The Turkish city of Antalya and its surrounding province have been under the rule of the Ancient Greeks, been part of the Byzantine Empire and later the Ottoman Empire, amongst other transitions. Little wonder, then, that this region is bursting with history. Here are the best places to see some of it for yourself.

Kaleiçi and Hadrian’s Gate

Kaleiçi and Hadrian’s Gate
Hadrian's Gate in Kaleiçi’s old town / Image: Adobe Stock

Perhaps the most obvious port of call for Antalya’s historical sites is Kaleiçi, the city’s old town. Here you can see everything from an 18th-century Ottoman mosque to a Roman temple. One of the area’s most popular sites is Hadrian’s Gate, a series of three arches in the city walls, believed to have been built in AD 130 to commemorate a visit from Emperor Hadrian.

Termessos

Termessos
An amphitheatre in Termessos / Image: Adobe Stock

Located northwest of Antalya in the Mount Güllük National Park, Termessos is one of the best-preserved ancient cities in Turkey and should be on any history buff’s hit list. Among the ruins there, you’ll find the tomb of Alcetas – one of Alexander the Great’s commanders – and the remnants of a theatre, set dramatically on a cliff and overlooking surrounding mountains.

St. Nicholas Church and Museum

St. Nicholas Church and Museum
The interior of the Church of St. Nicholas / Image: Getty Images

The exact origins and evolution of Santa Claus are hotly debated, to say the least, but the saint said to have inspired the legend has strong ties to a town in Turkey, and is believed to have been buried in a tomb underneath this church. It’s located a couple of hours along the southwest coast from central Antalya, in a town now named Demre (formerly Myra), but a visit to the building and the attached museum are a must-see for true history fans and worth the journey. No promises it’ll improve your chance of getting what you want for Christmas, though.  

Antalya Archaeology Museum

Antalya Archaeology Museum
Antalya Archeology Museum / Image: Adobe Stock

One of Turkey’s largest museums, the Antalya Archeology Museum focuses largely on artefacts from three of the country’s ancient regions: Lycia, Pamphylia and Pisidia. Allow several hours to fully explore and appreciate its two floors and 14 exhibition halls, among which you’ll find Neanderthal skeleton fragments, incredibly intricate mosaics and sculptures from ancient Perge, and relics from the excavation of the St. Nicholas Church in Demre.

Aspendos Theatre

Aspendos Theatre
Aspendos Theatre / Image: Getty Images

An excellently preserved theatre built during the Roman Empire. Legend has it that its construction resulted from a building competition organised by the King of Aspendos, who agreed that the winner would earn his daughter’s hand in marriage. Today, it’s still used for ballet, opera and other cultural performances, usually taking place in spring and summer.

Perge

Perge
The remnants of a city gate in Perge / Image: Adobe Stock

One of the largest and most popular historical sites in the region, the ancient city of Perge (also known as Perga) lies around 15km from the centre of Antalya. It was once the capital of the Pamphylia region and one of the most important hubs for sculpture production. Visit to see its Roman ruins (thought to date back to 1300 BC) and its vast amphitheatre, which formerly held a staggering 15,000 people.

Karain Cave

Karain Cave
Inside the Karain Cave / Image: Getty Images

Antalya has its fair share of Roman ruins, but the Karain Cave takes things back to the Stone Age, specifically the Palaeolithic period (the early part of the Stone Age). The cave is thought to be the oldest human habitat in the Anatolia region (also known as Asia Minor) and one of Turkey’s largest natural caves. Enter this 500,000-year-old dwelling to see ancient wall inscriptions, stalagmites and stalactites. Nearby, a small museum displays artefacts unearthed in the cave.

Patara

Patara
Patara ruins outside Kalkan / Image: Adobe Stock

Head towards the coast in the Antalya region to explore the ruins of Patara, now an archaeological site. While parts of this once-great city remain buried in sand, there’s still plenty to see above ground, including an impressive triumphal arch (these grandiose architectural monuments are thought to have originated in Roman times, and were certainly popular around then), a necropolis and Roman baths. The site is also home to a seriously historical lighthouse, first believed to have been built during the reign of Emperor Nero (around AD 60) and later reconstructed using thousands of the original stones in 2021. Make the short journey down to nearby Patara Beach after your history lesson for some relaxation on the sand.

Myra

Myra
Myra’s carved tombs / Image: Adobe Stock

The ruins of this ancient city (known for its links to the Santa Claus story due to the Church of St. Nicholas) are preserved as an open-air archaeological site in the town now named Demre. It’s also worth visiting to view its well-preserved amphitheatre, but perhaps even more remarkable is the stunning complex of tombs carved into the surrounding cliff faces – an archaeological feat and also rather beautiful, despite their macabre function. The Church of St. Nicholas can be found a short walk away from the ruins.

Side Museum

Side Museum
A few of Side’s historical treasures, seen from up high / Image: Adobe Stock

Located just over an hour east of central Antalya by car is the port city of Side, known for its numerous fascinating ruins and historical riches, including the remains of elegant temples dedicated to Apollo and Athena, beautifully backdropped by gorgeous ocean views. Even the museum is located inside a historical building – a restored Roman bath house – where it showcases collections of objects found inside and around nearby excavation sites, including coins, weapons and sarcophagi.

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