Turkey is a large, diverse, and fascinating country, but only small parts of it have so far been discovered by foreign travelers. Tourists know of the imperial charm of Istanbul, idyllic beaches of Antalya, and moonlike landscapes of Cappadocia, but, admittedly, not much else. Thankfully, Turkey is an increasingly accessible destination, and if you are respectful of the local culture and mindful of certain caveats, you can visit both the main tourist attractions as well as off-the-beaten-path destinations, having a great time traveling between them in your own ride. Use this guide to make the most of your Turkish adventure.
When should you visit Turkey?
Istanbul is the largest city and the number one tourist destination in Turkey. While it can be tempting to visit from June to August, temperatures get extremely high and this is also the time when the city has the largest amount of tourists. Visiting in late springtime or early autumn can be much more rewarding. Istanbul is also a fascinating city to visit in wintertime — all the architecture and history are still there and the prices are lower — although temperatures drop quite considerably from December to February.
Antalya, Bodrum, and the rest of the Turkish Agean and Mediterranean coasts are popular tourist destinations from April all the way to early-November. Like Istanbul, the southern coast gets the largest number of visitors in the summer months and this is also the time when most Turks go on a vacation.
The famous region of Cappadocia is best visited in either late spring or early autumn. Located quite far inland, the region gets extremely hot in summer and quite cold and wet in winter.
Where should you pick up a car in Turkey?
Most visitors to Turkey choose to pick up a rental car right at the airport. There are more than 20 international airports in Turkey, and at each one of them you'll find at least a few car rental companies.
The largest airport in Turkey, Istanbul Airport, is also the youngest in the country — it replaced Istanbul Ataturk Airport in 2019. The airport, a large hub for Turkish Airlines and with flights by tens of other airlines, offers flights to and from all of the populated continents of the world. Other large Turkish airports include Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen Airport, Antalya Airport, Ankara Esenboğa Airport, and others.
Compared to the rest of Europe, Turkey has much fewer flight options provided by low-cost airlines. Still, some low-cost carriers like the local Pegasus Airlines, as well as Eurowings, Lauda, and Jet2.com, fly to and from Turkey.
In addition to airports, it is also possible to pick up or drop off a rental car at other locations like international hotels and car rental company offices.
Many car rental companies in Turkey offer the option of a one-way rental. A small extra fee is usually charged for this service, but it gives you the flexibility of not being required to return to your point of entry. It is popular among travelers to pick up a car in Istanbul and drop it off in Izmir or Ankara or to travel between Antalya and Bodrum.
Most car rental providers in Turkey do not permit international one-way rentals.
Now that you know where to pick up your rental car, check out our prices for the dates you plan to travel!
How easy is it to travel around Turkey independently?
Turkey is an increasingly easy place to explore on your own - the quality of its main highways is good, its tourism infrastructure is improving, and more and more things like accommodation and tours can be booked online. Nonetheless, a fair few challenges and caveats remain, and it is good to be mindful of them.
Turkey is a large and diverse country. Western Turkey, as well as most of the Mediterranean and Black Sea coasts, is very accessible — a foreign tourist shouldn’t experience many issues driving on their own from Istanbul to Izmir or even all the way down to Antalya. However, the rural parts of the country are more of a challenge to explore as there’s not an industry catering to tourists, and while people are generally very kind and hospitable, communication can be problematic (see the language section). Hotels and even gas stations are few and far between, so getting an up-to-date GPS system for your rental car is a must if you plan to explore — ask your rental car provider about the availability of it.
Some parts of Southeastern Turkey can be downright dangerous to travel to due to the ongoing conflict there — see the safety section for more information.
It is also important not to underestimate the size of Turkey — more than twice as large as Germany, Turkey is a huge country, and distances can be overwhelming. Expect a five to six-hour drive between Istanbul and Ankara, eight hours between Istanbul and Antalya, and seven hours between Antalya and Cappadocia.
How safe is it to travel around Turkey by car?
Turkey is a safe country overall and most foreign travelers visit it without facing any significant risks. However, there are a number of things to keep in mind to stay on the safe side.
The Turkish border with Syria is dangerous to travel to and should be avoided due to the ongoing military conflict there. The Turkish border with Iraq is less tumultuous, but should also be avoided for all non-essential travel because of sporadic violence and attacks carried out by the Islamic State on the other side of the border.
Large parts of Southeastern Turkey are also unstable and experience sporadic conflict between the Turkish army and militants. While the cities of Gaziantep and Adana are relatively safe, the city of Diyarbakir has experienced fighting in its streets and is not considered safe to travel to. If you intend to travel to Southeastern Turkey, check the latest security update and consult your Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the embassy of your country in Turkey.
In Southeastern Turkey, and sometimes elsewhere in the country, you might encounter security checkpoints of the Turkish army. Do not feel threatened as they are there for your safety, but do follow their advice regarding the security situation in the region.
While the border area between Turkey and Armenia is not especially dangerous, the border between the two countries is closed.
Turkey has a fairly large share of reckless drivers and road accidents are, statistically, by far the largest risk to a traveler in the country. Use common sense and be extra cautious when driving in areas with inadequate lighting and mountainous areas after dark.
Turkish police are overall trustworthy and you should not hesitate to contact them if you’re in trouble. The police number in Turkey is 155. There are English-speaking tourist police units in Istanbul and a couple of other large cities. In rural areas, you likely should contact the military police — their number is 156.
More than 95% of the inhabitants of Turkey are Muslims. While the country is fairly secular, especially if compared to its Middle Eastern neighbors, you should always stay respectful of local customs and religious matters. It’s also probably a bad idea to discuss the current government, the animosity between the Turks and the Kurds, or the ongoing conflict in Syria.
Three underrated travel destinations in Turkey that you can reach by car:
Lake Van. Located at an altitude of 1,640 m (5,380 ft), Lake Van (a salt lake) is one of the most picturesque places in Turkey. Surrounded by ancient fortresses, monasteries, and the ruins of some of the first civilizations that ever existed, the area's history can match its nature. Although Lake Van is located deep in Eastern Turkey, this area is known as peaceful and safe to travel to. It's not easy to get to — the lake is about a four-hour drive from Erzurum and about eight hours from Trabzon — but visiting it would be an adventure to remember.
Edirne. Only about three percent of Turkey's territory is located in Europe, but that doesn't mean this part of the country is poor when it comes to attractions. The chief one among them is the city of Edirne. Located near the modern borders with Bulgaria and Greece, the city was inhabited by Romans who called it Hadrianopolis. Later, it even served as the capital of the Ottoman Empire before losing that title to Istanbul. Home to impressive mosques, churches, and the Grand Synagogue, the city has interesting museums and is also the hub of oil wrestling, a popular Turkish folk sport. Better yet, Edirne is only about a three-hour drive from Istanbul.
Konya. A large inland city in the western part of the country, Konya is one of the holiest sites of Sufism. The tomb of Rumi, the most famous prophet of that mystical branch of Islam, is located in the city. The traditions of Sufism survive in Konya to this day — chiefly in the ceremony of whirling dervishes that takes place at the Mevlana Cultural Centre every Saturday evening. Konya is also famous for its medieval Islamic architecture. The city is conveniently located near other popular tourist destinations in Turkey — it is about a three-hour drive from Ankara, four hours from either Antalya, Cappadocia or Adana, and seven hours from either Izmir or Istanbul.
Head of Growth at DiscoverCars.com
Aleksandrs has over 10 years of experience in marketing with a focus on creating stellar content that provides topical insights using data. Having taken five road trips across Europe and one in the U.S., he is passionate about traveling by car. His favorite countries to visit are Denmark and Thailand. You can find him on Linkedin, Facebook, and Twitter.