IZMIR, TURKEY — It comes as no surprise that a day trip to Ephesus remains one of Turkey's most popular attractions; not only are its Hellenistic and Roman ruins both spectacular and well-preserved, but it's also easily accessible from the city of Izmir. But therein lies the problem. The average tourist will hightail it out of Izmir as soon as they've crossed the archaeological site off their bucket list, never taking a day or two to explore the so-called Pearl of the Aegean. And we're about to remedy that.
For the uninitiated, Izmir is Turkey's third-largest and most liberal city — and proud of it. Historically known as the Greek city of Smyrna, its significance as a port city continues due to its position along the Gulf of Izmir, resulting in a vibrant seafront promenade known as Kordon. But that's just the beginning of all it has to offer.
Above: The Asansör elevator gives people panoramic views of Izmir.
While some of the largest hotel chains have set up shop in Izmir, the intimately scaled Key Hotel comes highly recommended for one reason alone — location, location, location. Standing on the Kordon, this luxury property is housed in what was once the Central Bank building and features 34 elegantly furnished rooms accented with modern amenities. Oh, the breakfast spread only adds to its appeal.
For something closer to all the action, think L'agora Old Town Hotel & Bazaar. Another four-star property, it resides in a 300-year-old building amidst the sights and sounds of Kemeraltı, one of Turkey's most fascinating bazaars – but more on that later. While the rooms here are clean and comfortable, its claim to fame is the atmospheric courtyard where great food and live music collide.
Izmir is one of those places where life happens on the streets — whether you're dining in the bohemian district of Alsançak or immersing yourself int local culture on Synagogue St., you'll gain plenty of insights in no time. No vicinity, however, is as ideally suited to people watching as the aforementioned Kordon. Here, the city's young lovers linger alongside fishermen, café goers and street food vendors. It's also where history buffs will find Atatürk Museum, a small yet decently appointed facility dedicated to the life of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder and first president of Turkey.
Above: Izmir's famous clock tower and old neighbourhoods will charm you.
If panoramic views of the city are what you're after, the Asansör (Turkish for elevator) offers them for free. Built in 1907 by a Jewish philanthropist to assist elders and pregnant women grappling with the staircase between Mithatpaşa St. and the Halil Rifat Quarter, it's housed within a 51m tower built of bricks imported from Marseille. Another historic landmark worth visiting is the Izmir Clock Tower. Built in 1901 and standing 25m high, it's widely considered the symbol of Izmir. Admittedly, taking in its ornate Ottoman-style of architecture can be tricky considering the many distractions around it — selfie-takers, flocks of pigeons and kids chasing said pigeons — but it's easy to see why it once commanded attention.
The clock tower also leads nicely to what can arguably be described as Izmir's most popular tourist attraction, Kemeraltı. This iconic bazaar dates back to the 17th century and continues to have it all — shops, synagogues, mosques, traditional coffeehouses, artisan workshops and enough dining outlets to leave you feeling overwhelmed.
Make a beeline for Ayşa Boşnak Börekçisi, which ranks amongst the Top 10 restaurants in all of Turkey and serves some of the best salads you'll ever eat. Incidentally, tasteful souvenirs and objets d'art await in this area at İzmir Shop, about a two-minute walk away. To call the chaotic Kemeraltı a labyrinth would be an understatement, so just go with it and relish the joy of getting lost.
Above: Local delicacies will make you hungry for more Turkish cuisine.
Considering that Izmir has been home to Greeks, Armenians, Levantines and Turks over the years, its cuisine is an attraction in itself. Dostlar Fırını, for example, is famous for its many varieties of boyoz, a fried pastry of sorts concocted hundreds of years ago by Jewish bakers. Çelebi Unlu Mamuller, meanwhile, is the ultimate address for bombas. Between fillings like chocolate, coconut, pistachio and sour cherry, this beloved local haunt manages to do wonders with a bit of soft dough.
Elsewhere, simit (a Turkish take on bagels) and midye dolma (rice-stuffed mussels) are other street food staples worth trying. And with Izmir's location along the Aegean Sea, its fare is dominated by achingly fresh seafood accented with Mediterranean flavours — and every budget is catered to.
Deniz Restaurant has understandably earned a spot on the World's 50 Best Restaurants, while Soirée brings with it the bonus of striking sunset views from Konak Pier.
Above: Izmir is the gateway to historic Ephesus, above, but offers its own unique history.
Izmir is not just a cosmopolitan city, it's cultured, too. Set inside the beautiful French Honorary Consulate Building, Arkas Art Center features the private collection of Turkish businessman Lucien Arkas and is a must-visit for contemporary art enthusiasts. The ongoing Myths and Dreams exhibition has taken over both floors and all nine exhibition rooms, showcasing works by the likes of Swiss visual artist Daniele Buetti, Turkish multimedia artist Gizem Candan and Argentinian sculptor Jack Vanarsky.
Broader in scope and often overlooked by tourists, the Izmir History and Art Museum is set within a sprawling urban park known as Kültürpark. This one's anchored by ancient artefacts, exhibiting an impressive range of ceramic works, coins, jewellery, sculptural fragments, frieze, and more across three pavilions. And with excavations relentlessly carried out in various parts of this region, you can expect to encounter traces of even the Archaic and Classical periods.
When in Izmir ...
An evening spent at a hole-in-the-wall is the definitive antidote to a long day of tourist must-dos and more mainstream attractions, and an easy way to get a real feel of Izmir. Two favourites? Münire and Karga Cafe.
The former is decked out with all manner of vintage kitsch and serves over 20 different flavours of Turkish soda pop — some downright unexpected, like mastic gum. The latter is a no-frills live music venue that comes highly recommended if you're looking to smoke nargile, have a couple of drinks and mingle with the locals who live up to their easygoing reputation.
About the Author
Samia Qaiyum is a Dubai-based editor specializing in travel and culture, contributing to the likes of OutThere, Globetrender, National Geographic Traveller Food and Condé Nast Traveller. A textbook third culture kid with a perpetual thirst for adventure, she has lived in five countries and travelled to 34 others, racking up all sorts of weird and wonderful experiences along the way just don’t ask her to define the word “home.”