Things to do in Istanbul

Subterranean Wonders: Navigating the Basilica Cistern like a pro

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Thinking about exploring the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul? We've heard so many great things about this place, and it's no surprise that it's such a popular tourist attraction. As the largest cistern in the world, it's definitely worth a visit. Plus, it's conveniently located near other famous landmarks like Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace. In this blog post, we'll give you all the ins and outs of exploring this incredible subterranean world. Consider this your go-to guide for everything you need to know about visiting the Basilica Cistern!

Prague castle

Before you visit Basilica Cistern


To enter the cistern, you'll need to descend 52 stone steps down into the dimly lit, mysterious realm. Be prepared for a damp, cool atmosphere, and wear appropriate footwear for walking on wet surfaces. The lighting is kept low to preserve the ancient architecture.

Once inside, you'll see a "forest" of 336 marble columns, each 9 meters (30 feet) tall, supporting the cathedral-like vaulted ceilings. Two of the columns feature blocks carved into Medusa heads, an intriguing detail you won't want to miss. After being restored and opened to the public as a museum in 1987, the cistern now features artistic installations and informational displays. Movie buffs may recognize it as a filming location for scenes in Inferno and From Russia With Love. So if you are someone who likes exploring mysterious, ancient places with a rich history, the Basilica Cistern is a must-see.

Best time to visit Basilica Cistern


The Basilica Cistern is one of Istanbul's most popular attractions, which means it can get quite crowded, especially during the peak summer months from July to September. During this time, long lines often stretch outside the entrance, and the cistern is packed with visitors. To avoid the biggest crowds and have a more enjoyable experience, consider visiting during the shoulder seasons of March to May or September to October. The weather is still pleasant during these months, but the number of tourists is significantly lower. When planning your visit, keep in mind that the Basilica Cistern is an underground structure, which means it can provide a welcome respite from the midday heat. Visiting around noon can be a great way to escape the sun and explore this fascinating historical site in comfort.

tourist in front of the Vitus cathedral in the old town of Prague

Basilica Cistern ticket price and options


The skip-the-line combo ticket is the best option, as it allows you to save money while conveniently visiting famous nearby landmarks without waiting in long queues.

Basilica Cistern hours


  • The Basilica Cistern Museum is open daily from 9am to 11:50pm, with different ticket prices for day and night visits.
  • From 9am to 6:30pm, the ticket price is 800 TL, while from 7:30pm to 11:50pm, the ticket price is 1,300 TL.
  • Admission is free for Turkish Republic citizens aged 65 and above, as well as for all visitors under 7 years old.

Tips for visiting Basilica Cistern


Here are some tips to make the most of your visit to the Basilica Cistern:

  • Wear comfortable shoes with good traction, as the descending stairs can be slippery.
  • Bring a light jacket as the underground space is cool and damp.
  • Visit during midday to get some shade from the sun and then continue exploring the nearby sites like Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace,
  • There are art installations everywhere. Take time to appreciate the unique atmosphere created by the lighting and displays.
  • Look for the Medusa head carvings on two of the columns, as well as the "weeping column" with its unique teardrop-like engravings.
  • For food, just outside there’s Basilica Restaurant which serves great cocktails and traditional Turkish cuisine.

Getting to Basilica Cistern


There are several ways to reach the Basilica Cistern, depending on your starting point and preferred mode of transportation. Here's a breakdown of the options:

🚋 By Tram:

Taking the tram is an affordable way to get to the Basilica Cistern, although it may take longer compared to other options.

  • Take the T1 tram line to the Sultanahmet station.
  • The journey takes approximately 50 minutes.
  • From Sultanahmet station, the Basilica Cistern is just a short walk away.

🚕 By Taxi:

If you prefer a more direct and convenient option, taking a taxi is the easiest way to reach the Basilica Cistern.

  • From Istanbul Airport, the taxi ride takes around 30-35 minutes, depending on traffic.
  • Taxis are readily available at the airport and throughout the city.

🚆 By Train (Marmaray)

The Marmaray train is another option to consider.

  • Take the Marmaray train to Sirkeci station, the nearest stop to the Basilica Cistern.
  • From Sirkeci station, you'll need to walk or take a short taxi ride to reach the cistern entrance.

🚇 By Metro

To reach the Basilica Cistern by metro, you'll need to combine two metro lines.

  • Take the M11 metro line to Yenikapı station.
  • At Yenikapı, transfer to the M1A metro line.
  • Get off at Sultanahmet station, which is the closest stop to the Basilica Cistern.
  • The cistern is just a short walk from the metro station.

🚌 By Bus (HAVAIST)

HAVAIST is a bus service that operates between Istanbul Airport and various points in the city.

  • Take the HAVAIST bus to the Sultanahmet bus stop.
  • The Basilica Cistern is within walking distance from the bus stop.

Accessibility


The Basilica Cistern's main entrance near Hagia Sophia is wheelchair accessible. However, due to the single wheelchair lift, disabled guests may face waiting times of up to 25-30 minutes during busy periods. Due to the historical nature of the site, some areas may have uneven surfaces or steps, which can pose challenges for visitors with limited mobility. It's recommended to visit during off-peak hours to avoid crowds and ensure a more comfortable experience.

What to see at Basilica Cistern


Prague Saint Vitus Cathedral
Medusa’s Heads

One of the most fascinating features of the Basilica Cistern is the two Medusa heads used as column bases. These ancient relics, believed to date back to the Roman period, are positioned upside down and sideways. The exact reason for their placement remains a mystery, but it's thought that they were placed in this manner to negate the power of Medusa's gaze. Know more about the theories around the placement of the Medusa heads in our article on the Medusa Heads in the Basilica Cistern.

The Old Royal Palace
The Weeping Column

Another notable feature is the "Weeping Column," also known as the Column of Tears. This column stands out from the others due to its unique design, which resembles a teardrop pattern. The origin and significance of this design are not entirely clear, but it adds to the mysterious atmosphere of the cistern.

Great South Tower
Reflective Waters

The still, reflective waters of the cistern create a mesmerizing effect, mirroring the stunning architecture and columns above. The tranquil atmosphere and soft lighting contribute to the otherworldly ambiance, transporting visitors to a bygone era.

Also visit


Hagia Sophia

Located just a short walk from the Basilica Cistern, Hagia Sophia is an iconic landmark that showcases the city's rich history. Originally built as a church, later converted into a mosque, and now serving as a museum, Hagia Sophia is renowned for its stunning architecture and intricate mosaics. You’ll get to explore the vast interior, admire the towering dome, and learn about the building's fascinating past through informative displays and guided tours.

Topkapi Palace

The Topkapi Palace, once the residence of Ottoman sultans, is a must-visit attraction near the Basilica Cistern. This sprawling complex features stunning architecture, lush gardens, and a wealth of treasures in its museums. Explore the Harem, where the sultan's family resided, and marvel at the opulent jewels and artifacts in the Imperial Treasury.

Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque, also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, is another architectural gem near the Basilica Cistern. Famous for its six minarets and blue Iznik tiles, this stunning mosque is an iconic sight in Istanbul. You can admire the intricate interior decoration, the central prayer area, and the peaceful courtyard.

Plan your visit to Basilica Cistern