The traditional Greek town of Ayvalık retains much of its historical architecture, while its scenic setting along the Aegean attracts visitors from all over Turkey. And for those looking for an even quieter vibe, Cunda Island is right next door. In the following Ayvalık guide, we’ll cover the top landmarks to see in both.
Ayvalık was once part of ancient Aeolia, a region settled by Greeks as early as 1000 BC. And even after being taken by the Persians, the Romans, the Byzantines and the Ottomans, the town remained overwhelmingly Greek for much of its history.
After the Battle of Çeşme in 1770, in which the Ottoman naval fleet was decimated by the Russians, a high-ranking official ended up in town. Taken in and rehabilitated by a Greek priest, he was ever grateful for the hospitality. And later, upon becoming Grand Vizier, he granted Ayvalık a great deal of autonomy that would last for centuries.
Formerly known as Kydonia, meaning ‘place of the quince,’ Ayvalık long prospered as an international port exporting goods like olive oil and salt. And while the Greek population may be gone, it’s one of the best places in Turkey to see well-preserved Greek architecture from the 19th century.
Whether you’re based in Ayvalık or Cunda Island, the main attractions of both can all be seen in a single day. Ayvalık can easily be explored on foot, though you’ll need a bus to get to and from Cunda (see more below).
Church of the Taxiarchs
Ayvalık’s top landmark is the Church of the Taxiarchs, a former Greek church from the 19th century. Unlike most nearby churches that have since been turned into mosques, the Church of the Taxiarchs operates as a secular museum where visitors can come to appreciate the art and architecture.
The Church of the Taxiarchs is considered Ayvalık’s first church, as one was originally established at the spot in the 1400s. But the elegant stone structure as we see it today was largely rebuilt in 1844.
As with most Greek towns throughout Turkey, Ayvalık’s Greek population disappeared overnight in 1922. Following Turkey’s victory over Greece in the Greco-Turkish war, the two sides decided to swap the Greeks in Turkey for the Turkish Muslims living in Greece.
Even earlier in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, tensions between the two groups ran high. And occasional massacres were perpetrated by both sides. So given the region’s tumultuous history, it’s nice to see that this Greek church has been carefully renovated and restored by local authorities.
As there are no Greek Orthodox Christians left to pray here, the Church of the Taxiarchs was officially opened as a cultural landmark in 2013.
Stepping inside, you’ll find the interior bursting with color. Having been to at least a dozen former Greek churches throughout Turkey, I found the Church of the Taxiarchs to be the most beautiful of them all.
The church consists of three naves and a narthex, and much of the interior is comprised of imitation marble. The effect, which was added to the original church in 1893, was created by painting over dry plaster.
Some of the church’s most interesting features include elegant Corinthian columns and a unique spiral staircase leading to icons of various saints. Also notice the marble bishop’s seat adorned with carved golden birds.
The frescoes and paintings retain their vivid color and detail. While some appear as typical Eastern Orthodox art, a lot of the paintings were carried out in a Neoclassical style.
Also take note of the golden leaves and grapes adorning much of the upper levels.
Admiring the church today, it’s hard to believe that it was converted to a store in 1927 before ultimately being abandoned. For most visitors to Ayvalık, this will easily be the highlight of your trip.
Other Notable Buildings
As mentioned, most of the other Greek churches have since been turned into mosques. From my understanding, most mosques remain open throughout the day. But unfortunately during my time in Ayvalık, they all seemed to be closed.
Presumably, this was related to the coronavirus pandemic, and the mosques were probably only open for prayer times.
Among Ayvalık’s top churches-turned-mosques are Saatli Cami, named after its clocktower, and Çınarlı Cami. Both are located in the center of town and impressive from the outside.
Judging from photos online, Çınarlı Cami in particular has a gorgeous interior, so hopefully you’ll have the chance to step inside during your visit.
Though not widely known, there is another church that was never converted. While nothing comparable to the Church of the Taxiarchs, Ayazma Church has an interesting history and is well worth a visit during your walk around town.
The church was built in 1890 over a natural water source which the local Christian population believed to be holy. According to legend, the spot was revealed to a 16-year-old girl in a dream. As such, the church came to be called Hagias (‘sacred’) ma (‘water’), or Ayazma in Turkish.
The water was believed to have healing properties, and visitors from throughout the Aegean region would make pilgrimages here to drink and bathe in it.
But after the Greek population’s expulsion, the building was turned into an olive oil factory in the 1940s before being abandoned for good. Over time, the building became seriously dilapidated and required extensive restorations to bring it to its current state, only having been open to the public since 2018.
Today, visitors can drink the famous spring water as new age ambient music plays in the background. You’ll also find plenty of comprehensive English info about the building’s history and renovations. Additionally, the church retains a small section of its original mosaic flooring.
As with most of the traditional Greek towns in Turkey, one of the best ways to spend your time in Ayvalık is simply wandering around, admiring the well-preserved and colorful Greek houses lining the narrow cobblestone roads.
Unlike other Greek towns, such as Izmir Province’s Alaçatı, Ayvalık largely retains its local atmosphere, with many of its little streets feeling more residential than commercial.
Unfortunately, however, many of the attractive stone houses are surrounded on either side by ugly concrete ones. While most photographs of Ayvalık show off the prettiest parts, there are plenty of areas that aren’t all that idyllic.
For the best views overlooking Ayvalık and the Aegean, walk through the backroads in the southeast part of town where you’ll find a hill. From here, you can get a clear view of the churches and mosques mentioned above, in addition to Cunda Island in the distance.
Speaking of views, the most famous sunset viewing spot is known as Şeytan Sofrası, or ‘Satan’s Dinner Table.’ As intriguing as the name sounds, the spot is 9 km outside of town and no public transport goes there.
Walking along the marina, I did spot a sign promoting group excursions there, but no staff was around. Most likely, the tours weren’t running due to the pandemic.
In any case, checking the reviews online, visitors complained of the crowds and the priciness of the cafe at the top. I could easily picture all the selfie sticks waving about in the air, and I was more than happy to enjoy a peaceful sunset from the local harbor.
Of the 26 islands around Ayvalık, Cunda is the largest. And there’s no need for a boat, as Cunda is connected to the mainland by road. From central Ayvalık, local buses #10 and 20 go there. You can also hop on a boat which departs every hour. (Cunda is also known locally as Alibey.)
For those basing themselves in Ayvalık, Cunda can easily be explored in an afternoon. It too is full of traditional Greek architecture, but has a much smaller population than central Ayvalık. It’s also becoming an increasingly popular place to stay.
Arriving on the island, you’ll find a waterside promenade that’s lined with fancy restaurants. And heading inland, you’ll encounter a long commercial street lined with cafes and souvenir shops.
But as pleasant as it looks in pictures, it’s not just for pedestrians. Cars regularly speed down this road, ruining what’s supposed to be Cunda’s main selling point – its atmosphere.
As with Ayvalık, a visit to Cunda Island is mostly about just wandering around. But there are a few notable landmarks you shouldn’t miss.
Rahmi M. Koç Museum
Just like Ayvalık, Cunda Island has an impressive Greek Orthodox church that’s since been turned into a secular museum – but a museum of an entirely different sort.
The church dates back to 1873, at a time when nearly 100,000 Greeks were living on the island. And the original name of the church is the same as that of Ayvalık: Taxiarchs, a term referring to archangels Michael and Gabriel.
In 1927, the church was converted into a mosque. And as any artistic representations of humans or divinities are forbidden in Islam, you’ll occasionally spot some figures with missing faces. Tragically, the building was later damaged in a 1944 earthquake and then abandoned.
Though there were talks of restoring the damaged church for decades, nothing ever happened until 2011, when the building was transferred to the Rahmi M. Koç Foundation.
Despite the structure having been badly damaged by earthquakes, severe weathering and looting, the renovators did a tremendous job. On display at the museum are some pictures of the church before the project and it’s hardly recognizable.
The church was built as a single-dome basilica with a rectangular plan, and much of it was constructed using a local type of limestone. The Corinthian columns, meanwhile, are comprised of brick covered in stucco. And so are the interior walls.
While we should be thankful to the Rahmi M. Koç Foundation for saving and restoring the building, the presence of so many random antiques just doesn’t look or feel right in the middle of such a beautiful church.
Rahmi Mustafa Koç, born in 1930, is one of Turkey’s wealthiest businessmen. After a visit to the Henry Ford Museum in the US, he was inspired to create similar museums throughout Turkey using his vast collection of various collector’s items.
The items here are mostly from the early 20th century, including antique cars, old cameras, and all sorts of toys and other trinkets. There’s even an old diving suit placed next to an image of an angel!
I’d later visit another Rahmi M. Koç Museum in Ankara. While it had the same type of items on display, it was situated in a regular stone building, which felt much more fitting for such a collection.
Hopefully, they can move this collection elsewhere in the future, as the church’s architecture is more than enough to attract visitors on its own.
Next, head up to ‘Lovers Hill.’ Fortunately, many of the streets around here are too narrow for cars. Not only is this part of the island more pleasant for walking, but it also provides the best views.
Approaching the hill, you’ll pass by a ruined church showing us how the bigger one would’ve ended up had it not been for the restorations. Known as Panaya Kilisesi, it also dates from the 19th century, but is now little more than a depressing ruin.
At the top of the hill is a much more hopeful sight. Here, an old stone windmill and its adjacent church have been restored and renamed the Sevim and Necdet Kent Library.
Even in centuries past, the structure functioned as a monastic library, featuring a large collection of religious books.
It too was abandoned following the population exchange and was recently restored with help from Rahmi M. Koç. There’s a cafe situated just outside, and it’s a popular place for visitors to the island to stand and take in the gorgeous views.
Arriving at the otogar (bus terminal), there are cheap buses (around 4 TL) to the city center that leave pretty frequently. I rode bus #50, though some of the others might stop in the town center as well.
Don’t be shocked if the driver spends awhile veering down all sorts of side streets and suburban backroads. He should make it to the town center eventually.
When leaving Ayvalık, buses for the otogar are easy to find at bus stops along the main road.
Choosing between Ayvalık and Cunda Island is a matter of personal preference. Whichever you choose, you can easily travel to the other town to see all the sites in a single afternoon.
While Ayvalık is busier and more crowded, it’s still a rather small town overall. Most of the locations in the Ayvalık guide above should be walkable from most hotels.
It was located right in central Ayvalık and there were no major issues with the room. It was, however, very basic and had no AC. Situated above a shop run by the owner, it lacked a reception area, though the owner speaks some English and was reachable by phone.
Those with a bigger budget should find plenty of bed and breakfasts to choose from in either Ayvalık or Cunda.
All in all, I wasn’t too terribly impressed with Ayvalık or Cunda Island. But that’s partly because I’d already visited many Greek towns along the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts, and was a bit jaded by this point in my trip.
Not only did the town have fewer significant landmarks than I was hoping for (as mentioned, most of the mosques were closed), but traffic was a lot worse than I’d imagined. With little to do, it also wasn’t the most relaxing place, either.
With that being said, Ayvalık is situated in between the ancient ruins of Troy (Çanakkale) and Pergamon (Bergama), and it’s a good place to spend a night or two along the way.
If your time is limited in Turkey and you won’t be able to travel all the way down the coast, Ayvalık is a good example of a traditional Greek town. (It’s also a short boat ride away from the Greek island of Lesbos.)
But if you’ll end up traveling through Izmir Province, I’d recommend a stay in Eski Foça instead.
While the Turkish government isn’t quite as extreme as China when it comes to online censorship, you’ll probably want a decent VPN before your visit.
I’ve tried out a couple of different companies and have found ExpressVPN to be the most reliable.
Booking.com is currently banned in the country (at least when you search for domestic accommodation). However, there are actually quite a few Turkish hotels listed on there anyway. And many them don’t even appear on Hotels.com, which hasn’t been banned.
Over the course of my trip, I ended up making quite a few reservations with Booking.com and was really glad I had a VPN to do so.
Another major site that’s banned is PayPal. If you want to access your account at all during your travels, a VPN is a must.
While those are the only two major sites that I noticed were banned during my trip, Turkey has even gone as far as banning Wikipedia and Twitter in the past.