Last updated on March 1, 2023 by Wandering our World
Ankara and Istanbul are Turkey’s two biggest cities, and they’re often top of the list for travelers who want to experience the depth and vibrancy of Turkish culture, cuisine, and lifestyle for themselves. But if you can only pick one of these cities, which one should you choose?
Well, even though they’re both big cities that have a few things in common, like plenty of things to do, Ankara and Istanbul have a long list of differences in terms of their general vibe, aesthetics, history, and culture.
They’re also in very different geographic settings, with Istanbul straddling the border between Asia and Europe so it has its own beaches and coastline. Meanwhile Ankara is much further inland in Turkey’s Central Anatolia Region.
In fact despite being the country’s capital, Ankara is actually the quieter of these two cities. It’s more of a residential and political city, with a significantly smaller population than Istanbul. It’s a greener place, too, with some interesting museums and great shopping opportunities.
In contrast, Istanbul is the more historic and diverse of the two, with extraordinary architecture and hidden treasures around every corner. There’s a really long list of things to see and do there, which is partly why so many people mistakenly assume that Istanbul is the capital of Turkey, as it feels like such a lively and exciting place to be.
There’s much to say about both Ankara and Istanbul, from their food scenes to their landmarks and attractions, which is why in this guide we’ll use our experience of both to show you which is best for you.
We’ll show you which is the better for nightlife, activities, food, families, honeymoons, which is cheaper and far more. All so you can make the right decision!
- A Quick Overview
- Which Is Easier To Get To?
- Which Is Easier To Get Around?
- Which Is Best For Activities?
- Which Is Better For Nightlife?
- Which Is Better For Food?
- Which Is Best For Day Trips?
- Which Is Best For Families?
- Where To Stay According To Your Budget
- Which Is Best For Couples & Honeymoons?
- Which Is The Cheaper?
- Which Is The Better Choice?
A Quick Overview & Comparison: Ankara vs Istanbul
Ankara: A Quick Overview
Situated in the Central Anatolia Region, Ankara is Turkey’s capital city and home to over 5 million people, making it the second-biggest city in the country. It became the capital in 1923, taking over from Istanbul after the Turkish War of Independence.
When compared to Istanbul, Ankara is a significantly quieter and calmer city. People are more spread out, thanks to the residential layout of the city’s structure, and a lot of the focus here is on governmental organizations and agencies, rather than culture, tourism, or entertainment.
Because of this, Ankara draws in just a small fraction of the number of visitors that Istanbul gets each year.
Visitors shouldn’t expect to find lots of live events or family attractions here, but there’s still plenty to see and do.
Ankara boasts some fantastic museums, for instance – the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations is a must-see – along with fabulous architecture and interesting historic sites that tell the story of the city’s past. Ankara is also a great shopping destination and gateway to other parts of Turkey.
Istanbul: A Quick Overview
Istanbul, once known as Constantinople, is one of the most famous cities in the world and the largest city in Turkey. It sits on both sides of the Bosporus Strait – the waterway that defines the boundary between Asia and Europe – with half of the city on either side.
It’s the only city in the world to spread out across two separate continents, and visitors will find that the European and Asian sides of Istanbul each have their own distinctive vibes, architecture, and fun things to do.
The historic, touristic, and cultural hub of Turkey, Istanbul is home to more than 15 million people – almost 1 in every 5 Turks lives in Istanbul – and it draws in large numbers of tourists from around the world each and every year.
There’s plenty to see in the city (more so than in Ankara), including several UNESCO World Heritage Sites like the legendary Hagia Sophia mosque, as well as the world-famous Grand Bazaar, one of the biggest and oldest markets on Earth.
Which Is Easier To Get To?
If you’re wondering which of these two Turkish cities is easier to access, the answer is clear: Istanbul.
Istanbul has one of the busiest international airports in the world. It’s situated over on the European side of the city and has direct connections with cities all over the globe.
You can fly directly into Istanbul from almost anywhere, including many countries of Europe, large parts of Asia, Africa, the US, Canada, and South America, too. With so many flight routes and dozens of airlines operating at Istanbul Airport, it’s super easy to access.
Ankara also has its own airport – Ankara Esenboga Airport – which is located approximately 17 miles outside of the city. It’s not as busy as Istanbul, but still serves millions of passengers per year and has direct connections with places like the UK, France, Germany, and parts of Asia.
Which Is Easier To Get Around?
Clearly, it’s easier to access Istanbul than Ankara, but once you’ve arrived in either of these cities, you’ll need to think about how you’re going to get around.
But when it comes to general navigation around these cities, you might find Ankara more comfortable to traverse than Istanbul.
Ankara has both public and private buses to take you around to the main sites and landmarks. It also has dolmus buses that can pick you up and drop you off anywhere along a set route.
Plus, there’s a great metro system there, offering a speedy and convenient way to get from one side of the city to the other.
In Istanbul, travelers will usually want to get hold of an Istanbul Card, or IstanbulKart, to pay for public transport. You can use this card to get around on buses, metros, and ferries.
The buses and metros in Istanbul will get you wherever you need to go, but they can be hugely crowded, chaotic, and journeys often take quite a while in Istanbul due to the city’s severe traffic issues.
Not only that, but Istanbul’s taxis can be difficult to get hold of, as drivers may sometimes refuse short-haul fares and hold out for passengers who want to travel further and pay more money.
This can make things a little tricky, and the sheer size of Istanbul can also be intimidating for first-time visitors, while Ankara is smaller and more navigable.
Which Is Best For Activities?
Next, let’s talk about some of the things you can do in both of these cities. This could be the most important factor of all for those who are trying to decide between Istanbul or Ankara, and you may find that one city has much more to offer for your personal tastes than the other.
In general, Istanbul is regarded as the more exciting and diverse destination of the two.
It offers a veritable bounty of sights to see and activities to enjoy, with something new to discover down almost every street, from museums to markets, historic sites, and family attractions, like theme parks and aquariums.
Over in Ankara, the pace of life is a little more laid-back and the range of activities is more restricted.
However, there are some lovely green spaces to explore, beautiful buildings to admire, interesting museums, excellent shopping locations, and some decent day trip destinations to consider, as well.
Below we look at the main activities and landmarks in each destination, so you can see which one will suit you best.
Ankara: The Activities
To make the most of your trip to Ankara, it’s recommended to visit the city’s key landmarks, like the Mausoleum of Mustaga Kemal Ataturk.
Turkey’s first president is buried there, and it’s one of the most architecturally impressive structures in the entire nation, as well as holding special significance for the Turkish people.
The fabulous Melike Hatun Mosque is another extraordinary feat of architecture to admire on a trip to Ankara.
It’s situated in the town’s Old Quarter, where you can also find some of the most incredible craft and souvenir shops, spice markets, and friendly locals.
Speaking of shopping, Ankara really is a paradise for shopaholics. You’ll find several sleek, modern malls dotted around the city, and make sure to head to Kizilay Square, one of the city’s most popular meeting points, to find more great shops and even night markets.
Since Ankara is quite a walkable city, with a lot of beautiful buildings and tree-lined streets all close together, one of the best things to do there is simply roam around, taking in the sights like Ankara’s art deco train station or wandering around one of the parks, like 50th Year Park or Kugulu Park – you’ll find many more green spaces here compared to Istanbul.
Ankara is also a great place for history buffs and museum fans. The Museum of Anatolian Civilizations is filled with extraordinary artifacts dating back thousands of years, showcasing the rich and deep history of this region, while Ankara Castle is the city’s best-kept historical landmark, as well as being a super spot to enjoy the sunset.
Istanbul: The Activities
In Istanbul, the list of activities and attractions is almost never-ending, and you’ll need more time here than Ankara if you want to truly soak in the city and enjoy all that it has to offer.
You’ll also need to make sure you visit both the European and Asian sides – several cheap ferry routes will take you across the Bosporus Strait in around half an hour or less.
A lot of the most famous landmarks can be found on the European side, including the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Other amazing historic and cultural landmarks here include the Ottoman-era Topkapi Palace and the Basilica Cistern waterworks, dating all the way back to the 6th century.
Over on the Asian side of the city, there’s plenty more to do, like strolling through the artistic Yeldegirmeni neighborhood, losing yourself among the smells and savors of Kadikoy Market, or taking a relaxing walk along the Kadikoy Coastal Pathway.
Of course, unlike Ankara, which is situated inland, Istanbul is on the coast, so it has several sandy beaches.
In fact, there’s quite a lot of diversity in Istanbul’s beaches, from lively spots like BURC Beach to family-friendly locations like Nakibey and beautiful sandy expanses like Uzunya. In other words, you won’t run out of options if you like spending time by the sea.
As well as museums, mosques, palaces, and beaches, Istanbul also has incredible markets. The Grand Bazaar is the most famous – it’s made up of thousands of shops spread out among a web of winding streets, and the sellers here are happy to haggle, so you might be able to get a great deal if you’re a good negotiator.
Overall, it’s clear that Istanbul has much more in terms of things to do than Ankara.
There’s simply a much wider range of activities to suit people of all ages and tastes in Instanbul, albeit the crowded nature of this city can take a toll on some visitors. So you might prefer Ankara’s museums and landmarks, which tend to be far less busy, if you’re not a fan of chaotic cities.
Which Is Better For Nightlife?
If you love staying out late and partying hard until the early hours, you will need to know how the nightlife scenes of Istanbul and Ankara compare, as well as which one is better-suited for pubs, bars, clubs, and the like.
Despite being a mostly residential and political city, Ankara has a big student population, and the inner city has a range of lively student-oriented cafes, bars, and clubs, especially around the Kizilay area.
The summer months can be particularly lively for Ankara’s nightlife, with live music at various local bars and popular Turkish DJs headlining the city’s favorite clubs.
Places like Budha Club, Escape, Nil Bar, and Adres Bar stand out as some of the top spots to have fun in the evenings. There are also some more mature evening hangout spots, like wine bars and chilled-out taverns.
Istanbul, meanwhile, has a dynamic and vibrant nightlife scene, and no matter what kind of evening experience you’re looking for, you should be able to find it there. This city’s got it all, from dance clubs with non-stop electronic music to shisha bars and coastal cafes where you can watch the sun go down.
From Kadikoy to Besiktas, there are lots of great nightlife districts across Istanbul, and each one is a little different. Taksim is one of the most exciting areas, with some of the best clubs and great restaurants that stay open deep into the evening.
Overall, both of these cities can keep you entertained after dark. Istanbul is a little more diverse, with lots of clubs and pubs spread all around the city, while Ankara’s scene is smaller, but still sufficient for most people.
Which Is Better For Food?
Turkish cuisine is famed for its unique mixture of influences, blending ingredients from Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Balkan, and Central Asian to create rich, filling, and flavorful dishes. You can enjoy great food all over Turkey, including in Ankara and Istanbul, but which city is best for foodies?
Well, in this category, it’s Istanbul that takes the win. Some of the nation’s best chefs, as well as various chefs from overseas, have set up their own eateries in Istanbul, and the city’s culinary scene is arguably the very best in all of Turkey.
There’s a vibrant and enviable mixture of high-end restaurants in Istanbul, as well as casual family-friendly eateries, and street food vendors around every corner.
Whether you’re enjoying a classic Turkish kebab or sitting down for some freshly-caught seafood at one of Istanbul’s coastal bars, you’re sure to have a delightful and delicious meal, and it’s easy to find almost any kind of food here at a whole range of budgets.
The food scene in Ankara simply isn’t as developed or varied as Istanbul.
There are still some excellent restaurants to be found in the Turkish capital, with new additions opening their doors every year, but the range of restaurants is a lot narrower.
With that said, Ankara is still a great place to taste some traditional treats like ekmek kadayifi and dondurma – Turkish ice cream.
Which Is Best For Day Trips?
If you feel like leaving the hustle and bustle of Istanbul behind for a day or two, or getting out of Ankara to see more of Turkey’s towns, historic sites, and natural spaces, you might like to know which of these two cities is best-placed for fun and interesting day trips.
Let’s start off with Ankara. This city is in a great central location, so it’s really well-positioned for people who want to explore almost any part of Turkey. You could even technically do a day trip from Ankara to Istanbul – or vice versa – as the two cities are only an hour apart by plane.
There are lots of different places you can visit from Ankara. You could head out to Korogulu Mountain for some skiing and other winter sports, for example, or take a trip to some of Anatolia’s charming towns, like Amasya or Beysehir.
To see a more rural side of Turkey, you could do a day trip to Beypazari, or head out to Eskisehir for family fun.
Day trippers heading out of Istanbul, meanwhile, might like to begin with a tour of the Princes‘ Islands. Locals love these little islands, and they’re only a short ferry ride from the city, with some charming little beaches and beautiful churches.
You could also leave Istanbul behind to visit a quiet coastal town, like Sile or Agva. Looking out over the Black Sea, these towns are great for hiking and natural exploration.
Or, for something a little different, head to Polonezkoy, otherwise known as the Polish village, as it was founded by Polish settlers back in the 19th century.
In short, there are a lot of options for day trips out of both Istanbul and Ankara. However, you’ll be able to find more variety and a wider range of Turkish towns and cities to uncover when staying in Ankara, thanks to its more central location.
Which Is Best For Families?
If you’re heading to Turkey on a family vacation, you’ll need to think about fun things to do to keep your children entertained. And when it comes to Ankara vs Istanbul for families, it’s not so easy to pick a winner.
Istanbul is a superb option for families, as it has lots of attractions to keep kids of all ages entertained.
There’s the Vialand theme park, for example, with all sorts of wild rides and thrilling rollercoasters. Istanbul also has its own Sea Life aquarium, as well as a Legoland Discovery Center for little Lego fans.
You can also find the biggest dolphinarium in all of Europe in Istanbul, as well as a toy museum, a Madame Tussauds wax museum, and the various beaches where kids can build sandcastles, play games, and splash around in the sea.
Ankara doesn’t have the beaches, nor does it have quite as many family attractions. However, you can find a fun water park there, with lots of big, colorful slides, as well as some nice parks, an aquarium, and several zoos.
So, there are certainly options in Ankara to keep the kids happy, and older teens might appreciate the city’s malls and educational museums, too.
Overall, Istanbul is the better option, once again winning out due to its diverse attractions and activities.
Where To Stay According To Your Budget
Budget: The four-star Wings Hotels Neva Palas is a modern hotel with great facilities set right into the heart of the capital. Considering the quality of service and its location, it must be one of the best priced hotels in the region. See photos and rates!
Luxury: Divan Cukurhan is a stunning hotel done up in authentic Turkish style. Not only is this arguably Turkey’s most photogenic hotel, it also has exceptional service, sits in a central city location and is well known for its incredibly comfy beds. See photos and rates!
Budget: The lovely Hotel Empress Zoe is centrally located, close Hagia Sophia, and is decked up in traditional Turkish style. It’s photogenic, the staff are friendly, and the breakfast is very good. See photos and rates here!
Luxury: The five-star Mula Hotel sits by the water and has gorgeous city views. It’s also right in the center of Istanbul, so perfect for sightseeing, and has wonderful outdoor areas perfect for a sundowner. It’s one of the best-priced five-star hotels in the city too. See photos and rates!
Which Is Best For Couples & Honeymoons?
If you’re heading away on a couples’ vacation, looking for romance and seeking to make some magical memories with someone special, there are lots of reasons to choose both Ankara and Istanbul as your destination.
Ankara has the more quiet vibes and scenic surroundings, helping to make it quite a romantic and charming city to spend time in.
Couples can enjoy the capital’s cultural landmarks, or spend time together shopping or simply roaming around and admiring the architecture.
Istanbul, once again, has a bigger selection of things to do. It’s also got the better restaurant scene for those late night meals with your partner, as well as beaches where you and your loved one can stretch out and sunbathe.
Overall, the best choice for you and your partner will depend on what you like to do the most.
Couples looking for vibrancy, excitement, and countless attractions should head to Istanbul, but those who want something a little more quaint and quiet should opt for Ankara instead.
Which Is Cheaper?
Of course, we also have to consider the cost of these two cities.
You might assume that there’s not a huge difference in terms of average prices between Istanbul and Ankara, but in reality, there’s quite a large gap between average accommodation rates, food prices, and tour costs.
Ankara has significantly cheaper nightly hotel rates. It also usually costs less to eat in Ankara, and the cost of tours and entertainment tends to be lower here, too. So, for budget-conscious travelers, the choice is clear.
Since Istanbul is such a touristy city, with so many foreign travelers around, local businesses tend to price things quite high.
Hotels in Istanbul have high demand and can afford to ramp up the costs of their rooms, and restaurants are often reserved well in advance, with relatively pricey menus in many of the top-rated places.
It’s still possible to have an affordable trip to Istanbul, but you’ll need to plan ahead, reserve your hotel far in advance to get the best rate, and think about where you want to eat and what you want to do, in order to avoid going over-budget. In contrast, cheap trips to Ankara are much easier to organize.
Ankara vs Istanbul: Which Is The Better Choice?
So, which should you choose between Ankara and Istanbul? Well, it’s possible to have a wonderful time in either location, but one city might be better-suited for your desires than the other.
In most categories and aspects, Istanbul comes out on top. It’s deeper and more diverse than Ankara, filled up with historic sites, cultural landmarks, fascinating activities, fabulous beaches, and so much more.
For that reason, Istanbul is our winner. It’s one of those incredible cities that can be recommended to almost anyone, and it’s absolutely worth seeing at least once in your lifetime.
It has truly iconic, must-see landmarks like the Hagia Sophia, along with that truly unique blend of European and Asian influences that simply cannot be found anywhere else on Earth.
Ankara can’t quite compete with Istanbul for typical touristic activities or rich culture, but it’s still a super city in its own right, and it’s emerging as a more desirable vacation destination with every passing year.
So, if you feel that Istanbul might just be a little too busy and noisy for you, Ankara could be the ideal alternative.