If you’re going to Turkey, and you’re at all interested in ancient history, visiting Ephesus is a must. This is one of the ancient world’s greatest, grandest and most important cities. It often gets overlooked on a global scale, but Ephesus is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for a good reason.
Founded millennia ago, the ancient city was well ahead of its time. It was a place of learning and culture, with education and social acceptance placed high on the agenda.
Its architecture was some of the grandest in the region: it had the 3rd largest ancient Greco-Roman library and boasted a wonder of the ancient world, the Temple of Artemis.
Travelers of the past made their way from distant corners of the known world to visit pilgrimage spots, trade their goods, and lay eyes on the wondrous architecture.
Now, after its rediscovery in the 19th century, Ephesus is actually the best example of an ancient city anywhere in Europe. Incredibly, 80% of the site remains to be excavated.
Efforts have been made to reconstruct some of the buildings, resulting in a feast for the senses that will dazzle history buffs and intrigue any curious visitors to stick around and explore some more.
If you are thinking of visiting Ephesus during your trip to Turkey, this post is for you: I have been there on a recent trip and I am about to tell you everything you need to know about the site, and share practical information to plan your visit.
You should also read my post The Best Places To Visit In Turkey.
Where Is Ephesus?
The ancient city of Ephesus is located 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) to the southwest of the modern city of Selcuk. It’s located in the Izmir Province, which is in western Anatolia, where the River Kaystros once flowed out into the Aegean Sea, giving it a good vantage point for being a port city.
The city’s founding in this particular location is connected to legend. It is said that Androclos, an Ionian prince, was looking for a place to build a new Greek settlement in the 11th century BC.
He asked the infamous Oracle at Delphi for advice. In true Delphic fashion, the oracle told Androclos something strange: that a boar and a fish would tell him where to go.
Later Androclos was cooking fish over an open fire in the woods. The fish suddenly flew out of the pan and into the bushes, creating a fire. A boar then ran out of the resulting inferno. Remembering the oracle’s advice, he decided to build the new settlement at that location.
The History Of Ephesus, Turkey
Evidence has been found of humans living in the area of Ephesus since around 6000 BC. Archaeological digs have uncovered settlements from the early Bronze Age, which some believe later became the foundations for Ephesus.
Most evidence for the founding of Ephesus as an Attic-Ionian Greek colony on the slopes of the Ayasuluk Hill dates to around the 10th century BC. It entered written history in the 7th century BC, when it was described as being attacked by the Cimmerians, an Iranian people with homelands north of the Black Sea.
A number of different tyrants attempted to rule the city, but after the people of the city revolted, Ephesus was taken over by a council. Thanks to this relative stability, the city entered a more prosperous era after this point, producing a long list of notable thinkers, philosophers, poets and painters, perhaps most famously the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus.
However, in 560 BC the city was once again overrun by outside forces. This time it was the Lydians under the power of King Croesus. Though a formidable leader, he oversaw a number of construction projects, including the Temple of Artemis, on which his signature was found at the base of one of the columns.
Croesus enlarged the city, which saw its population grow exponentially. Not long after this, following a botched invasion of the Persian Empire by Croesus, the city of Ephesus was taken into the domain of the Persians.
Interestingly, it’s the Ephesus of this particular time that has confused archaeologists the most. There appear to be multiple different centers that form the core of the city.
But it was revealed that what really happened was that the course of the Kaystros River moved, silting up the harbors and meaning the city had to move with it.
In 479 BC, an alliance headed up by Athens managed to drive the Persians from the western coast of Anatolia. This brought Ephesus under Greek rule again.
But the wars between various Greek city states at the time did not really affect life in Ephesus. It’s believed that social relationships here were relatively modern, with education valued and strangers from other regions integrating easily in the city.
Later, in 334 BC, Alexander the Great defeated the Persians, bringing them into his pan-Greek empire.
The fortunes of the city moved with the fortunes of the empires of the time, with various incidents — assassinations, invasions and battles — affecting how the city fared on a regional level to an extent.
In the 3rd century BC, when the river moved and the harbor silted up again, malaria spread in Ephesus, killing many inhabitants.
In the 2nd century BC, Ephesus (along with the entire kingdom of Pergamon) was essentially bequeathed to the Roman Republic. However, the city did not fare well under Roman rule. Taxes rose and the riches of the city were plundered by Rome.
In 88 BC, backlash ensued when Mithridates, a Pontic king, conquered Asia Minor and led an anti-Roman campaign in the region. From his base at Ephesus, Mithridates ordered that every Roman citizen, or anyone who sounded like they were Roman, should be killed.
Known as the Asiatic Vespers, this event led to the deaths of 80,000 Roman citizens in the province. Any statues or monuments related to Rome were also destroyed.
For a short while, Ephesus was self-governing, but after just a couple of years came under Roman rule again in 86 BC.
After this time, the city seemed to boom as a center of culture and power in the region. A number of notable figures were connected with the city.
The King of Hellenistic Egypt, Ptolemy XII Auletes, retired here. Cleopatra and Mark Antony spend time in the city. And Emperor Augustus himself decreed that Ephesus should replace Pergamon as the capital of western Asia Minor.
The city went through many years of prosperity. It was a center of commerce and described as second only in importance to Rome by the Greek geographer and thinker, Stabo (though he may have been biased, being from Asia Minor himself!).
Fast forward a couple of hundred years, and Ephesus was sacked by the Goths in 263 AD. Following this, the city lost much of its splendor, but nonetheless Constantine I (the Great) rebuilt it.
Throughout the Byzantine Roman period, Ephesus continued to be an important city. The Basilica of St John was commissioned by Emperor Justinian. A new harbor was built. Roads were constructed.
But there were downturns in the fortunes of the city. It’s believed to have been almost entirely destroyed in 615 during the Sassanian War (602-628). Many of its inhabitants left and the standard of living dropped.
Various attacks and sacks by Arab and Seljuk Turks in the following centuries affected the town’s fortunes. Crusaders noted as they passed through that they were surprised to find only a small village and not, as they were expecting, a booming seaport.
By this time the Temple of Artemis, once one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was completely forgotten.
In 1304, Ephesus suffered a massacre at the hands of a Seljuk warlord, before finally becoming a vassal of the Ottoman Empire in 1390 and falling under complete control of the Ottomans in 1425.
By the end of the 15th century, the once great city of Ephesus was left completely abandoned.
Now that you know a bit more about the history of this ancient city, let’s see which landmarks you should not miss when visiting Ephesus.
What To See When Visiting Ephesus
Being the most complete example of a classical-era city anywhere in Europe, Ephesus is an incredible place to explore. However, because of its size, it’s a good idea to know where the highlights are and understand (at least a little bit) about why they’re so important.
In Ephesus today there’s not just one bath complex to see, but several. The most well known are the Baths of Varius. These were actually placed at the entrance to the city — as they were with most ancient cities.
This was so that visitors to Ephesus could wash themselves and be cleansed of any diseases before they entered the city proper.
The Baths of Varius are located at the Upper Ephesus entrance, next to another ancient monument: the Magnesian Gate. It was the famous Roman emperor Vespasian who ordered the building of the gate in the 1st century.
The Greco-Roman baths in Ephesus were more than just a place to wash, but served a social function too. People went for massages, met with friends, and caught up on the news and gossip of the day.
Elsewhere in Ephesus, the Harbour Baths had their very own gymnasium and sports arena. They were built towards the end of the 1st century. Unfortunately, an earthquake in 262 meant that they were out of action until the end of the 4th century.
There’s also the Baths of Scholasticia, which takes its name from the statue of a Christian woman named Scholasticia, who presumably funded repairs to be undertaken on the baths around the 4th century.
Once connected to the Trajan Fountain by a set of marble steps along a street aptly named Bath Street, this large bath boasted its own library and could hold up to a thousand people.
One of the highlights of visiting Ephesus is seeing the magnificent theater.
The Great Theater is thought to have been the largest of its kind in the ancient world, and had a capacity of up to 25,000. Initially, it was constructed under the orders of King Lysimachus (361-281 BC), a Hellenistic ruler who succeeded Alexander the Great in this region.
Later, under Roman rule, the theater was reconstructed between 41 and 117 AD. Much of the original Greek design was kept, however, such as the shape and the seating area. The rows of seats were inclined a little steeper, so that people in the higher seats could get a better view of the action.
The capacity of the theater has helped to support the theory by archaeologists that, in its heyday, Ephesus had a population estimated to be around 250,000.
Visitors to the theater today can climb the stairs to the upper rows of seats, just as theatergoers around 2,000 years ago would have done, and get some great views. There are even musical performances that take place at the theater (only around 8,000 attendees are allowed).
It is also incredible to consider that it was here that St Paul is believed to have preached to the masses in the early days of Christianity.
Library of Celsus
Probably our favorite sight in Ephesus! The library is actually visible from afar – it’s massive!
A high standard of living was evidently something that the citizens of Ephesus enjoyed, and it is clear that they placed a great importance on education.
The Library of Celsus is one of the most remarkable of all the buildings left at Ephesus. It was built in the 2nd century AD under the eye of a Roman consul, Gaius Julius Aquila. Interestingly the library was originally intended to be a funerary monument for the consul’s father.
The Library of Celsus is particularly important as it’s one of just a handful of ancient libraries that can still be seen today, and it’s the only Roman example that we have left.
At its peak, the Library of Celsus could hold 12,000 scrolls, making it smaller in size only when compared to the Great Library of Alexandria and Pergamon.
The library had an innovative design. For example, to protect the texts from the high humidity and temperatures of the area, the walls were constructed with a gap of 1 meter (3 feet) between them, to allow better airflow and help prevent mold.
Various events have caused damage to the Library of Celsus over the centuries. There have been multiple earthquakes, a fire set by invading Goths in 262 AD, and other attacks by various marauding forces.
The facade was reconstructed in the 1970s, allowing visitors to see a version of what it may have looked like in its prime — complete with columns, niches and statues.
Temple of Artemis
One of the major sights to see in Ephesus has long been an attraction in the city: the Temple of Artemis. Once described thousands of years ago as one of Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, you’ll have to use your imagination to conjure up what this temple would have looked like.
Today, only a pillar remains in a field of rubble and relics.
Initially dating to the 8th century BC, a flood damaged much of the temple in the 7th century BC. Reconstruction took place in 550 BC, but it was again destroyed around 200 years later — apparently by an arsonist who wanted to be famous (his name was Herostratus).
Alexander the Great offered to fund the rebuilding of the temple again, but the city politely declined his offer and rebuilt it themselves in 323 BC, following the death of Alexander.
This new version of the temple was much larger, gilded with gold, decorated with silver, and adorned with paintings and religious sculptures. It boasted 127 columns.
Incredibly, the Temple of Artemis features in the New Testament, specifically in the Acts of John. St John is depicted as praying in the temple to rid it of demons, allegedly causing the altar to Artemis to crack in half.
When Christianity took hold in the Roman Empire, and the persecution of pagans followed, the Temple of Artemis is thought to have fallen into disuse and subsequent disrepair. It was practically forgotten.
The once great temple was only discovered in 1869 by British archaeologist John Turtle Wood, during excavations that were sponsored by the British Museum.
Temple of Hadrian
The Temple of Hadrian was an important structure within the city of Ephesus. It was built in the 2nd century AD, and underwent a large amount of repairs in the 4th century using the original stones.
One of the most impressive things about the Temple of Hadrian is its main arch. This is supported by only one central keystone, without the need for mortar to keep it in place.
On the arch, you can see a depiction of the snake-haired Gorgon, Medusa (used as a sort of gargoyle to keep evil spirits at bay), and the head of Tyche, who was the goddess of chance. Tyche was the patron deity of Ephesus; traders and sailors would pray to Tyche in order to keep them safe during their travels.
Another thing to look out for on the first arch is a relief of the city’s legendary founder, Androclos, who can be seen in pursuit of a boar while riding a horse. On the other side of the arch are a group of Amazons (also theorized to be potential founders of the city).
When visiting, note that the statues and upper sections of the temple are actually copies of the originals, which now can be found in the Ephesus Archaeological Museum.
There’s an additional fee to pay to visit the Terraced Houses of Ephesus, but it’s totally worth it.
Protected by a covered roof, the Terraced Houses of Ephesus offer an insight into how the upper classes in the ancient city would have lived. This portion of the archaeological site is made up of Roman homes that were constructed over three adjacent terraces.
There is a wealth of different things to see when visiting Ephesus’ Terraced Houses. There are decorative frescoes, mosaics (covered in glass so you can safely walk on them), and even graffiti that was scrawled on the walls by previous inhabitants.
The graffiti includes everything from mundane things like shopping lists to daydreaming illustrations of gladiators and love poetry.
In one of the dwellings, you can even see a huge marble hall as well as private baths, which points to the wealth of the people who once lived here.
Situated in the Domitianus Square of Ephesus, this ornate relief of the Greek goddess Nike would have originally been a decoration on the city’s Heracles Gate.
The goddess Nike was the deity associated with victory and she is usually seen, as in this case, with wings. Here she holds a laurel wreath (a symbol of victory) in her left hand, and palm fronds in her right.
The square of Domitian itself is only partially excavated. But during the peak of its use, it would have been a bustling central point in the city, a meeting place where commerce and trade would occur. From here, roads led to temples and other important buildings in the city.
Another monumental structure for entertainment in the ancient city of Ephesus, the Odeon was built in approximately 150 AD.
It once could seat 1,400 spectators. With its marble seats, complete with lion paws and other ornamental designs carved into them, it would have been a polished place to see a performance.
The building of the Odeon was funded by Publius Vedius Antoninus and his wife. It was intended for small concerts and plays in a more intimate setting than the theater. Lectures and musical performance would have also taken place here.
It’s also believed that, due to its location close to the upper agora, it was also used as a council chamber for the city government.
When visiting Ephesus’ Odeon make sure to look out for the terracotta pipes, and holes for these, at the top of the building. This is a relic of Roman engineering and, at the time, was the most advanced aqueduct system in the world.
Practical Guide To Visiting Ephesus, Turkey
Ephesus is open every day from 8:00 am to 7:30 pm in April to October, and to 5:30 pm from November to March.
Giving information on the admission fee for visiting Ephesus is actually a bit tricky. The inflation rate in Turkey is incredibly high and even the prices of attraction go up on a regular basis.
When we visited, we paid 400 Turkish Lira (approximately $20 USD / €18,60 Euro / £16 GBP); admission for children is free. If you want to visit the Terraced Houses, there is an additional fee to pay. When we visited it was 170 Turkish Lira (approximately $8.60 USD €8 Euro / £7 GBP).
Don’t be surprised if you find the prices have increased when you visit!
Do you need a guided tour to visit Ephesus?
You don’t need a guided tour when visiting Ephesus, but it would certainly help. Keep in mind this is a very spread out site and there really is a lot to take in.
Having a guide take you around the site will offer up a deeper understanding of both the history of Ephesus in general, the importance and significance of the buildings remaining, and what life may have been like back in the city’s heyday.
For a guided tour of Ephesus departing from Selcuk, click here.
If you’d rather opt for a private tour, there’s this very highly rated tour that also departs from Selcuk.
For a guided tour departing from Kusadasi, you may want to consider this tour that also goes to the House of the Virgin Mary and the Temple of Artemis.
If you wish to visit Ephesus from Izmir, this tour will be a great option. It’s one of the best rated ones.
How to get to Ephesus, Turkey
When considering how to get to Ephesus, keep in mind that there are actually two entrances to the site: the upper entrance and the lower one.
The upper entrance is located to the southwest of the archaeological site, between the road to Selcuk and Mary’s House. The ticket office here is next to the car park, where you will also find toilets, a kiosk and a souvenir shop.
Starting at the upper entrance means fewer crowds and a bit more of a relaxed atmosphere. The route through the Ephesus will then be downhill from the entrance. Being higher up also means you’ll get a better view of the ancient city as you enter.
The lower entrance is on the north side of the archaeological site. This is considered to be the main entrance, and it’s where the majority of visitors pass through — particularly tour buses. The bus from Selcuk also stops here, and there’s a larger car park too.
More facilities can be found at the lower entrance. Here you’ll find restaurants, cafes, ATMs and even a post office. I would recommend considering which entrance you’d rather use when choosing your mode of transport.
Travel to Ephesus by car from Selcuk, Kusadasi or Izmir
Having a car will give you the opportunity of being completely flexible and it will make a trip to Ephesus a breeze. Most people who wish to visit Ephesus base themselves in either Selcuk or Kusadasi, and a few also stay in Izmir, which is a much larger city.
Selcuk is actually the best access point for visiting Ephesus — just a 7-minute drive to the larger parking lot and lower entrance.
Kusadasi is another easy place to base yourself when visiting Ephesus – it’s a 25 minutes drive (just around 21 km, or 13 miles).
From Izmir, it’s 82 kilometers (just under 60 miles) to Ephesus and the drive is just under an hour, but note that driving this route includes having to pay tolls.
Use public transport from Selcuk, Kusadasi or Izmir
If you don’t have a car but wish to travel independently or are on a smaller budget, you have the option of using public transportation to get to the site.
You can take the bus from Selcuk to Ephesus. The main bus terminal in Selcuk can be found in the center of the city.
Mini buses leave from here bound for Ephesus every 15 to 20 minutes, between 8:00 am and 6:00 pm in the summer months and 9:00 am and 5:00 pm in the winter months. The trip takes around 10 minutes.
Returning from Ephesus to Selcuk, note that you’ll have to walk back to the lower gate where you were first dropped by the bus.
From Izmir, it’s possible to get the train, but it only goes as far as Selcuk. Trains depart (though not very regularly) from Basmane Gar, the main station in Izmir, and take around an hour and a half to reach Selcuk. From there, you can take either the minibus as I described above, or take a taxi.
If your starting point is Kusadasi, you will once again have to take a minibus from the main bus station to Selcuk. Most of these buses actually pass by the site, so it’s a matter of letting the bus driver know that you need to get off in Ephesus and not in Selcuk.
Keep in mind chances are the bus driver won’t speak English, so be patient and make an effort to make yourself understood.
Join a guided tour
To make your day run as smoothly as possible, visiting Ephesus on a guided tour that includes transportation is definitely a good idea, as it will whisk you directly from your hotel to Ephesus.
Guided tours offer more than just convenient transport, however. You’ll also have the bonus of being shown around the ancient city with a guide, meaning you’ll get some extra historical insight into the ruins, rather than ambling around with a map and a guide book (if you have one) looking for information about what anything is.
There are various tours available – classic group tours, small group tours, and even private tours. Pick the one that suits you (and your budget) and then sit back without having to worry about timetables and bus fares.
Below are the best guided tours of Ephesus that can be easily booked online:
If you are visiting Ephesus from Selcuk, I recommend this guided tour here. It lasts 5 hours so you get a lot out of your visit!
If you’d rather opt for a private tour, there’s this very highly rated tour that also departs from Selcuk. It lasts 8 hours and also goes to the house of the Virgin Mary.
For a guided tour departing from Kusadasi, you may want to consider this tour that also goes to the House of the Virgin Mary and the Temple of Artemis.
If you wish to visit Ephesus from Izmir, consider this tour – it’s one of the best rated ones.
I don’t recommend it, but if you are really tight on time you may have the chance of visiting Ephesus on a day trip from Istanbul. That involves getting a flight and it’s a very long day. For more information, click here.
Visiting Istanbul too? Then make sure to read my post A 4 Days Istanbul Itinerary.
How long does visiting Ephesus take?
It depends on how interested you are and the depth of history you want to discover, but I would recommend spending at least half a day (four hours) in Ephesus. There’s so much to see here, a lot to learn and a lot to understand.
We stayed four hours when we visited, and we could have stayed longer!
However, it is possible to see the highlights (as I’ve listed above) in probably around 2 to 3 hours. If you’re short on time in Turkey in general, this means you’ll be able to spend a morning here before visiting another destination in the region (for example the lovely Sirince).
Best time to visit Ephesus
As for the exact time, if you’re visiting in summer I would not recommend the middle of the day. In summertime the temperatures can soar, and there isn’t much shade. The heat and the tourist crowds at this time of year can also just be really overwhelming.
If you want to see this ancient wonder without the largest crowds (and the heat), it’s a good idea to visit earlier in the year. Spring (April or May) is a good time to visit — the weather is pleasant but there are fewer tourists. We visited at the end of April and were truly lucky with a warm, sunny day.
Alternatively, in September or October, you would have the same sort of experience: less tourists, and nice weather.
What to wear and carry when visiting Ephesus
Deciding what to wear when visiting Ephesus is actually crucial to have a good experience. The key is to be comfortable. Here are my recommendations:
Comfortable shoes – these are a must when visiting this archaeological site. Not only is there a lot of walking to do, but it’s also all done over quite uneven ground (and on streets that are thousands of years old). There’s also some steps to climb. Make sure your shoes have a good grip and that they don’t rub: you don’t want them ruining your day.
Hat – bring a hat to provide shade and keep the sun off your head. There’s almost no shade in Ephesus, so a hat is essential for a visit during sunny weather (even outside the summer).
Sunblock – as I mentioned, there’s no shade, and sunblock will be needed to keep yourself safe from UV rays.
Water – you can buy water outside the site, in both entrances. Bear in mind you’ll be here for at least two hours, so I recommend at least half a liter – and remember to drink! You don’t want to get dehydrated.
Camera and power bank – you’ll want to make sure your phone is fully charged as the temptation to take thousands of pictures is strong. Bring a power bank just in case.
Ephesus is accessible to a point. Some of the roads here, though still quite uneven, are suitable for wheelchairs or any other walking aid.
However, certain parts are simply not going to be accessible for visitors with disabilities – for example, visiting the Terraced Houses requires climbing a lot of steps. It’s a millennia-old archaeological site and much of it is still crumbling ruins that will be hard to traverse.
While there are actually some ancient public toilets to see at Ephesus, please note that these are no longer for public use! These would have had mosaic floors and even a small bath (but there was a fee to use them).
When it comes to modern toilets, thankfully there are bathrooms here, located near the entrance gates (both entrances); there’s also a wheelchair accessible bathroom near the lower gate.
Other interesting facts
As cat lovers, one of the things we enjoyed the most when visiting Ephesus was seeing several cats roaming around the site (and a couple of dogs too).
Cats in Turkey are well taken care of: you will notice that most cats in Ephesus have their ear tagged to signal they have been sterilized, and local organizations (with the help of the government) feed them, run vaccination campaigns and take care of them.
To us, it really added to the experience!
Where to stay near Ephesus
While you could opt to stay in the much larger city of Izmir (which even has its own metro system), Selcuk is by far the best place to stay when visiting Ephesus. Mostly, that’s because Izmir is just a bit far from Ephesus to make it overly convenient.
Selcuk is a well connected town with straightforward transit connections to other cities and towns in the region. Of course, it’s also super close to Ephesus itself and can be used as a jumping-off point to other sights in the area too (Sirince, for example).
With plenty of places to eat and drink, as well as a number of accommodation options to suit different budgets, Selcuk is easily my top recommendation if you’re looking for hotels near Ephesus. Here are a few I recommend.
Celsus Boutique Hotel
This is where we stayed and I wholeheartedly recommend it, Celsus Boutique Hotel is a charming hotel set in a traditional stone and wood building. It’s pretty much across the street from St. John’s Basilica in Selcuk.
Complete with a swimming pool in its elegant courtyard, other amenities on-site include bike hire, room service and free parking available.
Rooms here are modern with traditional touches, including exposed stone walls, beamed ceilings and polished bathrooms. The staff are very helpful and make sure everything runs smoothly. Wake up every morning to a traditional, delicious Turkish breakfast.
This down-to-earth property is a warm, welcoming place to stay during your trip to the region. The interiors of this charming building are decorated with authentic Turkish crafts including handmade carpets.
Each morning starts with a delicious breakfast, while you can also finish your day with meals at the on-site restaurant or a drink at the bar. We had dinner there and truly loved it – and the magnificent sunset views are definitely a plus.
When you’re not busy exploring the ancient sights nearby, you can take a dip in the pool or sun yourself in the terrace garden.
For travelers looking for a hotel with plenty of character, Ibri Hotel certainly delivers. Each room here has been decorated with a quiet, rustic charm; some of the rooms boast large baths, while most have high ceilings and beautifully tiled floors.
Bike hire is available here, making it easy to cycle around the area (there’s also car hire, which is a plus). The hotel also has its own restaurant and bar, so you don’t have to go far to find a bite to eat after a busy day.
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