Ankara Travel Guide

Few cities have changed so much, so quickly, as the Turkish capital of ANKARA. When Atatürk declared it capital of his nascent republic in 1923, it was little more than a small provincial town, known chiefly for its production of angora, soft goat’s wool. Fast-forward to the present day, and it’s a bustling, modern city of well over four million souls, its buildings spreading to the horizon in each direction across what, not too long ago, was unspoiled steppe. This was, of course, Atatürk’s vision all along – a carefully planned attempt to create a seat of government worthy of a modern, Westernized state.

Many visitors to Turkey, of course, believe İstanbul to be the nation’s capital, and comparisons between the two cities are almost inevitable. While Ankara is never going to be as attractive a destination, it certainly holds enough to keep you occupied for a few days – diverting sights, good restaurants and pumping nightlife. Most visitors’ first taste of Ankara is Ulus, an area where a couple of Roman monuments lurk beneath the prevailing modernity. Heading east you’ll pass the superb Museum of Anatolian Civilizations before heading up to Hisar, the oldest part of the city. Here, the walls of a Byzantine citadel enclose an Ottoman-era village of cobbled streets; climbing on up will buy you a jaw-dropping city view. Heading south of Ulus you’ll soon come to studenty Kızılay, filled with bars and cheap restaurants; real-estate values increase exponentially as you move south again towards Kavaklıdere and Çankaya, where the cafés and restaurants are somewhat more salubrious.

Brief history

After the Hittites founded Ankara around 1200 BC, naming it Ankuwash, the town prospered due to its position on the royal road running from Sardis to their capital at Hattuşa. Their successors, the Phrygians, called the city Ankyra, and left behind a huge necropolis that was uncovered near the train station in 1925. They, in turn, were followed by the Lydians and the Persians. Alexander the Great passed through on his way east, while in the third century BC invading Galatians (Gauls) held sway for a while.

By the start of the first century BC, the Romans had made substantial inroads into Asia Minor. In 24 BC Ankara was officially absorbed into the empire under Augustus and renamed Sebaste (Greek for Augustus). The city thrived under the Romans, but the later Byzantine era ushered in a period of decline. Arabs, Persians, Crusaders and Mongols stormed the city en route to greater prizes, but only the Selçuks were to settle, taking control in 1071. By 1361 Ankara had been incorporated into the burgeoning Ottoman state and went into another decline; only its famous wool stopped it disappearing altogether.

After Atatürk’s final victory, and despite being little more than a backward provincial centre, Ankara was made the official capital of the Turkish Republic. Turkey’s vociferous pro-İstanbul lobby was dismayed by the choice of capital, and many foreign governments also baulked at the idea of establishing embassies here. People were drawn to Ankara from the Anatolian countryside in search of work and a higher standard of living, and the city’s population of 30,000 swiftly swelled.

Festivals in Ankara

Ankara Film Festival The city’s main film festival, taking place over ten days each March.

Ankara Music Festival Now well over thirty years old, this major classical music festival takes place in the spring (usually April), and is spread across three weeks or so.

Büyük Ankara Festival

A fun, family-friendly series of events taking place over one week each July – ask the tourist office for the latest plans.

Flying Broom Women’s film festival hosted by a feminist organization, taking place each May.

International Cartoon Film Festival

Cartoon festival aimed at children, but inevitably enjoyed by older folk too. Lasts for a few days each April – ask at the tourist office for info.

Gece Kondu

From the upper fortifications of Ankara’s citadel, you’ll see the city spread out in all its glory. Many of the nearby buildings look less than glorious, however – these are referred to by locals as gece kondu, which loosely translates as “built overnight”. Though likely put together at sub-Amish speed, their hasty construction is all too apparent: after Ankara was declared national capital, Anatolians moved to the city in droves, and many erected their own houses around the citadel. Effectively shanty towns, these have remained the most impoverished parts of the city ever since; Ankara’s present-day rulers would, of course, prefer to see the back of them, and bit by bit, the old buildings are being replaced with rows of ugly high-rises. Mercifully, the former residents of the gece kondu are being moved here, rather than flung to the outskirts of the city.

Museum of Anatolian Civilizations

Whenever you see a replica artefact at an archeological site in Turkey, you can bet the original lies under the protective wings of the unmissable Museum of Anatolian Civilizations. For most visitors, its outstanding archeological collection is the high point of a visit to Ankara, documenting the peoples and cultures of Anatolia from the late Stone Age through to Classical times.

The museum is housed in a restored fifteenth-century bedesten, which fell out of use after a catastrophic fire in 1881. Its vast cache of artefacts is laid out in chronological order, clockwise from the entrance, with large stone reliefs dating from the Hittite and Phrygian periods in the central chamber. Most exhibits are clearly labelled in English.

From the Paleolithic to the Bronze Age

The museum’s first four sections move visitors through Turkey-time from the Old Stone Age to 2000 BC. The Paleolithic section features assorted bone fragments and primitive stone tools and weapons from a cave site at Karain, 30km northwest of Antalya, while objects found at Çatal Höyük, a settlement of New Stone Age mud-brick houses 52km north of Konya, have yielded significant evidence about the Neolithic period (7000–5500 BC). The importance of agriculture in this era may account for the abundant fertility-goddess figures – represented by baked-clay female forms of ample proportions – that reappear throughout the museum.

Most of the objects in the Bronze Age section (3000–2000 BC) come from Alacahöyük; among the most striking exhibits are the pieces of gold jewellery unearthed in the royal tombs. There then follows a small Assyrian Trading Colony section (1950–1750 BC), with the most notable exhibits being well-preserved cuneiform tablets that rank among Anatolia’s earliest written records.

The Hittite sections

The Hittites (1700–700 BC) left spectacular sites at Boğazkale and nearby Yazılıkaya, east of Ankara. Most of the objects here are from Boğazkale and Alacahöyük, with the most sophisticated example being a vase with a relief depicting a lively wedding procession. Stelae carved with hieroglyphs have proved a valuable source of information about the Old Hittite kingdom (1700–1450 BC).

There’s even more to see from the Hittite Empire (1450–1200 BC) itself – elaborate reliefs from Alacahöyük indicate the sophistication of Hittite culture during this time, and if you’re planning to visit Hattuşa, look out for the lion and sphinx figures from the city gates. The originals are here, replaced with replicas at the site itself.

Phrygian and Urartian sections

Most of the museum’s Phrygian objects (1200–700 BC) were recovered from the royal tumulus at Gordion, capital of Phrygian Anatolia after the fall of the Hittites. The timber-framed chamber at the heart of the tumulus has been re-created and objects from it are on display nearby. Most impressive are a wooden table of intricate design and skilfully wrought bronze vessels.

Modern knowledge of the Urartians largely derives from clay tablets listing military successes. On the evidence of such artefacts here, their culture was less sophisticated than that of the Phrygians, though the large bronze cauldron resting on a tripod with cloven bronze feet is austerely beautiful.

Ankara section

Downstairs, towards the exit, a section details finds from Ankara itself. While it can’t really compete with the bounty upstairs, the collections of Roman coins are of interest – as are the remains of Ankarapithecus, a 9.8-million-year-old ape named after the city of its discovery.

Planning your own trip? Prepare for your trip

Use Rough Guides' trusted partners for great rates

Rough Guides Editors

written by
Rough Guides Editors

updated 26.04.2021

Ready to travel and discover

Get support from our local experts for
stress-free planning & worry-free travels

Plan my trip ⤍