If you're curious about traveling to Turkey, below I'm going to break down my best travel tips to help have a great time, stay safe and of course save money. Turkey is one of the most beautiful places on earth with gorgeous beaches, historical sites, skiing resorts and more. This is one of the reasons why I decided to settle down and live here after my retirement from the military. I've had the wonderful opportunity to travel all over the country and below are my tips for fellow Americans or travelers who are curious about traveling in Türkiye.
Choosing a great flight and arrival location:
One of my favorite travel tips to new travelers is to pay attention to "travel hubs." Meaning large metropolitan cities as your destination or departure point. If you were to fly from Washington DC to Istanbul, round-trip, mid-to-late September (the maximum frugal way possible), you can find prices under $800 per person. That's round-trip. If you pick a date in the middle of the summer, that price doubles. Each hop you add between your hometown and that major city in the states will add a couple hundred dollars. So if you want to be cheap, first figure out how you can you cheaply get the family to a major travel hub, and then fly out of there DIRECTLY into Istanbul. If you want to be extra efficient, choose Istanbul as your destination on a one-way trip. And then book your return home out of Antalya in the south. This will allow you to discover several great town and attractions between the two.
Must see Location: Constantinople (Present Day Istanbul):
Once you arrive in Turkey, you're going to have bags and family and you're going to be tired. So you will need a shuttle or a taxi to take you to a hotel. I highly recommend choosing a hotel within walking distance of the Hagia Sophia Mosque in an area of Istanbul called "Eminonu." This taxi or shuttle fare is going to be one of the few main expenses of the trip, so don't skimp there. It is a jam-packed city, so do not try to rent a car. It will take longer to travel and will most likely be more expensive in the long run. If you're brave and want to back-pack this trip to save even more money, you can talk to the information booth in the airport to get a metro card and use the subway or the above ground tram system to get to Eminonu.
Once you arrive, check-in and feel relaxed, make your way to the Hagia Sophia mosque. There you will find the double-decker hop-on hop-off buses like "CitySightseeing." There will be booths there where tourists can pay for a daily pass or a multi-day pass. If you're not familiar with these buses, they work as a ring-route going around the city in one direction and end up back by the Hagia Sophia Mosque where you started. They have several buses all on the same route and allow you to hop on and hop off at any of their stops all day with your pass. This allows you two amazing opportunities: first you can sit and enjoy the entire city and snap photos from the comfort of your chair and second you can hop off to further investigate something that peaks your interest. These buses are an awesome value. It's roughly $38 per person, per day. These are definitely worth it and let you see a lot of the city in a short amount of time.
6 Things to avoid in Istanbul:
People aggressively wanting to show you a product or begging for money.
People offering to be your tour guide or show you around.
Street food that you don't feel is cooked cleanly.
Water from any tap or open source.
Clams or seafood that hasn't been kept on ice or in a cold storage area.
I'll say it again: People aggressively wanting to show you a product or begging for money.
One final safety tip: Istanbul is one of the largest cities in the world with a population of over 15 million people with a large number of them being poor refugees. Like any large city in the world, street smarts are key. Stay around the touristy areas and well lit streets. Restaurants, cafes and businesses LOVE tourists and will want to keep you safe so business continues to come in. If you feel unsafe, just go in a business and hang out until you feel safe.
How to travel safely and efficiently:
The rest of your itinerary is completely up to you but below I have provided several amazing sites that I recommend. One key question for any newcomers here is: "how can I cheaply and efficiently travel around Turkey?" If you're traveling a very long distance, like Istanbul to Cappadocia in the east of Turkey (approx. 8 hours by car), I recommend using a bus such as the Pamukkale inter-city bus system.
If you find yourself in a small town, you might be able to find a Pamukkale travel office. They will assist you with purchasing the bus tickets and also offer a free shuttle service that will take you to the main bus hub for that city. It is super convenient and cheap to travel this way from big city to big city. Any of the cities listed below will have travel tours or other bundles. But I found that these are often over-priced unless you will enjoy a guide who will explain your surroundings to you. If you're like me, you will enjoy taking in the sites at your own pace, a delicious meal and every chance to save some money. So I never use bundled travel tours. All of my suggestions below are assuming you won't as well.
If you want even more freedom and don't mind spending a bit more money, you can rent a car once you leave Istanbul. Do NOT rent a car in Istanbul. Use a bus or shuttle to leave the city, head to the outskirts of town or to another city entirely, and THEN rent a car. Yes, the traffic is that bad. No, you don't want to deal with it. Just use the metro or a taxi and get to a car rental place out of town. You are legally allowed to drive in Turkey for up to 6 months if you're over 18 years old and hold a legal driver's license in your country. The traffic patterns and laws are similar to most western countries with driving on the right side of the road and giving right of way at any intersection. However, turning right on a red light is not permitted. If you see a Turkish person running red lights or stop signs, DO NOT mimic this behavior. They have traffic cameras and you will accrue tickets on your vehicles tag. When you return the car, you will be responsible for all of those tickets.
Must see location: Troy (Present day Dümrek/Çanakkale):
A quick one-day stop that I feel everyone should see is Çanakkale, which is the site of the ancient city of Troy. What visit to Turkey could be complete without standing under a Trojan horse in Troy! Yes, that's the real thing and what it really looked like. I put this stop next on the list after Istanbul because geographically they are the closest together, so if you are driving a rental car, it will be the next stop on your trip. For example, assuming you used the Enterprise Rent-a-car at Harmandere Mah Emir Sultan Cad 41 34912, 34890 Pendik/İstanbul in the outskirts of Istanbul; it's about a 4 hour drive to the Trojan Horse location.
Along your route, you may also be interested in stopping in Çanakkale and seeing the World War 1 memorials. These small towns have very nice bed and breakfast locations. Enjoy a slow pace and delicious local food during your stay.
Must see location: Virgin Mary's House/Ephesus/Kuşadası
Next up while traveling south along Turkey's West coast is the beautiful beach town of Kuşadası. This place is a great location to get some sun and enjoy some fun. There are lots of pubs, restaurants and dance clubs if you want to enjoy some night life. These public beaches are lovely, but if you want to have a private beach and access to pools, the resorts nearby are very nice.
This place is on my must-see list because the historical sites are equally gorgeous. This location is home to a site known as Ephesus, an ancient roman city. The beaches and fun are only about 23 minutes from this site. If you aren't using a rental car, you will be able to find shuttles or taxis. Speak to the front desk at your hotel for help locating the shuttles. Make sure to have some cash on your person to pay shuttles and taxis in local currency.
Just a few minutes up the hill from Ephesus is the site of the last home of the Virgin Mary. There are beautiful gardens and cafes up the hill near her house. So I recommend visiting Ephesus in the morning and going up the hill for lunch and more walking around the house.
After you're done with your sightseeing, you can head back down to the beaches of Kusadasi and have a nice dinner by the seaside.
Must see location: Fethiye/Ölüdeniz
This place makes my list because it is one of the most beautiful beaches and natural beauty, I've ever seen. The unbelievable blue waters and mountains to each side make this place unlike anywhere else. If you're leaving from Kusadasi coming to Fethiye, it's about a 4 hour drive.
Again, there are buses that can take you from one place to the other to make travel easy. If you are driving a rental car, I recommend one stop along the road in a very small town called Akyaka, which is famous for it's beautiful crystal clear river. Take a break from the road and dip your feet in the cold water and have some lunch. You'll see river boats cruising up and down the river with tourists and children playing along the riverfront.
After lunch, head right into Fethiye and drop off your bags because there is so much amazing beauty to see there. Along the beach front are adventure tour businesses that offer scuba diving, hiking, 4-wheelers and even tandem-paragliding. My family are definitely among the more adventurous, so we asked what the minimum age/weight was for the paragliding. Luckily both of our boys (8 and 10) were big enough to join me on a jump.
Departure: Antalya Airport
After you are done with your adventures and sightseeing in Fethiye, you can head over to Antalya for a final meal and spa before departing Turkey. The airport is located on the east-side of this beautiful city, so I recommend getting a hotel on that side. I also found the lovely Topkapi Hamam nearby as well which would be the perfect ending to such a trip.
On the above list of must-see locations, I didn't mention all the beauty and history that Turkey has to offer. I imagined a 2-week vacation for one of my own family or friends and what sites you could see and things you could experience in cost-efficiently as possible. If you have the time and opportunity, here are a few more must-see locations that are a bit further off the path.
Pamukkale, Capadocia, Bursa/Uludag and Ankara
I hope you found this guide helpful. I highlighted beautiful locations that I have personally traveled to and also expressed my concerns about safety and efficient travel. If you have suggestions about something I should add, remove or edit, please click over to the contact page and drop me a line.