Taking a road trip in Turkey ended up being a wonderful decision. At first, I was nervous about driving in Turkey. After arriving back home in the U.S., I found myself regularly wishing that driving here was as smooth as driving in Turkey.
If you’re considering a trip to Turkey, a road trip is a great option to see the country on your own schedule and see more of the beautiful countryside. Our six day itinerary for Turkey took us on a road trip from Isbanbul to Ephesus, Pamukkale, and Cappadocia.
This itinerary adjusts easily to fit your own schedule or to add or take out any stops. Some places we wished that we stayed longer. Others we felt like we planned it perfectly. Overall, our Turkey road trip was one of our favorite trips so far, and we would highly suggest it to anyone considering doing the same.
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Driving in Turkey
When we first decided on a road trip in Turkey, I was nervous. We have driven in a few countries other than the U.S. including Iceland, New Zealand, France, and Portugal. However, the news in the U.S. does not always portray Turkey in a positive light. Other than Iceland with its lack of traffic, Turkey is my favorite country to drive in so far.
The Best Parts of Driving in Turkey
In the U.S., slow traffic is supposed to stay to the right. The left lanes are supposed to be used primarily for passing. Traffic backs up when a slower driver decides to ride it out in the passing lanes. People get on an Interstate, get in the passing lane and stay there the entire drive until they need to exit.
In Turkey, people actually follow the rules about passing lanes. Throughout our hours of driving in Turkey, we never experienced traffic or delays other than in Istanbul. The traffic flowed smoothly, and people quickly moved out of your way if they were in the wrong lane. There are signs everywhere reminding drivers which lane to be in based on how and what they are driving.
This overall made for an enjoyable experience. We saw how well this worked when everyone followed the rules. If someone stayed in a passing lane for too long, they quickly moved over when they saw you coming up behind them. As we learned the rules, other drivers were kind and not honking or yelling at us to get out of the way.
Driving in Turkey also gives you the freedom to make your own itinerary for your trip. You are not held to bus schedules or airport schedules (or time just sitting in the airport). We enjoyed having a car in each place we visited as well. We did not have to find a driver or wait for a taxi or bus to come by. Instead, we jumped in the car and went where we wanted and when we wanted.
What to Watch Out for When Driving in Turkey
Despite everything we loved about driving in Turkey, there are a few things to watch out for and think about before driving in Turkey. We felt safe the entire time we were in Turkey. However, we found that driving in Istanbul was not our best idea. We also ended up stopped at a checkpoint for a little bit too.
Driving in Istanbul
Our first day of driving in Turkey was not so positive. We stayed in a hotel outside of the main tourist areas and close to the airport after arriving in Turkey late the night before. We decided to drive into the city instead of taking public transportation or taking a taxi since we already had a car. The concierge at the hotel suggested otherwise, and we should have listened.
There is not much parking near the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque. Some of the roads in the area are one lane and one way roads. In trying to find parking, we ended up all turned around in the one way streets.
There were not many signs telling you which way to go. We found out we were going the wrong way on the streets whenever someone turned down and came towards us. We backed down more streets than I care to admit. Everyone was kind, but it made for a stressful start to the trip.
Once we found our way out of the maze, we found a hotel and asked if we could pay to park there. The hotel was kind and let us park outside for a few hours for free. When we returned to Crowne Plaza Istanbul – Old City, we ended up eating there so that we did not just take advantage of their kindness. If we return to Istanbul, we would love to stay at this beautiful hotel with how kind they were to us!
Getting Stopped at a Checkpoint in Turkey
On our drive from Istanbul to Ephesus at the start of our trip, we drove up to a checkpoint. We passed several more checkpoints throughout our trip, but this was one of the first ones. This time the officer told us to stop. The other times the officer waved us through.
As you drive up to the checkpoint, the officer indicates if you need to pull over or not. This officer indicated for us to pull off into an area on the side of the road. We saw a few other cars already stopped with everything pulled out of the car.
While we had nothing to hide, we were not looking forward to having to unload everything and wait for it all to be searched. It was also a little nerve-wracking because we did not know the language and did not know what to expect.
As the officer approached the car once we pulled over, he asked for our passports and my husband’s driver’s license. I grabbed our backpack with those things in it and started going through them. This is where our story differs from others.
My husband is in law enforcement. Cops in the U.S. tend to travel with patches from their department to trade with others. We always take some on our trips to give away or trade. As I dug into the pocket with our passports, driver’s licenses, and international driver’s licenses, I saw the patches sitting right next to them.
I pulled out everything and proceeded to hand the documents to the officer. I also held out a patch and pointed at my husband and said, “Police.” He had been kind and professional before, but he stopped and asked my husband if it was true in limited English.
Through simple English, we managed to communicate and show the officer his law enforcement ID. He sent us on our way without searching anything. Before we left, we gave him the patch and told him to keep it. As we drove away, we saw him excitedly showing it off to his fellow officers.
Thanks to this, we did not end up having to go through the full search. In all of the other checkpoints, the officers simply waved us through.
Often times, if they see you are a tourist, they will also end up dismissing you without searching. At most checkpoints, it seemed to be mostly locals and not tourists pulled over. It is something to be aware of though.
Things to Know Before Your Turkey Road Trip
Before we left the U.S., we made sure to have an International Driver’s License. All that it does is translate your license for you.
We always go through AAA and find the process relatively easy. You fill out the application that can be found here, take it to an AAA office with two passport photos and your valid driver’s license, and then pay them the fee (currently $20) for the license. You can also do it by mail if you can’t make it by one of their locations.
Once you are driving in Turkey, a common sight is flashing lights that appear from a distance to be a cop. When you get closer, you find it out is just a light on a pole. Sometimes there was a wooden cutout of a police car there to make it look more realistic. The main purpose appears to be to slow people down.
However, traffic cameras are popular throughout Turkey. Some of the flashing lights might be combined with the cameras. These primarily help with monitoring speeding and running red lights.
There are usually signs before you get to the camera. Sometimes it is a sign on the side of the road with a picture of a camera and TEDES under it. Sometimes they just paint TEDES on the road. Keep an eye out for these, especially if you tend to have a lead foot.
With a WiFi rental, driving in Turkey was easy. The maps loaded easily on our phones and told us exactly where to go.
If you use an iPhone, we found that Google Maps worked better than the native Apple Maps program most of the time in Turkey. Sometimes the Apple Maps program was off in terms of where it told us to go. Google Maps tended to show you exactly which lane to be in and gave us no problems in navigation.
When to Take a Road Trip in Turkey
Our Turkey road trip took place in June. June seemed to be a perfect time for taking a road trip in Turkey, but I doubt there is a bad time for one. Traffic in the major cities will always be a problem.
Some of the areas are more crowded in July and August during peak tourist season. It does snow in Turkey, so make sure you are comfortable driving in snowy conditions if you visit in winter.
Driving from Istanbul to Cappadocia
Cappadocia is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Turkey thanks in part to its popularity on Instagram with the hot air balloons and stunning landscape. While we opted to drive to Cappadocia, there are other options as well.
You can fly to two different airports near Cappadocia. Kayseri Erkilet Airport (ASR) is about an hour away, and Nevsehir Kapadokya Airport (NAV) is about 40 minutes away. Both have daily flights from Istanbul that are reasonably priced. Even if you fly to Cappadocia, a rental car is a good idea once you are there to get around.
We originally planned to fly to Cappadocia and then drive from Cappadocia to Pamukkale, Ephesus, and back to Istanbul. Then we decided to do the opposite and drive from Istanbul to Ephesus, Pamukkale, and Cappadocia before flying back to Istanbul. In the end, we drove the entire loop.
While the drive from Istanbul to Cappadocia is a long one at about 7 hours, we realized that by the time we drove to the airport about an hour away, waited for the flight, flew to Istanbul, dealt with getting our bags and taking a taxi, we could just make the drive. Plus, this saved us the one way rental fee, the cost of flights and the taxi fee from the airport in Istanbul to a hotel.
In addition to flying and driving from Istanbul to Cappadocia, you can also take a bus or go by train to Kayseri before catching a bus to Goreme. While there are a lot of good options, driving gives you more freedom to see what you want and when you want.
A Turkey Road Trip Itinerary
We only had six days in Turkey total. If you can spend more time in Turkey, even if you just to do this route, I would suggest closer to 10 days at least. We made the most of our time and hit the ground running though. This itinerary is easy to adjust to your own schedule and includes suggestions on where to add time if you have extra days to spend in Turkey.
Day 1: Istanbul
While technically we were in Istanbul for two days, we arrived from Iceland via Paris very late on the first day. By the time we gathered our bags, got our rental car, and drove to the hotel, it was already past 2 a.m.
After being up early to leave Iceland, spending the day exploring Paris, and then flying to Istanbul, we went straight to our hotel to sleep. We woke up after some good sleep ready to see as much as we could for our one day in Istanbul. If you have more time to spend in Istanbul, here are more activities in Istanbul to fill up your itinerary.
We only had a day in Istanbul, but my friend Charlotte from Charlie’s Wanderings has a 3 day guide with the best things to do in Istanbul here.
What to Do in Istanbul
Because of our limited time, we wanted to see the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque the most. By the time we woke up, packed our bags and checked out of the hotel, we lost a good chunk of the day. We ate lunch on the way into Istanbul in a little shopping center and went to a grocery store to buy snacks for the road trip.
After our issues with getting lost and finding parking near the city center mentioned earlier, we finally parked and started walking the right way in the mid-afternoon. We went to Sultan Ahmed Mosque or the Blue Mosque first. Crowds filled the area around the Blue Mosque. With the crowds and knowing that Hagia Sophia closed first, we left to see Hagia Sophia and then returned later.
Thank goodness we went to the Hagia Sophia when we did. The Hagia Sophia closes at 7 p.m., but the last entry is at 6 p.m. We arrived at 5:58 p.m. This actually worked out well because it was empty.
Go either right when it opens or just before it closes for picture purposes. Once inside, we started upstairs and then wandered downstairs. The building is beautiful even with all the construction going on inside.
If you visit late in the evening, make sure to go upstairs first. They closed the upstairs part by about 6:30 to start moving people towards the doors. By 6:45, they also asked people to start leaving downstairs. If you want more time, make sure to get there earlier than we did.
Being there at closing meant we had almost the whole place to ourselves. The security guards were mostly kind in asking people to leave, and one stopped to take a picture for us since no one else was around.
After leaving the Hagia Sophia, we went back to the Blue Mosque. The park between the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque filled with people waiting in the park to enjoy iftar. The atmosphere was quiet for how many people were in the park area.
Make sure to bring our own head covering as a female visiting the Blue Mosque. They rent out head coverings during certain hours of the day. We visited after it closed. We watched many women turned away at the gate for not being dressed appropriately or having a head covering. Because I brought my own, we walked right in.
People filled the courtyard area. Because it was a time of prayer, we opted not to go inside. I did not want to be disrespectful or go inside just to look around or take pictures during the prayer time. We planned to come back on our last day in Istanbul at the end of the trip anyways.
That ended up not working out so well either. We got up early to go on the last morning of our trip, but we did not realize it was the end of Ramadan. The streets were crowded in the early morning.
We found ourselves among the crowds as we made our way to the Blue Mosque. Upon realizing what was happening, we again opted not to go in and look around. We did not want to interrupt or do something to offend the worshipers.
Where to Stay in Istanbul
Because we stayed in Istanbul at the beginning and end of our trip, we ended up staying in two different hotels. We also interacted with the staff and enjoyed a meal at the Crowne Plaza Istanbul – Old City. If we return one day, we would love to stay there after how kind and helpful their staff was and how beautiful the hotel was.
Our first night, we stayed at WOW Istanbul Hotel. The beautifully designed hotel is just a few minutes from the Istanbul Ataturk Airport. Because we arrived so late at night, it was perfect for us.
While we did not have time to enjoy them, the hotel has a fitness center and indoor pool. Located about 25 minutes away from the main tourist sites, you can use public transportation to get in to the core of the city or take a taxi.
On our last night in Istanbul at the end of the trip, we stayed in the Antis Hotel. If you want to stay near the main attractions and travel on foot in Istanbul, this hotel is perfect.
Located less than half a mile (less than 800 meters) from the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, walking to them is easy with lots of restaurants and shops along the way. The Grand Bazaar is less than a mile (1600 meters) away as well. From the rooftop restaurant, you can enjoy the view of the Blue Mosque.
Our room looked out over the city with a view of the water as well. The room was clean and the staff friendly and helpful. While the streets were narrow, it was not as bad as our first day driving in Istanbul. Because it is on the outskirts of the smaller streets, we could quickly access the main roads.
We highly recommend any of these three hotels if you are staying in Istanbul, but if you want more options, you can search for a wider variety of hotels in Istanbul here.
Day 1 & 2: Istanbul to Ephesus
After enjoying a quick bite to eat, we hit the road that evening to start making our way to Ephesus. The drive from Istanbul to Ephesus takes about five and a half hours (320 miles or 515 km).
We originally hoped to stay up late and make the drive all at once. We wanted to be able to see the ruins of Ephesus in the morning before the crowds. However, after about three hours on the road, we realized we needed to stop. We were both too tired to continue driving.
We found Onhann Hotel on our way and stopped there for the night. While we did not stay long, the hotel was beautiful and the breakfast was a perfect start for our day. The next morning we continued our last two and a half hours to get to Selcuk and Ephesus.
The drive is mostly on interstates with little to no traffic. On the first part of the drive, darkness kept us from seeing much. On the second part of the drive, we enjoyed the scenery around us. I found myself thinking multiple times about how Turkey was much prettier than I even imagined.
Day 2: Ephesus
Once we arrived in Ephesus, finding food was our first order of business. We ate outside near the ruins at Agora Restaurant and enjoyed relaxing while we ate. Our next stop was the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Finally, we made it to the ruins of the Biblical city of Ephesus around 3:30 or 4:00 p.m. (find our full one day guide to Ephesus here).
We only stayed at the ruins until closing (actually a little after since there was an event that night). The highlight of the ruins is the Library of Celsus. The ruins are impressive and extensive. You stroll along the main streets of the old city with main stops including the two theaters and the area where the rich lived.
With only an afternoon in Ephesus and a few hours in the ruins, we felt like that was a good amount of time. However, there are other things to see in this area if you have time to spare. For example, the house that legend says Mary, the mother of Jesus, lived until her death is near the ruins.
Ephesus is also a popular day trip from the cruise port and beach holiday destination of Kusadasi. If you are looking to extend your road trip to make an extra stop and want to enjoy Turkey’s beaches, this is one place you could add extra time and an extra stop. Keep in mind that the tours from Kusadasi keep the ruins full during the middle of the day.
If you plan to stay overnight in Ephesus instead of along the road like we did, there are many options much closer to the ruins and in nearby Selcuk as well. If you plan to take a side trip out to Kusadasi, there are a myriad of hotel options including many along the water.
Day 2: Ephesus to Pamukkale
The drive from Ephesus to Pamukkale is much shorter than the drive from Istanbul to Ephesus. The drive only takes about two and a half hours (122 miles or 196 km). Once we finished at the ruins and grabbed dinner, we decided to go ahead and make the drive to Pamukkale that night.
If you want to skip Ephesus and drive straight from Istanbul to Pamukkale, that is an option as well. From Istanbul, it is about a six hour drive to Pamukkale. If you need to stop along the way, Onhann Hotel is still on this path as well.
Day 3: Pamukkale
Pamukkale went on my bucket list in high school. We arrived late at night and spent the night at Richmond Pamukkale Thermal, located about 10 minutes from Pamukkale’s famous thermal pools. The hotel was amazing.
For $75, our room at the hotel included dinner and breakfast. They also upgraded us to a suite with a huge balcony just because they had one available (no, they did not know about my blog or Instagram).
We arrived late in the evening, and dinner ended before we arrived. However, they sent us two plates of food to our room when we asked if it ended already. The service at this hotel was top-notch, and we really enjoyed our stay here.
While we did not need long at the thermal pools, if you need some down time to relax on your Turkey road trip, spend a few nights at the Richmond Pamukkale Thermal or another nearby hotel with a thermal pool.
Our hotel had their own thermal pool and regular pool for swimming and relaxing. When crowds fill the thermal pools of Pamukkale, head back and relax without the crowds at the hotel. The food provided for breakfast and dinner were delicious. We really enjoyed our stay here and can’t say enough good things about this hotel.
As for the thermal pools, they are beautiful, but there are definitely some expectation versus reality moments there. Check out this blog post for a full review of our time in Pamukkale including what to really expect.
Make sure to go early or stay late if you want to avoid the crowds. It is a popular spot for tours which makes it crowded most of the day. There are several entrances to Pamukkale, and the pools that are less crowded are the ones closest to the bottom of the hill and the town entrance.
We opted not to stay at the thermal pools for long despite their beauty. We left by 10 a.m. as the crowds continued to pour in.
Entrance to the ruins of Hierapolis come with your entry ticket, and there is an option to swim in Cleopatra’s pool for an extra fee. Even with those activities, one day in Pamukkale is enough unless you want a relaxing spa vacation in one of the nearby hotels.
Day 3: Pamukkale to Cappadocia
We also left the thermal pools early to start our drive from Pamukkale to Cappadocia. The drive takes almost seven hours (380 miles or 610 km).
With a longer drive ahead of us, we opted to hit the road and try to make it to Cappadocia for sunset. While it is a longer drive, it is a pleasant drive with views to enjoy along the way. Once again, we experienced no traffic on the drive between the two.
If you are staying in Cappadocia and wanting to see Pamukkale, plan to stay overnight. Because the drive from Cappadocia to Pamukkale takes seven hours and the thermal pools take at least an hour or so minimum, plan to spend the night in Pamukkale. Really, if you are driving all that way, you won’t want to just see the pools and then leave again.
While I loved the thermal pools, driving fourteen hours round-trip just to see them is a bit much. It makes sense to stop and see them if you are taking a road trip. Don’t do a day trip from Cappadocia to Pamukkale unless you are doing a tour or can take turns driving.
Trying to make it there and back in a day means you miss out on really enjoying Pamukkale. Spending the night gives you more time to enjoy the thermal pools and Hierapolis ruins.
Day 4 & 5: Cappadocia
Cappadocia is just as beautiful and amazing as it looks. From the fairy chimneys to the cave churches to the hot air balloons, Cappadocia is magical. We got to our hotel just after sunset the first night and made it an early night to be up for the famous Cappadocia hot air balloon sunrise the next morning.
On our first morning, we woke up a couple of hours before sunrise to get ready and make sure we did not miss the balloons. Our hotel, Cappadocia Cave Suites, had multiple viewing areas all perfect for pictures. The best part? We had it all to ourselves for almost the entire sunrise.
While many of the Instagram famous hotels have similar views, you also fight for your turn to get the shot. We had no problems like this at Cappadocia Cave Suites and loved our stay there.
After sunrise, we went to see the Goreme Open Air Museum and Pasabagi (Fairy Chimney Valley). The Goreme Open Air Museum is full of cave churches, some with the original frescoes still inside. Pasabagi is Instafamous for the photo opportunity near the naturally occurring arch there. Both are perfect Instagram photo spots in Cappadocia.
It really helps to have a car in Cappadocia. While most of the main sites are within a mile or two of town, the weather in summer is warm. There are tours and taxis, but we loved the freedom of just getting in the car and going to see the sites on our own schedule.
Renting a car gave us the freedom to visit locations when we wanted. Plus, if a tour came through at the same time, we just waited until they left a few minutes later with no pressure.
For sunset that first day, we drove out to Panoramic View Point. Once again, renting a car paid off. We saw the crowded parking lot at the view point and opted to turn back. Further down the road, there are several roads less traveled. We opted for one of those and enjoyed a spectacular sunset that turned the hills around us pink.
Our next morning in Cappadocia started just as early with a trip up the hill to Sunset Point. Despite the name, it is actually perfect for sunrise and a free place to watch the balloons. While the view is amazing, we loved Cappadocia Cave Suites so much that we ended up heading back there early to watch the rest of the sunrise balloon flights.
Our last stop before heading back from Cappadocia to Istanbul was a place I looked for the entire time. I saw it on Instagram before we went and loved the look of the landscape there. Each person I asked was not sure of the location.
We decided to drive around some and find something similar. We went to the area where the hot air balloons take flight and realized it was the spot I wanted. The exact directions and what to put in your map app to get there are on this post. From there, it was time to head out.
While I loved our time in Cappadocia, I wish we had more time. I probably could wake up every morning to the hot air balloon sunrises for the rest of my life. Ideally though, just one more day would have probably been enough.
If you have three full days to spend in Cappadocia, take the time and spent it in town and exploring the surrounding areas. If you enjoy hiking, there are plenty of trails in the area. I would love to go back one day to do some hiking there.
For everything you need to know about Instagrammable spots in Cappadocia, where to stay, and what not to miss, check out our full Cappadocia 3 day itinerary here.
Day 5 & 6: Cappadocia to Istanbul & One Last Night in Istanbul
In the late morning, we started our drive back to Istanbul. The drive from Cappadocia to Istanbul takes a little over 7 hours (457 miles or 735 km). While you go through Ankara, we still experienced very little traffic until we got close to Istanbul. By driving this loop instead of flying back, we saw much more of the beautiful countryside.
While we hoped to be back in Istanbul in time to experience the Grand Bazaar, it closed about 5 minutes after we arrived. We ate at a street cafe on the way back to the Antis Hotel and enjoyed wandering the streets until sunset. The next morning we went to the Blue Mosque again to beat the crowds. Instead we found it crowded before sunrise to celebrate the end of Ramadan.
Istanbul is another area to spend more time. We had a total of one day and one evening to see Istanbul, and that was not enough. If we go back one day, I plan to spend at least two to three full days in Istanbul to see more of what the city has to offer.
Why Visit Turkey?
Turkey is a beautiful country with diverse landscapes and so much to offer in terms of travel destinations. Even my high expectations thanks to social media did not diminish the beauty of the country. If you are considering a road trip through Turkey, do it.
If you had not considered it before, put it on your bucket list and go. We hope to return to experience more of Turkey one day.
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