Izmir (also spelled İzmir), situated alongside Turkey’s Aegean coast, is the country’s third-largest city. Historically known as Smyrna, the city’s history dates back thousands of years. The following Izmir guide covers all the things you shouldn’t miss in town, which most visitors should be able to fit into a single day.
While immensely popular among Turks, Izmir gets largely ignored by tourists. But is the city really an overlooked hidden gem? We’ll dive deeper into that question below. First, let’s examine the city’s long and interesting history.
Izmir: A Brief History
Though hardly evident today, Izmir’s history dates back to very ancient times, and it was historically known as Smyrna.
The first archaic settlements were founded as early as the 11th century BC. And a few centuries later, Smyrna thrived as part of Ionia, of which Ephesus, Priene and Miletus were also part. In fact, Smyrna was the likely birthplace of Greek poet Homer sometime in the 7th or 8th century BC!
Following the conquests of Alexander the Great, he relocated Smyrna to the base of Mt. Pagos. According to legend, he’d dreamt a prophetic dream in which the goddess Nemesis commanded him to do so.
Smyrna prospered throughout the Hellenistic era, and some ruins from this period can still be seen at the ancient agora. And the city maintained its prominence throughout the Roman and Byzantine eras, eventually replacing Ephesus as Ionia’s main port city.
The region was taken over by the Seljuk Turks in the 11th century, but the Byzantines managed to regain control. After a few back-and-forths, the Ottoman Turks conquered the region for good in 1389.
In the early Ottoman period, Izmir contained no more than several thousand inhabitants. But things turned around in the late 16th century when the city became a major international trading port.
The city had always had a large Greek population, and it was occupied by Greece for three years after the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War I. But in 1922, Turkish independence leader Kemal Mustafa Atatürk conquered the city, putting an end to the Greco-Turkish War.
Tragically, just days after the war, a massive fire destroyed much of the city. Rather suspiciously, it only ravaged the Greek and Armenian quarters, while leaving the Muslim and Jewish quarters unscathed.
Izmir largely had to be rebuilt throughout the 20th century, explaining why such an old city now has such a modern feel. Central Izmir currently has a population of around 3 million and continues to grow rapidly.
Konak Square & Kemeraltı
Izmir’s icon is its Clock Tower, known locally as Saat Kulesi, located in Konak Square. It was built in 1901, the late Ottoman period, in commemoration of Sultan Abdulhamid II’s 25th anniversary on the throne.
It was designed by French architect Raymond Charles Péré, who’d originally come to live in Izmir as a French teacher. And the clock itself was a gift from Kaiser Wilhelm II, German Emperor and Ottoman ally during World War I. Much of the project was funded locally.
The square, situated beside the waterfront, is a good place to relax for awhile and people watch. Just behind the tower is an attractive small mosque known as Yalı Camii, or Konak Mosque.
As one of Izmir’s most popular areas, there’s no shortage of shopping and dining options around here. And at some point during your stay in Izmir, don’t miss a walk through the vast Kemeraltı bazaar, situated just east of the Clock Tower.
The labyrinthine nature of the market can be rather disorienting, but that’s part of the fun. In addition to restaurants and coffee shops, numerous specialty stores sell everything from leather goods, electronics, traditional crafts, luggage, jewelry and more.
As Izmir doesn’t get many international tourists, Kemeraltı is very local-oriented, making it a more authentic and laidback experience than Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.
Interestingly, this area was the location of an ancient port castle that ceased to be of use once the original port silted up in Ottoman times.
There are a few historical mosques, such as Hisar Mosque, tucked away in the market as well.
In meat-heavy Turkey, this happened to be one of the few places I was able to find fresh and reasonably-priced seafood.
The Izmir Agora
Given its long and prosperous history, not much of ancient Smyrna can be seen today. But visitors can, at least, visit the location of the former agora.
The agora was once entered via elaborate porticos, and the whole space was once lined with tall granite columns. Thanks to recent archaeological restorations, one section has been re-erected thus far.
Much of this area was destroyed by a major earthquake in the 2nd century AD and was later rebuilt with help from Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Arriving at the site, it largely appears as little more than a big grassy field with stone fragments strewn about. But the real highlight is the vast basement area, entirely lined with well-preserved arches.
Dating back to the Hellenistic era, the basement corridors were located beneath the stoa surrounding the agora. And they functioned as an underground marketplace, much like the underground shopping areas you’ll encounter throughout Turkey today.
The basement still contains some of its original inscriptions as well as the bases of statues that were once placed there.
The area is also filled with water channels through which water still flows. But mysteriously, researchers still have yet to identify the water’s source!
Not far away from the agora is the Kedifekale, an ancient fortress situated atop Mt. Pagos. As mentioned above, Alexander the Great’s dream encouraged him to relocate the city to the hill’s base.
While I didn’t end up visiting myself, the reviews don’t exactly make it out to be a must-visit destination.
The Izmir Archaeology Museum
True archaeology lovers will enjoy a trip to the Izmir Archaeology Museum. But frankly, it’s hardly essential considering how most of the top artifacts from Izmir Province are kept in places like Selçuk’s Ephesus Museum.
Nevertheless, those touring the historical sites throughout Turkey’s Aegean region will surely find some notable artifacts from places they’ve been or are planning on heading to.
The collection largely focuses on sculptures discovered throughout ancient Ionia. And looking down from the upper floor, you can spot a well-preserved mosaic featuring peacocks, lions and other animals. There’s also a decent amount of English info on the region’s history.
There were no other visitors while I was there which seems to be common. To save electricity, the museum utilizes a sensor-based lighting system, but the lights will often turn off while you’re still trying to read!
The museum contains a decent collection of Bronze Age artifacts, many of them from Mycenaean Greeks who settled in the area. And there’s also a sizable collection of coins. Outside, meanwhile, you’ll an extensive collection of ancient sarcophagi.
While worth visiting for those with an interest in ancient history, the Izmir Archaeology Museum is not what one would expect from Turkey’s third-largest city.
Just next to the Izmir Archaeology Museum is the Ethnography Museum, though it wasn’t open during my visit.
Izmir Asansör (Elevator)
One of Izmir’s most unique landmarks is the towering Asansör, which simply means elevator. It’s located in southwestern Karataş district, which was a historically Jewish neighborhood. And it was a Jewish merchant named Nesim Levi Bayraklıoğlu who commissioned the large elevator in 1907.
The purpose of the elevator was purely practical. Residents previously had to rely on steep staircases to get between the upper and lower quarters of the district, so the Asansör made life much easier.
Interestingly, the elevator’s bricks were brought all the way from Marseilles.
While in private hands for decades, the city took control of the elevator in 1983. It’s now a popular tourist attraction, while locals also come to enjoy the excellent views.
While there’s a fancy cafe at the top, I did some exploring and wasn’t able to find anything else of interest.
Back at the bottom, the Karataş district seems to be among the most trendy in Izmir, and there’s no shortage of restaurants and bars to choose from.
Kordon Promenade & Alsancak
Walking down the Kordon waterfront promenade toward the Alsancak district is one of the best things to do in Izmir on a sunny day. The Kordon is lined with restaurants, many of which are reasonably priced. It’s a great place to eat breakfast or lunch while looking out at the water.
On the way there, you’ll pass by the Pasaport ferry pier. Constructed in 1890, the building originally functioned as the French customs office. And it was designed by none other than Gustave Eiffel who, of course, is most known for the Eiffel Tower.
Also around here is Cumhuriyet Square, Izmir’s most famous square after Konak.
Arriving in Alsancak, you’ll encounter a large grassy area which stretches along the waterfront. In summer months, young people gather here at night and sit on the grass with drinks purchased from one of the many nearby liquor shops.
As Turkish society becomes increasingly religious, Izmir residents still take great pride in their ‘progressive’ drinking culture.
Heading inland, you’ll find plenty of traditional buildings in Alsancak along with a lively food and bar scene.
Also of interest in Alsancak is the Arkas Art Center, situated in a 19th-century mansion near the waterfront. It features rotating art exhibits that utilize a variety of different mediums.
Additionally, Alsancak is home to Kültürpark Izmir, a large park full of thousands of trees. Unfortunately, I missed it during my visit, but the park is also home to the Izmir Museum of History and Art.
It contains a nice collection of ancient sculptures, many of which were found at the agora, and it might make for a good alternative to the Izmir Archaeology Museum.
As Turkey’s third-largest city, Izmir can be reached in a number of ways. The Izmir Adnan Menderes Airport has direct flights to cities all over Turkey, as well as international flights to numerous cities in Europe.
The airport is connected to the city center by İzban suburban trains as well as buses.
Izmir can be reached by rail, although it’s not yet connected to Turkey’s high-speed rail network. Therefore, buses may be a better option.
Given the amount of competing bus companies in Turkey, you’ll have no difficulty finding direct buses to Izmir no matter where you’re coming from. Those visiting Izmir from nearby cities can also easily get there via minibus.
The main difficulty with arriving by bus is the otogar (bus terminal) itself. It’s located 6 km outside the city center. And despite Izmir having a suburban rail network, a metro and a tram system, NONE of them connect with the otogar!
The only way to get from the otogar to the city center is by public bus. Aside from the bad traffic, this wouldn’t be so terrible if there were actually proper places to buy transport tickets at the terminal.
Despite what locals told me, the bus drivers in Izmir will not accept cash (I was denied entry to two buses for not having the card). It turns out that the only official transport card vendor at the terminal is the guy running the tea shop near the city bus stand (which itself is tricky to locate).
No signage indicates this, but be sure to ask at the tea shop if they don’t implement a better system by the time of your visit.
Izmir has a few different transportation systems. There’s the İzban Suburban Rail network, which you can take from Alsancak to nearby towns like Eski Foça.
There’s also a metro and a tramway, along with multiple city bus routes.
But despite its overall size, Izmir’s center is pretty compact. In fact, I managed to get just about everywhere on foot from my hotel without any problems. You may want to take a tram to get to Asansör, however.
There are plenty of places to stay in Izmir. But the centrally-located hotels seem to be a little pricier than what you can find in Istanbul or other cities. Ideally, the closer you are to the Clock Tower, the better. But Alsancak would be a good place to stay as well.
As a budget traveler who likes private rooms with private bathrooms, I chose a place called Otel Orkun on Hotels.com. My mistake was only checking the location on Google Maps, which lists it as being near the Kemeraltı bazaar.
It wasn’t until arriving and finding nothing that I checked the location on the Hotels.com map. I then realized that it was about a 15-minute walk away. But while the location wasn’t where I’d expected, it was still central enough to reach the sites in the Izmir guide above.
The area, like much of Izmir away from the waterfront, was rather grimy. The hotel was what one would expect for the price, but it happened to have surprisingly strong and fast internet.
As mentioned above, Izmir is largely overlooked by tourists while also touted by many Turks as the country’s most desirable place to live.
Based on what I’d heard from Turkish acquaintances, along with the pictures I’d seen of the waterfront area, I arrived with high expectations.
While I did have a nice time in the city and even had a friend show me around, I didn’t leave very impressed with Izmir. Away from the waterfront area, the city is surprisingly gritty and grimy and full of ugly architecture.
And while the locations mentioned in the Izmir guide above were all enjoyable, none of them are anywhere close to being ‘must-see’ destinations in Turkey.
Given the bad traffic and difficulty getting to the bus terminal, Izmir also doesn’t make a good base for day trips. Fortunately, you can simply stay in Selçuk to get to Ephesus and in Bergama to tour the ruins of Pergamon.
If you’re short on time, you won’t be missing much by just traveling directly between those cities, bypassing central Izmir entirely. Izmir, however, does at least make a good base from which to visit the scenic Greek towns of Çeşme and Eski Foça, both of which have beaches.
If you’re still in the midst of planning your Turkey trip and are looking for an interesting coastal city that’s also a good base for day trips, choose Antalya instead. It tops Izmir in just about every way.
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.