Getting there & away
Make sure your passport will still have at least three months’ life in it after you enter Turkey.
Car ferry services operate between Italian and Greek ports and several Turkish ports, but not to İstanbul. There are also a handful of routes over the Black Sea. Ferrylines (www.ferrylines.com) is a good starting point for information about ferry travel in the region.
Private ferries link Turkey’s Aegean coast and the Greek islands, which are in turn linked by air or boat to Athens. Services are usually daily in summer, several times a week in spring and autumn, and perhaps just once a week in winter.
Marmara Lines (www.marmaralines.com) ferries connect Brindisi and Ancona in Italy with Çeşme. Turkish Maritime Lines (www.tdi.com.tr in Turkish) also operates twice-weekly ferries between Brindisi and Çeşme.
The main crossing point between northern Cyprus and Turkey is between Taşucu (near Silifke) and Girne on the northern coast of northern Cyprus. Akgünler Denizcilik (www.akgunler.com.tr) makes this journey. You can also travel between Alanya and Girne with Fergün Denizcilik (www.fergun.net). Finally, you can travel between Mersin and Gazimağusa (Famagusta) on the east coast of Northern Cyprus, with Turkish Maritime Lines (231 2688, 237 0726 in Mersin).
Another weekly service runs between Sevastopol and İstanbul, departing Sevastopol at 6pm Sunday (arriving at İstanbul 8am Tuesday) for €120 per person in a shared three-bed room, or €400 per person in a private luxury double. Departures from İstanbul are on Thursday nights at 10pm (arriving 8am Saturday). Ferries travel between İstanbul and Yalta too. Ring in Ukraine 0654-323 064 for more information or email the folk at www.aroundcrimea.com.
If you are planning to travel overland, you’ll be spoilt for choice since Turkey has land borders with eight countries. Bear in mind, however, that Turkey’s relationships with most of its neighbours tend to be tense, which can affect the availability of visas and when and where you can cross. Always check with the relevant embassy for the most up-to-date information before leaving home.
Crossing land borders by bus and train is fairly straightforward, but expect delays of between one and three hours. You’ll usually have to get off the bus or train and endure a paperwork and baggage check of all travellers on both sides of the border. This is a relatively quick process if you’re on a bus, but naturally takes a longer when there’s a trainload of passengers. Before you ditch the idea of trains, however, be aware that delays can be caused by the long line of trucks and cars banked up at some borders – especially at the Reyhanlı–Bab al-Hawa border between Turkey and Syria – not the number of fellow passengers.
Crossing the border with your own vehicle should be fairly straightforward. No special documents are required to import a car for up to six months, but be sure to take it out again before the six months is up. If you overstay your permit, you may have to pay customs duty equal to the full retail value of the car! If you want to leave your car in Turkey and return to collect it later, the car must be put under a customs seal, which is a tedious process.
For more on each country’s border crossings, see the relevant country headings following.
At the time of writing, the Turkish–Armenian border was closed to travellers. The situation could always change so it’s worth checking (the Russian embassy handles Armenian diplomatic interests in Turkey).
You can also cross from Turkey to the Azerbaijani enclave of Nakhichevan via the remote Borualan–Sadarak border post, east of Iğdır. From there you’ll need to fly across Armenian-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh to reach the rest of Azerbaijan and Baku.
It’s fairly easy to get to İstanbul by direct train or bus from many points in Europe via Bulgaria. There are three border crossings between Bulgaria and Turkey. The main border crossing is the busy Kapitan–Andreevo/Kapıkule, 18km west of Edirne on the E5. The closest town on the Bulgarian side is Svilengrad, some 10km from the border. You have to hitch a lift or hire a taxi rather than walk between the Greek–Turkish border posts. Petrol, foreign-exchange facilities, restaurants and accommodation are available at this crossing, which is open 24 hours daily. There is a second, newly opened, crossing at Lesovo–Hamzabeyli, some 25km north of Edirne; it’s a quieter option during the busy summer months than Kapitan-Andreevo/Kapıkule, but takes a little longer to get to and there’s no public transport. The third crossing is at Malko Târnovo–Kırıkkale, some 70km northeast of Edirne and 92km south of Burgas.
There are several departures daily to Sofia, and the coastal cities of Varna and Burgas in Bulgaria from İstanbul’s otogar – at least six companies offer services. There are also daily departures to Skopje, Tetovo and Gostivar in Macedonia, and to Constanta and Bucharest in Romania. The following companies run serves from İstanbul’s otogar.
The Bosphorus Express leaves İstanbul daily and runs to Bucsharest, from where you can travel onwards by train to Chişinău (Moldova) and Budapest (Hungary). You can also catch the Bosphorus Express as far as Dimitrovgrad (Bulgaria) from where you can travel onwards to Sofia (Bulgaria) and on to Belgrade (Serbia).
Essentially the Bosphorus Express leaves İstanbul with a line of carriages. There are separate carriages for passengers heading to Budapest, to Sofia and Belgrade, and to Chişinãu. The carriages are switched to local trains at either Bucharest or Dimitrovgrad, depending on where you’re heading. Confused? Don’t worry; bookings are simply from A to B, though there will be some delay as carriages are transferred.
You’ll need to take your own food and drinks as there are no restaurant cars on these trains. Note also that the Turkey–Bulgaria border crossing is in the early hours of the morning and you need to leave the train to get your passport stamped – the holdup takes about two hours. We’ve heard stories of harassment, especially of women, at the border, so lone women may be best taking an alternative route. Travelling in the sleeper cars is always the safest and most comfortable option.
The main border crossing is at Sarp on the Black Sea coast, between Hopa (Turkey) and Batum (Georgia). You can also cross inland at the Türkgözü border crossing near Posof, north of Kars (Turkey) and southwest of Akhaltsikhe (Georgia). The Sarp border crossing is open 24 hours a day; Türkgözü is open from 8am to 8pm, though in winter you might want to double-check it’s open at all.
Göktaş Ardahan (in İstabul 0212-658 3476; ticket office 10) runs direct buses between Tiflis and the otogar in İstanbul for €43. The journey takes around 26 hours. At least two daily buses depart from Trabzon’s otogar heading for Tbilisi.
If you’re heading to the Türkgözü border from the Turkish side, a convenient starting point is Kars. You need to get to Posof first, then hire a taxi or minibus to take you to the border post (16km, €20). From the border, hire another taxi to take you to the Georgian town of Akhaltsikhe (€15; two hours), from where regular buses head to Tbilisi (which can take up to seven hours).
An alternative to getting to Turkey from Europe is to make your way to Alexandroupolis in Greece and cross at Kipi–İpsala, 43km northeast of Alexandroupolis, or Kastanies–Pazarkule, 139km northeast, near the Turkish city of Edirne. Both borders are open 24 hours.
To cross at Kipi–İpsala take a bus service from Alexandroupolis to the Greek border point of Kipi, then hitch to the border. From there you can get a taxi (€8.50) to the bus station in İpsala and an onward bus to İstanbul.
If you’re crossing from Turkey into Greece, do so as soon after 9am as possible in order to catch one of the few trains or buses from Kastanies south to Alexandroupolis, where there are better connections. Alternatively, take a bus from Edirne to Keşan, then to İpsala and cross to Kipi.
Bus services to İstanbul run only from Germany, Italy, Austria and Greece, so if you’re travelling from other European cities, you’d need to catch a connecting bus. Two of the best Turkish companies – Ulusoy (0212-444 1888 in Turkey; www.ulusoy.com.tr) and Varan Turizm (0212-658 0270 in Turkey; www.varan.com.tr) – operate big Mercedes buses on these routes. Sample one-way fares to İstanbul are: Frankfurt €130 (45 hours), Munich €110 (42 hours), Vienna €105 (36 hours), and Athens €68 (20 hours).
The E80 highway makes its way through the Balkans to Edirne and İstanbul, then on to Ankara. Using the car ferries from Italy and Greece can shorten driving time from Western Europe considerably, but at a price.
There are two border crossings between Iran and Turkey, the busier Gürbulak–Bazargan, near Doğubayazıt (Turkey) and Şahabat (Iran); and the Esendere–Sero border crossing, southeast of Van (Turkey). Gürbulak–Bazargan is open 24 hours. Esendere–Sero is open from 8am until midnight, but double-check in winter as the border might be closed. Travellers are increasingly using this second crossing into Iran, which has the added bonus of taking you through the breathtaking scenery of far Southeastern Anatolia. And to make things easy, there is a direct bus running between Van (Turkey) and Orumiyeh (Iran).
There are regular buses from İstanbul and Ankara to Tabriz and Tehran. From İstanbul otogar, try Best Van Tur (0212-444 0065; otogar ticket office 147) with daily departures (€55, 35 hours). From Ankara, they leave from the AŞTİ bus terminal.
You may also want to consider taking a dolmuş from Doğubayazıt 35km east to the border at Gürbulak, for about €2, and then walking across the border. The crossing might take up to an hour. From Bazargan there are onward buses to Tabriz; from Sero there are buses to Orumiyeh. You can catch buses to Iran from Van.
The Trans-Asya Ekspresi runs between Tehran and İstanbul, travelling via Tabriz, Van and Tatvan. Expect a comfortable journey on connecting Turkish and Iranian trains, a ferry ride across Lake Van, and no showers. See the Iranian Railways site, RAJA Passenger Train Co (www.rajatrains.com), for more information.
Although we obviously don’t suggest that travelling to wider Iraq is at all advisable, a handful of hardy travellers have been travelling into northern Iraq via the Habur–Ibrahim al-Khalil border post. It’s near Cizre and Silopi, on the Turkish side; Zakho is the closest town to the border on Iraqi side. There’s no town or village at the border crossing and you can’t walk across it. A taxi from Silopi to Zakho costs around €20, from Cizre to Zakho US$30.
Travellers report having to give a photocopy of their passport at the Turkish side, and being given a week-long entry stamp (not a visa) on the Iraqi side, as well as having to get a health certificate for a nominal fee. Travelling across the border into Turkey your bags will probably be searched – don’t carry patriotic Kurdish items. Check the local situation before crossing into Iraq.
There are eight border posts between Syria and Turkey, but the border at Reyhanlı–Bab al-Hawa is by far the most convenient, and therefore the busiest. Daily buses link Antakya in Turkey with the Syrian cities of Aleppo (Halab; €3, four hours, 105km) and Damascus (Şam; €5.50, eight hours, 465km). Also close to Antakya is the border post at Yayladağı. Other popular crossings to Syria include via Kilis, 65km south of Gaziantep, the Akçakale border, 54km south of Şanlıurfa and the Nusaybin–Qamishle border 75km east of Mardin.
It’s possible to buy bus tickets direct from İstanbul to Aleppo or Damascus. Hatay Pan Turizm (0212-658 3911; otogar ticket office 23) has a daily service leaving İstanbul otogar at 6am and arriving in Damascus (€27) at 3am the next morning. Urfa Seyahat (0212-444 6363; otogar ticket office 10) has departures for Aleppo at 1.30pm daily.
The very comfortable Toros Express train runs between İstanbul and Aleppo (and not all the way to Damascus as it says in the official timetables). Bring your own food and drinks as there is no restaurant car. Several comfortable trains link Aleppo and Damascus daily.
Generally speaking, entering Turkey by air is pretty painless. The only snag to be aware of is that most people need a ‘visa’ which is really just a stamp in their passport issued at the point of entry. If you fly into the country you must first join the queue to pay for the stamp in your passport before joining the queue for immigration. Rarely do customs officers stop you to check your bags at airports.
Entering the country by land can be more trying. Getting a visa is the same deal, but sometimes you can pay for the visa only in euros or US dollars. And at many of the land border crossings there are no facilities for changing money nor ATMs, so make sure you bring enough to pay for your visa. You may also want to consider having some Yeni Türk Lirası (YTL) on you before you get to the border.
Security on borders with countries to the east (Georgia, Iran, Iraq or Syria) is generally tight, so customs officers may want to see what you are bringing in. If you’re travelling by train or bus expect to be held up at the border for two to three hours – or even longer if your fellow passengers don’t have their paperwork in order.
The following are international tour companies whose trips to Turkey generally receive good reports.
Backroads (1800 462 2848; www.backroads.com) US-based company offering combined bike and sailing tours of western Turkey.
Cultural Folk Tours of Turkey (1800 935 8875; www.boraozkok.com) US-based company offering group and private cultural and history tours.
Exodus (870-240 5550; www.exodus.co.uk) UK-based adventure company offering a wide range of tours including Lycian cruises and kayaking tours.
Imaginative Traveller (0800 316 2717; www.imaginative-traveller.com) UK-based company offering Anzac Day tours and a variety of overland adventures through Turkey.
Intrepid Travel (03-9473 2626; www.intrepidtravel.com.au) Australia-based company with a variety of small-group, good-value tours for travellers who like the philosophy of independent travel, but prefer to travel with others.
Turkey’s busiest international airport is İstanbul’s Atatürk International Airport (code IST; 0212-465 3000; www.dhmiata.gov.tr), 23km west of Sultanahmet (the heart of Old İstanbul). The international (dış hatlar) and domestic terminals (iç hatlar) are side by side. İstanbul also has a smaller airport, Sabiha Gökçen International Airport (code SAW; 0216-585 5000; www.sgairport.com), some 50km east of Sultanahmet and Taksim Sq on the Asian side of the city. Sabiha Gökçen mainly services cheap flights from Europe, particularly Germany, and some domestic routes.
Throughout the year, but especially during the busy summer months, you can also catch international flights to/from Antalya (AYT; 0242-330 3221; www.aytport.com), Bodrum (BJV; 0252-523 0101), Dalaman (DLM; 0252-692 5899) and the rapidly expandingİzmir (ADB; 0232-274 2424). From Turkey’s other airports, including Ankara, you usually have to transit İstanbul.
Turkey’s national carrier is Turkish Airlines, which has direct flights from İstanbul to most capital cities around the world. It has a reasonable safety record, and service is usually pretty good too.
You can fly directly to İstanbul with Emirates, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore Airlines for around A$1200/1890 (one-way/return) from Sydney or Melbourne. You can often get cheaper flights with European airlines such as Lufthansa, but you’ll have to transit in a European city first (ie Frankfurt for Lufthansa), before catching a flight back to İstanbul – very frustrating!
Three well-known agencies for cheap fares are STA Travel (1300 733 035; www.statravel.com.au), Flight Centre (133 133; www.flightcentre.com.au) and Best Flights (1300 767 757; www.bestflights.com.au).
Most flights from Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver connect with İstanbul-bound flights in the UK and continental Europe. One-way/return fares from İstanbul start at around C$950/1550 with Lufthansa and Air Canada. Try Travelcuts (1866-246 9762; www.travelcuts.com), Canada’s national student travel agency, or Airlineticketsdirect.com (1877-679 8500; www.airlineticketsdirect.com).
Generally, there’s not much variation in fares to Turkey from one European city or another. Most European national carriers fly direct to İstanbul for around €200 return. Cheaper return flights can be found for around €160 but usually involve changing planes en route, so if you fly İstanbul–Paris with Lufthansa, you’d fly via Frankfurt each way. STA Travel (www.statravel.com/worldwide.htm) has offices throughout Europe. If you plan to visit a resort, check with your local travel agents for flight and accommodation deals.
Germany has the biggest Turkish community outside Turkey, which has enabled some great deals between the two countries. Lufthansa has direct flights to İstanbul, Ankara and İzmir from €160. There are also a number of charter airlines offering flights between several German cities and İstanbul, Antalya, Bodrum, Dalaman and İzmir. Try Condor, Hapag Lloyd, German Wings or Corendon Airlines.
In France, OTU Voyages (01 55 82 32 32; www.otu.fr) is aimed at student travel, but can supply discount tickets to travellers of all ages. Voyageurs du Monde (08 92 68 83 63; www.vdm.com) and Nouvelles Frontières (08 25 00 07 47; www.nouvelles-frontieres.fr) are also recommended.
If you want to fly to/from Turkey from any of the central Asian countries, you can usually pick up a flight with Turkish Airlines or the country’s national carrier. Turkish Airlines flies İstanbul–Tbilisi (Georgia) and İstanbul–Baku (Azerbaijan) for around €300 each way. Azerbaijan Airlines also offers direct flights between Baku and İstanbul or Ankara, and these are generally cheaper. Because the border between Turkey and Armenia is closed, you can’t travel overland between the two countries, but you can fly. Both Armavia Airlines and Fly Air have two flights a week each way between İstanbul and Yerevan. Turkish Airlines has daily flights to Tehran and Tabriz (Iran), for as little as €120.
One of the cheapest ways to get between northeast or southeast Asia and Turkey is to fly via Dubai. Emirates Airlines flies to İstanbul and over nine destinations in India, to Pakistan and further afield to Hong Kong and Bangkok. Fly Air flies to Khartoum for €250. Singapore Airlines often has very good deals on its website between Asia and İstanbul, with return flights between Denpasar and İstanbul as low as €480, Singapore and İstanbul for just €450.
British Airways, Turkish Airlines and EasyJet offer direct flights between London and Turkey. British Airlines flies into İstanbul (from UK£200 return), Dalaman, Ankara and İzmir. Turkish Airlines usually has direct flights only between İstanbul (from UK£200 return) and London. EasyJet flies direct between London (Luton) and İstanbul from UK£80 return.
For most cheap flights you can generally expect to fly to Turkey with a transit in a European city (though EasyJet flies direct). Or you could look into charter flights, which are usually cheaper at the beginning and end of the season. Typical return charter fares, bought in advance, are UK£149/199 for one/two weeks. Charter flights to Turkey go from Birmingham, Bristol, Gatwick, London, Manchester, Nottingham and Newcastle. Try online charter flight agents Just the Flight (0870-758 9589; www.justtheflight.co.uk) and Thomsonfly.com (0870-190 0737; www.thomsonfly.com).
Other recommended travel agencies in the UK and Ireland:
STA Travel (0870-163 0026; www.statravel.co.uk)
Trailfinders (0845-058 5858; www.trailfinders.co.uk)
Usit Unlimited (01 602 1904; www.usitworld.com)
Turkish Airlines offers flights to İstanbul from New York from about US$1400 return. From Los Angeles fares start at US$1650 return. Try Delta and American Airlines, too. You’ll probably get a marginally cheaper flight with Lufthansa or KLM-Royal Dutch Airlines, but you’ll have to change planes in Europe.
Some leading US travel agencies:
Expedia (800-397 3342; www.expedia.com)
STA Travel (800-781 4040; www.statravel.com)
Travelocity (888-872 8356; www.travelocity.com)