This is the western coast of Turkey- the Turkish Aegean coast. It is a subtropical area with a diverse coastline, with olive and Mediterranean pine forests. This place is full of ruins of cities telling stories from Roman, Hellenistic, and even more ancient times. Most of these ancient cities have died centuries ago. But one of them called Smyrna didn’t die. It thrived and turned into the modern İzmir- the third largest city in Turkey. Let’s go and see what to do in Izmir, what places to visit, and how to explore it best.
Table of Contents
Basic facts about İzmir
Let’s open the map of Turkey and focus on the country’s Aegean coast. Here the coastline is complex, forming gulfs, peninsulas, promontories, and smaller bays, with many islands in front of it, most of which belonging to Greece. And here, in the middle, you can see a peninsula stretching west and north, called Karaburun Peninsula. It forms a small gulf and surrounds it from south and west, as the rest of the land surrounds it from the north.
This is the Gulf of İzmir, about 60 km long- a place protected from the currents of the open sea. The lands that surround it are mountainous, but at the same time its coasts are mostly flat- the mountains don’t directly reach the seacoast. Thus, it is a perfect point for establishing a city.
And indeed, the ancient people noticed the good conditions of the place and built a prosperous city. This city passed through the storms of history- empires, wars, blooms, and declines. Unlike most of the other ancient cities in Western Turkey, this one survived and became the third largest city in Turkey.
Today, İzmir has embraced most of the Gulf of İzmir. Once existing only at the eastern end with the name Smyrna, in modern times it grew at the northern and the southern coasts of the Gulf. But let’s dive into its history and see how all of it began, and what traces from the past we can see today.
History of İzmir
İzmir has thousands of years of history. In fact, it is one of the oldest Mediterranean cities. So, we will generalize this long history by dividing it into main ages (periods).
Pre-history and pre-Smyrna times
Several thousand years ago, the Aegean Sea was penetrating deeper into the mainland, and most of what is today’s İzmir was underwater. Archaeologists have discovered artifacts from the late Neolithic, Chalcolithic, and Bronze ages.
The first clearly distinguished settlements date from the 3rd millennium BC. There was another settlement nearby from the late Bronze Age, and the artifacts from the two settlements speak about strong Mycenaean influence.
Old Smyrna period (around 925 to 610 BC)
After the Bronze Age Collapse around 1200-1100 BC, an age of decay began, called Dark Ages. It was a time of wars, destruction, and crisis. But later, from the ruins of these wars, a new settlement was established, called Old Smyrna (different than New Smyrna). It was located in what is today Tepekule in Bayraklı, in the northeastern part of modern İzmir.
The Old Smyrna was built by Aeolian Greeks, and in 688 BC conquered by Ionian Greeks. Today, the main site of Old Smyrna still can be seen in Tepekule- a site with remains of old houses, city walls, and other constructions. The most prominent point in Old Smyrna is the Temple of Athena.
Lydian Age (610 to 545 BC)
Old Smyrna was conquered by the Lydian army and was added to the Lydian kingdom. Although the Lydians destroyed parts of the city, it was quickly repaired. The Temple of Athena proceeded to exist until the end of the Lydian rule.
Persian Age (545 to 336 BC)
The army of Cyrus the Great conquered Old Smyrna and completely destroyed it. So, there was almost no city in the area of present-day İzmir, but only some villages and ruins that remained until the end of the Persian rule.
Hellenistic Age (336 to 133 BC)
Alexander the Great conquered the area of modern İzmir in 336 BC, as well as the whole Persian Empire within the next 6 years. He rebuilt Smyrna again, but on a new location- on the slopes of today’s Mount Kadifekale (Pagos), southeast of what is today the Konak district of İzmir.
After the death of Alexander, his empire was divided into several smaller kingdoms. One of these kingdoms was the Kingdom of Pergamon (Pergamum) of the Attalid Dynasty, and New Smyrna became a part of it.
Early Roman Age (133 BC to 314 AD)
The last king of the Attalid Dynasty Attalus III peacefully gave his kingdom to the Romans, and the whole area of what today is Western Turkey became a part of the Roman Republic. With this, the city of Smyrna entered into its “golden age”.
In the 1st century AD, the Gospel of Jesus reached the city and the first Christian fellowship was created, becoming one of the Seven Churches of Asia to which Jesus sent His message through John the Apostle in the Book of Revelation. What we know about the Church of Smyrna at that time is that the Christians were poor and rejected by the rich society of the city. However, as Jesus promised to them, they will receive a heavenly crown.
In 178 AD, Smyrna was destroyed by a powerful earthquake but later rebuilt. The Arc of Faustina, the wife of Emperor Marcus Aurelius dates from this period and today is one of the most prominent constructions on the site of Smyrna Agora.
Early Byzantine Age (314 to 1084)
In 314 AD, Emperor Constantine the Great stopped the persecution against the Christians, and soon after that Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. At the same time, the empire was divided into Western and Eastern parts. This division was completed in 395, and Smyrna became a part of the Eastern Roman Empire, called also Byzantine Empire.
During the Byzantine Age, the Church of Smyrna turned into a state religious institution like the other churches in the empire. The city gradually lost its importance and declined. The Agora was abandoned and the inhabitants of Smyrna built their houses around it.
Medieval period (1084 to 1425)
This was a period of instability. Three powers fought against each other: the Byzantine Empire, the Crusaders, and the Seljuk Turks. During the wars between them, İzmir was conquered multiple times by each of these powers.
And at the end of the 14th century, two new powers appeared. First, the Ottoman Turks conquered İzmir in 1389. But later, the Mongols of Tamerlan (Timur) defeated the young Ottoman Empire, conquered İzmir, and massacred most of its population. Finally, the Ottomans reconquered it again, and in 1425 İzmir became firmly a part of their empire.
Ottoman Age (1425 to 1923)
At the beginning of this period, İzmir was just a very small town, consisting of a mixed Greek and Turkish population, many of them Christians. But in the 16th century, İzmir entered a new golden age, becoming an international port. From this time, it began growing rapidly.
In 1770, the Russians destroyed the Ottoman fleet at the Battle of Çeşme. As a result, local fanatical Muslim groups massacred a part of the local Greek Christian population. Anyway, this minority, along with other minorities like Armenians, Jews, and others continued to grow. Many Ottoman sites like the Clock Tower, Konak, and Hisar Mosques were built during that period.
At the beginning of the 20th century, İzmir already had around 250 000 population and started to gain new territories north and south of the Gulf of İzmir. However, World War I started and consequently, Ottoman rule was overthrown, with the establishment of the Republic of Turkey.
Modern Age (1923 until today)
During modern times, İzmir was a part of the Republic of Turkey. However, this period started with disasters. After World War I, a war broke out between Turkey and Greece. Greece claimed most of the Aegean coasts of Minor Asia with a significant Greek population. But this claim was unsuccessful.
Finally, after a lot of blood and atrocities, there was an agreement for a population exchange between the two countries. The Greek population of İzmir was deported to Greece, and Muslims from Greece replaced the Greeks.
At least the peace came, and the city proceeded with its growth until today when it became the third largest city in Turkey. Now İzmir occupies a lot of territories north and south of the Gulf of İzmir, and many modern districts have been built, including skyscrapers. At the same time, some old parts like Konak and Kemeraltı are well-preserved, adding to the variety of colors and vibes of the city. And again all of this- modern, old, and ancient exists in the Apocalypse, the Book of Revelation.
Our trip to İzmir
All of this attracted us, like many other travelers to visit and explore İzmir. So, we included it in our Western Turkey by car itinerary. Part of this itinerary was visiting the Seven Churches of Asia, and since we traveled from the north, first we visited the northernmost one of the Churches- Pergamum. Then, from Pergamum, we proceeded on our route straight to İzmir.
First, we visited a small entertaining site- İzmir Wildlife Park, because it was on our route at the northwest side of the city. Then, we went straight to the core of İzmir, called Konak. We spent two nights in two different Airbnbs as starting points of our city exploration.
During our stay in İzmir, we visited most of the important sites presenting the essential vibe of the city- the Agora of Smyrna, Konak and the colorful Kemeraltı, the beautiful coastline, called Kordon, and more. Of course, there is much more to do and see in İzmir, but let’s see in detail what to do there, what we did, and what we would do if we had more time.
What to do in İzmir
Here we list the best things to do in İzmir that can give you the most essential impressions and knowledge about this unique city. All of these things can be done in certain sites and areas, so “the best things to do in İzmir” are equal to the best places to visit there. Let’s go!
Places to visit in İzmir and what to do there
Read below about the 10 best things to do in İzmir and the places you can do it. Then, you can plan your best İzmir itinerary.
1. Enter the Apocalypse in the Agora of Smyrna
This is probably the most important site of İzmir, at least for those who want to explore the history and the spirit reputation of the city. Again, let’s start with the amazing fact that İzmir has the honor to be included in the most famous prophecy of all times- the Apocalypse, or the Book of Revelation!
The Agora of Smyrna has once been the political and cultural center of the ancient city of Smyrna. Although in the next centuries it was abandoned, today its ruins still take us back in time- to about 2000 years ago. At that time Smyrna was a rich city with a prosperous society. The first Christians formed the Church of Smyrna. Unlike the other Smyrna citizens, the Christians were poor and under persecution. However, in spirit, they were the richest of all.
So, before you go to visit the Agora of Smyrna, we advise you to read the Book of Revelation 2:8-11 (regardless of what you believe or do not believe- now this would be a part of your travel guide).
The site of the Agora is relatively small. Its entrance is located on its north side, just beside the colorful streets of Kemeralti. When you enter inside, you will explore mainly the Basilica with its underground halls and its emblematic water source, then- the pillars at the surface with the Arc of Faustina.
Entrance fee: 50 TL
Working time: 8:30 to 17:30.
Additional archaeological site: Old Smyrna
This is the birthplace of Smyrna- the initial location of the city (see the history of İzmir above). It is located in Bayrakli, in a high place (about 20 m above sea level). Old Smyrna was inhabited between about 3000 and 300 BC, then its inhabitants moved to the new Smyrna (the location around the Agora of Smyrna).
Today, it is a garden with ancient ruins, bringing you to the most ancient times of the İzmir history. It is located in a place, called Tepekule. The Temple of Athena is the most significant spot here.
The site of Old Smyrna (called Smyrna Bayraklı Höyüğü) is located about 8 km north of the Agora, and if you want to use public transport, you can search for a tram from Bayraklı to Halkapınar, and subway M1 from Halkapınar to Cankaya Subway Station.
2. Enjoy the beautiful promenade of Kordon
One of the most beautiful areas in İzmir is its seacoast. Not just the whole coastline, but a certain section of it, located beside the Konak district. It is called Kordon and is arranged as a beautiful park, one of the symbols of İzmir.
But what a park! Many parks in the cities are just “normal gardens” with some entertainment. This one, however, is a park with spectacular views. It consists of three parallel alleys along the seacoast, sometimes joining and separating again. They start from the northernmost part of Alsancak and proceed to the main Konak Pier.
You can walk the whole Kordon from north to south for about 1 hour (it is about 3 km long). On your way, you will pass by three working piers, the old pier (not working already but remained as a heritage building), the historical Ataturk Museum, related to the times of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, and more.
Everything is beautifully arranged with the best of the park’s art and design. And all the time you can enjoy a spectacular view of the sea, the crossing ferries and other vessels on the water, and the district of Karşıyaka (the northern part of İzmir) in the distance. Finally, your walk will end in Konak Square.
3. Visit one of the best landmarks of İzmir- the Clock Tower and Konak Mosque
This is the most popular landmark of İzmir. The place is Konak Square- a large spacious area beside the seacoast and Konak Pier. Here you not only can feel the heart of the city, but you can also make another time travel glimpse.
Two historical sites here can take you to different moments of the past. The first one, the most famous landmark of İzmir is the Clock Tower. It is built in 1901, for the 25th anniversary of Abdul Hamid II’s accession to the throne.
And the second site is a small mosque in a unique octagonal shape. This is Konak Mosque, called also Yalı Camii. The mosque is built in 1755, during the late Ottoman period of the city, under the patronage of Ayşe Hanım, the governor Katipzade Mehmet Paşa’s wife.
The whole square with these two landmarks, the surrounding buildings, the nearby Konak Pier, and the seacoast is the best starting point for exploring the most colorful part of İzmir- the market district of Kemeraltı.
4. Dive into the colorful markets of Kemeraltı
Kemeraltı is one of the liveliest parts of İzmir. It is not just a market area, but it is also a historical place. It started in Medieval times as one trade street, now called Anafartalar Caddesi, and later gradually grew in size.
An important construction, called Hisar Mosque was built in 1592, and it triggered the development of Kemeraltı, due to the unique city mix of religion with the market activities. Soon, the most colorful city life flourished here, along with the shops, local markets, restaurants, mosques, synagogues, and many other buildings around.
Today, Kemeraltı occupies the whole area between the Agora of Smyrna and Konak Square, like a bridge between the ancient and the modern images of İzmir. You can walk around its narrow streets, buy souvenirs, goods for daily use, local food, and many other things. You can feel the old traditional atmosphere and even if you don’t like shopping, Kemeraltı remains an important part of your İzmir exploration.
5. Get more education at the Archaeological Museum of İzmir
The Archaeological Museum of İzmir is not so big. In fact, it is a relatively small two-storey museum, build on the slopes of Mount Pagos (Kadifekale). But it is still worth visiting because here you can get more familiar with the ancient past of Smyrna, adding more knowledge after visiting the Agora and Old Smyrna.
This museum exhibits artifacts not only from the area of today’s İzmir, but from most of Western Turkey, including places like Ephesus, Miletus, Pergamon (Pergamum), and more. You can see a lot of Greek and Roman statues, antic vessels, decorations, ornaments, pieces of ancient art, and more.
The Archaeological Museum is in the same yard with another museum- the İzmir Ethnography Museum. However, the latter one is currently closed- probably under renovation or moving to another place.
Entrance fee of the Archaeological Museum: 15 TL
Working hours: 8:30 – 17:30 (winter) and 8:00 to 19:00 (summer)
6. Relax in the Cultural Park of İzmir
This is the main urban park of İzmir. It is the green heart of the city- a good place for relaxation and enjoying various outdoor and cultural activities.
The Cultural Park (Kültürpark) is created in 1936 in an area formerly destroyed by the “Great Fire of Smyrna”. One of the main events related to the park is the İzmir International Fair. Along with the İzmir Book Fair, these two events are held until today.
Now, the Cultural Park of İzmir is a nice place with greenery, pools, sports facilities, a TV tower, and playgrounds for kids. But what makes the park different than many other urban parks like this one is the cultural and historical vibes, presented in a museum of two parts inside the park.
This museum is called the Museum of History and Art and it consists of two buildings. The historic building presents some artifacts from ancient times, as well as an exhibition about some notorious events from Ottoman times. And the neighboring art building contains pictures from modern artists.
7. See İzmir from Kadifekale
Mount Pagos rises south of the center of İzmir. It is not too high, and at the same time, you can see that its slope is mostly covered by urban areas, consisting of houses and narrow, steep streets winding between them.
But you can also see there something interesting- the walls of a fortress. This is Kadifekale- a fort with a long history, another notorious landmark of İzmir, today recognized as a Tentative World Heritage Site.
The earliest walls on this place were built around 306 BC by Lysimachos, one of Alexander the Great’s generals who later became a king. This is the time when New Smyrna was established too. During the following centuries, this fort has been renewed and extended and was used until Ottoman times. There was even a short period in the 13th century, when the fortress (castle) belonged to the Turkish rulers of the Aydinids, while the lowland Smyrna was under Genoese control.
Today, its walls still rise on the mountain, along with its watchtowers. Here once were located the Ancient Theater and the Stadium of Smyrna, now almost unrecognizable. The whole area around the top of Mount Pagos today is turned into a beautiful park with stunning views of İzmir and the Gulf of İzmir.
Entrance fee: free
8. Try the best of Turkish cuisine in the Alsancak quarter
Let’s back to the lowland, in the northern part of Konak, along the coastline and Kordon. If you walk from Kemeraltı to the north, first you will pass through a modern place with luxurious buildings, shops, new residential areas, and wide boulevards with high slender palms from both sides.
Then, the streets gradually become narrower and closer to each other, and the buildings become older. At the same time, you can see much more cafes, restaurants, markets, shops, and entertaining places like bars and clubs. Now you are in Alsancak- the old part of Konak, aside from Kemeraltı, where the middle class of the İzmir citizens dwelled during the last 1-2 centuries.
Alsancak is a colorful place, although with a different vibe than Kemeraltı. And one of its best sides is the food. Here is the place where you can find the best restaurants in İzmir. You can enjoy various kinds of cuisines- from traditional Ottoman food to modern meals from Turkish, Balkan, European, Indian, Arab, and other meals from all over the world. And the combination of food and local authentic atmosphere creates a great experience of İzmir live tasting.
9. Ascend over İzmir by Historical Elevator
Let’s look at the city of İzmir from another spot. If you go to the southern districts of the city, south of Konak, you will find a unique building on the steep slope of the coastal hills nearby. This is the Historical Elevator (Tarihi Asansör in Turkish)- another notorious landmark of İzmir.
The Historical Elevator was built in 1907 by a local Jewish banker called Nesim Levi Bayraklıoğlu. He did it to facilitate the transportation of the locals between the different elevation levels in this urban area of İzmir. Later, the famous Jewish-Turkish singer Dario Moreno lived in the street at the Elevator.
Today, the Historical Elevator is a tourist attraction. Outside, the building looks magnificent in its architectural style from the beginning of the 20th century. And inside, you can dive into the atmosphere of that time- two working elevators take you to the upper platform under the sound of Dario Moreno’s music. And when you ascend there, you can enjoy one of the most stunning views of İzmir.
Entrance fee: free
Working hours: from 8:00 to 0:00 (midnight)
10. Cross the Gulf of İzmir by ferry
Look at the map of İzmir again. Notice the deeply penetrating Gulf of İzmir into the land, embraced by the city from both sides. If you are located in Konak Square and want to go to the northern part of İzmir, called Karşıyaka, what would be the shortest way? Yes, you can travel along the coast through the center until you arrive. But what if you just cross the Gulf from south to north?
That’s what many locals do when they have to move around the city. They do it for various reasons- work, visiting friends and relatives, or some important thing to do. But why don’t you use it as a short and attractive cruise? You can be sure the views of İzmir, its cityscape, its coastline with the hills beyond, and the sea itself offer breathtaking views of the whole area around.
The best ferry route is from Konak to Karşıyaka piers. There are regular ferries every 15-20 min (depending on the time of the day and the day itself). Some of them cross the Gulf straight to Karşıyaka, while others stop at Alsancak or another pier. You can enter the ferry station and buy a ticket- a card that you can use for a round trip. The price often varies, depending on many factors, but usually is around 2$ USD (or around 40 TL).
So, all of the above-described things to do in İzmir are enough for basic exploration and tasting the city. And to do it, you would need at least 3 days and 2 nights to accomplish it. İzmir is quite large in area, but all of these places and activities are located in and around the Konak district and can be connected by well-calculated routes.
How to calculate your route in İzmir? It depends on your entry and exit point and time, as well as the location of your place to stay. Let’s begin with transportation.
Being the third largest city in Turkey and located in the middle of the Turkish Aegean coast, İzmir is excellently connected by various types of transport to the other cities in the country, including Istanbul, Ankara, and Antalya. Also, İzmir is connected to many cities in Europe, not only by air but also by water.
If you come to İzmir by plane, your entry point is Adnan Menderes Airport, located about 18 km south of the center of İzmir. Once you arrive there, you can move to the center by airport shuttle bus (20 TL ticket), by normal public bus (5.72 TL ticket), or by fast train (6,5 or 15,2 TL, depending on how many trips you will do).
Yes, you can arrive in İzmir by water. Currently, there are ferries from Piraeus in Greece and even from Venice, Italy! Of course, these are cruise types of ferries and they can be considered just an exotic way to reach İzmir.
There are trains from Istanbul, Ankara, Isparta, and Denizli. All of them arrive at the two central railway stations Basmane and Alsancak. Part of the railways, from Selçuk in the south and Aliağa from the north, both to the center of İzmir are used by IZBAN- regular local trains serving like local public transport.
The main bus station of İzmir (İzmir Şehirlerarası Bus Terminal) is located about 6 km east of Alsancak and serves as an important long-distance hub, connecting the city with most of the other big cities in Turkey, as well as with Greece and Bulgaria, even further.
This is the most convenient way to arrive in İzmir- the city is perfectly connected by an excellent road system with the rest of Turkey. However, once you arrive there, you have to get used to driving in highly intensive traffic like in most of the largest cities in the world. But again, at least you will have the freedom to move wherever you want, whenever you want.
Once you arrive in İzmir, you have plenty of ways to move around the city. You can use public buses, taxis, the IZBAN trains, the metro line, and ferries (as the 10th thing to do in İzmir). Of course, you can also move in your own car (if you come by car).
You can also use the bicycle system “Bisim” (however, you have to download the app and know how to make payment- and it is in Turkish, so you most probably would need someone to help you).
Finally, you can just walk. Once you are in the center, you can reach the most important landmarks and other spots just by walking, they are within normal walkable distances.
İzmir is full of various types of accommodation- from super luxurious to budget hotels, guesthouses, homestays, hostels, and Airbnb apartments. And you can find all of them everywhere.
So, we will not focus on a specific hotel or another place to sleep- you can choose it from Booking, Agoda, Hostelworld, or Airbnb. But to arrange your time well, you have to search for a strategic location.
The best location is Konak. From here, you can easily explore most of the landmarks of İzmir just by walking. When you are tired, you can back to your place to stay and proceed on the next day. If you come to İzmir by your own car, you can just park it. If there is no private place to park your car, you can find a local parking lot (otopark), and you can leave there your car, usually for 50 TL per day.
Take a look at our accommodation guide:
Your İzmir itinerary
Let’s say that you arrive in İzmir for 3 days and 2 nights, and you find your accommodation in… let’s say Alsancak. On the first day, you can walk on Kordon and enjoy the seafront views there. You will arrive in Konak Square after about a 1-hour walk, and you can relax there.
Then, you can walk around Kemeraltı and the Cultural Park. Finally, you back to Alsancak and enjoy the variety of food there.
On the second day, you can explore the Agora of Smyrna and then move to the Archaeological Museum. From there, Kadifekale is not too far. And if you arrange your time better, before the Agora, you can also visit Old Smyrna.
Finally, on the third day, you can visit the Historical Elevator by taxi, public bus, or train, then back to Konak Pier. From there, you can take a ferry to Karşıyaka and again by train to back to Alsancak or just to your exit point.
Take a look at some tours around İzmir:
We explored İzmir and got a good impression of this unique city. From there, we traveled by car along the southern coast of the Gulf of İzmir and reached Alaçatı– a nice colorful town with a traditional atmosphere. Then, we proceeded southward, following the Aegean coast of Turkey. And İzmir remained one of the most memorable destinations on our Western Turkey journey.
Take a look at the video about İzmir below:
Check some travel books about İzmir:
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Hi, we are Krasen and Ying Ying. Krasen is from Bulgaria, and Ying Ying is from China. We are passionate about geography and history, and we believe that the best way to experience it is by exploring the Earth in reality, not in a school, and not virtually.
So, we created this blog Journey Beyond the Horizon, where we share geographical knowledge, travel guides and tips how to experience it when you explore our planet, and a lot of inspiration.
And we wish you a happy journey, not just virtually, but most of all- in reality.