Backpacking Turkey: Top experiences
- Sunrise from the balcony of a cave hotel in Cappadocia, watching hundreds of hot air balloons
- Sultanahmet’s unique European-Asian blend of architecture and culture
- The Roman ruins at Ephesus
- Taking the ferry from Europe to Asia
- Going deep underground in a cave city near Goreme
Jump to the list of posts from Turkey, or read on for my comprehensive Turkey travel guide.
Turkey itinerary ideas
You can pack a surprising amount of history, nature and culture into a short Turkey itinerary. The minimum time for hitting the highlights is about 10 days.
Start in Istanbul, spending at least three days exploring Sultanahmet — highlights include the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and visiting a Turkish bath. Take the ferry between the continents and shop in the bazaars. Then head south — starting with Troy before continuing toward Izmir and finally Selcuk, the base for visiting Ephesus. Finish your Turkey trip by flying to Cappadocia and spend three days hiking amidst the fairy chimneys, visiting the cave city, and seeing the elaborately painted cave churches. Be sure to wake up early to watch the hot air balloons fill the canyon (or take a ride in one yourself).
With more time, you could take in a few of the beaches and fishing villages along the Mediterranean coast. Olympos is the most popular backpacker base. Alternatively, extend your Turkey itinerary for a trip east — into the mountains, or to Kars, where you can base yourself for some hiking and church visits. This part of the country is solidly Middle Eastern in its culture, and firmly off the beaten tourist trail.
Turkey weather and when to visit Turkey
Turkey is a huge country with significant climate variations. But within the areas that are most visited by tourists, the climate is typical Mediterranean — hot summers, warm springs and autumns, and cold, wet winters.
High season is the summer, but due to political instability, visitor numbers to Turkey are relatively low even in July. You may still see slight rises in prices and plenty of Turkish families on holiday, but you’re unlikely to encounter overwhelming crowds.
Spring and autumn are the best time to visit Turkey. It’s warm enough to go to the beach as early as April and as late as October. The one downside is Cappadocia and the mountains in eastern Turkey can get pretty cold early and late in the season.
Winter is a fine time to visit Istanbul and the major archaeological sites, but in more remote areas, tourist services shut down from November to March. The eastern region is also very cold at this time of year.
Language in Turkey
The main language spoken in Turkey is Turkish. It’s a Turkic language whose most common cousins are spread throughout Central Asia. In short, unless you’ve spent significant time in places like Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, you probably haven’t heard anything like it before.
The good news is, Turkish uses an alphabet that shares most of its letters with the Latin alphabet, with a couple additional letters. Basic pronunciation is pretty straightforward. The grammar is quite complex, but for traveling purposes, it’s not difficult to simply memorize the most common phrases you’ll need. You can pick up the basics using Duolingo.
In eastern Turkey, the Kurdish population speaks Kurdish as their first language. But due to security concerns, you’re unlikely to find yourself in that part of the country.
Many Turks speak English, especially in the major urban centers and tourist destinations. In rural areas, men are more likely to speak English than women.
Budget for backpacking Turkey
Turkey surprises many travelers with how expensive it can get. You can get good deals on accommodation, but otherwise, prices are similar to Southern Europe. Intercity travel is very expensive, so to save money, travel slowly. Turkey also has many incredible attractions — but they all come with fairly steep admission fees.
The minimum budget for backpacking Turkey is around $25 a day. $50 a day would be a reasonable mid-range budget if you have plenty of time to travel, but would barely cover you if you’re on a short trip and need to move around every 2-3 days.
Private room in a hostel or simple guesthouse: 130 lira (up to 30% higher in Istanbul)
Kebab at an informal restaurant: 10 lira
Cup of tea: 3 lira
Museum or historical site admission: 40 lira
Overnight bus from Istanbul to Izmir: 80 lira
Flight from Cappadocia to Istanbul: $29
Hot-air balloon flight over Cappadocia: $200
Turkey visa requirements
Most travelers require a visa to enter Turkey, with the exception of citizens of a few Western European countries.
Turkey has moved almost entirely to an e-visa system. Apply and pay online in advance using this form. The cost for Americans is $20 plus a $20 service fee. Price depends on nationality. Most visas are for 60 or 90 days.
If crossing by land from Europe, you can expect an easy and informal border process. You may not even have to get off your bus!
Accommodation in Turkey
Hotels in Turkey range from luxury seaside resorts to dingy rooms that double as brothels, and everything in between.
If you stick to western Turkey and Cappadocia, you can find a very high standard of accommodation in Turkey at all price levels. Istanbul, Goreme, and the beaches all have world-class hostels and comfortable, affordable mid-range hotels. Most towns and cities in these regions have at least one acceptable budget hotel or hostel, and several mid-range options.
Two uniquely Turkish hotel experiences are the “cave hotels” in Cappdocia and the “tree houses” in Olympos. The tree houses are mostly on the ground and many travelers end up disappointed in their experiences, while the cave hotels are every bit as amazing as they sound.
In eastern Turkey, you’re much more likely to find hotels catering more to locals than tourists. In general these are clean and safe, but at the budget end of the spectrum, they can be pretty gross and questionable. Solo women should be particularly careful about staying anywhere that may double as a brothel (Lonely Planet’s tip: If people stop talking when you enter the lobby, leave).
In high season prices are fixed, and you should book accommodation in advance. In low season you may be able to bargain, and you can always just show up and find a place to stay.
Food in Turkey
Turkish food is one of the world’s underappreciated great cuisines. Grilled meats, seafood, and vegetables feature prominently.
The classic Turkish dish is the kebab, or plate of grilled meat. You can get kebabs on the street for next to nothing, or in restaurants (usually served with rice and vegetables) for under 10 lira. Note that the Turkish kebab is nothing like the donor kebab you find all across Western Europe — the latter was invented by Turkish immigrants in Germany.
Another popular dish is Turkish pizza, which comes in two forms: pide and lahmacun. Pide is more like Italian pizza, served in a boat shape and topped with eggplant and spinach, grilled lamb, and/or peynir cheese. Lahmacun is more like a flatbread and topped with beef and tomato sauce.
Don’t miss the chance to try simit — essentially Turkish bagels topped with sesame seeds. You can get them on the street for about 1 lira. They go perfectly with tea.
In restaurants, you’ll find all kinds of rice dishes, stews, meats, stuffed vegetables and more. Vegetarians should be careful, as vegetable-based dishes often contain some kind of minced meat.
Turks love sweets. Turkish Delight, baklava and ice cream are the desserts of choice. While the baklava is good pretty much everywhere, Turkish Delight varies widely in quality — sample a few different varieties at a sweet shop before shopping in the Spice Bazaar for something to take home.
Drinks in Turkey
Turkey is caffeine-obsessed. Tea (çay, pronounced “chai”) is the foundation of social life. It’s served black with lot of sugar. Tea is inexpensive in cafes, and you’ll frequently be offered it by any local friends you make, shopkeepers, restaurant owners and pretty much everyone else you interact with. It’s rude to decline an invitation to have tea.
The only thing Turks like more than tea is coffee. Turkish coffee is served “black as death, strong as hell, and sweet as love.” You’re not meant to drink the sludgy black grounds at the bottom of the cup.
Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country, but in western Turkey, most people have pretty liberal views on alcohol consumption. Beer and wine are widely available in supermarkets and at restaurants and bars. Many Turkish Muslim men drink (although it’s still rare among women). That being said, alcohol is very expensive while backpacking Turkey, and the further east you go, the less common it is.
Activities you can do while backpacking Turkey
Turkey’s prime location spanning Europe and Asia makes it a hotspot for culture vultures. Its gorgeous coastline attracts beach bums. And its unique landscape brings the outdoor enthusiasts.
Istanbul’s old city, Sultanahmet, is bursting at the seams with historical and cultural sights. Shop at the Grand Bazaar, visit Topkapi Palace, see the inside of Aya Sofia, go underground in the Basilica Cistern. When you’ve had enough of the ancient, cross the Bosphorus, get a taste of Europe around Galata, and ride a ferry between continents. Don’t miss the Chora Church or Istanbul’s massive local market (in the Eastern Districts).
Outside of Istanbul, Turkey is brimming with historical sites and ancient cities. Ephesus is Turkey’s best-preserved Roman ruin. If you have even a passing interest in Roman history, it’s worth the trip — the “library” (not actually a library) has been beautifully restored. Troy and the entire Antalya coast are other great historical destinations.
Cappadocia is can’t-miss while backpacking Turkey. The geology of the region is totally unique and has created canyons full of “fairy chimneys.” It’s been occupied for centuries, so you can visit entire cities built underground, or beautiful painted churches inside caves. There is also amazing hiking, and it’s one of the most romantic places in the world to take a hot air balloon ride. Goreme is the gateway to the region.
The biggest mountain ranges in Turkey are in the remote eastern part of the country. You can find great hiking in the Kaçkar Mountains. For something a bit more developed, which you can take in shorter segments, try the Lycian Way.
Transportation in Turkey
Getting around Turkey isn’t just easy — it’s luxurious. It is also definitely not cheap. Keep in mind that Turkey is a huge country, so distances can be long. Traveling overnight is comfortable-ish and worth it for the cost savings.
Buses are the main mode of intercity travel while backpacking Turkey. They leave from large, modern stations with clear English signage. You’ll get a bottle of water, snacks, coffee or tea, and other nice touches to make the journey more bearable. The buses are universally in great condition, comfortable and modern. You can usually find a bus the day you want to travel, but to save hassle at the bus station and ensure you can leave at the time you want, it’s best to book a couple days in advance.
Trains are an increasingly popular way to travel around Turkey. New, high-speed rail lines connect the major cities, and even the slower trains are catching up with their counterparts further west. You can reserve a sleeper car for overnight trains and travel in more comfort — for less money — than an overnight bus.
If you don’t have a lot of time, flying may be cheaper than taking long-haul buses or trains. This is especially true if you’re aiming to go to Cappadocia, but aren’t heading further east. Of course, this will also save you hours of travel time.
Riding the ferry from Europe to Asia is an essential Turkish experience. It only costs $0.25 and half an hour of your time. Ferries also take you to islands along the coast.
Safety when backpacking Turkey
Overall, backpacking Turkey is generally safe. The media likes to play up the concerns. That being said, you should stay plugged into the news before you travel, and avoid a few parts of eastern Turkey that are pretty problematic (especially around the border with Syria and in heavily Kurdish areas).
The political situation in Turkey has been less-than-entirely-stable for several years now. While the terrorist attacks that escalated in 2016 have calmed down somewhat, bombings still do happen. Foreigners are almost never targeted and you’re very unlikely to get caught in a random attack. TripAdvisor’s country forum has regular trip reports and can help you connect with recently-returning travelers for up-to-date safety advice.
Large demonstrations pop up routinely in Istanbul and other big cities. Steer clear. And note that if tensions do escalate, even temporarily — as they did during the July 2016 coup attempt — it may be difficult to get accurate information on the ground.
Whatever you do, don’t even think about trying to cross from Turkish Kurdistan into Iraqi Kurdistan or heading into Syria.
Your biggest risk when backpacking Turkey is getting caught up in a scam or minor street crime. Knowing how to spot scammers can save you a lot of hassle (and money).
Istanbul has a serious pickpocketing problem. The Grand Bazaar is especially bad — keep your money well-hidden until you’re ready to buy something. Be vigilant on trams, too, as they can get very crowded.
There are carpet scammers everywhere. They’ll approach you with an innocuous question and then insist that they know where to find cheap, authentic carpets. Of course, they’re going to take you to an overpriced store or rob you instead. If you are looking to buy a carpet, seek expert advice from trustworthy sources and never take someone up on an offer on the street. Another common scam involves taking you to a bar, ordering a bunch of drinks, and presenting you with an enormous bill. Sometimes this also involves drink spiking. And beware of unscrupulous shoe shiners offering you a “free” shoe shine.
Outside of Istanbul, Turkey is pretty hassle-free. People in small towns tend to spend evenings at home, so streets clear out after dinner hours. You’ll still encounter plenty of people who want you to part with your money, but it’s more irritating-salesman than threatening-scam-artist.
There are regular reports of robberies targeting hikers in Cappadocia. Never hike alone, leave yourself plenty of time to get back to your home base before dark, and take a good map.
Stray dogs can be aggressive if you catch them by surprise. If you’re bitten, seek immediate medical attention and get a rabies shot.
Turkey travel advice for women alone
Backpacking Turkey is somewhere in the middle of the pack when it comes to traveling alone as a woman. It’s incomparably easier than North Africa, and harder than just about everywhere else.
It’s important to distinguish between dangers and hassles. Turkey doesn’t present many dangers, but it presents lots of hassles. All of that being said, remember that most women have problem-free trips to Turkey, so you don’t need to be paranoid.
Sexual assault targeting travelers happens in Turkey. It’s especially important to be careful on the beaches, in remote areas, and if you’re partaking in Istanbul’s nightlife. Don’t walk around isolated, unlit areas at night. Keep an eye on your drinks — drink spiking is a real risk.
I don’t want to give the impression that there’s a rapist lurking around every corner, because that’s not the case at all. Istanbul is no more dangerous or seedy than U.S. cities — god knows I’ve met plenty of sketchy men in DC bars. But it’s easy to let loose when you’re traveling — all I’m saying is you don’t have the safety net that you do at home, and local laws may not protect you. It’s worth being extra-careful.
Staying at budget hotels in remote areas — which often double as brothels — may put you at increased risk of assault. If you must stay in these types of accommodations, make sure your door locks securely before committing to a room. If someone knocks on your door at night, don’t answer and tell the manager in the morning.
“Oh my god.” “Wow.” “You’re so beautiful.” This is what you’ll hear walking around Istanbul. How much you enjoy backpacking Turkey will depend on how much street harassment bothers you.
The good news is, it’s not every guy. It’s not even most guys. It’s maybe one out of every 100 guys. You might get 30 comments over the course of a day. And the comments rarely get lewd or embarrassing — they’re usually meant as compliments, even if you don’t feel that way.
How you dress can have a big impact on how bad the street harassment is. I found that if my shoulders and knees were covered, men pretty much left me alone. Dark sunglasses help a lot with avoiding eye contact, which can be seen as a come-on.
Try your hardest to maintain a sense of humor. Really, Turkish boys know nothing about women. They can’t ask their mom, their sisters, or their female friends how to impress us. They’re just experimenting to see what gets them noticed.
You’ll have a much easier time if you don’t try to apply your sense of gender roles to Turkey. Watch local women and do as they do. If there are no women in an eating establishment or cafe, it’s probably not a good idea to eat or have tea there. Find a place with some women or families instead.
If you are feeling overwhelmed, give yourself permission to spend a little money or take some time off sightseeing to go to a safe place. An hour with a cup of tea in a women-friendly cafe, or a short break hiding in your guesthouse, can do wonders.
Of course, there are many Turkish men who are genuinely helpful and respectful of women. It can be tempting to approach everyone with some skepticism, but try not to. Better yet — try to make friends with local women and learn about the country through their eyes.
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