Turkey is one of our favorite countries in the Balkans! Besides Bulgaria, it’s our most-visited country, as between Stephanie and I we have made eight trips to this stunning country over the past decade… starting in 2011 and returning nearly yearly. We can’t help it: the delicious breakfasts, the beautiful mosques, and the friendly locals (both human and feline) keep us coming back time and again.
From epic landscapes to delicious food to incredible history and fantastic urban culture, planning a trip to Turkey can be a bit complicated at times due to visa requirements and certain websites being inaccessible within Turkey… but a headache is entirely avoidable when you use our guide! And trust us, figuring it out is worth it.
Step 1: Check to See if You Need a Visa
Turkey is neither part of the EU nor the Schengen zone, so if you have a multi-entry Schengen visa it won’t help you out here.
There are 78 visa-exempt countries and territories who can enter Turkey without a visa, as well as 42 countries and territories whose citizens are eligible to apply for an e-Visa online.
Keep in mind, though, that people with traditionally “strong” passports (Americans, Canadians, Brits, Irish, for some!) are not visa-exempt, and actually do have to apply for an e-Visa online. It is not a different visa to get at all, but given that people with strong passport privilege like myself often forget to double-check visa requirements, especially in a country as European and West-facing as Turkey, I’ve known people who have had unpleasant surprises when they learned they needed a Turkish visa at the last minute!
Countries who DO NOT need a visa
The countries on the list below are allowed to enter Turkey without a visa, using a passport (or ID if marked with an *), for tourism and business purposes (with the exception of the countries listed at the end, which require a visa for business purposes but not tourism). They are allowed to enter up to 90 days per 180-day period, with a maximum of 90 days in a single visit.
Note that as always, your passport must have over 6 months of validity to enter Turkey!
Albania, Andorra, Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Colombia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, El Salvador, Estonia, Finland, France*, Georgia*, Germany*, Greece*, Guatemala, Honduras, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, Iran, Israel, Italy*, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Liechtenstein*, Lithuania, Luxembourg*, Malaysia, Moldova*, Monaco, Montenegro, Morocco, New Zealand, Nicaragua, North Macedonia, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Qatar, Romania, Saint Kitts and Nevis, San Marino, Serbia, Seychelles, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland*, Tajikistan, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Ukraine*, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Vatican City, Venezuela
Note: Of this list, people from Albania, Jordan, Kosovo, Lebanon, Qatar, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Slovenia are permitted to enter visa-free for tourism only; citizens from these countries require a business visa if entering Turkey for business purposes
Second note: Those marked above with an asterisk (*) can enter with either a national ID card and/or passport.
Russians are allowed to enter visa-free with just their passport for 60 days per visit and up to 90 days per 180-day period. So theoretically, a Russian could spend 60 days on one visit, leave, and return for another 30 days spread out over that 180-day period.
Finally, there’s one more group of people who can travel visa-free, but only for up to 30 days per visit and up to 90 days per 180-day period. So theoretically, they could plan three 30-day trips within a 180 day period, or divide that into any other period and still be covered under this law.
Azerbaijan, Belarus, Brunei, Costa Rica, Latvia, Macao, Mongolia (tourism only), Thailand, and Turkmenistan
There are a few exceptions due to the current geopolitical situations worldwide. They are as follows:
People from Cyprus who reside in Northern Cyprus (Turkish occupied) can enter for 90 days out of 180 visa-free, granted that they arrive from Ercan Airport or seaports in Northern Cyprus.
Libyans who are 12 or under, or 65 or older, may enter for 90 days within 180 days. Anyone between the ages of 13-64 would need a visa.
Palestinians who hold a VIP passport (not sure what that is, to be honest) are also allowed a 90 day stay per every 180 days.
That sums up the nationalities who are allowed to enter Turkey without a visa. Note that many traditionally “strong” passports are not on the above list: the UK, Canada, Ireland, US, and Australia are all missing, because these countries (and others) require an e-visa.
Countries who require an E-Visa
Getting a Turkish e-visa is quite simple, so don’t get intimidated. As an American, it took me about 15 minutes to fill out the form and I heard back almost immediately. It cost me $20 USD for a multi-entry visa that gave me 90 days out of the following 180. Some are free, some cost up to $65 (sorry Canadians!) and others more – your fee will depend on your countries’ agreements.
Here is a list of countries who require an e-visa. Note that those with asterisks can enter with a national ID card and do not necessarily require a passport. Anyone without an asterisk requires a passport. The list below is for 90 days within a 180-day period, but there are exceptions to that below.
Antigua and Barbuda, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Bahrain, Barbados, Belgium*, Canada, China, Croatia, Cyprus, Dominica, Dominican Republic, East Timor, Fiji, Grenada, Haiti, Indonesia, Ireland, Jamaica, Maldives, Malta*, Mauritius, Mexico, Netherlands*, Norway, Oman, Poland, Portugal*, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Spain*, Suriname, Taiwan, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States
People with passports for the following countries can only get a single-entry visa good for 30 days: Armenia, China, Cyprus, East Timor, Fiji, Indonesia, Mauritius, Mexico, Suriname, and Taiwan.
As if it wasn’t complicated enough, there are also many countries which are eligible for conditional e-visas: either single entry e-Visa received online in advance, or a e-visa on arrival. This would give them a 30 day stay, single entry. These are the conditions:
- Must hold a valid visa or residence permit from one of the following countries: Schengen visa, Ireland, the United Kingdom or the United States. Electronic visas or e-residence permits are not accepted. This does not apply for Egyptian citizens under 20 or over 45, who do not need a visa or permit. Similarly, Algerian citizens must be aged below 18 or over 35 years old to be eligible for e-Visa (otherwise they need a sticker from an embassy).
- Must hold a hotel reservation and adequate financial means (US$50 per day).
- All citizens except for the citizens of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Philippines must travel with one of the airlines that has protocols with Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The following airlines meet the criteria: AtlasGlobal, Onur Air, Pegasus Airlines and Turkish Airlines. Citizens of Egypt may also travel on flights operated by EgyptAir.
- Afghanistan, Iraq, Zambia and Philippines citizens are not eligible for e-visa on arrival at Istanbul airports
And these are the countries eligible, given they’ve fulfilled the above requirements:
Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Bangladesh, Benin, Bhutan, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Côte d’Ivoire, DR Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, India, Iraq, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Namibia, Nepal, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, Philippines, Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, São Tomé and Príncipe, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Vanuatu, Vietnam, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe
If your country is not listed on this, or if you don’t meet the above requirements, you will need to apply for a visa in a physical embassy (sticker visa).
Step 2. Book Your Tickets
Turkey doesn’t always have the best cheap flight details because Turkish Airlines has a pretty strong hold on the market here. For example, living in Bulgaria, it’s quite expensive for me to fly to Turkey (despite being right next door!) as there are no low-budget airlines operating flights between the two countries. However, Turkey often has fantastic deals from far-away destinations – I once flew direct from San Francisco to Istanbul for under $500 USD roundtrip!
However, that’s not to say you can’t find cheap flights into Turkey. To find the best value for your flights, we suggest Skyscanner and Google Flights. Use Skyscanner’s “Everywhere” feature to check all of the various airports in Istanbul, since there are multiple ones. Google Flights has a nicer interface and updates with the correct prices faster, so there are no disappointments when you click through, unlike Skyscanner.
That said, you can also get to Turkey overland. Stephanie and I have both taken the night train from Sofia to Istanbul (also works Plovdiv to Istanbul) and my boyfriend has taken the bus from Sofia to Istanbul as well. This may be a good option for getting to Turkey, but book at least a day or two in advance as Stephanie once had tickets sell out on her sleeper train! Theoretically you can also get a bus from Athens to Istanbul or Thessaloniki to Istanbul, but I’ve never tried this route.
Step 3. Plan Your Turkey Itinerary
Many people who visit Turkey explore a combination of Istanbul and the mainland. However, there are so many places to visit in Turkey that it would be impossible to give one sample itinerary that would cover all the best options. Here are some things you need to ask yourself when it comes time to plan your trip to Turkey.
- Am I interested in exploring Turkey’s history and seeing ancient sites like the Hierapolis and Ephesus?
- Do I want to spend time in Cappadocia and Pamukkale in the interior?
- Do I want to spend time exploring multiple islands or beaches?
- Do I want to explore one city in-depth?
The answer to these questions will help you figure out how best to divide your time. Stephanie and I have each spent months in Turkey, and we’ve both barely scratched the surface! Don’t feel bad if you can’t see everything you want to on your first trip here. You can always come back!
Here are some good guidelines to keep in mind when planning a Turkey vacation.
If you have four days or less to travel in Turkey, stick to one place. This would be a great amount of time for an initial trip to Istanbul. If you wanted to do a day trip to Bursa or the Princes’ Islands, that would be possible, but a bit rushed.
If you have a week, you can explore two or possibly three places in Turkey. In this case, we’d recommend a trip to Istanbul and Cappadocia. If you’re feeling ambitious, you could go on from Cappadocia to Pamukkale by night bus (it’s safe – I did it solo!) and then fly or bus back to Istanbul from Denizli.
Domestic flights within Turkey can be absurdly cheap – cheaper even then the bus, at times! I flew from Istanbul to Kayseri (near Cappadocia) for $20. So don’t discount flights on Turkish Airlines or Pegasus when it comes time to getting around Turkey. Turkey also has some of the best buses I’ve ever taken in my travels, and they are quite a viable way of getting around.
Finally, don’t discount the coast if you are visiting Turkey in the summer! Fethiye, Bodrum, Antalya, and many offbeat coastal cities and islands are all wonderful places to soak up the sun.
If you are trying to decide where to go in Turkey, we’ve created a guide to help you get ideas: 17 of the Best Places to Visit in Turkey.
If you are combining a trip to Turkey with visits to additional Balkan countries, you’ll want to check out these Balkan travel resources. We think Bulgaria or Greece is the best country to combine with Turkey, personally, though we tend towards Bulgaria as we’re a bit biased!
- These are the 12 Balkan Countries Plus the Top Reason to Visit Each One
- The 10 Balkan Itinerary Commandments
- 41 Balkan Travel Tips
- Balkan Bus Trips: 10 Things You Must Know Before Your Ride
Step 4. Plan Your Activities
After you decide where you’re going to go, you’ll want to decide which activities to enjoy. In Istanbul, the city is so large that we actually advise against picking day trips unless you really want to get out and see the Princes’ Islands or something else you can get to by boat, like Bursa, since getting out of Istanbul by car or bus is such an ordeal! We’d recommend booking things like Bosphorus cruises, food tours, walking tours, and cultural events. Here are our top 3 tour/activity recommendations for Istanbul.
Taste of Two Continents Food Tour
Easily the most delicious thing you’ll do in Istanbul all weekend, we highly recommend a food tour as a way of getting to know Istanbul better. Turkish food is one of the best cuisines out there, and this tour will give you a tasty introduction to it.
This food tour covers several neighborhoods and two continents over the course of five hours, so wear your best walking shoes (and stretchiest pants)! You’ll sample lots of different small tastes, travel by tram and ferry, and enjoy a full meal consisting of an appetizer, main course, and dessert. To cap that all off, you’ll enjoy four drinks over the course of the evening, plus a nargile (aka shisha) to cap off the night.
A Bosphorus cruise is an essential way to explore the best of Istanbul. One of the world’s most important rivers, the Bosphorus connects the Marmara Sea with the Black Sea and provided the foundation for centuries of empires.
A sightseeing cruise up the Bosphorus is extremely relaxing and a great way to rest your feet while you still take in the beauty of Istanbul and its history, learning about the gorgeous palaces, bridges, fortresses, towers, and buildings which flank the river banks. This ultra-affordable 90-minute tour is a can’t-miss addition to your Istanbul city break itinerary.
Landmark Highlights Day Tour
If you prefer to have a little guidance during your trip to Istanbul, we recommend spending one day doing a guided tour which will explain the history of Sultanahmet’s most important sites: Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, the Hippodrome, and the Grand Bazaar.
While you can certainly visit all these sights independently, visiting with a tour will give you essential historical context, allow you to skip the lines, and hop around from site to site in an organized, logical fashion that doesn’t waste any time.
If you’re going to be on the coast or islands, you will want to look into boating activities, water sports, and walking tours.
We generally use and recommend GetYourGuide for booking tours in Turkey and the Balkans. We like that they have a best price guarantee and that they tell you the name of the tour companies they partner with (unlike Viator), so you can research it and be sure it’s worth your money!
If you are traveling between April and September, you will want to make sure your tours and activities are booked in advance since Turkey is a hot tourist destination. I have traveled to Turkey in the shoulder season (early April and October), and I still found that my tours were full or almost-full. However, if you visit Istanbul in winter, you likely won’t have to worry about that.
Step 5. Budget Your Trip
Once you know where you want to go and how long you have, you can put together your trip budget.
Thanks to a depressed Turkish lira, Turkey is a great budget-friendly destination compared to much of Europe. However, if you’re traveling through the rest of the Balkans first, especially places like Albania and Macedonia, prices will seem a bit higher. Personally, I find it on par with places like Greece and Montenegro, but not as expensive as Croatia or Slovenia.
Even in cities like Istanbul and touristy destinations like Cappadocia, there are budget options available. We personally choose to stay in private rooms in hostels or AirBnB apartments over hostel dorms, but there are dorm beds available basically everywhere to help you save money.
You can travel through Turkey on $30-40 USD per day by staying in dorms, eating cheap streets foods, minimizing alcohol (which is pricy in Turkey), and paring down your activities and travel between places.
When I travel through Turkey, I typically spend closer to $50-60 USD per day and enjoy that Turkey offers some true bargains in this price range, especially when it comes to accommodations.
For someone wanting the best of everything, like fancy hotels, fine dining, and the best activities, you’ll find that this will cost much less than a similarly luxurious trip in Spain, France, or Italy. So if you want to have a seriously bougie time somewhere, Turkey is a great value.
Good ways to cut down costs without sacrificing quality is to travel with someone so that you can split costs, enjoy your nicer meals at lunch when there are specials, and to weigh the cost of flying vs. buses as sometimes flying can be cheaper (pro tip: it helps to use incognito mode and search in the local currency, the lira!)
Step 6. Book Your Accommodations
Once you’ve decided out what you want to spend per night on accommodations, it’s time to get booking! Please, read this carefully as you can run into problems with your trip!
We use Booking.com because we like that they have free cancellation if you end up changing your plans. HOWEVER, Booking.com does not work once you’re inside Turkey unless you are using a VPN (Wikipedia doesn’t either, so say goodbye to fun facts on the go!). You can definitely pre-book your trips on Booking and access your information about your trip while you’re there, but if you search, the inventory will look to be 0. This freaked me out a lot when I was making a last minute plan to stay in Pamukkale after Cappadocia and there was no inventory available! I was able to work around it by using Hostelworld instead.
Still, we recommend Booking.com: it has the widest selection of types of accommodations, from guest houses to hostels to luxury hotels to apartments (without the Airbnb service and cleaning fees that can add up). One great way to keep accommodation costs down is to stay somewhere nice at one destination, and then pick a budget hotel at your next destination.
We have guides on where to stay in Istanbul as well as the best cave hotels in Cappadocia, so if you want to book, you have our recommendations at your fingertips (literally)! Just be sure to book before arriving in Turkey.
Step 7. Research Any Vaccinations You May Need
Turkey has a lot of stray animals, particularly cats. I mean, there is even a whole documentary about Istanbul street kitties! They are generally very friendly and well-behaved, taken care of by local business owners and families. Since we can’t help ourselves, visiting Turkey is basically like visiting one giant petting zoo of friendly kitties.
Be cautious and only touch kitties who approach you first. Or don’t at all, but I think that may be actually biologically impossible. I actually got bit by a cat in Ukraine and had to undergo five rabies shots – it’s not something I recommend, but it also hasn’t stopped my cat-head-scratching habit yet. I’m unstoppable, what can I say?
If you do get bitten by an animal in Turkey, go to the doctor immediately (within 48 hours, the sooner the better!) so they can assess the risk. Rabies does exist in Turkey, but I don’t recommend getting pre-exposure shots as they are 1) expensive, 2) often unnecessary, and 3) don’t even mean you won’t have to get post-exposure shots since you’ll still need to do more shots after a bite.
Here’s what the CDC recommends regarding vaccinations:
Make sure you are up-to-date on routine vaccines before every trip. These vaccines include measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine, varicella (chickenpox) vaccine, polio vaccine, and your yearly flu shot.
They also recommend most travelers get Hepatitis A and Typhoid vaccinations, as there is some risk of contamination. And if you’re in Turkey for a medical procedure or plan to get a tattoo (or indulge in any risky sexual or drug-related behaviors), you should also consider getting a Hepatitis B vaccine.
Step 8: Learn a Few Common Turkish Words and Brush Up on the Turkish Alphabet Pronunciation
One thing that a lot of travelers from North America and Western Europe overlook is that Turkey uses a slightly different alphabet that looks like Latin but has a few unique letters. This means that pronunciation can be a bit difficult.
Check out this guide to Turkish pronunciation, which you should find quite helpful.
Most tourism professionals and people in the service industry speak amazing English, and it’s getting better every year. My first visit to Turkey in the winter of 2012 was a challenge; every year since, it’s gotten far easier to communicate with locals and tourism professionals.
Still, it’s kind to learn some Turkish (and it will definitely win you some fans and perhaps some free rakı). Here are the Turkish phrases we recommend you have handy for your trip to Turkey:
Hello = Merhaba
Good morning = Günaydın
Good afternoon = Tünaydın
How are you? = Nasılsın?
Goodbye = Güle güle
Please = Lütfen
Thank You = Teşekkür ederim
Excuse Me = İzninizle / Pardon
Cheers = Şerefe!
Yes = Evet
No = Hayır
I Don’t Understand = Anlamadım
Do You Speak English? = İngilizce biliyor musunuz?
Remember that some of these words have tricky letters, like ı which sounds more like “uh!” (i.e. it’s rak-uh, not rak-ee!) We always recommend a good translator app, like Google Translate, just in case!
Step 9. Pack Your Bags
We are in the process of creating packing lists to help you know what to pack for Turkey, but until then, here are some items you don’t want to leave home without:
- A Lonely Planet guidebook, to help you plan when on the ground
- An unlocked smartphone, so you can buy a cheap SIM card and use apps like Uber and Google Maps
- An extra swimsuit so you can enjoy Turkey’s hammams and beaches without having to put a wet one back on.
- Motion sickness pills for windy roads, Istanbul traffic, ferries, hot air balloon sides, etc.
- Sunscreen (if you’re bringing checked luggage). Sunscreen and other cosmetics can be expensive in Turkey compared to back home.
Step 10. Prepare For Your Arrival
Since there’s no universal way to arrive to Istanbul, you’ll want to do some prep work beforehand to make sure you know how you’ll get from the airport, ferry station, or bus station to your hotel.
Flying into Istanbul
This is the most common way for visitors to arrive in Istanbul. There are two: Sabiha Gokcen International Airport and Istanbul New Airport (which is so new I’ve never taken it, as it just started running flights in April 2019!) Flights to Ataturk are no longer running. Anything with the airport code IST is going to the new airport.
We recommend using Uber to get an affordable taxi into the city rather than relying on cab drivers as it can be a crapshoot as to whether you’ll get an honest one. A taxi would cost about 105-135 lira, not counting traffic (about $18-23), and I’d imagine an Uber would be a bit less.
You can take Havaist, a shuttle service operating between the new Istanbul airport and central Istanbul. A ride costs 18 lira, about $3 USD. These will go to Taksim, Beşiktaş, and Sultanahmet as well as other destinations. The ride takes about 90 minutes to 2 hours (Istanbul traffic is relentless), but there’s WiFi, chargers, and movies on board to keep you entertained.
We have a complete guide to getting into Istanbul overland from Sofia here, so read this guide if you plan to take the bus or train.
If you fly into Sabiha Gokcen, I recommend the Havabus shuttle to Taksim, which costs 18 lira ($3 USD) and takes about 90 minutes. You can then take a taxi to your final destination if it’s not within walking distance of Taksim. Alternately, you can Uber or pay for a cab.
Flying into Other Airports
I’ve also flown into Kayseri and took a shared shuttle organized by my Cappadocia cave hotel. It was inexpensive and easy!
I’ve also flown out of Bodrum, but I flew too early in the morning to take public transportation and had to take a pricy cab that cost more than the airplane ticket itself! Though, to be fair, I only paid like $20 USD for the plane ticket.
Keep in mind that with early and late departures, you may be forced into taking an expensive cab, and that can add onto your final transportation bill!
Before You Leave the Airport
You’ll want to have some Turkish lira on you for your taxi or to get on a bus. You can take them out at the ATMs in the airports for the best exchange rates. Just make sure you don’t have big ATM withdrawal fees from your bank (Americans, we recommend Schwab!). Some banks require a travel notice, and others will still put fraud blocks on cards making purchases outside of their home country.
Tell your bank when and where you’ll be traveling to avoid this. They may still put a block on your card at some point (mine frequently does). To rectify this, you’ll need to call them or respond to an email if they send one. This is one reason its good to always travel with multiple cards attached to different accounts. I always travel with two credit cards and two debit cards if possible.
Note that many places in Turkey take Visa and Mastercard (AmEx and Discover, so much). You’ll still need some cash to be able to travel through Turkey smoothly, especially if you want to shop!
Step 11: Don’t Forget Travel Insurance!
We love the peace of mind it gives us in case of emergencies, accidents, illnesses, theft, or trip cancellation or disruption. While we think Turkey is just about as safe to travel as anywhere else in Europe, it has a slightly higher risk of political unrest or terrorism. While it shouldn’t dissuade you from going to Turkey (I mean… we’ve never let it stop us, and we never will!) it is better safe than sorry.
While Turkey is perfectly safe to travel around, there’s always risk inherent in everyday travel, from theft to accidents to trip cancellations, so it’s better to play it safe. The saying goes “if you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel,” and we believe it’s true!
Originally from California, Allison has been living in Bulgaria for the last two years and is obsessed with traveling around the Balkans. She has been published in National Geographic, CNN Arabic, Matador Network, and the Huffington Post. She loves befriending dogs, drinking coffee, geeking out about wine, and cooking food from around the world.