ANTALYA, Turkey -- The Antalya region along Turkey's southern coast is often referred to as the Turkish Riviera, but there is more to this area than its stunning beaches. Antalya's history stretches back to the time of the Hittites, and it has been occupied by the Persians, Greeks, Romans, Seljuk Turks and the Ottoman Empire. Each succeeding society left its mark in architecture, dress and culture, creating a region that is a unique mix of each.
While European tourists flock here during the summer months to soak up the sun, the winter months provide a unique opportunity to enjoy inland excursions without the crowds or the 120-degree heat. Winter temperatures average in the ' 50s, making it an ideal time for strolling through bazaars or picking your way among crumbling ruins.
Antalya is the fourth largest city in Turkey, and its old town, Kaleici, boasts relics from across the centuries. Enter the old city through the majestic Hadrian's Gate, constructed in 130 A.D. in honor of the Emperor Hadrian's visit. Not far away stands the 125-foot tall Fluted Minaret, the oldest Seljuk monument in the city. Built in the early 1200s, it has become the unofficial symbol of the city.
Follow the ancient city walls down to the old Roman port where the Hidirlik Tower, a 2nd century lighthouse, still looms on the cliffs above. Enjoy fresh seafood at one of the many cafes, or book a tour on one of the many yachts to view nearby waterfalls.
No visit to Antalya would be complete without a stop at the impressive archeological museum, where hundreds of statues unearthed from the nearby ancient sites are displayed. Also on hand are coins, clothes and household goods from the Hellenistic through the Turkish periods.
Many of the statues came from the nearby city of Perge, a sprawling ruin with colonnaded streets and a large amphitheater. Walking through the remains of one of the largest bath complexes in the country, one can see the many niches that once housed the marble figures now on display in the museum. A now-dry canal runs the length of the city, interspersed with various fountains that were also once home to figures of gods and goddesses.
Not far away stands ancient Aspendos, which boasts the best preserved antique theater in the world. The acoustics are so precise that a ping pong ball dropped on the stage reverberates in the upper reaches of the stadium. Beyond the theater, a mighty basilica crowns the acropolis, and the remains of an ancient aqueduct towers in the distance.
Further east, the modern town of Demre contains the remains of the city of Myra, home to Saint Nicholas, the inspiration for Santa Claus. Though the current church dates from the 7th century, it is built on the remains of what tradition claims is the actual church where St. Nicholas served as Bishop of Myra. The ruined structure contains the original sarcophagus of Nicholas as well as many colorful frescos portraying the life and miracles of the Saint.
Carved into a mountain not far from the church, ancient Lycian tombs look down upon Myra's ruined theater. Dating from the 6th century B.C., the tombs resemble a modern apartment complex. Also nearby is the sunken city of Kekova, where visitors can view submerged walls and broken pottery on a trip in glass-bottomed boats.
If crumbling ruins are not for you, Antalya also features many nature activities such as hiking through the Kursunlu Waterfall Nature Park, exploring the geologic wonder of Karain Cave, or four wheeling through the back country in a jeep safari.
With so much history and beauty scattered about, Antalya is a place one can visit again and again, even when it it's too chilly to enjoy the surf and sun.