Where to eat, sleep and shop in Ankara, Turkey

Many tourists simply pass through on the way to Central Anatolian sights like Cappadocia, but Ankara is well worth taking some time to sip Turkish tea and soak in the city’s youthful spirit

EABRK6 Turkey Ankara View of the city from Ankara citadel. Westend61 GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo
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Why Ankara?

Turkey's often-overlooked capital is a more austere affair than Istanbul or the natural beauty of the coasts. Yet this concrete-heavy, administrative city offers insight into a polarised country – where practical architecture sits next to whimsical multicolour fountains; where the call to prayer rings out through streets lined with bohemian nightspots. Although the modern city is less than 100 years old, its history dates back millennia, boasting both Angora goats – of mohair jumper notoriety – and the tomb of King Midas of the golden touch (in a suburb almost 100 kilometres out of the centre) among its claims to fame. Many tourists simply pass through on the way to Central Anatolian sights like Cappadocia, but it's well worth taking some time to sip Turkish tea and soak in the city's youthful spirit.

A comfortable bed

Divan Cukurhan (www.divan.com.tr/divan-cukurhan) is near the entrance to Ankara Kalesi, or Castle – also known as Ankara Citadel – this pink-bricked, 16th-17th century caravanserai-turned-boutique-hotel is full of charisma. The rooms are individually decorated, each with their own unique style. They are modern, but with a nod to the opulence of the country’s Ottoman past. Doubles cost from 342 Turkish lira (Dh294).

Sheraton Ankara (www.sheratonankara.com) is a landmark on the skyline of a city with few features, and consequently appears in many an artwork by local artists. It’s also in a good location just off Tunali Hilmi Caddesi, one of the city’s social hubs. There is a basement pool and fitness centre, and doubles cost upward of 495 lira (Dh424).

Raymar (www.raymarhotels.com.tr) looks impressive in its wood cladding from the outside. The unusual lobby is reminiscent of a hunting lodge, although the rooms are less impressive. Doubles start at 353 lira (Dh304).

Find your feet

Start at the castle – raised above the city on top of a hill it’s a good place to get a feel for the topography. Head there for the midday or afternoon call to prayer (but avoid it after dark). The cacophony of voices rising up from mosques on every side of you is quite the oracular experience. Entrance is free, and as you head down the hill, take time to wander around the old part of the city and its red-roofed Ottoman houses. Ankara was a small town of a few thousand people at the beginning of the 20th century before it became the capital of a new Turkish Republic. You’ll need a good set of knees for the walk, as it can be steep in places.

Head south down the hill to the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations (www.muze.gov.tr/en/museums/anatolian-civilizations-museum), which is arguably the best museum in Turkey. Exhibits take you on a journey through the country’s Roman, Assyrian and Hittite periods, among others.

Then take a 10-minute taxi ride to Anitkabir, the imposing mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. Surrounded with neo-Hittite lion statues and echoing with the tones of one of Ataturk’s famous speeches, it gives some idea of the significance the former military commander still holds for many Turks. It’s free to visit and the site also includes a museum of Ataturk paraphernalia.

In this March 29, 2017 photo, teachers take pictures of schoolchildren during a visit at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey in Ankara, Turkey. The legacy of the man whose surname means "father of Turks" was one of a modern, secular, western-leaning Turkey. But the personality cult that grew around him has very gradually been fading as current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in power since 2003 as alternately prime minister and president, has harked back to the glory days of the height of the Ottoman Empire to whip up patriotic sentiment. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
The mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey in Ankara. AP photo

Meet the locals

The streets around Kizilay are flanked by tall buildings that hide a rabbit warren of cafes and nightspots, usually with artsy or politically liberal undertones. They are popular with students who savour the chance to practise their English. Almost everywhere has a balcony or terrace that will be the spot of choice come summer (when it hits upward of 30°C) or winter, when the heaters come out as temperatures can easily reach minus 15°C.

Customers take dinner at the FLZ restaurant on Kizilay Square in Ankara, Turkey, on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011. Turkey's underlying domestic demand remains "very strong," spurred by job creation and confidence, Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek said. Photographer: Kerem Uzel/Bloomberg
Customers dine at the FLZ restaurant on Kizilay Square in Ankara, Turkey. Kerem Uzel / Bloomberg

Book a table

Nusret (www.nusr-et.com.tr) is opposite the Sheraton Ankara and offers a significantly cheaper way to experience dinner at Salt bae's international restaurant brand – now worth $1.5 billion – than visiting the Dubai or Abu Dhabi outlets. A steak here will set you back about 100 lira (Dh92), but is around Dh400 here in the UAE.

Ankara’s restaurant scene can leave a little to desire for the seasoned food-lover (especially for veggies and vegans), with many places offering identikit menus. Zenger Pasa Konagi near the castle is no different, with a menu covering traditional dishes like gözleme (a stuffed flatbread pastry) from 3.50 lira (Dh3.23), meze and grills. It is, however, worth a visit for the views. The lower floor is also filled with Ottoman knick-knacks.

If romance and atmosphere is more to your liking, Hayyami Sarap Evi is decorated like a catacomb and often has an acoustic band playing Turkish folk. It is named after Sufi mathematician and poet Ömer Khayyam, and offers a range of local dishes such as the Ottoman lamb casserole, 28.50 lira (Dh26.30), as well as international food. It is best for its cheese platter and drinks menu.

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Shoppers’ paradise

Unless malls with international brands are your thing, Ankara’s shopping scene is perhaps a bit drab. However, the area around the citadel is a great spot for souvenirs such as saffron, handmade jewellery, crafts and Turkish lamps. The shops are packed with a cornucopia of Ottoman ephemera and tarnished treasure.

CerModern (www.cermodern.org), the city’s most notable art hub, sells modern local curiosities, with everything from handmade dresses to painted cards and furniture made mostly by local artists.

Don’t miss

Despite being nowhere near the coast, Ankara is wild on fish and seafood, which is brought in from the Black Sea coast every morning. Try the street food sellers’ midye dolma, or stuffed mussels. If you’re adventurous, sample kokoreç – lamb intestines stuffed with sweetbreads and offal. Or just give your stomach a rest along with the rest of you with a coffee scrub at the renovated 15th-century Sengul Hamam.

What to avoid

Protests. Although these are fewer in number since President Tayyip Erdogan has consolidated power, police can be heavy-handed when it comes to public dissent.

Getting there

Emirates, Etihad, Turkish Airlines (www.turkishairlines.com), flydubai and Pegasus (www.flypgs.com) all fly from the UAE to Istanbul. From Istanbul Ataturk and Sabiha Gokcen airport there are transfers to Ankara. Prices for the round trip start at Dh992.