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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