I pedaled behind my cycling guide, a young 19-year-old Turk by the name of Yiğit – properly pronounced monosyllabically, he informed me. “Yeat. Like the rapper.”
A generation older than him, I did not know about that 23-year-old artist – nor any Gen Z pop-culture reference for that matter – yet as we rode through the countryside of Turkey’s İzmir Province, I knew that we’d be bonding over bicycles and the local scenery rather than our taste in music.
Many travelers rush through the province of İzmir solely for its famed archaeological attractions, such as the ancient Greek city of Ephesus and the House of the Virgin Mary. The region, however, richly rewards exploration beyond its main sites. Adjacent to ancient Ephesus is a 3000-year-old yet most modern city that’s considered the country’s most Western-oriented metropolis. (Plus, its seafood restaurants are not to be missed.) Surrounding this cosmopolitan center is a relaxed countryside extending along the central west coast of the country, with a peninsula that reaches out toward the Greek Isles. The province’s landscapes include farmland and vineyards, rugged mountains, beaches and seaside villages – and are all best experienced on a bicycle. I decided to pedal my way through the province on a cycling tour with Argeus Travel, which included a support van and a guide.
From coast to coast on the Karaburun Peninsula
On our first ride, Yiğit led me across the Karaburun Peninsula, a northward extension of the bigger, westerly İzmir Peninsula. We pedaled about 51km (32 miles) from the Aegean coastal town of Çeşme to İçmeler, a seaside neighborhood in the district of Urla. The ride began on a coastal palm-tree-lined promenade, the red-tiled roofs of affluent homes on one side, the turquoise and azure waters of the Aegean Sea on the other. The route continued down small roads through seaside communities, eventually leading up to higher ground as we headed east on country roads to cross to the peninsula’s other side. The terrain gradually climbed in elevation – we’d gain about 700m (2300ft) in total – bringing sights of rocky hills and olive trees in a dusty, shrub-filled landscape. Using our muscles to power through, we eventually made it to the peninsula’s east coast, and rode the shoulder of a local highway with rugged seaside views that could have been mistaken for the Pacific Coast Highway in California – if not for the occasional mosque on the side of the road.
“You want to ride faster?” Yiğit asked me.
“No, this is a good pace,” I told him. Perhaps he was itching to speed up after telling me stories of reckless mountain-biking adventures with his friends, the kind of stunts that come with youth. He was fairly passionate about the tales, told in English. “I pretty much learned English by following memes on TikTok,” the Zoomer told me.
Stopping to dine and sip in Urla
In the middle of the İzmir Peninsula, Urla is a worthy destination of its own, a popular getaway for İzmir urbanites. Before the next ride, I spent some time here enjoying the spectrum of its culinary scene. I attended a wine-tasting session at Urla Şarapçılık, one of several wineries that comprise the thriving Urla Wine Trail. I dined in the garden at OD Urla, an elevated, experiential farm-to-table restaurant by celebrated chef Osman Sezener. I also enjoyed traditional fare, including haşlama, a classic Turkish lamb stew; and korokeç, the Turkish delicacy of grilled sheep chitterlings. While served with tomatoes and other toppings in Istanbul, the İzmir rendition is simply grilled to perfection (neither too hard or too rubbery) and served on its own, or sandwiched in a toasted long roll.
On the (country) road again
Our stomachs full (mine perhaps more filled than it needed to be), Yiğit and I got back in our saddles, starting at the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Klazomenai. We pedaled southward, this time traversing the İzmır Peninsula latitudinally about 29km (18 miles) to the seaside resort town of Sığacık. We briefly weaved through the congestion of Urla’s town center before picking up quieter farmland roads, through fields of flowering artichoke plants and the regular sight of slow-moving tractors, encountering one lone donkey in the middle of the road. Herds of goats became the norm as the fields expanded out to bigger meadows, some blanketed with bright yellow and crimson wildflowers, and flanked by giant, distant wind turbines jutting out of the horizon. Views of hay bales were soon replaced by sights of palm trees as we reached the coast of the Icarian Sea.
“Yeah, we made it!” Yiğit proclaimed with a smile. We refueled with a fresh seafood lunch at the marina, and a quick tour around the small archaeological site of Teos.
An uphill slog through Selçuk
The Selçuk district, south of the peninsula, is where you’ll find the popular showcase Greek city of Ephesus, its extraordinary amphitheater (which once accommodated 24,000 people) carved into the west slope of Mt Pion. The surrounding terrain features other small mountains and the valleys between them – in cycling terms, more challenging routes, especially when inclement weather rolls in.
For our third and final route, Yiğit and I started in the charming village of Şirince for what was to be a steep but short route toward Selçuk’s town center. After the main drag of shops and cafes, the route continued almost entirely uphill; walking the bikes became more frequent as the rocky paths grew steeper. The consistent rain made for slick and muddy conditions that really didn’t agree with my road bike. Even Yiğit found the rainy route a little challenging for his mountain hybrid. “They wrote ‘mountain bike tour,’ as the route,” he said. “But it’s a 29-inch, full-suspension e-bike route.”
“With full suspension, this would be amazing,” I told him. With the rain getting heavier, we decided to throw in the towel. Instead, we strolled around Şirince, had lunch and a wine tasting (a nice fallback plan!), before hopping in the Argeus support van to tour the popular archaeological sites (bikes aren’t permitted there).
Before we parted ways, I gave Yiğit a bottle of wine I’d bought in Urla. Surprised, he returned a smile. “Thanks, man,” beamed the 19-year-old. I was happy that his Turkish TikTok generation could still appreciate a bottle of wine.
I myself appreciated his guidance on our cycling tour. Even with our last ride cut short, I was still able to admire the beautiful countryside as we walked our bikes in the rain. On two wheels rather than a tour bus, I could truly smell my surroundings: the scent of cut grass, wildflowers, bales of hay – even the odor of manure came with a hint of sweetness. I could hear the sounds of passing tractors, the bells and baas of wandering goats and every call to prayer from a distant minaret. Above all, experiencing the province of İzmir by bicycle came with one added bonus: I got to work off some of those delicious İzmir calories.
How to make it happen
While İzmir’s vibrant cycling culture includes designated routes on cycling maps and trail apps like Komoot, renting a bicycle locally can be a challenge for long routes beyond the capital. A cycling-tour company like Argeus can provide bicycles, a guide and support van. (The trip I took, including a domestic flight from Istanbul, starts at $2425 per person for a group of eight, with individual prices increasing for smaller groups.) Another option is Biking in Turkey, the cycling division of Middle Earth Travel, which has guided or self-guided options, ranging from $1500–$2100 for eight days/seven nights.
Erik traveled to Turkey on the invitation of the Türkiye Tourism Promotion and Development Agency. Lonely Planet does not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.