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Insider Interview – Getting to Know Izmir

For this insider guide article, we chatted with JB and Renée – aka The Traveleaters – about their visit to the region of Izmir in Turkey and discovered some fun and food-centric insider tips.

After living in the US and now the Philippines, JB and Renée were bitten with the travel bug, and started their quest to try every country in the world’s unofficial national dish.

As avid food fans, they will rave as much about a fantastic restaurant or food stall as they will about a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which gives readers an interesting perspective on the food and culture of a place.

Of course, they had plenty of insider information to share with us on Izmir’s activities and cuisine, which you can find below.

Firstly, we know Izmir and the surrounding region are not as well-known with holidaymakers as Istanbul, but why would you say holidaymakers should visit this region over other areas of Turkey?

That’s easy, Ephesus! The ancient city of Ephesus is one of the most well-preserved Roman ruins in the world. If you’re into ancient history and have time to visit just one archaeological site in Turkey, then this should be it.

We went to a few other ruins in Turkey like Aphrodisias and Laodicea, but Ephesus was the most grand.

If a holidaymaker only has a few days in the area, what would you say is one thing he or she absolutely shouldn’t miss the chance to visit/see/do in the Izmir region?

Aside from Ephesus, the town of Sirince is a wonderful place to visit. Accessible from Selcuk by minibus, it’s a small hill town known for its olive oil and fruit wines. It can get overrun with tourists during the day but that didn’t detract from the town’s charm. 

We enjoyed exploring its maze of cobblestone streets, many of which are at an incline. We only spent a few hours there but with more time, we would have loved to stay the night. It would have been nice to have breakfast outside and walk around town without the horde of day trippers.

With a blog like yours, it’s apparent that food is the factor driving your travels around the world. Which lesser-known restaurants do the locals – or you – love in the Izmir region when it comes to dining out?

We really enjoyed Mehmet and Ali Baba Kebab House in Selcuk. It’s located just around the corner from Ephesus Museum, making it a convenient place to have dinner after viewing the exhibits.

The lamb was great, as was the fish! We try not to visit the same restaurant twice on any trip, but we enjoyed this place so much we wound up eating there again the following night.

Also, you mention that it’s your goal to try the national dish in every country in the world. What is/are Turkey’s national dishes and what did you think of them?

We loved the Turkish food! Turkey’s national dishes are doner and kuru fasulye with pilav.

Doner refers to seasoned meat, most often lamb, stacked in the shape of an inverted cone and cooked on a vertical rotisserie. It can be served in many ways but we enjoyed it best when wrapped in a thin lavash or yufka flatbread known as a durum.

It was one of our favorite things to eat and we had it many times throughout Turkey.  

Kuru fasulye with pilav refers to a white bean stew served with rice pilaf. It’s one of Turkey’s favorite comfort foods but unfortunately, we didn’t get to try it on our last trip. Next time!

Obviously places like Istanbul are packed with Turkish history, but what sites does Izmir and the surrounding region offer that might appeal to holidaymakers?

There’s Ephesus, and not too far from it is Meryem Ana Evi or House of the Virgin Mary. It’s said to be the last house where the Virgin Mother lived before Her Assumption. 

In Selcuk, there’s the Basilica of St. John which is believed to be the burial site of John the Apostle. Close by is Isa Bey Mosque, one of the oldest surviving examples of Anatolian architectural art.

Though it’s seen better days, on the outskirts of Selcuk en route to Ephesus is the lone remaining pillar from the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. There’s actually quite a lot of history in this region.

Culturally, are there any places or events you’d recommend to really immerse yourself in the local culture?

Sirince is a great place to do that. Though the town sees its fair share of tourists, it retains its authenticity and is a great place to get a feel for the region. It was one of our favorite places to visit in Izmir.

What’s the best way to get around when travelling in the region?

For intercity travel, it’s best to go by train. They operate on a schedule so you’re guaranteed to arrive on time.  

Intercity buses in Turkey are nice but some of them wait for passengers at different stops so the journey can sometimes be delayed. That happened to us on one leg and we wound up arriving two hours later than expected.

If you’re on a schedule, then trains are definitely best. For shorter distances, like from Selcuk to Sirince, minibuses are the way to go.

What cultural souvenir would you recommend taking home from Turkey that isn’t the standard magnet or t-shirt? 

We’re not particularly religious but our families are, so we wound up buying most of our gifts at Meryem Ana Evi. They were selling many religious items like blessed pendants, holy oil, etc. Our families appreciated them very much.

Do you have any other suggestions for alternatives to the tourist trail or any more information on the cuisine that you’d like to share?

Try imam biyaldi. It refers to whole eggplant stuffed with onion, garlic, and tomato, and simmered in olive oil. We had it at highly regarded Ejder Restaurant by the old Roman aqueduct.

Interestingly, imam biyaldi literally means ‘the imam fainted’. Its name is derived from the tale of a Turkish imam or Muslim leader who fainted upon hearing the cost of the ingredients or the amount of oil used to cook the dish. In any case, you may faint when you eat it. It’s delicious.

If JB and Renée have convinced you that a luxury Izmir holiday needs to be your next break, you can find more inspiration in our Izmir travel guide, which includes top restaurants, things to do and more.