ruins of Hieropolis is shared by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism plus the Ministry of Environment and Urbanism on the national level, together with the Denizli Provincial Special Administration and several state-level institutions on the local level.
It’s not all gloom and doom, and the IUCN appears to be hopeful, rating Pamukkale’s conservation outlook as “Good with Some Concerns” in 2017. The organization concludes that, “the main current threat to the site’s integrity is from tourism infrastructure development and high tourist numbers, as well as diversion of spring water, and domestic sewage. Tourist numbers have been declining in the recent years and threats from tourism infrastructure to spring water and natural assets have been reduced thanks to measures undertaken in line with the management plan.”
Among these measures include removal of hotel buildings and structures around the thermal pool; banning private vehicles from entering the site; closing the road through the southeastern travertine terraces; creating explicit visitor routes; restricting access to the travertine terraces in order to maintain the colour and structure as well as sustain the water flow; and establishing areas where visitors can bathe in the hot springs. Read on for more dos and don’ts at Pamukkale.
What can we do as visitors?
- Stick to the visitor path and don’t climb on the travertines – follow the rules!
- Leave no trace – take your trash away with you when you leave.
- Be respectful and follow directions from the staff.
- Bring a bag to carry your shoes in as you must walk barefoot across the Pamukkale travertine terraces.
- Don’t blast music and scream and shout when you’re visiting.
- Dress appropriately – don’t walk between the various landmarks in your banana hammocks (speedos) and bikinis.
- Consider visiting during the off season or shoulder season to help distribute some of the tourist load. The weather in Pamukkale is fairly mild, and most visitors flock to Pamukkale during the peak season from April to about September/October.
- Stay overnight in Pamukkale and Denizli so that local businesses in the area receive some of your tourism dollars, rather than visiting Pamukkale as a day trip from Bodrum, Istanbul or Izmir.
- Skip the drone – while there might not be explicit rules forbidding the use of drones at Pamukkale and you might be able to get away with it, it would seriously hamper other visitors’ experience and cause damage to the travertines if you crash the drone.
Tips For Visiting Pamukkale
- The Pamukkale travertines open at 8 AM every day. Either visit first thing in the morning, or late in the afternoon to avoid the majority of the tourist crowds. However, be aware that even if you visit early in the morning the crowds can still be fairly unbearable during the peak season.
- Many people don’t realize that behind the Pamukkale terraced pools are the sprawling Hieropolis ruins and museum – make sure you also explore the archaeological treasures of the ancient city!
- Plan to spend around 3-4 hours at the travertines, Hieropolis ruins and museum. You can get between the various landmarks easily on foot – the walk from the travertines to the amphitheatre will take no longer than 10 minutes or so.
- Use the south entrance closest to the village – there is parking available to the left of the entrance if you are driving.
- Entry costs 35 TL but you can use your Museum Pass Turkey. Entry into the Hieropolis Museum costs an additional 5 TL but you can also use your Museum Pass here. There is a separate fee of 33 TL to swim in Cleopatra’s Pool.
- Bring a bag to carry your shoes in as footwear isn’t allowed to be worn on the terraces.
- Bring your own towel if you plan on going for a dip.
Where to stay in Pamukkale
We opted to stay in Pamukkale though it is a small village – many others stay in the main town of Denizli, but we wanted to be able to get to the travertines as early as possible in the morning. We stayed for 1 night at Bellamaritimo Hotel, a 3-5 minute walk from the travertines. Don’t expect any luxury or boutique hotels in the area – Bellamaritimo is extremely basic but clean, and the rooms are spacious with air conditioning. The bathroom had a good shower with constant hot water, and there is free parking onsite. It’s worth noting that the hotel does not have an elevator so you will need to carry your suitcase up a few flights of stairs. Click here to see availability and current rates at Bellamaritimo Hotel, or head on over here for some other hotel options near the Pamukkale travertines.
The town of Pamukkale has very limited accommodation options and this is probably your best bet for a 1-2 night stay in the area. Many people plan a day trip to Pamukkale from Bodrum or Izmir, but I would recommend spending 1 night in Pamukkale so that you can visit the travertines early in the morning.
Only spend a maximum of 2 nights in Pamukkale if you are venturing out to see the ruins of Aphrodisias or more of the other ancient cities in the area. We had allotted 3 nights to Pamukkale and ended up cutting our time here short – instead, we moved onto the charming Mediterranean town of Alaçatı after just 1 day in Pamukkale.
Important information about hotel booking in Turkey: You can not book hotels in Turkey using Booking.com when you are already in Turkey, as it has been blocked by the Turkish government (so has Wikipedia, for that matter, and they’re looking to extend the ban to other websites including AirBnB and Expedia). Instead, make sure you book hotels for your stay in Turkey before your trip, or use Hotels.com or HotelsCombined for any last-minute hotel bookings that you need to make when you are already in the country.
How to get to Pamukkale
Pamukkale is located in the Denizli Province. The closest airport to Pamukkale is in Denizli (airport code: DNZ), and the drive from Denizli to Pamukkale will take you approximately 45 minutes to an hour.
You can also fly into Izmir or Bodrum and drive to Pamukkale. We drove over from Fethiye and it took us about 6 hours with a few stops. We rented a Hyundai i20 car from Alamo and they were extremely helpful – it cost us only US$110 for 8 days and tolls are virtually non-existent in Turkey.
Looking for the best prices for rental cars around the world? Click here to book your rental car ahead of your trip. Bookings can be cancelled or amended if your plans change!
If you are flying into Izmir or Bodrum, the drive to Pamukkale will take you approximately 3 hours. I don’t recommend visiting Pamukkale via car from Istanbul, as the driving time is nearly 7 hours long each way. Instead, fly to Denizli, Izmir or Bodrum. There are several domestic flights from Istanbul each day to each of these airports, and the flight time is approximately 1 hour to 90 minutes long.
Ready to plan your trip to Pamukkale? I recommend booking 1 nights’ stay at Bellamaritimo Hotel, a 3-5 minute walk from the travertines. Bellamaritimo is extremely basic but clean, and the rooms are spacious with air conditioning. There is free parking onsite if you are traveling around Turkey by car. Click here to see availability and current rates at Bellamaritimo Hotel, or head on over here for some other hotel options near the Pamukkale travertines.
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