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Everything You Need to Know About This 1,500-Year-Old Cathedral-Turned-Mosque-Turned-Museum-Turned-Mosque

Türkiye Religion Culture Art + Architecture
by Morgane Croissant May 26, 2023

In the same way that when you visit Paris you go check out the Eiffel Tower, or when you visit Athens you make sure to go to the Acropolis, when in Istanbul you make a beeline for Hagia Sophia. This iconic Turkish structure (a UNESCO Heritage site since 1985) has had a tumultuous history filled with destruction and conversions, but it still stands tall and proud in the historic neighborhood of Sultanahmet as it has for past 1,500 years.

Where is Hagia Sophia?

Hagia Sophia is located in Istanbul, in the historic neighborhood of Sultanahmet which comprises other treasures of Turkish history, including the Blue Mosque (just a couple of minutes’ walk away), the Egyptian Obelisk of Theodosius, and the Basilica Cistern — all of which are very much worth your time.

Hagia Sophia is a 30-minute walk away from the famous Galata Bridge, and just 15 minutes away from the city’s notorious Grand Bazaar.

The exact address is: Sultan Ahmet, Ayasofya Meydanı No:1, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul, Türkiye

Who built Hagia Sophia, when, and why?

Aerial view of the Hagia Sophia

Photo: Mehmet Cetin/Shutterstock

After the original church that stood on the site since the fourth century burned down twice, Byzantine Emperor Justinian I commanded the construction of an immense and opulent replacement: Hagia Sophia. The construction began in the year 532 and was completed just five years later in 537, making it an impressive feat of engineering for its time. Although it suffered earthquake damage, two partial collapses, and underwent additions, the edifice that stands today in Istanbul is largely the one that was built in the sixth century.

When did Hagia became a mosque and why?

Throughout its history, Hagia Sophia has undergone various transformations to reflect the changing religious and political landscape of Istanbul. The edifice served as a cathedral for about a millennium, but when the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople in 1453, it was converted into a mosque and minarets were added to the structure. The beautiful Christian mosaics inside were plastered over or removed.

In 1934-35, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish government secularized the building and turned it into a museum. The Christian artworks had been rediscovered and partially restored prior to this change.

In July 2020, the building was again converted into a mosque by the government of Türkiye led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 99 percent of the population of Türkiye is Muslim and Turkish conservatives have long demanded that the edifice be turned back into a mosque.

What is Hagia Sophia and why is it so famous?

Inside Hagia Sophia

Photo: Efired/Shutterstock

Hagia Sophia is a sixth-century Byzantine edifice (a mosque since July 2020) that is considered to be one of the architectural wonders of the world. The central 160-foot-tall dome, built between 532 and 537 and restored several times over the centuries, is one of its most impressive features, along with the precious and spectacular mosaics that adorn its inside and the marble used throughout.

Can non-muslim visit Hagia Sophia?

In general, mosques are open to everyone, not just Muslim worshippers, and that includes Hagia Sophia.

Is Hagia Sophia still used today?

Yes, it is very much still in used today. The edifice is a working mosque since July 2020 and a very popular tourist attraction in Istanbul. Prior to becoming a mosque in 2020, it was a museum (since 1935), a mosque before that (since 1453), and a cathedral prior to it (since 537).

Is there a dress code to enter Hagia Sophia?

Just like in Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia and the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica, there is a dress code to adhere to in order to enter this religious building. Modest clothing is required of visitors (no short shorts, no tank tops, etc.) and women must cover their heads while inside.

What you need to know before your visit to Hagia Sophia

Inside Hagia Sophia

Photo: yalcins/Shutterstock

It is free to enter and the edifice is open every day. While there are no clear opening and closing hours for visitors, starting at 9 AM, lines become long to enter the mosque so make sure you arrive well before that if you don’t want to be at the very end of the queue.

The way people visit Hagia Sophia is very different now that it’s been switched back into a mosque:

  • On Fridays for parts of the afternoon, the mosque is open only to worshippers (Friday noon prayer is the most important prayer of the week in Islam). The closure creates long lines outside, so if you can visit on a different day, do so.
  • As in every mosque, visitors must take off their shoes before entering; there are hundreds of shoe lockers provided at the entrance.
  • Modest clothing is required of visitors.

What is it like inside Hagia Sophia?

The conversion from museum to mosque has somewhat affected the interior of this renowned building. The floor, made of white marble, has been covered in a large, turquoise carpet for the comfort of worshippers during prayers. Also, some of the Christian mosaics and frescoes featuring religious characters are covered in drapes. That said, visitors can still see the extreme beauty of the building, including its monumental dome, its ornamental ceilings, the marble pillars and walls, and admire the mosaics that remain visible.

@matadornetwork #HagiaSophia was first built as a Christian church in the 6th century. It then became a mosque, then a museum, and is now back to being a mosque. It is an architectural wonder and a must-visit when you are in #Istanbul #Türkiye 🇹🇷 #hagiasophiamosque #turkeytravel #turkeybucketlist ♬ original sound – Sp3d._.s0ngz

In recent years, The Smithsonian Magazine reports, conservationists have claimed that the edifice is not getting the care it requires and a few months ago, archeologists have said that the mosque is suffering vandalism and damage due to the large number of visitors.

The best hotels near Hagia Sophia

If you prefer an Airbnb to a hotel, check out Matador’s selection of Airbnbs in Istanbul to experience the best of the city. If it’s over-the-top luxury you’re after, read our review of the opulent ÇıRağan Palace in Istanbul.

We hope you love the spaces and stays we recommend! Just so you know, Matador may collect a small commission from the links on this page if you decide to book a stay.

Hagia Sofia Mansions Istanbul

Photo: Expedia
Photo: Expedia
Photo: Expedia

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The Hagia Sofia Mansions Istanbul is a collection of individual mansions offering a prime location for exploring Istanbul’s most iconic landmarks. Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the Basilica Cistern are all within walking distance, as is the Sultanahmet tram station. The Arasta Bazaar, Gülhane Park, and Sirkeci metro station are also all located within 0.6 mile of the mansions. In addition to an unbeatable location, this property has luxurious amenities such as a spa, an indoor pool like you’ve never seen before, a fitness center, and open-air dining.

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Seven Hills Hotel

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Photo: Expedia
Photo: Expedia

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Located in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, just a three-minute walk to Hagia Sophia, the Seven Hills Hotel is a boutique property whose on-site seafood restaurant offers incredible views of the mosque. The four-star hotel has free local breakfast daily, a free roundtrip airport shuttle, and free WiFi. There are only 16 beautifully decorated rooms and suites in this property, making for intimate and luxurious stay.

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Royan Hotel Hagia Sophia Istanbul

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Photo: Expedia
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Located only six minutes on foot from the mosque, the Royan Hotel Hagia Sophia Istanbul has only 48 rooms and suites, allowing guests to feel pampered. The rooms and suites are modern and elegant, all featuring bathroom amenities and tea/coffee-making equipment. The suites have sea views are all fitted with a hot tub and a hammam. There’s an on-site restaurant and bar serving Turkish and international cuisine. Breakfast is available for a surchage and guests can benefit from the hotel’s roundtrip airport shuttle.

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