We began our Turkish summer vacation in Izmir, spending four nights and day tripping to the coast and Ephesus. We opted for Izmir over the more popular Bodrum area due to flight schedule and cost (Izmir was much less expensive) after going back and forth regarding whether to stay in Izmir city, Alacati (an hour away on the coast) or further south (around Bodrum). We ended up thrilled with our decision and really enjoyed Izmir. We have already decided that we need to come back and spend a few weeks in Izmir during early retirement!
THE TURKISH CITY OF IZMIR
Contrary to what we thought prior to this trip, Izmir is a large historic city (the third largest in Turkey!) in Western Turkey on the Aegean cost. Izmir is about an hour flight from Istanbul or a few hours’ drive, which drive seemed quite popular with locals. Izmir is also only one hour from the beach and one hour from historical Ephesus (both on modern highways).
Aside from having a good location, Izmir is not super touristy and feels very much like a real Turkish city. Locals abound and you will be hard pressed to find too many foreign tourists out and about on a normal evening. The locals were also nice and seemed to really be enjoying their life on the sea. In fact, we met more than one person who left their busy life in Istanbul and moved to Izmir for a better quality of life. And I think that’s part of what we liked about Izmir, it was chill, there was no pressure to do anything, Izmir is safe and not expensive, and we felt like we were really in Turkey (not dropped into a foreign country with 100s of other Americans).
One con of Izmir, while Izmir is on the water, the water right abutting Izmir is not clean enough for swimming due to its commercial port. Visitors have to travel 30 minutes to an hour to reach swimmable water.
WHAT WE DID IN FRIENDLY IZMIR
This list is certainly not exhaustive of things to do in Izmir, but this is what we did during our time in Izmir.
Passeggiata along the Aegean Sea: Like in Italy and Albania, the locals come out in the evening to promenade along the seaside walk in central Izmir, especially on the weekends. Be on the look out for fisherman (all the time), local food vendors, pop up amusement games (such as the below where you shoot a real gun at balloons in the water), balloons and musicians. Walking is free; bring cash to visit the vendors.
Shop & Eat in Kemeralti Market: Kemeralti Market is Izmir’s answer to Istanbul’s Turkish Bizarre right in the center of town, selling everything from food to clothing to housewares. Kemeralti Market reminded me a lot of other markets I have visited in the Middle East, but this one seemed a little more manageable (less chaotic, less pressure to purchase, less haggling, etc.). We spent a few hours here as part of a tour and I definitely could have come back to shop.
Konak Pier: Konak Pier is a public pier off a shopping mall (with very few stores as of July 2023) that has several upscale waterfront eateries, including a Starbucks. Konak Pier is very popular on the weekend. Make a reservation at the various restaurants to ensure the best dinner views.
Aegean Boat Trip from Cesme: As I mentioned, the crystal clear waters of the Aegean are only an hour away via car from central Izmir. We Ubered to Cesme one afternoon and took a seven hour boat ride, including lunch, around the coast for a whopping $40 USD per person. The boat ride was great and provided wonderful views of the Aegean and Turkey. Highly recommend with an extra day in Izmir.
Day Trip to Ephesus: In addition to our boat tour, we also took an early morning trip to Ephesus and the House of Mother Mary. While Mary’s House was not that impressive, Ephesus is an incredibly well preserved ancient city and we spent around 2 hours here. We arrived right at 8:00 when it opened and were out by the time the cruise buses rolled in around 10:00 AM. I was initially not certain that I wanted to visit Ephesus, but I am so glad I did, especially since its such a quick day trip from Izmir (as long as you don’t do a lengthy bus tour).
Food Tour in Izmir with Culinary Backstreets: One of our days in Izmir was spent on a history and food walking tour around Izmir. This tour was really interesting, particularly as to the history of Izmir. I had always heard so much about Istanbul, but Izmir has its own share of history. The food we tasted was also delicious and ensured that we tried the best Izmir had to offer.
Pooling and relaxing. While the water is not swimmable in Izmir, it does get hot and a pool near the water is the perfect place to cool off. We spent a bit of time at our hotel’s rooftop pool in warm afternoons. Highly recommend a hotel with a pool in Izmir.
Wedding dress shopping. Finally, while we did not shop for wedding dresses, Izmir has an incredible number of wedding dress shops – its crazy! Apparently Izmir is like the Turkish capital of wedding dress shopping! Wild. I wish I had taken a proper picture!
WHERE WE STAYED IN IZMIR
We stayed at the Izmir Marriott. We choose this hotel based on 1) the price (only $140 USD/night) and 2) the amenities on offer, including a rooftop pool and an Executive Lounge that we could access. The location also ended up being fantastic right in the center of town. I am going to review the Marriott separately, but I would absolutely stay again.
WHERE WE ATE IN IZMIR
Narjill Restaurant: Narjill means “shisha” in Turkish and this restaurant specializes in shisha and also makes good food. We ate here once and came back multiple nights for Shisha. The menu is a mix of Turkish and international. Our only complaint is that they don’t serve alcohol (which is not crazy or surprising in Izmir). Make a reservation for one of the seaside tables!
Deniz Restaurant: Deniz is an Izmir institution. Located on the waterfront promenade, Deniz is one of the, if not THE, most famous seafood spots in Izmir. We made a reservation via telephone a day in advance and enjoyed great calamari, with some calamari sauce served in the bottom of an ice cream cone(!), lamb and a local grilled fish. Deniz was really good and the service was upscale but it was pricey compared to other places in Izmir. We paired our meal with a lovely Turkish red wine.
Ristorante Pizzeria Venedik: We also ate at Pizzeria Venedik for, what else, pizza. The service was good but the pizza was just OK. This was disappointing, as it was billed as the best pizza in Izmir. I guess we should have just gotten pide (i.e. Turkish pizza). The french fries were really good, and wine was served.
STEAL OUR TRIP
Izmir Marriott Hotel: Alsancak, Akdeniz Mahallesi, Gazi Blv. No:1, 35220 Konak/İzmir, Türkiye
Culinary Walks Izmir Food Tour: We took the only Izmir food tour for $125 per person. It last from about 10:00 – 4:00 PM.
St. Mary Boat: This is the Cesme boat tour that we took. I emailed to reserve a spot and paid in cash on the day of ($40 USD per person).
Ephesus tour: We took this private tour from Get Your Guide. It was meant to last 5 hours, but we cut it to about 2.5, only visiting the sites we wanted to see. The cost was $64 USD per person.
Narjill Restaurant: Konak Pier. Open daily 10:00 AM – 11:00 PM. No alcohol. Reservations recommended for the best seats. You can go for just shisha.
Ristorante Pizzeria Venedik: Kültür, 1382 Sokak, Alsancak – İzmir Gül sokak No:10/A-B, 35220 Konak, Türkiye. Open daily. Reservations probably not needed. Alcohol served.
Deniz Restaurant: Kültür, İzmir Palas Oteli, Atatürk Cd. No: 188/B ZEMİN, 35220 Konak/İzmir, Türkiye. Open daily. Reservation recommended. Alcohol served.