Ankara vs. Istanbul: Which one to go for Cultural Vacation?

A cultural vacation is a type of vacation where you try to embed in the culture of your destination. It does not matter if you are miles or oceans away from your homeland; the important thing is to experience the culture and do the locals’ things.

Of course, a cultural vacation is not just pretending to be a local. However, learning the city and then immersing in the city’s culture is a big part of a cultural holiday. In this case, city culture is the key.

When it comes to Turkey, two different and big cities can be the point of discussion: Istanbul and Ankara. Of course, there are many other cities convenient for cultural vacation, but since Istanbul is the most crowded and Ankara is the capital city, those two tend to be compared.

Today, I will compare Ankara and Istanbul regarding the pros and cons of cultural vacation.


Ankara is the capital of Turkey and carries a tremendous cultural heritage. There are many opportunities to satisfy the need for art in Ankara. However, there are some must-do and must-see things in Ankara which would contribute to your cultural vacation there more than anything. The following are some of the cultural vacation opportunities in Ankara.


Anıtkabir is the tomb of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Turkish Republic’s founder and the Turkish War of Independence leader. To understand Ankara’s culture, a convenient first step would be a visit to Anıtkabir.

Atatürk plays an indispensable role in Turkey’s culture, and especially in Ankara. All Turkish people respect him and memorialize him on special days for the nation.  National holidays are celebrated in Anıtkabir annually.

Anıtkabir complex includes many different constructions, statues, and buildings, each with a symbolic value. All the components of Anıtkabir are descriptive in terms of republic history, Turkey, and Atatürk’s life.


One of the components in Anıtkabir is Anıtkabir Atatürk Museum. This museum takes place between two towers, named “National Pact and Revolution.” Atatürk’s personal belongings and clothes are exhibited in this museum.

Moreover, the Anıtkabir complex includes an art gallery to exhibit Atatürk’s personal library, another library named Atatürk and Turkish Revolution library, and a ceremonial square.

Museum of Anatolian Civilizations

Museum of Anatolian Civilizations is another cultural mark of Ankara. The museum includes two different Ottoman buildings and exhibits Anatolian archeological findings. The museum is organized in a chronological manner, meaning that one can observe the ancient history of Ankara throughout the museum.

Museum of Anatolian Civilizations

Ankara Kalesi (Castle)

Ankara Kalesi is a castle from the Ottoman period, and it is one of the significant symbols of the city. Evidence shows that the inner walls were built in the 7th century, in the Byzantine period. The castle included over 20 towers and was built for military purposes.

The castle includes two parts, one named inner castle and the second named outer castle. The outer castle was designed in a way that would frame the whole Ankara. Many houses were found inside of the castle from the Ottoman period.

Ankara Kalesi (Castle)


Hamamönü is an area in Ankara known for its rooted history and cultural heritage. Different from other areas of Ankara, the architectural properties of Hamamönü belong to the 19th century, offering a cultural and historical view. Most of the area was built in the 19th century, and it includes over 250 structures.


The nostalgic atmosphere and historical heritage of Hamamönü make it a significant point for Ankara’s culture. Today, the area includes many restaurants, cafés, landmarks, and the symbol of Hamamönü, a clock tower.

Temple of Augustus and Rome

Temple of Augustus and Rome takes place in the Altındağ district of Ankara. It was built by Pilamenes for Roma Emperor Augustus, and evidence shows that it was built between the years 25 to 20 B.C.

Up to today, the temple was exposed to many natural disasters, which caused its walls to be destroyed. During earthquakes, many of the inscriptions were harmed, too.

Temple of Augustus and Rome

Evidence shows that before the temple was destroyed, it had a rectangular structure. Around the fifth century, the temple was transformed into a church in the Byzantine period.


Throughout history, Istanbul has witnessed so many things, and today, the marks of those experiences show themselves. The following are some of the most important cultural landmarks of Istanbul.

Topkapı Palace Museum

Topkapı Palace Museum is one of the most important landmarks, which also contributes to the city’s famous silhouette. It is the first museum of the Republic of Turkey and occupies an area of 300.000 square meters.

The palace was built by Fatih the Conqueror in 1478. Four different architects contributed to the making of the Topkapı Palace museum, which includes the famous Architect (Mimar) Sinan.

Topkapı Palace Museum

For many years, Topkapı Palace was housing for many different sultans. The palace also served as a center for education and art. Today, millions of people visit Topkapı Palace annually.

Sultanahmet Mosque

Built between 1609 and 1617 by Ahmed I., Sultanahmet Mosque or Blue Mosque is one of the most typical examples of classical Turk art. It is the first mosque to have six minarets.

The reason for Sultanahmet Mosque to be also named “Blue Mosque” is due to its blue tiles inside. The mosque takes place in a big complex. In fact, Ahmed I. aimed to make a mosque that would be visible from every part of the city.

Sultanahmet Mosque

Galata Tower

Another historically significant construction and another indispensable part of Istanbul silhouette are Galata Tower. Galata Tower, which is actually a lighthouse, was also used to watch the fires in the city. It is known that it was also used as housing for Christian war prisoners.

Galata Tower

With an interesting legend, Galata Tower is one of the most visited landmarks of Istanbul. The story behind it makes it more culturally valuable. Additionally, the architectural properties and the view it offers for people who climb it is also loved by its visitors.

Grand Bazaar

Once the most important trade center of the city, Grand Bazaar‘s history goes back to the 15th century. The bazaar is viewed as a “point where the East culture is best represented” by its visitors.

Grand Bazaar occupies an area of 45 thousand square meters, and there are over 3600 shops. Moreover, Grand Bazaar was mentioned in many travel books. The bazaar also has the feature of being the first and biggest shopping center in the world.

Countless items can be found in Grand Bazaar, including but not limited to gold, silver, jewelry, authentic Ottoman rugs, clothing, souvenirs, traditional Turkish food and dessert, natural herbs and oils, and so on.

Hagia Sophia

First built as a church and continued to its life as a church nearly a millennia, then transformed to a mosque and continued to its life as a church nearly 500 years, and then transferred to a museum and stayed like that for 65 years, and finally, transformed to a mosque once again.

hagia sophia

Hagia Sophia was the biggest church of Istanbul made by the Eastern Rome Empire, was constructed three times in the place where it is now. Throughout history, Hagia Sophia was a significant place for sultans.

The structure had witnessed many civilizations throughout history, and for each of them, it carried a significant value.

Final Decision: Ankara or Istanbul?

The answer to “is Ankara or Istanbul better for cultural vacation?” will always remain uncertain. More specifically, the answer to this question would be entirely subjective, and one cannot answer on behalf of others.

Some of the most essential cultural trademarks of both cities were described in this article. To evaluate both cities in cultural vacation terms, some other words will be said now.

First of all, Istanbul has always been an important center throughout history. Given the significance of the Bosphorus and the city’s location, many powerful rulers chose Istanbul over other cities. This leads to countless important buildings taking place in Istanbul.

Additionally, Istanbul has always been a region where many different cultures, religions, races, and nations live together. It is not possible for Ankara, or even any other region in Turkey, to bear the traces of this diversity. In every step taken in Istanbul, it is possible to find a cultural impact or historical significance.

If we come to the present day, Istanbul still has not lost its feature of being a “center.” Turkey’s most populous population is still in Istanbul, and millions of people have migrated to Istanbul from past to present. All of this has resulted in unprecedented liveliness, city life, and ongoing development in Istanbul.

However, all of this information about Istanbul does not make Ankara any less valuable. Ankara is also a very suitable place for a cultural holiday; It is different from Istanbul but still valid.

Still, Ankara is a city that became the capital of the Turkish Republic. Although the city is not as prominent as Istanbul, it has an undeniable importance in Ankara in terms of its culture and history. It is true that Istanbul has a culture that includes many different elements, but Ankara’s culture has remained simpler and more distinct than Istanbul’s.

İsmail Çamönü

Hi! I am Ismail. I am a digital nomad from Turkey. I lived in many cities around Turkey during my life and I am passionate about traveling. At Nomad's Guide to Turkey, I share travel tips for nomads, expats, and tourists who would like to visit Turkey.

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