Shopping in Izmir Kemeralti Bazaar: “Just gorgeous things, you know”
Fresh off the taxi, we pause on the large Konak Meydani by the seaside, where pidgeons and a huge banner of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk dominate the scene. We’re here to do a bit of shopping in Izmir Kemeralti Bazaar. But I know exactly where I need to go, into the narrow, people-filled streets, where the juice and nut vendors just form the first front of the great maze of shops modern and traditional. And off we go, clutching our bags, dazzled by the shops and the streams of people in the little pedestrian lanes.
Of all the places in Turkey, Istanbul with its Grand Bazaar and numerous malls is a place to shop and fill that suitcase before leaving. In general, every city in Turkey is a shopping heaven. And it happened that we passed through Izmir, or spent a few days relaxing in a fine hotel in Alacati, an hours bus ride away.
Why am I writing this now?
In theory, Turkey is welcoming tourists from the EU again. The German government has issued a travel warning for Turkey on 17June and declared Turkey a risk area for COVID-19. While many think this is justified due to the reporting from Turkey even though they report less than 50 new infections per 100000, I am disappointed by the ruling. While I do not agree with it, I will comply with the travel advice for the time being but I am certainly planning my next trip to Turkey. I want to publish this post at this time in support of travelling in Turkey. Always check with your own health authority and Foreign Office about travel safety before travelling.
You find everything in a Turkish Bazaar
Izmir, or Smyrna in ancient Greek, has always been an important Aegean sea port, and as such, a city where people from all over the place lived and traded, mostly harmoniously. Notable buildings preserved from the Ottoman Empire are the elegant Hisar Mosque, dating back to 1598 and the peaceful little oasis of the Kemeralti Mosque. Both are located in the bustling streets of the Kemeralti area. Both are super peaceful and quiet except at prayer time and all visitors are welcome, provided they are modestly dressed. Ladies, head covering is probably welcome, and no bare shoulders or bare knees.
Right in the thick of the modern bazaar is the pretty Kizlaragazi Han, built in 1744 as a caravanserai and bazaar. It sustained damage over the centuries by earthquakes and recurring fires, but has been immaculately preserved or rebuilt. Nowhere near as large as the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, it nevertheless is more atmospheric – and somewhat easier to navigate. Nowadays it is more touristy than surrounding streets but it has lots of atmosphere, and since Izmir isn’t primarily a touristy city, you will find quality local products there, too.
The Elusive Synagogues of Izmir
Aside from lots of small shops, mosques and bathhouses the Kemeralti Bazaar also holds some more or less preserved old synagogues. Did you know that Izmir also had a very large Jewish population, reaching 40000 in the late 19th Century and making it the Ottoman Empires third-largest Jewish community after Istanbul and Thessaloniki?
According to the Cultural Guide to Jewish Europe, a small Jewish community lived here since the Roman Empire but was followed by a much larger influx of Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in the late 15th Century. They lived together in relative harmony with the local Ottomans as well as the Greek and Armenian Community until the First World War and the Fall of the Ottoman Emire. Most of them emigrated abroad as Anti-Semitism in Europe rose. It is estimated that in the 1950’s nearly half the Jews resident in Turkey emigrated to Israel. Today, there is only a small Jewish community in Izmir, and sadly it is not possible to visit most of the remaining synagogues.
Shop, Shop, Shop
Shopping in Turkey is a delight. By that I do not mean the tourist bazaars in cruise ports or near attractions. I mean big city bazaars or small artisan shops. And malls, of you like malls – the Turkish malls are allegedly legendary. I have a separate post on good souvenirs and gifts from Turkey and where to find them.
But let’s remember an important pursuit: Shopping. Firstly, a mission to buy some new clothes for my husband. Quality, reasonably priced and classic rather than trendy.
Shopping for clothes
Go to LC Waikiki, our landlady in Patara had said, great quality, relatively unknown Turkish brand.
Also, I’d known from previous visits that Mavi makes good clothes. So, following the stream of people into a little pedestrian passage next to the diminutive Konak Mosque, we went to search for a new outfit or two. Map in hand, we arrived at a large Mavi store, four floors of reasonably priced basics. And half an hour later, we emerged with two carrier bags of various jeans and shirts which will last for the next decade. I bought some jeans there too and can confirm they are great! Really comfortable thanks to a bit of lycra, keep their colour and wash really well.
It was rather stupid to go clothes shopping first, because we now dragged two shopping bags deeper into the maze of the bazaar, our hands full and barely able to hold our juice.
Deeper into Kemeralti Bazaar
There’s nothing like having your hands free when there are so many interesting things to browse. But I am very much the kind that says if you really like it or you need it, you buy it. It was only the bags that stopped me on stocking up on dried goods like dried fruit, sundried tomato and spices for our kitchen – this would have to wait until Istanbul. It was also somewhat difficult to wave of the guys trying to sell us fake watches all the time.
Apart from that, no one bothered us at all, unlike in some touristier parts of Turkey. Also, very little fake fashion and accessories for sale here, unlike in Fethiye, Kusadasi or Dalyan , resort towns we visited on our trip.
The Bead Bazaar
Things really came to a head when we entered the bead bazaar area of Kemeralti. It’s really just two small streets. I had read about it somewhere on the internet, and I really wanted to go there. Most of the bead and jewellery supply stores are in 861 Sokak (Lane). It runs straight off the Kizlaragazi Han in a westerly direction.
Here, there is a string of bead and jewellerymaking shops. My husbands eyes glazed over and he looked for somewhere comfy to sit and drink a coffee, while I started bead-hopping. Most beads are very low priced and presumably glass, but there were others that seemed semiprecious stone. In the end, I went by colour only and bought a few aquamarine and jade green strings of beads for something like 10Euros to make myself a necklace or two as a holiday memento – like I had seen in the pretty boutiques of Alacati, but for a fraction of the price.
You will also find countless interpretation of the Nazar amulet to ward off the “evil eye”. Traditionally they originate form a small village called Nazarkoy 30km outside Izmir – or from China.
Weaving through the cool covered Kizlaragasi Han and the surrounding lanes, I admired the riot of colours and sounds. My husband is more of a grumpy shopper and started mentioning that we should return to our hotel in Alacati, an hour away, before nightfall. I would have happily walked around there all day.
Another thing that’s never missing in any self-respecting Turkish Bazaar is all kinds of soaps. A lot of them are all natural on an olive oil basis, and they smell divine! I love citrus and cucumber scent, something you don’t get much in Germany, and bought a few. Also you get such exotic “flavours” like “sulphur” or “laurel” – they mostly have medicinal qualities but also an interesting smell.
Another good thing to buy here are the hammam bowls and scrubbing mitts. Many “luxury” hamams and lifestyle shops in tourist places sell them and you can easily pick them up for 5-10TL in these shops. Same as Turkish Hammam towels: the ones I saw in tourist shops in the more touristy places were of a really poor quality. Go to a local bazaar in a non-tourist town and buy the most excellent cotton products. I mostly buy my Turskish towels in Jennifers Hamam in Istanbul – they are handloomed and about twice the price for a good quality machine-made towel. Even the cheaper towels I bought five years ago really keep their colour and shape. A Turkish towel, whether the thin hamam one or fluffy looped towel, makes another excellent souvenir.
Also, spices and herbs. I tend to buy a pound or kilo of something I like and ask the seller to divide it into smaller portions – some even vacuum pack. Aside from the “main” shopping lanes, there were many smaller side streets with even more traditional, local products.
Deeper and deeper into the maze of streets behind Kizlaragazi Han I went, dragging my increasingly reluctant husband behind. At some point, we got to an area with lots of fabrics. Altogether somewhat brighter, somewhat shinier than I like to use for my own sewing, but had my hands not been full, probably would have been tempted by the flip sequins – even though they are a bit passe now.
I looked quite hard for some quality cotton fabric for sewing. After all, Turkey is a large producer of cotton, and a lot of it is of high quality. But alas – there were some muted fabrics, but a lot were man made or at least wool-poly mixes, and sadly nothing much to load my poor bag-carrying husband with. But a few shop,who sold mostly colourful printed towels and curtains, had some really nice cotton bedspreads in muted beige- and black patterns. The price: 5 Euro. I just wish I had more carrying-capacity.
Like in any decent bazaar, eating opportunities are never far away. Well, I say I am a vegetarian, and I may eat meat every three years or so. But I cannot decline a piece of fresh fish. I make an exception and eat fish a few times when I am on holiday and near the sea, while at home I revert to vegetarian.
So while our stomach was grumbling, we passed a chock-full cafe where the most delicious smell of fried fish was wafting into the street, and hung around a bit until a table was free. As the menu was in Turkish on a blackboard only, we opted for the “balik ekmek” (fish sandwich) and “kalamar” (self explanatory) and a salad. Everything was really fresh and delicious. I remember the phrase “you can stuff yourself for under a tenner” from when I was a student which signified a highly recommended, tasty but cheap restaurant, and, many years later, this restaurant called “Kemer 6” would certainly fall into that category.
Take a Coffee Break
Sometime between lunch and dusk, we passed this inviting area inside the Kizlaragasi Han where a cluster of coffee shops had laid out tables and inviting carpet-covered benches. I felt like I wanted to pack up the pretty carlet cushions, too.
And yet, every cafe seemed to advertise a particular quality of its coffee or brewing method. Knowing no Turkish, we stopped at the one with the most customers (and the loudest advertising I admit) where we learned they brew each cup of coffee in the porcelain cup it is served in.
Okay, it was coffee! Good coffee, too. The place is called Şükrü Bey’in Yeri and quite hard to miss. Apparantly it’s a local institution. Like many Turkish coffee shops, they only serve coffee, tea and lemonade, so you would need to look elsewhere for your restorative cakes.
It’s a great place to sit a while and watch the world go by. The coffees are priced accordingly, and there are plenty of people who look like they’ve settled there for the day. No one will rush you there.
We didn’t even get a chance to go to Alsancak, the dining and nightlife district if Izmir. Laden with bags, we emerged from Kemeralti Bazaar and flagged down a taxi to the bus station, way out of town. We longed to return to quiet Alacati for another day of wandering the streets, drinking coffee and relaxing in beautiful surroundings.
Getting to Izmir
We took a regular bus from Alacati to Izmir. They run about every hour between Cesme and Izmir, more frequently in summer. The bus goes to the Izmir Otogar way out of the centre. This is handy if you want to make a long distance bus collection. However, the bus also alights and picks up at the much smaller Üçkuyular (sometimes also called Balcova) Bus Station – just tell the driver or your fellow passengers you want to go there and besides,m this is where many bus passengers tend to get off. From Üçkuyular there is a tram that runs along the seafront all the way to Konak Meydani. The only reason to go to and from the Otogar would be to make a long distance bus connection or returning late in the evening, when buses may fill up at the Otogar.
Izmir has frequent long- and short-distance connections through its huge Bus Terminal outside the centre, as well as an airport 15km outside the centre with nearly hourly connections to Istanbul and regular flights to other Turkish cities. Train connections aren;t amazing at the moment – it takes well over ten hours to reach Istanbul via Eskisehir at present or involves a once-daily ferry ride across the Marmara Sea. This is set to change in the next few years as more high-speed rail links are built and the train lines extended into central Istanbul, probably Haydarpasa.
Where to Stay
We stayed in the small resort of Alacati about 80km from Izmir and took the bus as we did not well like negotiating the Izmir traffic in our hite car. I highly encourage you to go to one of the laid-back smallish resports on the Cesme peninsula and make a few day trips unless you visit in winter.
If you have a car, I would recommend staying either side of the Bay of Izmir and take public transport into the centre. Balcova and its brand-new five-star Wyndham Grand Izmir Ozdilek are a great place to start – its got the usual five-star amenities, a multiple pools, a nice seaside location, free parking and is a short taxi ride from the centre. And for about 60-70 Euro for a double in low season, it’s incredibly great value.
If you haven’t got a car in tow, go closer to the city centre. Right by the sea yet 5min from Kemeralti Bazaar is the luxurious small Key Hotel. You should still manage with a car, as it is right on the seafront boulevard. Rates are a little higher, about 122Euro per night but it looks stunning and super contemporary.
A great budget option is the Viva LA Vida Butik Otel in the Alcansak Quarter – one block from the sea in a lively entertainment district.
Where to Eat
We just went to one restaurant, the Kemer6 Balik Restraurant. It is right outside Kizlaragazi Han and easy to pick out because of its corner position and bright red awnings. It was also heaving – a very good sign! And it didn’t disappoint! I had perhaps the best calamari ever. This is no fancy place! They have fish, fish sandwiches and grilled whole fish. Menu is in Turkish only, cannot remember if the waiters spoke English, but pointing and uttering the few Turkish culinary phrases worked a treat. Not expensive at all, super friendly, very casual, extremely clean. THE place to eat fish. Due to its market location, a local lunch restaurant, not so much one for the romantic candlelight dinner.
The Small Print
Disclosure: This trip was entirely self funded. I will only review and recommend places that I have stayed in myself or that I have at least visited. You can trust me for the whole, unbiased truth. However, in this case, I only stayed at the Cumbali Konak in Alacati and recommend the others based on their location, a visit and favourable reviews. I have received no monetary or non-monetary rewards for linking aside from some affiliate links. In this case, this post contains some affiliate links to Booking.com. This means that I receive a small commission at no extra cost to you if you book through the affiliate links. More details on my affiliate link policy are here.