Built in 532 as the world’s largest place of worship, the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) shifts its identity with the times but never loses its grandeur. Converted from a church to a mosque during the Ottoman era and becoming a museum in 1935, the pink-hued Old City building is one of Istanbul’s don’t-miss attractions.
Turkey’s magnificent Hagia Sophia is a riot of swooping domes and mismatched minarets added throughout its long life. The lofty interior is a soaring sequence of domed and arched spaces, centering on the shell-like apse and the massive dome, which seems to float unsupported and gives the church its amazing sense of space. Work continues to uncover the golden Christian mosaics and colorful frescoes from the Byzantine era, which were plastered over by the Ottomans.
Tours often allow you to skip the long lines with a guide, and many Istanbul excursions combine the Hagia Sophia Museum with other sights in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet neighborhood, including the Blue Mosque, Hippodrome, Grand Bazaar, and Basilica Cistern.
Things to Know Before You Go
- Hagia Sophia is a must-visit for history and architecture buffs, and all first-time visitors to Istanbul.
- Restoration work is ongoing in the Hagia Sophia, so expect scaffolding and some obstructed views and access.
- The best view of the lofty interior is from the upstairs gallery.
- Save time by booking a skip-the-line tour to avoid the long lines.
How to Get There
The Hagia Sophia is in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet neighborhood, just across the way from the Blue Mosque and close to Topkapi Palace. It is minutes away from the Sultanahmet tram stop and is also easily accessible by taxi. Parking is limited in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, so taxi or tram is the most convenient option.
When to Get There
The Hagia Sophia is a busy attraction, so try to arrive early in the morning to beat the crowds. It’s open seven days a week, even during most of the major national and religious Turkish holidays, with a few exceptions. Closing hours are extended between April and October.
Art in the Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia has impressive frescoes and spectacular mosaics that depict Christian scenes. Admire the golden mosaics, including Constantine the Great presents Constantinople and Justinian the Great presents Hagia Sophia to the Virgin, probably from the 10th century, and others depicting Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Notice the colorful cherubim frescoes that the decorate the domed ceiling.