A Brief Guide to Turkey’s Third Largest City, İzmir

Want to escape the chaos of Istanbul? That’s exactly what many in the city have done and escaped to the calmer alternative – Turkey’s third largest city – Izmir!

Normally, vacationers escape to the nearby towns and villages near Izmir. The population of Izmir province (and the surrounding areas) swells as popular resorts around the Çeşme peninsula, Urla, Foça, Seferihisar, Sığacık, and Özdere host to those escaping the scorching heat from other parts of Turkey! However, in the last few years, Istanbullites have escaped to Izmir in droves. They’ve moved here and made Izmir their home! Furthermore, small villages of Urla and Alaçatı have today become popular destinations for those trying to escape the hustle and bustle of Istanbul city life. 

Take an hour-long plane ride from Istanbul, and you’ll be in the charming Aegean city. With its tree-lined and palm-filled promenades, you’ll think you’re in LA or any other Mediterranean city. Izmir is very cosmopolitan with modern amenities and is a forward thinking city.  This reflects in the culture and attitude of its people towards women, clothing, alcohol and way of life.

History

Izmir has an ancient past as well as a more recent multi-cultural history. The city was inhabited by Greeks, Sephardic Jews, Armenians and Levantines (Europeans of Italian, French and British descent). There are still some Greeks, Jews and Levantines in the city and their culture is preserved through their own religious institutions, architecture and even, their distinct food.

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Izmir’s multicultural history is evident when one looks at its various religious sites and even schools. You can find the St. John’s Cathedral, St. Vukolos Orthodox Church, and Salepçioğlu Mosque in the city. There’s also some international schools such as the American College, St. Joseph (French) and even a German high school.

Attractions and Sights

Today, Izmir is an international port city and has 8,000 years of history behind it. You can find some amazing archaeological sites and monuments in and around the city. It also boasts many fascinating cultural heritage sights and is perfect for a vacation throughout the year. Enjoy its lovely promenade, its beaches and coasts, outdoor sports activities and some unique local cuisine.

First off, consider exploring Izmir the old fashioned way: walking or by bicycling. You can easily walk the full length of Izmir’s promenade from Alsancak Kordon to Göztepe Bridge with good walking shoes! However, if you want to use a bike, rent a public bike from Konak.

The Jewish district of Karataş and a bit further away, the Karantina Square has a good public square. They are connected by a tramway and a small ferry station.

Take a ride all the way to Göztepe while enjoying the view. In Göztepe (“Eye Hill” in Turkish), you can walk on the area’s only crossway bridge above the main sea road. Enjoy the great view here! Near this bridge, roam the streets inside to find old waterfront mansions (yalı). These old buildings are now home to children nurseries and banks, but they’re worth a look for their old Turkish architecture. Nonetheless, the most famous of these mansions is the Uşakizade Mansion. This is where the founding father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, lived for some time while he was in Izmir. 

Konak

Your first stop in Izmir should be Konak Square in Izmir. A beautiful Clock Tower in the middle of the public square serves as centre piece for the entire area. Gifted by German Emperor Wilhem II to former Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamit II for his 25th accession anniversary, it can be considered a symbol of the city.

Konak can also serve as an entryway to the old bazaar called Kemeraltı.  Konak can serve as a base to other parts of the city. It has excellent connections via buses, a tramway system, and the urban ferries, all located nearby.

The public square is a popular rest stop in Izmir and great for people-watching! So give it a try and take a few photos with the pigeons at the Clock Tower.

Kemeraltı

From here, you can wander into the famous old bazaar of Izmir – Kemeraltı – reminiscent of the Egyptian Spice Bazaar. Here, you can buy almost everything you need – dried teas, herbs and vegetables, traditional Turkish food and snacks, colorful spices, or clothes or knick-knacks, and even your wedding dress! Nearby, you’ll find the Hisar mosque where you can try and find some tasty sweets such as Şambali made with semolina, sugar and milk.

You can also snack on Bosnian pastries (börek) at Ülver Teyze Rümeli Börekler (Ülver Aunt’s Bosnian pastries). At Kızlarağası Hanı, an Ottoman caravanserai, you can buy silver jewelry, antiques and leather goods. At a popular street called Havra Sokak near the Kestanepazari mosque, you can buy the freshest fish and mezes, dried nuts and spices such as sumac!


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Ancient Agora and Kadifekale

From here, you can venture to the open air ancient agora – the Smryna Agora. Today, it’s an open-air museum located in the downtown district, near the local bazaar. It features a three-layered structure, basilicas, marble columns, arches, and ancient graffiti. Artifacts and excavation discoveries from this site are found in the local Archaeological Museum. Did you know that it is one of the only agoras in the world (Greek public space) built within a current-day major city!

Nearby, you’ll find Izmir’s only castle called Kadifekale. It’s location on Pagos Hill offers some amazing views of the city and it dates back to Alexander the Great’s time.

The name means “velvet castle” and here you’ll find some stunning views of the city and the Gulf of Izmir. However, today you’ll only find the walls of the castle and some towers, and some Byzantine underground cisterns. Further away, you’ll also find a relief/statue of Atatürk located in Buca district.

Alsancak

Alsancak can be considered Izmir’s downtown and is a modern alternative to its old bazaar. It has a variety of modern restaurants, posh bars, dingy taverns and also international hotels. The area also has a ferry station and a great promenade called Kordon where on Friday nights, young people hang out and enjoy themselves! Evenings here are enjoyed eating sunflower seeds with some drinks and hanging out with friends — a quintessential Izmir scene!

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Early in the morning, head to Alsancak Dostlar Fırını, a family-run bakery that serves the city’s famous pastry “boyoz” with boiled eggs and have it piping hot “çay” (tea). The shop has many varieties that you can enjoy for breakfast!

For shopping, walk over to Plevne Boulevard or Dr. Mustafa Enver Bey street. You can shop til you drop at both local and international shops here. In between, do some both people-watching and eat a quick pick-me-up dessert at the city’s famous Reyhan Patisserie, or treat yourself to a great Turkish breakfast at Tuzu Biberi! For a night of drinking and frivolity, head to La Puerta! Try their beverages in their outdoor beer garden!

In the same area, Kültür Park is the place to be at the annual Izmir International Fair, typically held in early September. Alternatively, you can enjoy concerts, festivals and fairs throughout the year at the exhibition halls. In the park, there’s a Museum of History and Art inside, an amusement park, a lake and jogging/walking trails.

Next on the list is Konak Pier. It is a great place to enjoy a coffee or a meal with friends at the many the many sea-facing restaurants. Enjoy some authentic Turkish dishes such as baked mantı (Turkish-style ravioli) or a Turkish coffee, with the view of the mountains of Izmir!

Museums

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Izmir doesn’t have many museums that are state of the art when compared to Istanbul. However, there are a few worth a look. These are: the open-air Agora Museum, the Archaeological Museum, the Ethnography Museum, Art & Sculpture Museum, the Museum of History & Art and the Ataturk Musuem.  Further away, you’ll also find Ephesus, Pergamon, Çesme castle museum and the Bostanli open-air museum.

In Alsancak, you can take a quick tour of the Atatürk Museum to know the history of modern Turkey’s most important person alive or dead – Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The museum is housed in a beautifully restored neoclassical mansion and highlights the life and work that Ataturk was responsible for and it has some of his personal belongings.

On the other hand, the Archaeological Museum and the Ethnography Museum are both in the same area. For instance, the Ethnography Museum is housed in an old neoclassical stone building. It used to be a hospital earlier in its life but today displays many interesting artifacts about the people of Izmir and the Aegean region, including clothing, carpets and pottery. 

Historical Elevator

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A very important piece of history is preserved in a local elevator in Izmir called the Tarihi Asansör. It was built by a local businessman in the early 1900s to help transport people and goods on the steep hills of Izmir. Today it is an important landmark and the street leading up to the building is famous too! It is named after Dario Moreno, a famous Jewish-Turkish musician who became popular in France. His house on the street still survives and you can sit and enjoy a cup on the coffee/tea in the eclectic atmosphere of the nearby cafes. The best thing about the elevator is that it is totally free of charge to use! 

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At the top of the elevator, there’s a restaurant and cafe where you can enjoy an unparalleled view of the city and the Gulf of Izmir!

Balçova Teleferik

Balçova is a residential part of town and home to many shopping centres. However, its main attraction is having Izmir’s only cable car system on the Dede mountain and thermal baths. It is one of the oldest aerial lifts in Turkey! Operating again since 2015, a steep ride up the mountain in the gondola is breathtaking. The top of the mountain has been transformed into a great place for a picnic or a barbecue! There are many picnic tables where you enjoy views on boath sides and a telescope offers views of the whole of Izmir and İnciraltı. In the morning, many restaurants at ground level also offer Turkish breakfast. 

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Additionally, the district offers a thermal bath services in some nearby hotels. It is believed that the Greek king Agamemnon (a Trojan War commander) and his soldiers bathed in the very same waters after a battle. Troy is located some 300 kilometers away but nonetheless, the baths are known as the Agamemnon Baths!

In İnciraltı, you should try Izmir’s famous midye dolma or stuffed mussels with a squeeze of lemon, at Serkan & Hamza.

Beyond the City

Izmir also makes for the perfect base to explore other cities and sights. These include Ephesus (a UNESCO world heritage site), Meryem Ana’s Evi (Mother Mary’s House) and a quaint village called Şirince. Further out, you’ve got Urla and Çesme, both villages but now so popular that people from out of town are buying up houses here by the dozen!

Ephesus, Mother Mary’s House & Şirince

Ephesus is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and a UNESCO world heritage site. It’s Izmir’s most popular archaeological and historical ancient sights.  The famous Library of Celsus ruins is considered one of the biggest libraries in the Roman world. Today, tourists from around the world come to see this ancient place, especially via cruise ships!

Other monuments include a huge amphitheatre, temple of Hadrian, and the nearby temple of Artemis. Inside, you’ll also find the beautifully decorated terraced houses of Ephesus with their colourful mosaics. The houses provide a glimpse into the lives of the then Roman Empire’s rich and wealthy.

Nearby, you can find the 5th-century house of Mother Mary. It has now become a pilgrimage site. It is believed that Virgin Mary spent her last years here.

After these two sites, the near by village of Şirince should be on your list. This village became famous for its connected to the Mayan apocalypse and the year 2012. Believers of the Mayan calendar prediction that the world would end on December 21, 2012 flooded the small village for its “positive energy.” It is also due to the area where Christians believe the Virgin Mary ascended to heaven! Today, you can enjoy and buy local fruit wines here!

Çesme & Urla

Çeşme and Urla are two very popular destinations for Turkish out-of-towners, especially Istanbullites. Both villages have cobblestone streets and small boutiques, cafes and restaurants. You can also enjoy fresh fish here and even local wine. Both places are popular for their beaches, so do check them out in the hot months!

For hot summer nights, we recommend Alaçatı where people enjoy mezes and glasses of raki on its cobbled streets! Enjoy the villages vineyards, windmills and architecture!

Alaçatı streets, Photo by Zeynep on Unsplash

You can enjoy scopes of local ice cream made of wild berries at the Çesme marina or if you’re hungry, grab a local sandwich called Kumru. It is stuffed with hot cheese, sausage, tomato and pickled cucumbers in a soft but hard shelled sandwich bun.

On the other hand, Urla was once just a small village. Now, it has a budding wine route and known for olive oil. Check out the oldest olive oil extraction mill or Klazomenai (as it was called) which is in the area. Many local wineries allow you to do a tasting, and some have even won awards.

In recent years, it’s Art street has becomes popular and its artichoke festival is legendary! It’s also home to a popular artsy street with antique shops, old buildings turned into cafés and restaurants.