Despite being Turkey’s capital, Ankara is seldom visited by foreign tourists. With only a handful of attractions and having only become a prominent city quite recently, it’s easy to see why. But for those touring central Turkey, Ankara has some significant landmarks and museums that are worth dedicating at least a day to see. We’ll be going over each in the following Ankara guide.
Be sure to check the end of the article for tips on accommodation and transport.
The portrait of Republic of Turkey founder Kemal Mustafa Atatürk (1881-1938) can be seen in nearly every shop and hotel throughout the country. And there’s at least one statue of him in every city. A cult of personality surrounds the man that has little parallel in today’s world outside of places like Thailand or China.
Accordingly, no corners were cut when building Atatürk’s mausoleum, known locally as Anıtkabir. Situated atop the hill of Rasattepe, the massive project was designed by architect Emil Onat. Work commenced in 1944 and took nine years to complete.
Born in Ottoman-occupied Thessaloniki, Greece, Atatürk quickly made a name for himself as Ottoman military commander. During World War I, he’s best known for defeating the Allied Powers at the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915.
Throughout the war, he also commanded armies in the Balkans, Caucasus, Syria and Palestine. And despite the Ottoman Empire’s eventual loss, Atatürk was the only general to have never suffered a defeat in World War I.
Following the war, the Allied powers were set on taking over Anatolia and dividing it amongst themselves. And while the Ottomans were willing to let that happen, Atatürk was intent on driving all the European powers out.
Disassociating himself from the Ottomans, Atatürk established the Grand National Assembly with Ankara as its capital. This greatly angered the Ottomans, and for a time the country was home to two rival governments. But due to Atatürk’s influence and reputation, he quickly gained many followers.
What followed was the Turkish War of Independence which took place between 1919-23. And upon achieving victory, Atatürk officially founded the Republic of Turkey, putting an end to the Ottoman Empire for good. He would then remain in power as president until his death in 1938.
Atatürk isn’t just remembered for his military prowess and for founding the republic, but also for the major cultural, political and economic reforms he implemented during his rule.
He created the first modern and secular republic in the Muslim world. And to do this, he felt it necessary to rid Turkey of many aspects of the Ottoman era that he believed were holding the country back.
He looked to the West for inspiration, especially when it came to education. Math and science were emphasized by schools, and a common curriculum was implemented for the whole country.
Atatürk also abolished the Arabic-based script used to write Turkish, replacing it with the Romanized script we see today. As a result, literacy rates increased dramatically.
Some of his major cultural reforms included granting women voting rights (though only local elections were a thing in Atatürk’s time). And quite controversially, he abolished the Islamic caliphate that had been centered in Turkey since Ottoman times.
He also abolished sharia courts and translated the Quran into Turkish for the first time.
Another controversial move was the banning of Sufism, along with the Mevlevi Order (Whirling Dervishes) which had thrived in the country since the time of Rumi.
While many of Atatürk’s reforms were popular and successful, some of his policies were confusingly contradictory. For example, while implementing major secular reforms, he also claimed Islam to be a fundamental aspect of Turkish national identity.
And while looking up to the West as a model for the new republic, he expelled most Greek and other Christian communities from the country. He even went as far as banning non-Turkish surnames, creating a homogeneous ethnostate almost overnight – at least on the surface.
What resulted was a rather confused sense of identity that persists today. On the one hand, many Turkish citizens want to be perceived as progressive and European. But they also cling strongly to their Turkish identity. And historically speaking, the Turks have long been at odds with the West.
Interestingly, despite their pre-Turkish origins, Atatürk took a great interest in the Bronze and Iron Age cultures of Anatolia, such as the Hittites and Phrygians. Accordingly, Hittite-style lion sculptures flank either side of a long ceremonial avenue near one of Anıtkabir’s entrances.
And Atatürk was surely aware of the history of the Hittite Empire when he established his new capital at Ankara. The city is in the same general region as the former Hittite capital of Hattusa. The Hittites clearly saw value in ruling from the central part of their vast empire, despite also controlling most of the coasts.
Anıtkabir also features an Atatürk museum, though it was closed at the time of my visit. There’s no shortage of Atatürk museums elsewhere throughout the country, however.
You can also walk around outside the mausoleum to enjoy the well-manicured gardens, while an on-site cafe serves snacks and tea. And there’s even a gift shop selling all sorts of Atatürk memorabilia.
Anıtkabir can be reached via the Anadolu Metro Station. But if it’s a nice day out, it can also be accessed on foot from the city center.
The Museum of Anatolian Civilizations
For most foreign visitors, the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations is Ankara’s star attraction. It houses one of the best collections of archaeological artifacts in the country, and it’s the top place in the world to see ancient Hittite artifacts.
Despite its reputation, some visitors are surprised by the museum’s relatively small size. But while it may not be as big as other major museums, its atmosphere more than makes up for it. The collection is housed in a 15th-century building that functioned as a covered market in Ottoman times.
Abandoned in the 19th century, it was Atatürk’s idea to establish a museum here. But the museum wouldn’t open until 1943, several years after his death.
Before stepping inside, you can find some impressive Hittite and Greco-Roman artifacts in the surrounding garden. And upon entering, you’ll find the museum’s very oldest artifacts at the beginning.
One of the main highlights of the museum is its impressive collection of artifacts and wall paintings from the Neolithic site of Çatal Höyük.
Easily visited as a day trip from Konya, you can learn more in our dedicated guide to the site, along with pictures of the featured items.
Another highlight is the Early Bronze Age section, which largely focuses on ancient cultures from throughout central Anatolia. Many of the most interesting artifacts come from the Hittite sites of Hattusa and Alaca Höyük, the latter of which had previously been a flourishing center of the Hattian culture.
You can learn more about both of these locations in our dedicated guides.
From around 1750-1200 BC, the Hittites controlled a huge territory which encompassed most of Anatolia and large sections of the Middle East. They even held their own militarily against the ancient Egyptians.
As one might expect, they left behind a lot of great art, including elaborate vessels, sculptures and figurines. As we’ll cover below, a separate room of the museum is entirely dedicated to stone stela from the Hittite and ‘Neo-Hittite’ civilizations.
After the fall of the Hittites, the next major group to control the territory around Anakara was the Phrygians. The Phrygians, who thrived from around 1200-700 BC, are most known today for their legendary King Midas.
The museum used to contain a large collection of Urartian artifacts as well, but only a few small displays remain. This is surely due to the recent opening of the Van Museum, where most important artifacts from Urartu are now kept.
Stepping into the ‘Hall of Stone Artifacts,’ you’ll find a spacious room comprising of carved orthostats, or stone slabs placed at the bases of walls.
While some of the carved stones date from the Bronze Age Hittite era, many of them are from centuries later. Judging from appearance alone, one would never guess.
After the fall of the Hittite Empire in the late 12th century, numerous states emerged across Anatolia that we now refer to collectively as ‘Neo-Hittite.’ While politically independent, they carried on many of the classical Hittite artistic traditions.
Many of these Neo-Hittite states were situated in southeast Anatolia, such as Gaziantep and Malatya Provinces. Previously, during a visit to the Gaziantep Archaeology Museum, I’d seen many interesting orthostats on display from throughout that area. But there’s an even great number of pieces here in Ankara.
Also on display is the first-ever depiction of the Chimaera. While most often associated with Greek mythology, the earliest representation actually comes from eastern Turkey. Learn more in our guide to Mt. Chimaera and Olympos.
There is yet another building that’s part of the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, but it was closed for renovations during my visit.
With so many quality regional museums throughout the country, this museum may not be a must-visit for everyone. But if you’re planning to visit either Hattusa or Çatal Höyük during your Turkey trip, the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations shouldn’t be missed.
Nearby the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations and around the base of Ankara Castle are a couple more interesting museums that are worth checking out if you have the time.
Erimtan Archaeology Museum
Though it hadn’t come up in my research, I passed by the Erimtan Archaeology Museum and just had to take a look. But what is an additional archaeology museum doing so close to what’s considered the country’s most famous?
Founded in 2015, the museum displays the private collections of a collective of archaeology enthusiasts. Many of the pieces are Anatolian in origin, but there are also a collection of foreign pieces from places like Iran.
For those with an interest in Persian culture, you’ll enjoy the artifacts from the Achaemenid Empire, along with much later pieces from the Persian Safavid era.
You’ll also find plenty of Greco-Roman artifacts and even some items from ancient Urartu. The Erimtan Archaeology Museum requires its own ticket, and it can be a little underwhelming coming from the more famous establishment next door.
But at only 10 TL, it’s worth a quick visit for many.
Rahmi M. Koç Museum
If you’re looking for a break from archaeology, the Rahmi M. Koç Museum makes for a fun visit. This quirky museum, situated in a restored caravanserai, largely focuses on antique cars and Turkish folk art.
Rahmi M. Koç has a few museums throughout the country, the most famous of which is in Istanbul. I also visited another museum situated in a restored church on Ayvalık’s Cunda Island. But this location is noteworthy because the Koç family are Ankara natives.
Rahmi Mustafa Koç, born in 1930, is one of Turkey’s wealthiest businessmen. He was the son of Vehbi Koç, an Ankara native who started a humble family general store in 1917.
At the time, Ankara was little more than a small provincial town. But later, upon Atatürk’s decision to make it the national capital, Vehbi decided to expand into the property sector.
Business prospered and Vehbi later founded the Koç Group. He then entered the automotive industry, bringing his young son to the Henry Ford Museum during a trip to the United States. The trip later inspired Rahmi to create similar museums throughout Turkey using his vast collection of various collector’s items.
Just in front of the museums is Ankara Castle, one of Ankara’s few significant historical sites that predates the 20th century. The earliest incarnation of the citadel was constructed by the Phrygians in the 8th century BC, and it was later restored by the Gauls who entered Anatolia from southern Europe in the 3rd century BC.
And despite Anakara never being a city of major importance until recently, the fortress remained in place throughout Byzantine and Ottoman times.
Stepping inside the imposing gate, you’ll walk past a series of traditional structures which now function as souvenir shops for tourists. I happened to visit with a local friend who explained that the city government is hoping to make Ankara more tourist friendly.
To accomplish this, they’re even going as far as demolishing many of the surrounding houses, with plans to build more traditional-style structures in their place.
Getting closer to the central part of the citadel, notice the interesting variety of stone used to construct the walls and towers. They were apparently usurped by the Byzantines from various Greco-Roman sites nearby.
The highlight of the structure is the large circular tower, which provides some nice views of the city. While by no means one of Turkey’s most impressive fortresses, its central location means it gets a steady stream of visitors.
By now you’ll probably be dying to rest your legs. Luckily, the fortress area is surrounded by restaurants and coffee shops. Or you may want to hop on the subway to the Kızılay district to enjoy the vibrant atmosphere at night.
Given its lack of importance throughout the Seljuk and Ottoman eras, not to mention Atatürk’s push for secularism, Ankara contains few notable mosques. One major exception, however, is Kocatepe Mosque.
It’s the largest mosque in Anakara and among the largest in Turkey, not to mention the entire world. And at first glance, one would never guess that it was completed in 1987.
The structure largely took inspiration from the famous mosques of Mimar Sinan, the master Ottoman architect who lived in the 16th century.
Interestingly, however, the original design was that of a modernist style. It then had to be altered midway due to significant controversy.
The mosque was closed during my visit, which probably had to do with the coronavirus pandemic, but the interior is said to be impressive as well.
The structure too big to take in from up close, so be sure to walk across the nearby road to appreciate it from afar.
More Things to Do in Ankara
In addition to the sites mentioned in the Ankara guide above, the city is also home to a small collection of Roman ruins. Several hundred meters north of Ulus Square is an Augustus Temple, the Column of Julian and the remains of Roman baths.
Though I’d planned to see them on my last day, it was unfortunately raining. Judging from reviews online, though, there doesn’t seem like a whole lot to see overall.
At some point during your visit, you should also check out the Kızılay district, the city’s central commercial and shopping district. This is also where you’ll find most of the city’s hotels.
Ankara is known for its restaurants that serve set meals. While the basic menu is pretty typical, after ordering the main dish they’ll bring out a large array of appetizers, salads and desserts.
As the Turkish capital and second largest city, getting to Ankara is easy, and you can find direct buses from just about anywhere in the country. The main bus terminal is known as AŞTİ, and it’s conveniently located along one of the metro lines.
Ankara can also be reached by rail, with direct trains to nearby cities like Konya or Eskişehir. For those coming from or traveling further east, Ankara is also connected by rail to cities like Kars, Diyarbakır and Van.
Ankara also has an airport, Esenboğa, with plenty of direct flights to cities throughout the country. It also has direct flights to various cities in Europe.
If you’re staying in a centralized location, the best way to get around Ankara is a combination of subway and on foot. As one might expect, the city has one of the better metro systems in the country which you can take to get to all of the locations in the Ankara guide above.
But Ankara is surprisingly pleasant to walk in. It’s a much more pedestrian friendly city than Istanbul, so if the weather is nice you’ll enjoy exploring the city on foot.
As one of Turkey’s largest cities, there’s no shortage of hotels to choose from in Ankara. One of the most popular places to stay would be Kızılay, the commercial heart of the city.
For those arriving and departing by bus, I would recommend Mina 1 Hotel. It’s located one stop away, or about 10-15 minutes on foot, from Kızılay. It’s right by the Kolej metro station, which is on the same metro line as AŞTİ, the city’s main bus terminal.
As I used AŞTİ multiple times, including staying in Ankara an extra night after my trip to Hattusa, I found it very convenient to be somewhere that didn’t involve a transfer.
For the average tourist, the answer is no. Situated far from most other major cities and with only a handful of attractions, the Turkish capital isn’t quite worth going out of your way for.
However, if you’re into visiting ancient sites, the former Hittite capital of Hattusa is indeed worth traveling for. It’s a vastly underrated site that most tourists overlook despite its importance. And a visit can easily be combined with a trip to nearby Alaca Höyük.
While Ankara is a few hours away from those sites, it’s well worth spending a night or two in town on the way in order to see the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations. And you’ll also have plenty of time to see the other locations mentioned in the above Ankara guide.
While the Turkish government isn’t quite as extreme as China when it comes to online censorship, you’ll probably want a decent VPN before your visit.
I’ve tried out a couple of different companies and have found ExpressVPN to be the most reliable.
Booking.com is currently banned in the country (at least when you search for domestic accommodation). However, there are actually quite a few Turkish hotels listed on there anyway. And many them don’t even appear on Hotels.com, which hasn’t been banned.
Over the course of my trip, I ended up making quite a few reservations with Booking.com and was really glad I had a VPN to do so.
Another major site that’s banned is PayPal. If you want to access your account at all during your travels, a VPN is a must.
While those are the only two major sites that I noticed were banned during my trip, Turkey has even gone as far as banning Wikipedia and Twitter in the past.