Ephesus: things you need to know before you go
This is an overwhelming site, not only because of its size but also because you are processing tons of impressions simultaneously. It seems that there is something to see wherever you look. Especially during peak hours, the combination of crowds, tour guides trying to tell (or even shout) their story, and the heat, can be a bit much. That is why we advise staying away during ‘rush hour’. The other thing you need to make sure of is that you are coming prepared. You are on the right track with this guide! 🙂 First things first: decide where you will start your visit: from the upper gate or the lower gate.
Which entrance to take? Upper gate? Or Lower gate?
Ephesus has two entrance gates. The Lower Gate is the one nearest to Selçuk village and has a large parking lot where all of the tour buses await the day trippers. The Upper Gate has no parking space and is situated along the road that goes towards the House of the Virgin Mary. Despite the lack of parking space, this is still the gate where most organized bus tours start their visit to the site. The reason is quite straightforward: from this entrance, you have an easy walk down to the exit. In all honesty, if you decide to start at the Lower Gate, the climb isn’t such a big deal. If you take our advice to come early or late in the day, your advantage may be that you will only have to deal with big groups of visitors crossing your path for a short while. No matter which route you pick, you can exit on both sites. If you came by car, taxi’s and horses and carriage are awaiting you to take you back to the other end. Of course, you can do what we did and walk back the same way you came from. There is so much to absorb that a second run is more than welcome! Know that there are paid audio-guides available at both entrances should you be interested in more background information while on a self-guided tour.
Main sights: go there first, or last!
Unless you are visiting Ephesus at peak hour, plan to go the main sights before you visit the rest of the site if you are there early morning. When arriving late afternoon, it is best to postpone the top sights until most people have left. Of course, if you are someone that loves crowds, you can simply ignore this advice and walk from one entrance to the other. But if you prefer to have the Celsus Library, The Hadrian Temple, and the view of the Curetes Street from the Hercules Gate almost to yourself, our tactic will be your best shot!
The perfect Ephesus itinerary
Church of Mary
This building was first used as an education and cultural center. It wasn’t until after Christianity became Rome’s official religion that the building became a basilica and the first church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The 260m long structure houses the best-preserved baptistry in Asia Minor.
This colonnaded marble road connects the theatre and the former harbor. Constructed during the Hellenistic period, this street was designed to impress anyone entering the city from the port. The 530m long street with shops and galleries alongside it had 50 streetlights that lit up its colonnades. Nowadays, it gets a mystical glow at sunset, the perfect time for a picture!
With a seating plan of 24.000 people, the theatre is an impressive landmark in Ephesus. The original Hellenistic Theatre was transformed into a Roman Theatre after a restoration. It wasn’t just used for entertainment purposes, as this was also the preaching place for St. Paul. Though this is a majestic building when it comes down to theatres, the one in Aspendos wins the battle as the best preserved ancient theatre in the world.
The Marble Road leads to Hadrian’s Gate and connects the theatre and the Celsus Library. It is here that you can discover what people believe to be the oldest advertisement in the world. And it is probably not a coincidence that it was marketing the oldest profession. 🙂 It points out to the Private House, a hidden (but not so secret) brothel. The carvings in the marble show a distinct image of a foot, together with an image of a cross, a heart, a woman, a purse, a library, and a hole in the rock. There are different interpretations of course, but in general, researchers agree that it has to be something along the lines of this: on the left at the crossroads, you can purchase women’s love. The footprint and the hole were a test to know if you were eligible to buy their love. If your foot was at least as big as the one carved into the marble, and you had enough coins to fill the hole, you were good to go. If not, then there was alternative and more enriching entertainment at the library.
The Private House
Opposite the Agora was the Private House. A part of the Scholastica complex that also includes the Latrines, and the Baths. The Private House is a euphemistic term for a brothel, which many believe this place was. The idea is probably supported by the fact that a statue of Priapus with an enormous phallus was found here. Nowadays, there isn’t much left of it. One can’t help but wonder if people posing on one of the pillars know what the function of the place was.
This must be the most iconic image of Ephesus. It is featured in almost any Turkish travel brochure and thus world-famous. The Celsus Library was the third largest library of the ancient world, with a capacity of 12.000 scrolls. Even today, Celsus’ sarcophagus is lying in the crypt under the building. Celsus was the proconsul of the province of Asia, and the library was built in his honor by his son. The statues in the niches – of which the originals can be found in Vienna – symbolize the virtues of Celsus: wisdom, knowledge, intelligence, and valor. The space between the Marble Road and the Library used to be an auditorium.
Mazaeus – Mithridates Gate
You will often see this gate in pictures of the Celsus Library as it lies right next to it. It is the triple vaulted passage to the Agora, the commercial heart of the city. The gate got its name from the two freed slaves that built it.
At the Commercial Agora or market square of Ephesus, the shops behind the stoae traded in a variety of goods and slaves, such as beautiful girls brought in by sea. The sheer size of the square shows how vital the trading place must have been. The Commercial Agora dates back to the Hellenistic Period and is surrounded by colonnaded porticoes.
This gate marks the end of the Marble Street, after that, you take the Curetes Street towards the Hercules Gate. The Terrace Houses are right next to Hadrian’s Gate. Their exit at the top level goes towards a staircase that leads back to the gate.
Curetes Street, the street between Celsus Library and Hercules Gate, is one of the three main streets of Ephesus. The slope next to the street was full of rich Ephesians’ houses. The colonnaded galleries below them had a stunning mosaic floor, still visible today. The Curetes Street had plenty of monuments, shops, fountains and statues along the street, many of which have unfortunately been damaged during several earthquakes.
The Scholastica Baths
The Scholastica Baths built in the 1st century got their name from the Christian lady named Scholastica who provided the funds for their restoration in the 4th century. The baths are part of a larger complex that also includes the Latrines and the Private House.
The Terrace Houses – Not to be missed!
Entrance to the Terraced Houses is not included in your Ephesus entry ticket. In fact, even most organized tours do not visit the Terraced Houses. It is their way of keeping the price down, and most people do not realize what they are missing out on, as the Terrace Houses are hidden under a protective roof. The good part about this is that you will have the place almost entirely to yourself, even at peak hours. Trust us on this one, if you are after more than a bucket list selfie, and if you want to truly experience what life in Ephesus was like, visit the Terrace Houses. If you combine it with a stop at the Ephesus Museum in the center of Selçuk – preferably after visiting the houses – you’ll get a unique insight in what the interiors of the rich people’s houses looked like. The Terrace Houses were built during the Roman Period, with the oldest one dating back to the 1C BC. They were used as a residence until the 7C AD, with excavations starting no earlier than 1960. The 6 units spread over 3 terraces were richly decorated with frescoes and mosaic floors. Even in those times, the houses had access to hot and cold water, as well as a heating system built with clay pipes carrying hot air through the houses.
The public Latrines at Ephesus date back to the 1st century and are part of the Scholastica complex, together with the Baths, and the Private House. The toilets that are aligned along the walls have a drainage system under them. People had to pay to use them.
Hadrian Temple is one of the most magnificent constructions on Curetes Street. The facade with four Corinthian columns and a curved arch pictures a relief of Tyche, the goddess of fortune. Inside the temple, you can see several copies of friezes portraying the story of the foundation of the city. The original pieces are on display at the Ephesus Museum in Selçuk.
Nymphaeum of Trajan
The Fountain of Trajan featured a pool of 20×10 meters, surrounded by columns and statues of the family of the Emperor, Dionysus, Satyr, and Aphrodite.
Hercules gate gets its name from the relief of Hercules wearing a lion’s skin that is on it. The gate is purposely narrowing down access to the Curetes Street to turn it into a pedestrian area.
This monument with four facades had a square fountain on the northwest facade. It was built in memorial of Memmius in the 4th century A.D.
The Polio Fountain
The Polio Fountain lies south of the State Agora, near the Domitian Temple. The fountain got its water through baked clay pipes that were connected to a branching system served by the aqueducts. The statue of the head of Zeus found at the fountain is now displayed at the Ephesus Museum in Selçuk. The main feature of this fountain is its arched façade. Unfortunately, this area was closed off for restorations, so we can’t show you a picture of it.
The Domitian Temple
The Domitian Temple is the first structure in Ephesus said to be dedicated to an emperor. It was built on a terrace with vaulted foundations and had eight columns on one side and thirteen columns on the other. Its u-shaped altar has been moved to the museum in Izmir.
The Temples of Dea Roma & Divus Julius, and the Prytaneion
The Temples of Dea Roma and Divus Julius that were part of the Imperial Cult meant to create unity among people. They were situated adjacent to the Odeon and in front of the Prytaneion or City Hall. The Prytaneion contained the state archives and was home to administrative rooms, an assembly hall and a dining hall. During excavations at the Prytaneion archaeologists discovered the famous statues of Artemis. You can see them in a dedicated exposition room at the Ephesus Museum in Selçuk.
The Odeon was both used as a theatre and as a Senate-House or Bouleterion. It is the place where the cities’ advisory council or Boule gathered with a capacity of 1.500 people.
The State Agora
The State Agora opposite the Odeon was a public square. People gathered there for any number of reasons or occasions. The State Agora had stoae on three sides and measures 160×73 meters. It had a temple dedicated to either Isis or Augustus depending on the source.
What Ephesus looked like in its glory days
If you want to know what Ephesus looked like in its glory days, take a look at this visualization of the rise and fall of Ephesus made by the University of Darmstadt, sponsored by the Ephesus Foundation.
Best time to visit Ephesus
If you are trying to avoid the crowds, the best time to visit Ephesus is early morning or late afternoon. This way you either arrive before the cruise boat passengers or after the bus tours. The bonus of this tactic is that you won’t have to worry about finding protection against the searing heat. Ephesus is open every day, with opening times varying between 8 am and 6:30 pm from mid-April until the end of September, and 8:30 am and 6 pm during the winter months. Visiting Efes during spring gives you the advantage of longer days, more moderate temperatures, and fewer people than during high season. If you are unlucky, you may hit a rainy day in springtime. In that case, wear appropriate shoes as the white marble streets tend to get slippery.
How to get to Ephesus?
This is a difficult question to answer since you may be making your way to the site from all over Turkey. In short, if you are staying in Selçuk, the town closest to the site, your best option is to take a taxi. Their fee to take you to the upper gate is slightly higher, but depending on where you want to start your visit, this shouldn’t be a drawback. Coming from the seaside resort of Kuşadası, taking the dolmuş (the little local buses) is your best option. If you are flying into Izmir, take the train to Selçuk, and then a taxi or a dolmuş to the archaeological site. If you are not keen at all on organizing your visit yourself, these private Ephesus tours are a valid alternative:
Sights around Ephesus
The beauty of visiting Ephesus is that Efes is not an antique site in the middle of nowhere. You can easily extend your stay to visit its interesting surroundings such as Selçuk Castle, Isa Bey Mosque, the Ephesus Museum in Selçuk, the Basilica of St.-John, the House of the Virgin Mary, the Cave of the Seven Sleepers, and Sirince (or Şirince in Turkish). You can read all about the top sights around Ephesus in this post.
Where to stay?
You will find there are plenty of options in Selçuk for all kinds of budgets and travelers. We stayed at Ephesus Paradise Hotel in Selçuk. This is a lovely, boutique style hotel in the old town of Selçuk, within walking distance of Isa Bey Mosque, the Basilica of Saint John, and the Castle. It is run by a historian who wrote a book about Ephesus that is for sale at a reduced price at the hotel, compared to the Museum Shop in Efes.
Find more hotels and hotel deals near Ephesus by checking out this selection:
More practical information for an Ephesus visit
Looking for an excellent guide to take along on your travels? This Lonely Planet edition covers Ephesus and its broader area. The easiest way to prepare your trip to Turkey is to visit this page where we’ve bundled all Turkey travel resources on one page. It contains the links to the official visa application website, FastTrack through Istanbul airport links and plenty more.
The nearest airport is Izmir with easy connections with Istanbul airports if required. You’ll find cheap flight options here. Or you can use the search widget on the side to quickly find the most affordable and best flights available. Don’t forget to make the most of our map search function for more Turkey travel inspiration.
Remember that making the most of your visit to Ephesus (or Efes) has a lot to do with preparing your trip and the right timing. Take a closer look at the pictures in this blog post. They clearly show the difference between having the place almost to yourself early in the morning or towards sunset, compared to having to share it with busloads of people at other times of the day.