I read a blog post recently about driving in Turkey that was extremely negative and sarcastic, even downright condescending. I was completely taken aback. My experience driving in Turkey was fascinating, eye-opening, a window into the culture. And really, no problem at all.
There were some truths in that negative post, though. If you’ve heard that speed limits are more like recommendations in Turkey, it’s true. It also seemed to me that they were constantly changing: 50 km/hr, no, 30! no, 70! Wait, 100! It takes some getting used to, driving 100. I felt like a race car driver for a few minutes, until I remembered that this 100 was km/hr, and that’s actually only about 60 mi/hr!
The most fascinating part of driving in Turkey for me was that when there are two lanes going each direction, people drive in the middle of their two lanes. And why not? They always moved over when someone was coming along behind them. The way they passed each other on a two lane road (one lane going each direction) made sense to me, too. They’re quite brave about it, but the person being passed will move onto the shoulder if necessary, and a car coming from the other direction will move onto their shoulder, too. It all felt quite accommodating and civil.
Several people told me not to drive in Istanbul. I didn’t, and I’m glad. Our shuttle driver from Sultanahmet to the airport knew what he was doing and still had to back down narrow streets a few times when a delivery truck or parked car blocked the way.
I did drive in Canakkale and in some other smaller towns. Merging isn’t done with much finesse, but then, that’s true a lot of places. When I lived in Southern California, I discovered that true merging, that is, cars taking turns, one from one lane, then one from the other, and on and on, actually can take place. So in all fairness, although I can remember holding my breath and inching forward, willing myself to not get hit as I merged with another lane in a busy part of Ayvalik, it’s not always much better in the US.
Driving in Turkey was more time-consuming for sure. The main highways, at least along the Aegean Coast where I drove, are not like the main highways in the US. Winding up through the mountains (big hills/small mountains) between Ayvacik and Edremit, only one lane of traffic each way with big trucks struggling up the hill and braking all the way down, meant slow going, and no alternative. And to be fair, not being able to read Turkish often made driving more complicated. However, whenever we asked for help, we got it, and cheerfully, whether it was hotel staff helping with driving directions, the TurkCell store staff person in a small town (who didn’t speak a word of English) helping us put more money on our prepaid phone when we were on the road, or a random woman in a restaurant (who did speak English) giving us directions for getting back to the highway.
In the end, I drove the way I drive in the US, more or less. I stuck to my lane. I tried to follow the speed limit as much as possible. I did move onto the shoulder for passing cars, though. And I looked around in wonder, at the nice little mosques and the men drinking tea in the shade in small towns, beautiful fruits and vegetables at roadside stands, and spectacular views out over the ocean. I highly recommend driving in Turkey. In Istanbul, though, seriously, take the bus.
Some practical tips:
- Cars in Turkey have manual transmissions. You may be able to find a rental car with an automatic transmission, but only in big cities if you’re willing to pay more. As cars with manual transmissions are harder and harder to find in the US, this may put you at a disadvantage. A friend told me recently that she was thinking about buying a Mini Cooper which come with manual transmissions, and the dealer was surprised that she could drive one. The dealership even offers classes!
- Our rental car didn’t have seat belts in the backseat,which meant that our kids were not buckled in. This was fine for us, but if you’re using a car seat for a baby or toddler, it would be worth checking out beforehand.
- We did not have a problem finding bathrooms, but again, we didn’t have toddlers. If you see a Migros or a Kipa (Their website is only in Turkish, but it’s owned by Tesco. Check out Turkey’s for Life’s description of a Kipa here.), good chance you’ll be able to use the bathroom. (They’re supermarkets/discount stores, kind of like a Target in the US, but only kind of.) There’s also the side of the road out in the country, which I’ll admit we did use once or twice.
- All gas stations are full serve. You may not pump your own gas. If you don’t speak Turkish, pull up to the pump and give the attendant the amount of money you want to spend. In our experience, the attendants were relaxed and friendly. A simple “please” and “thank you” in Turkish were appreciated, and we were never cheated.