Exploring Izmir - Life on the Aegean
Updated: Oct 27
Similar to our time in Istanbul, Izmir just offered too many cool experiences to not include a catch-all post about life there. So, we’ll use this story to talk about life in Izmir - no specific theme beyond how awesome a town it truly is to explore.
Ancient Smyrna / Modern and Secular Turkey
While we learned a ton about life in present-day Turkey during our time there, neither of us knew much about Izmir as a modern city before arriving. Instead, like most non-Turks, our knowledge was limited to high school history references.
Back in ancient times, Izmir was the Greek city of Smyrna. Ah…right. We’d heard of that one. Smyrna’s one of those names that evokes a well-I’ve-definitely-heard-of-that-one-but-couldn’t-tell-you-where-it-is reaction. For the more Biblically inclined, Smyrna hosted one of the seven churches referenced in the Book of Revelation. Welp, turns out modern Izmir was built on its ruins.
And, there’s a certain irony now to ancient Smyrna’s religious importance. Today, the city’s the epicenter of Turkish secularism. For context, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the modern Turkish Republic. In the process, he implemented sweeping policies of industrialization and secularization across the country.
Since its 1923 founding, a tension has existed in modern Turkey - on one side lives Islamic roots, and on the other lives Ataturk’s vision of a secular state. This tension exists from town to town, region to region in the country, with some places embracing a conservative Islamic lifestyle, and others, well, not so much.
Izmir falls into the not-so-much category. Sure, there are plenty of mosques in Izmir. But, unlike Istanbul, where the call to prayer echoes from all sides, religious routine here feels like more of an afterthought. Its population prides itself on secularism, quite adamantly opposed to President Erdogan’s current push towards more of a I-think-I’m-the-rightful-political-leader-of-the-Islamic-world approach. When you think of Izmir, you think of beautiful waterfront parks, outstanding restaurants, and awesome nightlife - not religion.
This embrace of secularism is quite literally personified by Ataturk. Or, more specifically, by massive portraits of Ataturk. In normal times, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a statue or portrait of Ataturk. When we were there, it was even more intense. We arrived in the week leading up Republic Day, the holiday commemorating the founding of the modern Turkish state. If there was a main boulevard, you could bet that an enormous image of Ataturk was strung out over it.
Getting Lost in the Bazaar
Despite very much being a modern city, Izmir retains much of its historic architecture. Move a few blocks away from high-rise apartments, and you’re strolling the medieval-era, winding back alleys of the city’s Kemeralti Bazaar. Not a right angle in sight.
Between the high stone walls and serpentine layout, it’s next to impossible to tell where you are after a few minutes wandering. But, that’s also kind of the point. Every bend in the road, every narrow little offshoot leads to another awesome part of the bazaar. One second you’re on what you think’s the main stretch, then you have to turn sideways to fit through a passage, and next thing you know you spill out into a shaded courtyard lined with cafes - and are pretty sure you could never find it again.
If we lived in Izmir long enough, we could probably remember where some key market stalls were. Short of that, the bazaar, itself, is the destination. You don’t go there to find something specific. You go to get lost in the sights, sounds, and smells, despite knowing you’ll probably never recreate the route you’re currently following.
And, enter another travel rule of thumb: if you see fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice for sale, buy some. All over Izmir’s bazaar (and bazaars throughout Turkey, for that matter) there are tons of little juice stands. For about a quarter, a guy will throw a pomegranate onto the press and crush the juice directly into your glass. Unbelievably refreshing mid-wander (and, it’ll be hard to ever justify paying half a mortgage for one of those goofily shaped, Whole Foods-esque bottles anymore…).
A Seafood Lunch and Some More Food Russian Roulette
Just outside the bazaar (good, because we never would’ve found it in the bazaar), Jenna used her Trip Advisor local restaurant research technique to find a delicious-sounding seafood restaurant. With tons of outstanding Turkish-language reviews, we knew we’d have a pretty good meal here.
However, an inherent drawback exists to this research approach. Had we known how to read Turkish - or just translated some of the reviews - we also would’ve learned that this particular cafe didn’t have menus (becoming a bit of a theme). When you can speak Turkish, that’s fine. When you can’t you have to play a little food Russian Roulette.
Our waiter seemed to speak a little English, enough for us to get a hands-crossed-over-the-chest-and-head-shake response when we asked for menus. Well, we were already sitting at a great streetside table, and it was a beautiful afternoon - leaving wasn’t an option. Okay, let’s give it a try: “grilled fish?” That got an enthusiastic smile and nod. But, as he walked away to put in our order, we realized we’d just spun the wheel - no idea what we’d get.
Turns out our man knocked it out of the park. No idea what we ate, but it was absolutely delicious - grilled fish of some sort, salad with some sort of sweet balsamic glaze, and a side of Turkish mussels.
The Beauty of Ferry-based Public Transit
Izmir’s shaped somewhat like a horseshoe, with the city itself on the “U” and its bay in the middle. Getting from one side of the horseshoe to the other, you could walk the long way. Or… you could just boat across.
Izmir absolutely embraces its seaside location. In addition to its incredible coastal parks, promenades, and cafes, the city has integrated ferries into its public transit. Buy a ticket for the light rail or bus, and you can transfer right from that onto a ferry shooting across the bay.
This has two awesome advantages. First, it’s fast. Especially during rush hour, why would you want to drive all the way around the bay? Hopping on a ferry gets you from one side to the other in a couple minutes. Second, it’s a built in tour. Sure, the ferries get you from Point A to Point B. But, they also get you out on the water in a gorgeous bay.
Throw back a couple beverages, take a few legs of the ferry, and you’ve had yourself a nice little night looking out at the lights of the city.
Nights in Konak Square
In another nod to Izmir’s secular nature, the cultural heart of the city isn’t a mosque - or any other religious icon, for that matter. It’s a clock tower.
Konak Square, right on the bay in the one of the city’s coolest neighborhoods, is the place to meet people. More precisely, the clock tower in Konak Square is the place to meet. If you’re meeting up with friends, it’s “see you at the clock tower at 7pm.” It’s just that ingrained in the culture.
Every evening, as the sun starts setting, vendors hawk snacks, friends hang out and smoke cigarettes, little kids run through fountains while their parents chat, and Chipp and Jenna have drinks. Okay, that final part wasn’t every night, but what an awesome place to have a cocktail or two and watch the sunset.
It seems nearly impossible to be in Konak Square, looking up at the beautiful clock tower, and not just feel alive (in retrospect, the booze probably factored into that feeling, too).