Aspendos Theater, Aqueduct, and Archaeological Ancient City
The Aspendos Ancient City boasts the best-preserved Roman theater in Turkey, and one of the best in the world. Located on the Pamphylian plain 47 km (29 miles) east of Antalya and 37 km (23 miles) west of Side (map), Aspendos is 4 km north of the Mediterranean shore on the banks of the Köprüçay River.
Once called Belkis, Aspendos was founded by the Hittites but legend holds that it was founded by colonists from Argos. Aspendos was a thriving ancient city and important to the politics of the Pamphylian region. In 333 B.C. Alexander the Great conquered the city and demanded a tax on the city’s remarkable horse breeding exports.
In 133 BC the city was annexed to the Roman Empire with the rest of the Pamphylian region. The stunning theater was then constructed at the command of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD) who ordered its great theater to be built. Still used for performances today, the theater really allows you to imagine what it was like to attend a dramatic performance in Roman times. The ruined city of Aspendos includes a substantial aqueduct, agora, basilica, and stadium. In 2015, the site was added to the UNESCO World Heritage’s Tentative List.
An audio guide is available and recommended, as signage is extremely limited. You can see the museum’s official website for information including admission pricing and visiting hours. I would recommend around 2 hours to fully explore the site!
The easiest way to get to the Aspendos Ancient City is by renting a car and driving there. By doing this you are able to stop for a tasty breakfast or lunch and also drive around the city and underneath the aqueducts!
If you want a cheaper option, you can take the tram T1B from Antalya’s city center to the end of the line and then hop on bus SA19 which will get you fairly close to the town of Serik. From there you should be able to hire a relatively easy taxi for the last leg to the entrance to Aspendos. You can also always simply hire a taxi the entire way!
Tips for Visiting
On your way to the theatre, there are some incredible restaurants where you can stop for a tasty gözleme (Turkish crepe) and ayran (yogurt drink) in the village. If you do come in high summer, you can enjoy the Aspendos Opera & Ballet Festival in September with performances in the marvelous theater!
East of the road from the highway to the theater is a graceful, restored Seljuk Turkish stone bridge across the Köprüçay stream. It’s worth taking the short detour of only a few hundred meters to visit it and admire this beautiful 800-year-old engineering work.
Aspendos is also a starting point for the St Paul Trail leading north up onto the Anatolian plateau by way of dramatic Köprülü Kanyon National Park through which the Köprüçay river churns and rolls. A good day’s excursion is to go river rafting on the Köprüçay, or to drive all the way up the valley to the ancient Roman town of Selge (now called Altınkaya).
A good day trip to take in lots of ancient ruins is to pair visiting Aspendos with visiting the adventurous hike up the ancient city of Sillyon or visit the ruins of Perge on your way back to central Antalya.
Exploring the Site
The entrance to the theater is a little hidden but is straight ahead once you pass through the gates and not up the path to the right. The theater is absolutely remarkable in both its sheer size and excellent preservation. You are able to climb the steps and appreciate it in all its glory. It likely would have been able to hold a capacity of 9,000 people. The theater is built in the traditional Greek style, carved into the side of the hill, but also features the addition of a Roman stage and fasçade. It was built by the architect Zenon at the command of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD).
Once you have finished exploring the Theater continue up the steps and path and you will see the remains of the ancient stadium on your right. The stadium is in a sad state of disrepair, but still features the remnants of seating and arches. You can imagine the thrilling competitions and Roman games which would have taken place in the center of these ruins!
Acropolis and Upper City
After seeing the Stadium, continue along the path and you will be greeted by the remains of an ancient temple. There have been no archaeological excavations done on this feature which makes it difficult to know much about it. It is impressive nonetheless and contains a few marble columns and altars.
Make sure you take the path which branches off to the left before the temple and goes up the hill! It gives you a scenic view of the theater and the surrounding countryside.
Come back down the hill and continue exploring the Upper City. To the left (South) of the temple is a Monumental Nymphaeum (fountain) flanked by the row of stores of the Market Hall. Opposite the Market Hall are the remains of a Basilica. The Market Hall is one of the few features which have been excavated and it is thought the structure was at least two stories high.
Do not miss walking out to visit the aqueducts! After exploring the Upper City a path continues North past the Single Arch and across the field to the north which will bring you to the stunning remains of the aqueducts. The aqueducts at Aspendos are famous for featuring one of the only preserved Roman siphon symptoms in the world!
—by Caleb Bowman; pictures by Abigail Goosen
For more information:
“Antalya Aspendos Archaeological Site.” Turkish Museums. https://turkishmuseums.com/museum/detail/1963-antalya-aspendos-archaeological-site/1963/4
“Aspendos Archaeological Site.” (Official Museum Website). https://muze.gov.tr/muze-detay?SectionId=ASP01&DistId=ASP
Türkiye Ministry of Culture and Tourism. “The Theatre and Aqueduct of the Ancient City of Aspendos.” UNESCO. 2015. https://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/6036/
“Aspendos.” Republic of Türkiye Ministry of Culture and Tourism. https://www.ktb.gov.tr/EN-113737/aspendos.html
“Aspendos Excavation Project.” Ankara University. 2020. http://aspendosexcavation.ankara.edu.tr/aspendos/