Coastal paradise on the azure Aegean, or great crossroads of the ancient world? Or both? Modern day Izmir on Turkey’s west coast is one of the most popular destinations for northern European vacationers and is also the birthplace of Homer, one of the greatest poets and storytellers of all time. The city was founded by the almost mythical Trojans thousands of years ago and was fought over by ancient Greeks, Alexander the Great, Romans, Arabs and eventually the Ottoman Turks who wrested control of the city from the victors of WWI, who at the time helped to carve up Turkey the way they carved up the Middle East.
Unfortunately for history buffs, approximately 70% of the city burned during the battle between Mustafa Kemal Attaturk (Father of the Turks) and the Greek Occupation Force following WW I. Even so, there are still ruins and castles and bazaars and crumbling white neighborhoods facing the sea that can satisfy any admirer of old civilizations.
Probably one the most significant sights in Turkey is the Kadifekale Fortress, originally built by Alexander the Great’s generals per his instructions. The fortress stands guard over the city from a height of 250 feet and is an ideal place to watch the sunset over the Aegean. Ruins from Izmir’s Roman and Greek past can be seen in dramatic fashion at the Agora, where recent finds include the remains of a temple of Zeus built almost 2000 years ago. At Bayrakli, the ruins of the original site of Smyrna (ancient Izmir) are still open to the public. This site was moved by Alexander to the hilltop above the city for defensive purposes.
Izmir is a great place to shop (as are most middle eastern cities): there are bazaars and kervansarays (marketplaces where caravans stopped, and merchants slept and did business) throughout the city, selling all manner of carpets, trinkets, jewelry and pottery. The most famous bazaar in Izmir is the Kemeralti, which sprawls around the old Kizlargasi Hani kervansara. And after exploring the markets for a full day, consider a dip in one of Turkey’s most famous thermal spas at Balcova, either immediatly before or after sunset.
Most people go to Izmir for the white sand beaches of the Aegean. The beaches around Izmir are full during the high seasons of summer and winter. There are kebabs and shisha, tanned Swedish women and slick Turkish men and some of the most beautiful and peaceful bays you will find anywhere. The beach areas leading up into the city turn into thumping club districts and elegant sipping lounges at night. If you are young and looking for some action, you can find it and if you would rather relax and have a few cocktails that works fine too.
Turkish food is excellent and Izmir cuisine is particularly delicious. Here you can have fresh fruit all year long, fresh fish (fried, grilled or steamed) served in various kebab styles and local specialties like Izmir cheese and Izmir kebabs (Tulum Peyniri and Kumru respectively). A two week sojourn through the bazaars, along the beaches and through the cafes eating and drinking non-stop — this is what a standard vacation to Izmir can be. One of the best areas to experience the easy living of Izmir is the Alsancak district, a favorite for visitors looking for baklava, tea, shisha and other tasty dishes.
Izmir is a great third stop in any tour of Turkey — after jaw-dropping Istanbul and the ruins of Cappadocia, Izmir and its beaches, cafes and lazy walks around the bazaars is a welcome — no, perfect — next destination.