Cirali is a quiet village on the sun-soaked Mediterranean coast of Turkey; a peaceful spot with heart-stopping views in every direction. Pine forests, sea breezes, and night-blooming jasmine perfume the air. The atmosphere glows with magic, myth, and miracles.
The Eternal Flames at Yanartas
Hiking up a nearby mountainside takes you to Yanartas, where you’ll see the eternal flames known as the Chimera. These bonfire-sized flames have been burning mysteriously among the rocks since ancient times. Before seismic activity scattered the single giant flame into a score of campfires, the flame was a natural lighthouse for passing ships. According to Homer’s epic poems, the fire-breathing monster Chimera was buried alive here, under seven layers of earth, by a hero on the back of a winged horse.
Today’s explanation for the flames is methane gas deposits, but either way, the flames seem miraculous. Hike up at dusk and bring a flashlight to find your way back (or visit on a moonlit night). The entrance to the site is well-marked. Riding a bike is a great option if you don’t want to walk an hour to the entrance. Most resorts have bikes to lend, or you can rent one in town. Tip: Bring marshmallows or sausages to roast over the fire.
An unspoiled beach
On moonless nights, the sea is sometimes lit by an ancient miracle as well. Bioluminescent plankton drift close to shore, lighting up wherever swimmers disturb the water. It’s like swimming in the Milky Way, or inside a Glo Stick.
During summer months, though, you are not allowed to swim at night. Volunteers patrol the beach to ensure the safety of the giant Loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta Caretta) who have been coming to lay their eggs on this beach since long before humans arrived here. Volunteers place cages over the eggs to keep them safe. The babies hatch and toddle into to sea in late summer, delighting visitors and locals alike. Contact Caretta Research Project if you’re interested in helping to patrol the beach.
During the day, Cirali beach is a peaceful place for humans to relax. The water is quiet and impossibly blue, the beach is very clean and rarely crowded except during the peak season in summertime, and the surrounding mountains provide food for the soul. Patronize one of the open-air beachside restaurants and you’re welcome to lounge under their umbrellas or visit one of the less developed rocky ends of the beach if you prefer to be alone.
The ancient city of Olympos
At the north end of the beach, behind a rocky outcropping, lie the ruins of the ancient Lycian city of Olympos. A $2.50 ticket lets you enter the forest, where you will encounter random ruins along wooded paths. Roman temple columns lie in pieces among the underbrush, a castle emerges from the foliage like an archeologist’s dream, and sunbleached stone walls line the placid creekbed that divided the ancient city.
Olympos was once home to Lycian pirates until Rome took the city to stop the pirate sieges. Later, the city was inhabited by Sicilian pirates and in the Middle Ages, the Genoese, Venetians and other Italians build fortifications. This rich history means you can see everything from a Roman gate dedicated to Marcus Aurelius to Italian castles. Someday, I imagine these ruins will be protected and you’ll be led through the forest by a tour guide, but for now, the site is wild and you can discover the ruins on your own as you wander. Climb up to the Acropol at the top of the hill for an extraordinary view of the Olympos valley.
On the other side of the ruins is the modern town of Olympos, which is popular with backpackers and travelers.
Other Turkish delights in Cirali
It’s very easy to connect with local tour companies at their walk-up locations in Cirali. Tour operators can arrange boat tours, scuba diving, and visits to other sites around the area. It’s possible to ride a Teleferico to the top of [one of the] mountains, although locals consider it a tourist trap and prefer to hike up.
One of the best ways to see Cirali is to come across it as part of a trek along the Lycian Way. This trail weaves together beautiful seaside views, the Taurus Mountains (where Poseidon watched Ulysses sail away from Calypso’s island in Homer’s Odyssey), and ancient historical sites connected to Lycia, Greece, Rome, and the Ottoman Empire. The trail passes by homes and villages, so if you speak Turkish or aren’t afraid to communicate through gestures, you’ll have lots of opportunities to meet local folks. The entire trail takes 4-5 weeks to complete and is best tackled in the spring, but it’s possible to hike smaller sections as well.
Where to Stay
Campers, hikers, and other nature-lovers who like to rough it can rent a cabin, treehouse, or tipi in the forest. Cirali Homestay offers charming woodsy rentals on Airbnb. The properties are quite rustic — the treehouse walls are made from reclaimed doors, the kitchen is outdoors, and there’s no air conditioning. The facilities are surprising though — sparkling clean toilets, nice hot showers, fresh spring water to drink, and a gathering area with a projection screen for movies and karaoke parties. The beach, restaurants, and shops are within a twenty-minute walk, or you can get there faster on the bikes provided by the property. The owner, Diana, speaks English, German, and Turkish. Families, nature-lovers, and free spirits love this cozy hideaway in the forest.
Visitors looking for a slightly more upscale family holiday can do no better than Akdeniz Bahcesi (literally Mediterranean Garden). Guests stay in comfortable self-catering cottages with wi-fi in the midst of an organic garden, among orange and pomegranate groves. The family retreat offers a bed and breakfast plan, with dinners available for purchase. Breakfast might feature homemade jam or freshly squeezed orange juice made from just-picked oranges. Families love the quiet location, the painting, crafts and playground for the children, and the chance to learn handcrafts and traditional weaving.
Olympos Lodge has been the standard-bearer for luxury in Cirali, Turkey — even Charlize Theron opted to stay at Olympos when she visited Cirali.To be sure, the resort has the most perfect beach location imaginable. Insiders and reviewers say that the service at Olympos has become erratic and the facilities are beginning to fray around the edges. The emerging choice for an upscale Cirali vacation is Arcadia Holiday Resorts. A quiet beachfront location, swimming pool, and lovely villas make Arcadia a great choice for a relaxing stay.
What to eat in Cirali, Turkey
The menus among the Cirali restaurants are remarkably similar, and prices don’t vary much. The food is good at all of them, because Turkish food is just good. Nearly every restaurant takes credit cards and has wi-fi. You can choose a restaurant because it has a great view, or slightly lower prices, or a really nice person who talks to you while you’re looking over the menu in front.
Tourist food in Turkey is healthy and delicious, featuring grilled meats and fish without sauces, lots of fresh vegetables, and yogurt. Often your waiter will ask you to look at the meze (appetizers) that are available and choose from the cabinet. These will be mostly vegetable-based as well.
The local fish is mostly sea breem and sea bass, served grilled and whole for you to fillet on your plate. Grida Baligi, or white grouper, is a local treat. Calamari is one of the few fried foods on offer. Along the beach are several restaurants that feature more seafood, including lobster, shrimp, and grilled octopus.
Be sure to try the local juices and produce. Strawberries, melons, plums, and pomegranates are all succulent and sweet here. Watermelon with ice cream is a local dessert worth noting.
Guzleme is a crepe-like pancake, stuffed with anything from feta and spinach to bananas or honey. Not all restaurants serve guzleme, but it’s worth finding one that does.
Restaurants to try
A few restaurants to try: Simge is a popular restaurant that serves delicious Turkish-style pizzas. Azur is a nice place for fish. Karakus on the beach has a nice assortment of standard dishes, good service, nice prices, and a lovely view. Oleandro also offers the typical dishes, but in an enchanting garden setting for romantic dining, and with better-than-average service. Ceylan is a favorite for gozleme (turkish crepes) and Lemon Restaurant has the best stuffed grape leaves in the village. Merhaba has a secluded location on the less developed side of the beach, toward the Olympos ruins.
What to bring
Don’t bother bringing dressy clothes to Cirali. The usual advice about dressing modestly in Muslim countries doesn’t apply, either. The local women are often traditionally dressed and wear headscarves, but they’re used to seeing tourists in Speedos, too. Casual resort wear is the uniform. Swimsuits, shorts, sundresses, and t-shirts are everywhere.
- Footwear for the rocky beach (swim shoes or sport sandals) is essential. Sturdy walking shoes will get you to Olympos and the Chimera flames, boots are unnecessary unless you’ll be trekking.
- The sun can be very strong and very hot. A wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, long-sleeved lightweight shirt, and sunscreen are important. Carry a water bottle and stay hydrated.
- Most restaurants and some shops accept credit cards, but you’ll need cash for tipping. Luckily, there are now five ATMs in a row at the edge of town now.
- Simple beach toys, pareos, sunglasses, flip flops, and other items are available in the local shops, but the selection is limited. There are only a few shops and they are not large by US standards.
Getting Into Cirali Turkey
Cirali is a wonderful place to relax after a whirlwind tour of Istanbul and Cappadocia, Turkey’s most popular tourist destinations. The nearest airport is Antalya, which is 82 km away, or about a two-hour drive. Both Pegasus and Turkish Airlines offer good prices from within Turkey.
From Antalya, experienced travelers can catch the dolmus (combi van) toward Kas or the Antalya tur, Bati Antalya, Cicek tur or Kumluca Seyhat for about 10TL. Ask the driver to drop you at the Cirali junction, where you can catch another dolmus van for the last 7km into town (5-6TL if you wait for the van to fill. If you don’t want to wait, you can negotiate a price with the driver for a private ride, usually 25-35TL).
Dolmus drivers don’t typically speak much English. You may be more comfortable arranging for an airport transfer before you arrive. Your pensiyon will gladly help you make the arrangements and fill you in on costs.
Taxis are not a good choice, unless you speak excellent Turkish and have killer negotiation skills.
Getting Around Cirali Turkey
Cirali is very small and you can easily stroll from one end to the other. Most pensiyons have bicycles available, or you can rent one in town. A car is unnecessary, but if you’ve driven into town, you’ll find parking available almost everywhere.
Cirali is just touristy enough to be easy (English-speaking waiters, picture menus at the restaurants) but isn’t yet ruined by chain hotels or big resorts. The beach is still a heavenly expanse of sand rather than a chaotic sea of bodies. Most visitors are Turkish families who come in for the weekend, but there are German, Russian and British visitors as well, and an occasional American. Come fall in love with this Turkish paradise while it’s still relatively undiscovered.