Turkey’s Aegean coast is full of beautiful places and choosing which one to visit, especially if you have limited time, can be a bit difficult. Izmir province itself has dozens of historical and natural attractions and it would be impossible to fit them all in one day, even if you have a car.
A few weeks ago I had the chance to visit Izmir for a two day getaway and even though I wanted to see all the tourist spots possible I had to choose three or four places because I wanted to savor every moment of the province.
Technically, you can probably see more in a day, but I wouldn’t recommend it as it’s important to enjoy each location in peace and not be in a constant rush to hit the road as soon as possible.
So the first location, of course, was the great ancient city of Ephesus. I would consider it a crime if you came to Izmir and skipped Ephesus. The ancient city is one of Turkey’s most renowned historical attractions and today graces the Selçuk district of Izmir on Turkey’s western shores.
Thanks to its exceptionally mild climate and favorable location which helped it to become a bustling port city where commerce, intellectuals and administrators met, Ephesus bore witness to many cultural traditions from three different eras – the Revolutionary Neolithic, the Hellenistic which divides and influences and transforms Roman periods.
I first visited Ephesus almost 10 years ago and at the time, when we had no idea what COVID-19 was, the city was packed with tourists. I remember standing in line so that I could take a photo in the most famous places in the ancient city and walking with hundreds of people through the ancient streets. Even with all the crowd at that time, I was absolutely mesmerized by his story and always knew I would come back to see him again. Ironically, I was fortunate enough to go this year amid the ongoing pandemic. And believe me, when I say, it was different this time. It was a bit surprising to me when I didn’t see any line at the ticket booth next to the entrance because as far as I can remember the place was always full of tourists waiting for their turn. I was surprised to see that inside it was no different. For comparison, in 2019, the last year without a pandemic, with around 2 million visitors, Ephesus was Turkey’s most visited ancient city. It was nice to have the city to myself, with no one around. The silence made me dive into the old atmosphere and enjoy the view.
My personal favorites in Ephesus are the Library of Celsus and the huge 25,000-seat theater. They never fail to impress. The library is considered an architectural marvel and is one of the only remaining examples of libraries from the Roman Empire. The Library of Celsus was the third largest library in the Roman world behind Alexandria and Pergamon, which is said to have held around 12,000 scrolls. Celsus is buried in a crypt under the library in a decorated marble sarcophagus. The interior of the library and its contents were destroyed in a fire which resulted from either an earthquake or a Gothic invasion in AD 262 and the facade by an earthquake in the 10th or 11th century. It remained in ruins for centuries until the facade was reconstructed by archaeologists between 1970 and 1978.
The Ephesus Theater is considered the largest in the ancient world. This open-air theater was originally used for theater, but in later Roman times gladiatorial fights also took place on its stage.
Ephesus also had several large bath complexes, built at different times when the city was under Roman rule.
House of the Virgin Mary
In the first century, Ephesus began to play a central role in the introduction of Christianity and became an important center for the beginnings of the religion. It was from there that the monotheistic religion spread under Roman rule.
Meanwhile, 7 kilometers (4.32 miles) from Selçuk, located just outside Ephesus, is the humble stone house of the Virgin Mary, or Meryem Ana, as it is called in Turkey. . It is now considered one of the holiest sites in Christianity and Islam.
Legend has it that Mary, the mother of Jesus – taken to this stone house by Saint John – lived there until she ascended to heaven, according to Catholic beliefs.
The house was given the title of official place of Catholic pilgrimage in the 1800s after years of debate. If you are still not convinced of the sacred status of the site, you might accept three papal visits as a testament. Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI all visited the site in 1967, 1979 and 2006, respectively.
Last month Microsoft founder and fourth richest person in the world, Bill Gates, toured the southwestern coasts of Turkey with his luxury yacht and also came to see the House of the Virgin Mary.
Şirince is one of the oldest villages in Izmir province.
The village of around 500 people made headlines in 2012 as a safe haven for people fleeing an impending disaster, Doomsday. Along with a French village, Şirince was considered one of only two places on earth to be spared if the Mayan prophecy as interpreted by New Age spiritualists were to be true and the world was to end on December 21, 2012.
Hundreds, if not thousands, waited for the day in the village, helping to generate income for the supposedly picturesque sanctuary.
Today, Şirince attracts big city dwellers and tourists looking to escape the hustle and bustle of city life and get a sip of the fresh air. The village nestled in lush nature has a number of houses, some over 100 years old, which have been turned into small hotels for visitors. Its approximately 45 hotels and lodges can accommodate up to 500 visitors and typically experience a boom in bookings on weekends.