Backed by cotton and wheat fields, this mid-sized tourist resort on Turkey’s Aegean Coast takes its name from Didyma, an Ancient Greek sanctuary.
Didyma has a 2,300-year-old Temple of Apollo in a fantastic state of preservation and linked to the ancient city of Miletus, a few to the north, by a “Sacred Way”. You don’t need to be a classicist to be wowed by the temple, and the ruins of other ancient cities that once lined a gulf that was wiped from the map hundreds of years ago when the Meander River Delta silted up.
Added to all this ancient history, modern Didim shines for its beaches on sandy bays and tiny rocky coves, all with crystal clear waters.
The sprawling archaeological site on the northwest side of modern Didma was hallowed ground for Ancient Greeks.
Didyma was a sanctuary, renowned for its oracle of Apollo, and with a temple famous throughout the ancient world.
The Temple of Apollo is in a wonderful state of preservation and we’ll devote a whole paragraph to it next.
While this is the high point, there’s a lot more to dive into at Didyma, including some recent discoveries.
You’ll come across a Roman theatre, a stadium and the large foundations of a temple of Artemis.
Excavations have also revealed the Sacred Way, a pilgrimage route lined with Roman baths and linking Didyma with the city of Miletus to the north.
2. Temple of Apollo
Didyma’s showpiece, then and now, is one of the largest ancient temples ever built.
This Hellenistic structure was begun in the 4th century BCE on the site of two predecessors going back another 400 years.
The platform (crepidoma) for this building has seven steps and measures nearly 60 metres by 120 metres.
The temple was surrounded by a double row of Ionic columns, each nearly 20 metres tall, two of which remain at their original height.
Then atop the monumental staircase is a vestibule (pronaos) with three rows of four columns.
One of these survives in near-perfect condition.
When you enter the sanctuary within the walls (sekos) you’ll be aware of just how impressive this space was, as the walls still rise several metres around you.
Lining this space, on the ground are capitals from the interior pilasters, still bearing their intricate reliefs, some depicting griffins.
3. Altinkum Plajı
Didim’s main beach has an undeniable appeal.
On a scallop-shaped bay, about 500 metres long, there’s a wide crescent of soft and light sand.
This is tourism central in Didim, and the coastal Yalı Cd. behind is crowded with apartment blocks, with cafes, restaurants, supermarkets and souvenir shops on their ground floors.
In between is a paved promenade tracking the bay and benches and flower beds under swaying palms.
Something to love about all the public beaches in Didim is how shallow and calm the surf is, even on windy days.
There’s a beach club every few steps if you want the added comfort of a sun lounger.
At the eastern end is a small harbour for excursions but also water activities like banana boating and jet-skiing in the bay.
In antiquity Didim was on the south side of a peninsula that jutted out into Aegean.
On the north side was the ancient city of Miletus, a harbour at the entrance of the now dried up Latmian Gulf.
Miletus has Neolithic origins dating back 5,000 years, and enjoyed its golden age before the Persian Invasion in the 6th century BCE.
Up to that time this was one of the richest and most powerful settlements in Ionia.
This was the birthplace for the mathematician and philosopher Thales, remembered as the first Greek to break from mythology and use science to explain the natural world and universe.
There’s tons of history at Miletus, from the Bronze Age to Ottoman times, although much buried beneath the silted up banks of the Meander River.
What you will find are the harbour, magnificent Grand Theatre, baths, a nymphaeum, the course of the Sacred Way, numerous temples, a Byzantine basilica and episcopal palace, a Byzantine-Ottoman castle and an Ottoman mosque.
5. Miletus Archaeological Museum
No surprise that Miletus has given up a lot of artefacts, even if many found their way to Europe in the 19th and early 20th century.
The Miletus Archaeological Museum is worthwhile for some extra context on the many stages of this city’s past.
The galleries are arranged chronologically, and you’ll begin with the Minoan and Mycenaean periods, when Miletus had strong ties with Crete and Ancient Greece.
The bulk of the displays are from the Classical, Hellenistic and Roman periods, and include sphinxes from the Sacred Way, lots of ceramic vessels, Hellenistic gold cups, abundant jewellery, terracotta figurines and an imposing statue of the river god Meander from the Baths of Faustina.
6. Manastır Koyu
Southwest of the centre of Didim, the coastline cuts in and out on a series of little coves, with almost no sign of mass tourism to be found among the rocks and scrub.
One such cove is Manastır Koyu, which is named for the site of a nearby monastery.
This place has the bare minimum in terms of amenities, which is part of its appeal.
The cove is headed by a small, curving sandy beach, in front of which is a big spread of shimmering turquoise water.
Like most of the beaches in Didim, this is a child-friendly place, as safe as a paddling pool.
There’s a makeshift cafe on the edge, and rows of sun loungers and parasols three-deep.
7. Lake Bafa
Now 15 minutes inland from Didim, this lake, protected as a nature park, was once the eastern crook of the Latmian Gulf around which many of the ancient cities in the area were located.
The coastline shifted west down the centuries as the delta of the Büyük Menderes River silted up.
If you have a car, the D525 road runs high along the southern shore, with superb views over the lake to the mountainous and unspoiled north shore peppered with a mix of wild and cultivated olive groves.
All around the shoreline there are places to stop and savour the landscape, and catch sight of the flamingos and diversity of other birds that inhabit the lake.
There are a couple of places on the water to grab a drink or meal, and on the east shore are the ruins of the city of Heracleia by Latmus, which we’ll talk about later.
8. Priene Ruins
Another city on the Latmian Gulf was Priene, which now commands the plain from the steep foot of the mountain Mycale, by the Dilek National Park.
A mid-sized settlement, Priene sits in a grid pattern on a series of terraces rising to almost 400 metres above sea level.
It moved to this location in the 4th century BCE and was planned as a model city, constructed entirely in local marble, by Mausolus of Halicarnassus and Alexander the Great following his conquest of the region.
The Temple of Athena from this time sits dramatically against a cliff-face, and was dedicated to Alexander the Great, although the inscribed dedication is now at the British Museum.
Among the other compelling things to see are the agora, the Bouleuterion (government council chamber), the theatre, a variety of temples, a gymnasium, Roman baths and the lattice of city streets, with water supply and drainage systems easy to identify.
9. Tavşan Burnu Tabiat Parkı (Rabbit Nose Nature Park)
Only ten minutes north of Didim proper is a compact nature park, encompassing a 16-hectare parcel of coastline.
The park is open to day visitors and also has a campsite hiding in the pine forest, where you can rent a tent for the night.
The campsite here comes with a shop, showers, restaurant, sports facilities, electrical outlets and picnic tables.
On the coast is a long beach that wins a Blue Flag year on year, and has a narrow strip of sand by tranquil, shallow waters.
10. Saturday Market
There are markets on specific days all around Didim, but the most convenient for visitors is the frenetic but enticing one at Altinkum on Saturdays.
This is simply one of those things you have to do in a Turkish town, and haggling is at the heart of the experience.
Piled on tables will be spices, dried fruit, nuts and all kinds of grains, but this is also somewhere to look for souvenirs like leather bags, pashminas, brass ornaments, tea sets, embroidered slippers and designer fakes.
There’s also a nightly market, trading from around 18:00, ten minutes away in Mavişehir and easily reached by dolmuş (share taxi in a minivan).
11. Heracleia by Latmus
This ancient city was established on what was then the easternmost point of the Latmian Gulf, and is ruins now rest in a scenic spot of the east shore of Lake Bafa.
A Carian settlement that became a member of the Delian League of Greek city-states, Heracleia was conquered in the 4th century BCE by Mausolus of Halicarnassus, after which it was totally rebuilt and fortified.
Those strong defensive walls, reinforced with gates and towers, are standing strong considering their great age.
Cresting a hilltop are the ruins of a temple to Athena, while you can make out the south wall of the agora, as well as traces of the Roman baths, a theatre and a Byzantine castle right on the water.
Outside the castle are sarcophagi fashioned from the rock, some now submerged by the lake.
12. Dilek Peninsula-Büyük Menderes Delta National Park
A day trip that you have to keep in mind is this 27,500-hectare national park at the rugged Dilek Peninsula and the delta of the Büyük Menderes River.
What you do once you arrive depends entirely on how you like to spend your time: This environment is extremely biodiverse, growing more than 800 different plant species, while the delta supports profuse birdlife, including water birds like Dalmatian pelicans, pygmy cormorants, little egrets and Kentish plovers.
Caracals, striped hyenas, golden jackals and Eurasian lynxes are known to prowl the deep forests of the peninsula.
Signs of ancient civilisation are everywhere, at the breathtaking sanctuary, Panionium and the cities of Karina and Priene.
You can trek through the 18-kilometre Olukdere Canyon, tour the Ottoman Greek village of Doğanbey Village and enter the Cave of Zeus.
Or you could do as little as possible at one of the peninsula’s four paradisiacal coves.
13. Cennetköy Plajı
Follow the coastline east of Altinkum Beach and within a few hundred metres you’ll be at a beautiful sandy cove.
Cennetköy Plajı (Paradise Beach), about 150 metres long, is separate from the resort, with only sparse holiday communities behind.
Not many people make the trip, and the facilities are basic, though there is a shower/restroom as well as a cafe renting out sun loungers.
The reason to come is for the sea, which is perfectly transparent if you pick a calm day, and safe for youngsters and less experienced swimmers.
14. İmbat Koyu
The next cove along from Manastır Koyu is a lovely place to take swim, with the same shimmering clear waters.
İmbat Koyu is rockier on the shore, but once you’re in the water there’s a bed of soft sand.
You’ll need to wade out a long way to be able to swim, which is good news for families with smaller children.
If there’s a drawback, it’s that sea urchins sometimes lurk in the rocks, so you may want to wear water shoes.
Although the cove is shared with a luxury resort (Aquassis), which has built a wooden pier for sunbathers, facilities are limited at İmbat Koyu, which will be no problem for more intrepid visitors.
One handy and cost-effective way to close out a family day in Didim is this small amusement park on the cliffs just west of Altinkum Beach.
Lunapark has fairground rides like spinners, bumper cars, a pirate ship, carousels and a ferris wheel.
There are a couple of white-knuckle rides for teenagers, but most of the attractions are aimed at kids up to the age of 11 or so.
Entrance is free and you pay for each ride.
At the time of writing in spring 2020, this was 7.5 TL per ride (approximately $1.25).