After spending a few months living in Turkey before, during and after some pretty major catastrophic events, it has inspired me to try and answer the question; is Turkey safe to visit?
Just how safe is Turkey? Well, like anywhere there are certain things to be aware of but the biggest threats come from terrorism, earthquakes and the current conflicts in the Middle East.
I arrived in Bodrum in November 2022 on the boat from Kos in Greece. Within just a couple of hours, my phone started going crazy with an earthquake warning which would prove to be horribly prophetic.
The next day I got word that a terrorist attack had taken place in Istanbul killing six people, and I would spend six weeks living close to the border of Iraq and Syria with Turkish fighter jets screaming overhead every day bombing nearby Kurdish areas.
Is Turkey Safe to Visit?
But is Turkey a safe place to visit? Absolutely. The country is not without its problems. But having travelled there many times in the last few years and spending almost two months exploring, Turkey is perfectly safe for travellers provided you do a little research and are aware of certain risks.
Global Peace Index
Turkey’s score is listed as 145 out of 163 ranked countries in the Global Peace Index for the period 2020-2022. However, to put it into context the USA scores a less-than-satisfactory 129 out of 163.
As with government travel advisories, these scores should be taken with a large pinch of salt. I’ve visited North Korea (152), Iraq (157) and Russia (160) and lived to tell the tale. Though that’s not to say other travellers haven’t been so lucky.
Turkey is currently fighting the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) and YPG (People’s Defense Unit). These Kurdish separatist groups have been labeled as terrorist organisations by the EU and USA.
Although Kurdish rebels/terrorists have undoubtedly carried out attacks across the country, there is also plenty of evidence to suggest that the Turkish security forces have carried out false-flag attacks with a view to coming down hard on Kurdish interests across the region.
As part of the wider war in Syria, Turkish forces were also fighting ISIS and clashes spilled over the border into Turkey. However the last clash between Turkey and ISIS was in 2016 and before their ultimate defeat in Iraq and Syria.
There have been countless terrorist attacks in Istanbul over the past 10 years with the latest just a couple of months ago in November 2016. Attacks are likely to happen in busy/crowded places so be aware of your surroundings and follow the local news.
High-Risk Areas in Turkey
Border Areas with Syria, Iraq and Iran
Generally speaking, the areas in eastern Turkey along the border with Syria, Iraq and Iran pose the biggest threat. This is due to ongoing conflicts in these countries and hostilities between Kurdish groups and the Turkish government.
However, I have travelled a lot around these border areas and faced no issues. There are lots of police checkpoints and army roadblocks across this part of Turkey.
If travelling in this area you’ll be stopped and asked to show your passport and in some cases have your bags searched. This usually happens on the outskirts of large towns and cities (Cizre, Diyarbakir, Mardin etc).
Diyarbakir (City and Province)
Diyarbakir is a city and province in southeast Turkey 100 km north of the Syrian border. I spent around a month in the city before and after visiting Iraq. I enjoyed my time exploring the historic ruins dating back to Roman times and met many wonderful people during my stay.
The city is home to Turkey’s largest Kurdish population and has something of a troubled history with crackdowns and violence from Turkish police. One such incident was the 2016 Siege of Sur in which friends of mine lost loved ones and many homes were destroyed.
In yet more sad news for Diyarbakir, many buildings were destroyed and people killed in the February 2023 earthquake which tore through the city and much of southern Turkey/northern Syria.
The UK Government advises against all but essential travel to Hakkari city and province. This is due to many special security zones throughout the province (see below). Hakkari borders both Iran and Iraq and clashes can spill over the borders.
Istanbul is an incredible city situated either side of the mighty Bosphorus River separating Europe from Asia Minor. I’ve been to Istanbul many times and always enjoy exploring its historic buildings, architecture, cafe culture and food.
But sadly, Istanbul is a target for terrorist attacks and has suffered more than its fair shar over recent years.
The latest incident happened on 13th November 2022 the day after I arrived in the country. Six people were killed by a bomb planted in a busy street around the central Taksim Square area.
Before that there have been bombings, suicide bombings and shootings in 2015, 2016 and 2017. Some of these attacks have been proven to have been carried out by members of Turkish intelligence/security forces.
Special Security Zones
Turkey has set up many Special Security Zones to protect against threats from the PKK (Kurdish separatists) and other groups. These zones include areas close to army bases and other sensitive areas that tourists should avoid at all costs.
These areas are usually well signposted so be sure to heed any signs telling you to stay away, not take photos etc. Some of these areas that tourists might unwittingly stumble upon include:
- Mardin Castle/Citadel
- Mount Ararat
On 6th February 2023 an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8 on the Richter scale hit southern Turkey and northern Syria. The devastating Kahramanmaras earthquake’s epicentre was 34 miles from the city of Gaziantep on a fault line that has been dormant for 100 years.
As at the time of writing (one week after the quake) the death toll across Turkey and Syria has exceeded 33,000 with many still trapped or missing. This was the worst earthquake in terms of casualties since the 2010 Haiti quake and the worst in Turkey for over 80 years.
Here is a detailed article by Forbes on how you can donate to the relief fund.
I have travelled the entire length of Turkey from East to West (2022) and West to East (2017) and have spent a total of around 100 hours on public buses and marshrutkas. While most long-distance coaches are modern, safe and comfortable there have been safety incidents in the past.
The journey through the mountains from Erzurum to Van was one of the most scenic I’ve ever taken (parts of it reminded me of travelling through the Himalayas in Tibet).
However the bus driver was an idiot and it’s a wonder we made it to our destination unscathed as he raced around corners hundreds of feet above sheer drops down the mountain or into the river.
On 20th August 2022 35 people were killed in two separate bus crashes on the same day (and also in southeastern Turkey along the Syrian border).
Religious and Cultural Sensitivities
Although in writing Turkey is a secular country, it is made up of a majority Muslim population with varying degrees of conservatism. Major cities like Istanbul and seaside resorts like Bodrum and Izmir are pretty laid back.
However away from the resorts you’ll find separate beaches for men and women (on Lake Van for example) and in some cities like Erzurum there are reports of people being attacked for smoking or eating during Ramadan.
Don’t discuss political tensions with locals and certainly don’t do anything to insult the state or religion.
Nature and Wild Animals
If you’re planning on hitting the major tourist destination such as Istanbul, Cappadocia and the Mediterranean beaches then you won’t have much to worry about in this regard. However if you plan on getting off the beaten track in forested and mountainous areas then it pays to be aware of potential dangers.
Turkey is home to three species of bear; the Syrian Brown Bear, the Brown (Grisly) Bear and the Eurasian Brown Bear which inhabit areas across the country but mostly in eastern regions and around the Back Sea (though they can be found in some areas on the south coast too).
If you plan on climbing Mount Ararat then be sure to get the proper permits and only go with a reputable guide. Likewise, if you plan on hitting the ski slopes around Erzurum be sure to stick to official runs. If you go hiking tell someone (hotel/hostel etc) where you are going and when you plan to return.
Scams and Petty Crime
On my first trip to Istanbul in 2017 my friend and I fell victim to a scam. Looking back should have been obvious from the start. Some guy dropped something on the ground and being the gentlemen that we were, noticed and called him back to reunite him with whatever he dropped.
It turned out the man was a shoe cleaner, and offered to shine our shoes for our kind service. And then his mate turns up and we get shaken down. So, the sad moral of the story is, don’t bother helping strangers as they’ll probably rip you off.
Although most visits to Turkey are trouble-free, it always pays to cover yourself in case the unexpected happens.
Conclusion – Is Turkey a Safe Place to Visit?
Although there are undoubtedly risks to visiting Turkey, this is also true of every other country in the world to some degree. Is Turkey safe to visit for tourists – definitely, provided you take precautions, pay attention to both world events and local news.
I’ll certainly be returning to explore more of this fascinating country at a crossroads between east and west. With so many incredible places from Istanbul, Cappadocia and Bodrum to the less visited but equally rewarding eastern areas such as Van and Erzurum.
Check out my other articles about cool places to go in Turkey:
About the author:
Steve Rohan is a writer from Essex, England. He has travelled to over 60 countries, lived in China and Hong Kong, and is now living the digital nomad life on the road.
Steve prefers “slow travel” and has covered much of Europe and Asia by train, bus and boat.
Where I am now: Yerevan, Armenia 🇦🇲