In this destination guide we will visit the sights of Izmir, Turkey’s most liberal and liveable city.
A visit to Izmir
Located on the shores of the Aegean Sea, Izmir is the most liberal and liveable city in Turkey and a great place for tourists to visit.
I’ve always enjoyed visiting Izmir as besides the urban delights there is a lot to see in the surrounding area.
Whether you want to laze on the beach, visit Ancient Greek archaeological sites such as magnificent Ephesus or explore charming old towns, there is enough to do for days or even weeks in Izmir.
Although many tourists opt to stay outside of the city in one of the many coastal resorts such as Kusadasi or Cesme, I decided to stay in the heart of Izmir at the Ege Palas Business Hotel due to the proximity of public transport links.
A pleasant megacity
Compared to Turkey’s largest city of Istanbul, Izmir itself is relatively light on traditional sights.
There are certainly some interesting things to see in this sprawling city, although you can easily do that in a single day.
However, as there are so many day trips you can make to nearby attractions, you really want to stay longer than a day in Izmir.
Staying a longer time in Izmir also gives you the opportunity to really savour the quality cafés, restaurants and bustling nightlife scene in this lively and pleasant city.
Izmir is a huge megacity – home to well over 4 million inhabitants – and therefore has a lot to offer on this front.
Thanks to its multicultural origins (the city used to be predominantly Greek until the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922) and open-minded culture stemming from international trade, the port city of Izmir always had a liberal character.
In fact, the Izmir region was one of the few in Turkey which did not vote for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his conservative party in recent elections.
A good place to start your Izmir visit is Konak Square, a major transport hub in the centre of Izmir with easy access to the metro, tram and ferry.
In the middle of Konak Square stands a beautiful clock tower.
Built in 1906, this clock tower is Izmir’s best known landmark and therefore also features on the official city emblem and seal.
One of Izmir’s most popular sights is the old bazaar.
Although the old bazaar might make for a disappointing visit if you expect something like Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, it is nonetheless a very pleasant area to stroll around.
Inside the bazaar you will also find some appealing cafés to sit down for a cup of tea or Turkish coffee.
If you make it to the inner courtyard of the bazaar, make sure you get up to the second floor to enjoy the nice view over the 16th century Hisar Mosque.
If you walk some 20 minutes from Konak along the bay towards the south-west you will end up at the Asansör, another famous Izmir sight.
Derived the French ‘ascenseur’, Asansör is the Turkish word for lift.
The Asansör is beautiful brick elevator built in 1907 and serves as a public transport link for inhabitants of the Karataş neighbourhood to easily get up and down the steep hill.
The lift is located on Dario Moreno sokak, a street named after famous Turkish-Jewish singer and Izmir native Dario Moreno, who actually used to live on this very same street.
Another famous neighbourhood in the centre of Izmir is Alsancak, which is well-known for its vibrant restaurant and nightlife scene.
However, Alsancak is certainly worth a visit during daylight hours as well as you can find some appealing cafés and plenty of shops in this part of town.
The main sight in Alsancak is the seaside promenade and park called the Kordon.
In the daylight hours, Izmir’s Kordon is home to families taking a stroll and fishermen trying to get some catch, while in the evening the youngsters and students take over the place.
The Kordon is one of the few places in Izmir where drinking in public is tolerated.
It’s great fun to join the local crowd by buying some beers or a bottle of wine from one of the neighbourhood alcohol shops before watching the sunset from the promenade.
Izmir is one of Turkey’s most liberal cities and it surely shows when you visit Alsancak in the evening as the place is always full of locals having a good time on the Kordon or in one of the many pubs and clubs.
Another good place to sample the vibrant city life of Izmir is the suburb of Bornova, which can be easily reached by metro from the city centre.
Bornova is home to Izmir’s Ege University and the neighbourhood is home to a large student population.
Both throughout the day and in the evening it will be full of students enjoying tea or coffee, nargilah (waterpipe) or a beer.
When visiting Izmir it’s a must to hop on a ferry – if only to take in the views of the city from the sea.
As the city of Izmir is built around a large bay, the local ferries are a popular transport option and cheap to use.
For tourists, the ferry terminals in Alsancak and Konak are the most obvious departure points.
On board an Izmir ferry you really experience how big the city is as it seems that almost all the hills and mountains surrounding the bay are covered by urban sprawl.
During my visit to Izmir, I took a ferry from Alsancak to Bostanli at the other side of the bay.
There is nothing really to see for the average tourist in Bostanli as it’s basically its just a suburb of the city.
However, Bostanli does have a nice seaside promenade and viewing terrace just to the west of the ferry pier where you can sit down with a drink and watch the sunset.
Just like Alsancak, Bostanli is a relatively liberal neighbourhood as well and drinking alcohol in public along the waterfront is tolerated here too.
If you are staying longer in Izmir, it might be worth it to make the trek by metro and bus to the suburb of Balçova to take the cable car up into the hills.
Called the Balçova Teleferik, this cable car takes you high up into the verdant hills from where you can enjoy sweeping views over Izmir and the bay.
It’s a great place to enjoy a small picnic or to have a short hike in the shade of the trees on a hot day.
Izmir day trips
One reason why Izmir is such a fantastic tourist destination is because there is just so much to visit and to do in the surrounding area.
There are so many possible day trips you can make from Izmir that you can easily stay here for weeks.
If you are a beach person, you are probably best of heading for Kuşadası or Çeşme by bus from the Otogar (bus station).
Çeşme can easily be combined with the nearby village of Alaçatı as an Izmir day trip.
Alacati is a charming traditional village with some quality bars, restaurants and upscale boutique hotels.
From Cesme, you can even make a day trip by ferry to the Greek island of Chios – although you would not do it justice by only spending a few hours there as Chios is a destination in it’s own right.
Some people also visit the famous white terraces and thermal pools of Pamukkale as a day trip from Izmir, although this would also be a rather long trek.
A better option for an Izmir day trip might be the lovely seaside village of Foça (Phocea), which still has a distinctly Greek charm.
Foça can be reached from Izmir by taking the Izban suburban train to Hatundare where it’s an easy change to the 744 bus.
Of course, the biggest sight in the Izmir area is the ancient Greek city of Ephesus (Efes), located just outside the modern-day city of Selçuk.
You can take a bus or train from Izmir to Selçuk, from where you take a taxi or walk for 40 minutes to the Ephesus entrance gate.
When you are visiting Ephesus, you should really make the effort to visit beautiful Şirince too as this traditional hilltop village is just a short ride by bus from Selçuk.
Although it may lack the fame of Istanbul, Izmir is one of Turkey’s nicest and most liveable cities to visit thanks to its liberal character and relaxed seaside vibe.
Izmir might not have as many blockbuster sights as Istanbul, but certainly manages to compete when it comes to having a proper café, food and nightlife scene.
When you add all the sights in the surrounding area, Izmir certainly is one of Turkey’s must-visit destinations.
There are just so many day trips you can make from Izmir that you won’t even get bored if you stay for weeks on end.
Among the day trips you can make from Izmir are the beaches of Cesme and Alacati, a visit to the Ephesus, and the many gorgeous towns and villages in the surrounding area such as Sirince and Phocea.
As Izmir has a good-quality and affordable public transport network, it’s easy enough as an independent traveller to visit all the sights in the city and to make day trips.
Trip report index
This article is part of the ‘Khachapuri & Kebabs: A Summer Trip to Georgia and Turkey‘ trip report, which consists of the following chapters:
1. Review: Wizz Air Bucharest to Kutaisi (Airbus A320)
2. A Day in Kutaisi, the Charming Capital of Imereti
3. Caves, Churches and Monasteries – A Kutaisi Day Trip
4. Review: My Warm Guest House, Batumi, Georgia
5. Beautiful Batumi – The Pearl of Georgia’s Black Sea Coast
6. From Georgia to Turkey: Batumi to Kars by Bus
7. Review: Kars Konak Hotel, Kars, Turkey
8. A Day Trip From Kars to the Ancient Armenian City of Ani
9. Goose, Cheese and Russian Remnants: A Visit to Kars, Turkey
10. Review: Dogu Express Night Train Kars to Ankara, Turkey
11. Review: AnadoluJet Ankara to Izmir (Boeing 737-800)
12. Review: Ege Palas Business Hotel, Izmir, Turkey
13. Izmir: Turkey’s Most Liberal and Liveable City (current chapter)
** rest of the chapters to follow soon **