“Infidel Izmir.” That’s the nickname that was long ago bestowed on Turkey’s third-largest metropolis. Known for most of its history as Smyrna, this port city was, in Ottoman times, a melting pot that included Greeks, Armenians, Jews, French and Italians. Today’s Izmir is largely Turkish, but the moniker lingers. For religious Turks, the label seems appropriate for this sunny, palm-fringed seaside city, with its relaxed attitudes and many nonobservant Muslims. For most residents, though, the nickname is proof of Izmir’s progressiveness. Reverential images of Ataturk, the founder of modern secular Turkey, are everywhere, and in June many in the city protested against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan after his Islamist-inspired government cracked down on peaceful demonstrators in Istanbul who had mobilized to save a city park from developers. Izmir — which is among four international cities that are vying to hold the World Expo in 2020 — has much to offer visitors: a renovated waterfront, an ever-evolving night-life district and slick new design hotels. Meanwhile, a vast traditional bazaar and the spectacular nearby ruins of Ephesus bear witness to a rich past.
1. Bay City Strollers
Hugging the Aegean, the popular seaside promenade known as the Kordon is a fascinating window into Izmir’s proudly nationalist history, laid-back mores and unique religious character. Under buildings draped with Turkish flags and Ataturk banners, women in miniskirts stroll alongside matrons in head scarves as businessmen quaff Efes beer in open-air restaurants. Heading south from Alsancak Ferry Terminal, you’ll amble past the white neo-Classical stone facade of the Ataturk Museum, the grand battlefield statue of Ataturk in Cumhuriyet Square, the Ottoman-era buildings along Pasaport Ferry Terminal, and countless seaside cafes.
2. Pier Review
None other than Gustave Eiffel designed the original Konak Pier, a long wharf of low stone buildings and glass and steel coverings. Erected in 1890, the former customs house had gone to seed before a 2003 restoration project saved it. Now it shelters boutiques like Taris Zeytin, a shrine to every form of olive oil (body lotion, for example, 13 Turkish lira, or $7 at 1.85 lira to the dollar) and olive leaf (tea, 3.75 lira, or $2, a box). The outdoor terrace of %100 Rest Cafe & More is a scenic spot to sip a local Angora red wine (13 lira) and absorb the city’s much-admired sunsets.
3. Ship to Shore
Pay tribute to Izmir’s seafaring past by hopping the ferry from Konak Ferry Terminal and crossing Homer’s “wine-dark sea” to the Bostanli landing, on the north side of Izmir’s bay. The ride affords sublime views of the twinkling jagged hills and illuminated skyscrapers and mosques — as well as the hilltop ruins of Kadifekale, a stone fortress that dates back to the reign of Alexander the Great. A three-ride fare card is 6.50 lira.
4. A Meal Aquatic
If you catch it with a hook, net or trap, they serve it at Mavra Restaurant, a 10-minute walk from the Bostanli ferry landing. With its white stone walls and hanging lanterns, the indoor-outdoor space evokes a rustic Aegean village. But the convivial crowd is urbane, as Polo shirts and Chanel handbags testify. There’s no menu. Waiters just show up, first with an enormous tray of mezze from which you might choose dips like saksuka (a zesty purée of eggplant and tomato). Next comes the seafood course, which has been known to include grilled octopus tentacles, skewered calamari and curried sea bass fillets. For dessert, mastic gum sometimes arrives as an ice cream-like mound soaked in chocolate sauce. A meal for two with drinks is 150 lira.
5. The Two Towers
Rio has Christ the Redeemer, Rome has the Colosseum and Paris has the Arc de Triomphe. In Izmir, the most photographed stone masterwork is the Clock Tower in Konak Square, a tall, slender, intricately chiseled minaret-like white structure atop a two-tiered base ringed with arches, columns and fountains. Designed by a French citizen of the Ottoman Empire, the 1901 tower is another symbol of Izmir’s longstanding ties with the West. Across the pigeon-packed square soars another tower, the minaret of Yali Mosque. A small octagonal stone and brick building surrounded by horseshoe-shaped windows and ornately painted blue porcelain tiles, the 18th-century mosque is another impressive relic of Ottoman glory.
6. Bazaar Sensations
Just inland from Konak Square, traditional Turkey comes vividly to life as you plunge into the forking passages of Kemeralti, the city’s crowded bazaar. Old couples and young families survey shops filled with bed linens, fabrics, wedding gowns and cookware. Kizlaragasi Han (enter at the corner of Sokak 871 and 861), a 16th-century stone complex, is a little brother to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, a covered market awash in brass lanterns, tea glasses, chess sets and trinkets. Ali Baba sells towels, robes and soaps, while Evvel Zaman Antika specializes in Turkish nostalgia, from ’70s disco albums to cologne bottles shaped like Izmir’s iconic buildings.
7. Atmospheric Lunch
Follow the smoke to Cin Ali restaurant, in the courtyard adjacent to Hisar Mosque. There, a man with a sword slices strips from a huge, sizzling, juice-dripping chunk of meat, laid horizontally and slowly turning over a wood fire. Served in warm flatbread, the char-roasted meat is sublime. A sandwich and a drink costs around 15 lira.
8. Houses of Worship
Next door is the late 16th-century Hisar Mosque, the city’s largest, whose single sharp minaret suggests a pencil writing verses in the sky. Inside, beneath the celestial blue dome and enfolded by columns and arches, old men in skullcaps say prayers in quiet voices. To glimpse Izmir’s Jewish past, stroll down the market lane called Sokak 927. It was once known as Havra Sokagi (Street of Synagogues), and still contains some lingering temples for Izmir’s small remaining Jewish community of around 1,500. Shalom Synagogue (No. 38C) hides behind sky blue metal doors with a knocker in the shape of a bunch of grapes. Try your luck — occasionally someone will answer.
9. Confronting the Past
“Fish will give the sign/And boar will lead the way.” It sounds like improbable urban-planning advice, but such were the words of Apollo’s oracle to Androclos, who used them to found the ancient city of Ephesus. A detailed statue of Androclos graces the Izmir Archaeology Museum, whose bare and badly lighted interiors house remarkable pieces dug from Ephesus and other ancient settlements around Izmir. A new free audio guide greatly helps explain the collection, which features painted vases from Gryneion (a city named for an Amazon), ornamented terra-cotta sarcophagi and the magnificent fully intact bronze statue of an Olympic athlete, known as “The Runner,” in full stride. Admission is 8 lira.
10. Minor Miracles
Hankering for a whole roasted lamb? An entire stuffed turkey? Meat worshipers will find a high-protein horn of plenty at Tavaci Recep Usta, an upscale waterfront restaurant in the courtyard of an old Greek mansion. Seated in wire-frame gazebos and at open-air tables, couples and families gorge on mezze (including baked eggplant stuffed with rice and tomato sauce). But lamb is lord. From lamb tartare to flash-fried tender lamb cubes (sac tara) to roasted ground lamb rolled with spices (sebzeli lule kebap), the kitchen turns out one minor miracle after another. Better still, the meat comes from the restaurant’s own farm. A three-course dinner for two with drinks costs around 120 lira.
11. Nocturnal Diversions
A large Buddha head peers quietly at the 20- and 30-somethings packing the patio of Okuz. It might be the only calm presence in the night-life district of Alsancak, whose lanes fill at night with the city’s strongest drinks, highest heels and loudest partyers. Okuz, an early-19th-century mansion converted into 21st-century bar, serves up Beyazit cocktails (melon schnapps, vodka, Sprite; 20 lira) and D.J.-spun house music. On the stage of Kybele Rock & Jazz Bar bands kick out everything from Turkish pop to Led Zeppelin classics that resound off the 19th-century haunted-house décor. The 15-lira cover includes one drink.
12. Time Travel
Founded by the Greeks, raised to glory under the Romans, addressed by St. Paul, the stunning remains of Ephesus are roughly two hours from Izmir by bus (less if you hire a taxi or tour company). The Pamukkale bus office (across from the Swissotel on Gazi Osman Pasa Bulvari, pamukkale.com.tr) sells 10-lira tickets to Kusadasi. Then a shuttle takes you to Izmir’s bus depot (otogar) where you can catch a bus for the hourlong trip to Kusadasi. There, by the bus depot, catch a minibus (5 lira) to take you to the dirt road leading to Ephesus’s Lower Gate, about 10 minutes away on foot. Apply sunscreen and bask in the stone plazas, vast theaters, stately temples and iconic library. Admission is 25 lira.
1. The Kordon (promenade). Ataturk Museum, Ataturk Caddesi 24, (90-232) 464-8085.
2. Konak Pier, Ataturk Caddesi 19. Taris Zeytin, www.ta-ze.com.tr. %100 Rest Cafe & More, (90-232) 441-5593.
3. Konak ferry terminal. Kadifekale ruins.
4. Mavra Restaurant, 506 Cemal Gursel Caddesi, Bostanli, (90-232) 330-8855;mavra.com.tr.
5. Clock Tower, Konak Square. Yali Mosque.
6. Kemeralti bazaar.
7. Cin Ali restaurant, 10 Sokak 899, (90-232) 445-0544 and (90-232) 489-5672.
8. Hisar Mosque. Shalom synagogue, No. 38C, Sokak 927.
9. Izmir Archaeology Museum, Halil Rıfat Pasa Caddesi 4,kultur.gov.tr/EN,34448/izmir-archeology-museum.html.
10. Tavaci Recep Usta, Ataturk Caddesi 364, (90-232) 463-8797; tavacirecepusta.com.
11. Okuz, 21 Sokak 1453, (90-532) 398-2799. Kybele Rock & Jazz Bar, 28 Sokak 1453, (90-532) 200-6051.
12. Ephesus ruins.
By SETH SHERWOOD