Nobody with an appreciation for history, architecture, or simply the ingenuity of humankind can visit Istanbul without making a stop at Hagia Sophia.
This former Byzantine church and Ottoman mosque has been converted into a museum, where tourists from all over the globe can come and learn about this wonder of the world that was built and rebuilt 3 times in the heart of the metropolis that has held three legendary names: Byzantine, Constantinople, and Istanbul.
It’s English name – The Church of the Holy Wisdom is but one of many: Hagia Sophia (Άγια Σοφία) in Greek, Sancta Sophia in Latin, and Ayasofya or Aya Sofya in Turkish.
Why All The Hagia Sophia Hype? (A Brief History)
Hagia Sophia is one of the great surviving examples of Byzantine architecture, complete with fabulous mosiacs, impressive marble pillars, and awe-inspiring domes.
Completed in 537, it was the largest cathedral in the world for nealy 1000 years, and had a major influence on architects even after the Ottomans took control of the region in the 15th century.
But getting this far wasn’t easy.
The history of Hagia Sophia started with Roman emperor Constantine. As the first Christian emperor, it was one of many great churches he commissioned in important cities throughout the empire over the course of his reign.
This church was completely destroyed in a riot – without any physical trace left behind.
Constantine’s son Constantius and emperor Theodosius rebuilt the church, only to see this too destroyed in the Nika riots of 532. Some of it’s remains are visible today on the site of the current cathedral.
Finally, Emperor Justinian I commissioned a different – larger and more majestic – structure on the rubble of the second.
And in under 6 years, the Hagia Sophia that we know today was completed – an astounding architectural feat for its time.
How to Get to the Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sohpia is conveniently located on Istanbul’s “golden horn” – on the European side of this megatropolis and in the historical heart of the city:
To one side of the museum you have the Topkapi Palace Museum, and on the other side, a beautiful garden leading to the equally hard-to-miss Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque).
As the region is so rich in attractions, public transport really flows to the region, with several metro stations nearby, tramways which head right past the central square, and even the underwater Marmaray and ferries bringing you within comfortable walking distance of Hagia Sohpia.
If you’re coming from the Anatolian (Asian) side of the city across the water, it’s a real treat to take a ferry to Eminönü and see both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia approach from afar.
Get directions from your location to Hagia Sophia here.
Hagia Sophia Museum Cost and Hours of Operation
One of the great things about the Hagia Sophia is that it’s open every day to visitors.
It’s hours of operation depend on the season:
- From October 1st to April 14th, visiting hours are from 09h00 to 17h00. Entry closes at 16h00.
- From April 15th to September 30th, visiting hours are from 09h00 to 19h00. Entry closes at 18h00.
Unless you have a city museum pass or a discount for being a student, senior etc, you’re looking at a 30 TL entry fee – the rough equivalent of $10 USD.
I was surprised that I didn’t have to stand in line more than a few minutes to get in during an afternoon in August, peak tourist season. And that’s considering that Hagia Sopia averages almost 10,000 visitors per day.
Audio guides are an additional 20 TL (about $7 USD).
I didn’t grab one, and chances are you won’t want to either, because the museum is in a perpetual state of rennovation and it’s impossible to guess if the artifacts on the guide will actually be there (*based on TripAdvisor reviews reporting that the artifacts talked about are frequently not available for viewing).
So far as floor plans go, the basilica is fairly ordinary, with a central nave (room) and an aile to each side. Of course, it’s the realization of this plan that has made Hagia Sophia a world famous architectural icon.
The building itself is rather impressive at 75 by 70 meters long.
The central dome has a diameter of 31 meters.
Now I’m not much of a dome expert, but that sounds like a lot. How they managed to build such an object in the 500s is astounding.
Here’s an excellent floor plan from Wikipedia user Gothika. Click on the map to see all the numbers converted into proper labels, courtesy of Cultural Travel Guide. It’s also savable/downloadable as a PDF, which you can use on a mobile device or tablet.
I highly recommend you get this map, as the ones on-site aren’t very clear about what you’re seeing.
Inside The Hagia Sophia Museum
One of the first things you’ll notice: renovations.
Heck, you can see them before even entering the complex, with big white covers over a large part of the facade. Thankfully, this is on the “least photographable” side, and won’t affect your photos from the square out front or on a ferry approach.
Inside, you’ve got some scaffolding that itself is impressive if you can get over the fact it takes up a bunch of space in the main hall.
Once you look past the intruding construction, you’ll be awed by the awesomely high, vaulted ceilings and domes that should not have been possible to build 1500 years ago.
Here we see how the superstructure is supported by fantastic columns.
And here we get a nice view of the central domes:
A Blend of Christian & Muslim, and the Addition of Islamic Rondels
One thing that makes the interior so interesting is the fact that this massive basilica was used as a significant place of worship by both Christians and Muslims.
As a result, we see how the original Christian artwork and decoration has been preserved, modified, and removed to varying degrees, and Islamic architectural and decorative elements layered on top.
Here, we see Islamic rondels, wooden additions made in during the 19th century. The one on the left says Muhammad and the one on the right says Allah.
There are 8 of these rondels in total. The other 6 are important members of Muhammad’s family.
Just below the rondels of Muhammad and Allah, you’ll see the mihrab – the structure present in every mosque to mark the direction of Mecca.
Again, we see the interesting juxtaposition of Christian and Islamic design, as the mihrab is noticably off-center against the wall of the originally-Christian cathedral.
On the second floor, away from the main worship areas, Christian symbols have been better preserved through the Islamic era, though have suffered the effects of aging and humidity to a large extent.
For example, the Mosaic of the Deesis, with Jesus in the center, with the Virgin Mary to the left and John the Baptist to the right.
In order to get a good look at it all, you’ll probably want about 60-90 minutes inside, so you can plan your day accordingly with that in mind.
3 Drawbacks of the Hagia Sophia
We’ve looked at a lot of the good the Hagia Sophia has to offer, in spite of ongoing renos.
However, before you make up your mind, I’d like to highlight 3 additional drawbacks of going inside.
1. The museum is not a museum!
That is, if you don’t purchase an audioguide (that’s questionably useful in the first place, since many artifacts are not available for viewing), good luck figuring out what the significance of the artifacts are. Information panels are sorely lacking, aside from a few telling the general history of the building.
Of course, it’s possible to hire a guide inside, but no good museum forces its patrons to hire a guide to make sense of what’s inside.
So basically, realize that while the title may be “museum” – you’re really entering a cathedral/mosque.
2. It’s expensive
Expensive, of course, is a relative term.
30 Turkish Lira (roughly $10.25 USD, 9.15 EUR, and 6.70 GBP) probably isn’t a deal breaker for most travelers.
However, next door you have this:
The Sultan Ahmed (or “Blue”) Mosque – which is free to enter.
And on the other side of the Hagia Sophia is the Topkapi Palace Museum, which is much more a true museum that you could spend hours wandering through and learning from for the same 30 Liras.
3. It feels like a tourist trap…almost
There’s something that just doesn’t sit right with the massive unfinished renovations and the fact that the price has been raised 2 times over the past 4 years – a 50% total increase since 2011.
In 2011, tickets were 20 Lira.
In 2014, over 3.5 million visitors shelled out 30 Lira – running to a grand total of $35 million USD or so.
Is this good or bad? It’s hard to say really. If the government uses all this funding to speed up renovations and make the Hagia Sophia more accessable to the public, it’s probably a good thing. But are they doing this?
So Is Hagia Sophia Worth It?
At the end of the day, the voting (buying) public has said “yes” to the Hagia Sophia in an overwhelming fashion.
If you go on Trip Advisor and look at reviews of the Hagia Sophia, you’ll see that it gets about 1 “poor” or “terrible” review for every 100 glowing ones.
Meaning 99/100 visitors think that Hagia Sophia is absolutely worth the entry fees, lines, and renos.
And I tend to agree.
I initially didn’t want to go because of the drawbacks outlined above. Katia convinced me to. And I’m glad we did.
It’s not for everyone: If you’ve seen 100 grand cathedrals, you can probably skip right over this one and head to the Blue Mosque next door.
However, if you’re like most travelers who have come half way around the world to visit Istanbul, $10 to see one of humankind’s iconic buildings is basically a no-brainer, even considering some minor drawbacks.
Here are 6 conclusions I can draw to help you decide if the Hagia Sophia is worth your time:
- If you’ve visited cathedrals all over the world, you probably won’t get much new out of this one.
- If you’re on a restrictive budget, enjoy the exterior views and visit the Blue Mosque. **This is by far the best value-for-money option
- If you’re prepared for the fact that your romantic idea or what the Hagia Sophia is supposed to be doesn’t perfectly correspond with what you’ll see, you’ll probably be happy that you went.
- If you’re traveling with children, this is probably not an experience they will get much out of.
- If you’re on a very tight schedule, you’re likely better off admiring the exterior and visiting one of the neighboring buildings unless you have a particular reason/deep interest in Hagia Sophia specifically.
- If the lines are insane, you may get more out of your Istanbul trip by skipping a 2+ hour wait and heading to the Blue Mosque.
And if you’re still in doubt, just remember that ~99% of the population has enjoyed the experience, and 5 years down the road you’ll probably be glad you went.
Have you visited the Hagia Sophia? What was your experience like? Let us know in the comments below!