Don’t Make This Mistake When Traveling to Turkey
Most people restrict their sojourn to Istanbul or Cappadocia, which means they’re missing out on incredible other sights in Turkey, which is open to tourism.
Bringing in some 45 million tourists a year, Turkey is among the most visited countries in the world—and with good reason. It has striking architecture and landscapes, delectable cuisine, fascinating history, and friendly, welcoming people. It’s also open to travelers, so in the era of COVID closures it’s looking especially appealing.
But while Turkey is a large and diverse country, most people restrict their sojourn to Istanbul or Cappadocia. Both are must-sees, but there’s a lot more to the country that can be best experienced by getting off the bus and behind the wheel.
Depending on how much time you want to spend in each specific destination, this route can take anywhere from ten days to over two weeks. Or if your trip duration is more constrained, feel free to mix and match your stop-offs a la carte. Any three of these can pretty easily be compacted into eight to ten days.
Car rentals are comparatively inexpensive in Turkey, and I got a compact for a little over $200 per week after taxes and insurance were tacked on. That was through one of the major international providers, however, and I’ve since learned that you can pay nearly half that price by going through a regional resource like TurkeyCar.com.
While you certainly can rent your car immediately upon landing in Istanbul, this isn’t advisable. Istanbul is a beautiful but busy city, and to navigate it via car likely means spending most of your time there stuck in traffic. Instead, taxi to wherever you’ll be staying, then use the city’s well-planned metro to get around. Or walk—there is plenty to see that you’ll only find by wandering around on foot.
There are a lot of attractive neighborhoods in Istanbul, but you’ll probably want to be in or near the bustling region spanning Taksim, Beyoglu, and Karakoy where there is an abundance of food and drink. Whatever you do, don’t stay in any of the streets directly by the famed Galata Tower, for while it’s a beautiful site to check out, it tends to be surrounded by an annoyingly impenetrable sea of tourists. Another good option is to head south of the Golden Horn inlet to Fatih, a historic district where you’ll find the Grand Bazaar, the Blue Mosque, and pleasant neighborhoods that are packed with good restaurants.
Istanbul can get to be exhaustingly hectic, so if you feel the need to get away for a bit, take the train east across the water to the Asian side of the city—Uskudar—and seek out the Sakirin Mosque. The first mosque designed by a woman, it is an elegant work of architecture nestled in a peaceful cemetery where you are sure to find repose.
After a few days in Istanbul, it’s time to get up early, pick up your car, and make the five-hour drive southwest to the lively port town of Canakkale. I had somewhat low expectations going into Canakkale as I’d heard it was something of a tourist trap, but in the end I thoroughly enjoyed my time there and in fact extended my stay.
For me the big attraction was its proximity to the village of Hisarlik, home to the ruins of the ancient city of Troy which Homer immortalized in the Iliad. Little remains of Troy today, but as a literature and history nerd I was powerfully moved by walking along its foundations and looking over the plain where—according to legend—fought the likes of Achilles and Hector, Agamemnon and Odysseus. And speaking of Odysseus, back in Canakkale there stands a purportedly life-sized mockup of the Trojan Horse—a bit kitschy, yes, but rather fun nonetheless.
Find a place to stay near the shore of the Strait of Dardanelles, preferably just north of the river that cuts through town. There you’ll find plenty of shopping and restaurants, especially along the boardwalk that runs along the marina. And be sure to check out the fish and chips at Sardalye. It seems to be packed from open to close, and with good reason.
Once you’ve gotten your fill of Canakkale, head south for four hours to the thriving coastal city of Izmir. Recently Izmir experienced a relatively sizable earthquake that left several people dead and a number of buildings damaged, but tragic events like these are extremely rare.
I went into Izmir with zero foreknowledge, and I absolutely loved it. It has this animated, creative, youthful vibe that reminds me of Capital Hill in Seattle, Condesa in Mexico City, or Oberkampf in Paris. There are a ton of weirdly decorated restaurants and busy brew pubs, the market is expansive and inexpensive, and everyone out in the street was having a good time. Be sure to check out the History & Arts Museum which is located in Kulturpark Izmir, where you’ll find an impressive collection of ancient statues and artifacts. The park itself is delightfully scenic as well, and offers a number of tasty food cart options..
On your way out of town you’ll head south for an hour to the ruins of Ephesus, which—while overcrowded—is a flat-out astounding archeological site. Built some three-thousand years ago, the city provides a glimpse into Greek Antiquity. Over the eons it’s been ruled by the Greeks, Persians, Turks, Romans, and more, and it’s considered one of the most important sites in Christianity having been visited by saints Paul and John. Many of the structures have been preserved to an amazing degree, and photo opportunities abound.
Next begins what for me was perhaps the most charming part of the trip—driving east through the Anatolian heartland. What struck me most about this region was how similar it was to the rurals of Washington State where I grew up with its farmlands and foothills, and its small towns built around John Deere dealerships and family diners. So familiar was it that were it not for the signs written in Turkish, you could easily think you were in Anyplace, USA. It just goes to show how alike we all are even in our dissimilarities. And in every little village and town, residents who were entirely unused to having Americans show up were incredibly welcoming.
By the time you’ve wrapped up your exploration of Ephesus it will be too late to head for the limestone pools of Pamukkale, so you’ll drive for three hours or so to the town of Denizli, where there isn’t really much to do besides have dinner and get a good night’s sleep. The town is hewn in by some scenic hills though, so enjoy the view.
Wake up early then make the short drive to Pamukkale—a remarkable series of thermal pools where the ancient Romans went for a spa. Formed out of snow-white limestone, these baths—along with the nearby Roman ruins of Hierapolis—are nothing short of gorgeous. You do want to get there before the crowds arrive, however, because the pools fill up fast.
Now it’s time to head to Lake Egirdir some two-and-a-half hours away, and in my opinion, this is the secret high-point of the trip. There are a lot of wonders along the route, but this is a hidden place where few international tourists end up. I arrived in Egirdir completely by accident having planned on driving straight through to Cappadocia. It was getting on toward sunset as I crested the hill that revealed the beauty of its lake, and I knew instantly that this would be where I was staying for the next couple nights.
It’s a small fishing town that offers almost nothing in the way of recreation, and that’s part of what I like about it. There’s really nothing to do but take in the beauty of the lake and surrounding hills.
Don’t worry about booking a hotel. Simply show up, park, and start following the hand-painted signs that direct you toward various “pensions”—a regional term that essentially means “lodging house.” You’ll see signs for Lale Pension and Cetin Pension and Göl Pension, but I stumbled upon Charly’s Pension, and I cannot recommend it enough. It offers dorm and campsite options, but I elected to go for one of its private suites, which afforded arguably my favorite view I’ve ever enjoyed from any hotel in the entire world. When I was shown to my room the sun was setting over the hills behind the lake just as the evening call to prayer was sounding through the town PA system, and it was nothing short of magical. They also provide a tasty dinner and expansive breakfast buffet.
Egirdir is delightfully boring, so after a day or two of its tranquility it’s time to blast a six hour drive to someplace that is decidedly the opposite of boring—the famed region of Cappadocia.
Cappadocia is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. With its epic rock formations, spectacular desert vistas, and abundance of hiking trails, there is no end to the potential for exploration. This is the land of hot air balloon photoshoots and hotels with peacocks strutting around the grounds. If you’re smart, you’ll stay in one of the often-opulent but always flat-out cool cave houses or cave hotels.
Goreme is the central town in Cappadocia. A bustling tourist village with plenty of delicious food, local wine, and handcrafts, this is a good place to stay if you want to be in the heart of all the action. Be sure to branch out and explore the nearby towns, because they each offer their own special something. Uchisar has an incredible 1,400-meter-high castle dug into a hill that provides a mind-blowing view of the surrounding region. Cavusin has ancient churches and religious sites carved into stone. Avanos is a nice little town that’s known for its pottery. And so on—there is plenty of opportunity for widely-varying experiences.
At some point you should take a day trip to the nearby underground city of Derinkuyu. Constructed some thousand years ago, descending into its tunnels is fascinating, fun, and just a little bit frightening. I 100% do not recommend this for anyone with claustrophobia.
Now having reached the furthest reach of your loop, it’s time to circle back around to Istanbul. But on the way you’ll stop for a night or two in Ankara.
To be honest, I didn’t see all that much of Ankara because by the time I got there I was completely wiped out from a whirlwind of travel. There are sites to see, to be sure, like the mausoleum of Mustafa Ataturk, who founded Turkey. There’s the museum of Anatolian Civilizations and the Ankara Castle. But when I was there I mostly just walked around and ate a lot of incredible food. I recommend Afitap Meyhane Tunus in particular—an upscale place with a great atmosphere where I filled up on a slew of delicious dishes, the names of which I have no idea. My waiter—understanding that I recognized nothing on the menu—was kind enough to bring me to the kitchen where I simply pointed out various things that looked good. And they were.
Finally it’s time to return to the source—Istanbul—in a high-speed five-hour run through barren, boring scenery that will provide little to no incentive to stop. If I didn’t have a flight to catch I would have stayed a few more days to enjoy the city, because I can’t get enough of it.
In fact, I can’t get enough of the country as a whole. I might have initially gone to Turkey on a whim, but now I have every intention of returning to explore it further.
The reasons for this are many—the sensational landscapes, the exquisite food, the inspiring art and history—but I think the major draw is the people, who are as friendly and welcoming as anyone I’ve ever met. To that end, a brief anecdote:
We’d driven into some middle of nowhere town in the lowlands between Denizli and Goreme (for I was not making this journey alone, but with a friend from Germany) where we sought gas and food. It was a Sunday and the only restaurant open was a little kebab place that was seemingly run by three brothers ranging in age from eight to twelve. As we entered they looked at us with wide-eyed, grinning surprise. Clearly they were unused to strangers ‘round these parts.
We communicated our order via Google Translate, which the kids then used to ask where we were from. They were polite but unimpressed about Germany—there are a lot of Germans scattered around Turkey and lots of Turks in Germany—but when they heard I was from the United States their mouths dropped open.
“America?” The oldest one spoke the word with a hushed reverence that I thought was reserved for immigrants disembarking at Ellis Island some one-hundred years ago.
The youngest boy ran out the back door as his brothers prepared our food. Then a small gathering of men began to form outside. They were talking in excited tones and peering at us through the windows. Suddenly things began to feel a little weird.
We were somewhat near the Syrian border, you see, which isn’t exactly the safest place in the world for those of my nationality ever since the war kicked up. It was not unheard of for Americans to be kidnapped.
All of the sudden the group of men burst into the restaurant. One addressed me in English, his expression serious.
“Where are you from?”
“Canada!” my German companion burst out, and I nodded. I’d never before nor since felt the need to lie about my Americanness, but in that moment it seemed like the safe thing to do.
The faces of all the men fell.
“Oh,” the man who had spoken said, visibly disappointed. “I had never met an American so I wanted to say hello and welcome you to my restaurant.”
“Actually,” I said, “I am an American. My friend just misspoke.”
Smiles lit up and the man thrust his hand into mine. That was more or less the end of our conversation—I think he had exhausted his English—but when we left the restaurant the men and boys followed us outside to see us off. There were more handshakes and well-wishes expressed, and then we continued on our way.