Istanbul and Ankara are the two most important cities in Turkey. Many people are confused when they’re told that Ankara is the political capital (the brain) of Turkey, and not Istanbul (the heart) because most people hear about Istanbul when the subject is where to visit Turkey, and there’s a good reason for that.
Ankara, the Capital
Ankara is the capital city of Turkey. It has been chosen as such by the first president of the Republic of Turkey, Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, as it is officially known. Although Ankara’s geographic surface area is larger than Istanbul’s, that’s about the only aspect of it that is bigger than Istanbul.
Istanbul is the city with the most inhabitants in Turkey. It is the economic, cultural, artistic, historic, and trade capital of Turkey. It houses 19% of Turkey’s population. The country has 81 cities with provincial areas and it shows how important Istanbul is that 1 city houses 1/5th of all the population.
Istanbul also contributes to nearly 22% of the GDP. This shows how important is this city to Turkey and how every significant aspect is the biggest city in the country, bigger than Ankara the capital.
Why Ankara is the Capital and not Istanbul
Alright, to answer this, I have to give you some of the history of the Republic. Noticed how I sad history of the Republic and not Ankara? There’s a reason for that. Ankara is not a capital that became so because the people were already settled there, it became the capital during a war. Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic chose Ankara as the capital because it was strategically distanced from the enemies during the War of Independence, it was centrally positioned to all the strategic points of the Anatolian peninsula, and this made Ankara a supply point and a safer one at that.
During the War of Independence Istanbul was occupied by the British and their allies, so the Sultan at that time, Vahdettin, was under the control of their forces. He condemned the independence movement that rose from Anatolia. Ataturk wanted to distance the newly founded Grand Assembly from the monarchist rule so he chose Ankara as the center of the insurgency and later his deeper intentions would be made clear when the founding of the republic was announced.
The Distance Between Ankara and Istanbul
The distance between Ankara and Istanbul is 280 miles by road, it takes approximately 5.30 hours to travel by car and bus. Keep in mind that the highway between these two cities is the busiest one in Turkey so the traffic is constant at all times.
You can also travel between these cities by airplane and it’s only a 50 minutes-ish flight. By air, Ankara is 220 miles far from Istanbul. Trains are also another way to travel between the biggest cities in Turkey. Conventional old school trains are not generally preferred but there are high-speed express trains that are very comfortable and the time that it takes is somewhere between the road time and air time; 3.5 hours. The distance is the greatest but let’s remember, these aren’t called fast trains without merit. The site for train tickets is http://www.tcddtasimacilik.gov.tr/
Is it worth visiting Ankara
Istanbul and Ankara are of course not comparable when it’s a question of places to visit. Istanbul has been the capital of two major empires and for so long too. Ankara is also a great place to visit during your stay in Turkey. Maybe you can plan a trip from Istanbul to Cappadocia and add in a night or two in Ankara. There’s the first Grand Assembly where you can see the place that modern Turkey was founded.
The Anatolian Civilizations Museum itself is worth visiting without any other aspects but the museum itself is situated in the old part of the city so you can do a compacted day visit on just the historical castle and museum. You can reach more information about the museum here: https://muze.gov.tr/muze-detay?SectionId=AMM01&DistId=AMM
The most iconic place to visit in Ankara is Anitkabir Mausoleum. It is where the great leader of the Turkish people, Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, is buried. It also doubles as a museum of the Republic that depicts sceneries from the War of Independence and the life of Ataturk.
The Castle of Ankara is a very old castle, it precedes the Ottoman Empire by about 600 years. It was used for defense of the city for a very long time. Nowadays the castle has become a tourist attraction from where you can get a bird’s eye view of the old part of the city.
Here you can find a list of what to do and where to be during your visit in Ankara:
- Anatolian Civilizations Museum
- Ankara Castle
- Hadji Bayram Veli Mosque
- Roman Temple
- Kocatepe Mosque
- Kizilay Square
- Ulus Square
Most of these attractions are fairly close together and two days and one night should cover all of them except one: Beypazari. This town is located within the provincial limits of Ankara but 100 miles away from the center of the city. I will talk briefly about these attractions to spark your interest in them. Anatolian Civilizations Museum and Anitkabir are two whole subjects in themselves and I already gave some brief information about them so we will start with what’s next.
Hadji Bayram Veli Mosque
Hadji Bayram Mosque attracts both those who value spirituality and those who value history with its original atmosphere. When you look at the religious building that owes its originality to its architectural features, do not let it mislead you with its plain appearance. Because the details that will dazzle you when you enter are waiting for you. The mosque isn’t the very impressive gigantic structure that you would see in Istanbul, no. This mosque is the trace of civilization alive and vibrant that prevailed outside of the capital in Ottoman times. The amount of detail and originality of this mosque is one of a kind in the world.
The Roman Temple in Ankara is also known as The Temple of Augustus or The Ankara Monument. The temple’s history is older than the Roman origin that it is attributed to. The temple’s history dates back 4000 years, it is said that the first religious structure that was built in that spot was built by the Frigians to the goddess of fertility, Kibele. Later the structure was repurposed and restored according to their own traditions by the Galatians to show their loyalty to the Roman Emperor Augustus. Later it was used as a church during the Byzantine rule of the land and lastly, the structure itself was left as it is but the land on top and around it was used by the Muslim Turks as a religious center. So as you can imagine, this site is one of the most important continuous religious sites in Turkey.
The mosque is one of the grand structures of the young Republic of Turkey. It was constructed with the idea of forming a new architectural tradition for the future so it carries many traces of other mosques from Istanbul and all around Anatolia. When you stand in front of the mosque in its main square it gives you the same sense of grandeur that you can find in the mosques of Istanbul but in a more modern way. It has one dome and 4 minarets. It is said to resemble the Selimiye Mosque in Istanbul.
Kizilay square is the modern center of Ankara. The meeting point of many youngsters, the rally point for protests and demonstrations, the square is the heart of the city. One cool fact about the square is that Ataturk designed the avenues that lead to it about 3 quarters of a century ago. The people that advised him at the time objected to the avenues being 4 lanes large stating that there would never be a need for that. If you get caught at 5 P.M. on a weekday in that traffic you can imagine who was right.
Kizilay can be accessed easily from everywhere in the city. There’s public and private busses, subway, and taxis that serve as transportation to Kizilay. It is a great place to shop during the day and the evening, there are special “night bazaars” in the back streets of Kizilay. The bars, cafés, and restaurants in Kizilay are very nice to hang out in the evenings, you can find good food, live music and a calm evening to relax.
Ulus Square is the old center of the city, back when it wasn’t even a capital. The Roman Temple, Hadji Bayram Veli Mosque, Anatolian Civilizations Museum, and Ankara Castle are all accessible from Ulus. There are also many other aspects of this place. The statue of Ataturk is in the center of the square. The one and only Synagogue and the Armenian Church are also in Ulus. The historic building and museums of İsbankasi are in Ulus. The mosque with one of the most beautiful woodsmanship in very close to the square, Aslanhane (Lion’s Domain). Roman Baths, Old Ankara Houses, the old Ulus Bazaar are the things that you should experience during your visit to the historical heart of the city. You might also find it a breeze to be able to visit all of the historical places of the city in walking distance after visiting Istanbul.
Hamamonu is the oldest district in Ankara. It was “the” city back when it was a small hamlet. It has been the center of the oldest part for a long time, The architecture shows traces of the Ottoman times and the Republican period. There are multiple “bed and breakfast” types of businesses in Hamamonu where you can stay in old-style Ankara houses. It is a pleasure to walk the streets in this district because one of the night bazaars is set during. There are many great coffee houses that you can enjoy many different types of coffee but especially traditional Turkish coffee. The architecture is unique and very different than Istanbul’s. One cool fact about Hamamonu is that it was the seat of the local government Ahilik, that controlled the city during the interregnum period after the death of Sultan Yildirim Beyazit. Later because of the loyalty of the city the Ahi’s became the trade organization to control and to supervise the merchants all throughout the Empire. It is the only kind of power that propagated from Ankara to Istanbul and not the other way around.
The Differences and Similarities
Ankara and Istanbul are very alike and also very different. Here are some of the aspects that I will talk about to shed some light on the differences and similarities of these cities:
The climate of Ankara and Istanbul is as different as it gets between two cities that are only 300 miles away from each other. Istanbul is has a humid climate due to its location. It has fairly mild winters and hot humid summers. Ankara’s air is dry due to its continental climate. If you decide to visit Ankara during the winter or the colder season, in general, be careful, the cold can bite you there! During the hotter months, it’s fairly nice during the days, but at nights you are sure to need some kind of jacket over your t-shirt especially near the morning hours. It can be refreshing to breathe without all the humidity after Istanbul. Another cool fact, the doctors during the Ottoman period used to send the sick with lung problems from Istanbul to Ankara as a cure.
The populations of these two cities are also different from each other. Ankara’s population is mostly comprised of government workers. Due to Ankara being the capital, the ministries, the Grand Assembly, and other government agencies are all stated here so people from all around Turkey come here to work. All the embassies from foreign countries are also stated in Ankara, so not only Turkish government officials but also foreign government officials live here too. Istanbul is more of a trade-oriented city in that regard. Many of the Turkish companies’ headquarters and other foreign companies’ representations are in Istanbul. Ankara and Istanbul both have a huge population of students that come from all around the country for its good and deep-rooted universities.
There are some similarities and some differences between the cities geographies. Istanbul is surrounded by sea all sides with small hills dotted all around town. It is called by the locals “the city of 7 hills” but the rumors are that the name was originally used for Rome, the first capital of the Roman Empire but it was carried over from there to Istanbul with the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Eastern Roman Empire. Istanbul’s situation causes it to be humid so be prepared to sweat during your visit!
Ankara’s land is generally flat with some hills, there aren’t many forests in Ankara except for the northern parts of the city. You need to be careful about the sun there, you can get sunburns quite fast because of the lack of humidity in the air. During the summer the things that you need to be careful about are sun-rays and dust, some dust may be in the air because the hot seasons are also the dry seasons in Ankara.
The cultures of these cities are different because of their demographics. Istanbul is a vibrant city because of the occupation of its inhabitants the city is alive and moving at all times. Ankara is a city of government officials so late at night the city sleeps just like its people. Entertainment in Istanbul can be a night out to drink with family and friends for the white-collar private-sector workers. In Ankara, the pass-time would be to go out on a picnic with the extended family or make a barbecue in the backyard.
The eating habits of the two cities are quite similar due to them being metropolitans but there are also small differences. Ankara is a hub for people generally originating from central Anatolia, so the eating habits of these people have carried over here too. Bakery products are the main source of traditional food in Ankara. Istanbul has no such limitations as you can tell from the number of people living there, more than 3 times the population of Ankara, so I couldn’t name one kind of food that is dominant in Istanbul. Due to the locations of the cities sheep, beef and poultry are the general sources of meat for Ankara, fish is a well behind 4th place. In Istanbul seafood is more obtainable than Ankara especially on the streets.
The towns’ layouts are quite different from each other due to their locations. Istanbul’s layout is quite dense due to limitations of land with it being surrounded by seas. There are hills in Istanbul that might not seem real to you at the first look, they are covered entirely by buildings. Istanbul’s metropolitan area is one of the densest in the world. During workdays, some districts of Istanbul get as crowded as 1/3rd of the entire population of Ankara. The capital has plenty of lands to be laid out less dense. Ankara is the 3rd largest city of Turkey in regards to the surface area, so the metropolitan area is not as dense as Istanbul’s. Ankara has more green areas within the city contrary to Istanbul where the green areas are outside the city center. You will not see hills completely covered in buildings as you might see in Istanbul, but still, Ankara is not a sparsely populated town.
Which is the Better One
Ankara and Istanbul are two very similar and yet different cities. Istanbul has been a capital not only to empires but arguably to the world of old times due to its important location in trade routes. Ankara’s capital status is quite new in regards to Istanbul’s. Ankara is learning a lot from Istanbul about being a capital, it is a good thing that there is an example to show the way, but Ankara also develops its own way of being the capital of a country as young as it is with deep roots in history.
If you keep your expectations along with the reality of the subjects of this post you should have an enjoyable holiday in Turkey. A piece of good travel advice that I could give you for your visit would be to, visit Istanbul for about 4 days and nights, then go on to visit Ankara for 2 days and 1 night, after Ankara you can visit Capadoccia and the eastern parts of Turkey which contains a lot of traces of the many cultures that lived and prospered on these lands.
I could not say that one city is better than the other because what they offer is very different from each other. If you wish to experience them both, I would highly advise it, you could get one in a lifetime experience from the trip. Istanbul is full to the brim with history and natural wonders, the attractions are as diverse as it gets in this ancient city. Ankara has the unique features that give it the originality that it is attributed to. It is an authentic city that has been the spot from which Anatolia has been administered for centuries, it has been a political, religious, and trade center for the inner parts of the land.
The decision rests with you, which one do you prefer. You’re going to have to decide after you have seen both because they both are ready to give you an exceptional, splendid time during your stay. Istanbul with its rich history, natural and human-made wonders, beaches, and boat trips aplenty, or Ankara with its unique sides that lean in a specific direction, a reflection of the Anatolian life in a metropolitan setting. We both are absolutely not obligated to decide which one is better. You can love and like them both in their own aspects and for their own beautiful attractions that you seriously should not omit to see.