Our Roadtrip to Istanbul and Back

road-trip Istanbul

We did it! We drove to Istanbul, Turkey this summer AND BACK. If you read my newsletter, I shared all the countries that were going to before we took on this adventure. But if you missed it, this was the plan:

  • Belgrade, Serbia | two nights
  • Plovdiv, Bulgaria | one night
  • Istanbul, Turkey | three nights
  • Sarti, Greece | two nights
  • Ksamil, Albania | two nights
  • Himare, Albania | two nights
  • Kotor, Montenegro | three nights
  • Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina | one night
  • Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina | one night
  • Bihać (Una National Park), Bosnia and Herzegovina | two nights

That’s 19 nights! We were ready to be home at the end, but ironically the boys favorite place we stayed was the last place.

Let me break it all down, starting with if I was to plan this same itinerary again, what would I do differently.

  • Belgrade, Serbia | two nights
  • Plovdiv, Bulgaria | one night two nights
  • Istanbul, Turkey | three nights
  • Sarti, Greece | two nights three nights
  • Ksamil, Albania | two nights
  • Himare, Albania | two nights three nights
  • Kotor, Montenegro | three nights
  • Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina | one night
  • Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina | one night
  • Bihać (Una National Park), Bosnia and Herzegovina | two nights

It still ends up being 19 nights, but I would redistribute the nights.

Belgrade, Serbia | two nights

I wouldn’t change anything about this! We ended up staying on the Sava River at a houseboat and loved it! You could definitely spend more time here as the Ada park (the island that you’re on) had lots to do, but the two nights were a perfect fit to start this trip off. We loved the experience of the houseboat, the river was really fun to SUP up and down, and the boys loved being able to jump into the water from our house. The morning of our only full day there, we drove to the old town of Belgrade, hit up an incredible bakery, stopped by an outdoor market, walked through the fortress and let the kids play in a Dino park.

  • You have to pay to go into the Ada Ciganlija; I don’t remember the exact amount, but it wasn’t a lot.
  • The road back to the houseboats is really a really bumpy, dirt road.
  • There were signs for a little market on the island, but in order to maximize time, we brought all the food we would need for our time here.
  • Serbian currency is the Dinar, but we found a lot of people and places accepted Euro too.

Plovdiv, Bulgaria | one night two nights 

It took EIGHT hours to cross the Serbia / Bulgaria border; about three kilometers. The drive from Belgrade to Plovdiv, even on Google maps, said six hours. I just looked it up, right now Google maps is saying the delay at the border is a 7-min delay…They mean seven hours. I don’t think there’s anyway around this border crossing, other than just to expect it.

  • For my non-EU travelers, Bulgaria made a d e a l about not having our car insurance printed out. I know in the States that it’s normal to have it printed, but because of how our vehicles are registered with Germany, we don’t actually have a printout despite having insurance. And expect questions about why you have a US car, German plates, and a non-traditional German car registration.

I would add an extra night here just for the border crossing. We didn’t and got to our Airbnb (which was amazing, as were our hosts!) after midnight. We were able to walk around the old town of Plovdiv for about an hour in the morning before having to drive on. I picked Plovdiv over Sofia after reading a few reviews that it was just a better city. From what we saw, it looked like a beautiful city with Roman ruins.

Istanbul, Turkey | three nights

I think you could spend way more time here. But for being on a roadtrip, three nights and two full days was good. We stuck to the big stuff, and I don’t have any regrets or wishes that we did something different. Crossing the boarder took barely ten minutes…but since we didn’t pre-purchase visas (we weren’t 100% that we need them), we had to pull over and do that. You need a visa for Turkey! Then a specific insurance is required, so we had to pull over and purchase that. You also need a prepaid toll sticker for your car, so we had to buy that as well. A couple hours later we were finally driving in Turkey…

We stayed in Belat, Fatih which was historically the center of the Jewish community in Istanbul. It’s a small, vibrant, artsy community and I loved that we stayed there. Our Airbnb was amazing! The only downside is that taxis don’t want to drive to that area later in the day because of traffic. There is SO MUCH traffic. And since an uber from the Grand Bazar to Fatih is about $8, I get it.

We visited:

  • Haggai Sofia
  • saw the Blue Mosque (we didn’t go inside)
  • Grand Bazar
  • a Turkish rug gallery
  • the Spice market
  • dinner cruise on the Bosporus straight
  • boat ride to the Asian continent / Asian side of Istanbul
  • rooftop terrace lunch

Sarti, Greece | two nights three nights

We had an easy drive to Sarti, Greece – the boarder was very chill except for the armed guards walking around.

I picked this area because we had friends who told us that the beaches here were some of the most beautiful, and they were so right! Our Airbnb was the only house located in this area, and the only reasonably-priced accommodations on this peninsula when I looked.

Our house was really cool. Set in an olive grove, no other houses around, outdoor shower, garden, hiking distance to a beautiful cove (that was inhabited by campers). But because it was an off-the-grid house, electricity wasn’t everywhere. There was a refrigerator, grill and there were lights inside, but it essentially felt like camping, in a house. And since it was summer, it was the only place we stayed without air conditioning – and it was really hot. It was a bit tougher to transition to more natural accommodations in the middle of a roadtrip, but still think I would stay there again. The hosts were awesome, and the beaches…the beaches were incredible.

  • All along the coast there are coves; some have beach bars, some are just beaches where people like to be nude. All have the bluest, most gorgeous water.

Ksamil, Albania | two nights

Driving from Greece into Albania was barely a stop. Corfu, Greece is directly across from Ksamil, Albania; same water, beautiful beaches but Albania is much cheaper! We spent two nights here, giving us one full day at the beach. Our place was nice, but only because we had both apartments – and both were not created equal. One apartment had a shower over the toilet and the other had a full bathroom, living room and kitchen. The outdoor space was beautiful, even if the owner lived at the back of the house.

Ksamil reminded me of Ocean City, Maryland or Myrtle Beach, South Carolina – but clearly Albanian. A beach town through and through; there were license plates from all over the Balkans and as far as France and the Netherlands. With how beautiful the coasts were, its easy to see why people would flock to this area for a summer vacation. One Euro equals about 117 Albanian Lek.

Ksamil Beach is pretty packed – with people, umbrellas and attractions in the water. The men took an adventure run a little bit farther up the coast, towards Greece, and found “Last Beach”. Umbrellas set on a rocky beach with a much quieter, less crowded experience. We were able to SUP to the Ksamil Islands, and we contemplated paddling to Corfu, but decided that might be a bit too far.

The day we drove to Himare (about an hour up the coast) we stopped at Butrint National Park – a UNESCO heritage site of an old Roman city. Definitely worth the trip; go as early as possible if you are there in the summer as it gets real hot!

  • lunch and dinner at Ksamil Beach
  • beach day at Last Beach
  • Ksamil Islands
  • Butrint National Park

Himare, Albania | two nights three nights

In my adjusted schedule, I take out Ksamil completely and do three nights in Himare instead. I don’t think we needed four nights on this riviera, and I liked how Himare was just a bit less crowed and more quaint. Ksamil is definitely more well-known, and I would still try and hit Butrint National Park en-route, but I think parking it in one place for three nights and doing a beach day and a boat day would be perfect.

Our Airbnb was a good space; a bit farther from the water than we expected and the road to get to it was pretty uncultivated. But the area is beautiful! I don’t know that I’ll ever get over the mountains and beautiful water all in one image.

We charted a boat to take us beach hopping, and I don’t think there was a better way to spend the day!

Kotor, Montenegro | three nights

I LOVED Kotor!! It’s not technically a fjord, but other than the glacier run off, that’s what you can expect! It.is.beautiful!

I don’t remember my reasoning for why I booked us three nights here, but I am so glad that I did. It gave us a day to spend hiking up the fortress – which is a hike! – and a day to spend on the water. I loved the old town area inside the fortress walls, and all of the little towns that make up Kotor. We ended up driving to the other side of the fjord to the town of Dobrota for dinner, and the views, the food, the service, the price – it was all incredible.

Our Airbnb was awesome, and so was the host. We throughly enjoyed just hanging out there, swimming off the docks, and eating breakfast on the patio. Highly recommend!

  • We hiked up to the top of the fortress via the stairs and then used the switchbacks on the way down. Go early; it gets hot and sunny the later it is in the day. We loved the little shop at the top that sold beer, drinks and goat cheese!
  • Head to Dobrota for the best seafood restaurants.

Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina | one night

I don’t know that I would stay in Mostar again; I’m torn. Staying there allowed up to be able to go to the Kravika waterfalls, which was such a unique experience – and one of the only parks like this to allow you to actually swim. The water was free-zing, but so fun!

Mostar, aside from their downtown and famous bridge, there isn’t a whole lot more to experience (in my humble opinion). The river and bridge are truly beautiful. And we had some of the best Bosnian food here! But if you can coordinate it right, all you need in Mostar is a lunch.

We stayed at this hotel and have absolutely no complaints. It is about a ten minute walk to the old town and bridge.

Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina | one night

The drive from Mostar to Sarajevo was stunning. A beautiful river flanks by mountains on either side! It wasn’t expected and definitely made the drive more fun by trying to spotting all the river-side restaurants and houses.

We stayed in the old town, and loved our apartment! From the rugs to the furniture, the location – it was awesome! And we were incredibly close to copper alley and all the old town shops. I didn’t love the Bosnian coffee, but after seeing the seven-hundredth copper coffee set, I kinda wanted one. Thankfully I found a gorgeous tea pot before I caved.

I was surprised at how many cafes didn’t serve any alcohol where we were. It seemed as if bars and cafes were completely separate restaurants, when usually in Europe, they’re basically the same thing. My guess is the Muslim influence is why most places in that area didn’t serve any alcohol?

Bihać (Una National Park), Bosnia and Herzegovina | two nights

Our Airbnb was the boys favorite – yard, little pool, right by the Una river – and I have to agree, it was pretty awesome.

We spent two nights here so that we could go whitewater rafting on the Una River. We did the family route, but the Štrbački buk waterfall, 25 meter high waterfall, is the big whitewater rafting attraction. Even though I paddled harder than I’ve ever paddled whitewater rafting, we had a great time!

Then we drove 9 1/2 hours home, crossing four borders and going through one McDonalds drive-thru.