What is today the largest resort on the Turkish Riviera was founded on a rocky piece of coast by a King of Pergamon in the 2nd century BCE as a harbour for his powerful fleet.
In the centuries before, cities had cropped up nearby, all over the ancient Pamphylia region, some falling to Alexander the Great, and some resisting his conquest.
The magnificent ruins of Termessos, Perge and Aspendos are tantalisingly close, and have also given up many thousands of artefacts now on display at the excellent Antalya Archaeological Museum.
Antalya is being developed at a dizzying rate, with malls, glitzy hotels and beach clubs crowding the coastline east and west of the city.
But there’s also spellbinding natural splendour to be found, at waterfalls, luxurious beaches and the colossal Bey and Taurus Mountains.
As you make your way through the knotted alleys of Antalya’s old town you may get a little thrill to think that people have been walking these streets for more than 2,000 years.
As well as being strewn with traces from Antalya’s distant past, Kaleiçi is a walkable enclave of peace in an otherwise hectic city.
We’ll talk about the grand Hadrian’s Gate and the Fluted Minaret a little later, but another of the structures that defines Kaleiçi silhouette is the Kesik Minare (Broken Minaret). This mosque, badly damaged in a 19th-century fire has stonework from a Roman temple and Byzantine basilica, and in 2019 its minaret was given a new conical crown.
Another icon is the crenellated clock tower standing sentry at the entrance to the old town opposite the 17th-century Tekeli Mehmet Pasa Mosque.
This is one of the last of the 80 towers in Antalya defensive walls.
2. Düden Waterfalls
Now, the first thing to note about the Düden Waterfalls is that there are two locations several kilometres apart.
The must-see is the lower falls (Karpuzkaldiran Waterfall), set between Antalya and Lara.
Here the Düden River plunges 40 metres over the tawny cliffs into the Mediterranean.
A park has been set up to help you get the most out of this natural wonder, complete with playgrounds for little ones, scenic terraces and a zip-line crossing the river just before it hurtles over the cliff.
You can view the falls from the water on a cruise setting off from Antalya’s old harbour.
Inland, the upper falls also deserve your time, where the river spills over a small rocky ledge rich with vegetation, and you can take a path that leads you behind the curtain of water.
3. Antalya Archaeological Museum
Being in the ancient Pamphylia region which extended from the Mediterranean coastline into the Taurus mountains, Antalya has a first-class archaeological heritage.
No shock then that the Antalya Archaeological Museum is one of the best in the country, and an obligatory stop on any holiday to the city.
More than 5,000 pieces are on show at any time, across 13 halls covering every period from prehistory to Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman times, as well life in the Antalya countryside in the early 20th century.
Of course, the ancient artefacts inspire the most fascination, running from coins, to status, sarcophagi, wine bowls, jewellery and figurines.
One outstanding piece is a 2nd-century marble sarcophagus with reliefs depicting the Twelve Labours of Hercules, while the statuary hall is loaded with 2nd and 3rd-century Roman carvings of Mythological figures like Zeus, Artemis, Aphrodite, Hecate, Hermes and Minerva, to name a small few.
4. Kurşunlu Waterfall
Northeast of Antalya, one of the tributaries of the Aksu River descends from the plateau to the coastal plain through a canyon two kilometres long.
There, in a 600-hectare nature park you’ll encounter the gorgeous Kurşunlu Waterfall.
Surrounded by pine forest, this has one main drop, from a height of 18 metres, but there’s a chain of seven splash pools in the canyon, each fed by smaller cascades.
You can take in this natural wonder along a walking loop, cut from the rock and taking about 45 minutes.
And as there’s ample shade and a cooling mist the walk never feels taxing.
By the entrance to the park there’s also a picnic area and viewing terrace, served by a restaurant and playground for wee ones.
Three buses shuttle between the centre of Antalya and the falls, but a taxi our organised tour may be the most comfortable options.
5. Perge (Perga)
The first of a few ancient sites that need to be visited is the city of Perge about 15 kilometres east of Antalya.
Perge was inhabited as early 1209 BCE, and in turn was ruled by the Persians, Athenians, Alexander the Great, the Seleucids and then the Romans.
One renowned inhabitant was Apollonius of Perga, the astronomer and geometer from the 2nd century BCE who defined the geometric terms “parabola”, “hyperbola” and “ellipse”. Perge has been excavated over the last 70 years and there’s much to discover, like the agora and its intact pillars, the Roman theatre with remarkable bas-reliefs in its skene, the Roman baths and palestra (wrestling school) in front, the nyphaeum, necropolis and solemn city gates.
Work is ongoing at Perge, and in the last few years some masterful Greek mosaics have been unearthed, including an image of the sacrifice of Iphigenia in 2017. Check out the “Perge, Side, Aspendos & Waterfalls Guided Tour” on GetYourGuide.
com for an action-packed day zipping from one ancient city to the next, pausing at the Kurşunlu Waterfall on the way back to Antalya.
6. Hadrian’s Gate
This magnificent triumphal arch, just off Atatürk Boulevard, was built in the 2nd Century BCE to mark the visit of Emperor Hadrian to Antalya.
The gate has three arches, between which are four columns on each side.
If you’ve got an eye for classical architecture you’ll notice that the column capitals are composite, combining Ionic volutes with Corinthian acanthus leaves.
The gate is flanked to the north and south by tough defensive towers, both of which have stood here in some form since Roman times.
Also take a look at the entablature over the arches, which has kept hold of many of its original rosettes and lion heads on its frieze and cornice.
7. Konyaaltı Beach
Seven kilometres from edge of the city down to Antalya’s modern container port, Konyaaltı Beach is the most convenient public beach to the centre of Antalya.
A mix of coarse sand and pebbles, the beach has moderate surf, although it pitches quite steeply in the sea at times.
As you relax you’ll see Antalya at the apex of the gulf, and can look down to the epic Bey Mountains to the southwest through the haze.
One of many things to love about the beach is its promenade, through an avenue of palm trees and bordered by grassy spaces with playgrounds and cafes.
8. Tünektepe Teleferik
There’s an undeniable allure to the Bey Mountains, the sharp slopes of which can be reached behind the container port.
Here you can catch a cable car running for 1,700 metres up the vertiginous face of the 618-metre Tünek Tepe hill, to a lookout with a hotel, nightclub, cafe, rotating restaurant, playground and bazaar for traditional crafts.
Like so much of what you see in Antalya, the cable car is a recent arrival, begun in 2013 and ready for the 2017 season.
In 2020 an adult ticket was 15TL (approx $2.40). Needless to say the panoramas are fabulous, and you can peer through binoculars back to over the gulf to Antalya.
9. Karaalioglu Park
Southwest of the walls and within a short walk of Kaleiçi is a park hoisted on the cliffs, with views of the Gulf of Antalya.
Here you can take a leisurely walk, sipping Turkish tea under the pines and stopping on the main terrace to see the Mediterranean and the shadowy Bey Mountains.
Karaalioglu Park has a smattering of cafes, as well as a children’s playground, and some key landmarks like the mayor’s office, municipal theatre and the historic Hıdırlık Tower.
This coastal defence in the northwest corner has a Roman base from the 2nd century, topped by an Ottoman cylindrical tower.
However you spend your time in Antalya, try to be in Karaalioglu Park when the sun goes down.
10. Old Harbour
Walking Kaleiçi’s alleys it’s just a matter of time before gravity beckons you down to the harbour that gave birth to Antalya, squeezed into a craggy recess in the coastline.
Skirted by the crenellated walls of the old city, the frenetic, tree-lined quaysides are in the old harbour are the point of departure for boat trips out to sights like the Lower Düden Waterfall.
You won’t need an agent to book a seat, but you may need to haggle.
These cruise boats are port-to-starboard with all sorts of other vessels, from private yachts to little fishing boats.
Walk out along the southern wall to the beacon at the harbour entrance for a complete view of the quays, jetties, Antalya’s rocky coastline and those sturdy old defensive walls.
Just past Serik, off the Antalya-Alanya highway (D400) you’ll come to the ruins of a city that for a time was the most important in the ancient Pamphylia region.
Aspendos grew up on a plateau, a short way inland from the mouth of the Eurymedon, and reached its apogee in the 5th century BCE, trading wool, oil and salt via the navigable river.
The headline at Aspendos is the theatre from the 2nd century BCE.
Praised for its incomparable level of preservation, this monument is almost 100 metres in diameter and can seat 12,000. It’s a breathtaking venue for the Aspendos International Opera and Ballet Festival every September.
Nearby are the ruins of an aqueduct, basilica, nymphaeum, agora and the Roman bridge on the Eurymedon that was rebuilt in the 13th century.
The remains at Aspendos are all the more spectacular against the craggy mass of the Taurus Mountains, commanding the horizon the north.
On this excursion you’ll travel up into the Taurus Mountains to discover one of Turkey’s best-preserved ancient cities, wreathed in pine forest on a rocky podium in the Mount Güllük-Termessos National Park.
This rocky perch has ensured its survival and also made it unconquerable: Alexander the Great gave up in the 4th century BCE.
You’ll hear Termessos described as a “Turkish Machu Picchu”, and like Aspendos, the show-stopper is the theatre.
High behind the stage is the monolithic peak of Mount Solymos (Güllük Dağı) and the mostly intact auditorium enjoys a staggering view over the Pamphylian plain.
The road into Termessos is lined with ancient rock cut tombs, and some other sights waiting for you are the agora, city walls, gymnasium, odeon and the vestiges of six temples.
13. Lara Beach
Past the airport east of Antalya proper is another Blue Flag beach, along a stretch of coast that is almost unrecognisable from just 20 years ago.
On the coastal road behind Lara Beach are statement hotels and high-rise apartment blocks, interspersed with shopping malls and new tourist attractions.
Down on the beach, much of this long, dusky sweep of sand and shingles is private, and has rows of sun-loungers attached to hotels.
The public end is to the west, at the eastern terminus for a handful of bus lines from Antalya.
Evenings are special at Lara, when you can watch the sun setting behind the Bey Mountains across the gulf.
14. Yivliminare Mosque
The Anatolian Seljuk Sultan, Kayqubad I (1188-1237) ordered this mosque, which was destroyed in the 14th century and reconstructed in the 1370s on the foundations of a Byzantine church.
An abiding part of the Kaleiçi cityscape is the 38-metre minaret, called the “fluted minaret” for the eight long grooves in its red brick shaft.
In the mosque’s heyday these flutes were clad with blue glazed tiles.
The Yivliminare Mosque is a functioning place of worship, paced on the tentative list of Turkish UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2016. For non-Muslims it’s a beautiful waymarker appearing from time to time between the houses as you plot a course through Kaleiçi’s alleys.
15. Antalya Aquarium
Moments from Konyaaltı Beach is an aquarium that opened in 2012 and has more than 60 themed and labelled tanks, the largest of which holds over five million litres.
You can experience this environment through a 131-metre glass tunnel, the biggest in the world and with sharks, rays and tropical fish swimming overhead and around the wrecks of an aircraft and submarine.
Try to be here at 12:00 when you can see the aquarium staff in scuba gear feeding this marine life by hand.
The 1,500-square-metre Snow World is an ice museum, with a new sprinkling of snow every night and a constant temperature of -5°C.
The aquarium’s WildPark is a tropical space keeping venomous snakes, chameleons, frogs and crocodiles in terrariums, while you can watch a thrilling underwater show at the XD Cinema.