The third largest city in Turkey is often overlooked by travelers, but Izmir offers more than meets the eye. Tourists may be skeptical of spending time in the port city when Istanbul to the north shines like a beacon with its abundance of culture and the southern Mediterranean coastline promises a relaxing beach escape.
Izmir's claim to fame is undoubtedly the archaeological site of Ephesus, which averages over one million visitors a year! Hundreds of cruise ships make a special stop in Izmir to accommodate passengers who wish to explore the bucket list attraction. Spoiler alert: Ephesus was also the main reason for our visit!
Brad and I stayed in Izmir for one month to catch up on work after our fast-paced adventures in Sanlıurfa and Cappadocia. Below I've compiled a list of our favorite restaurants and things to do in Izmir along with helpful information on how to plan day trips to Ephesus, Alaçatı, and Çesme.
Located on the west coast of Turkey on the Aegean Sea, Izmir is a university city with energetic students, busy neighborhoods, and laidback cafés. Most of the landmarks and attractions can be completed in one or two days depending on your pace.
Things to Do
Begin your tour of Izmir with a stroll through Konak Square to see the iconic landmark of the city. The Izmir Clock Tower, completed in 1901, was built to honor Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II. The octagonal plan features elaborate stone carvings, ironwork, fountains, and an intricate arcade. Buy some birdseed from the friendly locals to feed the pigeons before admiring the blue tiles of Yalı Mosque.
Dive into the colors, flavors, and sounds of the local Kemeraltı Bazaar next to Konak Square. Soak up the atmosphere while shopping for souvenirs in one of the oldest parts of the city. Take a break with a piece of baklava before heading to Acı Kahve Cafe to enjoy a çay (tea) or Turkish coffee in the breezy courtyard.
Alexander the Great established the city of Smyrna, present-day Izmir, during the 4th Century BC. Discover the remnants of its ancient past with a visit to the Agora of Smyrna. Rebuilt by the Roman Empire after a devastating earthquake in 178 AD, the agora was an important gathering place for commercial activities and political events.
Craving some nature? Escape the hustle and bustle with an afternoon in Kültürpark. Pet a few kittens, admire the statues, and ride the Ferris wheel in the amusement park. The urban park has plenty of benches and flowers surrounding its well-maintained circular track. A small farmers market is held every Wednesday.
Izmir seems to wake up once the heat subsides. Locals head to the Kordon Promenade along the shore to exercise, watch the waves, and fish. Vendors sell flowers to couples, dogs stretch their legs, and picnic blankets emerge in anticipation for a glowing sunset. The Republic Tree Monument, commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Turkish War of Independence, is a striking focal point.
Spend the evening eating and drinking on Kıbrıs Sehitleri Caddesi in Alsancak. The popular pedestrian-only street is lined with boutiques, al fresco restaurants, bars, cafés, and convenient stores. My #1 recommendation for Izmir is to try a gooey bomba at Çelebi Unlu Mamülleri. The pastry pockets ooze with warm fillings such as chocolate, cherry, pistachio, caramel, and coconut. Don't let the long line prevent you from tasting this traditional dessert!
Izmir has plenty of dining options to satisfy any palate. Traditional Turkish cuisine is hearty and affordable. Try a pide (flatbread pizza), çig köfte (spiced bulgar), kebap (grilled minced meat), or bowl of mercimek çorbası (red lentil soup). Brad and I were impressed with the amount of Western food options as well. Here are my top picks for a scrumptious meal!
• Lunch - Fresh meets delicious at Uwawi. Try the avocado lox sourdough toast with poached eggs and cream cheese. Wash it down with a healthy cold-pressed fruit and vegetable juice. Pizza Locale serves up thin-crust pies with interesting ingredients, including vegan options. The pesto artichoke with mozzarella and red onion scratched the itch for my pizza craving.
• Dinner - My favorite meal in Izmir was the grilled red snapper balık ekmek (fish sandwich) at Cızz Bızz Balık Evi. Make your way to the deli counter and choose a few sides; the warm cheesy mashed potatoes are the ultimate comfort food! My plate of mushroom chicken, fries, coleslaw, and tzatziki was practically licked clean at Yolo Art & Lounge after a long day of sightseeing!
Ephesus Archaeological Site
Walk in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, and Mark Antony as you explore the ancient port city of Ephesus! The archaeological site was at its peak during the Greek Hellenistic and Roman Imperial periods.
Brad and I began our visit at the north entrance by Harbor Street. The colonnaded avenue extends to the harbor, which over time became inoperable due to excessive silt. The impressive Grand Theater commands attention at the other end of the marble road. Approximately 25,000 spectators could sit and watch gladiator battles and theatrical plays along the hillside!
Continue down Marble Street overlooking the expansive Agora. The commercial agora was surrounded by colonnaded walkways and merchant stalls. Residents could purchase goods, socialize, and attend proclamations. One of the best preserved entryways is the Gate of Mazaeus and Mithridates.
The most phenomenal and admired part of Ephesus is the Library of Celsus with its ornate architecture, sculptures, and inscriptions. The building is an exceptional example of Roman architecture and was commissioned during the 2nd Century AD. Scholars estimate the library held up to 12,000 scrolls!
Four female statues, including Episteme (Greek personification of knowledge) and Arete (Greek personification of virtue), flank the three entryways leading to the main interior. Composite capitals and whimsical friezes create a marvelous two-level façade full of depth and detail. German archaeologist Volker Michael Strocka led a reconstruction project to restore the library between 1970-1978.
Purchase an additional ticket to view the extraordinary frescoes and mosaics of the Terrace Houses. Step back in time to see how wealthy Ephesians decorated their villas with mythological scenes, geometric patterns, and marble accents. Make sure to look through the plexiglass flooring to see every aspect of the multi-level complex.
Proceed directly across to wander in between the Public Toilets, Brothel, and Scholastica Baths. The beautiful Temple of Hadrian is divided into two spaces: the cella (main room) and the pronaos (front hall). The pillars and columns of the front façade have Corinthian capitals which support an arched pediment with a bust of Tyche. The interior frieze (cast copy) of the pronaos depicts the foundation myth of Ephesus and Greek gods.
Make your way uphill along Curetes Street to encounter The Hercules Gate and relief sculpture of Nike, the winged goddess of victory. Pretend to be a triumphant athlete or famous actor at the Odeon. The small theater was able to seat up to 1,500 people for concerts and events.
Apart from the main site of Ephesus is the nearby Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Only a lone haphazardly reconstructed column remains with a stork nest on top. Even though the scattered stones may seem underwhelming, it's worth the opportunity to honor the goddess and appreciate the history of the sacred ground.
TIP: Ephesus is open every day, 8:00 AM-8:00 PM. Tickets cost 700 TL per person. The visitor plaza has cafés, souvenir shops, and restrooms. Arrive late afternoon to avoid the crowds and get a chance to snap a picture in front of the Library of Celsus without anyone else around! Access to the Temple of Artemis is free.
The gorgeous town of Alaçatı has a colorful electricity felt in its al fresco cafés, artisan shops, and cobblestone streets. Vibrant shades of blue, orange, pink, and purple enhance the storybook vibe. Stone houses with adorable shutters and enclosed balconies are characteristic of Ottoman Greek architecture.
Greeks originally settled in Alaçatı during the 17th Century, but families were eventually forced to leave in the population exchange dictated by the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne (1923).
Turks have added their own flair to Alaçatı while restoring and preserving the charming atmosphere. It's easy to see why locals and foreigners fall in love with the unique tourist destination. Don't forget to check out the four Greek Windmills on the hill overlooking the center of town!
Spend the day looking for souvenirs, wandering the quaint alleyways, and taking a plethora of photographs. Brad and I found some handmade glass nazars (blue eye protection amulets) and bohemian jewelry. Grab a tasty falafel bowl/wrap at Deli Gourmet Falafel or try authentic Greek cuisine for lunch. Cool off with a refreshing sorbet or ice cream cone from one of the street vendors.
In order to escape the late afternoon crowds in Alaçatı, we decided to visit the nearby resort town of Çesme for a few hours. Climb the battlements of Çesme Castle, built during the 16th Century, to see iron cannons and spectacular views.
Çesme has a modern feel with stores and amenities catering to luxury vacationers. Brad and I relaxed with a round of craft cocktails at Fuente Restaurant while admiring the sailboats in the marina. Overall, I preferred Alaçatı over Çesme, but was glad I made time for both!
Izmir's main attractions are walkable, especially if you stay in Konak or Alsancak. The public transportation system includes ferries, buses, trains, metros, and trams. Brad and I purchased a reloadable/shareable Izmirim Kart from the Alsancak metro station kiosk.
Taxis are reliable and direct around Izmir. Brad and I only took two during our stay, but each experience was pleasant. Drivers prefer cash and typically use taxi meters to calculate fares. Hail a cab from the street or visit a taxi stand to arrange a ride.
Another useful and affordable transportation option is a dolmus (mini bus). Only cash is accepted on these shuttle vans and fares are calculated by the driver based on your destination. We used mini buses at Ephesus, Alaçatı, and Çesme.
Planning a DIY day trip to Ephesus is easy from Izmir! Begin your journey at the Alsancak metro station and hop on the southbound Izban blue line. Disembark at the Cumaovası metro station and wait to get on the southbound Izban green line. Get off at the Tepeköy metro station and cross the platform to ride the southbound Izban pink line all the way to the Selçuk metro station. Conductors are happy to help if you have any questions. Each way takes approximately two hours.
Organizing a DIY day trip to Alaçatı and Çesme is a bit more involved. Start your excursion at the Alsancak tram stop and head southwest before disembarking at the Fahrettin Altay tram stop. Walk west towards the Fahrettin Altay bus depot and look for Çesme signs. Reserve a seat with the attendant and wait for the next available bus. Be sure to tell the employee on the bus you need to get off early if you want to stop at Alaçatı first. Cash fares are collected on the bus. Purchase a return ticket to Izmir at either the Alaçatı bus stop or Çesme bus stop.
Take a dolmus between Alaçatı and Çesme if you want to visit both in the same day. Mini buses depart across the street from the Alaçatı taxi stand. Rides are cheap and frequent!
So, is Izmir worth a special stop? Absolutely! The city is a fantastic base to reach archaeological sites and interesting towns. Ephesus was extra special for us because it was our first major Greco-Roman site. Pergamon is another ancient city to consider adding to your itinerary. Alaçatı took my breath away with its cozy quirkiness and darling architecture; I've never seen such a picturesque town!
In the end Izmir was exactly what Brad and I needed, a low-key city with plenty of nearby attractions to explore in between working days. We enjoyed our stay in Alsancak and will fondly remember eating far too many mouthwatering bombas. If you are in search of Turkish culture, riveting history, and fun day trips, Izmir is for you!