Guide to the Basilica Cistern, Istanbul

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Location & Price

Guide to the Basilica Cistern: The Basilica Cistern is a large ancient cistern that lies underneath Istanbul near the grounds of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. The entrance to the ‘museum’ (allowing you to walk around the interior of the cistern) is right opposite the main entrance to Hagia Sophia. On the day we visited, a Friday, it was not possible to enter the Mosques nearby due to Friday prayers, so this was the available choice and we were very glad that we visited.

Please note that there is a different price for foreign visitors versus local visitors. In fact, it’s almost 4 times more expensive to visit as a foreign tourist. This is NOT unusual in certain countries such as India or Türkiye. The price of ₺209,00 equates (at the time of writing) to around £10, €11.50 or $11.25USD.

Michael standing in the queue for the Basilica Cistern museum

There are several hundred cisterns underneath the city of Istanbul, but this is by far the largest and the easiest one to visit if you’re staying in Sultanahmet!

A poor photo trying to show the signage of the Cistern museum (and failing)

I tried to get a nice photograph of the sign at the entrance way. This was the best of five other partial attempts 😂

Entrance & Access

Once visitors reach the entranceway, they are allowed in in limited numbers. Note that tour groups may have priority access, as well as those who buy tickets online. There is security (your bag will be scanned) and then you may purchase your ticket from a large ticket desk on the main floor. Your tickets will be scanned at the main doorway into the Cistern. At this point, there is a steep staircase to descend to get to the main floor of the Cistern.

Disabled Access

There IS disabled access to the Basilica Cistern. First, purchase your ticket at the main ticket hall. Then you must go to the disabled entrance, which is further along the street (slightly downhill) on the left. There is a very helpful website here which describes how to gain access. You should know that the lift is a wheelchair platform lift.

Columns within the structure lit dimly by golden light in shafts

Basilica Cistern History

The name ‘Basilica Cistern’ is a derivation of the location of this great water storage cistern, under a public square on the Hill of Constantinople (the Stoa Basilica). The Basilica faced the Hagia Sophia in a place of great importance. If you’re into history and architecture, you might like this website. The original Basilica was probably build in the 3rd century as a trading centre and went through many iterations due to fire (Illus, 476) and riots (Justinian, 532) as well as the addition of gardens, colonnades and living spaces over the centuries. It is said that 7,000 slaves built the cistern.

Basilica Cistern: What is it for?

This huge cistern was a way of filtering water for a huge palace nearby as well as other buildings on the First Hill of Constantinople. It has been restored extensively, including in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was still providing water to the near(ish) Topkapi Palace until relatively recently. At one time, boats could be used to tour the cistern. It was opened in 1987 in this format, with the floor partially flooded so visitors on walkways can get a sense of the scale of a place not intended to be toured. It is like a giant cathedral, a space of awe and the sense of linearity and movement that the columns create as you move through the dimly lit structure.

A view across the flooded floor lit in greens and blues

Basilica Cistern Photography

The Cistern lends itself to photographers of every skill level! The lighting designers have picked a shifting pattern of reds, blues and greens that highlight particular areas of the cistern, allowing for interesting depth of field opportunities. However, the light is so dim, professionals will need to play with their ISO settings to get any sense of detail into their shots. I have to be honest that I found my iPhone settings easier to manage. Note: the portrait mode does not get its best result here.

A long shot that looks through an archway at multiple columns, reflected in the Cistern flooded floor

My Favourite Photograph

On this visit, I took a new lens for a run (camera geek!). Below is the my favourite photograph out of the many I shot. I don’t know the couple in the picture.

A couple take a selfie in the far distance, flanked by Cistern columns

Basilica Cistern: Fascinating Facts

  • The cistern (as seen today) could hold around 80 thousand cubic metres of water (2.8m cubic feet).
  • The water used to come in via a series of aqueducts from a forest about 20km outside Istanbul.
  • There are 336 marble or granite columns and each one is 30 feet high.
  • Many of the columns have different decoration, suggesting the builders were reusing columns from other, derelict buildings.

Basilica Cistern in Film

As a fascinating structure, the Basilica Cistern has been a location in books and film. You may recognise the Medusa column base in the picture below from Dan Brown’s novel called Inferno (also a movie). The head (there are actually two in the cistern) is likely just an example of reusing old structures in a new building.

The upside down head of Medusa in stone
Attribution for this photo only: Gun Powder Ma, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. All other photos are copyright of Patrick Hughes.

The Cistern also features in the video game, Assassin’s Creed and the movies From Russia With Love, Brotherhood of Tears and The International.

The cistern is home to quite a number of structural pieces of art which have been placed in the flooded part of the floor. Disappointingly, the official Cistern website has had its ‘art’ page under construction for as many months as I had been planning to visit the Cistern, so I can’t tell you about the artists.

The columns are lit in an orange glow

I was particularly taken by this sculpture of (I think) a human male, almost see through but still captured in motion.

A sculpture of a fractured man in movement, artist unknown

It’s hard to be sure what is represented by the organic forms in the picture below, but some kind of steampunk jellyfish is what came to mind, lit from under their individual glass domes. This work creates quite the atmosphere within the structure.

Five sculptures resembling steampunk jelly fish, each one lit from within with a white light.

Basilica Cistern Crowds

On our visit, we did find the walkways to be quite busy around key points for photography. People were not shy to brush past you on the dimly lit walkways. It can be difficult to step aside, so do bring your patience with you!

A picture of the walkways over the Cistern flooded floors with people taking pictures.

Summary

This is a unique space that was not designed to be seen as a huge underground water filtration and storage unit. So to get inside the minds of the architects and builders for just a half an hour or so makes for a fascinating visit. It’s worth bearing in mind that, apparently, hundreds of slaves died to build this structure, so even a moment of reflection would serve each of us well.

A long shot of the multiple columns in one part of the Cistern.

This was my attempt to take a Portrait shot on my iPhone of Michael (and one of myself). Even in this slightly better light, the granularity of detail is just not there. Regular photos worked much better!

Michael smiling at the camera, with a backdrop of the flooded floor.

Still, this was a fun visit and offered considerable respite from the baking Istanbul heat, even in October!

Patrick looking happy in a selfie showing the columns of the cistern in the background.

We chose to make this visit because the Blue Mosque was closed for prayers. However, after an enjoyable lunch nearby in Sultanahmet, we made our way back to Mosque – check out that guide right now.

Affiliate link: if you want to skip the line, you can buy a ticket for that by clicking here.

I'm Patrick, your Irish guide to the skies and beyond. With 58 countries visited, my journeys have taken me from busy economy to fabulous first-class.