Basilica Cistern in Istanbul

Page update - Apr 14, 2023

What is the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul like? How to get there quickly and cheaply? How much is the ticket price? What's interesting to see inside? Read the answers on our page.

The prices and other information on this page were updated in April 2023. The ticket price has risen astronomically over the last year, to 300 Turkish liras for an adult visitor (foreigner). Opening hours have recently changed. Read the details below on this page.

And now for the good news! On 22 July 2022 the Basilica Cistern Museum opened. The museum's exhibits (works by modern artists) are placed between the columns. They've also done more lighting. It has become much more interesting.

Brief description

The Basilica Cistern is the largest underground water reservoir of ancient Constantinople, built by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. The size of the reservoir is 138x65 meters (452x213 feet) with a capacity of about 80,000 cubic meters (21,133,000 gallons).

It is quite dark inside, so it is difficult to see the columns and be impressed by the size of the reservoir. The photo near was taken with a slow shutter speed, so you can see the columns clearly. Click on the photo to enlarge it.

The entire Basilica Cistern can be walked in 20 minutes. The only two interesting objects inside are The Crying Column and the bas-reliefs of Medusa Gorgon. These two objects are illuminated so you can see them clearly. But we'll talk about them in detail below.

How to get there

You have to take the Istanbul Metro to the Sultanahmet stop on the T1 tram line. As a reminder, nominally the Istanbul Metro includes not only the classic subway lines, but also tram lines, funiculars and even cable cars. See our review "Istanbul Metro" for all the details.

Then walk along the tram tracks towards Hagia Sophia. Just before the cathedral is an intersection. Turn at this intersection into a pedestrian street away from the cathedral and after 50 meters (165 feet) there will be a small entrance building to the Basilica Cistern. This building looks like this.

Ticket price

300 Turkish Lira (for foreigners). For the current exchange rates of the Turkish lira, see our review "What's the money in Turkey".

Tickets used to cost the same for everyone. However, in 2022, tickets began to cost differently for foreigners and Turkish residents. For foreigners it is 300 liras, for locals it is 50 liras.

There was a time when the ticket cost 20 liras. The photo near shows the pre-covid ticket, click on the photo to enlarge.

An important point! No museum cards are valid there as this attraction is NOT run by the Turkish Ministry of Culture.

Important! The ticket office accepts cash lira and credit cards. They do not accept foreign currency. Read our detailed review "Currency exchange in Turkey".

Opening hours

In the summer season (1 April to 31 October) from 9 am to 6 pm (9:00 to 18:00).

In the winter season (from November 1 to March 31) from 9 am to 7 pm (9:00 to 19:00).

On religious holidays, at the discretion of the management, opening hours may be rescheduled to 1 pm (13:00). For a calendar of holidays, see our page "National holidays in Turkey".

A bit of history

The Basilica Cistern in its present form was built after the great Nika riots of 532. The reservoir was named after the Stoa Basilica public square. According to written sources, 7,000 slaves were employed to build it. During the Byzantine era, the reservoir supplied the imperial palace and during the Ottoman era, the Topkapi Palace.

Nowadays, the Basilica Cistern has been reconstructed and made into a museum. Turks also call it "Yerebatan Sarayi" ("The Sunken Palace").

What to see - Medusa Gorgo heads

At the base of the two columns at the northwest end of the reservoir are fragments of bas-reliefs depicting the heads of the famous Medusa Gorgon. There is hardly any symbolism or special intent in this. The reservoir was built using recycled materials. The origin of these bas-reliefs is unknown.

One of the heads is turned sideways. See the photo near, click on the photo to enlarge. The second is upside down, looking like this. Legend has it that this was done to strip away the power of the Medusa's gaze, which legends say turns people to stone. In reality, the stones were simply placed so as to make the column the right height.

Recall that the Byzantines had already fully converted to Christianity during the Emperor Justinian era. The Medusa Gorgon was a pagan symbol from the myths of Ancient Greece, and these bas-reliefs were of no great value to them.

What to see - the columns

The Basilica Cistern has a total of 336 marble columns 9 meters (29.5 feet) high - 12 rows of 28. The columns are not identical, which clearly indicates that the basilica was built using recycled materials.

Unfortunately, the Byzantine Empire was in a difficult situation in the 6th century. Military expenses were very high first of all - that is why it was built from recycled materials.

It is hardly possible to see the variety of capitals (upper part) of the columns in detail, it is too dark.

What to see - The Crying Column

Aka the "column of tears''. See the photo near, click on the photo to enlarge. Unlike the others, this column is constantly wet. It has bas-reliefs with an interesting pattern. According to the official version these are chicken eyes, tears from these eyes and branches.

There is a legend that the column mourns for the hundreds of slaves who died during the construction of the Basilica Cistern. However, one should not think that slaves were treated very cruelly there. The cistern was built over many years and hundreds of slaves died during that time for quite natural reasons.

Useful tips

- The exit from the Basilica Cistern is not the same as the entrance. After the exit, turn right and walk along the tram tracks. You will get to the Cathedral of Aya Sophia;

- Be careful, the floor may be wet. Take care of your photo and video equipment from the damp;

- There is only one hiking route across the reservoir. It is impossible to get lost;

- If you are going to go to Basilica Cistern by taxi, see the fares in our review "Taxis in Turkey";

- If you get hungry, there are McDonalds and several Turkish cafes near the Sultanahmet stop. Read about the prices on our page "How much money to take to Turkey".

Have a good visit to Basilica Cistern, and read our interesting pages about Turkey (see the list of the pages below). © 2020-2024