Driving your car in Istanbul can be an adventure. With its 14 million inhabitants, Istanbul is one of the most crowded cities in the world. On top of this, if you consider the tourists (more than 9 million yearly), the motor vehicles (about 3.5 million) and the multitude of narrow streets, you get a good picture of how driving in this city is.
Getting to Istanbul from Bulgaria
I was in Sunny Beach, Bulgaria, as part of a longer road trip throughout Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey. Since there was about 400 km (a bit more than 5 hours drive) to Istanbul, together with a friend, we decided to spend a couple of nights there.
Best route from Bulgaria is via the motorway that starts in Edirne. You need to buy a prepaid card (HGS card) for paying the motorway tolls. Apparently, you can buy this from any post office.
Before entering the motorway, I’ve tried to buy this from a post office, in one of the motorway’s nearby cities. When I’ve asked the guy at the desk for the HGS card, he told me that I should go on the motorway and buy it from there. Not sure what was the reason for which he told me to grab this from the motorway since there was no counter where I could buy the card there. I suspect he was a bit pissed off that we distracted him from his Candy Crush game.
That being said, at the toll gates, I passed through one of the gates, firing an alarm, that I guess is meant for the “villains” that don’t pay for the card. I didn’t manage to buy a card on my return either, so I guess my car got on a blacklist. Fortunately, I haven’t received a fine so far. Hopefully, nobody from the Turkish police is reading my blog. Needless to say, next time when I’m going to Turkey I won’t bring my car.
Finding the Hotel
Once we entered Istanbul, we made the first contact with the crazy traffic. But the real problem appeared only when we tried to find our accommodation. We have previously booked our hotel in the Galata quarter, a very crowded area, with a multitude of narrow streets. The hotel was located on one of the narrow streets, and we’ve circled at least 30 minutes before we managed to find it. There we run into another major problem: parking.
Parking in Istanbul
To be honest, I’m not sure which one is more problematic: driving through the city or finding a parking spot.
It’s almost impossible to find a parking spot in the old Istanbul. Most of the parking spots are administered by private individuals and consist of only 4-5 parking spots. These guys don’t speak too much English and, usually, you will need to involve a 3rd party in the transaction.
In my case, I had to involve a guy from a small shop, located close to the parking spots. He did the translation between us and the parking “owner”. We negotiated a parking spot, on the street, for two days. The plan was to leave the car there the first day and explore the area by foot. The second day, we would take the car, and go in the central area, close to Hagia Sofia, and in the Asian part of Istanbul, and return in the evening to this parking spot. Based on this itinerary we were able to negotiate a better deal since the second day we were going to need parking only in the evening.
Everything went well the first day. However, when we returned to the parking place, the second day in the evening, we had a big surprise. Another car was parked in our spot and a new guy manage the parking area.
The Second Negotiation
Since our parking spot was taken and we couldn’t reach any agreement with the new parking “manager”, we had to search for a new one. We’ve wondered about an hour on the nearby streets before we found a new spot.
This search was anything but easy. We entered on some streets which were so narrow that people, drinking at the terrace tables, had to pull their chairs so we could pass. We landed on a boulevard where traffic was closed for cars and where hundreds of people were walking. Also, we got pulled over by the police for entering a car-restricted area but managed to get away with a warning. In the end, we found a new parking place very close to our hotel.
Similar to the first parking, another guy was renting us a parking spot on the street. His starting price was around 50 TRY (Turkish liras). I showed him that we were staying at the nearby hotel and managed to pull down the price to 40 TRY. We had to involve the guy from the hotel to do the translation so that we could continue the negotiation. I explained to the parking owner that we are leaving early in the morning and convince him to drop the price to 30. My last attempt was to offer him 25 TRY but he said something in Turkish that made the hotel guy laugh. When I asked for the translation the hotel guy said “politely” that the parking owner will not go lower than that. Therefore we agreed on 30 TRY and closed my second parking negotiation.
Driving through the City
Driving through the city is anything but easy. Most of the time, the traffic it’s so congested that you’re driving only in second gear. Many taxis are bumped on all sides. You have to be very careful and ready to avoid any unexpected maneuver that another driver may run.
It’s difficult to describe the tension you’re experiencing at the wheel (and not only). I remember the moment a hijab woman pulled the wheel and cut us off, along with another two lanes. She didn’t even care to look at us.
My friend was driving, so I yelled at him to hit the brake to avoid the collision. But I had to interrupt myself to shout at him again to turn right to avoid the guy from the left lane, who was coming towards us. I didn’t manage to finish my second sentence either since we almost hit the driver in the right lane.
The traffic is crazy mostly on the European side of Istanbul. Driving in the Asian part is almost like in Western Europe. Only when we arrived in the Asian part we started to relax again.
Should You Go with Your Car?
If I haven’t discouraged you so far, and you insist going with your car, then I strongly recommend booking an accommodation with parking included. Double check your hotel to make sure your parking spot will be available upon your arrival. Try to avoid the hotels in the crowded areas since getting there may prove to be very difficult.
If you’re coming from Western Europe or the USA, you may find traffic in Istanbul chaotic. For UK drivers, the experience will most likely be similar. The only difference is they’ll have to adapt driving on the “wrong” side of the road.
For people who had the experience of driving in Albania, this will come as a natural progression, like going from college to university.
If you’re used to the traffic in Bangkok then driving here might seem normal. The only difference is they’re driving on the other part of the road.
And finally, if you’re coming from Manila, Philippines, driving here will seem a walk in the park. It will be as if you’re on vacation, relaxing on the beach. Besides driving on the “right” side of the road, you may find traffic here very organized.
In the end, you can see everything as an adventure. It may be a challenging experience, but you will have a lot of stories to tell when you return home.