It’s a huge country, with mountains impeding the highways and railways, so domestic air travel is well-developed. Especially on routes to Istanbul it’s also very competitive, with Turkish Airlines, Onur Air, Pegasus Airlines and Atlasjet fighting for your custom, so fares are affordable. There are flights between Istanbul and Ankara hourly; Izmir and Adana have several flights a day to Istanbul (both IST and SAW) and Ankara, and every city has at least a daily flight.
Regional airports usually have a connecting Havaş bus to the city centre, which will wait for incoming flights within reason. Buses and minibuses also fan out from the airports to other nearby towns, so you may not need to travel into the city before heading out again.
Turkey has a very good long-distance bus network with air-conditioned buses, reserved seats and generally good-quality service, at least with the major operators. There are now quite a number of companies providing more comfortable buses with 2 + 1 seats per row. Standard buses, however, have seats narrower than those of economy class on aircraft. Buses are often crowded and smoking is prohibited.
Go to the Otogar (bus station) in any of the major cities and you can find a bus to almost any destination departing within half an hour, or a couple of hours at the most. Buses are staffed by drivers and a number of assistants. During the ride you will be offered free drinks, a bite or two, and stops will be made every 2½ hr or so at well-stocked road restaurants. The further east you travel, the less frequent buses will be, but even places as far as Dogubeyazit or Van will have regular services to many places hundreds of kilometers away. Only the smallest towns do not have a bus straight to Istanbul or Izmir at least once every two days.
The four biggest bus companies are:
- Metro Bus
- Kamil Koç
Although, even the smallest company can nowadays be booked via a streamlined website of that bus company. All of them demand a Turkish phone number, but you might just fill in a fake one starting with “539” or so. But the email address should work, to get the ticket. All companies accept foreign passengers and passport IDs. In high season it might make sense to book ahead—just check out the situation a couple of days ahead online. You can also use websites that accumulate all the connections, like obilet or busbud—check both, they have different companies. Buses are reliable and will pick you up—remember Istanbul has at least 3 bus stations.
Otherwise, bus tickets can also be bought inside of bus terminals. Often checking out several ticket booths will give you a better price, since some specialize on certain bus companies and others do not.
Be careful, scammers will be waiting for you in and before bus stations, and some may assist you in buying a ticket to a bus that won’t depart in the next two hours. Sometimes there simply is no other bus, but on other occasions you will be sitting there while other buses with the same destination start well ahead. If you have some time to spare: check the departure (and arrival) times of other companies, that may save you time overall. Still, if you indicate you really want to leave now (use phrases like “hemen” or “şimdi”, or “acelem var” – I am in a hurry ), people will realize you are in hurry, and off you go on the next bus departing for your destination.
If you have several operators to choose from, ask for the number of seats in the buses you compare. Roughly, a larger capacity implies a greater comfort (all bus-seats have approximately the same leg-room, but larger 48-seat buses are certainly more comfortable than a 15-seat Dolmuş, which may be considered a ‘bus’ by the company selling the seat). Also, the bus company with the largest sign is usually the one with the most buses and routes. If possible, ask other travellers you meet about their experiences with different operators: even big operators have different standards of service, and even with the same operator the standards may vary from region to region.
Don’t be surprised if halfway to some strange and far-off destination you are asked out of the bus (your luggage will often be already standing next to it) and transferred to another. The other bus will “buy” you, and will bring you to the destination. This may even happen for ‘direct’ or ‘non-stop’ tickets.
Sometimes long-haul bus lines will leave you stranded on some ring-road around a city, rather than bringing you to the center. That can be annoying. Inquire ahead (and hope they don’t lie). On the other hand, many companies will have “servis aracı” or service vehicles to the center, when the Otogar is on the periphery of a city, as they nowadays often are. In some cities these service vehicles are used by many companies combined, and a fleet of them, to different parts of the metropolis, will be waiting. The company may also choose to combine the passengers of multiple buses; meaning that you may have to wait until another bus or two arrives before departing. Keep your ticket ready as proof you were on a bus (though most of these services are run on good faith). In some cities (including Ankara, excluding Istanbul), the municipality have prohibited the use of service buses due to their effect on traffic. In that case, you might have to take a public bus or metro to get to your destination. One should probably avoid using taxis (at least departing from the Otogar) since they usually tend to abuse their monopolistic position by refusing to go to closer destinations, behaving rudely towards the passenger, charging on the night tariff, etc. If you have to take a taxi, it is usually suggested that you do it from outside the bus terminal.
Seating within buses is partly directed by the “koltuk numarası” or seat number on your ticket, partly by the ritualistic seating of women next to women, couples together and so forth. So don’t be too annoyed if you are required to give up your seat. In general, as a foreigner, you will have the better seat much of the time. It is often easiest to take a seat in the back, whatever the number of your koltuk, and not be bothered for much of the ride. This is particularly true if you travel alone, and want to keep it that way, even though the last row may be reserved for the driver-off-duty, who wants to sleep. And remember: many buses pick up short-track fare along the ride, and park them in the last two or three rows. The back of the bus may be more noisy than the front, since that is where the engine is located.
If you have a bicycle it will be transported free of extra charge. In most buses it fits in the luggage area of the bus. Make sure you have the tools to fold your bike as small as possible (height matters most).
Fez Bus. This is another alternative, a Hop on hop off travel network that links Istanbul to the most popular tourist destinations in western Turkey, and a few other destinations. The buses runs hostel to hostel and have an English speaking tour leader on board. The pass can be purchased for a few days or all summer. Departures are every other day. More expensive than local buses, but could be far less hassle, and offers a different experience. The main office in Istanbul is in Sultanahmet next to the Orient Youth Hostel on Yeni Akbiyik Cd.
Mainline train services in Turkey fall into three categories: i) very fast and modern; ii) slow and scenic; and iii) suspended long-term for rebuilding or for other reasons. The train operator is TCDD, Turkish Republic State Railways, visit their website for timetables, fares and reservations. The trains are inexpensive, but trains often sell out. Some overnight connections exist.
Train reservations online are straight forwards, available in English (as soon as you are in the reservation site), and preferred over buying at station, because generally you would need to book ahead at least 1-2 days. You will have to provide your passport number, which is sufficient to board the train. But you should download or screenshot your ticket to know your seat.
Most cities in Turkey have a rail connection of some sort, but not the Mediterranean and Aegean holiday resorts, which have been built in the 21st century and are hemmed in by mountains. (Kuşadası is the exception, being close to Selçuk on the line between Izmir and Pamukkale.) For some destinations, connecting buses meet the trains, eg at Eskişehir for Bursa, and at Konya for Antalya and Alanya. The main cities also have metro and suburban lines, described on those cities’ pages.
The very fast, modern trains are called YHT: yüksek hızlı tren. These serve Istanbul, Eskişehir, Konya and Ankara. They are clean, comfortable and modern; fares are low and reservations are compulsory (see below, it’s the same reservation procedure as for slow trains.) They run on new, dedicated track at up to 300 km/h so they keep to time. Thus, from Istanbul it’s under 5 hours to Ankara (8 per day, standard single about €20), and likewise 5 hours to Konya (3 per day). Because journey times are short, YHT trains only run daytime, and have only snack-catering. On-train announcements in English forbid “smoking, alcohol, smelly food and peanuts.” The smoke-free and alcohol-free rules are enforced, it’s unclear how zealous they are about peanuts. Between the cities, YHTs make a few momentary intermediate stops. The only one likely to be relevant to visitors is Eryaman, as an interchange with the Ankara suburban system.
The YHT network is gradually extending: routes under construction are from Ankara towards Kars, from Konya towards Adana, and from Istanbul towards Edirne. The long-term strategy is to create a high-speed, high-capacity passenger and freight route from Edirne on the western border through to Kars in the east.
But where the YHT services terminate, the line closures and disruptions immediately begin, as Turkey’s Ottoman-era railways are upgraded for the 21st century. The main closures (as at summer 2019) are from Adana east to Gaziantep, and between Izmir and Bandirma (for the Istanbul ferry).
The conventional trains are slow and scenic, with the emphasis on slow: most run overnight, with journeys from Ankara to eastern cities taking 24 hours. They are infrequent, at best daily, sometimes only one or two per week. The typical train set includes a sleeping car (yataklı vagon), a couchette car (kuşetli), and three open saloons (layout is single row-aisle-double row), plus a buffet that may or may not have any food, plan on bringing your own. How clean and comfortable they are depends on how busy: at quiet times they are fine, but when crowded they soon become filthy. (Always carry your own toilet-roll and hand-wipes.) They are difficult for anyone with impaired mobility to use, and station re-building makes access worse. Nominally these trains are non-smoking, but there’s often a smell of tobacco smoke aboard. They are diesel-hauled and run on single track: on straight level sections they can rattle along at 100 km/h, but in the mountains they plod up steep gradients and round tight bends. So they generally start on time but become delayed along the route.
In summer 2019 these are being supplemented by tourist trains on several long-distance routes, eg Ankara to Kars. These cost about twice the normal fare, make fewer stops, but make a few 2-3 hour stops for tourist excursions; so the total running time is a little longer. You’re tied to the tourist itinerary without flexibility of stopover. The accommodation is the same as on conventional trains: indeed the rolling stock has been provided by pulling sleeping cars off the conventional trains, so the travel experience on these has been degraded.
You can book mainline (‘’anahat’’) trains on the TCDD website; international trains can be booked by other methods (below) but not via the website; and regional (‘’bolger’’) trains are not bookable. TCDD replacement buses are considered trains, and bookable (or not) on the same basis. Consult the timetable first, for the latest on timings and disruptions, but beware that timetable and reservations system sometimes give different days of running for some services, for no good reason. The timetable only lists the main stations, where the train waits for about 10 minutes, and you might just have time to dash to the station kiosk and replenish your food supplies. The trains also stop momentarily at many little wayside halts, where sometimes food vendors will hop on.
Then to buy your ticket, move to the reservation system, but this only opens 15 to 30 days in advance – look further ahead and it will seem like there aren’t any trains. Pick your preferred train service and seat or berth, whereupon the system will display the price and give you the choice of immediate purchase, or of holding the option for a few days. Immediately note your confirmation number, and print your ticket at home whenever convenient – it doesn’t need validating at the station. It’s unclear whether a soft ticket on your phone is acceptable without validation.
The Inter Rail Global Pass and Balkan Flexipass are valid for all trains within Turkey and the trains to & from Europe, but you may still need a seat reservation. TCDD also offer discounts for those under 26 (genç bilet, whether or not you’re a student) and for those over 60 (yaşlı bilet). Check their website for other discount offers, but usually these are aimed at commuters and others making multiple repeat journeys.
Tickets can also be bought from the stations (either at the counter, or from self-service kiosks), from travel agents, or from PTT post offices. The main stations (including the train-less Sirkeci) accept credit cards and can book you onto any bookable train, but they’re unlikely to accept non-Turkish cash. (And nowadays you may struggle to find a money-changer, as they’re replaced by ATMs.) Advance reservations are strongly recommended during summer, on Fridays and Sundays, and around public holidays and religious festivals. Of course you may be able to get a reservation for immediate departure, and the non-YHT trains usually have non-bookable seats, and a scrummage on the platform to claim them. Bear in mind that the main stations may involve a queue for security just to get into the station hall, then another queue for tickets, then a further queue for security and document-check to get onto the platform. You can’t just rock up and jump on.
Like all of its neighbours (except Cyprus off the southern coast of Turkey), driving is on the right side of the road in Turkey.
It is illegal to use a mobile phone while driving. Maximum permitted amount of alcohol in blood for drivers is 0.05mg per ml (0.05%), just like in most European countries. A pint of beer enjoyed right before driving might get your license temporarily confiscated in case of police checks. The use of seat belts both at the front and back line is obligatory, but, although failing to use one carries a penalty, this is not always adhered to by locals, including the drivers themselves.
Turkish signboards are almost identical to the ones used in Europe, and differences are often insignificant. The place names written on green background lead to motorways (which you should pay a toll, unless it is a ring road around or within a city); on blue background means other highways; on white background means rural roads (or a road inside a city under the responsibility of city councils); and on brown background indicates the road leads to a historical place, an antique city, or a place of tourist interest (these signboards used to be on yellow background till a few years ago, so still there is a chance of unreplaced yellow signboards existing here and there). These signboards are sometimes not standardized.
Most intercity highways avoid city centres by circling around them. If you’d like to drive into the centre for shopping, dining, and the like, follow the signposts saying Şehir Merkezi, which are usually on white background, and are accompanied by no further translations though you can still spot some old signs saying “Centrum” besides Şehir Merkezi. City centres typically have two or more entrances/exits from the ringroads that surround them.
As Turkey uses the metric system, all distances on the signboards are in kilometres, unless otherwise stated (such as metres, but never in miles).
Renting a car:
You may rent a car to get around Turkey from an international or local car rental agent. The main airports all have car rental desks, but book ahead for the best deals.
The minibus (or Minibüs as called in Istanbul) is a small bus (sometimes car) that will ride near-fixed routes. The ride may be from the periphery of a major city to the centre or within a city, but may also take three to four hours from one city to the next, when demand along the route is not sufficient to justify large busses. They sometimes make a detour to bring some old folks home or collect some extra heavy luggage. You will find them in cities as well as in inter-city traffic. All during their journey people will get in and out (shout “Inecek var” – “someone to get off” – to have it stop if you’re in). The driver tends to be named “kaptan” (captain), and some behave accordingly. The fare is collected all through the ride. In some by a specially appointed passenger who will get a reduction, in others by a steward, who may get off halfway down the journey, to pick up a dolmuş of the same company heading back, and mostly by the driver himself. If the driver collects himself, people hand money on from the back rows to the front, getting change back by the same route. On some stretches tickets are sold in advance, and things can get complicated if some of the passengers bought a ticket and others just sat inside waiting – for maybe half an hour – but without a ticket.
The concept of dolmuş in Istanbul is somehow different than the rest of Turkey. The vehicles are different, they take max. 7 sitting passengersand non standing. they do not tend to take passengers along the way, they depart immediately when they are full, and many of them operate 24 hours a day. The name derives from “dolmak”, the verb for “to fill”, as they used not to start the journey without a decent number of passengers. They usually leave when they are full, but sometimes start at fixed hours, whatever the number.
Fast ferries (hızlı feribot) are fast (50-60km/hour) catamaran-type ferryboats that connect for instance Istanbul to the other side of the Marmara Sea. They can cut travel time dramatically. Again for instance leaving from the Yenikapı jetty in Istanbul (just a bit southwest of the Blue Mosque) you can be at the Bursa otogar in two hours, with less than an hour for the actual boat ride to Yalova. Similar services are operated to connect several parts of Istanbul with the Asian side, or places farther up the Bosporus. And this type of fast ferry is increasingly seen all over the country wherever there is enough water.
There are also ferry connections between Istanbul and Izmir operating only in summer months.
All inhabited Turkish islands have at least one daily cruise to the nearest mainland city or town during summer. But as winter conditions at the seas can go harsh, the frequency of voyages drop significantly due to the bad weather.
Perhaps one of the best cruising grounds in the world, Turkey offers thousands of years of history, culture and civilization set against a stunning mountainous backdrop. The coastline is a mixture of wide gulfs, peaceful coves, shady beaches, uninhabited islands, small villages and bustling towns. Many of these locations are still only accessible by boat. Rare in the Mediterranean, one can still find some seclusion on a private charter in Turkey. In fact, Turkey offers more coastline than any other Mediterranean country. The best way to see Turkey is from your own private yacht on your own schedule. Turkey offers some of the most exquisite yachts in the world known as gulets.
Simply put, long distance cycling is not a very easy task to do in Turkey, mainly for two reasons: most of the country’s terrain is hilly, and special lanes devoted to bicycles are virtually non-existent, especially along the intercity routes. That being said, most coastal cities nowadays have cycling lanes of varying shapes and lengths along the shores (mainly built for a leisurely ride rather than serious transportation, though) and most highways built within the last decade or so have quite wide and well surfaced shoulders, which can double as bicycle lanes.
If you have already made up your mind and give cycling a try in your Turkey trip, always stay as much on the right side of the roads as possible; avoid riding a bicycle out of cities or lightened roads at night, do not be surprised by the drivers horning at you, and do not enter the motorways, it is forbidden. You could better prefer rural roads with much less traffic density, but then there is the problem of freely roaming sheepdogs, which can sometimes be quite dangerous. Rural roads also have much much less signboards than the highways, which turns them into a labyrinth, in which it is easy to get lost even for non-local Turkish people, without a detailed map.
Air can be pumped into tyres at any petrol station without a charge. Bicycle repair-shops are rare in cities and often in hard-to-locate places; motorcycle repair shops can be tried alternatively (however, they are very reluctant to repair a bicycle if they are busy with their customers who have motorcycles).
On Istanbul’s Princes’ Islands, renting a bike is an amusing and cheaper alternative to hiring a horse-drawn carriage. On these islands well-paved roads are shared only by horse-drawn carriages, bicycles and public service vehicles (like ambulances, police vans, school buses, garbage trucks).
Trail blazing is on the rise in Turkey lately and nowadays all Turkish regions have waymarked hiking trails of various lengths and shapes. Most of them follow a theme, such as connecting to the sites of an ancient civilization, retracing the footsteps of a historical figure or chasing the treats of a specific regional cuisine. The oldest, and the most popular trail is the Lycian Way, which snakes its way over the mountains backing the Turquoise Coast in the southwest. The website of the Culture Routes Society maintains an up-to-date list of the major hiking trails in the country. Guided tours, often involving hiking the most scenic sections and homestays in the villages, along some of these trails are offered by local travel agencies as well as those based in major cities.
Inside the cities, there are white-, or rarely yellow-painted pedestrian crossings (zebra crossing) on the main streets and avenues, which are normally pedestrian-priority spots. However, for many drivers, they are nothing more than ornamental drawings on the road pavements, so it is better to cross the streets at where traffic lights are. Still, be sure all the cars stopped, because it is not unusual to see the drivers still not stopping in the first few seconds after the light turns to red for vehicles. As a better option, on wide streets, there are also pedestrian overpasses and underground pedestrian passages available. In narrow main streets during rush hour, you can cross the street anywhere and anytime, since cars will be in a stop-go-stop-go manner because of heavy traffic. Also in narrow streets inside the residential hoods, you need not to worry about keeping on the sidewalk, you can walk well in the middle of the road, only to step aside when a car is coming.