Iznik (Nicea) Guide- Is it a hidden gem?

Iznik (Nicea) Guide- Is it a hidden gem?


Iznik is a great town in Bursa, Turkey and you will be surprised when you read its intensive history. We are sure that you heard Iznik before due to its tiles. However, we can still say that it is a hidden gem (long story short yes it is a hidden gem per our experience, but details in the post and you will be the one finally deciding on this), and surely, many tourists (both local and foreigners) do not include Iznik to their travel plan. Let’s see whether we can change your mind or not 🙂

We will mainly walk thru our experience in a sequence but you will find the useful info within the sections. Let’s start with a brief history and then jump to what we experienced in Iznik.

Iznik- History

If you have a chance to look at the city walls one day in the future, you will see the signs of the Romans, Byzantines, Seljuks, and Ottomans which means history is huge here. However, many earthquakes happened and destroyed Nicaea (AD 120, 358 (or 363), 362 (or 368), 740, 1065, the ones in the 16th and 18th centuries), it is still believed that the big portion of history is still under the ground.

First ages

Iznik formerly Nicea or Nicaea is in the Marmara region of Turkey, covered by city walls and hills and on the shore of the lake of Iznik (the lake of Ascanius). In history, this town played a major role strategically, politically, culturally, and spiritually.

Helicore (or Ancore) is the first known name of this location. The settlement was probably destroyed by the Mysians and later Antigonus captured the town who was one of the successors of Alexander the Great and the name was Antigoneia at that time. Later, Lysimakhos (or Lysimachus, one of the successors of Alexander) captured the town after Antigonus’ defeat and death in BC 301. He changed the name of the town to Nicaea, in tribute to his wife. [1,2]

Around BC 280, the city was captured by the Bithynia and for a while, it was the capital. Named as “golden city” on the coins in the first ages due to produced gold coins in tribute to Nicaea.

Per the will of the king of the Bithynia, it came under the rule of the Romans in BC 72.


Strabo, the Greek geographer, described Nicaea in Roman Period as a square plan having 4 gates.

A major earthquake destroyed the city and Emperor Hadrian ordered re-building the town. Then, the walls had been extended. The Goths attacked Nicaea like Nicomedia in AD 258 and the walls played an important role, however, was not fully successful to stop these attacks.

1st Ecumenical Council has been gathered in this period (during the Constantine the Great period).


After the Roman Empire was divided into two (as Eastern and Western) and Constantinople was set as the capital, and two major earthquakes occurred, it was time to rebuild the city by the order of Emperor Justinian I.

In this period, the famous 7th Ecumenical Council has been gathered in Nicaea which is also an important council. Nicaea was turned out to be a garrison over the decades.


You may know that Turks entered Anatolia after the battle of Manzikert in 1071. In 1075, Suleiman ibn Qutulmish captured the Byzantine cities Nicaea (Iznik) and Nicomedia (Izmit) and two years later he declared the Seljuks of Anatolia as an independent state and set Nicaea as the capital.

However, after a while, the First Crusade defeated Kilic Arslan, and then they had to move the capital to Konya in the center of Anatolia. Nicaea was controlled by the Byzantine Empire again.

Empire of Nicaea and again the Byzantine Empire

Founded by Laskaris in Nicaea after the Latin invasion. The Empire of the Nicaea or the Nicene Empire lasted from 1204 to 1261 when the Nicenes moved back to Constantinople and restored the Byzantine Empire.


1331 is the year Orhan I captured Iznik and the Ottomans entered the town from the Yenisehir Gate and people who left the town exited from the Istanbul Gate. The Hagia Sophia has been converted into a mosque [3]. Especially, this capture is an important sign that the Ottomans were getting closer to capturing Constantinople (Istanbul, now).

Iznik shows the first signatures of the Ottomans’ architecture such as the first single domed mosque and first madrasah. During the centuries, the popularity of Nicaea has decreased and increased, especially with tileware. In this period, the tiles were sent to the empire palaces and important mosques. And, in the 18th century, tile manufacturing almost stopped. Sometimes, the city was used for exile (e.g. Sheikh Bedreddin).

Turkish Republic

You may also know that after the declaration of the Turkish Republic and the 1st World War, the Independence War, the country’s condition was not good at all. Iznik’s population was around 3000 only (as of now, it is more than 40k, [4]).

In 1935, the government decided to publish the guides for the towns, and the first one is about Iznik. In the preface, it says that there are a few places like Iznik that consists of so much history/monuments. But, it looks like they are obviously under the ground and it is unfortunate to hear much news talking about new findings and tombs around Iznik these days. You can imagine how much history is still waiting to be explored.

Today, roads divided the city walls.

Hope you like this brief info. Let’s jump to Day 1 and start our trip to Iznik.

Day 1 in Iznik

We started our trip just before noon and it almost took 2 hours from Istanbul Anatolian side to Iznik. Traveling around the Marmara Sea and going there by the mountain road was the idea since we could see nature a little but this road was so challenging and would not recommend going there by this road even we liked nature a lot. So, going by the new Osmangazi Bridge is the best way and we preferred this while we were returning. Please note that owning a car made this trip easier so that you can consider renting a car.

The first stop is Obelisk. Let’s go…


The monumental tomb here is located 5-6 kilometers away from the city center. You will go thru so many farms, olive groves, etc to reach out to this “Standing Stone” and even you may feel that something is going wrong on this road. This tomb is around 12 meters high and has 5 triangular blocks and probably the sixth one is missing.

On the first large stone, there is a Greek sentence and it can be translated as “Gaius Cassius Philis, the son of Gaius Cassius Asclepiodotous, who lived 83 years is buried here”. It is known that this rich family supported many construction activities in Nicaea city.

Obelisk in Iznik

Tomb of Abdulvahap Sancaktar (flagged hill)

This spot also serves as an observation terrace where you can take a look over Iznik. Before starting to visit the attractions, you know it is good to understand the town a little bit.

The tomb belongs to banner bearer (commander) Abdulvahap and his birthday is unknown. During the siege of Iznik by the Islamic forces, he had martyrized and Turks constructed a tomb for himself on the hill which is a good spot looking over Iznik and lake [5].

A view looking over Iznik
Flagged hill

Berberkaya Tomb

It is very close to the flagged hill (on the same road). Only architecture from the Hellenistic period in Iznik and unfortunately it was exploded and divided into 17 pieces by the treasure hunters around the 1950s. A single piece of stone was dressed and turned into a big room and it is thought as the tomb was constructed for the king of Bithynia II Prusias [6].

Unfortunately, looking at the pieces, we are thinking that it is a loss of history here and hope this structure will be re-built or at least protected in the future.

Iznik Lake

Lake of Ascanius (or Ascania), Iznik lake is the biggest lake in the Marmara Region in Turkey and also the fifth biggest one in Turkey. This famous freshwater lake provides people with many social activities. You can rest, relax, cycle, walk, run around the lake and there are very good camping areas all around the lake. In addition, you can canoe on the lake and a few beaches exist here and even you can swim (don’t forget it is always hard to swim in freshwater)

Fishing is also an important source of income. Especially, catfish, carp, and trout can be found in this lake.

So, we recommend you take a long walk along the lake and enjoy it regardless of the season. We will come back to the lake to catch the sunset.

Senatus Palace

1st ecumenical council had been held here at Senatus Palace. The palace location is still questionable even there is a signboard just on the shore of the lake and it is also thought that palace’s area is wider. Unfortunately, you could only see the ruins here.

Let’s talk about this council. The council was gathered by Constantine the Great who was the 1st Christian Roman Emperor at 325 AD. More than 300 bishops formed the council (please note that this is not a simple daily meeting and councils generally had many sessions) mostly from the Southern Church even there were more invitees. The first council of Constantinople at 381 also re-visited/re-worded some of the statements and discussions after the council show that this 1st council at Niceae had not ended all these debates. [7]

The agenda is not limited to this debate (known as Arianism) and also had different topics (e.g. decision on the Easter date). [8]

Arianism is first attributed to Arius, a Christian presbyter from Alexandria, Egypt. The theology says that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who was begotten by God the Father and the Son of God did not always exist but was begotten by God the Father. [9]

Submerged Basilica

The ruins have been found in 2014. It is very close to the coast (just 50 meters away) and only 2-3 meters in depth. It is thought that the site was constructed in the 5th century AD based on the coins found in the graves.

The research is still ongoing and trying to answer several questions about the lost church, Senatus Palace, and the temple of Apollo.

Dinner at Nihat’s Place

Time to have dinner… Nihat’s Place Fish Restaurant (Nihat’in Yeri) is a good local restaurant and we enjoyed eating fresh lake fish. We preferred to eat fried catfish and catfish stew with salad.

By the way, coming to Iznik and eating fish should be on your list and Nihat’s Place is a good option.

Lake fish in Iznik
Dinner at Nihat’s place

Roman Theatre

Excavations have been ongoing since 1980. It is a unique structure and constructed in the 2nd century. It also served as an arena for gladiator fights. Earthquakes and Christian dominancy affected the importance of this theatre. Over the centuries, even the stones had been carried to strengthen the city walls.

Excavations in Roman theatre
Roman theatre in Iznik

Mahmut Celebi Mosque

Mahmut Celebi Mosque was built by one of the grandchildren of Candarli Hayrettin Pasha during the II. Murad period. It has a single dome and single minaret and square plan. This is the last Ottoman mosque construction in Iznik.

It is a modest mosque like all others in Iznik, but there is cool art on the interior walls.

II. Murad Turkish Bath

This bath is in the center and the actual construction date is unknown. The construction date is estimated end of the 15th century or the beginning of the 16th century. Two sections exist for men and women and the exterior consists of both stones and bricks.

Turkish bath in Iznik
II. Murad bath

Iznik Tile Kilns Excavation

We will also cover the history of Iznik tiles briefly in this section. If you have a chance to visit the Iznik museum and I Murad Turkish bath, there are also good descriptions.

These excavations have been ongoing since 1984. Many pieces are still being shown in the Iznik museum. In this area, nine caved areas have just been exposed in 2020 and are worth seeing to smell the history.

Iznik tile excavation
Iznik tile kilns excavations

Pottery in Iznik

Iznik tile, Iznik pottery, or Iznik ware is still popular in the world. In history, it was also important in the Ottomans a lot and you can see these tiles in many places such as Blue, Suleymaniye, and Selimiye Mosques (please note that these are just examples). It is thought that it was inspired by Chinese ceramics. You can see Iznik tiles everywhere in Turkey used as dishes, plates, decorative products, and so on.

Different terms exist such as fritware, stone paste, etc. because of quartz sand and finely ground glass inclusions in the clay. The production has a sequence consisting of preparation, design, ovening, painting, and more.

The base material had different colors (red and white) over the centuries and different colors have been added. Dominantly starting from the 15th century, it lasted till the 18th century (some of the sources also state this period 17th century in conjunction with decline period) and you know it is very well matched with the Ottoman Empire’s unstable years. It is easy to guess that less demand in the empire resulted in less quality and quantity. For a while till the late 20th century, it was no longer made however, people working on ceramics and going to Iznik tried to make this art alive again.

The pottery was categorized under different groups such as blue-and-white ware, Golden Horn, Damascus, Rhodian, etc.

Hagia Sophia Iznik Mosque

Time to go to Hagia Sophia Iznik Mosque also known as Orhan Mosque. This spot is the top tourist attraction in Iznik. Hence, we visited twice during this trip.

As a reminder, you probably know other Hagia Sophia located in Istanbul. If you are interested, see our post via this link.

The church was constructed in the 4th century. It was later reconstructed by the order of Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century. One of the major earthquakes happened in 1065 and destroyed the church and present structure erected over the ruins. After the conquest by the Ottomans, it was converted into a mosque and its new name is the Orhan Mosque. Mihrab and minaret were added as expected. The Architect Sinan strengthened the structure during the Suleyman- the Magnificient period. After the Turkish Republic foundation, it served as a museum but was recently re-converted into a mosque again. In the structure, all three periods (before, after the earthquake, and Ottoman) can be seen. [10,11,12]

In the mosque, you can see mosaic art on one of the walls, arc-type stairs, and a room with a tomb. The interior and apsis are tremendous considering how old this structure is.

The most important thing about this church could be the 7th ecumenical council. It was held here in 787 AD. The topic is directly about the first Iconoclasm (there were two iconoclast periods). Over 300 bishops attended and the council restored the veneration of icons and ended the first iconoclasm [13]

Orhan Mosque Iznik
Hagia Sophia Iznik

Lake Gate

It is not necessary to check every single wall or gate in Iznik especially if you are planning to go to the Lefke Gate. But the walls opening to the lakeside are very close to the lake which means you can easily take a look.

Enjoying the sunset in Iznik around the lake

One of the things you should not be missing in Iznik is to enjoy the sunset over the lake. There are several cafes around the lake and you can drink Turkish tea or Turkish coffee while watching the special view of the sunset.

Lake and sunset
Sunset in Iznik

Day 2 in Iznik

So many things to do on Day 2. Let’s start with breakfast.

Breakfast at Iznik Seyir Boutique Hotel

Regardless of you are staying at this hotel or not, you can come and have breakfast here. We like the location of this hotel, however, please note that the breakfast is just above average.

You can have a typical Turkish breakfast here and various pastry products and jams exist in their breakfast.

Green (Yesil) Mosque

The construction of this mosque was started by Candarli Halil Pasha in 1378-79, however, completed after his death by his son Ali Pasha in 1391-92. The architect of this mosque was Haci bin Musa. It has a single dome and interior has fascinating stone decoration and marble embossing.

The mosque is called as Green Mosque due to the dominant green color on the minaret. The minaret has green, purple, cobalt blue, and sky blue tiles. Restoration activities have been conducted in the 1960s since the mosque was heavily destroyed during the War of Independence.

Green Mosque Iznik
Green Mosque

Seikh Kutbuddin Mosque and Tomb

Kutbuddin (or Kutbeddin Izniki) was a religious figure in Ottoman history. He had lived in Iznik and his and his son- Kutbuddinzade Ahmed’s tombs are in Iznik together in this place. The mosque is just next to the tombs, thus the mosque takes the same name. It is thought that the mosque had been constructed after the tomb and was destroyed, however, it was reconstructed in the 2000s.

The Turkish Islamic Artworks Museum of the Nilufer Hatun Imaret of Iznik

Before diving into this spot, it is better to share some procedural info.

The museum is open every day except Mondays and the first day of religious holidays till 1 p.m. It is closed after 5 pm and 5:30 pm for winter and summer periods, respectively. The box office is closed just before 30 minutes of the closure times.

The museum has recently been opened after a very long time of restoration.

Let’s start with Nilufer Hatun. Nilufer Hatun is the wife of Orhan I and mother of Murad I. She is the first foreign-origin wife in the Ottomans. Her tomb is with Orhan’s tomb [14]. This imarethane (almshouse) was ordered by his son Murad I and generally functioned considering its mission but also revealed that it had mihrab which means that it also allowed praying. Even it was inactive after the War of Independence, it was successfully converted to a museum.


After the entrance, you will observe Islamic gravestones, well curbs, fountain and fountain epitaphs, and a temporary exhibition area of Sarcophagus in the garden.

Considering the gravestones, you will observe how they were changed over the years. Well curbs and fountain epitaphs are also good but the Sarcophagi area is our favorite. They are generally rectangular and having also lids. They are from the Roman period. We will not go over one by one but considering the fact that they are almost 2000 years old, you will be amazed by the art on these Sarcophagi.


The museum itself starts with an overall view of Iznik, especially the model showing Iznik view makes us understand the town more. The museum consists of old coins, calligraphy, different pieces used in history (scissors, trays, coffee pots, etc.) in one of the sections. One of the areas has references about Iznik in itineraries and other sources and is worth reading.

One of the sections in the museum is directly dedicated to Iznik tiles. You can see many products, info about the process, ovens, etc. in this area.

Nilufer Hatun Museum
Iznik Museum

Lefke Gate

On the road to Lefke wall, you will find a historical Turkish bath probably waiting for a restoration, but no info exists here and there is just a signboard.

The full walls have more than 100 towers. This Lefke gate is on the southern side of Iznik opening to Anatolia and one of the main gates besides Yenisehir, Istanbul, Gol (lake) gates.  The main gate was connected to two towers. It is understood that the gate was locked by the holes in the stones on the ground.

There are also several epitaphs on the walls on both sides commemorating Caius or Gaius, Plancius Varus, and emperor Hadrian.

Lefke Wall
Walls around Lefke Gate

Candarli Ibrahim Pasha and Halil Pasha Tombs

The tombs of Ibrahim Pasha and Halil Pasha are in different locations but they are very close to each other.

Candarli family took an important role in the Ottomans, especially in the early period. Five different Candarli served as grand vizier (Kara Halil Hayrettin Pasha, Ali Pasha, I. Ibrahim Pasha, Halil Pasha- first vizier was put to death and there is a tower with Halil Pasha’s name in Rumeli fortress, II. Ibrahim Pasha). It is thought that the family returned to Iznik after the 15th century. There is a district called Candarli in the Aegean region because Candarli castle was re-constructed by Candarli Halil Pasha [15].

Nilufer Hatun Tiles Bazaar

There are many individual shops in Iznik where you can find Iznik tiles. This bazaar and I. Murad bazaar (there are a few shops in Suleyman Pasha Madrasah as well) are the bazaar type spots that you can spend some time and compare the products shop by shop and it would also allow you to bargain a little bit. Mainly, all these products are hand-made and different styles can be observed and found.

We like this bazaar more than Murad I bazaar.

Iznik pottery
A shop in Nilufer Hatun bazaar

Haci Ozbek Mosque

Haci (or Haji) Ozbek Mosque is the oldest Ottoman structure having an epitaph (inscriptive plaque). The construction dates back to 1333 which is very close to the conquest of Nicea and constructed by Haci Ozbek bin Muhammed. It has a single dome, square plan, and is very modest. Restored several times in history.

Esrefoglu Abdullah Rumi Tomb and Mosque

Esrefiyye (Esrefiye) is one of the branches of the Kadirriye cult (or sect). The mosque itself was almost demolished except the minaret and hazire (burial area reserved for special people especially in mosques). The mosque has been reconstructed in 1954 [16]. It can also be said that Esrefiyye was founded in Iznik.

Suleyman Pasha Madrasah

There is no known date when this madrasah was constructed, but it is thought that it dates back to the 14th century. Suleyman Pasa Madrasah was built by Orhan’s oldest son, Suleyman Pasha. It has an asymmetric plan and is currently used as a tiles bazaar.

I.Murad Turkish Bath

As briefly mentioned above, Murad I is the son of Orhan I. The bath had two sections for women and men in the old times. You will observe interior structure, heating systems, etc. in this bath.

Currently, it serves as a museum and has different sections explaining the history of Nicea, Iznik tileware, and more.

In the 2000s, the Roman Road was exposed during the excavations and you will also observe this road except for the bath itself.

Just outside the museum, there is also a tile bazaar where you can find good pieces.

Istanbul Gate

If you already checked the Lefke Gate, it is not necessary to check all other gates in detail. This is the gate where people headed to Constantinople after the conquest by the Ottomans.

Dinner at Kofteci Yusuf

Grilled meatball- Kofteci Yusuf restaurant is a chain (we generally do not prefer the chains), however, the important thing about this restaurant is that this restaurant is the first Kofteci Yusuf restaurant in Turkey. In other words, the chain opened its door in Iznik.

When this restaurant gets popular, probably nobody saw this kind of circulation and fast delivery and as expected, the count of the restaurant increased drastically.

You can prefer to eat grilled meatballs and any meat products since they are all delicious. Please note that this restaurant is so busy, you may have to wait a little bit. But, it is so fast, we are sure that you will find a table.

The trip is over, let’s head back to Istanbul

Top 10 things to do and see in Iznik

Arranging a two days trip could be tough since you may have so many items on your list. If you have just a day in Nicea, here is the list based on our experience.

  • Hagia Sophia (Orhan) Mosque
  • Visiting the old mosques
  • Iznik Museum
  • Nilufer Hatun Tiles Bazaar
  • Lefke Wall
  • Dinner at Nihat’s Place
  • Do something around the lake if you don’t prefer to eat at Nihat’s Place (walk, cycle or sit)
  • 1st Murat Turkish bath
  • Flagged hill
  • Roman theatre

Our bonus is Obelisk.

Additional information about Iznik

What does Iznik mean?

Iznik consists of “Iz” and “Nik” which basically means towards (Iz) Nicaea (Iz Nicaea and then turns to Iznik).

How much time in Iznik?

Arranging a day with traveling and going back to Istanbul would be tight to cover all these beauties unless you start your day early. If you have enough time, spending a night and arranging one and half-day would be the best option without rushing.

How to go to Iznik?

Iznik is not far away from Istanbul. It is 180 km away from the new Istanbul airport and 100 km away from Sabiha Gokcen Airport. It would take around 2-3 hours by car based on your location in Istanbul also considering the traffic jam.

Several options exist to go to Iznik.

  • You can go to Bursa bus station and go to Iznik by buses
  • You can target Yalova pier and then Orhangazi (buses are more common to Orhangazi, you can find direct bus to Orhangazi as well) and then go to Iznik by minibuses
  • It is not common but a few buses go to Iznik directly

Best time to visit

The weather throughout the year is similar to Istanbul. Please check out the best time to visit Istanbul post.


Turkey is a country having so many attractions, relaxing points, and more. For locals, sometimes it feels very good to run away from crowded cities like Istanbul. And, it makes you happy remembering the nature, green and fresh air.

Depending on your expectation during your visit, you can come and enjoy this small but cool town. It has intensive history, there are good tiles and handiworks and the lake is great.

Hope you find the post useful and we would be glad if we changed your mind in case you were not planning to come to Iznik. Please do remember that timing is important and you can prioritize the top 10 things to do list if you have limited time in Iznik and/or Turkey.


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