The night train from Istanbul finally rolled into Ankara at dawn. We ate bread with salty cheese in the breakfast car, and watched cottages and fields change over to high-rises and concrete apartments. Ankara is home to Turkey’s most prominent universities and businesses. Guidebooks tend to over overlook the busy capital, preferring to swoon over Istanbul’s romantic boat trips and spice markets. But with a little perseverance, Ankara reveals itself as a vital city at the crossroads of modernity and tradition.
Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, established Ankara as a secular capital, the embodiment of the modern Turkish nation. Turkish people still revere Atatürk, and one of the best places to see this nationalist spirit is at the Anitkabir Museum and Mausoleum. Atatürk’s Pharoah-like tomb dwarfs the Ankara cityscape. When we arrived, groups of schoolchildren, dressed in identical red shirts, lined up on gleaming white stairs. They milled nervously, waiting for their chance to go inside and pay tribute to their country’s hero. The museum houses artifacts from Atatürk’s life, including clothing, diary entries, and photographs, and also offers a chronology of modern Turkish history. Travelers interested in Turkey’s rich ancient history will want to visit the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in the Ulus district, which displays archeological artifacts from Paleolithic to Roman times. As we left, we watched young Turkish soldiers marching smartly in unison, guarding the tomb of their founding father.
At Kocatepe Mosque, birds circled the minarets against a bright blue sky. Modeled after the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Kocatepe is one of the largest mosques in the world. It was built only fifty years ago, and is at the center of Ankara’s religious life. We removed our shoes and covered our heads with scarves, then stepped into the cool, quiet interior. The domes, painted with intricate patterns in blue and red, gave the impression of spaciousness and order.
After a morning of history and culture, we decided to relax with some shopping. The Ulus district is the oldest in Ankara. Cobbled streets open up into small courtyards where old women sit weaving in the sun. The houses here are hundreds of years old, and many cafes and handicrafts shops have been recently restored. We found silver jewelry, leather purses, and handwoven Turkish carpets for bargain prices. The Ankara Citadel, an ancient castle occupied by the Roman, Byzantine, and Seljuck Empires, sits at the top of Ulus hill. From the ramparts, we had a view of all of Ankara: the red tile roofs of Ulus gave way to rows of modern homes, and eventually, glinting high-rises.
We ended the afternoon with tea in a traditional Turkish tea house. A stone-paved courtyard led us inside a crumbling cottage. We sat on rugs and pillows around a low, beaten-silver table, and were served black tea and gozleme, a delicious hand-rolled pastry filled with various cheeses, spinach, and meats. The sun was setting red behind the Anatolian hills. Despite its modern reputation, the atmosphere of traditional Turkish life lingers in Ankara.