Our Turkey Road Trip: Kusadasi and Ephesus
We leave home in a downpour, me pulling my flimsy travelling coat around me as I pull my little case to the train station. A train and a flight later, we are greeted by golden evening light in Istanbul and fly into the sunset to Izmir. Our flight is full of Turks, hardly any Germans. It’s November, welcome to our summer holiday!
In Izmir, we observe two well-fed cats travelling with us in their big travel crates, looked after by their guardians, but still pissed off about the whole experience. We pick up our rental car, and drive an hour through the dark on a nice motorway until we get to Kusadasi. It’s not the sleepy Mediterranean resort town I had envisaged but a sprawling city of over 10000 people. Where we just booked a super cheap simple seaside hotel.
And it’s late October, anyway. We are staying at the Southern end of Kusadasi, in a beach enclave called Ladies Beach, which is almost asleep, save for a few beachside restaurants. The beach is narrow, clean, and the Aegean Sea an almost unreal blue, the water clear and warm enough to swim. I like its sleepiness and emptiness, perfect for some very quiet days by the sea. A well-lit seaside promenade with big Western menus welcomes us. We stroll into the back streets instead and find something vegetarian with chipped potatoes for a third of the price, then fall into a lovely slumber in our room, which is basic but fabulous because of its 24h sea soundtrack.
The next morning we have to drive into Kusadasi to buy a SIM Card and look at the town. But the breakfast comes first – Nescafe on tap and a very generous “Turkish Breakfast”. There are always fruit, olives, tomatoes and cucumber, cheese and eggs, even in the simplest of places.
Had it not been for the SIM Card, it would have been safe to give Kusadasi a miss. Kusadasi is a major cruise port, with services to match. Straight from the port, a rather pleasant pedestrian street with small tourist shops called the “Kusadasi Bazaar” snakes into the pleasant small Old Town. The offerings of the shops are pretty similar to what you can expect in tourist shops in Istanbul at higher prices.
There is a small Byzantine Castle jutting out on an peninsula, which is a nice spot to watch the sun go down.
And there are the “Painted Houses”, a rather new and in my eyes, doubtful attraction. IN early 2019 the city, in collaboration with a paint company, decided to paint houses in a hill side quarter the colour of the rainbow. It looks very interesting viewed from town. But taking a closer look, painting the exterior appeared to be all that had been done – these houses looked in poor repair, with crumbly steps between them, and some open sewers.
We walked up around – never a good idea, even in October when temperatures reached a lovely 27 Celsius, but the sun was still bright! You can basically start walking from the tourist bazaar, its a 10minute steep uphill climb.
After a restorative coffee and sitting out the midday heat, we drove the 20min to Ephesus, stopping at a roadside fruit stall to sit the heat out some more and drink fresh orange juice.
We entered the site of Ephesus at the Lower Gate, just off the road to Selcuk. It is allegedly the “less popular one” but there was no evidence for that – with full parking spaces and queues at the ticket booths.
Why is Ephesus so popular?
Two things: Firstly, the Library of Celsus, the third largest Libary (after Alexandria and Pergamon) of the antique world, and its front facade being in excellent condition.
Secondly – proximity to the port of Kusadasi and great accessibility from the national motorway network make this prime tour group material. Like many similar settlements, Ephesus was a port city founded around 3000 years ago by settlers from present-day Greece.
It lost importance as the Great and Little Meander rivers began to silt up, and was finally was destroyed by the Goths in the 3rd Century AD and then again by an earthquake 300 years later.
Walking through the remains of ancient Ephesus
After the lower gate, we walked along a very pleasant road shaded by trees, with the remnants of the large commercial agora in front of us, and an impressive amphitheatre (the first of many) somewhat obscured by large construction cranes.
And then, it peaked fairly fast, as we entered the small Plaza with the Library of Celsus from the side. The day trippers had not yet tired. We fled into the roofed structure where the Terraced Houses are protected from the elements. What a good decision that was! Mayhem outside, peace and quiet (and some of the best preserved Roman Era houses I have seen) inside. I’ll write a separate post on this gem, and I encourage you not to miss it.
Half an hour later, we emerged into the somewhat less fierce late afternoon sun, and walked uphill on the long paved Street of Curetes – on pavement, accompanied by many cats. Some of them stroll around the snack bar by the library, obviously hungry. Some lie happily in the sun and pose for photos without wanting anything in return. My heart melts seeing all these cats, and while it appeared in general that most urban cats were cared for by someone, neutering is definitely not en vogue. Here, some cats were ear tipped as a sign they had been neutered.
As we walked up the gentle incline of the Street of Curetes , we understood why many advocate starting at the Upper Gate. There are smaller structures to the left and right of what must have been the main throughfare. There is a brothel that’s popular with lots of visitors, minus any frescoes and phallic decorations as in Pompeji, and the public latrines.
Prettier are, further up, the graceful little Temple of Hadrian, the Heracles Gate and Asclepion (hospital), culminating in another large plaza. And then, after taking a look around the sedondary, smaller amphitheatre, we were ready to walk back downhill again, this time taking in the views all the way down to the Library, which was by now much less crowded.
Evening Stroll in Selcuk
After an afternoon baking in the sun, we were looking for something relaxing – a bit of food, a bit of strolling in the shops… When we were finished in Ephesus (best part of three hours) we drove to the House of the Virgin Mary. There is a school within Christianity that believes this is where the Virgin spent her last days, based on visions of a 18th Century Catholic nun and discovered about hundred years later. There is small chapel on the foundations of the house along with a baptismal pool, and a hefty entrance fee for all that – so we skipped it and drove to Selcuk, which was pleasantly empty around this time of the day, mostly populated by locals.
We ate dinner in one of the small appealing-looking restaurants. Stuffed mussels are apparently the specialty here: we opted for a lot of hearty vegetarian traditional food. Then, as this was our first full day, we enjoyed a bit of barter at the souvenir shops, and still paid too much, and bought a few snacks and water for our drive south.
We flew to Izmir on Pegasus Airlines and rented a car from Sixt. We had a few minor issues with out (cheap) car. The manual was in Turkish only, car ran out of AdBlue, a tire kept losing pressure slowly. These were minor hiccups that didn’t made us change our trip.
Internet and SIM Cards in Turkey
We bought a Turkcell SIM Card for your two-week stay. It cost approximately 120 TL (about 20Euro). It included absolute tons of data (I think 10GB) as well as 60 world-wide minutes. You can only buy them in Turkcell shops. You will definitely need a passport to purchase one. They often become invalid after 30 days, so it is worth enquiring in the shop.
Where to stay
If you are planning to visit Ephesus and wish to stay nearby, you mainly have the choice between the small pleasant town of Selcuk or Kusadasi.
Selcuk is a small landlocked town with a fair amount of tourism, but not choked by it like Pamukkale. It has some decent hotels, nice restaurants in the centre and the acclaimed Ephesus Museum as well as some other ancient sites nearby.
Kusadasi is about 15km away. It may be the better option if you wish to be by the seaside or want more action. We stayed a little outside the city in an area called Ladies Beach. It is about 5km from the centre, in a pleasant beach enclave fronted by hotels backed by a suburban settlement. We heard it is heaving in the summer, but it was almost dead, with many places closed, in late October.
We stayed at the Ladies Beach Hotel, which is right by the seafront and very simple and somewhat featureless-which is reflected in the prices. It is spotless clean and very friendly, and highly recommend it. If you prefer something more upmarket, consider the Ladies Beach Residence, also right by the beach.
I use Booking.com for most of my accommodation. At the time of writing, it is impossible to male bookings on this site without a Virtual Private Network. Bookings made outside Turkey are unaffected. On this trip I made a few booking prior to the trip, and some others while already in Turkey. I used a mixture of contacting properties directly, Expedia and Trip.com. All worked well, although Turkish Lira conversion rates by online payments were sometimes really unfavourable.
If you can in any way, try to visit early in the morning or at the close of the day. The site opens at 8:00 and closes at 17:00 in winter and 19:00 in summer. Expect the site to be swarmed with group tours from 9:00 onwards until an hour before closing time.
In late October, it was pretty busy although not uncomfortably so. The single entry fee at present is 72TL (about 12 Euro). If you plan to see a lot of museums and ancient sites in the region or whole Turkey, consider getting a Turkey Museum Pass or an Aegean Museum Pass. It is is valid 15 days and includes Istanbul and Pamukkale, where some entrance fees are hefty. If you plan to see some rather obscure sites, including most of Lycia, where some sites are not part of the pass, it makes more sense to pay separately.
Many guide and online forums advocate starting the visit at the Upper Gate. There are ticket booths on both gates. If you want to see Ephesus in a more “flowing” way and stroll down the Curetes Street, culminating in the Library, use the Upper Gate. If you want to get to the Library as quickly as possible, for example to be the first to take photos when the site opens, use the Lower Gate. No matter where you’re parked, you are likely to walk through the site twice. This really isn’t a big deal as the paths are paved and the inclines are very gentle. Just make sure you take a hat and some water.
We hired a car from Sixt so we mostly drove. Finding parking isn’t a problem even in a city like Kusadasi, if you are willing to pay a small parking fee.
If you use public transport, there is a frequent dolmus (shared Taxi) service. You would need to take a dolmus from Ladies Beach to the centre of Kusadasi and from there to Selcuk. YOu need to walk a lot, though, as the dolmus will drop you off on the main road.
Where to Eat
Ephesus: there are a few expensive cafes on site and by the entrance. It might be better to eat in Selcuk – more choice and less touristy restaurants ensure that the overall quality is better, and there is plenty of choice in the compact town centre between the bus and train stations.
Disclosure: This trip was entirely self funded. I have received no monetary or non-monetary rewards for linking aside from some affiliate links. I will only review and recommend places that I have stayed in myself unless otherwise stated. You can trust me for the whole, unbiased truth. More details on my affiliate link policy are here.