A version of this article appeared in the National Geographic book Destinations of a Lifetime.
From the outside, with an abundance of sharp-angled corners meeting the soft curves of the cathedral domes, the legendary Hagia Sophia (or Church of the Holy Wisdom) almost looks as if someone’s finally found a way to put a square peg in a round hole. From the inside, the proportions, art, and paving stones actually worn smooth by a thousand years of people coming to pray support its claim as the building that mirrored heaven most closely. (Here are seven unmissable sites in Istanbul.)
The Hagia Sophia rose in its present form around A.D. 537. After centuries as a Christian church, this masterpiece of Byzantine architecture was claimed by a conquering sultan, Mehmed II, as his imperial mosque in 1453. He ordered acres of its intricate mosaics simply plastered over to cover the prohibited figurative imagery. The mosque years also show themselves in the bold flowing lines of Arabic calligraphy on hanging roundels near the second level and in the beautiful marble mihrab, indicating the direction of Mecca. (Check out our guide to Istanbul.)
The sweeping 1930s reforms of Ataturk secularized the building and brought museum status; today partially cleaned mosaics peek out from the plaster with glints of gold along the high upper gallery. From here, the air pouring through the windows around the dome looks almost milky thick as it pools on the tiles below.
How to get there
Hagia Sophia is in the center of the Sultanahmet District, across from the Blue Mosque and around the corner from the Topkapi Palace. Once here, you’ll have no trouble spending a day. Istanbul is served by dozens of major airlines. (See the most beautiful mosques around the world.)
When to go
Hagia Sophia is open every day but Monday, year-round. Last tickets are sold an hour before closing.
What to eat
The area between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque is the old Hippodrome, once the center of all Istanbul. It’s still the center of the action, buzzing with activity: Here vendors sell simit, a round bread, off what look like broomsticks; squeeze fresh pomegranate juice; and scoop Turkish ice cream called dondurma, which has a high mastic content and a strong taste and texture all its own, for dessert. Meanwhile, all around enjoy the best people-watching in Turkey.