Eastern Thrace (Doğu Trakya, usually simply called Trakya) is in the Marmara Region of northwest Turkey. Geographically it covers all of European Turkey from Istanbul and the Bosphorus to the borders with Greece and Bulgaria; however the metropolis of Istanbul is a distinct region spanning the Bosphorus and is described on other pages. The rest of Eastern Thrace, described here, is administered in four provinces (Çanakkale, Edirne, Kırklareli and Tekirdağ), but these have little relevance to travelers, and it's more convenient to consider three terrains.
Istranca Mountains and the Black Sea coast
Forested mountains, lakes and quiet beaches.
- 1 Demirköy in the forests has a remarkable 15th century foundry.
- 2 İğneada has long sandy beaches and one of the few floodplain forests in Europe.
- 3 Kıyıköy is a beach resort with a monastery carved into the rocks. The strip extends east to Kastro, within Istanbul metropolis but easier reached from here.
- 4 Saray inland is a hub for the surrounding region, with a 16th-century Ottoman mosque.
- 5 Vize has a Byzantine cathedral-turned-mosque called "Little Hagia Sophia".
The Istranca Mountains extend into Bulgaria, where it is known as Strandzha.
Gently rolling plains cover this region, astride the major routes between Istanbul and Europe.
- 6 Edirne is a former capital of the Ottoman Empire with a historic city centre: highlight is the Selimiye Mosque.
- 7 Babaeski has an old mosque and an Ottoman bridge, but is mostly modern.
- 8 Lüleburgaz has a 16th century mosque and river bridge, but is otherwise modern with little reason to linger.
- 9 Çerkezköy is industrial.
- 10 Çorlu is large and industrial.
- 11 Kırklareli has a well preserved old quarter full of traditional wooden and neo-classical architecture.
- 12 Uzunköprü means "the long bridge" - built in the 15th century, it's over 1 km long.
Marmara and Aegean coasts
Miles of beaches, stony and sandy, crowded and lonely alike; fishing towns, vineyards and pine forests.
- 13 Marmara Ereğlisi, site of ancient Perinthos, is now a small resort town.
- 14 Tekirdağ is a coastal city with some traditional wooden architecture.
- 15 Keşan is near the Greek border, and is the access route to the Gulf of Saros.
- 16 Enez is on the Maritsa delta, with wetlands, a Byzantine citadel and long sandy beaches.
- The Gulf of Saros is lined by small resorts: from Enez east are Sultaniçe, Vakıf, Yayla, Erikli, Mecidiye, Ibrice Limanı, Gökçetepe and Sazlıdere.
- 17 Şarköy District is a line of small towns in a wine-growing region, with beaches and some Greek architecture.
- 18 Gelibolu is a historic town where the Ottomans first controlled the Straits of Dardanelles.
- 19 Eceabat in the south of Gallipoli Peninsula has ferries across the straits and centuries of military history.
- Gallipoli landing sites, cemeteries and memorials are all around Eceabat.
- 20 Gökçeada is Turkey's largest island, with a small Greek community (who call it Imbros) and abandoned villages.
Eastern Thrace is located in the northwestern corner of Turkey and makes up 3% of the country's landmass — seemingly tiny, but the region is only slightly smaller than Belgium.
Eastern Thrace is essentially a peninsula surrounded by Greece (Western Thrace) and Bulgaria (Northern Thrace) to its west and north respectively and bounded by the Black Sea, the Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmara, the Dardanelles, and the Aegean Sea to the northeast, east, south, and southwest respectively.
The central parts of Eastern Thrace are dominated by the Thracian plains, which are fairly... well, plain. These plains produce much of the country's wheat and sunflower, and a ride through in sunflower season (July) is indeed very pleasant amongst yellow flowers. However, being one of the powerhouses of Turkish economy, more east you go on the plains, less agricultural the landscape becomes—around Çerkezköy and Çorlu is essentially nothing other than an urban conglomeration going hand in hand with endless rows of factories (in an irony of fate, the Romans knew this area as the Campus Serenus, "serene countryside"). The northeastern coast and its adjacent area, on the other hand, is dominated by the low-lying range of the Istranca Mountains covered with lush broadleaf forests, typical of the Turkish Black Sea coast, as well as the northern reaches of the region along the Bulgarian border. The southwestern parts dominated by the Ganos and Koru Mountains, another low lying mountain range, and the Gallipoli Peninsula are covered mostly with pine forests, and Mediterranean scrub in addition to vast vineyards, which supply almost half of Turkey's wine production.
The culture of today's Eastern Thrace shares many similarities with the cultures of the Balkan countries as much of the region's population is descended from people who immigrated from those countries starting in the late 1800s.
The Thracians were an Indo-European people who formed a distinct culture around 1000 BC. Their homeland of Thrace was fluid and ill-defined, but stretched from the Bosphorus into Bulgaria and western Greece. In Greek legend they were the tribe of Thrax, son of Ares god of war, and they were described as war-like, but those accounts reflect times of conflict with Persia, Greece or Rome. The Greeks had already settled the Marmara coast from 4000 BC, founding cities such as Tekirdağ, but never colonised much inland. In the 5th century BC the defeat of the Persians created a power vacuum which enabled the Thracians to unite in the Odrysian Kingdom, centred on what is now Plovdiv. It fell in the 3rd century BC when Macedonia became the new superpower, and the Thracians were never again a nation. They became assimilated into Greek and Roman culture and disappeared from history. Their new rulers saw their military value and recruited them into armies, so the dust and bones of the Thracians lie scattered from Barcelona to Delhi. They left behind tumulus tombs for their nobles, some pottery and similar artifacts, some elements of place names, and not much else - little is reliably known about them.
In the first century BC the Roman Empire gained control of the Greek city-states on the coast and the Thracian tribes inland. In 46 AD they annexed the area into the province of Thracia, with the capital at Perinthus (nowadays Marmara Ereğlisi). Fertile Thrace was an Imperial bread-basket, and it lay on the main route between their two metropolises: from Rome to Brindisi as the Via Appia, then crossing by sea to Dyrrachium (Durrës), then overland east as the Via Egnatia through Thessaloniki, Kavala, Ipsala, Enez, Perinthus, Silivri and finally into Constantinople / Byzantium / Istanbul. In 285 AD Diocletian divided the Empire, with Thrace ruled from Byzantium; in the 10th century the area changed back and forth between Byzantium and the Bulgarian Kingdom.
The Ottoman Turks' first power base was in Thrace in the 1350s; they rose to conquer Istanbul, control the Bosphorus and Dardanelles, and found the Ottoman Empire. The area thus controlled crucial land and sea routes, and even in the dying days of that Empire in 1915, the Ottomans were able to repulse Western attacks by sea then land on the Gallipoli Peninsula. Thrace took on its modern shape in the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, which adjusted national borders: Western Thrace now lies in Greece and Northern Thrace in Bulgaria, leaving Eastern Thrace as the European part of Turkey. The Treaty also mandated population interchanges from what had been a diverse region, so Greeks and Bulgarians were expelled to their own countries, while Muslims or ethnic Turks were uprooted from around the Balkans to live in Turkey. Relations across that border were cold or cordial by turns over the subsequent century. In the early 21st century Eastern Thrace lies on the border between Turkey and the European Union.
While geographically small, Eastern Thrace has a variety of different climate types that lie close to but are substantially different from each other. The inland areas have a temperate continental climate similar to the inland regions of the Balkans, while the milder climate of the Black Sea coast resembles more of an oceanic climate, typical to the other areas on the Turkish Black Sea coast. The climate of the areas on the Marmara and Aegean coasts is similar to the Mediterranean, though strong winds carry the continental influences easily down to the coast, making it much colder than it might be, considering its fairly southern latitude.
In general, no matter where you are heading in the region, consider these facts when planning your trip:
- It can rain in any season, including summer, but summer showers tend to last no more than 15–20 minutes, no matter how heavy they may be (and they tend to be heavy). Except the sudden cloud formations before the showers, it tends to be bright and sunny throughout summer, though.
- Haze and (sometimes very heavy) fog is common in autumn, especially in November.
- Winters are overcast, mostly rainy (or perhaps, sleety), cold and windy in the region—it's no wonder that ancient Greeks considered Thrace to be the homeland of Boreaus, the god of cold northern winds. While the temperature usually does not drop below -10°C (although there is a record low of -24°C in the 1940s infamous for their cold), it feels much colder than it actually is, due to the high-ish relative humidity in the region. It snows every winter, too, and it stays on the ground for at least a few days—more in the inland locations than the coast, as expected.
Turkish is the language of choice in the region, as elsewhere in most of Turkey. The local dialect is loaded with slang and other colloquially used words mostly originating from other Balkan languages (mainly Bulgarian), but if you can speak Turkish, locals will mostly switch to standard Turkish when they see you're not from the area. Regardless, the local dialect is among the most similar to standard Turkish, which is based on the Istanbul dialect.
The most frequent foreign language is English. The successive waves of immigration from Bulgaria within the last one and a half centuries mean finding someone who speaks fluent Bulgarian (or its Pomak dialect) is also a possibility, depending on the location.
Place names on highway signs are of course everywhere in Turkish, but are most likely to cause confusion heading towards the border, when they refer to places known in the west by entirely different names. These include: Yunanistan is Greece, Batı Trakya is Western Thrace, Gümülcine is Komotini, Dedeağaç is Alexandroupolis, Selanik is Thessaloniki, Bulgaristan is Bulgaria, Burgaz is Burgas, and Sofya is Sofia. These names are picked out in yellow or brown over the standard blue / green highway signage. Hudut means "border".
1 Istanbul Airport (IST IATA) is Turkey's main port of entry: it's northwest of the city so with a hired car you'll reach Thrace within an hour. There are also buses from the airport via Lüleburgaz to Edirne, and via Çorlu to Tekirdağ, where you can change for buses towards Gelibolu and Çanakkale. If you fly into the other city airport Sabiha Gokcen (SAW IATA), that's Asia-side and you face a cross-city journey to go west.
A train runs west into Europe every night from Istanbul Halkalı station, with stops at Çerkezköy, Alpullu, Edirne and the border at Kapıkule. Here it divides, with one portion heading to Sofia and the other to Bucharest; see TCDD for times and fares. Two regional trains run daily from Halkalı to Çerkezköy, Çorlu and Lüleburgaz where they branch either to Uzunköprü or to Edirne and Kapıkule. In summer a car train runs 2 or 3 times a week from Villach in Austria to Edirne.
By road from Istanbul city or IST airport follow the motorways west. By road from Bulgaria you normally cross at Kapitan Andreevo / Kapıkule near Edirne and join E80. From Bulgaria's Black Sea coast you enter at Dereköy and head south on E87. From Greece you cross at İpsala. Cross-border buses are suspended in 2022. From the Troy coast around Çanakkale or South Marmara coast around Bursa you nowadays sweep across the Dardanelles on a magnificent bridge, opened in March 2022.
Ferries criss-cross the Dardanelles, with the Europe-side ports at Gelibolu and Eceabat. They sail to Tekirdağ from Erdek and Bandırma on the far side of the Sea of Marmara, with some calling at the islands. They no longer sail along the coast of Thrace from Istanbul.
There are also direct buses from Istanbul Airport to Edirne and Tekirdağ, and north-south from Çanakkale via Keşan and Uzunköprü to Edirne.
A swarm of minibuses and dolmuş also buzz between the towns - some to schedule, others setting out whenever they're full. They're frequent in the industrial eastern areas. Little villages in the hills might have only one or two a day, setting out early for the local big town, and returning mid-afternoon when villagers have completed their errands.
The main highways run from Istanbul towards the Greek and Bulgarian borders, along the Marmara coast, and down the Gallipoli peninsula. The main routes are:
- D100 Istanbul – Silivri – Çorlu – Lüleburgaz – Babaeski – Edirne and into Bulgaria
- O-3 / E80 (toll) parallels D100 but bypasses the town centres.
- O-7 from Anatolia bypasses Istanbul to the north, then runs by IST airport to join O-3 at Silivri.
- D110 / E84 leaves D100 near Silivri for Marmara Ereğlisi – Tekirdağ – Keşan and into Greece.
- D550 / E87 leaves D100 near Edirne for Uzunköprü – Keşan – Gelibolu - Eceabat for ferries to Çanakkale.
- D555 / E87 leaves D100 near Babaeski for Kirklareli and the Bulgarian Black Sea coast.
All roads are tarmac-sealed, even to outlying villages, but width and state of repair varies with the road's importance.
- Bridges and causeways: the Ottomans needed to carry their roads across Thracian river valleys that were not deep, but wide and dangerous in spate. They built a series of attractive multi-arched bridges-cum-causeways, some over 1 km long. Many remain in use for light traffic. There are good examples at Edirne, Lüleburgaz, and of course at Uzunköprü which means "long bridge".
- An even longer bridge soars across the Dardanelles above Gelibolu, an amazing 3.563 km span opened in March 2022.
- Mosques are the main legacy of early Ottoman times, since they've been maintained against earth tremors and land developers. The best are by the 16th century Sinan, and Edirne has the best of the best.
- War Memorials of 1915 for the Allies and the Turks are at the south end of Gallipoli peninsula around Eceabat.
- Tumuli are ancient burial mounds for kings and nobles, little man-made hills all over the region, especially near Vize.
- Dolmens and menhirs are Stone Age. There's a scattering north of Edirne around Lalapaşa and Süleoğlu.
- Caves: Dupnisa Cave is richly decorated with dripstone and full of bats; it's in the mountains between Demirköy and Kırklareli. Kıyıköy has a monastery carved out of the bedrock, and Saray has caverns etched out by rivers.
- Wine-tasting in autumn as the new vintage is produced - Şarköy District has the most vineyards. You can do it yourself, producers often accept walk-in wine-tasters for a token fee or purchase, and tour companies in Istanbul offer day-trips.
- Scuba diving: the Gulf of Saros, reached via Keşan, has the clearest waters and the best wildlife. The First World War shipwrecks have long been off-limits, but in Oct 2021 the Gallipoli Historic Underwater Park (Gelibolu Tarihi Sualtı Parkı) opened to supervised recreational diving. That came too late in the season for dive operators to get started, so locations and facilities are not yet established.
- Oil-wrestling (yağlı güreş) is practised all over Turkey, but the national competition is held in Edirne in June. Wrestlers coat themselves in olive oil then try to grapple their slippery opponent to the ground.
- Düğün is a traditional village wedding feast: everyone's invited, and so are you if you happen by.
- The Sultan's Trail is a 2500-km hiking and cycling trail between Istanbul and Vienna, retracing the steps of Suleiman the Magnificent on his campaign upon the Habsburg capital. It follows the foothills of the Istranca Mountains in the north of the region. On the ground, it is not marked, but the GPS tracks are available through its website.
- Observe the centenary of the Turkish Republic on 29 Oct 2023. Events will be nationwide; the programme has not yet been announced but given its place in the nation's history, the Gallipoli and Çanakkale area is sure to feature prominently.
It'll help if you like Turkish food. Few outsiders have settled in Thrace and few western tourists visit, so you don't find the range of cuisines of Istanbul or the big Med resorts. All the towns have a cafe strip, usually near the bus station, with quality much-of-a-muchness. Most serve beer, wine or rakı but the sign Alkolsüz means they don't.
Köfte are meat-balls, and Tekirdağ and Uzunköprü have their own versions of these.
Ciğer is fried liver. It's an Edirne specialty and ferociously peppery.
Fish and other seafood is popular in the coastal towns - including shrimp, but it's probably been shipped in from some place like Indonesia. Freshwater fish such as trout (alabalık) are farmed around Enez, Vize and Saray.
Desserts: Tekirdağ has some gloochy specialty desserts. Ice-cream is enjoyed everywhere, and there's a renowned ice-cream shop at Necatiye, by the D100 turn-off beyond Babaeski.
Wine: Turkey doesn't have geographical designations, but produces from various grapes, mostly red. Vineyards are in the hills facing the Marmara coast, especially in Şarköy District, see individual towns for some you can visit. Many will accept individual visitors so long as you look like a genuine customer. You can also take an organised wine tour, following the Thracian Vineyard Route: these might visit Vino Dessera near Kırklareli, Arcadia and Chamlija near Lüleburgaz, Chateau Nuzun near Marmara Ereğlisi, Barel, Barbare and Umurbey near Tekirdağ, Melen and Kalpak in Şarköy District and Suvla near Eceabat.
Rakı is Turkey's national drink, the aniseed-flavoured spirit similar to anise, ouzo, sambuca and arak. Traditionally much was made in Tekirdağ, though production has relocated to Alaşehir 140 km east of Izmir. It's made from raisins or grapes, or less often from figs, beet sugar or other sources, and the first distillation creates a very strong spirit called suma. This is mixed with aniseed and water, re-distilled, re-diluted then matured for 30 days. It's sold at 40% abv strength and always drunk in a long glass mixed with water, which turns it cloudy. It's nice with appetisers, meze or seafood.
Beware traffic even on back country lanes, and safeguard valuables.
The seas are not tidal, but may have stiff currents. Swimming across the Dardanelles is only for endurance athletes with suitable back-up and coastguard clearance, it's not a Sunday afternoon lark.
- East is the seething, maddening and unmissable metropolis of Istanbul.
- Southeast across the Dardanelles straits brings you to Southern Marmara region and ancient Troy — Istanbul to Izmir describes a set of itineraries leading down to Izmir.
- West you enter either Greece or Bulgaria — see "Talk" above to decode the highway signs.