A century ago, celebrated Turkish novelist Cevat Şakir Kabaağaçlı was exiled from Istanbul to Bodrum for his seditious scribbles. Kabaağaçlı expected hell. Instead, being transported 700km south, he found ancient shipwrecks, Persian ruins and the Aegean Sea “cracked upon the horizon without warning like a vast blue thundering infinity”.
Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans and every Aegean empire since had used Bodrum as a sun-kissed holiday go-to. Türkiye’s answer to St Tropez uses the same sybaritic model: serve some of the world’s very best fish alongside ice-cold flinty white wines and people will come.
Perhaps the best indicator of Bodrum’s charm is what Kabaağaçlı did after his three-year exile. On completion of his sentence, he chose to make the city his home for another 25 years. Bodrum is an azure gem of the Turquoise Coast and makes the perfect destination to dance, swim, sail, eat and drink, dappled in the almost year-round sun.
Bodrum has served sun-enriched ingredients to international travellers for 3,000 years and little has changed in that time. Today, visitors jet direct from the far reaches of Europe and the Middle East to find cacik (strained yoghurt and dill, served as a dip), patlıcan ezmesi (smoky aubergine yoghurt) and çingene salatası (a 'gypsy salad' of tomatoes, peppers and anything else in season). Not to mention a unique local take on swordfish ceviche, sea bass sashimi, ocean-fresh prawns and arguably the best slow-roast lamb recipes on the planet.
Gözleme with cacik
Some dishes date from the time of Herodotus, the ‘Godfather of History’, who was born in Bodrum. These include gözleme, which are stuffed flatbreads packed with minced beef and onion, and kabak çiçeği dolması, cheese-stuffed courgette flowers drizzled with honey now eaten the world over. For breakfast, gözleme comes stuffed with smoked salmon and avocado, or dark chocolate with orange zest. Both options offer an excellent wake-up call alongside a Türk kahvesi (Turkish coffee), which comes served as thick as the fog on the Bosporus.
Green Aegean recipes like Ot Kavurma are found in point-and-choose meze cabinets across Bodrum. The recipe changes with the season, although wild green mainstays include stinging nettles, mustard herbs, chicory, hibiscus, spring onions, garlic and always lashings of yoghurt. The trick is in the preparation: boil too long and Ot Kavurma’s earthy goodness ebbs away; boil too quickly and you get vegetal water that stings the mouth. The dish is best sampled as a $1 appetiser with fresh bread.
Summer nettles with cheese and yoghurt
Vegetable flowers are stuffed with heady abandon in local favourite Kabak Çiçeği Dolması. A good job, as they flower throughout Bodrum’s sultry summers from May through September, when travellers can expect a 94% chance of a sunny day. The flowers are plucked as they open to the morning sun and locals are often found with a bowl of ready-mixed pine nuts, raisins, rice, pomegranate molasses, mint and dill. Chefs layer parsley stems on the pan’s base before cooking so the delicate flowers don’t become frazzled. The taste is Bodrum summer in a single bite.
Kabak Çiçeği Dolması
Institutions and monuments
The Museum of Underwater Archaeology was founded with a $50 grant from the Turkish government in 1959. That investment was priceless, because this history museum, housed inside Bodrum Castle, hosts shipwreck booty from every classical empire found on the surrounding seabed. Discover amphorae that contained 3,000-year-old-wine (the divers who rescued the jars sampled the wine on their scuba boat and noted how well it held up). Other finds prove that olive oil, ostrich eggs and natural sponges were imported, like classical online shopping deliveries, from Athens, Alexandria and Rhodes. Bodrum's most spectacular shipwreck was discovered by a local sponge diver in 1982. The trading vessel Uluburun sank during the 14th century BC with a spectacular cargo of Palestinian olives, Baltic amber, Lebanese cedar and a gold scarab purportedly belonging to Queen Nefertiti of Egypt.
Museum of Underwater Archaeology
Across the street from an excellent pide salonu (flatbread bakery) sits the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. That’s right: you can stroll one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World with a $2 dough-on-the-go in your hand. The mausoleum’s crumbled columns, shaded by olive trees, once supported a 45m-high burial chamber. Until an earthquake struck around seven centuries ago, the mausoleum’s sides sparkled with sculptures that overlooked the Aegean Sea beyond. The tomb was styled by Persian governor King Mausolus, who married his own sister, Artemisia II of Caria. After Mausolus was laid inside his mausoleum, Artemisia went on to become one of Bodrum's greatest rulers and successfully invaded the nearby island of Rhodes – there’s now a two-hour ferry service should you wish to do the same.
Neyzen Tavfik Cadessi is the pedestrian corniche that arcs across Bodrum's seafront. The promenade is a cornucopia of chic tearooms, be-seen-in bistros and sheesha cafés that puff apple-tobacco smoke into the warm evening air. The 500m-long strip is lined with institutions that make Bodrum great, such as the newspaper shops – Turks love a good skandal over a glass of çay – as well as the ferry to neighbouring countries. Or the crowning Bodrum Castle that hosts 3,500 years of watery transactions inside its Museum of Underwater Archaeology (see above). And a plaque dedicated to Ziya Güvendiren, the local boatbuilder who inspired the hundreds of Turkish gulet cruising yachts in Bodrum port.
A week aboard a Turkish gulet (traditional two- or three-masted wooden boat) is a voyage of a lifetime and one of the best ways to sample the myriad cuisines at play along the length of the Turkish coast. Most of all, Neyzen Tavfik Cadessi is about seafood. Al fresco restaurants welcome you in with platters of meze starters that are applied to the table as soon as you take your seat, providing the perfect appetite-whetter while you select your catch of the day for your main course.
Traditional Turkish gulet
You'll spot chefs in whites at Ortakent's Wednesday Market, a five-minute drive from Bodrum Port. Sold-from-crates fruit and veg are lined up in technicolour abundance under a lofty shade: sea-green purslane, purple artichokes, courgette flowers cooled by electric fans, okra in copper pots, aubergines, melons and turnips in shapes and colours unimaginable to the non-Anatolian eye. Plus try-before-you-buy nuts and dried fruit in quantities sufficient to feed the Ottoman army, including pistachios, pine nuts, almonds, walnuts, figs, mulberries, and chickpeas dry-roasted to nibble like peanuts.
Order a portion of peynirli borek (feta and spinach in a light pastry spiral) an pair with a cooling class of ayran (a saline-fermented yoghurt drink that brings both acidity and sweetness). Back near Bodrum port a dozen balıkçılık (fishmongers) stock the daily catch of prawns, gurnard and swordfish. Wonder why the gilthead bream gills are turned inside out on the slab? It’s to prove the fish’s freshness. All it needs is a sprinkle of black sesame and a wrap of nori, and you’re in sushi heaven.
Two Bodrum specialities: midye dolma (stuffed mussels); grilled octopus
Zahmetsiz Balik Evi
The clue’s in the translation: ‘Effortless Fish House.’ Zahmetsiz Balik Evi serves simply grilled seafood in friendly surrounds: think cloud-light fish pastry and fresh-off-the-boat seafood soup; salads of rocket with enough oomph to pair a swordfish skewer, and an enviable selection of rakı, a Turkish ouzo-type firewater that can cut through a vast platter of fried squid. Regulars favour Zahmetsiz Balik Evi’s top floor terrace (book ahead), which is caressed each evening by a cooling sea breeze.
Just opened in Bodrum’s glittering marina is the equally sparkling Sakhalin, from 50 Best regular Vladimir Mukhin of Moscow restaurant White Rabbit, which is currently ranked No.13 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. It’s the Russian chef’s first restaurant outside his home country and focuses its cuisine on the bounty of the Mediterranean. Head chef Alexey Vershinin treats the seafood simply, with an Asian spin in dishes such as tuna akami with avocado and tobiko caviar and the signature Sakhalin salad with king crab, avocado, tomatoes, and rui sauce.
Gümüşlük is a hippy-chic fishing village hanging on the edge of the Bodrum Peninsula, 20km from Bodrum Port. The best restaurants cultivate a hang-a-hammock vibe with wooden tables overlooking the gulet yachts in the bay. Mimoza tops the lot. As always, simple works best. Order starters of feta with cantaloupe melon, octopus salad licked by the acid of beef tomato wedges, spinach snipped from a local garden. Select a fresh-off-the-boat main course from the crushed ice display and you’re done. And if you haven’t got a yacht to swim back to, then snorkel over the Roman mosaics hidden under Gümüşlük’s harbour instead.
Yalı Mavkii 104, Gümüşlük (no website)
Brava at Edition Hotel
50 Best regular Diego Muñoz does what he does best at Bodrum’s top beach hotel. To wit, importing Peruvian flavours and instilling them – in this instance – with an Anatolian soul. The Lima genius might flip sea bass into Nikkei ceviche (super-thin sashimi in a sesame-ponzu pond), or whip local beef into a saltado with Turkish pul biber powdered chili. Dinner is served on chic white sofas under the twinkle of fairy lights, in front of a yacht-dotted bay. Grab a proper pisco sour at the adjoining Brava Bar and feel your worries wash away.
Dayı Balık Marina
Dayı Balık is as humble as they come. It's a fresh fish counter, with the day's catch stacked on ice, and eight wooden tables parked out front. The premise is equally simple – diners read the tiny starters list (fish soup, salt roe tarama, prawns in garlic oil) then point out a side of grouper or a couple of red mullet to be grilled for a main. And if you want a beer, a waiter will trot around the corner and grab one from the convenience store fridge.
Bodrumites tried to keep this backstreet eatery their seafood secret and they failed. Because Orfoz is dedicated to a uniquely amazing idea: it serves a crustacean-heavy tasting menu and nothing else. It’s also a bargain. Grab a sky-blue wooden chair shaded by purple bougainvillea, then start with sea snails and pickled bonito. These are followed by herb dishes and spicy, crunchy salads that cleanse the palate. The big hitters are oven-baked mussels, whole lobster and grilled oysters; essentially whatever seasonal goodies Orfoz’s chef-owner brothers nabbed that morning. The Turkish wine list is unrivalled: take a geographical history lesson by sipping booze from the mineral springs of Denizli, from Kırklareli on the Bulgarian border, from the fairy castles of Cappadocia and from Bodrum itself.
Petite boutique hotel Eskiceshme is all about location. Tucked back from the happening harbour promenade, it's a five-minute stroll from every establishment listed above. Breakfast? Pinch yourself. The hotel lays on platters of dried figs, mountain honey and warm-from-the-vine tomatoes, among other Turkish delights.
Visit goturkiye.com for more information on Turkish gastronomy