Last Updated on August 25, 2022 by Soumya
Visiting the ancient city of Ephesus on your next Turkey trip? Wondering what are the best things to do and see in Ephesus? How long would an Ephesus tour take? What to know before planning your visit to Ephesus’ ruins?
In this super comprehensive Ephesus travel guide, we are going to answer all your questions and some more.
Ancient Ephesus was once a sprawling metropolis and port city on the banks of River Kaystros. This Hellenic-Roman city was built around the Temple of Artemis (one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world) and grew to be the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. The entire ensemble of Artemis Temple, House of Virgin Mary, and the ruins of Ephesus was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015.
Ephesus, or Efes Turkey as it is often referred to, forms an important part of all Turkey itineraries today. Travelers are not just curious about the ancient city of Ephesus but are also keen to visit other historic places near Ephesus such as St. John’s Basilica and Virgin Mary’s House.
In this complete Ephesus travel blog, I talk about the best things to do in Ephesus, hours and entrance fee, best tours, how to visit Ephesus archaeological site on your own, and lots of other travel tips.
History of the Ancient City of Ephesus
Ephesus was founded in the 4th century BCE by Lysimachos, one of Alexander the Great’s military generals. It was an ancient Greek settlement constructed around the Temple of Artemis, one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world.
When Ephesus became part of the Roman Empire in 133 BCE, Ephesus became the capital of Eastern Roman or the Byzantine Empire. Most of Ephesus’ buildings, that you see in ruins today, were built between 27 BCE – 180 CE, during what we know as Pax Romana. Pax Romana was a period of peace between various Roman nationalities. It began with the reign of Caeser Augustus and ended with the rule of Marcus Aurelius.
Apart from historical ruins, the ancient city of Ephesus is also home to 3 important religious sites. The Mosque of Isa Bey is a revered mosque from the times of Ottoman Turks while the House of Virgin Mary and the Basilica of St. John are the among the most visited Christian pilgrimage sites in the world today. It is believed that Mary lived and died in Ephesus. And so did Apostle John, who is buried at the basilica.
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Best things to do in Ephesus Ancient City
There are several amazing things to do and see in Ephesus including the iconic Library of Celsus, the Great Theater, an ancient walkway called the Curetes Street, and the incredible frescoes and mosaics of Terrace Houses.
The ruins of Ephesus Ancient City in Turkey are spread over an area of 600 hectares and have two main entrances – one at the bottom (lower) and one at the top (upper). We entered through the lower entrance and this list of Ephesus attractions is what I saw in a sequence as I walked from the lower to the upper entrance.
There are two main streets in Ephesus – Arcadiane and Curetes Street. The first that you encounter when you walk in from the lower entrance is the Arcadiane.
The 500m long Arcadiane was crucial to the city of Ephesus because it connected the city with the harbor. A 6th-century inscription tells us that public lighting of the Arcadiane was taken very seriously.
The Great Theater
As you walk along the Arcadiane, the first monument that you’ll notice is a colossal amphitheater that dates back to the Hellenistic era. This is the Great Theather which had a seating capacity of 25,000.
The Great Theater was a much smaller structure during the Greek times. Later, the Romans rebuilt and expanded it greatly. Gradually, the theater went on to become a massive, 3-storey amphitheater that would soon become the hub of Ephesus’ social life. Apart from theater and drama, Great Theater played host to numerous political assemblies and gladiatorial contests.
Pro tip: Even though the theater is very impressive, I urge you to quickly move on to the famous Library of Celsus because that is the most unique monument in the Ephesus ensemble and gets crowded super quickly. You can always come back to the theater later.
Library of Celsus
The Library of Celsus is one of the most majestic buildings of the Roman Empire and the third largest library after the ones at Alexandria and Pergamum.
Built in the 2nd century CE by Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus, a notable member of the Roman senate, the Celsus Library once housed more than 12,000 books. Eventually, it went on to become Celsus’ burial place too.
The highlight of the Library of Celsus is the majestic arched entrance with two tiers and highly decorative facades. 4 pairs of Corinthian columns adorn the 3 doorways to the library. Each of these doorways has an elaborate frame and a large window on the top. 4 statues flank the doors. They depict Celsus Polemaeanus’ 4 qualities – wisdom, intelligence, knowledge, and virtue.
As you enter the building, you realize how big it is. Imagine it being filled with books and Roman scholars venturing in and out, poring over age-old manuscripts. What a sight that would have been!
Pro tips for visiting Ephesus Library of Celsus
- Come here first thing if you are visiting in the morning or the last if you are here in the afternoon. That is the best way to avoid the crowds at the library.
- Early morning is the best time to visit the library because the facade faces east. Sun’s rays illuminate the facade making it the best time for photography.
Terrace Houses of Ephesus Ancient City
One of the most important things to see in Ephesus are the Terrace Houses. They are also called Yamac Houses or the Yamacevler.
This complex of rich, residential mansions has the most wonderful collection of wall paintings and floor mosaics in the Roman world. The paintings reminded me of the vibrant walls of Villa Oplontis near Pompeii, Italy and the mosaics took me back to my Conimbriga trip in Portugal.
The Terrace House is a multi-storied building that had 6 separate dwelling units with a peristyle courtyard. Meeting and reception rooms in the building are richly decorated with frescoes and mosaics whereas utility areas like kitchens and toilets have sparse furnishings.
Some of the popular mosaics in the ensemble are those of Medusa and a lion. The frescoes are colorful and well restored in many spots.
Pro tips for visiting Ephesus Terrace Houses
- Terrace Houses at Ephesus need a separate admission fee but are totally worth it. I would not recommend skipping them.
- Entrance is covered by the Turkey Museum Pass or Aegean Museum Pass if you have one.
- The terrace houses are covered. So, I would recommend visiting them around noon to avoid the heat outside. Plus, there are not very crowded at any time because they have a separate entrance fee.
- I highly recommend hiring a tour guide for this part of Ephesus ruins. That is because sometimes we are just looking at murals and mosaics without even understanding what they represent. A local tour guide makes the experience a lot more enlightening. Few tours like this one included a tour of Ephesus Terrace Houses and trust me, they are absolutely worth it.
Curetes Street is the main street in Ephesus that connects the lower half of the city with the upper half. It runs between the Library of Celsus and Heracles Gate. Many historic buildings of Ephesus including the Terrace Houses are found on Curetes Street.
Curetes Street was the hub of all activity in ancient Ephesus. There were mansions, shops, galleries, monuments, and fountains on both sides of the street. I can imagine this to be the most gregarious part of Ephesus ancient city.
Pro tip: Curetes Street is made of marble and is slippery in many parts. Wear good walking shoes because heels and flip-flops will not work here.
Temple of Hadrian
The Temple of Hadrian is one of the best things to see in Ephesus. Located on Curetes Street, the temple dates back to the 2nd century and pays homage to Emperor Hadrian. Be sure to notice the relief above the door lintel that depicts events in the foundation of Ephesus.
The stoa is a line of shops/workshops right in front of the Terrace Houses on Curetes Street. In front of them, you’ll see a colonnade that is supported by columns and has a polychrome mosaic floor featuring various floral and animal patterns.
At the southern end of Curetes Street, you’ll spot the ruins of the Heracles/Hercules Gate. Look at the two columns that feature images of Hercules wearing the skin of a lion.
Once you reach the end of Curetes Street and walk through the Hercules Gate, you’ll come to Domitian Square where you’ll see a number of important Ephesus attractions.
One of Ephesus’ most photographed attractions is the Nike sculpture at Domitian Square.
The famous sculpture is a triangular-shaped marble relief of Nike, Greek Goddess of Victory. In one hand, Nike holds a laurel wreath and in the other, she has a palm branch.
Nike’s relief once adorned the Heracles Gate but is now located on the side. It is one of the best places in Ephesus to get clicked at.
Memmius Monument & Polio Fountain
Two other important structures at the Domitian Square were the Polio Fountain and the Memmius Monument. Polio Fountain was an ornate fountain decorated with statues while the Memmius Monument was a victory arch commemorating Ephesus’ liberation from the Pontic Empire in 84 BCE.
Temple of Domitian
Domitian Square gets it name from the Temple of Domitian that stands at the southeastern end of the square. It was the first ever temple in Ephesus to be built in the honor of an Emperor, Domitian. This made Ephesus a neocorate for the first time in its history.
The State Agora was a thriving public space in the ancient Roman city of Ephesus. This is where all political debates happened and policies were voted on. There was a small temple in the center, of which only some ruins are visible today. Several important public buildings such as the Odeon Theater and Pyrtaneion surrounded the Agora.
The Odeon Theater is a smaller amphitheater near the State Agora but quite as impressive as the Great Theater. It could seat 1,800 people at a time and functioned as an assembly hall and concert theater. Because of its proximity to the State Agora, this is where many city council meetings were held.
The Pyrtaneion was the city hall and the seat of administration. Official banquets and receptions were held here. In the center, there was an ancient temple dedicated to Hestia, Goddess of Fire.
Roman gym & sarcophagi
I want to quickly mention that, at the lower entrance, right before the Arcadiane begins, you’ll see the ruins of a Roman gymnasium. This is apparently where athletes as well as gladiators trained.
Right across the street from the gym, there is an interesting display of sarcophagi. A note on the side will tell you that ancient Ephesus was once a renowned production center of half-finished sarcophagi. Ephesus’ sarcophagi were unique because of their beautiful garland decorations.
Best things to see near Ephesus Ancient City
One of the things that not many people do is visit the Ephesus Archaeological Museum. The fact that it is located in the town of Selcuk and not at the archaeological site makes the museum a bit of a hidden gem.
At the Ephesus Museum, you’ll see an amazing display of statues and artifacts from the ruins of Ephesus. There are also some from Cukurici Hoyuk, the first ever settlement in Western Turkey, Temple of Artemis, and the Basilica of St. John. Perhaps the most interesting object on display is the statue of Artemis as a symbol of fertility.
Trivia – Did you know that Vienna, Austria has an Ephesos Museum too that displays artifacts from the historic city of Ephesus, Turkey?
Temple of Artemis
One of the seven wonders of the ancient world was right here in Ephesus. Today, only a few columns remain. Yes, you guessed it right. I am talking about the Temple of Artemis which should totally be on your Turkey bucket list.
Temple of Artemis, or Artemision as it is also called, was an ancient Greek temple dedicated to Goddess Artemis or Diana from Roman mythology. She was the patron deity of the city and hence, needed a large and beautiful religious space. The temple was built around 550 BCE, burnt down in 356 BCE and rebuilt, and finally destroyed by the Goths in 262 CE.
The Temple of Artemis was one of the most visited religious destinations in the ancient world. Thousands of pilgrims visited the temple every year. No doubt, it was added to the list of ancient wonders of the world by Hellenic travelers.
The version of Artemis that you see in Ephesus is a combination of the Greek goddess and Cybele, a local deity for fertility. That’s why the statues of Artemis that you see at the Ephesus Museum are covered with fertility symbols.
Ruins of the temple are free to visit.
House of Virgin Mary
The House of Virgin Mary is yet another attraction near Ephesus which sees thousands of pilgrims every year.
Located on a remote Mt. Koressos, just 15 minutes away from Ephesus, this house is believed to have been the the home of Virgin Mary during the last years of her life. Several popes including Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II have visited the house.
Today, it is an important pilgrimage center and often clubbed with a visit to Ephesus. There is no public transport to get to the House of Virgin Mary. So, you’ll need to drive your own car, hire a taxi, or join a highly-recommended, guided tour like this one.
Basilica of St. John
You cannot miss the Basilica of St. John when you are visiting Selcuk or planning to see the best places near Ephesus ancient city.
The basilica is a huge Christian pilgrimage center today. It is believed that John the Apostle was buried here. You can pay respects at his tomb (pictured above).
St. John’s Basilica was constructed by Roman Emperor, Justinian the Great, in the 6th century. It was a massive site then and today, the ruins are impressive. You can catch a stunning view of the town from the observation area too.
The archaeological site is open from 8:00am – 7:30pm in summer (April – October) and from 8:30am – 5:30pm in winter (November – March). Entrance fee to the Basilica of St. John is 40 TL. Check here for latest prices before you go.
Mosque of Isa Bey
Built in late 14th century, the Mosque of Isa Bey is one of the best things to see near the Ephesus archaeological site. It is a beautiful example of Seljuk architecture with high walls of marble and limestone. Much of the raw material came from the ruins of Ephesus.
Apparently, the Mosque of Isa Bey was inspired by the Great Mosque of Damascus, though it is hard to make out the connection now. A good bit of the mosque was damaged and rebuilt.
The Mosque of Isa Bey is free to visit. Dress respectfully. You’ll find long cover ups for women at the entrance in case you need one.
The mosque is located very close to St. John’s Basilica, so you can easily walk between the two.
Interactive map of Ephesus attractions
Practical information for visiting Ephesus ruins
Ephesus opening hours
The archaeological site of Ephesus is open from 8:00am – 7:30pm in summer (April – October) and from 8:30am – 5:30pm in winter (November – March). Last admission time is 1 hour before the closing time.
Ticket office closes at 6:30pm in summer and at 5:00pm in winter.
Ephesus entrance fee
The entrance fee for Ephesus ancient city was 150 TL when I visited. Admission to Terrace Houses was 60 TL.
However, at the time of writing this post (which is only a month after visiting) admission fee for the archaeological site has increased to 200 TL and Terrace Houses has gone up to 85 TL.
Entrance fees in Turkey are going up like crazy especially because of their falling currency. If you are paying in dollars or euros, it is does not make a lot of difference. But it is always a good idea to check on their official website for latest prices before planning your Ephesus trip.
At the time of visiting, for 270 TL, I could get a combined ticket for Ephesus Archaeological Site + Terrace Houses + Ephesus Museum + St. John’s Basilica. I am sure this must have gone up too.
If you are visiting Turkey for a longer period of time, I highly recommend getting a Turkey Museum Pass which is valid for 15 days and covers several museums around the country. Not only saves you a lot of $$ but also some precious time. If you are visiting the Aegean only, then getting an Aegean Museum Pass may make more sense. Check out all Turkish Museum Passes on their official website here.
Where to buy Ephesus tickets?
You can buy your tickets or museum passes at both the upper and lower entrance gates of Ephesus.
You can also buy an online version of the ticket + mobile audio guide here. But honestly, I haven’t heard great reviews for audio guide included in this online version. So, it is just better to get a ticket and audio guide at the entrance.
Audio guides at Ephesus
Audio guides are available at Ephesus for 90 TL at the time of visiting. You can pick from 10 different languages which include English, Spanish, German, and French.
Tours at Ephesus Turkey
You don’t need a tour for Ephesus, Turkey though one is highly recommended if you wish to know the history of each and every monument.
We did a DIY tour where we began at the lower gate and walked up to the upper gate. We picked this route because one, public transport is available only at the lower gate and two, we could see the Library of Celsus as soon as we entered the site.
There were several points, such as the Terrace Houses and the Curetes Street, where I thought a tour guide could have given me deeper insights. I then regretted not having signed up for a guided tour. But if you are looking for one, here are some great Ephesus tours.
- This small-group, full-day tour that takes you to the Ephesus archaeological site, Temple of Artemis, and the House of Virgin Mary is extremely popular among visitors and good value for money. They’ll pick you up and drop you from Selcuk or Kusadasi Port.
- On this all 5-star, private tour from Kusadasi Port, you’ll explore the ancient city, Virgin Mary’s House, St. John’s Basilica, as well as the Terrace Houses.
- Discover the secrets of Ephesus on this private tour with a historian guide who will tell you the stories behind the stones of Ephesus. This is the perfect choice for history buffs like you and me.
How to get to Ephesus Ancient City?
You can get to Ephesus Ancient City by minivan (dolmus) from Selcuk bus station (Otogar). Have a look at the interactive map above to get directions to the Otogar. Ephesus vans leave from the corner near the toilets. A man at a table sells tickets. Have a look at the picture below to spot your van.
The minivans run as soon as they get filled up which happens every 10 minutes at around 8:30 – 9:00am in the morning. The ride takes around 10 minutes and costs around 8-10 TL per person.
The minivan will drop you at the lower gate of the archaeological site. This gate is closer to the Library of Celsus. While returning, you’ll have to come back to the same gate again because there isn’t any public transport at the upper gate.
The return process is a little interesting. Go to the same bus stop at Ephesus lower gate when you want to return. Usually, there’ll be a guy who will call up the minivan driver and a minivan will be at the stop in 5-10 mins. Or there are phone numbers at the bus stop that you can call yourself.
Where to stay in Ephesus?
The closest town to Ephesus is Selcuk and my preferred place to stay.
Of course, you can stay in Izmir but getting to Ephesus Ancient City from Izmir takes about an hour whereas from Selcuk, it is just 10 minutes. If you are spending only a day in Ephesus, then it makes sense to stay in Selcuk.
There are many nice places to stay in Selcuk and the best part is that you’ll find a number of budget options here.
We absolutely loved our stay at Nicea Hotel (Agoda | Booking) where we had a nice, big room with a balcony overlooking the park. The staff was very friendly, they have a dog, and they serve great breakfast. The best part is the hotel is located right across the street from Selcuk Otogar (bus station). Plus, the Ephesus Museum and Temple of Artemis are just a short walk away. The Nicea Hotel was one of the best places I stayed in Turkey and I highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for a good hotel at a decent price in Selcuk.
If you are looking for something more luxurious and boutique, have a look at Akanthus Hotel (Agoda | Booking) with gorgeous rooms, stunning decor, an outdoor swimming pool, and a wonderful breakfast spread.
Ephesus travel tips
- You should plan to spend at least 2-3 hours at Ephesus if you want to see the ruins in detail. Just the Terrace Houses can take up an hour of your time.
- Come here early in the morning to avoid crowds. Tour groups start arriving around 10:00am and usually enter from the upper entrance. Coming around 9:00am and entering from the lower entrance gives you enough time at Library on your own.
- The best time to photograph the Celsus Library is early in the morning when sun rays bathe the monument in an ethereal yellow.
- Get your best walking shoes because you are going to need them in Ephesus. The city’s ancient marble walkways are often slippery.
- Do not miss the Terrace Houses if you are interesting in history and art. It costs an extra $5 to enter them but they are totally worth it.
Ephesus travel FAQ
Is Ephesus a must see?
Yes, Ephesus is a must see because the ancient city was once a thriving capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. It is home to one of the biggest libraries of the ancient world and the best royal mansions featuring colorful frescoes and mosaic floors. Ephesus is also home to the Temple of Artemis, one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world.
How many days do you need in Ephesus?
You need at least one day in Ephesus to see the ruins of the ancient city, visit the Temple of Artemis and St. John’s Basilica, and pay your respects at the House of Virgin Mary. If you want to do more such as stop by the Ephesus Museum and Isa Bey Mosque, you’ll need 2 days in Ephesus.
Why should you visit Ephesus?
You should visit Ephesus to see the 2000-year-old ruins of a Hellenic-Roman city which is home to one of the largest libraries of the olden times, the Temple of Artemis – a wonder of the ancient world, the house where Virgin Mary spent the last years of her life, and St. John’s Basilica where the John, the Apostle is buried.
What is special about Ephesus?
Ephesus is special because it was built around the Temple of Artemis, one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world. That made Ephesus a thriving pilgrimage center in the olden times. As times changed, Ephesus also became a prosperous port city and the capital of the Byzantine Roman Empire.
What should I wear to Ephesus?
Wear something light and comfortable to Ephesus because it is always sunny and hot. Shorts and cotton dresses are fine. Get a hat and be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes to walk on Ephesus’ ancient marble roads.
Can you tour Ephesus on your own?
Yes, you can tour Ephesus on your own. You do not need a tour guide to visit Ephesus. Just buy your entrance ticket at any of Ephesus’ two gates, enter the archaeological site, and do your DIY Ephesus tour.
What is ancient Ephesus called today?
The ancient city of Ephesus goes by the name of Selcuk today. Selcuk is a modern town in western Turkey. The ruins of Ephesus are located on the fringes of Selcuk town.
How old are the ruins in Ephesus?
The ruins in Ephesus are more than 2000 years old. Most Ephesus monuments were built during the Pax Romana period between 27 BCE – 180 CE.
Is Ephesus worth visiting?
Ephesus in Turkey is absolutely worth visiting. Once the capital of Eastern Roman Empire, Ephesus is home to the ruins of an ancient metropolis and the Temple of Artemis (an ancient world wonder) which make it one of the best UNESCO World Heritage Sites to visit in Turkey.
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