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Discover Ankara with me: An underrated gem in Turkey
8 min read
Updated on May 14, 2024

This is part of the Been There, Done That series, where our expert globetrotters travel the world to get the insights and information you need to have a seamless travel experience.

By Ra'eesah Manack, iVisa Travel Journalist

Ankara, the heart and capital of Turkey, often plays second fiddle to the more famous Istanbul, but those who venture into this underrated city are rewarded with a rich blend of history, culture, and modernity.

Unlike the tourist-laden streets of its coastal counterparts, Ankara offers a more relaxed vibe with an array of hidden gems waiting to be explored.

Let me take you through a journey filled with personal tips from our travel reporter, as we uncover the best things to do and see in Ankara.

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Even while we're out sightseeing, I'm absolutely smitten by all of Ankara's cats!

The Kale: A walk through history

I started my adventure at Ankara Castle (Ankara Kalesi), the historical fortification that offers panoramic views of the city. The old town inside the castle, known as the Kale, is a labyrinth of narrow streets lined with wooden houses, artisan shops, and cafés.

As the taxi dropped me off at the outer castle gate, I found myself stepping through the arch and meandering uphill along a quaint cobblestone street. It was 10 a.m., and the air buzzed with the early hum of opening shops. A few wrong turns here (seriously, a sign or two wouldn't hurt!), and there I was, standing, gazing up at the formidable castle walls.

Each corner tells a story of Ankara's past. After wandering around and admiring the views, I sipped some Turkish tea at a quaint café, feeling transported to a different era as the call to prayer echoed in the background.

How to get there: To get to Ankara Castle from the city center, the best way is to take a taxi that heads towards the Ulus district, where the castle is located. Once in Ulus, you can follow the signs or ask locals for directions to the hill where the castle stands.

iVisa tip: Once you've explored the castle, you're in for a leisurely, breezy 5-minute downhill stroll to the Museum of Anatolian Civilization—it's the next must-visit spot on my list!

Entry and tickets: No tickets are required to enter.

Best time to visit: It opens at 10 a.m. daily and can be visited without crowds any time of the year.

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Enjoying the views from Ankara castle hill.

Museum hopping in Ankara: A cultural feast

Museum hopping in Ankara offers a rich dive into Turkey's diverse history and culture. It's a perfect way to understand the city's and country's past, from prehistory through classical and Ottoman eras to the present day.

Be sure to stop by one of these fantastic spots, tailored to what piques your curiosity:

  • Museum of Anatolian Civilizations: Housed in a restored 15th-century market, this museum boasts an impressive collection spanning Turkey's history from the Paleolithic age to the present. The artifacts from ancient civilizations that once thrived in Anatolia are particularly captivating.

  • Ankara War of Independence Museum: This museum is dedicated to the Turkish War of Independence, showcasing photographs, documents, and items from the period, illustrating Turkey's struggle to become a sovereign, modern nation under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's leadership. The museum captures the spirit and challenges of the era and is a significant site for understanding Turkey's formative years.

  • CerModern: For art enthusiasts, CerModern offers a contemporary contrast with its modern art exhibitions and installations. It's housed in an old railway workshop, and the industrial setting adds a unique vibe to the art experience.

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Evidence of Anatolian civilizations in ancient Turkey.

Anıtkabir: A tribute to a nation's founder

No visit to Ankara is complete without paying respects at Anıtkabir, the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. The grandeur of this place is palpable, with its vast courtyards and imposing architecture.

It's not just a site of mourning, but a place of celebration and reflection on the country's journey. The museum section offers an insightful look into Atatürk's life and the early years of the Republic.

As you near the main entrance of Anıtkabir, brace yourself for its stunning enormity. The vast marble façade and towering sculptures are truly a sight to behold. Pause for a minute to soak in the architectural marvel that unfolds before you, then continue to discover what lies inside.

Walking into Anıtkabir, I was awed by the Hall of Honor where Atatürk rests; it's both solemn and beautiful. Exploring inside, I discovered rooms filled with his personal effects and Independence War exhibits.

My favorite part was the Peace Park; it felt like a tranquil oasis surrounding the mausoleum. Honestly, every detail, from the grand statues to the quiet corners, felt like it was sharing a story with me. It's more than a visit; it's a deeply moving experience, and I left with a profound sense of connection to Turkish history.

How to get there: The museum is located in the city center, so you should have no problem finding it on foot.

Entry and tickets: No tickets are required, and there are usually no queues.

Best time to visit: The best time to visit is early morning (from 9 a.m. - closed between noon - 1 p.m.) for you may have the museum to yourself for a moment, as you can see from my picture!

Visiting in the late afternoon is also a great idea, just as the sun sets, casting a golden glow over the mausoleum. Avoid the mausoleum on public holidays, it can get crowded.

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Solo reflection at Anıtkabir.

Green spaces: The city's lungs

Amidst its urban sprawl, Ankara has beautiful green spaces offering a respite from the hustle and bustle, for example:

  • Peace Park: The park surrounding Anıtkabir is a verdant space filled with a diverse array of plants and trees from all over the world, symbolizing peace and friendship among nations. This serene area is not only a tribute to the legacy of Atatürk, but also a tranquil retreat for visitors to reflect and enjoy nature's beauty amidst the historical significance of the site.

  • Gençlik Park: Once a simple park, now a vibrant space with a large pond, amusement park, and open-air theater. I recall leisurely walks here, enjoying the laughter of children and the scent of blooming flowers.

  • Atatürk Forest Farm and Zoo: A combination of a farm, zoo, and brewery, this place is a delightful escape. The fresh produce and dairy products here are a must-try, especially the traditional ice cream!

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Tranquil oasis in the heart of the city: Gençlik Park.

Culinary delights: Taste Ankara

Ankara may not have the culinary fame of Istanbul, but it has its own delicious offerings:

  • Street food: Try simit (a sesame-encrusted bread ring/bagel) from street vendors or gözleme (stuffed flatbread) from small eateries. My favorite is the çiğdem, Ankara's version of roasted chickpeas, perfect for snacking as you explore.

  • Restaurants: For a more upscale dining experience, visit one of the many restaurants offering traditional Turkish and international cuisines. At Bogazici Restaurant in Ulus, Ankara, I was treated to the rich flavors of local cuisine, especially the renowned 'Ankara Tava,' a dish made with lamb.

I’m pretty sure Muslum Kebap Restaurant offers the best, succulent, kebabs in Turkey. It's a favorite among locals and tourists alike, known for its authentic flavors and warm hospitality.

Cafés: Ankara, much like the wider Turkey, boasts an array of cafés perfect for a quick bite and a soothing cup of tea.

Stepping into Gramofon Café, I was instantly charmed by its antique gramophones and musical memorabilia. Nestled into a simple wooden chair, I savored the homely gözleme and aromatic tea, surrounded by a warm, inviting atmosphere that felt like a cozy retreat from the bustling streets of Ankara. It's a unique spot where every sip and bite feels like a nod to the past.

For working nomads like myself, Coffee Lab is a top pick among freelancers eager to huddle around the communal table and dive into their projects. The café takes its coffee seriously, offering a variety of beans from across the globe and brewing methods like cold brew and chemex to satisfy any coffee aficionado.

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Make sure to savor a simit, the delightful Turkish twist on the classic bagel.

Day trips: Exploring beyond the capital

Ankara's central location makes it ideal for day trips to other historical sites:

  • Gordion: Just an hour away, visit the ancient city of Gordion, famous as the site of the Gordian Knot and the capital of ancient Phrygia.

The highlight is the Tumulus of Midas, a massive burial mound, where the sense of history is palpable. Exploring the Gordion Museum, I marveled at artifacts that spoke of an era long gone. Each step in Gordion was a step back in time, surrounded by the mysteries and legends of the ancient world. It's a must-visit for anyone fascinated by history and

  • Beypazarı: A small town known for its well-preserved Ottoman houses and traditional Turkish crafts. The slow-paced life and friendly locals here offer a refreshing contrast to the city's rhythm.

The local bazaar was a feast for the senses, where I indulged in the famous Beypazarı kurusu and crunchy carrots. I visited the Living Museum to glimpse into the town's past and savored authentic Beypazarı dishes at a quaint local eatery. The day was filled with picturesque views, delightful tastes, and warm conversations, making Beypazarı a memorable escape from the city.

You can visit both Gordion and Beypazarı by taxi, as public transport outside the city may be slow and unreliable.

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Step back in time in Beypazarı.

Practical tips for visiting Ankara and beyond

Before you dive into the enchanting world of Ankara, here are some practical tips to make your journey as smooth and enjoyable as the city's rich heritage. Let's get you prepared!

  • Getting around Ankara: The city has a comprehensive public transportation system, including buses, a metro, and minibusses. Taxis are also widely available, but ensure the meter is running.

  • Best time to visit Ankara: Spring (April to June) and fall (September to November) offer the most pleasant weather for exploring the city.

  • Language: While Turkish is the official language, you'll find English spoken in many tourist areas. Learning a few Turkish phrases will endear you to the locals.

  • Visas: Conveniently apply for a Turkey eVisa online or obtain a traditional Turkey Visa through the Turkish embassy, depending on your travel needs and nationality.

  • More information: Check out our handy Ankara Airport Guide with great insights on what to expect for a stress-free arrival and departure process.

If you’re visiting other cities, also read our other comprehensive Turkey airport guides:

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