Merhaba, fellow explorers! Are you planning to visit the beautiful metropolitan city of Izmir located on Turkey’s stunning Aegean coast? If so, this is your guide to the top things to do in Izmir for first-time travellers. As a bonus, we’ve also added must-do day trips from Izmir further below!
First-time traveler to Turkey? Don’t miss our top 23 things to know before you travel to Turkey.
Why Visit Izmir, Turkey?
Izmir is Turkey’s third-largest city and one of the oldest settlements in the Mediterranean sea region. With over 8,000 years of ancient history evident in excavations of archaeological sites and monuments (one that was even rebuilt by Alexander the Great), Izmir not only boasts many fascinating cultural heritage sights, but also a lovely coastal climate, outdoors opportunities, and a unique local gastronomy.
As an international port city, Izmir’s ancient, multi-layered history has been shaped by cross-cultural influences such as: local Anatolian tribes, Ionians, Romans, Persians, Greeks, Turks and Ottomans, Sephardic Jews, Armenians and Levantines (Europeans of British, Italian and French descent).
Today, Izmir is considered a calmer alternative to Istanbul. Its palm-lined promenade and streets makes you feel as if you’re in an ambience mix between Los Angeles and a Western European city. These days, towns outside of Izmir (such as Urla and Alacati) have become popular vacation destinations for those seeking to escape the hustle and bustle of Istanbul city life.
In the summer months, the population of Izmir province swells as popular resorts around the Çeşme peninsula, Urla, Foça, Seferihisar, Sığacık, and Özdere (to name a few) host to those escaping the scorching heat from other parts of Turkey.
If we haven’t already convinced you to visit Izmir, consider these 21 fun things to do in Izmir (just a 1-hour plane ride from Istanbul).
1. Konak Square and the Clock Tower
Your first stop in Izmir should be Konak Square located in the downtown area. Here, you’ll find a beautiful Clock Tower, a gift from German Emperor Wilhelm II to Ottoman King Abdulhamit II and a symbol of the city. This is also an entryway to the old bazaar with connections to buses, a tramway system, and the urban ferries. Konak square is also a popular rest stop and great for people-watching.
2. Kemeraltı Bazaar & Surrounding Markets
From Konak square, head to the famous bazaar called Kemeraltı. Here you can wander the market streets, reminiscent of the Egyptian Bazaar of Istanbul, for hours. Venture into one of the small stands selling dried herbs and dried vegetables, local teas and colorful spices, or clothes or knick-knacks, and even your wedding dress, if you please.
Have a traditional Turkish coffee near Hisar mosque or some snacks from Ülver Teyze Rümeli Börekler (Ülver Aunt’s Bosnian) pies! And don’t forget to check out the jewellery and antique shops in Kızlarağası Hanı (an Ottoman caravanserai), and the local artisans working on metals, leather and jewellery.
Take a leisurely walk down Havra Street and Kestanepazari (Chestnut bazaar) mosque on your way to our next stop, take in the colourful sights and sounds of the surrounding market selling pungent spices such as sumac, and dried pistachios, apricots and fig.
At the end of Havra Street, you’ll see the Agora Archaeological Site.
3. Agora Archaeological Site of Smyrna
The Agora of Smyrna (Greek public space) is an open-air museum located in the Namazgâh neighborhood. It is one of the only agoras in the world built within a current-day major city, featuring a three-layered structure, basilicas, marble columns, arches, and ancient graffiti. Some of the artifacts and excavations from here are now displayed at the Izmir Archaeological Museum and the Museum of Art and History.
4. Culture Park
A place to enjoy concerts, festivals and book fairs throughout the year. It serves as an escape from the hustle and bustle of the city, where you can enjoy a run or a jog through the lush green spaces. In the spring, the park hosts the Izmir Book Fair over a course of 10 days. And in the summer, the park hosts the Izmir International Fair where both national and international musicians and artists entertain the local crowd in a week-long affair. Alternatively, there’s also a Museum of History and Art inside, an amusement park, and a lake.
5. Konak Pier
With shops and a number of sea-facing restaurants, Konak Pier is a great place to enjoy a coffee or a meal with friends. Enjoy some authentic Turkish dishes such as baked mantı (Turkish-style ravioli), with the view of the mountains of Izmir.
6. Kadifekale & the Atatürk Stone Sculpture
Kadifekale Castle on Pagos Hill offers insights back to the time when Alexander the Great revived ancient Izmir. Its name means “velvet castle” and at the top are stunning views of the city and Gulf of Izmir. Today you can see what’s left of the castle including walls, towers, and some Byzantine underground cisterns.
Catch the Izmir tour bus, a public bus, or make a quick taxi ride from the Agora site because the walk up is steep!
In the area, there are a few other interesting sites to see from your taxi drive such as: a series of aqueducts called Vezirsuyu and from there you can get to see the huge relief of Atatürk. Ask to go to Sirinyer and you’ll see another set of these ancient aqueducts to your right, called Kızılçullu aqueducts. Not being real tourist attractions, these monuments are remnants of Izmir’s ancient past.
7. Alsancak Neighborhood
Alsancak can be considered Izmir’s downtown and has something for everyone. Starting from the beginning of the port area, the neighbourhood has a variety of restaurants, bars, taverns and hotels. You can spend a whole day explaining this neighbourhood and you’ll still not be done! Small boutique shops, cool hangout places and some great bars will keep you busy. Spend an evening in La Puerta trying all the different drinks in their outdoor beer garden, or head to Alsancak Dostlar Fırını, a family-run bakery that serves the city’s famous pastry “boyoz” with boiled eggs with piping hot “çay” (tea). The shop has many varieties that you can enjoy for breakfast.
If shopping is your mantra, then head to Plevne Boulevard or Dr. Mustafa Enver Bey street, where, after a few hours of shopping in both local and international shops, you can opt for both people-watching and a quick pick-me-up dessert at Reyhan Patisserie.
Bonus: If you happen to be in Alsancak for a late brunch, then enjoy a full Turkish breakfast (“serpme kahvalti”) with unlimited piping hot çay at Tuzu Biberi, opposite the Alsancak ferry station.
8. Izmir’s Museums
Izmir doesn’t have many museums to boast about compared to Istanbul but the ones that it does have are worth a visit! They are also close to each other, if you’d like to visit more than one on the same day or between lunch. Here they are:
- (1) Ethnography Museum
- (2) Archaeological Museum
- (3) Art and Sculpture Museum
- (4) Museum of History and Art
- (5) Izmir Women’s Museum
- (6) Ataturk Museum
- (7) State Opera and Ballet (Arts & cultural center)
- (8) Steam Locomotive Museum – open air!
- (9) Agora Museum – open-air and listed above
- (10) Bostanlı Archaeological Museum – open air!
- (11) Pergamon Museum – open air!
- (12) Çeşme Museum – open air
- (13) Universal Children’s Museum – open air
Read more about Izmir’s open air museums here.
The Archaeological Museum and the Ethnography Museum are both in the same complex. The Ethnography Museum is housed in an old neoclassical stone building that was used as a hospital earlier in its life. Today, the building houses various many interesting artifacts displaying the social life of the people of Izmir and the Aegean region, including clothing, carpets and pottery.
A must do: Pop into Atatürk Museum to know the history of modern Turkey’s founding father. This is a critical piece of history to understand Turkey today! It is housed in a beautifully restored neoclassical mansion.
9. Religious Sites
Izmir’s multicultural history is evident when one looks at its various religious sites such as St. John’s Cathedral, St. Vukolos Orthodox Church, and Salepçioğlu Mosque.
The city has a number of churches, mosques and synagogues (you’ll need prior permission to visit some of them). Inside you can catch prayer sessions as well while admire the architecture and interior decor. St. Vukolos Church in the Basmane neighbourhood even has a small courtyard for you to take a rest stop. A reminder of the diversity of Izmir!
10. Historical Elevator / Asansör
Built by a local businessman in the early 1900s to ease transportation of goods and people to the steep hills of Izmir, the elevator has become an important landmark and one of the most popular places to photograph in the city. And it is totally free of charge to use!
Enjoy a break at the restaurant and café at the top or in one of the small boutiques on the street leading to the building, named after Dario Morena, a resident of the street who later became a famous musician in France. The house he lived in, still survives.
11. Balçova & its Cable Car
One of Izmir’s many residential districts, Balçova is home to many shopping centres as well as Izmir’s only cable car system on the Dede mountain. It is one of the oldest aerial lifts in Turkey. After being out of service for 40 years, it was reconstructed and began operations anew in 2015.
A steep ride up the mountain, across the modern Izmir University of Economics, the view of the city from the cable car is breathtaking.
At the top, you can find tea houses and barbeque essentials to enjoy a picnic atop the mountain with your family and friends. There are many picnic tables where you enjoy views on both sides of the mountain.
A telescope offers views of the whole of Izmir and İnciralti, a neighbourhood with a small forest and a lagoon where, if you’re lucky, you can see flamingos. If you happen to come in the morning, many restaurants at ground level also offer Turkish breakfast.
For a spa day, Balçova offers a thermal bath of legends: Agamemnon Baths. These baths are believed to have been used by the Greek king Agamemnon (Trojan War commander) and his soldiers after a battle. Spa services and treatments available via some hotels.
Bonus: Midye Dolma or mussels stuffed with rice, another one of Izmir’s famous dishes, is a must-try at Serkan & Hamza. Try them with a squeeze of lemon.
Day Trips from Izmir
Izmir also makes for the perfect jumping point to explore nearby gems. Below are places to visit from Izmir day trips.
12. Ephesus Archaeological Site, Mother Mary’s house, & Şirince
Ephesus is a UNESCO World Heritage site, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and is a must for history and archaeological buffs. With the famous Library of Celsus, one of the biggest libraries in the Roman world, Ephesus is a very popular tourist attraction.
The city itself has plenty of other monuments and places such as the amphitheatre, the Temple of Hadrian, and the nearby Temple of Artemis. Especially fascinating are the terraced houses of Ephesus with their colourful mosaics showing us a glimpse into the luxurious lives of ancient Romans.
A few kilometres from here, the 5th-century house of Mother Mary has now become a pilgrimage site. Virgin Mary may have spent her last years here, perhaps even with the apostle St. John, according to a legend.
You can visit in a day, finishing at the quaint village of Şirince, where you can enjoy local fruit wines.
Best of all? It’s super easy to get to Ephesus from Izmir with just $2.
13. Çeşme & Alaçatı
Çeşme is now a popular destination for Turkish out-of-towners, especially Istanbullites wanting to get away. Before it used to be Bodrum, and now it’s this small town that swells in numbers in the summer months. Cobblestone streets lead you to small boutiques, a small castle and a good marina to enjoy the fresh fish and other amazing food.
If you’re looking for something more chill, hop on a dolmuş (local shared taxi) from Izmir and go to Alaçatı, another hip place to hang out on hot summer nights. Have local ice cream made of wild berries at the marina or if you’re hungry, grab a local sandwich called Kumru, stuffed with hot cheese, sausage, tomato and pickled cucumbers.
Urla, once just a small village, is now cherished for its wineries and olive oil production. It’s also home to a popular artsy street with antique shops, old buildings turned into cafés and restaurants which has revived the town.
Many local wineries allow you to do a tasting, and some have even won awards, like the town’s namesake Urla Winery.
Try Turkish breakfast at Fırın Vourla set in a stone building, baked goods at İrmik Hanım and/or enjoy a nice afternoon at İstifci Urla in their beautiful garden. For a great seafood option, try Yengeç restaurant on the port and take a stroll to check out the oldest olive oil extraction mill or Klazomenai (as it was called).
Urla’s local Artichoke Festival has also become popular in recent years.
Urla is just 45 minutes from Izmir, catch local buses or minibuses from Balçova and you’ll be there in no time to enjoy the cobbled streets and old stone houses!
15. Izmir’s Full Promenade – Kordon to Göztepe
Consider exploring Izmir the old fashioned way: walking! You can walk the full length of Izmir’s promenade from Alsancak Kordon to Göztepe Bridge, which is around 7-8 kilometres.
If you like exploring the city by bike, you can rent a public bike from one of the stations near Konak urban ferry station and go all the way to Göztepe while enjoying the view.
More things to do in Izmir along this trajectory:
- In Kordon, evenings are enjoyed with friends on the grass, eating sunflower seeds with some drinks — a quintessential Izmir scene for both the young and the old! You’ll be lucky to find a spare space here on Friday nights, especially in spring and summer!
- Go to the Ataturk Museum.
- Arkas Art Centre for a few hours of art appreciation – Housed in a restored stone mansion that served as the French Consulate since the 1800s, the art center remains one of the few buildings that has survived through the years.
- Get a drink at the bohemian and posh patio of La Cigale. A French restaurant facing the French Cultural Institute.
- Jewish district of Karataş.
- Check out the Historical Elevator.
- Karantina Square with a tramway station and a small ferry station.
- Republic Square and other monuments and statues commemorating various events and figures.
- Near the Göztepe bridge, view some remnants of old waterfront mansions (yalı). Some of these old buildings are now home to children nurseries and banks, but they’re worth a look.
- Uşakizade Mansion, where the founding father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk lived for some time.
- In Göztepe (“Eye Hill” in Turkish), you can walk on the bridge and enjoy a great view with some coffee or tea in the nearby cafés.
Hope you enjoyed your Izmir tour!
About Farah Saleem Düzakman: Having grown up and lived in different parts of the world, Farah’s experiences in both the East and the West have informed her views and inspired her love of art, politics, tea, and conversations. A frequent traveler who has lived in six countries, she works as an ELT educator, freelance managing editor, writer, and an amateur artist. She divides her time between Canada and Turkey. You can reach her on LinkedIn.
Edited & curated by: @DominicanAbroad – Follow on Instagram for all things travel, culture & lifestyle!