In 2012, CN Traveler called Izmir “Turkey’s most overlooked city “and they were right. Although it is the third largest metropolis in the country, it is often pushed into the shadows by the likes of Istanbul and Ankara.
Let’s be honest though. Izmir cannot compete against Istanbul as a top city break destination, simply because it’s historical timeline is nowhere near as impressive, sordid or varied as the former Constantinople and Byzantium’s is. It does have a few gems, though, and on the list of places to go in Turkey, can come up trumps if you are a budget traveller.
Having settled on the Aegean coast, I’ve visited Izmir many times over the last 15 years but mostly for work, a flying visit or to see the British consulate, hence my lack of photographs. I’m planning numerous trips this year (it is just down the road after all!) so this article is a work-in-progress gleaned from information I already know and from research I am completing for my up-and-coming trips.
Smyrna is Izmir’s former name and the name used by the New Testament of the Bible when referring to it as one of the Seven Churches of Revelation. These days, a majority of the population are Turkish but they embrace outside influences with open arms and this is seen in the dress style of locals as well as eating and watering holes and modern shopping malls with western brand names. The area is comprised of the main city centre and smaller coastal towns.
How to Get There
Naturally as a large city, transport to Izmir is frequent and easy. International and domestic flights fly into Izmir Adnan Menderes airport from which the transfer time is roughly 45 minutes if you are staying in the main city centre.
Since I live just up the coastline, I use buses to get to Izmir bus station (Otogar). With frequent routes to and from other major destinations in Turkey, and operated by some of the country’s largest bus companies including Pamukkale, Kamil Koc and Metro, it is a great way to travel.
If you arrive at the bus station using one of the nationwide networks, go upstairs to use the smaller buses (dolmus) that will take you further to surrounding resorts and destinations on the Izmir Peninsula only. There are also two train stations, but I’ve never used them because flights or bus services are more frequent and easier.
Shopping Districts of Izmir
Izmir has roughly 15 shopping malls of which Optimum, the Kipa Park, Forum Bornova and Agora are highly rated. Alternatively, locals and tourists use the historic shopping district of Kemeralti that also sells souvenirs. The Kizlaragasi Han Bazaar within it, is a tourist attraction. Otherwise, International Brand name stores often set up shop in the Alsancak district.
Nightlife and Eating Out
This is not my area of expertise for me because I’m an “early to rise and early to bed” type of person. However, the Alsancak, Karsiyakka and Konak areas are known as the highlighted areas to party while all around the peninsula, many beach clubs operate as relaxed, hubs of fun during the day and turn into nightclubs with the latest western and Turkish dance music once the sun sets. Check the top list of restaurants in Izmir on Trip Advisor or the Wiki Travel Guide is also an excellent source of information although I am rolling my eyeballs at the suggestions of KFC and Burger King!
Where to Stay in Izmir
Izmir City Centre: Konak Square is the central area of the city centre. It holds the famous clock tower landmark and is near to the above-mentioned Kemeralti shopping area.
Alacati: Inhabited by Greeks until the 1920s, this resort has gained international fame as a popular windsurfing destination. During summer, windsurfing schools make a roaring trade and during August, hotel accommodation is sparse since this is the annual windsurfing festivals attended by sport fans from all over the world.
Cesme: Just a short drive from Alacati, Cesme, a popular seaside destination for Turks has a general reputation as an ideal retreat for wealthy and influential people and this is often reflected in the hotel prices. Translated, the name means fountains, possibly referencing the numerous Ottoman fountains throughout the town. The most famous landmark in the town is the castle.
Foca: This is another summer retreat for well to do Turks and the district separates in the old and new regions. Preservation of the Mediterranean monk seal and various species of flora and fauna have prompted the government to declare many zones as protected.
The above are well known and popular areas, although anyone wanting to get off the beaten track could look at the smaller villages and towns of Sefirhisar, Dikili and in between.
What to See and Do
Izmir Wildlife Park: Keen to distance themselves from the typical stereotype view of a zoo, Izmir Wildlife Park surprised me with the exceptional care of its animals and the extensive information given to educate visitors about animal habitats and characteristics. Read more here
Attractions in the city centre: Including Asanor, well known for its view and restaurant, and the famous clock tower landmark in Konak, attractions to visit are the ancient agora, partly funded by Alexander the Great, Kadifkale, the old castle with an amazing panoramic view of the city and the Balcova Cable car ride. I did also end up at the Izmir horse races one day, but that experience wouldn’t suit everyone! Discover more reasons to visit here
People-watching and café culture are said to be best around the Kordon district while part of the attraction of the centre is also using the ferry services to get around. On my list to visit is the separate Archaeology and Ethnographic museums as well as Saint Polycarp Church, the oldest Roman Catholic building in Izmir.
Further Afield: Lovers of history will enjoy visiting Ephesus, the second largest city of the eastern Roman Empire. Roughly, one hour’s drive away, the ruins boast of terraced houses, a grand theatre, and the Celsus library that was the third largest in the ancient world. Alternatively, Pergamon, that was called the “Seat of Satan” in the book of Revelation, holds the steepest ancient theatre in the world and in recent years was added to the UNESCO World Heritage site list.
What Am I using to Plan my Trips?
I bookmark anything by Pat Yale, who used to write for Lonely Planet. Her blog section on Izmir is detailed and relevant but more importantly, she breaks down travel tips into separate districts, which makes for easier planning.
I am also using a section of DK Eye-Witness Travel book for Turkey and relying on my trusted Insight Guide to Turkey. I am assuming, both are much the same as Lonely Planet.
Historical travellers should check out a book by Giles Milton called Paradise Lost: Destruction of Smyrna. Using information from interviews with local figures and historical research, the author portrays an accurate and extremely interesting story about life in the city leading up to the great fire of 1922, which destroyed it.
Giles Milton proved that for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Izmir was a metropolitan area where different nationalities lived side by side in peace. Including the Jews, Armenians, Greeks, Kurds and Turks, the city was extremely wealthy and thanks to the input of the European Levantines adopted many western practices.