Izmir is the third-largest city in Turkey and one of the most liberal cities in the country. Better still, the region is brimming with historic sites and natural wonders. On this basis, here are the best things to do in Izmir, Turkey.
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Welcome to Izmir: Turkey’s Aegean Metropolis
Izmir is one of the oldest cities on the Aegean Coast. The first settlement dates back to the 3rd millennium BC. Various Greek and Persian dynasties, notably Smyrna and Lydia, ruled the area before the conquest of Alexander the Great.
In 133 BC, the Romans took over and revamped many Greek sites. During that period, Ephesus was home to one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
From the 15th century onwards, the Ottomans prospered in the ruins of the Byzantine Empire and redeveloped the territory of modern-day Turkey.
In the late 16th century, the city’s port became a major player in the Aegean cotton trade. From the 17th century onwards, Izmir developed its international flair.
French, Dutch, and Venetian merchants were regular visitors, and Izmir rapidly became the most liberal, pleasure-indulging city in the Ottoman Empire.
After the Ottoman defeat in the First World War, the Treaty of Sèvres gave parts of Western Turkey to Greece.
The Greek army landed in Izmir in 1919 to reclaim the territory, but the troops of Mustafa Kemal – who would later become known as Atatürk, defeated Greece. These events forever changed Izmir and immortalized Atatürk’s legacy in the city.
Izmir is today the third-largest city in Turkey and a busy port in the Aegean. The city itself is not a primary tourist destination, but the region attracts visitors from all over the world, thanks to its world-class beaches, historic sites, and laidback vibe.
The Best Things to do in Izmir, Turkey
The city of Izmir doesn’t have a lot of historic sights because most of its ancient core suffered destruction during the Turkish War of Independence.
A visit to Izmir works well if you combine it with a trip to nearby Ephesus or other famous sights in the region.
In terms of tourist attractions, the city cannot compete with Istanbul, but there are still enough places to visit in Izmir for a short stay.
The following are some of the most unmissable places to see in Izmir, Turkey.
Visit the Traditional Izmir Bazaar
The best things to do in Izmir include Kemaraltı Market, the city’s traditional bazaar.
Whatever you want to buy, a business-minded vendor will offer it – and as always, haggling is the norm.
You may have to spend some time in the shops to end up paying a good price, but the experience is worth the effort.
Get Lost in the Bustling Streets of Alsancak
Alsancak is the beating heart of Izmir – and full of tasty restaurants, bars, and shops.
The area is home to Kibris Sehitleri street, the longest shopping street in Izmir. Home to numerous shops, it’s also an excellent place to enjoy kebap or sweets.
If you’re a male traveler, don’t forget to get a haircut at one of the city’s barbershops. Turkish barbers have some unique methods, such as burning facial hair away or using strong wax, and their craft is world-renowned for its quality and efficiency.
Visit Izmir Agora
The Roman Agora is among the top historical places to visit in Izmir.
Nestled between residential blocks and teeming commercial streets, the ruins take visitors back into Silk Road times. As such, it’s an open-air museum displaying collections from ancient marketplaces in Izmir.
Enjoy the Best Turkish Food and Culinary Attractions in Izmir
Alsancak is home to a wide variety of local restaurants.
Turkish cuisine needs no introduction, and Izmir offers all the best Turkish food while adding some Aegean touches. You can find all the classics like kebap, baklava, and köfte, but also lots of beef ham and lamb dishes.
For great local food, check out Cappadocia Restaurant, a price-worthy option in Alsancak showcasing Turkey’s varied cuisine.
Visit the Atatürk Museum
Izmir deeply loves Atatürk, and his pictures and monuments are all over the city. In this context, the small but instructive Atatürk Museum will teach you about the life of Mustafa Kemal.
Kemal adopted the name “father of all Turks” after unifying the Turkish nation and developing it into a modern and secular state in the wake of the Ottoman Empire’s demise.
People nowadays consider the city of Izmir as a hub of Atatürk’s ideology, and the residents still fully embrace his visionary ideas.
Enjoy the Views on Asansör and Explore Izmir’s Jewish Quarter
Asansör is an elevator leading up to a restaurant/café on the hill overlooking Izmir and the Aegean Coast.
The restaurant offers some of the best views in Izmir. It is a popular spot for tourists and locals alike – and an excellent place to enjoy some traditional Turkish coffee.
Karatas, the area around Asansör, is Izmir’s Jewish quarter and home to several synagogues. In this context, Jewish businessman Nesim Levi built the elevator in 1907. Asansör became a quick way to ascend to the houses separated from the lower neighborhood by a cliff.
You’ll find the elevator in Dario Moreno Street, a street dedicated to one of the most famous Turkish-Jewish singers. The polyglot musician (1921 – 1968) was a well-known artist in Izmir and an example of the city’s ethnic and religious diversity.
Check Out the Best Beaches Near Izmir
If you’re visiting during the warm summer months, heading to the beach is one of the best things to do in Izmir.
There are no beaches in Izmir proper, but the surrounding towns are home to some tranquil sandy beaches.
You’ll find the best beaches near Izmir in Cesme, a popular holiday destination for locals and foreigners alike.
The most recommendable beaches in Cesme include Ilıca Beach, one of the best white sand beaches in the Izmir Province, Pırlanta Plajı (Diamond Beach), famous for its wind and waves, and Altınkum Plajı, translating into Golden Sands.
The easiest way to reach these beaches is by renting a car. Another option is to take the city’s new shiny metro to Uckuyula Bus Station and head west to Cesme from there.
Visit Izmir Clock Tower and the Adjacent Konak Square
Konak is Izmir’s main square and home to the famous Clock Tower, one of the city’s landmarks.
The tower was finished in 1901 to celebrate Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II’s 25 years of power. It is thereby one of the few Ottoman landmarks still present in Izmir. The clock itself was a gift from German Emperor Wilhelm II.
Around the tower, you’ll find a small mosque as well as lots of 20th-century office blocks. These buildings aren’t the prettiest as most of them were quick fixes after the 1920s destruction.
Enjoy a Night Out in Alsancak
When it comes to the best things to do in Izmir, the city’s nightlife is undoubtedly up there. In this regard, Alsancak becomes lively after dark when hip Izmir residents gather in the city’s bars and clubs.
Izmir is a hub of liberalism, and this shows when you head into the city’s nightlife venues.
From alcohol-brimming cocktail bars to electro clubs and smoke-filled jazz cafés, there is no shortage of options in Alsancak.
Visit Ephesus or Pamukkale – the Best Day Trips From Izmir
The city of Izmir doesn’t have a million tourist attractions, but the surrounding province is home to some of the most impressive ancient sites in all of Turkey.
Ephesus is a former Greek colony full of ancient structures such as the Library of Celsus and the Great Theatre. Aside from that, the modern town of Selcuk sits on the old foundations of Ephesus. As such, it’s the home of the former Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Other recommendable places to visit in the Izmir province are the wine hub of Sirince and the ruin site of Pergamum, located about 3 hours from the city of Izmir.
You can reach Selcuk/Ephesus by train from Izmir’s Basmane station. Alternatively, you can do an organized tour. I recommend this tour for less than 50€.
All the other sites are trickier to visit if you rely on public transport. The easiest way to explore the best sights in the Izmir Province is to rent a car.
Where to Stay in Izmir, Turkey
The best areas to stay in Izmir are the buzzing neighborhood of Alsancak and the quieter seafront area around Atatürk Square.
In these areas, you will be close to all of the best places to see in Izmir.
Alternatively, the area of Konak around the Clock Tower is also a recommendable place to stay but further away from the city’s core.
Things to do in Izmir: Know Before You Go
- How to Get to Izmir: Izmir has an international airport with flights to many destinations in Europe and Turkey. Alternatively, you can fly to Izmir from Istanbul or take a bus (5-9 hours, depending on the bus company).
- How to Get Around Izmir: Izmir has an excellent public transit network consisting of buses, metros, and trams. You can buy an Izmirkaart at any station and charge it as you go.
- Language: English levels here aren’t as good as in more touristy places like Istanbul or Cappadocia. You’ll survive with only English, but learning a few basic phrases in Turkish is highly recommendable.
- Safety in Izmir: Izmir is generally safe. Use common sense, and you shouldn’t have any problems here.
- Izmir for Digital Nomads: Izmir is undoubtedly one of the best choices for digital nomads in Turkey. In this context, its low cost of living, modern infrastructure, and laidback vibes make it a viable alternative to Istanbul. On the minus side, English levels are low, and the city proper doesn’t have as many attractions as other places in Turkey. Read my comprehensive Turkey digital nomad guide for more info.