Last updated on April 8, 2023 by Wandering our World
The Republic of Turkey straddles the geographical divide between Europe and Asia and is world-renowned for its rich history, culture, and stunning coastline.
While its smaller coastal towns and cities are ideal for beach breaks, to fully immerse yourself in its history and culture as well as its beaches, its bigger coastal metropolises like Istanbul and Izmir are hard to beat. Yet both are actually very different from each other…
For example, Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, is a city of two halves; its eastern half is in Europe, while its western half is in Asia.
The city is split by the Bosporus Strait, and its beautiful waterways, stunning architecture, and ancient landmarks make it a hub for sightseeing and exploration.
Whether you’re looking for history, art, culture, food, or just an unforgettable experience, Istanbul is the perfect destination for any traveler.
In contrast Izmir is a beautiful coastal city on the Aegean Sea that offers visitors a unique blend of ancient history, modern city amenities, and breathtaking scenery.
As the third-largest city in Turkey, Izmir has a lot to offer tourists, from its stunning beaches and lively bazaars to its rich cultural heritage and historical landmarks.
With its beautiful coastline, mild Mediterranean climate, and warm and welcoming locals, Izmir is the perfect destination for anyone looking to experience the best of Turkey’s Aegean region.
But which one of these two heavyweight Turkish cities will be best for you?
That’s where we can help!
Read on as we delve deeper into each to show you which has the best beaches, the best nightlife, which is the best for culture, families and even more!
- Which Is Best For Culture?
- Which Is Best For Food?
- Which Is Best For Families?
- Which Is Better For Nightlife?
- Which Is Better For Beaches?
- Which Is Cheaper?
- Where To Stay According To Your Budget
- Which Is Easier To Get To?
- Which Is Easier To Get Around?
- What Time Of Year Is Best?
- Which Is The Better Choice?
Which Is Best For Culture?
As the sun sets over the cities’ skylines, the rich cultural heritages of Izmir and Istanbul come to life.
Both cities are a treasure trove of historical sites, museums, and art galleries, showcasing the unique blend of European and Asian influences.
In Izmir, a visit to the ancient Roman city of Ephesus is a must-see.
It is home to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Temple of Artemis, which was destroyed and rebuilt multiple times throughout history. Visitors can still see the ruins of this magnificent structure and many other historical sites in Ephesus.
Meanwhile, in Istanbul, history is all around you.
The Hagia Sophia, originally built as a church and later converted to a mosque, is a stunning example of Byzantine architecture.
The Topkapi Palace, once the residence of Ottoman sultans, is a lavish display of opulence and grandeur.
And for a taste of contemporary art, the Istanbul Modern offers a collection of Turkish and international works.
In terms of cost, both cities offer a range of options to suit different budgets and have tried to make their historical sights accessible. The Istanbul Museum Pass can save money on entry fees to top attractions, while the Izmir Culture Card offers discounted entry to museums and galleries.
However when it comes to culture, Istanbul has just so much to offer and is such a vast city with a history spanning centuries that it really is the best in Turkey for culture lovers.
Which Is Best For Food?
One of the best ways to experience a new culture is through its food, and both Izmir and Istanbul offer a wide range of culinary delights.
From traditional Turkish dishes to international cuisine, there’s something for everyone, and as two large cities, there is plenty of choice.
In Izmir, seafood is a must-try as the city is located on the Aegean coast. You can find fresh seafood in restaurants by the sea or in the Kemeralti Bazaar.
Local dishes to try include “Midye Dolma” (stuffed mussels), “Kumru” (a sandwich with cheese, tomato, and sausage), and “Boyoz” (a type of pastry).
In the Alsancak district, you can find trendy cafes and restaurants with a variety of international cuisine options.
Istanbul is known for its superb street food, which can be found on almost every corner.
Some popular street food options include “Lahmacun” (a thin flatbread topped with minced meat, vegetables, and herbs), “Simit” (a sesame-covered bread ring), and “Balik Ekmek” (a grilled fish sandwich).
For a more upscale dining experience, head to the neighborhoods of Karakoy or Beyoglu, where you can find trendy rooftop bars and restaurants with panoramic views of the city.
Don’t forget to try “Baklava,” the famous Turkish dessert made from layers of phyllo pastry filled with chopped nuts and honey.
Simply put, both cities have their own unique culinary experiences and dining scenes, so make sure to explore and try new dishes. But for seafood lovers Izmir may be better, while Istanbul is the king of street food.
However there is a full range of restaurants in both cities, with options to suit all budgets. Don’t be afraid to ask locals for recommendations too, and definitely try out small, family-owned restaurants for an authentic experience.
Which Is Best For Families?
When travelling with the whole family in tow, finding the perfect destination that will keep everyone entertained can be challenging, but both Izmir and Istanbul offer a wealth of activities for visitors of all ages.
In Izmir, you can take your little ones to the expansive Karsiyaka Park, a vast green space overlooking the bay, where you can enjoy a picnic, playground, and outdoor activities.
Another popular attraction is the Wildlife Park, which features a diverse range of animals from different parts of the world. Meanwhile, older kids will enjoy the adrenaline-pumping rides at Izmir’s Wonderland Theme Park.
Istanbul, on the other hand, is a city full of historic landmarks and ancient treasures that can spark curiosity and wonder in children.
The Istanbul Toy Museum, for example, has an extensive collection of over 4,000 toys and playthings from all over Turkey and around the world.
Miniaturk, a miniature park that showcases famous Turkish landmarks in 1/25 scale, is another interesting attraction that kids will surely love.
Moreover, the Princes’ Islands, a cluster of small islands off the coast of Istanbul, is an excellent destination for families seeking a tranquil escape from the hustle, bustle, and humidity of the city.
Overall, both Izmir and Istanbul have something to offer for every family member. Whether you’re looking for a peaceful retreat or an activity-rich vacation, both cities are packed with attractions that will keep everyone entertained.
However Istanbul can be chaotic and busy, and many of the highlights involve museums and cultural sights. So we think older kids may prefer Istanbul, while families with younger kids may prefer Izmir.
Which Is Better For Nightlife?
When it comes to life after the sun has set, both Izmir and Istanbul have a lot to offer, whether you’re looking for a couple of beers at the end of the day or to party the night away.
In Izmir, the city comes alive at night, and there’s no shortage of bars to choose from.
One of the most popular spots is the Kordon, a picturesque waterfront promenade lined with bars and cafes where locals and visitors alike gather to enjoy a drink and the evening’s sea breeze.
You’ll find everything from trendy cocktail bars to cosy traditional tavernas serving up local wine and meze. For a more upscale experience, head to Alsancak, the city’s main nightlife district, where you’ll find chic rooftop bars and stylish lounges.
In Istanbul, the nightlife scene is as diverse as the city itself, but arguably a bit more lively than Izmir too.
From traditional meyhanes serving up raki and meze to modern cocktail bars and swanky rooftop lounges, there’s something for everyone.
One of the most popular areas is Beyoglu, a bustling district with a mix of hip bars and clubs, as well as more traditional tavernas and live music venues.
And for a unique experience, head to one of the city’s historic hammams, which transform into buzzing party spots at night.
If you’re looking for a night out dancing, both cities have plenty of options.
In Izmir, Club Hemingway is a popular spot with a lively dance floor and regular international DJ nights. For a more alternative scene, check out Hayal Kahvesi, a rock club with live music and a rooftop terrace.
In Istanbul, the club scene is legendary, with venues like Babylon and Indigo drawing international DJs and music acts from afar.
For a truly unforgettable experience, head to Reina, a sprawling waterfront club with multiple dance floors and stunning views of the Bosphorus.
No matter what kind of nightlife experience you’re after, Izmir and Istanbul have it all. But for a very lively experience, Istanbul probably has the upper hand. Regardless, grab a drink, hit the dance floor, and let these cities show you their best side after dark.
Which Is Better For Beaches?
As two cities built up around the Turkish coastline, both have good access to some stunning beaches.
Izmir is situated on the western coast of the Anatolian Peninsula, and its shore is lapped by the Aegean Sea. It’s the more typical beach and seaside destination with many people basing themselves in the city and taking day trips to the coast, but Istanbul offers options too.
Istanbul spans the divide between Europe and Asia and is bordered to the north by the Black Sea and to the south by the Sea of Marmara.
These two bodies of water are connected via the Bosporus Strait, which splits the city in two. You’ll find beaches around Istanbul, but they tend to be smaller than the ones in Izmir, and do take a little more time to reach.
However the fact is a short journey out of both cities will bring you to lovely coastline and beaches.
We’re going to have a quick run through of three of the best beaches in each location, to help you decide which has the best beaches for you.
The Best Beaches In Istanbul
Best City Beach: Atarli Beach
Located on the southern shore of Istanbul, Atarli Beach is a popular place to hang out and relax on the edge of the city.
The warm water, soft sand, and pleasant breeze make Atarli Beach a great place to escape the stifling city and enjoy some watersports, such as swimming, kayaking, snorkeling, and diving.
Best Family Beach: Babylon Kilyos
Babylon Kilyos is a perfect spot for families with kids to have a fun-filled day in the sun at this Black Sea beach.
The mountains and the verdant greenery of the beach create a perfect beach setting, and the soft sand is ideal for topping up the tan.
There are plenty of beach activities, such as volleyball or badminton, and there are food options available.
Best Party Beach: Solar Beach
If you fancy a day partying by the sea, then Solar Beach may be the one for you.
Located on the coast of the Black Sea, Solar Beach is an activity-rich beach, with surfing, beach volleyball, football, windsurfing, kayaking, scuba diving, water skiing, kite surfing, and fishing all available.
It’s the largest of all the Istanbul beaches, and they often have live music concerts and afternoon pool parties to enjoy.
Best Beaches In Izmir
Best City Beach: Iiman Beach
While most of the best beaches in and around Izmir require a little travel from the main city center, Iiman Beach is one of the more convenient options.
The sandy beach is surrounded by plenty of shops and restaurants, with food and drink options readily available. The water is nice and calm and there are also a few activities to enjoy, such as volleyball.
Best Secluded Beach: Badem Bükü
With its stunning natural setting, Badem Bükü is one of the most picturesque beaches in Izmir province.
The beach requires a bit of travel out of the city to reach it and is great to visit on a day tour of the area, with plenty of other stops along the way.
This beach itself is wide, covered with a mixture of soft sand and shingle, and is often sparsely populated.
Best Family Beach: Ilıca Beach
The beach is a great choice for families, as the water stays shallow for a good distance offshore, making it ideal for young kids to splash about in.
There are also plenty of amenities, with sun loungers and parasols to rent, restrooms, and freshwater showers on hand.
On top of that there are also plenty of food and drink options nearby, behind the beach, but the beach does require a little travel time to reach.
Which Is Cheaper?
As two large cities, there are plenty of options for accommodation and food in each location that will suit any budget. But let’s have a closer look at the financial side of vacationing in Izmir and Istanbul.
Let’s start with accommodation. Both cities have a range of options for all budgets, from luxury hotels to budget hostels.
However, Istanbul is generally more expensive than Izmir when it comes to accommodation. If you’re on a tight budget, you’ll be able to find some great budget-friendly hotels and hostels in both cities, but Izmir might have more options to suit.
When it comes to food, both cities have a fantastic culinary scene, and you’ll find everything from street food to high-end restaurants.
In Istanbul, you can find a wide range of food options, from traditional Turkish dishes to international cuisine.
However, the cost of eating out in Istanbul’s restaurants can be higher than in Izmir. On the other hand, Izmir is known for its delicious seafood and mezze, and you can find affordable options in local restaurants and cafes, and Istanbul is superb for affordable and delicious street food.
Entertainment expenses can also add up quickly, but both cities offer plenty of free or low-cost activities.
In Istanbul, you can visit historic sites like the Blue Mosque or Hagia Sophia, or take a ferry ride along the Bosphorus.
In Izmir, you can explore the Kemeralti Bazaar or relax in one of the city’s many parks. Both cities also have a range of museums and galleries, and you can often find free admission days or discounts for students.
Don’t let the cost of living deter you from visiting these two fantastic cities! With a bit of planning and budgeting, you can enjoy all that Izmir and Istanbul have to offer without breaking the bank. Although if you’re very limited budget-wise, Izmir may be the best option.
Where To Stay According To Your Budget
Budget: L’Agora Old Town Hotel & Bazaar is set in a gorgeous old building with very authentic Turkish vibes. It has a stunning garden area (reminiscent of an old street cafe), a restaurant and bar, and is photogenic at every turn. Considering all of that, and it’s fantastic city location, we think it’s an unbelievable budget stay. See photos and rates!
Luxury: Sometimes on holiday all you want is to feel like celebrity, that’s what you’ll get at the five-star Izmir Marriott Hotel which also boasts stunning sea views and an outdoor swimming pool – a rarity in the city. See photos and rates here!
Budget: The lovely Hotel Empress Zoe is centrally located, close Hagia Sophia, and is decked up in traditional Turkish style. It’s photogenic, the staff are friendly, and the breakfast is very good. See photos and rates here!
Luxury: The five-star Mula Hotel sits by the water and has gorgeous city views. It’s also right in the center of Istanbul, so perfect for sightseeing, and has wonderful outdoor areas perfect for a sundowner. It’s one of the best-priced five-star hotels in the city too. See photos and rates!
Which Is Easier To Get To?
As two of Turkey’s three biggest cities—the capital, Ankara, is the other—you should have no problems sourcing a flight to either of these destinations. Both are well served by busy international airports.
Adnan Menderes Airport (ADB) is Turkey’s fifth busiest airport and is the gateway to Izmir.
The airport, named after former Turkish Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, is located 18 kilometers (11 miles) southwest of the city center.
The airport is well connected to a host of major European and Middle Eastern cities, and you should have no problem finding a flight to suit your intended travel dates.
Istanbul, as the larger city, is even better connected to the rest of the world as it is blessed with two international airports.
One, Istanbul Airport (IST), sits on the European side of the city, and the other, Sabiha Gökçen International Airport (SAW), is located on the Asian side of the Bosporus.
Sabiha Gökçen International Airport, similarly to Izmir’s airport, is very well connected to Europe and the Middle East, while Istanbul’s other airport is a major hub for international travel and is also well connected to major cities in Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
All in all, both cities should be easy to reach, especially for those traveling from within Europe or the Middle East.
While travelers from the Americas, Africa, and Asia will find it easier to reach Istanbul, it’s also very easy to connect on to Izmir via a domestic flight from Istanbul.
Which Is Easier To Get Around?
Both Istanbul and Izmir may be large, bustling cities with lots to see and do, but they both boast modern and convenient public transport systems to help you move around freely.
Istanbul’s extensive public transportation system includes buses, trams, metro lines, ferries, and cable cars.
The Istanbulkart is the city’s all-purpose public transportation card that can be used on all modes of transportation.
The city’s metro system is modern, efficient, and easy to use, while the tram system operates mainly in the historic district.
There are plenty of buses covering the entire city, and you can make use of Istanbul’s ferries to explore the city’s beautiful waterways and to cross between the Asian and European sides of the city.
Izmir also has well-developed public transport links, with plenty of buses, trams, metro lines, and ferries waiting to show you the sights.
The Egekart is Izmir’s equivalent to the Istanbulkart and can also be used on all modes of transport.
The metro and tram systems are convenient for exploring the city center, and the buses are plentiful and cover the entire city and its outskirts. Izmir’s ferries are a great way to discover the city’s beautiful coastline.
What Time Of Year Is Best?
When it comes to planning a trip, timing can be everything. And that’s especially true when it comes to visiting Izmir or Istanbul.
These two cities offer a range of experiences throughout the year, but certain times are better for certain activities, with summer obviously the best choice for beach vacations and the cooler winter months ideal for exploring the cities’ cultural sites.
Izmir enjoys a Mediterranean climate with hot summers and mild winters.
The peak tourist season is from June to September, when temperatures can soar to over 40°C (104°F) and the beaches are crowded with locals and international tourists alike.
If you’re not a fan of the heat or the crowds, it’s best to check out the shoulder seasons, from April to May or September to October. During these months, the weather is still warm enough for outdoor activities, but the crowds are thinner, and the prices are a little lower.
In Istanbul, the climate is more continental, with hot summers and colder winters.
The peak tourist season is from May to September, when the weather is hot and sunny, and the city is alive with festivals and events.
But, again, if you’re looking for a quieter experience, it’s best to visit during the shoulder seasons, from March to April or October to November.
During these months, the temperatures are more comfortable for walking around and the crowds are sparser, but the city still offers a range of cultural events and festivals to enjoy.
If you’re planning a winter vacation to visit Istanbul’s cultural attractions, you can also spend a few days away from the city and enjoy the nearby Uludağ Ski Resort.
The resort offers excellent skiing and snowboarding opportunities, as well as stunning views of the surrounding mountains, and is a couple of hours’ drive south of the city.
Izmir vs Istanbul: Which Is The Better Choice?
After comparing Izmir and Istanbul in terms of transportation, beaches, culture, food, families, nightlife, and cost, the only conclusion to draw is that both cities have their own unique charm and appeal.
While Izmir is perfect for those seeking a relaxed seaside vacation, Istanbul offers a diverse mix of history, culture, and entertainment.
Whether you’re a history buff, a beach lover, a foodie, or just looking to explore an exciting new culture, you’ll find plenty to love in both Izmir and Istanbul.
So, pack your bags, book your tickets, and get ready for an unforgettable adventure discovering the very best of these two Turkish delights.