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Cradled between mountains and the Aegean Sea to the west, Turkey's third-largest city bears witness to thousands of years of turbulent history -- in the form of war, fire and earthquake. Izmir's been ruled by an Amazon queen, relocated and re-established following a dream by Alexander the Great, and thereafter razed, controlled, razed, controlled by Romans, Arabs, Selcuk Turks, Byzantines, Ottomans and modern Greeks before being reclaimed by the Turks, who expelled the Greco army in a bloody battle that left the city in ashes.
Little of the storied path of ancient Smyrna (Izmir's original name) is visible. Today, Izmir is one of Turkey's most populated (3.7 million) and most thoroughly modern cities, with the second biggest port after Istanbul. The container ships, cranes and concrete high-rises that populate the harbor are a drab sight, and, predictably, most cruise travelers bypass the city. Like Kusadasi to the south, Izmir's main virtue is its proximity to Ephesus, an incredibly well-preserved Roman city that lives up to its lofty reputation. Likewise, the ruins of Pergamum and Asclepion, an ancient Greek center of culture and health, are easily accessible and are included excursion options on all ships docking in Izmir.
The city itself is not without merit, and passengers looking to explore the sprawling cityscape in the relatively short time allotted ashore will have options. The sociable Konak Square, with its emblematic Ottoman Clock Tower, is Izmir's main gathering point for young Turks. The square leads into a long, winding Bazaar, a common site throughout Turkey (if you want to buy something, be prepared to haggle). The bayside cafes that line Birinci Kordon, a long main boulevard running parallel to the waterfront, offer the opportunity to relax, sip wine, enjoy appetizers (mezes) of local seafood and watch people wander by. The Agora, an enormous 2,000-year-old marketplace where Roman farmers and merchants once hawked cotton, olive oil and fruit, is one of the few places that has been spared from urbanization, and is a fascinating site.
Though Izmir's modern vibe may initially be off-putting, it's notable that building projects, such as the subway and high-rises buildings, have often yielded fantastic archeological finds such as roman statues and pottery, a reminder of how much history remains just below the surface.
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Other Eastern Mediterranean Cruise Ports:
Athens (Piraeus) • Bari • Bodrum • Corfu • Crete (Heraklion) • Dubrovnik • Gythion • Haifa • Istanbul • Izmir • Jerusalem (Ashdod) • Katakolon (Olympia) • Kotor • Kusadasi • Limassol • Mykonos • Rhodes • Santorini • Split • Varna • Venice • Volos • Yalta • Zadar
Pick up some pottery or, for a larger souvenir, a local handmade carpet. Milas, near Izmir, is one of the main carpet-weaving areas in western Turkey.
Turkish, but you'll have little trouble with basic English communication.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The currency is the Turkish Lira and ATM's abound. For current currency-conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. Some shops and restaurants will also accept euros and U.S. dollars, and all major credit cards are accepted.
Where You're Docked
You'll end up at Alcansak, a rather industrial-looking pier area, which is a five-minute walk from the shops and restaurants in the neighborhood of the same name and 20 minutes along the waterfront to Konak Square in the center of town. Shore excursion buses are a short walk away, but if you're lucky, the port authority may let buses in to pick you up right at the ship when there's only one ship in port.
Duty-free shops, cafes, a post box, stamps for sale and other facilities are located inside the cruise terminal, and the chamber of commerce provides free maps of the city and surrounding area. An Internet cafe is close to the terminal on the way into town. The terminal is pretty dreary, but future passengers can expect to see big changes because of plans to redevelop the port, with new berths and infrastructure (no starting or completion date has been confirmed). When the upgrades are complete, the port will have the capacity to handle two million passengers per year.
On Foot: While initial impressions are not exactly picturesque, and Izmir is not a compact and walkable city like Odessa, Ukraine, passengers can stroll to some of the main tourist areas such as Konak Square, which is also the main entry spot into the Kemeralti Bazaar.
By Taxi: Most cruise travelers will be taking full-day tours to either Ephesus or Pergamum. Those wishing to get around on their own, either to the bazaar or other city monuments like the Agora ancient marketplace, will find yellow metered taxis outside the cruise terminal. A word of advice: Taxi drivers will repeatedly offer tours during the short drive en route to your intended destination. Firmly stating "no" a few times should do the trick. If you do decide to embark on a sightseeing tour by taxi, the cost should be clearly negotiated before setting off. Few drivers will speak fluent English and will be unable to provide a commentary.
By Public Transport: Buses are of limited use to non-Turkish speaking visitors. However, local buses run from the port exit to the bus terminal at Konak. A better bet for cruise passengers is the hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus tour, which leaves from the port and takes in 17 stops around the city including Konak, the Agora and Archaeology and Ethnography Museums. The full tour takes one hour, with a headphone commentary in five languages. The open-top buses run from the port every half hour from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Watch Out For
In Kemeralti Bazaar prepare for a large number of "salesmen." This is certainly not as bad as some places (like Cairo), but you'll face an incessant wave of requests to buy jeans and designer knockoffs. It also gets quite crowded, so be aware of your wallet.
Ephesus is the best-preserved ancient city in the Eastern Mediterranean and is a magical place that enthralls even those who normally find rubbernecking around ruins a bore. The Virgin Mary is believed to have visited here between 37 and 45 A.D., and the fabulous Temple of Artemis, which Alexander the Great visited during its construction in 334 B.C., was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Located about an hour's drive from Izmir, Ephesus at one time was the most important commercial center in the region. The city was built on the river Cayster, a strategic trade route to Anatolia. The ruins range from a theater and library to private terrace houses with magnificent mosaics and frescoes. Prepare carefully for a trip to Ephesus -- the site gets very crowded and extremely hot in the summer months, so take plenty of water, sunscreen and head covers. (Plenty of enterprising stallholders near the entrance sell drinks and inexpensive hats.) Also, make sure you have some change because you must pay to use the public toilets. Restaurants are located near the site, and full-day cruise tours will include lunch. If you're not visiting Ephesus via a shore excursion, your taxi can drop you at one end and, by prior arrangement, pick you up at the other. (Open daily 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. in summer and until 5 p.m. in winter.)
Often included in tours to Ephesus and definitely not to be missed is a visit to the House of the Virgin Mary, located atop Nightingale Mountain (Bulbul). It's a humble, one-story brick house that, according to myth, is where the virgin spent her last years. Discovered in 1880 by a German nun with a vision, the house has been visited by countless folks on pilgrimages, including two popes.
For the diehard shopper, head straight to the Kemeralti Bazaar just east of the Konak clock tower (where the clock hasn't stopped ticking since the tower was built in 1901) for some hard-core haggling. You'll find a predominance of designer attire -- be prepared to endure a cacophony of "Guess, Boss, Levis, very cheap" -- but also leather goods, antiques, produce, household goods, spices and more. The bazaar is one of the largest in Turkey, and getting lost in the labyrinth of narrow streets is all part of the fun!
Just beyond the bazaar is Hisar Mosque, the largest and oldest in Izmir. Built in the 16th century and restored in the 19th century, it contains fine examples of Ottoman decorative art and is open to visitors except during times of prayer.
Culture vultures won't want to miss the Archaeology Museum south of Konak Square in Bahri Baba Park. It contains an extensive collection of artifacts found in nearby ancient cities such as Miletus and Ephesus and the Agora in Izmir. Of particular interest are Roman mosaics, classical statues of Poseidon and Artemis and the head from a huge statue of the emperor Domitian. (Halil Rifat Pasa Caddesi 4; open Tuesday to Sunday 9 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.)
Been There, Done That
Try an excursion to ancient Pergamum (alternatively called Pergamon) and Asclepion. Pergamum was a Greek city, well known as a major intellectual center, which boasted one of the most impressive libraries in antiquity. The site contains the remains of a 10,000-seat theater, a marketplace, palaces, temples and a Roman bath complex. Nearby Asclepion, always included in any excursion to Pergamum, was once a huge sanctuary devoted to the god of healing, a massive spa of sorts from olden times. Pergamum and Asclepion are reachable from Izmir but not Kusadasi.
Though Izmir probably contains bountiful ruins, most are yet to be found -- with the major exception being the Agora. When in use, the marketplace was the largest in Asia Minor and one of the most impressive found in the Greek/Roman empires. Now, little remains but the foundation built in the 1st century B.C. and the western colonnade, a row of 14 massive Corinthian columns that give a dramatic impression of size. There are numerous pieces of statues and columns strewn about the open-air museum. Major excavation works, part of an ongoing reconstruction project, continue to reveal new treasures. (Open daily 8:30 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.)
After the Archaeology Museum, the city's other leading historical showcase is the neighboring Ethnography Museum in Bahri Baba Park. Housed in an old Ottoman hospital, the exhibits provide an engaging slice of social history with reconstructions of a pharmacy, bridal chamber, felt-making workshop and 19th-century living room, along with displays of carpets and weapons. (Halil Rifat Pasa Caddesi 3; open Tuesday to Sunday 9 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.)
Anyone interested in the emergence of Turkey as an independent nation should visit the Ataturk Museum. This special-interest museum is housed in a building originally owned by a Greek merchant who was forced to flee during the Greco-Turkish War of 1919 to 1922. Four years later, the authorities gave the house to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic and its first president. His private quarters are furnished in the style of the period and contain some of his personal possessions. (Ataturk Avenue 24; open Tuesday to Sunday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
If you're heading off on an excursion, as most cruise travelers will be, a lunch or snack will be part of the experience. If not, there are lots of appealing options, particularly seafood restaurants, lining Birinci Kordon, the main waterfront boulevard. Look for one that's busy, and be seated. The Kibris Sehitleri Caddesi traffic-free shopping street in Alsancak is another good place to find restaurants, and the food court on Konak Pier is another place for lunch or a snack.
For a traditional experience, visit a lokanta, a simple type of restaurant where customers select from cooked dishes on display. Meals are cheap and helpings are invariably large. Kebapci serve lamb kebabs while a pideci serves the Turkish equivalent of pizza, usually topped with minced lamb. If you prefer to stand for a full meal, you're covered. During summer months there are numerous street vendors selling mussels, an Izmiri specialty.
Mutton, lamb, beef, chicken and fish dishes are featured on menus, but pork is not served in a Muslim restaurant. Meze, a selection of dishes on small plates, is a great way to sample the local cuisine if you're not sure what to order and a fun way to share a meal with a few people. It's particularly popular at lunchtime and will include dishes such as the chickpea dip hummus, stuffed vine leaves, sardines, cheese, salad, vegetables and pickles. Make sure you leave room for lokma, Izmir's celebrated sweet pastry.
Sisim, down by Pasaport (the ferry pier) and just north of Cumhuriyet Meydani, is great for people watching and gazing out at a teeming harbor. It's also very affordable. You can grab a meal of fish and meat pie plus a drink for around $15. (Ataturk Caddesi 174A)
Farther along the waterfront is one of the most popular establishments with both locals and tourists alike. Run by the same family for 30 years, Deniz serves up locally caught seafood specialities like bream and red mullet, cooked to perfection. (Ataturk Caddesi 188B)
Staying in Touch
There are several Internet cafes on the Birinci Kordon. Fast food chains -- including McDonald's at Kibris Sehitleri Caddesi 65 and branches of Starbucks in Alcansak and other locations around the city -- provide free Wi-Fi for customers.
Best for First-Timers: All ships will offer tours to Ephesus, which lies about an hour away, depending on traffic. Durations range from four hours to an entire day with lunch at the site, a guided walk and free time in Ephesus. Most of these excursions also include a stop at one of many carpet-weaving centers for demonstrations and an irritating sales pitch.
Best for City Slickers: For a more local taste of the city, try an Izmir orientation tour (four hours), which will include stops at the bazaar, the Archaeology Museum and a visit to the Agora.
Best for Repeat Visitors: Anyone who has done Ephesus should make tracks for Pergamum and a two-hour walking tour of the highlights (seven hours). It's important to note that the drive is two hours each way, but it's a scenic route northbound out of the city and the marvels of Pergamum are a just reward. They include the Red Basilica, the largest structure in the ancient city, a temple made of red brick and dedicated to the gods of Egypt. A typical tour includes a buffet lunch of Turkish food served with wine.
For More Information
On the Web: Turkish Culture and Tourism Office
Official Tourism Portal of Turkey
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Mediterranean Ports
IndependentTraveler.com: Europe Travel Guide
--by Dan Askin; updated by Jeannine Williamson, Cruise Critic contributor