Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnici)#11 in Best Things To Do in Istanbul
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The Basilica Cistern is Istanbul's largest surviving Byzantine cistern and one of its most unique historic sites. Constructed in 532 for Justinianus I, this sprawling underground water reservoir – which is roughly the size of two football fields – once supplied water to the Great Palace of Constantinople, a large palace that served as the main residence for local emperors for centuries. Though the palace no longer exists, the cistern was rediscovered in 1545 and renovated in 1985 to welcome visitors. It's most noteworthy feature is a pair of Medusa heads that sit upside down at the base of two columns.
According to past travelers, the Basilica Cistern is easy to miss but worth checking out, despite its lack of interior attractions. Many said the site is beautifully preserved, but queues to buy tickets and enter can get quite long, so several recommended visiting with a tour group. Multiple half- and full-day tours that include stops at the cistern are offered on Viator; tour prices range from $39 to $686 per person.
The Basilica Cistern's central location in Sultanahmet makes it easy to explore before or after visiting nearby sights like the Hagia Sophia Museum, the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace Museum. It is within walking distance of the Sultanahmet and Gülhane Istasyonu stops on the Bagcilar-Kabatas tram line, but no facilities are available inside, so stop for a restroom break or a bite to eat before entering the cistern. An admissions fee of 20 Turkish lira (about $5.50) applies, and visiting hours are from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. between November and mid-April, with extended hours in the summer. Additional information about the Basilica Cistern can be found on the property's website.
More Best Things To Do in Istanbul
#1 Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii)
Sultan Ahmed I was determined to build a mosque that rivaled the nearby Hagia Sophia, and most would agree that he accomplished this task – or, at least, came close. Since the early 1600s, the Blue Mosque has been quite the sight to behold, with an array of domes, semidomes and minarets (or narrow towers). It's also one of the biggest tourist draws in Istanbul.
Visitors say this mosque offers "stunning architecture inside and out." It can, however, get busy, so consider arriving early. And remember, the Blue Mosque is an active religious site, so dress conservatively. Women should wear headscarves, as is custom. If you forgot to bring one, you can borrow one from the mosque.