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While it was by far the longest day trip I’ve ever done, beating out past destinations like Chichen Itza in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany’s Bavaria region, it was well worth it to visit one of World War I’s most infamous and heartbreaking battlegrounds, even if it did mean spending nearly 10 hours in the car to and from Istanbul. Here’s the ultimate guide for planning a trip to Gallipoli.
It was sometime in my early college years (and also my watching the 1994 film Legends of the Fall as a teenager) that I became extremely interested in all things World War I, or the Great War as the rest of the world refers to this horrific event in modern history. In America, World War I unfortunately gets the short end of the stick when it comes to it being taught in school and talked about as a subject. This is unfairly and stupidly due to a variety of factors, including that it wasn’t “America’s war,” since we didn’t enter the conflict until the penultimate year of fighting, while American forces were in World War II for four long years. And even then, American soldiers (or dough boys as they were referred to, including one of my own maternal great-grandfathers), only fought on the Western Front.
With that said, there are some Americans who are semi-knowledgeable about the Western Front, familiar with names of infamous places like the Somme and Ypres. But if you utter the name “Gallipoli” to most Americans, they wouldn’t have the faintest idea what you were talking about (or they might think you’re talking about the southern Italian city of the same name, which both Google and TripAdvisor thought I wanted each and every time I ran a search query). Conversely, if you were to ask an Australian or New Zealander about Gallipoli, it would be a whole different story altogether (more on this below).
I don’t want to turn this post into an exhausting history lesson; for actual learning about this nearly 11-month campaign of misery and slaughter during World War I, click here. But regardless of your nationality, Gallipoli is a worthy place to visit. Because it will forever be remembered as one of modern history’s most infamous events.
If I’ve spurred your interest in visiting, here’s everything you need to know about planning a trip to Gallipoli.
-First things first, just like Cappadocia, Gallipoli isn’t a city
The name Gallipoli actually refers to the name of the peninsula. It’s the Italian form of the Greek name “Καλλίπολις”, meaning “Beautiful City”, the original name of the modern town of Gelibolu. If you’re looking for driving directions or places to stay nearby, the towns closest to the Gallipoli battlefields are Çanakkale and Eceabat.
-It’s doable as a day trip from Istanbul, just prepare for a very long day
I ended up booking a private tour through a company based in Eceabat called Crowded House Tours. They contract drivers to ferry guests from Istanbul but it’s in Eceabat where you meet up with your tour guide for the day. As the manager of Crowded House explained to me, it’s much better hiring a tour guide who actually lives in the Gallipoli area to take you around versus someone less knowledgeable who lives nearly five hours away.
Since I booked a private tour, I was able to select the pick-up time from my Istanbul hotel which was 7:30AM. If I had done the group tour option, it was anywhere from 6:30-6:45 AM. Traffic was somewhat heavy leaving Istanbul since it was rush-hour but once out of the city limits, it lessened a lot. We drove about two hours and then the driver stopped for gas. About forty minutes after this, we stopped for a proper 30 minute break at a gas station that also featured a road-side diner and restrooms (some the dreaded pit toilet, but you are in rural Turkey, after all). As we learned, drivers are mandated to take a 30 minute break so it was the same deal on the return trip to Istanbul.
I got back to my Istanbul hotel around 9 PM (this was earlier than on a group tour, especially if you happened to be one of the last people dropped off).
As for food, at least with Crowded House Tours, upon arrival in Eceabat, we were given a lunch at a local restaurant (here we dined with other tour groups also from Crowded House). It was thankfully filling, since that was it for food options until the stop on the way back to Istanbul later that night.
All in all, I had four hours actually touring in Gallipoli.
-Gallipoli is a massive area, you will need to select which areas you want to see
Gallipoli is remembered with the most reverence by Australians and New Zealanders because it was there that 8,000 of their soldiers (called ANZACS-Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) died and an additional 18,000 were wounded. As such, most visitors to Gallipoli tour the ANZAC areas. However, prior to the first arrival of ANZACS to the Gallipoli Peninsula on April 25, 1915, mainly French and English forces had been battling the Ottomans (Turkey had aligned itself with the Central Powers in World War I) for two months prior.
So in addition to the many ANZAC sites you can visit, you can also visit the site of English and French fighting.
If you’re visiting in the warmer months, dress accordingly
The Gallipoli Peninsula is an extremely exposed area, meaning if you’re visiting during the summer, it will be ghastly hot (thankfully more of a dry heat than a muggy one). However, make sure you throw a hat and sunblock in your day pack, because trust me when I say you will need it. Most stopping places in the battlefield area will have zero shade.
Also, in regards to footwear, be smart. You will be walking on a lot of uneven, rough terrain. Ladies, it’s not the time to wear the cute, open-toe fashion sandals, especially once you climb into 100 year old trenches (yes, you actually can do that).
Go with a guide
Although there was adequate signage in English (along of course with Turkish), having a local guide who’s also a historian able to tell you detail after detail of the fighting and key figures will make all the difference. It will make the ground you’re walking on, the trenches you’re standing in, the coastline you’re gazing at, come alive that much more versus reading 100 some words on a sign.
Gallipoli is the Turkish version of the D-Day beaches and cemeteries
Unlike in Normandy, where most of the men who died were killed in the first invasion wave going ashore, that wasn’t the case at Gallipoli. Although some ANZACS did die trying to get ashore, most died in the brutal days and months ahead when attempting to take strategic ridges and going over the trenches which essentially resulted in a bloodbath almost every time. As such, you are visiting extremely hallowed ground, especially for Australians and New Zealanders who treat Gallipoli as a pilgrimage. Thousands of them descend upon Gallipoli each year on April 25 for ANZAC day. It was after Gallipoli that Australia and New Zealand truly thought of themselves as their own countries, with their own national identities, and no longer as simply subjects of Great Britain.
Prepare for your visit by learning about the campaign
I can’t recommend enough the following things to watch about Gallipoli
–Gallipoli (a six episode mini-series from Australia focusing on the lives of one soldier and his comrades, free with Amazon Prime)
–ANZAC Girls (based on the lives of real life ANZAC nurses who served on ship hospitals and in Cairo during the Gallipoli campaign)
-The Water Diviner (a great movie starring and directed by Russell Crowe about a father who travels to Turkey after World War I to bring home the bodies of his three sons who supposedly died at Gallipoli, on Netflix)
-When We Go To War (a mini-series from New Zealand that focuses on the lives of New Zealanders during World War I, both at home and abroad, specifically during the Gallipoli campaign, free with Amazon Prime)
Besides being there and seeing these monolithic historical sights, I think the other most memorable thing for me was impressing the mainly Australian and New Zealand tourists I talked with that yes, I, an American, not only knew what Gallipoli was but wanted to visit. For my nationality, there was no pilgrimage involved but rather my love for history and my status as a citizen of the world.
Did you know about Gallipoli? Are you going to be planning a trip to Gallipoli one day?