Explore İstanbul, İzmir And Ephesus

Photo: Celsus Library at Ephesus © Erhan Okcu | Dreamstime.com

By - March 8, 2016

From its sultan’s harems and domed mosques to Roman ruins and lively bazaars packed with rugs, ceramics, copper goods and fragrant spices, Turkey offers a cultural mezze of enticing things to see, do and savor. With one foot in Europe and the other in Asia, it’s the only country in the world to span two continents, which explains its East-West orientation in a culture that blends antiquity with modernism and tradition with innovation.

Due to Turkey’s recent political unrest and ongoing turmoil in the Middle East, business travelers should use caution wherever they travel in the country, including İstanbul, a city on the Bosporus as exotic as it is magnificent. Originally named Byzantium by the Greeks who founded it in the seventh century B.C., it became a powerful world capital over the next 16 centuries under the rule of Alexander the Great, Constantine the Great (who changed the city’s name to Constantinople) and eventually the Ottoman Turks. Today, İstanbul serves as Turkey’s cultural and commercial center.

If work has precluded you from seeing the city’s top monuments, put them first on your agenda, starting with the Hagia Sophia, a former Byzantine church and Ottoman mosque first built in the fourth century (and rebuilt twice) at one end of Sultanahmet Square. The central dome stood as an architectural tour de force in its time, and the interior walls of the marble-floored church feature spectacular Byzantine mosaics, many dappled with gold.

Hagia Sophia interior

Hagia Sophia interior © Nikolai Sorokin | Dreamstime.com

Across from the Hagia Sophia you’ll find the Blue Mosque, a multidomed extravaganza built in the early 1600s with six minarets and a huge courtyard the size of the main prayer hall. The decorative blue İznik tiles lining the interior inspired its name.

You also won’t want to miss Topkapi Palace, the 15th-century home of the Ottoman sultan and his court designed as a series of stone pavilions set in a spacious courtyard and said to evoke the tented encampments of nomadic Ottomans. Arrange for a guided tour of the harem quarters (separate tickets needed), a warren of lavish rooms built for the sultan’s wives and concubines.

For sheer exoticism, head to The Grand Bazaar, a maze of vault-covered streets lined with thousands of kiosks, shops and restaurants. Here you’ll find gorgeous silk and wool carpets almost any shop can fold into a rectangle compact enough to carry on the airplane in a small duffle. You’ll also see traditional crafts like brass coffee pots, ceramic trivets and Turkish slippers. If you’re not too shopped out, stop by the Egyptian (Spice) Bazaar to peruse the aromatic piles of cumin, paprika and turmeric; jars of honeysoaked nuts; and dried fruits, including eggplant.

The water offers a spectacular way to see İstanbul via a ferry cruise up the Bosporus. Boats depart daily from Eminönü and travel up the strait toward the Black Sea. During the journey you’ll pass treasures like Ortaköy Mosque on the European side and Beylerbeyi Palace on the Asian side. Since most cruises stop in several fishing villages along the way, you can step ashore for an hour or so to enjoy a grilled fish lunch.

For a full coastal adventure, fly to Turkey’s third-largest city, İzmir, a sophisticated commercial port on the Aegean shore — originally the Greek city of Smyrna. You can catch a taxi to your hotel, perhaps in the Alsancak area with its plethora of international hotels, restaurants, nightclubs and bars.

Known for its laid-back attitude, İzmir boasts a diverse ethnic population including Armenians, British, French, Greeks and Italians as well as Sephardic Jews, who settled in Turkey after being driven out of Spain in the 15th century. If the city appears relatively new, that’s because it is; in the early 1920s İzmir suffered a horrendous fire and was completely rebuilt.

Begin your tour of İzmir at Kordonboyu, the famous waterfront promenade dotted with cafés. Next, head to the city’s clock tower, a monument more iconic than riveting. Konak Pier also warrants a visit. Designed by Gustave Eiffel and first used as a French customs house, it was restored in 2003 and now houses restaurants, cinemas and myriad designer shops. For those who’ve had enough walking, take a carriage ride, a traditional form of transportation used throughout the city for centuries.

Although smaller than the one in İstanbul, İzmir’s historic Kemeraltı bazaar overflows with stalls selling everything from sneakers and kitchen utensils to tea glasses and kilim rugs. Be sure to visit Hisar Mosque inside the covered market, considered one of the most important Ottoman landmarks in the city.

Turkish lamps for sale in The Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

Turkish lamps for sale in The Grand Bazaar, Istanbul © Vladyslav Danilin | Dreamstime.com

Since you can’t leave Turkey without taking a Turkish bath, and İzmir enjoys a reputation for its healing thermal waters, ask your hotel to arrange a visit to Balçova Thermal Hotel, home to the largest indoor thermal pool in the country. Guests drink and soak in the waters said to relieve symptoms ranging from muscular pains to intestinal distress.

Assuming the latter is not an issue, be sure to sample some of İzmir’s unique culinary specialties such as boyoz, a round pastry made from flour, oil and a smidge of tahini soaked in oil before baking. Turks traditionally eat it at breakfast topped with a boiled egg. Or try another treat, lokma, tiny balls of fried dough steeped in a lemony syrup and served warm. Then, of course, you’ll find exquisite local seafood along with Turkish favorites including lamb-stuffed eggplant, rice pilafs and spicy grilled meat kebabs.

Approximately 50 miles south of İzmir lies Ephesus, one of the most well-preserved ancient cities in the eastern Mediterranean. Founded in the 10th century B.C. by Ionic Greeks under the advice of the Oracle of Delphi, it became a major Roman city due to its fertile land and strategic trade location. It received UNESCO World Heritage status in 2015, and excavations revealed layers of Hellenic and Roman settlements along with extraordinary architectural treasures including what little remains of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

As you walk the streets of Ephesus, it’s easy to imagine daily life in this ancient city. Toward the entrance of the site, you’ll see the first-century Stadium, where chariots once raced. Beyond that lies the Theatre, a massive stone semicircle with steps of curved stone benches, often occupied by sleepy feral cats. Further on explore Arcadian Street, once lined with shops and galleries, and Marble Road, which leads toward Celsus Library and still shows deep grooves made by chariot wheels. The Library features two stories of columns along with stairs that once led to the reading room. Allow yourself plenty of time to take it all in, including the nearby House of the Virgin Mary.

Since Ephesus lies within the town of Selçuk, consider spending the night here so you won’t feel compelled to rush through the ruins. Selçuk offers several modest hotels and restaurants, and legend says Saint John the Evangelist is buried here. Should you visit Selçuk the third week in January, don’t miss the annual camel-wrestling festival. Aside from being a uniquely Turkish event, it makes for a great story back home.

Turkey Info to Go

İstanbul Atatürk Airport, the main international gateway serving Istanbul, lies about 15 miles west of the city center on the European side. It functions as the main hub for Turkish Airlines, which offers regular daily flights from İstanbul to İzmir Adnan Menderes Airport; direct flights take about an hour. From the airport, take a taxi to your destination. If you’re traveling to the ancient city of Ephesus from İzmir, hire a car to Selçuk. Some airlines, like Atlasjet Airlines, fly from İstanbul to İzmir and offer a free shuttle from the airport into Selçuk.

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