Inspired by my own 4-day Turkey Road Trip that I took in August 2020, this post outlines a suggested itinerary for a week-long self-drive route up the North Aegean Coast from Izmir to Istanbul. I also discuss the practicalities of hiring a car and driving in Turkey – and there’s a serious warning at the bottom so don’t miss that! If you’re thinking about renting a car in Turkey and looking for advice about places to visit on your road trip, then read on…
I’m very lucky that in my job as a documentary producer/director I get to visit some incredible places. And one of the wonderful countries I’ve had the pleasure of filming in recently is Turkey.
I and a colleague spent 10 days filming two archaeology programmes for Discovery Science Channel, one at Gordion, near Ankara, and the second at Hierapolis/Pamukkale, which is not too far from Izmir in the west of Turkey. We worked two weeks straight without a break and at the end of the shoot we were given three days off, so we rented a car and took a short road trip from Izmir up the Aegean Coast and back to Istanbul for our flight home.
When I tried to plan this mini adventure, I couldn’t find much advice online about where to visit and stay during a short Turkey road trip. Fortunately, I had our amazing local fixer on call, and she helped us map out a fantastic itinerary that took in all the best places on Turkey’s stunning North Aegean coastline. So now I’m paying it forward and sharing that advice with you.
We only had four days which really wasn’t long enough to properly enjoy all the places we visited. So the itinerary below is not exactly what we did, but it’s what I would do now if I could take the trip again with a bit more time. Hopefully you’ll find it helpful when it comes to planning your own Turkey road trip along the Aegean coast.
Day One: Fly to Izmir, drive to Hierapolis / Pamukkale
We began our adventures at the stunning archaeological site of Hierapolis/Pamukkale, where we had spent the last five days filming. I’ll write a separate post about that soon, so do subscribe by email if you don’t want to miss it!
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Hierapolis is an ancient Greco-Roman city, once famous for its mineral hot springs and an eerie temple where priests performed animal sacrifices to Pluto, the god of the underworld. The same mineral springs that fuelled the Roman spa industry here also formed spectacular travertine limestone terraces (the Pamukkale) that gleam in the Turkish sun. It’s one of Turkey’s most famous attractions, and despite sometimes getting quite crowded, is definitely worth a visit.
I’m going to go ahead and assume you won’t magically be starting your journey in Hierapolis at the end of a filming trip as we did. So you’re going to need to get there. The quickest way is to fly to Izmir, pick up your rental car, and drive the three hours to Hierapolis.
If you don’t want to go to Hierapolis and are only interested in the coastal part of this itinerary, then your best bet is to fly to Izmir and pick up the route from Day 3.
Where to stay in Pamukkale
We stayed in the Adempira Spa Hotel, a brand new 5* hotel with a spa and an absolutely fabulous outdoor pool which I sadly did not have nearly as much time to take advantage of as I would have liked. The rooms were stylish and clean and the prices incredibly reasonable compared with other similar hotels in the area.
My only complaint was that due to Covid-19 the restaurant buffet was closed and the food wasn’t actually that good, so I recommend you head into Pamukkale village for all your meals instead.
Where to eat in Pamukkale
Most of the restaurants in Pamukkale village serve the same identikit tourist fare of steak and chips, kofte or kebabs. It’s perfectly edible but hardly fine dining, so you may want to drive the 30 minutes to Denizli for a more varied range of options.
However, we did manage to find what is probably the one decent restaurant in Pamukkale Village, a Chinese place called Asian Kitchen Landscape Restaurant, where the portions were huge, the food all freshly-cooked and absolutely delicious, and staff were friendly and spoke perfect English. We liked it so much we ate there three nights in a row!
Day Two: Hierapolis/Pamukkale
Today is your chance to explore Hierapolis/Pamukkale. The site is divided into two areas: the Pamukkale, which are the white travertine terraces you’ll see in all the photographs, and Hierapolis, the Roman city.
It’s a unique and wonderful place, though the travertine areas can get quite busy with tour groups. But almost no one visits Hierapolis, so if you want to avoid the tourists, don’t linger too long at the Pamukkale and instead head straight for the city.
The main things to see are the amphitheatre (one of the best-preserved in the Roman world), the many hundreds of tombs in the necropolis, the main street with its arched gateway, the Sanctuary of Apollo, and the Plutonium, a shrine to Pluto where priests made animal sacrifices (though this was closed to the public when we visited – we had special access for filming).
It’s also worth making the trek up to the top of the hill to see the tomb and Martyrium of Philip the Apostle with amazing views over the site.
It’s a huge site and walking around it in the hot sun can be a challenge. There are buses and golf buggies available to rent, but if you plan to walk make sure you take a hat, suncream and plenty of water!
Day Three: Lake Bafa and Şirince
On day three of your Turkey Road Trip, hop back in the car and drive the three hours back to the coast to Lake Bafa in time for lunch. Lake Bafa used to be a gulf of the Aegean Sea until the entrance silted up; it’s now a nature reserve and bird sanctuary where you can go walking or take boat trips.
We stopped for lunch at Selenes Pension, a cute guesthouse with rooms, a pool and a terrace restaurant overlooking the lake. We ate delicious fresh fish with chips and a selection of Turkish mezze and salads.
If you can spare the time, in the afternoon you could take a boat trip on Lake Bafa (the staff at Selenes can organise this for you), or if the weather is not too hot, you can do a three-hour hike to see rock tombs and prehistoric cave paintings.
We didn’t have time, so instead we decided to put on our bathing suits and swim out to the tiny island that’s less than 100 m offshore. It’s home to a ruined Byzantine fortress and about 10 goats who were quite friendly but alarmingly curious. The water was warm, pretty shallow, and full of slimy seaweed which was a bit gross, but it was totally worth it for a mini adventure exploring the ruins in the sunshine. We had the place completely to ourselves, though sadly because we swam there I don’t have any photos.
From Lake Bafa it’s about another 1.5 hours to drive to Şirince (pronounced Sheer-IN-jay), where you’ll stay the night.
Şirince is a gorgeous little former Greek hilltop village about 15 minutes from the town of Selçuk, which is home to the famous archaeological site of Ephesus. The village itself is full of cute cobbled streets, bars and cafes, as well as shops selling ice cream and locally-produced fruit wine and olive oil. Have a stroll and then find a place to watch the sunset with a glass of wine or a cold beer after your long day.
Where to stay in Şirince
We stayed in the Terrace Houses, a group of three charming houses that have been beautifully restored by British-Turkish couple Charlotte and Ömer Samli. Each house is atmospheric and unique, packed full of vintage design and historic objects that really make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. The houses are tucked away at the top of the hillside, from where you can enjoy breakfast or drinks on the terrace overlooking the picturesque view before strolling down to explore the village itself.
Where to eat in Şirince
At Charlotte and Ömer’s recommendation we ate at the nearby Sedir Restaurant, where we enjoyed a selection of delicious vegetarian mezze followed by the house speciality, Manti, which is a traditional Turkish dish a bit like ravioli or tiny dumplings stuffed with lamb or beef mince and covered with a yoghurty sauce.
Day Four: Ephesus
Day four of your Turkey Road Trip is your chance to visit one of the jewels in Turkey’s crown: the ancient city of Ephesus, which is just 15 minutes’ drive from Şirince.
Ephesus was once the capital of Roman Asia Minor. It’s one of the largest archaeological sites in Turkey and was home of the Temple of Artemis, one of the fabled seven wonders of the ancient world. It’s a huge site and you can easily spend a full day there, but it’s best to get there early or stay late to avoid the worst of the heat and the crowds.
At the end of a hot day exploring the ruins, return to Şirince for another night in this charming village.
Day Five: Ayvalík and Cunda with a stop at Pergamon (Bergama)
Enjoy another breakfast on the terrace or wander into Şirince village to buy souvenirs and olive oil, and then get back in the car for Day Five of your road trip. It’ll take you three hours to drive north up the coast to Cunda (pronounced CHOON-dar), a charming island just across the water from the town of Ayvalík and connected to the mainland by a road bridge.
If you’re keen on archaeological sites and happy to leave early, along the way you could stop at Pergamon, which is about an hour south of Ayvalík (pronounced EYE-vall-ook). Pergamon (also known as Bergama) was the capital of the Kingdom of Pergamon during 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. It was home to of the largest libraries of the world and the city became a healing and arts centre. Key sights to see here now include the acropolis which contains the huge marble-columned Temple of Trajan, the impressively steep Hellenistic theatre, and the Temple of Dionysus.
Once you arrive in Cunda, check into your hotel and then head out to explore this cute island town.
Cunda Island, also called Alibey Island, used to be a Greek colony and is now a quiet and charming seaside resort with a harbour, pretty old town full of narrow streets filled with colourful historic stone houses, and a small town centre with cafes and shops. It’s a lovely place to stroll around taking photos before stopping for an ice cream or a cold drink. Don’t miss Evliyazade olive oil shop near the main square for some of the freshest, grassiest and cheapest olive oil you’ll ever buy.
The island has several beaches – most are small and stony but still worth a visit because the views are beautiful and the water is some of the clearest you’ll find anywhere in the world. Many of the beaches are private or belong to the nearby hotels, so it’s a good idea to book in advance if you want to guarantee access and a sun lounger without having to travel too far. You can also take boat trips around the bay or watch the sunset from the nearby hilltop of Şeytan Sofrası (Devil’s Feast).
Where to stay in Cunda
We stayed at Cunda Fora hotel, which is situated in the old town about a ten-minute stroll from the waterfront. The hotel has large, smartly-decorated rooms and a restaurant terrace where you can enjoy a breakfast of eggs, with Turkish cheese, olives and bread overlooking a sea view. If beaches are your thing then another option would be to stay at Cunda Sobe hotel which has its own private beach area – so you won’t need to book or travel at all.
Where to eat in Cunda
In the evening we headed down to the harbour for dinner at Teo’s Restaurant, which is located right on the waterfront with tables on a wooden jetty over the water. We sat looking out to sea with the lights of the town reflecting off the glimmering surface, eating freshly-caught fish and a huge selection of Turkish mezze, and it was so perfect that we ended up staying till 2 am when the staff closed the restaurant around us!
Day Six: Assos
On Day Six of your Turkey Road Trip it’s time to enjoy a leisurely breakfast at your hotel, maybe go for another stroll around Cunda, and then get back in the car and drive about two hours northwest up the coast to Assos.
After about an hour, take the left hand turn off the main road at Küçükkuyu and follow the coast road the rest of the way as it winds up and down past tiny beaches and bays that sparkle in the sunshine.
Lunch at Kozluyali Beach
Stop for lunch at Kozluyali Beach, a cute glamping resort featuring posh fixed tents with their own private bathrooms, a shady garden dotted with hammocks and sunbeds, an outdoor restaurant where we ate excellent burgers, and a small stony beach with sun loungers and the clearest water I’ve ever had the pleasure of swimming in.
Spend the afternoon here relaxing, swimming, and enjoying a few cold beers, and then you can either stay the night here or get back in the car and drive the 15 minutes further to Assos.
Assos is another small but historic hilltop town with narrow winding streets filled with picturesque stone houses and glorious views out over the plains below. The town of Assos sits on an acropolis above the fishing village of Behramkale which is about a 20 minute walk downhill. At the very top of the hill is the ancient archaeological site of Assos which features a ruined Temple of Athena and stunning views over the bay. It’s a great place to watch the sunset before heading back down to the town for dinner and drinks on the last night of your Turkey Road Trip.
Where to stay in Assos
We stayed at Idasos Tasodalar, a charming boutique hotel in Assos old town just a ten minute walk downhill from the temple. The hotel features clean rooms around a pretty courtyard filled with colourful corners to sit in and plenty of friendly cats! Another highly recommended option is Assos 3 Oda just across the street, which has beautiful rooms and amazing views over the valley.
Where to eat in Assos
We had dinner at Mavi Kapi Kafé, also in Assos old town just a short walk from the hotel. This tiny restaurant serves just a few local Turkish dishes including various mezze and meat and fish of the day in an outdoor courtyard tucked away off the main street.
Day Seven: Back to Istanbul
For us, the last day of our Turkey Road Trip involved driving the six hours all the way back to Istanbul in time for a late afternoon flight. If you have more time, you could break up the journey at one of the towns halfway along the route, or spend a couple of nights in Istanbul and explore the city for a day or two before heading home.
Things to do in Istanbul
Istanbul is a vibrant, buzzing city with absolutely masses to see and do. From architectural icons like Hagia Sofia or the Blue Mosque, to bars, clubs and restaurants, to watching the sunset over the Bosphorus, to browsing the many bazaars and boutiques, you definitely won’t struggle to fill a day or two in this atmospheric city.
A Turkey Road Trip: Practicalities
Car rental and driving in Turkey
It’s very easy to rent a car in Turkey. Just go to your normal favourite car rental comparison site, put in your dates and the type of car you want, add any extras, and job done. We booked a Renault Clio through Avis for four days in August and it cost £340.
Driving in Turkey is safe and easy. The roads are good and pretty well signposted, though I would always recommend buying a local SIM and using Google Maps to navigate.
There are plenty of petrol stations and roadside restaurants, the vast majority of which have toilets far cleaner than anything you get in the UK. You do get traffic jams around the major cities, but apart from when we passed Izmir we had very little trouble with traffic or crazy drivers, and the whole experience was very easy. Apart from one thing…
A warning about driving in Turkey!
On the second day of our trip, as we were driving from Şirince to Cunda at about 80 mph on the motorway, a tyre warning light suddenly came on, and moments later, our back right tyre exploded, tearing a hole in the bumper. My colleague, who was driving, managed to bring the car to a stop safely and fortunately no one was hurt. It turns out the tyre had ‘delaminated’, which means the tread separated from the inner part of the tyre. This can happen when you have a tyre in poor condition being driven on hot roads.
Fortunately, we were able to get help at a nearby Shell petrol station, where we put the spare tyre on and then drove carefully back to Izmir to swap the car before continuing our journey. It was all relatively painless, until I got home and found that Avis had charged another £360 to my credit card for the privilege of a high-speed tyre blowout that could have caused a fatal accident, and four hours out of our day sorting it out. At the time of writing, I’m still trying to get an explanation and my money back. I will certainly never be renting a car with Avis again.
So be warned. Check your tyres carefully when picking up the car, and if you have any concerns, don’t ignore them!
And that’s it! Have you been to Turkey? Any places you’d recommend for a road trip? Any questions about what you’ve read? Please comment below – I’d love to hear from you!
There’ll be posts coming soon about Gordion and Hierapolis, so if you don’t want to miss those, why not subscribe by email to get new posts direct to your inbox?
If you’d like to find out more about my filming adventures, here are few posts you might enjoy:
- What It’s Like to be a Travel Show Producer
- An Unhelpful Guide to… Herculaneum
- An Unhelpful Guide to… New York & The Rockaways
- An Unhelpful Guide to… Bruges