Welcome back to another adventure report! In the first part of this travel series, I covered how and why we ended up booking a last minute trip to Iraq.
In this post, I am going to cover our journey from Iraq to Istanbul and our time in Istanbul before heading out to the rest of this amazing country using our rental car for an adventurous self-drive road trip with our children.
I should mention that this trip wasn’t planned at all. I just had a list of places to see which I marked as always on TripAdvisor and Maps.ME but there was nothing booked, nor any dates were set. Everything was done on a very last minute basis. Bus and flights bookings were all done 2 days prior to the departure.
Car rental booking was done a day before picking up the car. Hotels were all booked on the same day while driving to the destination.
This trip was a first of its kind for us. It was fun but stressful at times due to the unknown. All in all, what a fantastic family road trip in Turkey. A memory we will never forget and hopefully can repeat very soon (We are at the mercy of the Canadian government to lift their pre-arrival PCR requirements) in a new destination.
I also didn’t book vacation time from work, so I had to juggle between sightseeing, flying, driving, having fun, and fulfilling my duties at work. Yes, I did a lot of Teams Chats and calls while driving on highways!
How to Go From Iraq to Turkey (Baghdad-Istanbul) by Bus?
This was the longest ever bus journey we had in our entire life. The bus itself wasn’t too bad. It was equipped with screens, reclining seats, and freezing air conditioning. However, the road from Baghdad to the Northern territories of Iraq, Kurdistan, border was too miserable.
Booking the bus tickets was a breeze. I Googled and found some bus companies doing the Baghdad – Istanbul route regularly. I contacted all of them by WhatsApp and ended up picking one of them which was only 12 minutes drive from my parents’ house in Baghdad.
The company is called YAYCHLI and their phone number is +964 770 172 3080 or +90 537 793 25 20.
The ticket costs us $45 USD each. As this is during Covid era, we also needed a PCR test for our older daughter to enter Turkey. However, Turkey didn’t need a PCR test from fully vaccinated travelers or children under 10 years old so the rest of us were good to go.
The bus company provided the PCR test and result for $20 which was too convenient, and it worked fine while crossing the border. Baghdad – Istanbul transport cost us $200 USD by bus including 1 PCR test.
The bus took off 20 minutes after the scheduled time at 12:20 AM and the plan was to arrive 36 hours later to Istanbul. However, the reality was a totally different story.
After a very bumpy ride to the North, we arrived in Kirkuk check point at around 5:40 AM where all buses need to stop and clear some sort of passenger security checks. The driver made a drama here because we were using our Canadian passports saying they won’t allow you! I kept saying there is no such a thing as we are in Iraqi land, and we entered Iraq through the border officially.
The states’ border checks can’t deny us entry because we aren’t carrying an Iraqi passport. Anyway, that wasn’t the main problem. The issue was that the security clearance officer won’t start working till 7 AM which meant we had to wait about 1.5 hours for this process.
This ended up being a very simple process. The officer didn’t even check any passports but just went through names quickly and stamped the documents.
We continued the journey toward Kirkuk where the bus stopped and carried more passengers.
When we initially left Baghdad, there was maybe 10 passengers in the whole bus. However, the bus became full in Kirkuk.
We left Kirkuk toward Iraqi Kurdistan where there is another line up and more security checks. We got off the bus here with all our luggage. After a 1.5 hour of waiting, it was finally our turn where the inspectors came checked the bags with K9 dogs. They took all passports, called the names one by one, before letting us in the bus.
We were then cleared to proceed into Iraqi Kurdistan region. After about 2 hours of driving in Kurdistan, we were stopped again by some random police check. The police officer came on the bus and checked all the passports. This took another half an hour.
We finally arrived at Iraq – Turkey border. First stop was Iraqi immigration office where we had to take an exit stamp from Iraq. This was an easy process. Just line up, show passport, have photo taken, get stamped, and done.
However, there is no rest place in the heat except a restaurant where they expect people to leave as soon as they are done eating. It was a really sad place. The smell and pollution of all the buses was a killer. However, the sunset was nice! We arrived at this border around 7 PM and we were there till 5 AM! Yes, it took 10 hours to cross the border.
There were lots of arguments by the Turkish border kiosk between drivers of different cars who were all angry and wanted their passengers to get stamped first. There were also other passenger vehicles waiting to get through. It was a total chaos. At some points, the Turkish immigration officer just walked away and said let me know when you are all in line and quiet. It sounded like a parent punishing their kids with silence treatment except we were all exhausted and still had a long journey a head of us.
Anyway, after what felt an endless night, we got our Turkey entry stamps and headed back to the bus. Finally in Turkey. Everything suddenly changed. The weather now has a cooler breeze, the greenery is brighter, the roads are smoother, with no random checkpoints.
After an hour of traveling in Turkey, we were stopped by a police officer check point and the officer came onboard to check the passports one by one. Gladly no issues and we were given the green light to proceed. The scenery started to become gorgeous changing between green and brown landscapes.
It took another many hours to reach Ankara, the capital of Turkey. The bus stopped in the main bus terminal, and many got off here. We then kept going for another 5 hours before reaching Istanbul.
Of course the bus stopped in multiple places for rest and refueling but my wife and younger daughter weren’t in any good mode or condition to get off or enjoy the moments. They got a very bad motion sickness and were sick terribly. Sitting on top of the back wheels worsen the situation plus a weird smell coming from the back of the bus.
Well, as you might have guessed, the bus itself and the whole bus journey weren’t as expected. We initially had plans to return by land too, but this experience was too miserable to repeat.
After arriving in Istanbul, we took a taxi to the first hotel in Istanbul. We stayed at Minel Hotel which is in a very strategic and touristic neighborhood of Sultanahmet just 2 blocks away from the famous Hagia Aya Sofia (Aya Sofia).
Our stay was in a Standard Family Room which cost us 149 Euros ($214 CAD). This price includes breakfast and petting a lovely cat along the way.
- City: Istanbul
- Duration: 5 Nights
- Accommodation: Minel Hotel – 149 Euros / $214 CAD Breakfast Included
- Transportation: On Foot, Taxi, Bus to Airport (to Pickup Rental) once
The historical part of Istanbul is very walkable. We walked everyday all day during our stay in Istanbul. We only took a taxi once when returning to our hotel one late night after many KMs of walking and visiting multiple attractions.
Day 1: Sultanahemt Touristic Area Including Hagia Sofia & Blue Mosque
We started our first day by walking down the street of our hotel and visiting the most visited site in Turkey, Hagia Sofia (Aya Sofia). Its architecture is magnificent. However, I think its fame comes from its historical importance rather than how it looks. Once the largest Christian church of the eastern Roman Empire and the eastern Orthodox church, it now serves as a mosque and since 2020 no longer a museum which is great news for tourists.
Not a museum means no entry fees. Respect the dress code and enjoy this religious site. The outside area is so gorgeous too with trees and multiple fountains. However, it was packed with both locals and tourists.
After spending 1 hour taking photos and admiring the amazing Hagia Sofia, we walked to the Tomb of Sultan Ahmet which is on the north side of the Blue mosque facing Sultanahmet Park. Sultan Ahmet became a Sultan when he was 13 and only enjoyed the empire for 14 years. His burial site was constructed between 1617 and 1619.
In addition to the Sultan, his wife and sons, Sultan Osman II, Sultan Murat IV, and Prince Beyazit who was murdered by order of Murat are buried in the same site.
It was time to visit our first museum in Turkey, Turk and Islamic Art Museum which showcases Islamic calligraphy, tiles and rugs and recreates rooms or dwellings from Turkish cultures, particularly nomadic groups. We spent about 1.5 hours going through the museum. It was interesting to see that the museum had artifacts from current Iraq like Samarra.
The view of Sultanahmet Mosque which is also called the Blue Mosque from the museum is really beautiful especially under a cloudy sky. Unfortunately, the Blue Mosque is still under construction so there isn’t much to see inside.
After visiting Hagia Sofia, Sultan Ahmet Tomb, the Blue Mosque, and the Turk and Islamic Art Museum, we walked to the colorful but pricy Arasta Bazaar.
You might have wondered about food. Well, food is everywhere in Turkey, and we are used to it even in Canada. Delicious everywhere. So eat anywhere you want. Most places have their menu and prices outside by the entrance door for convenience.
You should also make sure to have ice cream from one of the dancer ice cream sellers in Istanbul. Just make sure to ask for the price first. We had one of our most expensive ice creams for 40 TL ($6 CAD) each in Istanbul.
While walking around, we stumbled upon a place called Basilica Cistern which ended up being the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns which lie beneath the city of Istanbul. This one was built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I.
There was a nice 15 minute lightshow performance inside. However this place is really overpriced for what it offers. There is a schedule and visitors enter in groups so you can’t just walk-in anytime you arrive.
It was late launch time and conveniently there was a Kebab restaurant with very reasonable prices just cross the street of the Basilica.
After launch, we headed to the Grand Bazaar. However, we were almost late, and stores were closing. We didn’t really have plans to buy anything anyway. It was more of a touristy place to see and experience firsthand rather than a shopping location.
We kept walking until getting out of the other side of the Bazaar where we eyed Istanbul University with some constructions and the magnificent Suleymaniye Mosque nearby. This mosque was built by 3500 workers who worked for 7 years to complete it in 1556 AD.
There used to be 257 candles to light up the mosque and the height of its main dome is 53 meters. However, it has 4 minarets with 74 and 56 meters height.
Honestly, Suleymaniye Mosque is much more beautiful than both Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque. I highly recommend visiting if you ever visit Istanbul. A spiritual visit which doesn’t cost any cent.
After visiting the mosque we planned to walk back to our hotel and get some rest. However, we enjoyed the beauty of Istanbul especially by Galata Bridge at night.
I think this area is a highlight of any traveler to Istanbul at night. It is such a lively charming neighborhood. The weather was also great with a nice breeze.
We then kept walking till reaching the Spice Bazaar which is also called the Egyptian Bazaar. This was our last stop before walking back to the hotel, having a quick shower, and head to the bed.
I don’t remember if we had dinner. This is going to happen most often during our trips. Food is never a priority as long as we aren’t hungry.
Day 2: Topkapi Palace & Archaeological Museum
Day 2 started by the breakfast in the hotel before walking outside to the first stop Topkapi Palace. This palace served as the main residence and administrative headquarter of the Ottoman Sultans in the 15th and 16th century.
After the 17th century, the Sultans gradually abandoned this place in favor of the new palaces along the Bosphorus. It was given the name Topkapi which means Cannoe Gate in the 19th century.
The palace is an enormous building which includes many sections which took us half a day to go through in a medium pace. We then headed to the Istanbul Archaeological Museum which was just couple minutes walk from the palace.
We were really surprised that this museum had full sections dedicated to ancient Iraq including the Babylon, Sumer, and Assyrian empires. We spent about 3 hours in this museum exploring all its sections.
It was lunch time, so we picked another random restaurant and enjoyed a very delicious lunch. After lunch, we just walked around Istanbul admiring the beauty while walking back to the hotel to rest after another wonderful day full of adventures.
Day 3: Galata Bridge & Tower, Taksim Square, Istiklal Street, Dolmabahce Palace
Day 3 started by the delicious breakfast and our daily walk toward first destination. This time we wanted to cross the Galata Bridge toward Galata Tower. It was a lengthy but beautiful walk across multiple neighborhoods. Galata Tower is a 9-story 62.59 meters medieval stone tower which was built in 1348 during the Genoese colony expansion.
Starting from 1717, the Ottomans began using the tower to spot fires in the city. People can go up the tower to enjoy some views of Istanbul. However, we didn’t do this as we saw Istanbul from the top multiple times and the tower wasn’t too high.
After taking photos with Galata Tower, we headed to the very famous Taksim Square along Istiklal Street. There is a very beautiful Madame Tussauds here which we visited. Honestly, this was the best wax museum we have ever been to. Best part was the little crowd so we could take pictures freely.
After our 2 hours visit and hundreds of photos inside Madame Tussauds, we headed to Taksim Square. I should mention that Istiklal Street is packed with people and stores on both sides. It is the busiest street in Istanbul with a historical mini-bus running up-down the street every 12 minutes.
I also found out the bus to the Airport goes from here which is very convenient.
Our next stop was the magnificent Dolmabahce Palace. This palace is located in the Besiktas district of Istanbul, on the European coast of Bosporus strait which served as the main administrative center of the Ottoman Empire from 1856 to 1887 and 1909 to 1922 (Yildiz Palace was used in the interim period).
The palace construction cost 35 tonnes of Gold (You do the math) and served six sultans. We arrived kind of late to the palace so we had to rush around but we gladly could see it all before being escorted our by the security guards! The kids enjoyed the last part of the palace with the birds.
For our return, we took a short taxi to the Galata Bridge. We then walked the bridge to the other side. We enjoyed the sunset, had dinner, and walked around till it got dark before heading to the hotel.
Rental Car Pickup
This is our last night in Istanbul and I had to go to the airport to pick up the rental car. I initially rented the car for 13 days but ended up extending it by 4 more days.
Finding the car for a good price was challenging. I usually rent cars weeks ahead but considering the unexpected unscheduled Turkey trip, I had to wait till I know when we’ll need the car. I had to search for hours through so many platforms and read many reviews all over TripAdvisor and Google to finally book the car. I also tried to avoid going to the airport mostly due to the distance (45-90 minutes) and cost (Bus transport 27 Turkish Lira plus Tolls to cross back from European to Asian side using the tunnel or the bridge).
However, I couldn’t find any reasonably priced car from downtown Istanbul so I booked from the airport and thought would be easy when we return to the airport to fly from there too.
I walked 40 minutes to the bus station, took the bus, and got dropped by the airport. Walked inside, did the paperwork, picked up my tiny 2021 Kia Picanto with 5492 KM and some tiny scratches from Garenta car rental. I could drive the car for 4000 km. Any km beyond this limit would cost $0.60 per km so I had to plan accordingly (Which was a big headache at times).
The total cost of the car rental in Turkey came up to $421.62 including toll fees which was charged automatically and deducted after the car return from the security deposit.
I then drove the car back to the hotel where the amazing host came outside and helped me park the car for free with the condition of leaving before 9 AM which was already our plan.
Iraq to Turkey & Istanbul Sightseeing Tips & Conclusion
If we were to visit the touristic sites of Istanbul again, I’d buy one Istanbul Museum Pass. This would have saved us te ns of dollars but unfortunately I didn’t pay attention! There are also other options for different regions of Turkey.
Money wise, best option is to bring USD or Euro and exchange in one of the exchange offices in Istanbul. This is by far the cheapest option I found for paying cash. However, Credit cards are mostly used (Almost everywhere) so use a Credit Card that doesn’t charge you Foreign Transaction fees. I used HSBC World Elite Mastercard and a free Brim Financial Mastercard.
For Withdrawal from the ATM, I used STACK Mastercard which didn’t charge withdrawal or FX fee. However, all banks I tried to use charge a fee with one exception, ING Bank which didn’t charge any fee when I used my Tangerine debit card.
When it comes to taxis, I just made sure the taximeter is on. Taxi drivers like to overcharge (Round up) so pay with a credit card for exact payment.
I initially thought I’d write all our Turkey adventure in one post, but this post is already getting too long but hopefully not boring. I will leave the rest of the adventure for a future post. Please let me know your thoughts or if you have any questions.