The central and southern Aegean coast and its hinterland have seen foreign tourism longer than any other part of Turkey. The territory between modern İzmir and Marmaris corresponds to the bulk of ancient Ionia, and just about all of old Caria, and contains a concentration of Classical Greek, Hellenistic and Roman antiquities unrivalled in Turkey. Ephesus is usually first on everyone’s list, but the understated charms of exquisitely positioned sites such as Priene and Labranda hold at least as much appeal. Of course, most of the visitors who come here are drawn especially by the beaches – Kuşadası, Bodrum and Marmaris are among the largest resorts in the whole of Turkey. Bursting with cruise passengers and package tourists they may be, but they remain nonetheless rather likeable places. Independent travellers may prefer to seek more secluded sections of coast: the resort of Çeşme is certainly not overblown, the Datça peninsula is unspoiled and quite spectacular, while the towns and villages on the Çeşme, Bodrum and Hisarönü peninsulas are highly popular with moneyed locals.
There’s plenty to see once you get away from the coast, too. Sprawling İzmir, the third-largest city in Turkey, is an earthy city that attracts almost no foreign visitors, while little Selçuk, though it’s most famed as the jumping-off point for Ephesus, is a delightful place in its own right. The even smaller settlements of Muğla and Birgi are unselfconscious Ottoman museum-towns, while both Alaçatı and Şirince are well-preserved former Greek villages that remain just the right side of tweeness. For much of the time in this region, it’s the extraordinary quality of the landscape itself that provides the attraction, and often it can be utterly compelling – take a look at the eerie lake of Bafa Gölü, or the otherworldly travertine terraces that surround the hot springs of Pamukkale.
If you’ve been travelling in other parts of Turkey, the Aegean area’s high accommodation prices may come as an unpleasant surprise – rates at the coastal resorts go through the roof in summer, though inland (including İzmir, Selçuk and Pamukkale) you can find budget rooms at any time of year. As for Aegean cuisine, it’s unusual in placing far less emphasis on meat, and far more on fresh herbs and vegetables.