This weekend was an excellent way to knock off three destinations in one. Izmir was the first (and home base). Selçuk and Ephesus, one of Turkey’s top tourist destinations, is the second.
The town (and ancient city) are a mere 1-hour train ride from Izmir. The line runs from Izmir’s Basmane station to Denizli several times per day- more on that in the next post. It’s a cheap and easy way to get around, and the train was clean, modern, and comfortable.
I arrived in Selçuk in the late morning with a clear itinerary but no set timetable. The town is small and quiet, at least during this time of year. Everyone seemed to know everyone and there was a lot of green space, fountains, and trees (including a lot of orange trees). There are several places to stay if you want to be outside of Izmir, as well as a handful of restaurants and cafes.
It takes just a few minutes to get from the train station to the first tourist attraction: St. John’s Basilica (on top of the hill overlooking the town). To give some religious background: St. John accompanied Mary to Ephesus after Jesus was crucified. He is buried on the hilltop, and the basilica was later built around his grave.
The Basilica was a cool experience- and not just because the place was completely empty. Since a lot of the columns and walls are still standing, you have an eerie feeling of ducking in and out of rooms as if the building was still in use. The church floor is completely intact, and a nearby sign points out the very visible altar and holy water basin.
Farther up the hill, the remains of a castle stand. It’s mostly just the walls, but it offers fantastic views of the town and the valley below. It also gave me a great understanding of why castles were so advantageous- the walls, plus the hill made this thing nearly impenetrable. I was winded just from walking up the steps! In all, the Basilica and castle should take you an hour to an hour and a half to see.
The next stop is just down the hill: the Isa Bey Mosque. It was built in the 1300’s and features a very peaceful courtyard. It’s a quick stop en route to the other major sites.
The third attraction is the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It’s not particularly much to look at- a reconstructed column and a few large stones, but signage gives you an idea of why it makes the list: it was huge. It was also the first building to feature double columns, which gave it many, many columns, each a good 40+ feet tall. It’s a shame that it’s mostly gone now, it would have been a real sight to look at when it still stood.
After a 30-minute walk, you come to the big site: Ephesus. The ancient city was inhabited for three thousand years and is remarkably intact (plus a good 30-years of ongoing restoration work). I was fortunate and came on a quiet day- normally the site is crawling with hundreds of tourists, but I was one of the only people there. Entering at the lower gate (most people are driven to the upper if they come in tourism buses), you start off immediately with the most impressive relic: a 25,000 seat amphitheater that’s still in use today. While it pales in comparison to Gillette Stadium size-wise, the fact that people managed to build this 2,000 years ago is unbelievable.
Other sites include the famous library, the agora, a brothel (not functioning, of course), some terrace houses, multiple gates, another theater, statues, columns, two churches, old fountains, and more. Everywhere you look, there’s something new to photograph. It took me two hours to cover the whole site, and because I was alone, I moved quickly!
The one site I didn’t make an effort to see was the House of Mary, where she lived her final days after Jesus was crucified. It’s a hike to see and travel guides all say it’s expensive and not really worth your time. However, if you’re really religious, it is a pilgrimage site for many Christians and might be worth the extra effort. Your call.
In all, I spent about 5 hours in Selçuk, a very good day trip. With friends, it would have been longer. I highly recommend visiting, although off-season so you avoid the crowds!