The majority of excursions to Pamukkale can be characterized by 8 hours on a bus, split in half by a quick photo op of the travertines, an hour of free time in the Sacred Pool, and lunch at some tourist buffet. With an itinerary like this, don't be surprised if you come away disappointed; an overnight in an inexpensive thermal hotel spa with a Jacuzzi, sauna, Turkish bath, and massage therapy seems to me the minimum requirement in a place known for millennia as a place of healing. Not only just what the doctor ordered, but it's also essential to factor in a morning stroll through the local village and a relaxed visit to the ancient ruins of Hierapolis after the sun has lost most of its bite.
A swim in the effervescent waters of the Sacred Pool should be at the top of the list on any travel itinerary. Scattered about at the bottom of the crystal-clear pool like so much detritus is an amazing collection of striated columns and capitals, a striking reminder of the pool's pedigree. The Sacred Pool is the main source for the springs feeding the travertines. It lies in the center of a lush garden that, until April 2008, was enclosed within the last remaining commercial-cum-hospitality structure on the plateau (three hotels and 12 cafes were razed when UNESCO stepped in). Try to plan your visit during a fringe season (I showed up recently at 9am and couldn't even get near the place), or at least promptly when the doors open at 8am or after the tour buses have trickled out.
The thermal water maintains a relatively constant temperature of about 95°F (35°C), so a dip in the middle of November is not out of the question. In addition to a high level of natural radioactivity, the water contains calcium bicarbonate, calcium sulfate, magnesium, and carbon dioxide, and after a swim, you should simply dry off and let the minerals do their magic.
The Pamukkale Thermal (tel. 0258/272-2024; admission 23TL) is open from 8am to 7pm daily (until 5pm in the winter) and provides basic changing rooms, but don't forget to bring a towel.
So as not to forget that 2,000 years ago emperors and kings weekended here, the impressive remains of the ancient city-spa of Hierapolis (admission 20TL) lie all around. The city of Hierapolis was founded in 190 B.C. by Eumenes II as part of the great Empire of Pergamum and was probably named after Hiera, the wife of the legendary founder of Pergamum. Considered a sacred site for the magic of its healing waters, Hierapolis reached its peak of development under the Romans at the end of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. During the Byzantine Era, a large church was erected to St. Philip, who was martyred here in A.D. 80.
Behind the Pamukkale Thermal are the stunning remains of the best-preserved ancient theater in Turkey, and the third-most-impressive theater after Ephesus and Aspendos. The theater was constructed in the middle of the 2nd century by Hadrian and adapted in the 3rd century by Septimius Severus, indicating the importance of the city during both Hellenistic and Roman times. The upper section of 25 rows, added during the restoration, is constructed of stones quarried from the ancient theater to the north of the city rather than of marble, suggesting that the city hit upon financial hardships during this era. Notice the skeleton of the mechanism below the well-preserved stage. The theater comes to life in the late spring for folklore performances during the Festival of Pamukkale.
Just down the hill are the scattered leftovers of the Temple of Apollo, patron of the city. If you descend the incline just inside the fence and circle to the other side of the temple's stairs, you can see the Plutonium, a niche believed to be sacred for the noxious carbon monoxide vapors that are emitted from a nearby underground stream. Accessible via a (closed) passageway through the temple, the temple priests were the only ones with the power (or lung capacity) to emerge alive, a thesis supported by the deaths of not just a few imprudent tourists.
A pretty good hike up the hill will lead you to the Martyrium of St. Philip, the remains of an octagonal basilica believed to have been erected on the site where Philip was martyred.
From the Martyrium you can cut down the hill toward the Byzantine Gate and the Colonnaded Street. Crossing the city on a north-south axis for .8km (1/2 mile), in ancient times the street ran from the Southern Gate and ended at the monumental Arch of Domitian, a triple arch flanked by two robust cylindrical towers constructed by Julius Frontinus, the proconsul of the Asian Provinces between A.D. 84 and 86. To the right of the gate are the pillars of the latrine, not as graphic as the toilets at Ephesus, but interesting from an architectural point of view nevertheless.
Beyond the Arch of Domitian is the Necropolis, stretching for over 1.5km (1 mile) and ending at the northern entrance to the site. Although people traveled from all over the empire to heal their ills, it's painfully obvious from this extensive burial ground that some diseases just can't be treated by a warm bath. There are various types of sarcophagi, layers of mausoleums designed as houses for the dead, and remarkable examples of the stone cylindrical drum tumuli employed during Hellenistic times. Don't pass this up just because it's too hot.
On the paved road heading back to the southern entrance, notice the crumbling but imposing Roman bath, built around the end of the 2nd century and later converted into a Byzantine basilica. From the looks of several of the archways, one more earthquake and this structure is road dust.
Next to the parking lot of the Pamukkale Thermal are a 6th-century Christian basilica and more Roman baths (these ones for the rich folk). Now the Hierapolis Archaeology Museum (tel. 0258/241-0866; separate admission of 3TL), the baths house artifacts from the area, including a fairly impressive marble sarcophagus. The structure dates to the 1st century, constructed in the rebuilding of the city during the reign of Tiberius after a major earthquake severely damaged the city.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.