An hour’s flight out of Istanbul, Izmir city is by the Aegean Sea on Turkey’s west coast. What stands out here is how the ancient world still pokes through—cities can be built and rebuilt endlessly, a mosque and a church can sit side by side and a woman in a burkini and a woman in a two-piece can wade into the sea in the same frame. Seeking a three-day excursion featuring ruins, a beach and other Turkish delights? Go west, it is wild.
Open the innings with cay (tea) and/or kahve (coffee), which in Turkey come in small servings, generally without milk. Coffee is a tasty, sludgy bog in a cup, cay might be flavoured or not—either way a winner. These are available in cafés and stalls through the city, and usually cost no more than a few liras. Since this region was once ruled by the ancients, it stands to reason that the first stop should be the Roman agora (entry 10 liras/Rs120), ruins of a public square dating back to the 4th century. Though the site is in the process of being further excavated and expanded, it is still a pretty good historical aperitif for day two to follow, with its archways, columns and sewage plans.
Take a gander at the 500-year-old Kemeralti Market, a vast enterprise comprising open-air stalls and traditional shops selling items ranging from clothes to spices, juice to souvenirs.
St. John’s Basilica in Selçuk is believed to have been built over the burial site of St. John the apostle and modelled after Constantinople’s Church of the Holy Apostles. Photo by: Nejdet Duzen/ Shutterstock
A server prepares kumpir—a meal of baked potato stuffed with a choice of toppings. Photo by: Mehmet Cetin/ Shutterstock
The Konak Square with its intricately patterned clock tower built in the Ottoman-style is the city’s beating heart. The 117-year-old timepiece was a gift from German emperor Wilhelm II and is an architectural feast for the eyes. The bite-sized mosque on the edge of the square adds to the scene. Feel free to have a lie down on the surrounding gardens before heaving yourself up for the next bit of walking.
A stroll by the sea is virtually mandatory in a seaside town and you can also pop in to the Konak Pier that has a movie theatre, shops and restaurants.
Kumpir or jacket potato with stuffing isn’t as widely publicised in Turkey as it ought to be, so if you love potatoes (who doesn’t?) make sure to choose this filling and fulfilling dinner option. Try Atıştır Café, where you can point to whatever ingredients you would like jammed into your baked spud. The possibilities are endless: corn, meat, sauces, vegetables, cheese. Go nuts.
For most, Izmir is a launching pad to visit Ephesus. Take a bus or train to Selçuk, the nearest town, then change to a shuttle that drops you at the archaeological site (entry 60 liras/Rs764). It’s a sprawling historical Disneyland, be prepared to spend up to three hours or more here. The sun is a fierce adversary, so come armed with industrial quantities of water and sunscreen.
Ephesus has been inhabited since the Bronze Age but came to prominence as a Greek city in the sixth century B.C. The Temple of Artemis, one of the ancient wonders of the world was its claim to fame. It later fell to the Persians and later to a marauding Alexander the Great. In its subsequent phase it came under the Roman Empire, flourishing first under Augustus Caesar and then under Tiberius. In the first century A.D. as Christianity spread, this area became an important sphere of its influence. Gradually thereafter, the city fell into decline.
The historic Clock Tower in the middle of Konak Square in Izmir city was built from green and pink marble brought from Marseille. Photo by: Esin Deniz/ Shutterstock
Urla, a beach town about 35 kilometres outside Izmir, is an idyllic day-long getaway. Photo by: Yulia Kupeli/ Shutterstock
The most important and imposing structures in the site are a Coliseum-like theatre, with a capacity of 25,000, where performances and gladiatorial games once took place; and the reconstructed Library of Celsus that held 25,000 scrolls. But really, all of it merits leisurely walking through—everything from the ancient gymnasium to the baths.
There is a separate entry fee for visiting the terraced houses (entry 20 liras/ Rs243), and though you may be ruin-ed out by that point, you might as well go in to get a sense of domestic life in the Roman period. Once you exit from the top of the hill, take a horse cart back to the bottom, rather than walk three kilometres back to the shuttle point.
Before returning to your base in Izmir, don’t forget to visit the Basilica of St. John (entry 10 liras/Rs120) by the station/bus stop. Atmospherically perched on a height, it’s a ruin of one of the earliest churches in the region, and really offers a palimpsest into early Christianity. Just next door is the Isa Bey Mosque (entry free), quite unlike any other, built in the Seljukian style in the 1300s on what was perhaps once an Apollon temple, with elements brought from Greco-Roman structures.
Once back at the bus station, you could do with a bite. A good time as any to taste pide, or Turkish pizza, a simple bread-and-cheese-with-toppings affair to turbocharge your body after a tiring day. When you return to Izmir, if you’re up for it go get some fresh fruit from the cart-pullers or shops near the Basmane railway station. As a Mediterranean country, Turkey is a cornucopia—try an orange, or melon or apricot and feel your day take a turn for the better.
The vibrant Kemeralti Market has stalls selling everything from aphrodisiacs to clothes. Photo by: Theodore Clutter/Science Source/Dinodia Photo Library
There is only one agenda after the historical onslaught of Day 2 and it goes like this: lie down on the beach. Once you are sufficiently rested, get up and swim in the sea, then return to crisp in the sun and back and forth until said sun sets for the day.
Peopled mostly by locals, about 1.5 hours out of Izmir, the little town or Urla sounds like Kurla, just without the ‘K’ and the civic disarray. The bus journey from the station is itself a soothing segue into the beach fun to follow, a drive mostly along the water’s edge.
Hop off the bus when you see the swimsuit clad folk do the same—the rule my friend and I followed—
and it will lead you to vast patches of sand filled with holidaymakers. Beach chairs with overhead umbrellas can be rented (entry 10 liras/ Rs120) for the day. The sea is blue; very, very blue, and the air is hot; very, very hot. So when you enter the water all sorts of heavenly sensations set in. The day must be punctuated with chucking some beer down one’s throat, available at bars on the shore. The water is matchless; shallow and perfectly temperate. You may or may not be invited “to camel-wrestle in the sea” with flirtatious young boys on the beach chairs beside you. Dinner can be had on the way back to the station at any fish and chips joint. There are enough places and my pescetarian friend assured me the battered fish we stopped for was peerless.
is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist. She was previously a beat reporter with the Hindustan Times. She usually writes on criminal justice issues, culture, books and sports.
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