The Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul, Turkey, is a treasure trove of photographic possibilities; a stunning architectural fantasy of a building filled with light and shadow gliding softly across the ancient marble surfaces. Of all the places to visit in Istanbul, a city bursting with incredible buildings, this was my favourite.

Even more special, it was my birthday on the day we chose to visit the place locals call, Ayasofya museum.



Sharon and I were spoilt with a brilliant view of the most famous of Istanbul landmarks from our hotel room. The bulbous domes and rocket shaped minarets stirred our imagination and curiosity to see the Hagia Sophia inside, especially when the haunting wail of the Muslim call to prayer crackled from the loudspeakers and echoed across the rooftops.

The fantastic view we enjoyed of the Hagia Sophia Museum from our hotel room in Istanbul.

The fantastic view we enjoyed of the Ayasofya museum from our hotel room in Istanbul.


Museum with the Big Buttresses

First time visitors might need to consult their Istanbul map to make sure get the right building. The Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque are just 200m apart. Two amazing things to do in Istanbul very close together.

Through the Tom Hanks Inferno movie, Istanbul and its stunning ancient museum has received an injection of publicity, no doubt welcomed by Turkish tourism.


(WTSDN recommend DK Guides, the best we’ve used)



Hagia Sophia – First Impressions

Up close to the Hagia Sophia, the first thing I noticed was the intricate detail that is not apparent from a distance; every last piece of the museum construction is a work of art it seems. Nowhere did the builders take the simple or easy option.

Before we even made it through the entrance gate there were tour guides who approached us rather suddenly, offering their services. It all felt a bit too informal, unprofessional I guess, so we declined, however, other people later told us the guides are really good.

Buying Tickets & Opening Times

We bypassed the queue at the gate, choosing to purchase our Hagia Sophia tickets at the self-service kiosk nearby, 40 Turkish Lira each, then just walked through to the garden area after the obligatory bag search from security. Using the kiosk saved a good few minutes. The Hagia Sophia opening hours in summer (15 April – 30 October) are from 9am – 7pm.

Entrance to the museum itself is under tall archways supported by no nonsense, big chunky walls. These are in fact buttresses, added to support the weight of the main dome which had caused the outer walls to buckle.



The Ancient History of the Hagia Sophia Museum

The Hagia Sophia history that stretches back more than 1,000 years, even before Columbus ever set sail for America. That puts the significance of the building into perspective for me.

Originally built by the East Roman Empire as a church in 360AD, it was called Megale Ekklesia (Big Church). It later became known as the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom). It retained this use as a church for nearly 1,000 years. It was then converted and used as a mosque for nearly 500 years. Finally, in 1935 it was turned into a museum which is what we know today.

One and a Half Thousand Years Old

The Hagia Sophia that we entered was in fact the third construction on the same spot. The first two burned down and were demolished following public riots in 404AD and 532AD. Third time lucky, the last construction completed in 537AD remains, albeit with repairs and renovations over the centuries. But essentially, the Hagia Sophia is one and half thousand years old, a grand building that still takes the breath away after all this time.

Underneath our feet, hidden somewhere far below, was the Basilica Cistern, another special Istanbul sightseeing gem. The ancient Cistern was built in 532AD, a part of the Hagia Sophia and another incredible piece of engineering that has stood the test of time.

Entranceway to the Hagia Sophia museum. Clockwise from top left: The queue for tickets - self service ticket kiosk - security check and turnstiles - audio guides rented from here.

Entranceway to the museum. Clockwise from top left: The queue for tickets – self-service ticket kiosk – security check and turnstiles – audio guides rented from here. Hagia Sophia ticket price is 40 TL.

Remnants of the Theodosian Hagia Sophia (5th century), the second building with burnt down like the first.

Entranceway to the museum goes under the buttresses.

A gallery of information about Hagia Sophia, just inside the entrance-way.

A grand introduction to the Hagia Sophia museum, just outside the main hall.

Viewing the ‘Sarcophagus of the Empress’ in the Hagia Sophia museum – this is believed to belong to the Empress Eirene, the wife of the Emperor John II.


…But First, Let Me Take A Selfie – Too!

Once inside the museum we found ourselves craning our necks to gaze upward into the ginormous spaces above us.

The Hagia Sophia interior walls are all decorated with either marble or beautiful mosaics. White, pink, yellow and green marble.

Way above, 55.6m above, to be exact, is the signature feature, the Hagia Sophia dome, stunning in colours of gold and blue, propped up by a circle of 40 little windows that help to illuminate the decorations with natural light.

It was quite funny watching tourists trying to setup selfies directly below the dome – but then we got suckered in and had to try it for ourselves as well! I’m sure other tourists were then having a smile at us.


Did You Know Buildings Have Wrinkles?

Interestingly, the Hagia Sophia is built over a fault line and is therefore prone to damage from earthquakes. Down the years the dome especially has suffered partial collapses from tremors beneath the earth’s surface and has had to be repaired and rebuilt.

Under our feet I couldn’t help but notice the large ancient marble flagstones, worn smooth with gentle curves from hundreds of years of footsteps. Cracks spidered out across the shiny surface like veins and wrinkles on an old person’s skin. I guess this was the skin of Hagia Sophia, the senior citizen of the world’s buildings showing her age.

The Hagia Sophia entrance fee of 40 TL was proving to be money well spent.

Suspended around the main hall are eight big circular panels with calligraphic writings. These date back to 1849, installed during a period of renovation. They measure 7.5m in diameter.

The huge main hall of the museum. Note the large circular panels with calligraphic writings.

The massive windows inside the Hagia Sophia.

Sultan Mahmud I’s Library in the Hagia Sophia – Decorated with 16th and 18th century Iznik, Kutahya and Tekfur Palace tiles. It was built in 1739 by Sultan Mahmud I.

This stunning building in Istanbul inspires the photographer in all of us.

Just couldn’t resist! Our selfie under the Hagia Sophia museum dome.

One of the huge Marble Jars inside the Hagia Sophia museum – Marble jars were used on special days to distribute water and sherbet.

The Hagia Sophia mosaics are beautiful.

Walking through the ancient halls and passageways of the Hagia Sophia is one of top things to do in Istanbul Turkey.

Hagia Sophia – The Marble Door, 6th century. The door separates the section where there were the private chambers of the Emperor (metatorion) and meeting place for the church members.

Hagia Sophia – windows and brickwork on the stairwells.

Hagia Sophia museum – the beautifully decorated vaulted ceilings on the upper level.

Hagia Sophia historical architectural wonder of Istanbul

Look at the woman in the yellow top. This picture gives a great sense of the sheer size of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

Look at the woman in the yellow top. This picture gives a great sense of the sheer size of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

Muezzin Gallery. The gallery used by the muezzin to call believers during prayers and other acts of worship. Period of Sultan Murad III (1574 – 1595).



Hagia Sophia, One Of The Best Places To Visit In Istanbul

Through the archways we wandered, discovering side chambers with tall window openings holding up black iron trellis bars. Up the spiralling staircases, peering over the balconies, posing for our own Hagia Sophia images.

Every modern picture taking device was on show, from mobile phones to big DSLR cameras, as visitors all tried to capture a worthy memory. Selfie photography backdrops as majestic as Ayasofya are a rarity.

Highly Recommended

Columns, archways, marble, mosaics, bricks and cobblestones. Light and shadow. One and half thousand years of history, and then some! How could we not be impressed?

We spent over three hours touring the Hagia Sophia museum, including a break for lunch at the garden cafe outside. It’s a breath-taking building, a real highlight on the Istanbul tourist map, even more so when you try to wrap your head around just how old it is. An unforgettable birthday treat, for sure, one of the best things to do in Istanbul.

View of the Hagia Sophia museum from inside the nearby Sultanahmet Arkeolojik Park.

View of the museum from inside the nearby Sultanahmet Arkeolojik Park.



(WTSDN recommend DK Guides, the best we’ve ever used)