Ankara Or Istanbul? Which Turkish City Should You Visit?

Book a trip to Istanbul to explore ancient history and beautiful architecture
Book a trip to Istanbul to explore ancient history and beautiful architecture | © David Coleman / Alamy Stock Photo
Feride Yalav-Heckeroth

Ankara is usually touted as the political centre of Turkey while Istanbul is the exciting sibling with more vitality. Though these generalisations have some truth, both have their positive and negative aspects. But which should you visit? Here we weigh up the pros and cons of Istanbul and Ankara.

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The pros of Istanbul

The Galata tower pokes out of the colourful Istanbul skyline

Every corner of Istanbul has a tale to tell and during almost every construction project the remains of some church or mosque come to light. Most tourists head to the grand mosques and Ottoman palaces of the Sultanahmet district, but many neighborhoods have European, Greek Orthodox, Jewish and Armenian architecture to explore.

The gastronomic scene in Istanbul is a mixture of traditional and modern, with restaurants that have been around for decades and newer endeavours from celebrity chefs. The food is downright delicious and there are many options; from the simple kebab to modern interpretations of Anatolian recipes.

The twinkling Bosphorus Bridge looks particularly pretty at night

Istanbul is split in two by the Bosphorus: one side on the European continent, the other on the Asian. The dividing waterway makes the city the only one in the world that straddles two continents. You can visit both in a day to experience the different architecture and atmospheres. And when you want something completely different, head to the Princes’ Islands, a mostly car-free collection of islands where bike or horse-drawn carriage is the preferred mode of transport. A ferry from either the European or Asian side of Istanbul should take about 40 minutes.

The strait that separates the continents of Europe and Asia is a different colour every day, and is a beautiful sight to behold. Ferry rides to the Asian side, or a long Bosphorus tour, allow you to get an eyeful of this huge city from every angle.

The cons of Istanbul

Traffic in Istanbul is a nightmare. Commutes can stretch for hours in a stop-start situation that will drive the calmest person insane. It means you’ll have to give yourself plenty of time to get from point A to B and pretty much avoid driving a car altogether (because parking is another horror).

Istanbul is extremely crowded and loud – the city soundtrack might as well be honking cars. Public transportation is always full and busy folk might well push through before passengers step out. Nights out are just as bad. You’ll probably need to make reservations in advance because almost every venue is rammed on weekends.

Istanbul residents can be known to throw their rubbish onto the streets. In the summer, the few green areas in the city are overcrowded with people who barbecue outdoors and leave their waste to toss about in the wind.

The pros of Ankara

The beautiful Melike Hatun Mosque is one of many must-visit stops in Ankara

The first thing you’ll notice when you arrive in Ankara is how green it is compared to Istanbul. Lush trees line the streets, and parks (where you can actually take a quiet walk) do exist. Unlike Istanbul, the focus on real estate is not as drastic and the natural world has been allowed to flourish.

Ankara is a residential and political city, meaning it is quieter and more organised compared to chaotic Istanbul. Even though there’s a bit of traffic during rush hour, you’ll never hear excessive car honking or the noise of the urban shuffle. The streets are not overcrowded and on the weekends it’s possible to go out without having to dodge waves of humans.

The grand Mausoleum of Mustaga Kemal Atatürk is one of the top attractions in Ankara

Ankara is a haven for shoppers with plenty of modern malls stocking every brand imaginable. The capital also doesn’t fall short on sightseeing, with the Mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Ethnography Museum, and the Ankara Kalesi (and surrounding old city) deemed as favourites.

From the beautifully ornate Ziraat Bank Museum (built in 1929 by Giulio Mongeri) to the more modern office buildings of the 1960s in the Ulus neighbourhood, Ankara has a lot to see for architecture enthusiasts. Even the train station (built in 1937) is a gorgeous example of art deco, while the old clock towers and metal lamps decorate the streets like a true capital city.

The art-deco old Ankara Train Station is a must-see

The cons of Ankara

The restaurant culture in Ankara is not as varied as in Istanbul, so you won’t find that unique haute-cuisine Turkish restaurant run by a celebrity chef. But from kebabs to fresh fish, variety does exist in Ankara (definitely visit Aspava, a traditional Turkish restaurant with a long list of local classics).

The biggest weakness of the Turkish capital is its lack of cultural life. There are few major events such as art exhibition openings or the latest musicals. The dilapidated condition of the opera house also speaks volumes about the lack of focus on events.

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