The truth about visiting Pamukkale's thermal pools

For years we’d seen pictures of the majestic travertines at Pamukkale. Pictures of a white mountain, with hundreds of pools filled with bright blue water. These heavenly thermal pools cascaded down the side of a cliff, like the rice terraces in South-East Asia. It looked like a true wonder of the world and somewhere we’d always wanted to go to.

However not all is as it seems and the pictures and posters you see today are shots of Pamukkale years ago, some locals told us even as much as 30 years ago! We wanted to write a post to highlight what a visit to Pamukkale is like today so you’re not disappointed. Hundreds of pools full of water? Nope. When we went, there were 10……

Yet, Pamukkale is still an incredible place as long as you manage your expectations.

Here’s the truth about visiting Pamukkale’s thermal pools today.

The dry travertines of Pamukkale

The dry travertines of Pamukkale

Pamukkale - the truth

Why is Pamukkale so special

The travertines of Pamukkale are visible from almost everywhere in the village. In the middle of green, rolling hills there’s suddenly a huge white mountain. It is like something from the polar ice caps has suddenly been plonked in the middle of rural farmlands in Western Turkey.

Pamukkale Thermal Pools

When you get closer, you soon realise that this is a white rock mountain, made of calcite terraces that were formerly full of warm thermal water. It truly is a natural wonder and something that looks so incredibly out of place that you can’t believe it’s not man made. It’s sights like these that keep us travelling the world year after year.

The Romans loved it here, building a city with an amphitheatre and baths surrounding the travertines. You can still see the ruins today and potter around the ancient columns and remnants when you’ve finished up at the pools.

It is no surprise that Pamukkale is still incredibly popular, despite the safety fears many people have about visiting Turkey at the moment. No matter what time of year you go, there will be buses…. Lots of buses. Everyone comes here to see that mountainside of turquoise pools which look like they are straight out of a fairy tale. Or they did…before they dried up.

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Reduce your expectations

Those photos you see (like the one on the poster below), were from between 10-30 years ago depending on who you talk to. It was hard to find out why, but since then the majority of pools have dried up. Despite it being a UNESCO world heritage site (and supposedly a lot of management in place to preserve the site), the days of a hill side full of majestic pools are gone.

We were so shocked that we thought we were standing in the wrong place, thinking that just round the corner we’d see all the pools from all the pictures. We asked a few people who seemed to be confused as to why we were asking where the travertines were when we were stood right next to them! It’s not that the white mountainside is not impressive and interesting in its own right, it’s just when you’re expecting pools as far as the eye can see then it’s a bit of a surprise.

When we visited, some of the thermal water was being diverted to certain sections of the travertines to refill them, but this was only a small section. From memory it was around 8-10 pools in a long vertical line.

Our hotel owner said that they choose to fill a small section at a time to help preserve the pools, so which section you will get depends on luck. Perhaps we were unlucky but we read a fair bit online after our visit to suggest that if we were it wasn’t by much.

But did we regret our trip to Pamukkale? Definitely not.

What the majority look like

The key is to not imagine that Pamukkale is what the marketing material would have you believe. If we hadn’t seen any pictures before turning up, we would have be blown away by Pamukkale without question. And to be honest despite the initial disappointment we still were.

If you are happy to see a section of pools that are maintained for tourists, then you’ll still have a great time.

There are some that are full. Just not many.

There are some that are full. Just not many.

You may still get lucky

Whilst the days of the whole hillside being full of water are long gone, you may see more than we did as different sections are full at different times.

Fingers crossed that you have more to see than we did…

It’s still worth going - Pamukkale Thermal Pools

Having said that, we don’t regret going. Pamukkale is a beautiful place, it’s sad that it isn’t how it once was but it is still undeniably special.

If you’d stumbled upon it in its current state, you’d still tell everyone about how beautiful it is and we think it is still one of the most photogenic places in Turkey.

Another place in Turkey that loves hot air balloons

Another place in Turkey that loves hot air balloons

There are roughly 8-10 or so pools which are maintained so they always have water in so you can bathe, paddle and enjoy the spectacular panorama surrounding them.

The water is only warm at the top and bottom pool, anything else in between is cold, so most people will congregate in the warm pools. That means if you don’t like crowds you need to pick your times wisely, we’ll go in to that later.

Sunrise at Pamukkale

Best time to visit Pamukkale

Pamukkale is incredibly popular and a lot of people pack into a pretty tiny space now there are so few pools, the actual site itself is huge and the empty travertines will be quiet at all times but most people are here for the pools. Timing your trip will make a big difference to your enjoyment.

Pamukkale has three entrances. We found that the bus groups entered through the South Entrance and walked to the top of the travertines and stopped. The ones closest to Heiropolis were the busiest and they got quieter as you went down the hillside. This may be because people dip a toe in the next pool down and realise it’s cold - what they don’t know is that the very bottom pool is also warm. This keeps it far less busy than the upper pool.

Top tip: You cannot use shoes on the travertines so you’ll find that walking alongside them can be a bit uncomfortable with lots of sharp bits. Inside the pools it is soft clay mud so it’s not a problem. You can bring socks if you want a bit of protection.

Sunrise - the best time for peace and tranquility

What most people don’t realise is that the south entrance to Pamukkale is open from 6.30am, whereas the north entrance in town opens at 8am. If you go as soon as Pamukkale opens, you’ll have a good 30 minutes - 1 hour at the travertines to yourself and a select few others.

This is the only time of day when you will have peace and quiet.

Sadly, some of the tour bus operators also know this and we saw 3-4 buses arrive at 7.00am when we visited but you still had a good head start on them.

Sunrise is also when the hot air balloons are out which is a pretty incredible sight. However, the water is being pumped into the pools throughout the day so sunrise is when the least amount of water is in the travertines.

Sunset - the best time for light and water levels, but crowded

Sunset is beautiful, really beautiful but we found that it was incredibly busy and pretty hard to have any kind of space to yourself. As in the only time we snuck a shot without other people in it was minutes before closing time.

However, sunset has the benefit of the best light for photography as the sun isn’t directly in front of you, but you can get an angle which includes the sun setting as well.

As the pools are topped up during the day, sunset is also a good time to visit as the travertines are at the fullest in terms of water levels - note this doesn’t mean additional pools but it does mean more running water down the mountainside and into the tiny holes which looks pretty. Not a biggie, but something to consider.

So which is better, sunrise or sunset?

if we had to choose we’d say sunrise as we hate crowds. If it weren’t for numbers of people then sunset. You can do both like us but you cannot use the same ticket. Once you’ve left the site even if you return on the same day you have to pay again! We’d only really say it’s worth it if you are keen on photography.

The Antiques Pool

One of the highlights of Pamukkale for some people is the Antiques Pool which is a grand indoor pool surrounded by columns. The pool is filled with the thermal water of Pamukkale, making it a pleasant and relaxing place to be when it’s colder outside.

The pool is pretty big and quite unique, but isn’t as special as the natural calcite travertines. At 50 lira per person (the same as your entry fee to Pamukkale) we didn’t think it was worth it. However, you are guaranteed this place will have water and if you aren’t travelling on a budget then the additional cost might be worth it.

The Antiques Pool opens at 8am and like the rest of Pamukkale, it can get pretty busy.

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Entrances at Pamukkale

There are three entrance gates at Pamukkale: north, south and the town. The most popular is the town entrance as it is walking distance from a lot of hotels. The downside if you don’t like walking is that you’re at the bottom of the travertines and have to walk up hill to see them all. However, it’s honestly not far at all.

The South Entrance is the one which tour groups and buses use, meaning it can get pretty busy. This one opens the earliest and it also takes you through the town of Heirapolis before reaching the travertines. Parking here costs 10 lira. The walk from the car park to the travertines is around 10 minutes.

We didn’t use the North Entrance as it is the furthest away from the travertines and the main part of Pamukkale.

Entry fees

Entry into Pamukkale is a one-time only deal: once you’re out of the site you can’t come back in later. Tickets cost 50 lira per person ($9) and include entry to the Heiropolis as well as the Travertines. You won’t be able to get into the Antiques Pool with this ticket (it costs an extra 50 lira per person - US $9).

You can park at the South Entrance for 10 lira ($2).

Getting to Pamukkale

Pamukkale is in the western part of Turkey and is just 15 minutes away from Denizli - the nearest major city which is also the closest airport. If you love coffee, stop in the city at Tablea, it was the best coffee we had in Turkey!

Alternatively, you can drive from Antalya, which takes about three hours.


Where to stay in Pamukkale

Bellamaritimo Hotel

The Bellamaritimo Hotel is a good mid-range choice for a couple of days in Pamukkale. Set in a quiet neighbourhood, this hotel is really close to the town entrance making it really convenient. The rooms are spacious, spotlessly clean and comfortable, making it the perfect place to retreat to.

It also includes a massive Turkish breakfast - the perfect way to start your day.

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