Turkey is one of Instagram’s most recognizable countries, but most people only visit Istanbul and Cappadocia. Even with a week or less, you can still hit the most popular cities with a few lesser known (but equally deserving) stops along the way. Here’s why you need to take a road trip through Turkey in order to experience all the country has to offer!
TIPS ON DRIVING IN TURKEY
Outside of Istanbul, driving in Turkey was easy. The highways are easy to follow and drivers understand that slower cars should stay to the right. If you are the slower driver, make sure you remember that as well. There are speed cameras along the way, so keep an eye out for signs warning you about them. You may see flashing lights that look like a police car is up ahead, but sometimes they were just lights on a pole or lights on a wooden cutout of a police car. There are also police checkpoints where you may be pulled over because of the current political situation in that area.
Istanbul makes a perfect starting point for your road trip. We arrived at around 4am and stayed at the WOW Hotel Istanbul. The hotel was conveniently located near the airport and allowed us to get some sleep before starting the drive. The hotel was beautiful, the staff was helpful, and the breakfast was huge!
I would recommend leaving the car in the hotel parking lot while touring Istanbul. While trying to drive closer to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, we got all turned around in some skinny one-way streets. Plus, there is very limited parking near the main sites in Istanbul. Instead, there is plenty of public transportation to get you where you want to go. Even with just a short time in Istanbul, the top places you should check out include the Hagia Sophia (go late and stay until closing to have it to yourself), the Blue Mosque (check prayer times and take a head covering), the Grand Bazaar, and Galata Tower.
The drive from Istanbul to Ephesus takes around six and a half hours. You can make the drive all at once or split it up and stop along the way.
STOPPING ON THE WAY TO EPHESUS
We chose the latter option. We stayed Onhann Hotel in Balikesir, about three and a half hours outside of Istanbul. The next morning we finished the drive to Ephesus, knowing we wanted to arrive later in the day to avoid the crowds.
On the way to Ephesus, you can stop in the town of Selcuk for some food and sightseeing. We ate at Agora Restaurant which served one of my favorite meals of the trip. You can visit the museum nearby, but we only wanted to see the ruins in the time we had. If you have more time, you can also visit the Cave of the Seven Sleepers and the House of the Virgin Mary. We did stop at the Temple of Artemis on the way to the ruins as it is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. There is only one column standing, and it does not take long to see.
VISITING THE RUINS IN EPHESUS
We parked at the bottom of the ruins in Ephesus. Immediately a man came over to offer us a carriage ride to the top, telling us how hard the hike would be. We found out from him that it was 1600 meters (1 mile) uphill. Since we are both in good shape, we took off for the top on foot. It ended up being a gentle rolling hill at most and was not a difficult walk at all.
We arrived late in the afternoon to avoid the tours from cruise ships and Izmir. I knew I wanted to see the Library of Celsus last because it was still crowded at that point. We walked throughout the other parts of the ruins and found that many places were not crowded. When you visit, the Terrace Houses are worth the extra fee of 20 TL. It is air-conditioned, which can be a welcome break from the summer heat. We were the only ones inside, and the renovation work is ongoing. This area gives you a good idea of what life was like for the wealthy families of Ephesus.
The ruins close at 7 p.m., so we made our way back to the Library around 6:45 p.m. There were only two or three others still there at that point. Eventually, everyone else left, and we had the area to ourselves. We ended up staying until around 7:30 p.m. taking photos (but no tripods are allowed). There was a concert there that night, so this is likely why they did not clear us out of the area. It may be different on a night when there is no evening event.
The next stop on our road trip through Turkey was Pamukkale. (There are lots of coastal cities closer to Ephesus if you are looking to see the beaches in Turkey and if you have more time than we did.) There are quite a few hotels in Pamukkale right next to the town entrance. While they were cheap, none of them that were available had great reviews. We opted to stay about 10 minutes away at the Richmond Pamukkale Thermal, which was an amazing resort with a thermal pool and a staff that went above and beyond.
If you visit Pamukkale in the summer months, prepare for the crowds. There are multiple pools you can pay to swim in, but the main area to see is the Travertines and the ruins of Hieropolis. It was hard to find information on opening hours with some websites saying 8 a.m. and others saying they were open 24 hours a day.
We decided to try to see the sunrise at 5:30 a.m. and drove to the town entrance. We found a guard waiting who told us they were closed until 8 a.m. Using Google Translate, we were able to find out that we could try the South Entrance because it opens at 6:30 a.m. We drove up to the South Entrance and were the first ones at the gate. Go straight to the walkway down the pools because the first tours arrived around 7 a.m. and it was packed soon after. From what I’ve heard, they clear back out late in the evening, but we needed to get on the road to Cappadocia.
The drive from Pamukkale to Cappadocia took about seven hours but had some scenic views. We arrived in Cappadocia late in the evening and stayed at Cappadocia Cave Suites. This hotel had a perfect place to view the sunrise with the balloons without the crowds at some of the more popular hotels. We opted not to do the balloon flight because of the cost and because we only had two mornings. I wanted to see the sunrise from the ground and have an extra morning in case the flights were canceled.
In Cappadocia, make sure to visit the Goreme Open Air Museum (go early!) and the Fairy Chimney Valley (stick around and you can get the famous shot there between tours). For the sunset, you can head out to the Panoramic Viewpoint, but I would hike out from there to find a spot all to yourself. You can visit the Instafamous hotels later in the day, but most of them are closed to outside visitors during the balloon flights. If you do not stay at one of these hotels, you can alway go to Sunset Point to watch the sunrise with a similar view there.
If you are considering Turkey for an upcoming trip, consider turning it into a road trip from Istanbul to Cappadocia. Turkey is home to some of the most incredible historical and geological sites in the world, and you won’t want to miss them on your visit. You can also fly to nearby cities or take overnight buses if you decide you don’t want to drive. But whatever mode of transportation, be sure to step out of the major cities and experience all the beauty Turkey has to offer.
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