Izmir is a delicious melting pot. For 5,000 years history’s hungriest denizens – from Alexander the Great to Ottoman Turks – imported ingredients and ideas to this vibrant culinary heartland.
Türkiye’s third city became a trading entrepot. A seaside metropolis so tasty it lured eastern Anatolians, Cretan Muslims, Italian traders and many more. Izmir is probably the only place in the world where you can sip Turkish coffee beside a Roman agora alongside nine synagogues and a Catholic Cathedral. That’s just a typical Izmir morning.
Izmir is a multicultural melange in the manner of Marseille or Dubai. A place where Sephardi delicacies like boyoz pastries are eaten by all faiths. A destination where you can drink local Chardonnay on a pier designed by Gustave Eiffel; a sun-blessed city where locals and tourists alike take to the Aegean Sea for nearly nine months of the year.
Izmir’s location defines its kitchen. As to be expected, fish and seafood are key highlights of every meal, where the likes of sea bream, snapper, sea vegetables and squid chill on ice outside every eatery. The main street snack you’ll find will be mussels, prepared dolma (stuffed with pilaf rice), tava (deep friend) or şiş (skewered). All are delicious, though avoid those on show that visibly have been sitting in the midday sun and request yours cooked to order.
The city is in thrall of Aegean greens. Seasonal sides include nettles, wild radish leaves, chicory, çiriş (a wild-child leek that belongs to the lily family), crocus, Illyrian thistle and borage. Don’t know the names in Turkish? Don’t worry. Izmir is packed with lokantas, or workers’ canteen bistros, where dishes reside behind a point-and-choose glass counter. Your selection will be plated up and served 60 seconds later. Turkish tea comes free.
As Türkiye’s most westernised city, Izmir is welcoming of tourists who come to imbibe and enjoy alcohol responsibly. Specifically with rakı, an anise-licked spirit. Rakı is traditionally made around Izmir due to the city’s laissez-faire liberalism and proximity to grapes and pine mastic. Evliya Çelebi, Türkiye’s answer to Marco Polo who travelled from Croatia to Crimea, sought out the spirit in the 17th century. Çelebi even noted rakı’s pet name: aslan sütü, or ‘lion’s milk’, due to its milky opacity once ice cubes are dropped in.
Izmir köfte rank among the best of Türkiye’s 100 varieties of meatball. The city snack is a smash of lamb, potatoes and tomatoes. Literally a meal in a bun. Especially when topped with parsley and the chili flakes known as pul biber. Smell the sizzling meatballs before you spy them in $2-per-portion köfteci kiosks.
Even death has a culinary angle in Izmir. After funerals the mood is lightened with lokma, fried doughballs lathered in enough syrup to set even the sweetest tooth tingling. The local İzmir lokması versions are doughnut-shaped with a hole in the middle. Like a saccharine calorific – yet utterly delicious – wedding ring.
Izmir receives more sunshine than the South of France. Hence the creation of sübye. It’s a cooling beverage made from discarded seeds scooped from the melons that grow in every garden. The recipe involves dried seeds, a cup of sugar and a powerful blender. Sübye’s taste? Nutty, dense and only available in Izmir.
Institutions & monuments
Think the very best of Türkiye. You'll be munching a $1.50 ispanakli pide (spinach pizza) when you'll stumble across a Lydian column, Crusader fort or Byzantine church. Izmir's Roman agora is a case in point. It's a marble-clad market square adorned by Greeks, Romans and Ottomans, framed by a Corinthian colonnade straight out of Gladiator. Yet the agora is surrounded by the density of traditional Turkish life – flying soccer balls, flower hawkers, gas bottle delivery trucks – within a city of 3m souls. As Izmir is so liberally blessed with antiquity, tourists at the agora are often outnumbered by archaeologists and the ubiquitous stray cats.
Two centuries ago Izmir was nicknamed ‘the Marseille of Anatolia’. Greeks, Jews and Turks of European descent traded tobacco, figs and liquorice root with the wider world. They built Mediterranean mansions like the one that hosts the Arkas Maritime History Center. This museum regales 5,000 years of salty Izmir history via 150 model ships and 100 old masters. The coolest model is MV Savarona. Once the world's longest luxury yacht, she was delivered to Türkiye's founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1938. You'll see his picture all over Izmir. Atatürk was a handsome statesman who gave women the vote, sipped rakı and dressed like a Savile Row-tailored gentleman. The most instructive painting? German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm's yacht Hohenzollern II anchored off Türkiye. The Kaiser had sailed in to finance the Istanbul to Baghdad railway. The service carried culinary culture back and forth until the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Seferihisar is 40 minutes east of Izmir. You can smell this walled Aegean town before you see it. That’s because Seferihisar is Türkiye’s first Cittaslow, or Slow City, where everything served must be sourced from the immediate vicinity. Think a version of Copenhagen’s Noma, multiplied by 1,000, teleported beside the Aegean Sea. Only-try-here delights include tangerine sherbet drinks and mantı chickpea ravioli. Street eats just keep coming. Wander the ancient streets to bag olives and aubergine-stuffed börek filo pastries. Chemically-enhanced produce and fast food stores are forbidden. The Cittaslow designation was the brainchild of local politician and ex-journalist Tunç Soyer. As mayor of Izmir since 2019, let’s hope Soyer brings the joy of Slow Food to the big city.
Kemeraltı is more than a market. Since the 17th century it's been an entire suburb built on mercantilism. Stroll from imposing hans (caravanserai big enough to park a silk-laden camel train) to tiny pasajı (literally passages, or alley, dedicated to pickles, scarves and every conceivable commodity). Kemeraltı is Izmir’s answer to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. With far fewer tourists, meaning the experience feels altogether more authentic.
Teahouses, eateries and ice creameries have grown organically to serve Izmir’s most bustling quartier. As have trees and the vines to shade them. Sustenance in Kemeraltı is provided by countless stalls selling pickled garlic globes, simit bagels, wrap-your-own fig leaves, lokum Turkish delight and pressed-before-your-eyes pomegranate juice. Even Izmirlis get lost in the shop-til-you-drop labyrinth.
The district is also home to several active synagogues including the beautiful Signora Giveret, named after a Portuguese merchant. Nearby the Hisar Mosque, the largest in Izmir, is an Ottoman work of art. Welcome inside.
Tavaci Recep Usta
Sited in a handsome mansion that lords it over Izmir's Kordon seafront promenade, Tavaci Recep Usta is king of the grill. The story starts with Recep Usta, the ‘usta’ signifying a 'master' in his chosen culinary field. Recep learnt his trade in the spicy, meaty steppes of Eastern Türkiye. We're talking stuffed Türkiye, boiled neck, lahmacun mince pizzas, meat-stuffed aubergines, half carcasses of lamb and other recipes exported, undimmed, 1,500km west to the Aegean Sea. (Türkiye is three times the size of the UK, with geographically unique cuisines aplenty.) Forgot to skip lunch? Order a simple skewer of lambs’ livers, paired with a bowl of mercimek lentil soup. Few of Tavaci Recep Usta’s regulars imbibe booze. Join them with a drinks pairing of ayran yoghurt, sweet tea and Turkish coffee.
This is an unashamedly romantic seafood emporium in the traditional fishing village of Urla. Put off by the chiller loaded with giant mullet, striped bream and red prawns? Then eat elsewhere. Tonight means a feast of preserved sea bass and slow-baked octopus tentacles. And that's just for starters. Mains come direct from the fishing boats bobbing opposite. Think salt-baked grouper or squid stuffed with the 100 herbs that can be foraged in the region. (There’s actually a competition to find that many during a local herb festival.) For dessert you’ll beg for nothing greater than a traybake of helva, a semolina-honey goodness that will keep you stuffed until morning.
A lokanta is a no-nonsense workers’ canteen where diners point at steaming platters then load a tray with a fork and bread roll. Adil, a big chef in all senses, raises lokanta catering to gourmet levels. His point-and-shoot array of platters are frequently piled three high. Try crisped okra, hot rice dolma, kuru fasulye bean soup, baked tomatoes, shredded lamb over pilaf. Adil is a man obsessed with aubergine. Find the vegetable's soft unctuousness melted into lamb stews and İmam bayıldı, the classic Turkish aubergine stuffed with barley, garlic and spices. Four words: melt in your mouth.
Ozbek Keskek Evi
The House of Ozbek Keskek does what it says on the tin. In a shaded garden it serves keşkek, a dish so heavenly that it’s served at wedding and circumcision ceremonies, using ingredients and methods that migrated to Izmir from Central Asia. The recipe? Go back seven centuries. Keşkek was eulogised in poems by Seljuk Turks, the steppe warriors who eventually settled down to kickstart the Ottoman Empire with its HQ in Istanbul. It's essentially a feed-a-crowd cauldron of chickpeas, wheat, lamb and butter. Oh, and an onion to keep things light. Ozbek Keskek Evi enlivens keşkek by allowing diners to witness the prep in an open kitchen, before serving the dish alongside stuffed vine leaves, tangy pickles and cubes of lemon. Not convinced? A few years back UNESCO added keşkek to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list. You’re literally eating history.
2Rooms, sited above the modernist Urla Winery, is Türkiye's tiniest hotel. Plate glass windows overlook rows of sun-loving Nero d'Avola, Sangiovese, Boğazkere and Bornova Miske vines, which produce a quarter of a million bottles of top tier wine. Stay in one of two suites and be the first in the winery’s tasting room at your earliest convenience.