Bodrum’s best bits: Simon Calder delivers his top 10 highlights

The Independent’s travel expert explores the many delights of this exquisite Turkish resort town

Simon Calder
Friday 16 June 2023 10:54 BST
Bodrum’s best bits: Simon Calder delivers his top 10 highlights

Millions of holidaymakers know Bodrum as a resort town tucked into an attractive corner of the south-west Turkish coast, where the meandering shore meets the clear waters of the Aegean Sea. Yet for anyone who cares to explore, Bodrum offers a wealth of experiences that enrich a visit. Natural good looks, a deep and rich heritage and a vibrant 21st-century way of life combine to magical effect.

Reaching this thumb of Turkish territory is easy, with direct flights from across the UK to Bodrum airport. And many arrivals head straight into town – where the first of my highlights awaits.

Bodrum Harbour

When you see the sugar-white houses of Bodrum sprinkled around a natural amphitheatre, it could be love at first sight. All eyes – and visitors – are drawn to the harbour at the heart of the town. Bodrum’s port has been an Aegean hub for millennia. The first known settlement was founded as Halicarnassus around 1200 BC. For centuries warring powers fought for control of the strategic location.

Today, Bodrum Harbour is a bay of tranquillity, offering safe haven to hundreds of boats: private yachts, fishing vessels and a network of ferries. One sails across to the pretty Datca peninsula, making a fine day trip.

Cafes line the quayside; my favourite is run by the Mariners Association. As you’d imagine, it’s popular with sailors. Visitors are welcome, too. The excellent coffee will power you along for a day of sightseeing – starting right next door …

Bodrum Castle

The first fortifications at this location, guarding the entrance to the harbour, were built soon after the settlement was founded. The location was originally an island just offshore, but it is now joined to the mainland.

Bodrum Castle was created by the Knights of St John – crusaders from across Europe – during the 15th century. The builders used stones from a much earlier building and a former wonder of the world: the vast ceremonial structure housing the tomb of the Carian King Mausolus (of which more in a moment).

The crusaders named the fortress the Castle of St Peter. Today, it is a warren of walls, ruined chapels and gates, with insignia showing the national provenance of the various groups of knights (Italian, Spanish, English ...).

The highlight, though, is the underwater archaeology museum: not a collection beneath the waves, but a display that reveals the past as discovered in shipwrecks. For thousands of years, seafaring was the main form of trade and communication in the Aegean region. Each shipwreck was a human tragedy. Yet the painstaking recovery of these vessels – and their contents – by nautical archaeologists provide insights into the craftsmanship and commerce of the ancient world. Think of these vessels – and their contents – as time machines.

Over 3,200 years ago, towards the end of the Bronze Age, a ship sank while it was sailing off the southern Turkish coast. In 1982, a sponge diver discovered a vessel and divers retrieved the cargo: amphora (pottery jars) filled with salted fish, olive oil and wine, as well as the tin and copper required to make bronze.

At the castle, you learn how important Bodrum and the rest of the Aegean were for the development of humanity.

The original Mausoleum

The tomb of Mausolus, a Carian king who lived and died almost 2,500 years old, was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The structure was completed in 351BC, decorated by magnificent sculptures and soaring to a height of nearly 50 metres. My guide, Sela Erkanli told me: “The term ‘mausoleum’ derives from here. This is the first time it has been used in history. For Mausolus."

Around 800 years ago, an earthquake brought the original mausoleum down, and its carefully dressed stones were taken away to be reused and begin Bodrum’s next chapter. Yet even today, enough of the mausoleum survives to allow you to touch the past, sense the history and understand a little more about the world.

Bodrum theatre

Just 200 metres inland from the mausoleum, another ancient triumph is hewn from a hillside. The theatre here in Bodrum is an entertainment highlight from the 4th century BC. It was created at the time of Alexander the Great and later embellished by the Romans. The theatre includes an altar, where sacrifices were offered to the god Dionysus before the performance.

Today, you can wander freely around what even by modern standards is a vast venue – holding 13,000 citizens – and get a performer’s view of the audience. Appropriately enough for a popular theatre, it’s in the West End of Bodrum. Twenty-four centuries on, the theatre is still used for concerts and dance performances. And there are no bad seats in this house: all yours to enjoy and imagine.

Marina life

On the Bodrum Peninsula you’re never far from the next great shoreline view – and you’re never far from one of the marinas that dot the coast. Each is an inviting location for shopping, dining and relaxing.

Start in Bodrum itself, where the marina occupies part of the west side of the harbour. It doubles as a retail and entertainment centre – with excellent coffee and a rooftop view.

On the northwest shore of the peninsula, Yalıkavak Marina was named in 2022 as “Superyacht Marina of the Year” against hundreds of competitors around the world. Yet you are welcome to share the high life, enjoying the same blue skies and sea as people who perhaps have a touch more cash than you do.

Gümüşlük village

Venture to the western end of the Bodrum Peninsula and you reach the fishing village of Gümüşlük. It is an excellent location for dining on fresh seafood taken straight from the Mediterranean while enjoying a superb view as far as Greece beyond.

Ipek Müldürbati, a film producer, escaped from the clamour of the largest Turkish city, Istanbul. Relocating to Gümüşlük was “the best decision we have ever made,” she told me. “Being by the sea definitely adds to your life because being able to see the horizon is a luxury. If you are going to get mad at something, you turn your head, you see the sea, breathe it in. It all goes away.

I would advise each and every single tourist here to come and visit Gümüşlük.”

Dining out in Bodrum

In central Bodrum you need not walk more than a few metres in any direction to find somewhere to eat. From friendly, inexpensive locations serving up delicious kebabs to gourmet restaurants, there’s something for everyone’s taste – and wallet.

While it’s hard to go wrong with your choice, one particular favourite of mine is Müdavim. Walk up the steps to the waterside restaurant and you discover much of the menu on display: instead of reading, you just look.

For the ultimate in seafood sophistication, try Orfoz: a restaurant founded in 1986 by two divers who explored beneath the waves to get the freshest harvest. Each dish, from oysters to clams, is matched with local wines. Finish off with creme caramel, or a beautifully sculpted fruit salad, plus a “Mother’s Cookie” – with a local mandarin liqueur as a digestif.

Leleg Way

This well-marked walking path takes you across the Bodrum Peninsula and through the areas where the original inhabitants of this region once lived. The long-distance footpath is marked by a special symbol: a red bar above a white bar, painted on trees and rocks to guide you through pine forests, over the hills and far away into the past.

According to Herodotus – known as the “father of history” – the Leleg people lived on the Bodrum Peninsula between the 15th and 4th centuries BC.

You could walk the whole Leleg Way in around five days, or just pick out the highlights. Pedasa is the most magnificent of the Leleg citadels. You’re at just about the highest point on the Bodrum Peninsula and the views are as good as the setting.

Blue voyage

A highlight for many visitors to Bodrum is a trip on a gulet. These traditional wooden sailing vessels, many built in the town, sleep around 16 in comfortable cabins. Guests laze on board while scanning the horizon and deciding which idyllic location is their favourite. An essential component of a gulet cruise is the privilege of mooring in a bay of your own.

Nuri Apak, who runs one operation, explained the philosophy of indulgence: “Whatever you want we try to offer. What we are offering in here is a kind of lifestyle. You don’t have to cook. All you have to do is to live it and to experience it.”

Undersea world

A gulet is the ideal vessel for snorkelling. Because the hull is low in the water, you can easily step into a new dimension of the Bodrum peninsula and discover many shades of Turkish blue.

Snorkelling allows you to move with a sense of sheer freedom – and adventure. Guided safely by a very experienced diver, I propelled myself through a seascape I had never seen before: with perfect clarity I swam through shoals of fish.

Back on board, my guide Yaşar Yıldız told me of his amazing nautical archeological exploits.

“We found the oldest shipwreck in the world – 1400 BC,” he says. “We worked on that ship 11 summers because it was very deep – 45m deep.

“This is the perfect place, as far as I know.”

Where to stay

For my latest visit, I checked in to the Marmara Bodrum, which has a superb location overlooking the town. The design respects local traditions and integrates artfully with the contours of the hillside. The location is steeped in historical significance – you are sharing the same view as notable figures from history. Manager Volkan Oksuz told me: “Bodrum is not only the sea and the sand – Bodrum has a great history. You can grab your cocktail where the Carian emperor was standing and watching the bay exactly on the same point. This is something unique.”

There are many upmarket options strung out along the peninsula, such as the Swissôtel Resort Bodrum Beach. It has an opulent location on the Aegean Sea, decorated by gardens and brilliantly conceived around the dominant colour of white – designed to resonate with the look of Bodrum itself.

Some visitors to Bodrum’s representative of the Kempinski collection arrive by helicopter. The property has a secluded location on the eastern side of the Bodrum peninsula. The no-expense-spared appeal starts in the large lobby with extra helpings of light and space, and continues with a thoughtful and delicious “farm-to-table policy”. To complete the picture of indulgence, balconies look out over a breathtaking bay.

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