Dive into the depths of Istanbul’s ancient history and experience the awe-inspiring Basilica Cistern, a 1500-year-old architectural marvel. Join millions of travelers as they journey underground to witness this mysterious Byzantine relic, located near the iconic Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque. In this comprehensive guide, you’ll learn about the Basilica Cistern’s fascinating history, its recent restoration, and the must-see highlights, as well as practical information on visiting this hidden gem in 2023.

Read also: Istanbul Underground Attractions: A Journey Beneath the City (2023)

Unearthing the Basilica Cistern

The Enigmatic Origins

The Basilica Cistern, or Yerebatan Sarnıcı in Turkish, was commissioned by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in 532. Built as a water reservoir for the Great Palace, the cistern measures 140 meters long and 70 meters wide, covering a massive 9,800 square meters. With a capacity to store 100,000 tons of water, this subterranean structure once received its supply from the Belgrad Forest in the north. The cistern gets its name, “Basilica,” from a former religious structure that once stood above it.

Read more about byzantine history and places in Istanbul >>

A Mysterious Journey Back in Time

Visitors to the Basilica Cistern can embark on an enthralling adventure as they descend the 52-step staircase into this underground marvel. The grand atmosphere and the 336 well-preserved columns, each standing 9 meters high and arranged in twelve rows, are sure to leave visitors in awe. The Basilica Cistern was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in 532 as a water reservoir for the Great Palace. With a capacity to store 100,000 tons of water, this subterranean structure was supplied from the Belgrad Forest in the north. Visitors can discover the unique history of the Basilica Cistern, including its connection to the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the Great Palace, as well as its use during the Byzantine and Ottoman periods.

Skip-the-line Tickets and Guided Tours to the Basilica Cistern

Highlights & Attractions

The Recent Restoration & New Exhibition

In July 2022, the Basilica Cistern reopened after extensive restoration, which included making the structure more earthquake resistant. Visitors can now enjoy a new pathway closer to the water’s surface, additional sculptures rising from the water, and a redesigned entrance hall. The cistern also features a new exhibition focused on the theme of “Light,” with captivating light shows enhancing the already spectacular atmosphere.

The Enchanting Columns

As you wander through this ancient site, be captivated by the atmospheric lighting illuminating the marble columns, each with their own unique features. Most columns have a cylindrical shape with Corinthian and early Byzantine characteristics.

The Water & its Reflections

Witness the breathtaking reflections of the columns in the water, creating an almost magical ambiance. Listen to the cold water splashing down from the vaulted brick ceiling, and keep an eye out for the carp frolicking below the surface.

The Medusa Heads

At the northwest edge of the cistern, find the two enigmatic Medusa heads, dating back to the Roman period. These snake-haired figures, placed upside down and sideways, are believed to have been positioned for protection, following a common practice in Ancient Greece and Rome.

The Column of Tears

Pay homage to the hundreds of slaves who died during the cistern’s construction by visiting the tear-engraved column adorned with a Hen’s Eye and slanted branches.

Concerts & Events

The Basilica Cistern’s fantastic acoustics and extraordinary surroundings make it an ideal venue for various events. Don’t miss the chance to attend a concert in this unforgettable setting if the opportunity arises.

Movies Filmed in the Basilica Cistern

Relive scenes from international films like “Inferno” starring Tom Hanks, “From Russia with Love” featuring James Bond, “The International” with Clive Owen, and “The Accidental Spy” starring Jackie Chan, all of which used the captivating backdrop of the Basilica Cistern as a shooting location.

Enjoy Free Entry to the Basilica Cistern and Guided Tour with Istanbul E-Pass

The Istanbul E-Pass is a valuable option for travelers, as it offers free entry and guided tours to the Basilica Cistern, along with 50+ other attractions, providing a convenient and cost-effective way to explore the city.

More Byzantine Cisterns in Istanbul

While the Basilica Cistern is the most famous and largest underground cistern in Istanbul, there are many others that are worth exploring. Some of them include:

  • Theodosius Cistern (Şerefiye Sarnıcı)
  • Binbirdirek Cistern (Binbirdirek Sarnıcı)
  • Cistern of Philoxenos (Mocius Cistern, 1001 Direk Sarnıcı)
  • Aetius Cistern (Aetius Sarnıcı)
  • Aspar Cistern (Aspar Sarnıcı)
  • Gulhane Park Cistern

Each of these cisterns has its own unique features and history, so be sure to add them to your list of places to visit while in Istanbul.

Basilica Cistern Tickets and Visiting Information

Visiting Hours: Every Day of the Week, 09:00 – 19:00 Ticket Price: 300 TL

To get fast access to the cistern with a guided group, you can buy Basilica Cistern skip-the-line tickets online. These tickets can save you from waiting at the ticket booths during the busy spring and summer months.

How to Get to Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern is located in Sultanahmet, neighboring the famous Hagia Sophia. When facing the entrance of the Hagia Sophia, it is about 200 meters on your left-hand side. See the location.

The most practical way to get to Sultanahmet is via the Bagcilar-Kabatas tram (T1 line). The closest tram stop is Sultanahmet. Sultanahmet Square and most of the connecting roads are closed for vehicle traffic except for trams and tour buses.

From Taksim, take the funicular to Kabatas (from Taksim Square) or the funicular to Karakoy (from Tunel Square) and then take the tram. If you stay at a hotel in Sultanahmet, you can easily walk to the Basilica Cistern.

Explore Istanbul and Its Cisterns: Guided Tours


The Basilica Cistern is a must-see attraction for anyone visiting Istanbul. Its fascinating history, breathtaking atmosphere, and unique features make it an unforgettable experience. Be sure to take the time to explore this underground wonder and delve into the captivating stories that lie beneath the streets of Istanbul.

Visitor Information


What is the Basilica Cistern?

The Basilica Cistern is a massive underground water reservoir built during the Byzantine period in the 6th century by Emperor Justinian I. It is located in the heart of Istanbul, adjacent to the Hagia Sophia.

Who built the Basilica Cistern?

The Basilica Cistern was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in 532.

Where is the Basilica Cistern?

The Basilica Cistern is located in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, Turkey, near the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

What are the opening hours of the Basilica Cistern?

The Basilica Cistern is open every day of the week from 09:00 to 19:00.

When will the Basilica Cistern reopen?

The Basilica Cistern reopened in July 2022 after extensive renovations.

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