Guide to Hagia Sophia Mosque, Istanbul

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Arguably the most striking architectural jewel of Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia is the city’s living testament to its layered, complex history. From a cathedral to a mosque, and then a museum, before reverting to service as a mosque again, the Hagia Sophia wears the many hats of Istanbul’s Byzantine and Ottoman past with equal grace.

Hagia Sophia Mosque

Sultan Ahmet, Ayasofya Meydanı No:1, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul

Fascinating History

Fabulous location

Clothing rules

Brief History of the Hagia Sophia Mosque

The Hagia Sophia was commissioned in 537 AD by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, first serving as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral, its grandeur designed to reflect the empire’s prosperity. The cathedral’s central dome, a marvel of architectural ingenuity, collapsed twice before reaching its present form.

The advent of the Fourth Crusade in 1204 saw Hagia Sophia’s conversion into a Roman Catholic church, albeit briefly, as the cathedral reverted to Orthodox Christianity as the Latin Empire crumbled. In 1453, Mehmed the Conqueror’s successful siege of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) marked a seismic shift in Hagia Sophia’s identity. The building was converted into a mosque, its mosaics plastered over, and Islamic elements such as minarets, a mihrab, and a minbar were added.

This era of Islamic stewardship ended in 1935 when, under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s secular government, the mosque was secularized and turned into a museum, a status it held until 2020, when it reverted back to a mosque. This multi-layered history means that Hagia Sophia should be one of the cornerstones of your visit to Istanbul, however short a trip.

Preparing for Your Visit

Planning a visit to the Hagia Sophia requires a touch of foresight. The best times to visit are spring (April to June) and autumn (September to November), when the city’s weather is at its most welcoming. Prioritise purchasing your tickets online for a guided tour (no line jumping) or book a small group to see Hagia Sophia & Blue Mosque that allows you to avoid queues. Bear in mind that queues can be lengthy (I waited for more than an hour) and the sun is strong, so bring sunscreen, water and a hat.

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Exploring the Hagia Sophia

Unveiling the secrets of the Hagia Sophia is like peeling back the layers of time. Notice the robust minarets and grand courtyards as you line up outside (if nothing else, this is a good photo op). Once inside, make sure to gaze upward at the spectacular central dome (pictured at the top of this article), decorated mosaics, and the Mihrab – a relic of the building’s tenure as a mosque. The architecture tells the stories of Byzantine and Ottoman eras, subtly blending Christian and Islamic influences. Keep an eye out for modern renovations that have striven to preserve this architectural marvel.

Tips for Solo and Female Travelers

Navigating any unfamiliar foreign city can be a bit daunting, and I understand that Istanbul can raise particular concerns for solo female travellers. The usual sweeping statement is that Istanbul is generally safe, particularly during the day. However, that was NOT my experience: I was attacked as we walked to Galata Tower. It took some shouting to be released and it was a frightening experience. That’s the experience of a solo male traveller; I’d advise you to read similar blogs by solo female travel writers. However, around Hagia Sophia, we felt much safer, especially in large crowds of tourists.

Particularly for female travelers visiting Istanbul, it is customary to “dress modestly”, particularly in sites like the Hagia Sophia, which is a place of worship. On entry to the site, those who are judged by staff members to be dressed inappropriately will be stopped and offered the chance to purchase an all-in-one cover-up garment. I have found that a friendly “Merhaba” (hello) can help defuse the tension that may exist in such situations, but there is no negotiation if you’ve been singled out.

Hagia Sophia and Istanbul: An Inclusive Perspective for LGBTQ+ Travelers

Visiting Istanbul as an LGBTQ+ traveler can require a degree of sensitivity and here’s why. Istanbul is WAY more progressive than the rest of Türkiye, but despite the legal openness to same sex relationships, your on-the-ground experience may sometimes be less than welcoming. Research and visit LGBTQ+ friendly bars and cafes (most are around Taksim) to enjoy a bit of a more relaxed experience, and bear in mind that sites like Hagia Sophia are religious centres which can be much less welcoming, particularly to PDA.

Around Hagia Sophia: Check out Other Attractions

Hagia Sophia isn’t the only pearl of Istanbul. Nearby, the Blue Mosque beckons with its cascading domes and minarets. Topkapi Palace offers a peek into the opulent world of sultans. Descend into the eerie depths of the Basilica Cistern, and brush up on your haggling skills before visiting the Grand Bazaar! I have to admit this is one of my personal pet horrors, but if you like a bargain, it’s almost expected.

Conclusion: Hagia Sophia Mosque

Stepping out of the Hagia Sophia, one carries away a sense of awe and a newfound appreciation for Istanbul’s intricate past. If that resonates with you, do consider a visit to the Hagia Sophia. This is a testament to Istanbul’s resilience, its cultural fluidity, and its unwavering elegance. For me as a solo traveler, my visit to Istanbul was quite a rewarding journey, despite being manhandled in broad daylight. There are complexities at play in this country and city, but 98% of people I met behaved with unfailing charm everywhere I visited, whatever anyone’s opinion of me or my identity.

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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.

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