Life in Ankara

I first landed in Ankara in the old terminal of sleepy Esenboğa airport in September 1983 to join Middle East Technical University (METU). The bus ride to Turkey’s second largest city past the numerous gecekondus (squatter houses) on the barren hills to the Turkish Airlines city terminal next to the railway station seemed to be long and unending. Compared to Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city and the old Ottoman Empire’s gem on the shores of Bosphorus, Ankara looked uninspiring.

Kızılay Square in 1965

Located in the central Anatolia region, the biggest claim to fame of the town used to be the long-haired local breed of goats named after the former name of the city (Angora), out of which high quality mohair textiles were produced. A small provincial town of 20,000 people, Ankara gained prominence in 1923 when Gazi Mustafa Kemal Atatürk declared it to be the capital of the new Republic. Ulus (nation), the adjoining Hisar district around the hilltop citadel, and Hamamonu just south of it down the hill formed the old town. Atop the Ankara Hisarı (castle), the city’s original plan can still be seen. Along the winding streets and traditional houses with wooden beams, one can enjoy a good view of the sprawling city below and the surrounding hills as well as enjoy Turkish cuisine and a cup of Turkish coffee. The signs of the early Republican years in the area, whether it be in the shape of the fine buildings of the first national architecture or the 1940s monuments following the totalitarian aesthetics of the era is very much traceable. The old parliament building and a large equestrian monument of Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the republic, at its side are major landmarks in the Ulus district.

Ulus Square, 1970

A purpose-built capital subsequently developed southwards of the old town. The downtown area of the yeni şehir (new city) is centered around Kızılay Square (Kızılay Meydanı) from where number of transportation links to almost anywhere in the city is possible. To the north, Kızılay is connected by a wide avenue, Atatürk Boulevard, to Ulus and the squares of Sıhhiye (site of Ministry of Health) and the adjacent Abdi Ipekçi park, marked too by an unmissable Hittite monument in the middle of its roundabout. Moving on the same boulevard to the immediate south lie the upmarket districts of Kavaklıdere, Gaziosmanpaşa and Çankaya. The city's most expensive hotels and restaurants are found in this region, as are most of the embassies and consular services.

Southwest of Kızılay, past the aptly named Bakanlıklar (Ministries) district, Ismet Inönü Boulevard leads into the area collectively known as Eskişehir Yolu (now Dumlupınar Boulevard), which is lined by the buildings of the administrative institutions, including the National Parliament. The road also leads to METU and Bilkent (next door) campuses. Back during our times in Ankara, the area beyond METU eventually gave way to the wide-open steppe. Now the city limits go beyond the Eskişehir Yolu in the west and Konya Yolu in the south.

Metro Ankara with a population of 5.3 million (2022) is now a sprawling, modern city. Many non-locals view it as a depressive and grey city with nothing to offer other than the boring world of politics. The city is not only administrative hub but a huge university town. From a few pre-1980 state-run universities, the city now boasts about 15 public and private universities. Other than government officials and students, Ankara is also home to a large population of foreign diplomats and embassy staff. Till 1994, a small American airbase too existed in the Balgat area

There is a lot to offer in Ankara for those who are prepared to look a bit deeper. A good selection of cinemas both in Kavaklıdere and Çankaya as well as theatres and several concert halls for classical music and opera are available in the city. It is also possible to watch ballet and opera performed by State Opera & Ballet, listen to concerts of the Classical Turkish Music Choir and the Presidential Symphony Orchestra and watch the performance of the State Folk Dance Ensemble, For art lovers, there are also a number of painting and art galleries around the city.

Since Ankara was built on mostly barren Central Anatolian steppe lands, the city managers vigorously pursued a policy of tree planting, which has resulted in many parks and forestlands around the city, adding to its charms. Gençlik Parki (which houses an amusement park with a large pond for rowing), Segmenler Park (opposite Pakistan Embassy along Iran Caddesi), Kuğulu Park (at corner of Tunalı Caddesi famous for the swans received as a gift from the Chinese government), Abdi Ipekci Park (Sıhhiye with its landmark of sculpture of two open hands), Güven Park in Kızılay, Kurtuluş Park which has an ice-skating rink, Altınpark (also a prominent exposition/fair area), and Göksu Park are some of the key green areas of the city. Plantation of saplings by METU students spearheaded by the dynamic METU rector Kemal Kurdaş (1961 to 1969) at the current campus thus leading to over 8,100 acres of forest land is also worth mentioning. One can also go for picnics and outings near the lakes of the Dams of Çubuk, Hirfanlı and Kurtboğazı or Gölbaşi Lake. Lake Eymir near Gölbaşı, is open for METU students and its faculty for rowing and recreational activities. Last but not the least, Elmadağ skiing resort where METU has a lodge is only a few kilometers away from Ankara.

Ankara has number of sightseeing, historical places and museums abound with some of the best pieces of history, art, and culture on display in the country. Atatürk Mausoleum (Anıtkabir), Atatürk Mansion Museum (at the Çankaya Presidency), Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ethnographical Museum, State Museum of Painting and Sculpture, the First Grand National Assembly are some of worth visiting museums. At the same time historical places such as Ankara Castle, Roman Bath, the Column of Julien, Augustus Temple, Saraç Sinan, Aslanhane, Ahi Elvan, Hacı Bayram, Karacabey New Mosque (Cenabi Ahmet Paşa), Kocatepe Mosque (Ankara’s largest mosque) are all places that come to mind.

Because of its centric location, Ankara is a suitable transit point for getting to places like Konya (Mevlana Rumi türbesi) or Cappadocia in the south or scenic Black Sea coastline towards the north. Further, important Anatolian history and cultural centers like Gordion (near Polatlı), Çatalhoyuk (further southeast of Konya) and Beypazarı are also located near Ankara.

Ankara is a smart, modern city with a good selection of restaurants, patisseries, bars, live music venues and shops. It is unmistakably Turkey but feels more European than most of the country.

Modern shopping areas are mostly found in Kızılay, or on the Tunalı Hilmi road. Ankamall, Karum and Atakule Tower next to Atrium Mall with a revolving restaurant are the much-frequented shopping arenas in the city. Ulus and areas around it are havens for bargain price seekers.

Kebap 49 Restaurant, Tunalı Hilmi Caddesi branch

Plenty of cheaper dining out options selling fast food, kebaps, döner and lahmacun are available in Kızılay and Maltepe areas. One may however find high end restaurants In Çankaya, Tunalı and Gaziosmanpaşa areas. Besides many classic iskender kebab restaurants, there are many restaurants featuring the traditional cuisine of a specific city: from the spicy Urfa to a variety of vegetables coming with Adana kebap. Uludağ Kebabcisi in Ulus has been around for about sixty years and is a top-of-the-line restaurant mainly serving Iskender kebap. Haci Arif bey near Tunalı is a well-managed and delicious restaurant for savoring Gaziantep cuisine. Kebap 49 (with branches at Tunalı Hilmi Caddesi and Necatibey Caddesi) as well as Hosta Piknik in Kızılay’s Sakarya Caddesi for its beef döner are popular among youths and students. Sakarya Caddesi is also where you can find and eat the best fresh fish.

Ankara has been a very welcoming city. Living conditions are generally quite good, except for the occasional electricity and water outages. Traffic congestion is a growing problem in the city. The city has a dense public bus network, a two-line subway called Ankara Metrosu and a single line suburban railway called Ankara Banliyö Treni. Public transport is efficient and easy to use. There are also affordable taxis wherever you look.

The climate is dry, with pleasant, sunny summers and a long, chilly winter. Winter pollution in Ankara is extensive.

Khurram Sajjad Khawaja