After exploring Turkey for a month we are moving on with some pretty great stories to tell. As a country with such a variety of impressive sites and diverse landscapes, Turkey has a way of capturing ones attention and not letting go. Much like Pamukkale, Cappadocia, or Istanbul before it, we had set our sites on exploring the ancient city of Ephesus since day one and were so excited to see all of our planning finally becoming reality.
However, after a string of over four consecutive months on the road now, and our nearly constant ravings about the places we had been and the things we had seen, our travels were beginning to blend together and our initial excitement for travel (and therefore Ephesus) was waning. As we’ve mentioned before, Turkey always felt like the main bulk of our trip when we were planning. But now, with our time in Turkey about to wrap up, we felt lost – unsure about the future and wanting desperately to relive the past. Fortunately, any concerns that we may have had about Ephesus and its ability to stand up to our other incredible experiences in Turkey were completely unfounded. Ephesus was not only more interesting and impressive than we initially imagined, but it also provided a much needed spark to get us back on the (travel) horse.
The most recognizable structure in Ephesus is the Library of Celsus which dates to 125 AD and acts as the main tourist draw, enticing an average of 1.5 million visitors to the site each year. “Commanding” is the best way to describe the impressive facade of the Library, which has been carefully reconstructed from the original pieces. However even more impressive is the fact that the facade stands in its original location, exposed to the elements, yet with so much fine detail and decoration still present. We’ve only seen two other Turkish-Roman ruins of this magnitude – the Pergamon Altar and the Market Gate of Miletus – and they both reside in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin (and have been preserved there for over a hundred years).
While the Library of Celsus is the face of Ephesus, the site itself has so much more to offer visitors, including the ruins of two theaters and the Temple of Hadrian. Although large sections of the site have yet to be uncovered (only an estimated 15% of the site has been excavated), it’s still possible for visitors to get a sense for how large and important this city would have once been. Even more, the ruins speak to the grandeur and splendor of the city in its former life; a grandeur that included mosaic covered streets, something that has not been seen elsewhere, as well as numerous temples, fountains, and monuments erected in honor of the city’s elite or to commemorate important Imperial visits.
With so much to see, it may come as a surprise that our favorite area of the day was one very few people make time to visit, the Terrace Houses – a small section of ruins that lay hidden under a protective structure in the shadow of the Library of Celsus. Although we didn’t know much about the Terrace Houses before our visit, I happened to remember reading about them weeks earlier on one of the travel blogs we follow, and we decided to check them out. As it turned out, this was the best decision we made all day.
Originally the homes of the wealthiest and most powerful residents in Ephesus, the Terrace Houses all had their own heating systems and interior baths, a luxury well ahead of their time. However, in addition to these practical elements, the houses were also lavishly decorated with exquisite frescoed walls and mosaic floors. Today, these ruins are being painstakingly restored by archaeologists in what is likely the world’s most complex puzzle. Fortunately for visitors, the site is covered and, with the use of glass-floored walkways, the Terrace Houses can be fully explored.
Although extremely impressive, the Terrace Houses were very quiet during our visit – even if the rest of Ephesus was not (I cringe to think about the crowds during the peak summer season). Perhaps the additional 15 Lira entrance fee discourages people from visiting the Terrace Houses, or maybe it’s the fact that the majority of visitors to Ephesus see the site as part of one of the large bus tours that skip this area completely. It was estimated that of the 1.5 million annual visitors to Ephesus, only about 90,000 people find their way into the Terrace Houses (a meager 6%!). This is a real shame. Although Ephesus is known best for the Library of Celsus, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this shift in the future as more and more visitors take note of the incredible Terrace Houses. Unfortunately, with this increased awareness, it’s likely that large tour operators will also begin adding this area to their routes, making the Terrace Houses as busy and crowded as the rest of the site.
Uncertain if Ephesus would stand up to our incredibly high standards of worthwhile Turkish attractions, we were bowled over by the level of reconstruction and preservation of the ruins. Although Turkey is home to plenty of attention-worthy sites, Ephesus is not to be missed for lovers of history – or those wishing to take a “selfie” on their cellphone in-front of the breathtaking Library of Celsus.
Logistics: Ephesus can be visited as an independent or guided daytrip from Izmir or Kusadasi, however we recommend staying in the surrounding town of Selcuk. From the Selcuk bus station, the site can be reached on foot in about 25 – 30 minutes (there is clear signage and the path is flat and easy to navigate). The site is explored by foot and is open daily from 08:00 – 17:30 (later in the summer). Admission is 25 TL, an additional 15 TL for the Terrace Houses.
While there are some small shops selling souvenirs and snacks on site, we recommend bringing water, especially if visiting in the summer, as well as a snack. Allow a couple hours to fully explore the site and take photos. For a sit down meal, head to Selcuk for delicious doner kebap or turkish pancakes!