It’s s disheartening to have to answer this question, especially now about Istanbul, one that legitimately needs to be asked of most major cities around the world these days. This isn’t a matter of crime as it is in Quito, Ecuador, but rather personal security, given two recent terrorist attacks in Ankara and Istanbul.
Buffered Border Broken
Turkey’s borders with Syria and Iraq were always the concern on the horizon but over 1,400 kilometers from Istanbul was far enough for conscious travelers. (The distance from Istanbul to the Syrian border is about the same distance as New York City to Savannah, Georgia.) Until foreigners, specifically tourists, were targeted in an attack by ISIS that killed 11 people in Istanbul’s most famous tourist area.
For better or worse, Turkey has a lot of experience with terrorism, primarily in its southeast along the border with Syria and Iraq. Combined with a strong intelligence service, many potential attacks are stopped in planning stages. After the Istanbul attack in January this year, more than 50 people were detained or arrested in connection. In 2015, there were twice as many terror incidents in the United Kingdom, for example, according to the Institute of Economics and Peace. In that same year, 142 people were killed in terror attacks in Paris, compared to 6 in Istanbul – 17 if you include 2016’s January attacks.
These numbers aren’t to say that one city is more dangerous than the other. Rather that in these large cities (Paris 2.2 million, Istanbul 14ish million) representing the 3rd and 5th most visited globally, both highly targeted by terrorists for those very reasons, the numbers are exceptionally low.
Of course, every terror attack, anywhere, is concerning. Each life lost a crime against humanity. However terrorism is a tactic whose success depends on the reaction of the onlooker, notes CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. A day after the Istanbul attacks, local tourism companies held an anti-terror vigil where the suicide bombing took place.
According to the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), Istanbul is one of the safest large cities in the world. Statistically you’re no more likely to be a victim of terrorism in Istanbul than London. Our Paleolithic brains evolved to be cautious – so although you should always trust your traveler instinct – realize that not visiting Istanbul to stay safe from terrorism would be equivalent to not flying because you’re worried about crashing.
At least it’s been the center of the contiguous United States since 1912, when Arizona and New Mexico were added to the country. There isn’t much around, except a farmhouse and empty chapel where you can read a guestbook sign by people from everywhere you wouldn’t expect. (Hi Brazil!) I stopped here as part of a road trip across America to find its weirdest places.
Parts of original Star Wars trilogy and prequels were filmed across parts of Tunisia. Once production of the movies was done, George Lucas and his production staff decided to leave the sets as they were, in the southern deserts of the country. They’ve sat there ever since, threatened occasionally by the surrounding sands but still accessible to tourists.
Here’s how you can visit the sets yourself, where they are, and the ad-hoc methods needed to plan a trip to the Star Wars sets in Tunisia.
The Set Locations Are Spread Out
There are two major Star Wars set areas, all in the southern half of Tunisia. They are separated by large deserts so you’ll have to plan ahead if you want to see any or all of them. Starting in the west near the city of Tozeur is Mos Espa (shown above) and the Lars Homestead, where Luke Skywalker was raised. Roughly 800 kilometers to the east is Matmata, where the interior of the Lars Homestead was shot. It’s actually a hotel now (called Sidi Driss) where you can spend the night in Luke Skywalkers’ bedroom.
Around 40 km from there is Medenine, the Tunisian city whose Ghorfa Complex (shown above courtesy Wikipedia) will be immediately familiar if you recall Liam Neeson testing Anakin Skywalker for midi-chlorians.
There are several other background shot locations like Toshi Station and Sith infiltration landing site, only the most hardcore Star Wars fans might be interested in.
What Was Shot Where
Whether you’re interested in a particular Star Wars prop or simply want to scroll the movies to points where you can yell, “I’ve been there!” here’s a breakdown of where these Tunisian sites appear:
- Tozeur – Mos Espa (Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace; Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones) Lars Homestead Exterior (Star Wars Episode II; Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith; Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope)
- Matmata – Lars Homestead Interior (Star Wars Episode II; Star Wars: Episode IV)
- Medenine – (Star Wars Episode I)
How To Plan Your Trip (Depending On What You Want To See)
Starting in Tunisia’s capital Tunis, you need to decide whether you’re more interested in Tozeur’s sites or those of Matmata or Medenine, since they’re in different parts of the country and not directly connected by rail or road.
Getting to Tozeur is fairly straightforward and you’ve got two basic options of either a low-cost direct flight or a 6 hour train ride that’s even less expensive. Once there, I recommend booking your accommodation at Residence Tozeur Almadina. Talk to the owner Tayeb (let him know I sent you) to arrange a ride to Mos Espa and the Lars Homestead. You’ll have to negotiate the price of the 40 minute car ride but it shouldn’t cost more than $40.
Getting to Medenine from Tozeur is tricky because there aren’t roads between the two. You can either take a bus to Gafsa, then arrange another bus to Medenine from there. (Car hires can also be arranged but are much more expensive.) Going by road is will take a day, so plan accordingly. Getting to Medenine from Tunis is a little easier: from Tunis Central Station, you’ll book to the last stop on the line, Gabes. Once there, you can take a bus to Medenine or through a hotel in Medenine, hire a car to Matmata (if you’ll be spending the night there). Organized tours from all of these cities are another option.
Safety On The Streets
All of the Star Wars sets, for the most part, are only accessible with a car driven by someone who knows exactly where they are. (In case you were thinking of renting a vehicle yourself.) You may be wondering if it’s safe to travel to Tunisia – despite some click-bait headlines, no, ISIS didn’t invade the Star Wars sets. For those of you traveling with people who aren’t Star Wars fans, you might convince them to come along as there’s a lot else to see in this region of Tunisia, like the oasis surrounding Tozeur.
If I were to caption this photo, it would be something like: “tourists rationalizing that it’s probably not that interesting up there.”