If you asked a group of frequent travelers to name some of the most boring capital cities in the world, Ankara probably wouldn’t make the list—because most travelers don’t even bother to go there in the first place. Istanbul gets all the fame and visitors, while the seat of government in one of the world’s fastest-growing economies gets a shrug.
It’s not hard to see why. In a country filled with such treasures and history as Turkey, this mostly new city just doesn’t have the marquee sites or exotic-sounding locations of its more popular sister to the north. For those with the time to dig a little deeper though—or just find a reason to stick around after a business trip—here are some reasons to commit a couple days.
Ankara got tagged as Turkey’s capital when Kemal Ataturk wanted to remake the country and cut ties with the Ottoman past. He felt the best way to do that was to start fresh and he picked the then-small city of Ankara as the seat of government. There was a bit of history here though: a citadel with a commanding location atop a hill.
The Citadel (called Hisar or Kale) is more impressive from below than at the top, but the narrow streets lined with interesting shops makes the entrance area worth exploring and there’s a real functioning village inside the walls. There are a few stores geared to tourists, but more of what you run across are surprising oddities. The shops may sell full sheepskins or light fixtures, hand-dipped candles or hardware. The Gramafon Cafe is like a quirky museum you can socialize in, filled with gramophones, old radios, and Elvis records. Parts of the citadel date back to 200 B.C., with other parts built by the Byzantines in the 7th century. If you’re not here on business, one of the city’s most interesting places to stay is at the top: the Divan Cukerhan Hotel, built inside a 16th century carnavanserai (where the merchant caravans spent the night). It has a small car museum with the owner’s collection.
Museum of Anatolian Civilisations
In the Bronze Age of 3,000+ years ago, the Hittite people were living in this area and Anatolia was home to one of the world’s earliest civilizations. This museum near the citadel contains the greatest number of Hittite artifacts in the world and a few items are more than 7,000 years old. When I visited last year it was under renovation, so much of the beauty of the Carnavanserai building it’s housed in was lost amid the temporary walls and plastic sheeting. All that is finished now and the museum is glorious again.
Expect to see a lot of impressive stone carvings, ancient weapons, pots, and utensils. The collection is well organized and lighted, without being too overwhelming. Admission is a reasonable 15 TL ($7.)
Known at Anitikabir in Turkish, the final resting place of Turkey’s revered leader is here in the capital and it’s an impressive monument to the man who looms so large. You must know Ataturk to know the country and here you can still see the reverence and respect he commands. It’s a fun place to people watch and the views of the city from here are glorious. The surrounding Peace Park is a great place for a stroll to see the variety of plants and trees or to read a book. There are various displays and small museums in several buildings, including items he owned and historic photos.
Hamamonu District Neighborhood
At the base of the citadel near Ulus Square is one of Ankara’s oldest and most conservative neighborhoods, with old men in long gray beards and women covered in head scarves. If you come dressed in something besides a miniskirt or shorts, you’ll be welcome to wander around here and explore some interesting shops. The mosques are offset by a Roman Temple of Augustus probably built around the time of the birth of Christ, when Rome ruled this territory. You can visit the compound for free.
I spent a half hour in this quirky coffee shop pictured here and at the top, run by a father and son team. It took that long to prepare the coffee and serve it, so yes, it was good. Drinking real Turkish coffee in a place that roasts and grinds its own beans on far-from-modern equipment made it a memorable experience. Since all the other tourists you will see in the area are speaking Turkish, walking around here feels instantly more exotic.
For a hipper, modern vibe, head to the Cer Modern complex for cutting-edge art gallery displays and a cafe that would not be out of place in California. The whole complex is housed in a railyard in a revamped industrial area and it also houses a cinema and library. See more at the Cer Modern website in English.