I am not the world's best advocate for Izmir tourism. I have often pointed out on this blog and to friends that Izmir is a rather boring, quiet town with no museums of note, no beaches, and no historic sites or monuments worth visiting.
Visiting Izmir is not for every traveller coming to Turkey. Most of the typical, traditional reasons people visit a city -- good food, vibrant nightlife, history, museums -- don't apply to Izmir. Simply put: if you're interested in sun and sand, you'd be better off in Bodrum or Antalya. If you want to see historic Ottoman mosques, go to Bursa and Istanbul.
However, I have also said before -- and I stand by this -- that anyone who professes a love of Turkey should visit Izmir to get a better sense of what a modern, nationalist Turkish city looks like than you can get from just visiting Istanbul or a few cities along the Mediterranean.
Izmir is Turkey's Republican dream, the concrete manifestation of its utopian vision of a "Turkey for the Turks". You don't really see that kind of philosophy play out in Istanbul, where the city's more international, cosmopolitan inhabitants are frankly more welcoming of outsiders, whether they're from the US, Eastern Europe or Diyarbakir.
But Izmir did start out like Istanbul: like Istanbul, Izmir has always been a center of commerce. Throughout the city's several thousand year history, Izmir's port saw heavy trading with the rest of the world. Trading and commerce flourished, particularly during the latter years of the Ottoman Empire, and people from all over Europe (known as Levantines) settled in Izmir, opening businesses, hotels and restaurants. All that changed, though, in 1923.
Now, Izmir does not many attract international tourists, except those on a cross-country bus trip who are on their way to Ephesus and who stop here for a few hours in the afternoon. Many tourists who come to Izmir mistakenly believe there are beaches here and are sorely disappointed to discover that Çeşme, which Izmir's marketing material lists as a great spot for swimming, is at least 30 minutes away by car and much longer if you go by bus.
In the past two weeks, we've had two sets of visitors stay with us. The first set consisted of two American women, one of whom was Jeff's former colleague from Philly, and then two CouchSurfers from Germany. In explaining to them what Izmir had to offer, I started out with what the city doesn't have: museums, sites, historic buildings, mosques, churches, beaches.
But when pressed for what there is to do here, I kept coming back to the same answer again and again: soaking up Izmir's culture and lifestyle. Izmir has a very particular vibe that is unlike any other Turkish city I have visited. Life here is relaxing. It's slow, laidback, not necessarily quiet, but definitely calm, especially in summer when people don't work too terribly hard.
Life in Izmir is sitting on the Kordon at night and watching the sun set. It's navigating Alsancak's alleys and sipping Turkish coffee at one of the few historic Greek houses that survived the devastation of 1923. It's spending several languid hours eating a lavish (but not necessarily expensive) fish and meze dinner. It's sitting for tea with your butcher in the middle of the afternoon just because.
Maybe what Izmir has to offer tourists is not a harried day tour, or a jog through a spice market or covered bazaar. So it doesn't have beaches where you can sunbathe and order a cocktail. Perhaps that's not the point. Maybe Izmir has something different to offer: a respite, a chance to slow down for a moment while travelling, a space to eat and drink well.
Because eating and drinking are two things Izmir does exceptionally well. The food in this town, especially in summer when all the gorgeous produce is in season, is phenomenal. If you're a vegetarian, you'll eat very well here. And if you love meat, there's plenty for you too, as Izmir is famous in Turkey for head meat. (There are more traditional cuts of meat available as well, of course.)
Izmirlis are also proud of the fact that there are so many bars in this city. (Never mind that they are all the same and only serve Efes.) Even though we lived for two years in Beyoğlu before moving to Izmir, I was still surprised at the sheer number of bars in Izmir, not just in the central district, but all over.
Perhaps the best reason -- and maybe the only reason -- to visit Izmir is to simply see a "real" Turkish city, to see one side of what Turkey is. There are few tourists in Izmir, there are no foreigners who own beachfront property. There's just a bunch of people going to work every day, teaching their children right and wrong, planning for their retirement, worrying about the AKP winning another election.
And maybe that's reason enough to visit Izmir. To see what Turkey looks like when you get away from its massive tourism industry, to sit with the locals on the quay and feel the breeze blowing off the Aegean, and to catch a glimpse of what modern Turkey looks like today.