Travel Warning WARNING: The overland route goes through Syria. Travel in Syria is very dangerous due to the ongoing civil war and resulting lawlessness.
Government travel advisories
(Information last updated 17 Oct 2022)

From Istanbul to Cairo is a route in the Middle East. Countries visited are Turkey, Syria, Jordan, possibly Israel (and the disputed territory of the West Bank), and Egypt. You will have set foot on all three continents of the Old World upon completing it.

UnderstandEdit

Istanbul–Cairo is a classic overland route. It is a route that has been traveled for centuries, particularly during the Ottoman Empire. Historically it overlapped with the Hajj, with many people covering all or part of the route as part of their pilgrimage to Mecca. With the advance of train travel, it became feasible, and indeed quite popular, for Western tourists in the 1930s, many taking the Taurus Express run by the same company operating the Orient Express, la Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits following the route (or most of it, due to gaps in the rail network).

Backpackers (re)discovered it in the 1970s and 1980s, with hippies searching for spiritual peace who departed to Jerusalem from Istanbul instead of going to India via Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. After the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, onward travel from Jerusalem to Cairo became a possibility. For visa reasons (see below) the route is almost always traveled Istanbul to Cairo, few choose to go the opposite direction. The guide book series Lonely Planet made the route even more popular by publishing their "Istanbul to Cairo on a shoestring".

See also the tips at Travel in developing countries; advice there applies to most of this route.

Abraham Path is a hiking trail commemorating the life and journey of Abraham the Patriarch. The trail's course between Urfa in Turkey and the Negev in Israel partially overlaps with this route.

PrepareEdit

It is essential to have a good guidebook and learn some basic rules of Middle Eastern etiquette. Like don't use your left hand, because it is considered dirty (traditionally the left hand is used to clean yourself with water after using the toilet), and do not put your feet up on furniture used as a foot stool. Always wear long trousers, not shorts, and t-shirts instead of muscle shirts. At the very least, knees and shoulders should be covered. Long, flowing ankle-length skirts and loose-fitting men's t-shirts are recommended clothing for women. A headscarf is not necessary, but useful to have when visiting Orthodox churches and mosques. Learning basic survival-level Arabic is very helpful.

As the area is volatile and subject to sudden political changes, it is essential to listen closely to the news before and during your trip. Read the travel warnings issued by your government carefully and heed them.

VisaEdit

Most travelers from Western countries can get visas for Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and Israel online, at the airport or on the border if not already granted visa-free access in the first place. Syria requires travelers to apply beforehand at the embassy of their country of residence. Travelers from a country which does not have diplomatic relationship with Syria can reportedly get the visa at the Syrian border too, but there seems to be no certain rule about it.

One reliable alternative for securing a Syrian visa is to apply at the Syrian Consulate in Istanbul. Processing time has been reported to be less than 8 hours, so it is possible to apply in the morning and return later in the afternoon to retrieve your passport.

Any proof of a past or future visit to Israel will result in being denied entry to Syria, even with a valid visa. Thus people intending to visit Israel on their trip travel from Turkey to Egypt, not the other way around. It is possible to keep a visit to Israel out of your passport if you enter and leave Israel through the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge border crossing and ask the Israeli officials to stamp a piece of paper instead of your passport, but this method is not very reliable.

TicketsEdit

It is difficult or not practical to order bus or train tickets online as most ticketing in the Middle East is still done by hand, although you can book airline tickets online nowadays. Travel agents in Istanbul's Sultanahmet area can be of help for some parts of the trip and it can be worthwhile to email a trustworthy agent for help and pay for your tickets with credit card. This is frequently done for flights within Turkey or originating in Turkey, bus tickets departing Istanbul on not-so-frequent routes and for train tickets to Syria.

Get inEdit

 
Map of From Istanbul to Cairo

Most people will fly into Istanbul. Istanbul is a popular destination within the European network of budget flights. Some travelers arrive by train, bus and ferry from Greece or Bulgaria. There is a weekly bus to and from Germany via Italy and Greece.

GoEdit

TurkeyEdit

1 IstanbulEdit

Istanbul is rightly a famous destination the world over. Even only covering its major attractions can take a week or more.

There are numerous crossings on the Turkish-Syrian border, but many are restricted or closed as of 2022 due to the ongoing Syrian civil war. Before the war, the most frequently used crossing was Cilvegözü/Bab al-Hawa east of Reyhanlı en route between Antakya and Aleppo.

On the way to Antakya, you can extend your journey as much as you like over a good portion of the map of Turkey. The most direct approaches are:

  • By bus: an Antakya-based bus company, Has Turizm, has two services daily from Istanbul arriving around morning and afternoon, taking more than 16 hours overnight end-to-end.
  • By car: it's a straightforward drive overwhelmingly along wide and smooth motorways via 2 Ankara, taking about 12–13 hours including short pit stops.
  • By train: the easiest approach is by taking the YHT high-speed trains to 3 Konya and then transfering to the Toros Express (inherited its name from the luxury Taurus Express of old), which terminates in 4 Adana where you should change to a bus for the rest of the route, but this last leg may not be possible the same night as the Toros arrives at Adana about 22:00. You should catch the 08:20 train from Istanbul at the latest, and then you have a two-hour layover at Konya. The tickets can be booked at the TCDD Taşımacılık website.

All three linked cities have enough attractions worth stopping by for.

5 AntakyaEdit

Antakya, ancient Antioch, deserves your attention as it has two archaeological museums, both with great mosaic collections, and the first church of Christianity. Spare at least a full day for the city.

Before the war, there were direct buses from Antakya to Aleppo through the Cilvegözü/Bab al-Hawa border crossing. Some travellers are known to have done this stage in steps by a combination of local minibuses and hitchhiking, but this wasn't really advisable since pedestrians weren't allowed to walk across the border as the no man's land between the Turkish and Syrian posts are up to 5 km wide, and you can't expect assistance from either country in case anything goes wrong.

The trains between Turkey and Syria were also indefinitely suspended at the onset of the Syrian civil war.

Bypassing SyriaEdit

Bypassing Syria overland is surprisingly difficult. There are ferries from nearby İskenderun, the main harbour of Hatay to Israel and Egypt, but these are for trucks and don't accept foot passengers (not even the drivers of the trucks, who are transferred by air). There are also ferries to Cyprus, but this route should be considered a last resort as it entails a crossing of the Green Line from unrecognized Northern Cyprus into the Republic of Cyprus-controlled part of the island, which may be difficult bordering on impossible if you aren't armed with an EU/EEA passport, and then scoring a ride on occasional cruise or freighter ships to Israel. The regular ferries to Lebanon, which require a lot of backtracking west to Taşucu, are of little help either, since Lebanon is bordered by only two countries: you can't cross to Syria for obvious reasons, and the border with Israel has been closed for decades for political reasons so once in Lebanon you're stranded there. Heading the other way round, across Iraq, is as dangerous as the route through Syria.

This is supposed to be an overland route, but flights are absolutely easier and safer options to bypass Syria for the time being (2022). Adana has the nearest international airport, but it is served by a daily flight only to Beirut, Lebanon out of regional airports. Antalya Airport far to the west has better connections, including a frequent service to the major Israeli aiport of Ben Gurion. Istanbul is of course well-connected to the region (and elsewhere globally) but that means you are skipping more than half of the journey by overflying it.

SyriaEdit

6 AleppoEdit

Aleppo is (or was, before the war) the largest Syrian city. It had many historical sights.

You could take the buses south from here. The rail line in the same direction was being repaired in 2021, but it's uncertain when it could be reopened to passenger traffic.

Southwards, the route passes near the ancient sites of the Dead Cities and Apamea.

7 HamaEdit

Hama is a traditional town with historic buildings and conservative locals. It's famous for its ancient water wheels along the Orontes River; they are reported to be unharmed by the war.

8 HomsEdit

The third largest city of Syria had several historical sites but got extensively battered during the war. Reconstruction began in the early 2020s, and the train services to Damascus might return some day.

Side trips from here could bring you to the archetypal Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers and further on the ancient Mediterranean port of Tartous in the west, and the ruins of Palmyra, much of which were sadly blown up by the ISIL in the 2010s, in the east.

9 DamascusEdit

The capital of Syria, and its second largest city, was known for the Roman temples, churches, mosques, and bazaars having witnessed its long history.

Here you could take an interesting side trip to the Lebanese capital of Beirut.

Buses and trains south to Amman were suspended during the war, and it's unknown when the services can resume.

JordanEdit

10 MafraqEdit

Mafraq is the first major Jordanian town en route from Syria. It has ruins from the pre-Islamic Nabataeans.

A side trip west brings you to the Romans ruins in Jerash, Irbid, Pella and Umm Qais, and the spectacular castle in Ajlun.

11 AmmanEdit

Amman is the eternally busy, recklessly changing, and massively sprawling Jordanian capital, but not without its historical charms.

The routes diverge here: if you want to avoid an Israeli stamp on your passport at all costs, head south towards Aqaba for ferries across the Red Sea. Otherwise, continue onto the west towards the Israeli border.

The shortest route to Jerusalem via the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge crosses the Palestinian territory of the West Bank. If you want to avoid this stretch for any reason, head northwest to Nazareth in Israel proper. The westerly route to Jerusalem is time-consuming as it requires a lot of transfers: you need a shared taxi to the border, then another across the border, yet another via Jericho to Ramallah, from where you can take the final one into Jerusalem. The route via Nazareth is simpler if longer and infrequently-served: there is a direct bus to Nazareth a few times weekly, and there you can take daily ones onward to Jerusalem.

With an access to your own transportation, you can have an interesting side trip to the ruins in the eastern desert: Qasr Amra and the Desert castles, all early Islamic and many are suggested to be used for recreational purposes.

12 MadabaEdit

Madaba is just off the main highway south, accessible by buses from Amman. The local highlights are the ancient mosaics and a number of early Christian churches.

The eastern bank of the Dead Sea, both the lowest point and the most hypersaline expanse of water in the world, is a side trip west.

Minibuses depart for Kerak.

13 KerakEdit

Kerak is home to an impressive castle, once a Crusader stronghold, and an associated museum.

Dana Nature Reserve south offers pretty good hiking options along the Great Rift Valley, which extends from Lebanon under the entire length of the Red Sea to Mozambique.

Minibuses run south to Ma'an, the turn-off for Petra.

14 PetraEdit

Petra is one of the greatest archaeological sites in the Middle East. It is off the main highway south if you are driving but is well worth to stray away from it a little. Buses connect with Amman in the north and Aqaba in the south via the fast Desert Highway. Relatively infrequent buses also arrive from Madaba, via the slower but more scenic King's Highway.

On the way south, consider taking a side trip to Wadi Rum, a barren, desolate, and spectacularly scenic desert valley.

15 AqabaEdit

Aqaba is Jordan's only window to the sea. It has a historic castle and a simple museum but the main draws are the beaches and scuba diving.

If you intend to return back to Europe overland by backtracking your steps, you may want to bypass Israel in order to avoid an Israeli entry stamp on your passport (and subsequent denial of entry when you are back at the Syrian border). A way of doing this is to take direct ferries from the port of Aqaba to Nuweiba on Sinai's eastern coast, in Egypt.

For the Israeli town of Eilat, take taxis to the border, cross it on foot, and take the local buses on the other side.

West BankEdit

16 JerichoEdit

Jericho is the most touristy city under Palestinian authority and has plenty of Biblical and Islamic sites. It's on the route from Amman westwards to Jerusalem.

Shared taxis leave for Ramallah.

17 RamallahEdit

Ramallah is the de facto capital of Palestinian administration, and has museums associated with this political position to show for it.

From here, you can take shared taxis to Jerusalem.

18 BethlehemEdit

You can visit the Biblical birthplace of Jesus by shared taxis from any of Jericho, Ramallah, or Jerusalem.

IsraelEdit

See also: Public transit in Israel

19 NazarethEdit

Nazareth was the hometown of Joseph and Mary, and hence also Jesus the Nazarene. Today, it's the largest Arab-majority town in Israel proper. On this itinerary, it's practical to visit if you take the northwestern route out of Amman.

If you've come this way, Haifa, Israel's main Mediterranean harbour, is just an hour away by frequent buses to the west. Comparatively less frequent buses also connect to the historic city of Acre in the same direction.

Two direct daily buses run south to Jerusalem.

20 JerusalemEdit

If any city in the world can lay claim to "holiness", it's probably this one. Take your time to explore this ancient city, much contested for throughout the history.

The bus is useful within Jerusalem on all days except Sabbath. Buses head for Beer Sheva, and the bus ride all the way to Eliat is relaxing and inexpensive. Trains via Beer Sheva go no further south than Dimona, less than one-fifth of the trip to Eilat.

21 Beer ShevaEdit

Unlike most of its regional counterparts, Beer Sheva is a modern town founded at the turn of the 20th century. It's therefore often ignored by the overseas travellers; however, it's a good base to explore some major attractions to its east: Hebron, claimed to be the oldest city still inhabited in the world with a major significance for Abrahamic religions, Masada, an ancient Jewish castle rising magnificently and starkly over the Judaean Desert, and the Israeli side of the Dead Sea.

Buses leave hourly for Eilat.

Mitzpe Ramon is a relatively insignificant town on the way, but it might be a good spot to break the journey — its remote desert setting in the Negev endows it plenty of options for stargazing.

22 EilatEdit

Eilat, on the Red Sea, is Israel's primary beach resort. Local buses go as far as the Egyptian border which you can cross on foot to find the shared taxis to Taba.

EgyptEdit

23 TabaEdit

Taba is on the Red Sea, across the border from Eilat and Aqaba. It has a medieval castle perched upon an islet, and the purpose-built resort town of Taba Heights is about 20 km south.

Buses on an erratic schedule head south for Nuweiba. If they fail you and your visa situation permits it, just return to Aqaba to take much more regularly timetabled ferries to Nuweiba.

24 NuweibaEdit

Nuweiba is a beach resort. As such, don't expect much history here, but various options for water sports and treks into the desert are available.

Buses will take you south to Dahab. You can also embark on a 7-hour trip direct to Cairo in the west, should you choose to cut short the rest of the itinerary and skip the areas below.

25 DahabEdit

Dahab is Sinai's relaxed backpacker hangout. Occasional buses may take you further south to Sharm el-Sheikh, Sinai's primary beach resort. Buses a few times weekly continue west to Mount Sinai.

26 Mount SinaiEdit

Mount Sinai is one of the highlights of Sinai. It's considered holy by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and there is a Greek Orthodox monastery near the summit.

Daily buses run west to Cairo.

27 CairoEdit

You are finally in the Egyptian capital. You'll probably want to spend some time here to take in its museums, ancient neighbourhoods, and last but not least the pyramids in its outskirts.

Stay safeEdit

As the area is volatile and subject to sudden political changes, it is essential to listen closely to the news before and during your trip. Read the travel warnings issued by your government carefully and heed them.

Less dangerous but far more annoying are the various touts.

Go nextEdit

Once in Cairo, the entirety of Africa lies ahead of you.

This itinerary to From Istanbul to Cairo is a usable article. It explains how to get there and touches on all the major points along the way. An adventurous person could use this article, but please feel free to improve it by editing the page.