Istanbul Vs. Ankara – Which Should You Visit?

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Written by our local expert Local Expert

Written by a local specialist we know and trust to bring you the most up-to-date travel information.

Written by Kimberly McCauley from The Art of Living in Turkey. She moved to Turkey in 2019 and has been exploring this beautiful country ever since. She loves to help people like yourself discover new places to see, learn all the things about Türkiye, and find the courage to go on an adventure.

As someone who has lived in Türkiye for nearly four years and had the opportunity to explore both Istanbul and Ankara, I can provide a firsthand perspective on the key differences between these two remarkable cities.

In a rush and want to know how to choose between Ankara or Istanbul? Here is what we think you should know:

Ankara Istanbul
Easy to reach from Istanbul Rich history
Less crowded Be wary of scams
Fewer tourist sites Stunning architectural wonders

Comparing Istanbul and Ankara, both cities have their own allure and attractions that cater to different interests and preferences.

Join me as we delve into the intriguing comparison of “Istanbul vs. Ankara” to understand the contrasting features and highlights of these two remarkable cities in Turkey.

Who knows, by the end of this article, you may be ready to visit both Istanbul and Ankara!

Keep reading below for our in-depth analysis on weighing up Istanbul vs. Ankara

Ankara Vs. Istanbul

“Istanbul vs. Ankara” is a comparison that highlights the distinctions between Turkey’s two major cities. Istanbul, the country’s largest city, offers a mesmerizing blend of history, culture, and modernity.

Situated on the Bosporus Strait, it spans two continents and boasts iconic landmarks like the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Grand Bazaar. With its vibrant atmosphere, diverse culinary scene, and bustling streets, Istanbul captivates visitors from around the world.

On the other hand, Ankara, the capital city, has a more reserved ambiance, emphasizing political and administrative significance.

It showcases historical sites like the Anıtkabir and the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, as well as a thriving intellectual and educational scene due to its prestigious universities. While Istanbul is known for its economic prominence, Ankara serves as the political hub of the country.

Both cities offer unique experiences, but Istanbul’s rich heritage and cosmopolitan charm, alongside Ankara’s political and cultural significance, make them distinct destinations within Türkiye.

What To See In Istanbul

Istanbul has several must-see attractions that showcase the city’s rich history and vibrant culture.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia mosque in Sultanahmet Square, Istanbul, Turkey
Istanbul, Turkey

Hagia Sophia is a stunning architectural marvel that has served as a church, mosque, museum, and now back being a mosque.

Fun fact: The Hagia Sophia you will see is not the original. Actually, the first and subsequent Hagia Sophias burned down. What you will see is the third rendition of the Hagia Sophia, built in 537 A.D. So while it is not the original, it is still quite old. Oh, the stories these walls could tell!

Taksim & Istiklal

Istiklal streetm Taksim Istanbul Guide

If you’re a shopper, you will probably love these areas. They are close to one another and are known among tourists. Neither is a favorite of mine, but there you will find lots of shopping, bars, and Western-style food.

Balat

Colorful sights if Balat, Istanbul Turkey
Balat, Istanbul

Balat is a vibrant and historic neighborhood located on the European side of Istanbul, known for its colorful streets, charming houses, and rich cultural heritage. This multicultural district is home to various ethnic communities, including Jewish, Greek, and Armenian, resulting in a diverse and welcoming atmosphere. It is a must-visit destination for those seeking an authentic and off-the-beaten-path experience in Istanbul.

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Sultanahmet Square

Topkapi Palace Istanbul-11

You can take a stroll through the historic Sultanahmet Square, where you’ll find the Topkapi Palace, home to Ottoman sultans, and the Basilica Cistern, an underground marvel. If you love buildings, Topkapi Palace is quite an interesting place to see. It is one of 5 Palaces in Istanbul. When we went one thing that stood out to me was the variety of Iznik tiles and patterns used throughout the property. Not to mention the views from the palace are incredible.

Grand Bazaar

What to wear in Turkey - What to wear in Istanbul

Don’t miss the bustling Grand Bazaar, a vibrant maze of shops offering everything from spices and textiles to jewelry and carpets. If you’re actually wanting to shop, however, I would recommend you step outside to the streets of Eminonu and shop where the locals shop. Here you will find the prices drop by nearly half.

Bosphorus Cruise

Romantic Places In Istanbul - Bosphorus Sunset Cruise

I am partial to anything that takes place on the water. You could take a ferry (the cheapest option and no tour included), a group cruise (a cheaper option but going with other people), or you could even take a private tour (the most expensive option but also the nicest). Enjoy!

Dolmabahce Palace

Romantic places in Istanbul - Dolmabahce Palace
Dolmabahce Palace on the banks of the Bosphorus in Istanbul.

This palace is located in Beşiktaş District. It served as the Administrative center of the Ottoman Empire after Topkapi Palace and was built in the mid-1800s. In this palace, you will find over 100 kg of gold that was used to decorate the palace.

Galata Tower

Rooftop Restaurants In Istanbul - Galata tower Istanbul and night

If you’re looking for a great view of the city, this is the place to visit! I have been up to the top a couple of times now and it still amazes me the views that can be seen from the watchtower. When it was originally constructed it was the highest point in the city.

You can learn all about the history as you make your way to the top of the tower.

Kadikoy

Asian side of Istanbul and popular Bagdat avenue at Valentine's Day
Bagdat avenue, Kadikoy

Kadıköy, located on the Asian side of Istanbul, is a bustling and lively neighborhood that offers a unique blend of tradition and modernity. Known as the cultural and culinary heart of the Asian side, it boasts a vibrant atmosphere with its bustling markets, trendy boutiques, and an array of cafes and restaurants. The district is a hub for artists, musicians, and creatives, as well as home to numerous cultural venues, including art galleries, theaters, and music venues.

Taste The Food

Tea maker from street cafe calling

Lastly, indulge in the local culinary delights, savoring traditional Turkish cuisine and experiencing the lively atmosphere of street food markets. Istanbul offers a blend of ancient history, architectural wonders, and a vibrant atmosphere that will leave you captivated. Make sure you don’t miss the Turkish appetizers, which are at the heart of Turkish cuisine.

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Pros And Cons Of Visiting Istanbul

Travel Tips For Istanbul - Hagia Sophia Crowds

Visiting Istanbul offers a wide range of unique experiences, but like any travel destination, it also has its pros and cons.

PROS TO VISITING ISTANBUL

Rich History & Culture

Istanbul is a city with a fascinating history, boasting numerous historical sites, ancient monuments, and cultural landmarks. Exploring these sites provides a deep appreciation for the city’s heritage and cultural diversity.

Architectural Marvels

The city is home to stunning architectural wonders like the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and Basilica Cistern. These remarkable structures showcase different periods of Istanbul’s history and offer breathtaking beauty.

Vibrant Atmosphere

Istanbul has a lively and energetic ambiance. Its bustling markets, vibrant nightlife, street food stalls, and cultural events create a vibrant atmosphere that captivates visitors.

Culinary Delights

Turkish cuisine is renowned worldwide, and Istanbul offers a vast array of delectable dishes to satisfy every palate. From mouthwatering kebabs and traditional mezes to aromatic Turkish tea and baklava, food lovers will be in paradise.

Bosporus & Scenic Views

The Bosporus Strait runs through Istanbul, providing stunning views of the city’s skyline, historical landmarks, and picturesque waterfronts. Taking a boat ride along the Bosporus offers a unique perspective of Istanbul’s beauty.

CONS TO VISITING ISTANBUL

Crowds & Traffic

Istanbul is a densely populated city, and popular tourist areas can become crowded, especially during peak seasons. I recommend not renting a car in istanbul and relying on the metro system which will bypass traffic.

Language Barrier

While many people in Istanbul can communicate in English, there may still be instances where the language barrier poses difficulties, particularly in more local and non-touristy areas.

Pickpocketing & Scams

Like any major tourist destination, there can be occasional instances of pickpocketing or tourist scams in crowded areas. It’s important to be aware of your surroundings, keep your belongings secure, and be aware of common scams.

Air Pollution

Istanbul’s rapid urbanization and high population density have led to air pollution concerns. The city’s air quality can sometimes be affected, especially during peak pollution periods.

Call To Prayer

While this is part of the local culture and adds to the city’s charm for many visitors, it might be an adjustment for those not accustomed to it especially when they go off before you want to wake up. I recommend using a noise machine.

Despite the challenges, Istanbul’s unique blend of history, culture, and charm often leaves visitors with unforgettable memories.

What To See In Ankara

Most Beautiful Mosques In Turkey - Kocatepe Mosque

Ankara, the capital city of Turkey, offers several attractions that highlight its historical and cultural significance.

Roman Theatre

Situated in the Ulus district, the Roman Theatre is a well-preserved ancient theater believed to have been built during the 2nd century AD. It offers a glimpse into Ankara’s Roman past and occasionally hosts cultural events.

Ataturk Forest Farm & Zoo

Also known as Atatürk Orman Çiftliği, this expansive recreational area was originally a farm founded by Atatürk. It features lush greenery, picnic spots, a zoo with various animal species, and recreational activities.

Ankara Citadel

Dating back to the Roman era, the Ankara Citadel is a historic fortress located on a hill in the Ulus district. Within its walls, you can explore narrow streets, Ottoman-era houses, and enjoy panoramic views of the city.

Anıtkabir

Anitkabir_Anakara Turkey

This monumental mausoleum is the final resting place of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. Anıtkabir is a significant symbol of national pride and showcases exhibits related to Atatürk’s life and achievements. This was actually quite interesting. I even got to experience the changing of the guard which was better than I expected.

Ataturk’s House

Situated in the Çankaya district, this preserved house was once the residence of Atatürk during the early years of the Republic. It provides a glimpse into the personal life and lifestyle of Türkiye’s founding father.

Museum Of Anatolian Civilizations

Housed in a restored Ottoman building, this museum displays a vast collection of artifacts from various ancient civilizations that once thrived in Anatolia, including the Hittites, Phrygians, and Romans.

Gençlik Parkı

As one of the largest parks in Ankara, Gençlik Parkı offers recreational facilities, green spaces, and a variety of outdoor activities. The park features a Ferris wheel, a skating rink, a mini-golf course, and walking paths. It is the perfect place to take a break and read a book in the shade of the massive trees.

Ahi Şerafeddin Camii

Ahi Camii_Ankara Turkey

Located in the old town of Ankara, this historic mosque dates back to 1290 AD. It is not only an important religious site it is also one of the oldest buildings in Ankara. Though small, it is still worth a visit.

Ethnography Museum

Located within the Ankara Castle complex, this museum showcases the rich cultural heritage of Anatolia. It exhibits traditional costumes, jewelry, handicrafts, and artifacts representing the diverse regions of Turkey.

CerModern

This contemporary art center is housed in a renovated railway maintenance depot. It hosts exhibitions, performances, film screenings, and cultural events, making it a hub for modern and contemporary art in Ankara.

Bonus Tip: If you have the chance to try 326 Antakya Durum, you should. I have had my fair share of durum while living in Turkey and this is by far my favorite.

Pros And Cons Of Visiting Ankara

Things to do in Ankara Turkey - Ankara and Kocatepe Mosque

Visiting Ankara, the capital city of Turkey, has its own set of pros and cons. Here are some of the pros and cons of visiting Ankara:

PROS TO VISITING ANKARA

Political & Administrative Hub

As the capital of Türkiye, Ankara is the center of political and administrative activities. It houses government institutions, foreign embassies, and diplomatic missions. Visitors interested in political affairs may find it intriguing to explore the capital city’s political landscape.

Cultural & Historical Sites

Ankara is home to several cultural and historical attractions. The most prominent landmark is the Anıtkabir, the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Türkiye.

Educational Institutions & Museums

Ankara is known for its prestigious universities and educational institutions, which contribute to a vibrant intellectual and cultural scene.

Less Crowded

Compared to Istanbul, Ankara is relatively less crowded with tourists. This can provide a more relaxed and peaceful atmosphere for exploring the city’s attractions and enjoying its amenities.

Ease Of Getting Around

Ankara’s infrastructure includes a well-connected transportation system, including a metro network, buses, and taxis, making it easier for visitors to navigate the city and reach various destinations.

CONS TO VISITING ANKARA

Limited Tourist Offerings

Compared to Istanbul, Ankara might have fewer tourist offerings. While it has historical sites and museums, it may not have the same breadth of attractions and experiences as Istanbul in terms of cultural diversity, shopping, and entertainment options.

Less Vibrant Atmosphere

Ankara is primarily a political and administrative city, which means it may lack the vibrant and lively atmosphere found in Istanbul. The nightlife and entertainment scene might be more subdued.

Language Barrier

While English is spoken in some tourist areas, the overall English proficiency in Ankara might be lower compared to Istanbul. Visitors may encounter more challenges in terms of communication, especially when interacting with locals outside of tourist-oriented establishments. Learning even a little Turkish can take you a long way.

Limited International Flights

Ankara’s main airport, Esenboğa International Airport, primarily serves domestic and regional flights. International travelers might need to connect through Istanbul or other major airports in Turkey to reach Ankara.

Climate

Ankara experiences a continental climate with hot, dry summers and cold winters. Extreme temperatures in summer and winter may not be ideal for everyone, especially those not accustomed to such climates.

While Ankara might not have the same level of tourism infrastructure as Istanbul, it still offers its own unique experiences, particularly for those interested in politics, history, and a more tranquil atmosphere.

Istanbul Vs. Ankara – A Comparison Of The Two

View of AnkaraIstanbul and Ankara, the first and second largest cities in Türkiye have distinct characteristics and differences. When trying to decide which to go to you can also consider the following:

ISTANBUL & ANKARA COMPARISON

Size & Population

Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population exceeding 18 million people according to some polls.

Ankara, on the other hand, is the capital of Türkiye and has a population of around 5.5 million, making it the second-largest city in the country.

Geography

Istanbul is located in the northwest part of Turkey, straddling the Bosporus Strait, which separates Europe and Asia. Its unique geographical position gives it a transcontinental character, with the city spanning both continents.

Ankara, on the other hand, is situated in the central part of Turkey, in the region known as Anatolia.

Historical Significance

Istanbul has a rich history that dates back thousands of years. It was previously known as Byzantium and Constantinople, serving as the capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. The city is littered with iconic historical landmarks.

Ankara, while not as historically significant as Istanbul, gained prominence as the capital of the newly established Republic of Türkiye under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Cultural Vibes

Istanbul has a vibrant and cosmopolitan atmosphere, blending modernity with its rich cultural heritage. It offers a diverse range of culinary experiences, entertainment options, and cultural events.

Ankara, being the political center, has a more reserved and formal ambiance, with a focus on government activities and institutions.

Traffic & Transportation

Istanbul faces significant traffic congestion due to its large population and geographic layout, with multiple bridges connecting the two sides of the city.

Ankara, while also experiencing traffic, generally has better traffic conditions compared to Istanbul.

ISTANBUL OR ANKARA FAQ

What are the main differences between Istanbul and Ankara?

Istanbul and Ankara are two distinct cities in Turkey. Istanbul is known for its rich history, stunning architecture, and vibrant culture, while Ankara is the country’s capital and a modern city with political significance.

Which city is more suitable for sightseeing and historical attractions?

Istanbul is more suitable for sightseeing and historical attractions. It is home to iconic landmarks like the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and the Grand Bazaar.

What types of activities can I enjoy in Istanbul?

In Istanbul, you can enjoy a wide range of activities, including visiting historical sites, taking Bosphorus cruises, exploring vibrant neighborhoods, shopping at bustling markets, and experiencing the local cuisine.

Is Ankara worth visiting for tourists?

While Ankara is not as popular as Istanbul among tourists, it still offers attractions like the Anitkabir mausoleum, museums, parks, and a more laid-back atmosphere compared to Istanbul.

Does Istanbul Or Ankara have better public transportation?

Istanbul has a more extensive and developed public transportation system, including trams, buses, metro, ferries, and a funicular, making it easier to get around the city.

Is Ankara or Istanbul more suitable for shopping?

Istanbul is more suitable for shopping, especially at the Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar, and modern shopping malls. However, Ankara also has shopping centers and local markets.

Is there a significant difference in the cost of living between Ankara and Istanbul?

Generally, Istanbul has a higher cost of living compared to Ankara, especially when it comes to accommodation and dining expenses. However, both cities offer options for various budgets.

Which city has a better nightlife scene, Istanbul or Ankara?

Istanbul has a more vibrant nightlife scene with numerous bars, restaurants, clubs, and live music venues. It is well-known for its bustling nightlife along the Bosphorus and in areas like Beyoglu and Kadikoy.


Final Thoughts On Whether You Should Visit Ankara Or Istanbul

Turkiye Travel Blog_Istanbul Vs Ankara Turkey

With the YHT (high-speed train system) in place, the good news is that you can travel between these two cities in just a few hours. Embarking on a day trip from Istanbul to Ankara offers a chance to explore Türkiye’s political and administrative capital and experience its distinct atmosphere.

A visit to the magnificent Anıtkabir provides a glimpse into the nation’s founding father and the history of the Republic of Türkiye. Exploring the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations offers an opportunity to delve into the ancient civilizations that thrived in Anatolia, showcasing remarkable artifacts.

Additionally, a visit to the Ankara Citadel allows for panoramic views of the city and a chance to explore its historic streets. While a day trip may not be enough to fully uncover all the city has to offer, it provides a taste of Ankara’s unique character and a deeper understanding of Turkey’s cultural and political heritage.

The choice is yours! What will you decide? Will you visit Istanbul or Ankara?

Comments (2)

  1. It was interesting to read about Istanbul versus Ankara .
    Planning a visit in October. How can you be of help for Greece and Turkey visit

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