Istanbul offers an abundance of historical sites and attractions to suit every tourist’s taste. While other Istanbul attractions are much more famous, to our surprise, the Theodosius Cistern was near the top of our list of favourites.
We originally planned to see the much larger Basilica Cistern during our month in Istanbul. However, the Basilica Cistern wasn’t open during our visit in August/September of 2021. We’re not sure why it was closed (Covid-19 restrictions? Renovations?) But we were disappointed that we couldn’t visit. To the rescue came the Theodosius Cistern, and we didn’t leave disappointed!
Here’s how you can visit this magnificent piece of history:
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Where to Stay
- Luxury Accommodations – Ritz Carlton Istanbul
The Ritz-Carlton, Istanbul is located in the heart of the city overlooking scenic views of the city and the Bosphorus. This brand name speaks for itself. You will be immersed in luxury throughout your stay
- Mid Range Accommodations – Novotel Istanbul Bosphorus
Novotel Istanbul Bosphorus Hotel is located in the heart of the trendy Karakoy to explore the artistic and cultural activities, as well as the Golden Horn, historical Sultanahmet and Galata.
- Budget Accommodations – Hotel Peninsula
Located conveniently in historic peninsula, just 300 m from the sea. Topkapi Palace is 700 metres, Hagia Sophia is 450 m and Basilica Cistern is 550 m from the property. Guests will also enjoy the delicious free breakfast
- Budget Hostel – Bahuas Guesthouse
If you are on a tight budget and don’t mind a hostel, this one is not to be missed. With private rooms as low as $25 per night and shared dorm rooms as low as $9 per night. This hostel even organizes their own events every day of the week. From pub crawls to attractions.
- Or search a broad range of accommodations here
Getting to the Theodosius Cistern
The Cistern is in the Fatih district of Istanbul, within the fabled old walled city of Constantinople. If you are staying in Sultanhamet near the Hagia Sophia, the cistern will be a short walk for you. If coming from anywhere else, you will likely need to catch a taxi or transit. Not to worry, Istanbul has an amazing public transportation system so getting here will be a breeze. (Inside tip: download the Moovit app for easy transit directions all over Istanbul. )
Theodosius Cistern Address: Binbirdirek, Piyer Loti Cd. No:2/1, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
You have two options when you arrive: you can enter the Cistern free of charge as long as you are not there during the light show (more on that below). If you choose to see the light show then the entrance fee is 100 Turkish Lira or $11.31USD / 9.66€. We would highly recommend paying the extra for the tickets as the light show is spectacular. The light show is every hour on the hour and only lasts about 10 minutes.
What to expect
This 1600 year old Cistern is one of hundreds that supplied old Constantinople with water during its 1000 year reign as the capital of the Roman Empire. Fed by the Valens Aqueduct the Theodosius Cistern stored water for the Imperial Palace of the Empire, which would have been the residence of the Byzantine and Eastern Roman Emperors.
Prepare to have your breath taken away as you make your way down the steep staircase leading into the underground cistern. The 32 illuminated marble columns supporting the roof structure 9 metres (29 ½ feet) high make for an awe inspiring sight. The cistern’s total area (while much smaller than the Basilica Cistern) still measures an impressive 45 x 25 metres (148 x 82 feet!)
The light show is well designed to make the most out of the cavernous dark space. Cast from a central projector onto all of the Cistern’s walls the show is immersive and mesmerizing. Using beautiful graphics and music, the show leads you on a journey through the history of Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul. It does excellent job of conveying the history of the Cistern and Istanbul, from ancient times through the present day, all without words or voiceover. The stunning visuals speak for themselves. The highlights for me were the exquisite Byzantine Christian art and the gorgeous Ottoman tile-work projections.
The Basilica Cistern vs The Theodosius Cistern
The biggest advantage of the Theodosius Cistern is that it is less famous than it’s bigger cousin . If you are visiting Istanbul when both the Basilica and Theodosius Cisterns are open, the Basilica cistern is going to garner much larger crowds . Being the smaller Cistern, the Theodosius seems to be a forgotten piece of history along the tourist trail.
While some may say that this Cistern pales in comparison to its big brother the Basilica Cistern, it more than compensates with its intimacy. During our visit, we had the entire site almost to ourselves and couldn’t be happier about our experience there.
Should you visit the Theodosius Cistern?
As budget travellers, this was by far the most “expensive” attraction we visited in Istanbul (see here for a list of cheap things to do in the area!) For a little over $11USD this is an experience we would highly recommend taking in. Very affordable, packed with history and leaves you plenty of time to explore the surrounding areas. Within a 15 minute walk you can reach the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar and Hippodrome. A very affordable day of sightseeing at some amazing historical locations. Theodosius Cistern is a must see!
Looking for other things to do in Istanbul? Check out these great deals
- Bosphorus evening cruise on a luxury yacht
- Essential Istanbul Group Tour
- Private Full Day Tour of Istanbul
- Taste of Two Continents Food Tour