Turkish Family Travels: Exploring Istanbul from Underground

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Visiting Istanbul's Basilica Cistern with Kids! #familytravel

This post appears as part of our Turkish Family Travel Adventure series, chronicling a fun fall fling in the city of Istanbul.

There are so, so many ways to explore a city.

Strolling “ordinary” neighborhoods, attempting public transportation, cooking native cuisine, people watching from a café, peering over the skyline from above with a bird’s-eye view… these are just a few of our family’s favorites.

It’s rather obvious to see the sights from the ground level, and often more thrilling to take a look from on high. Please tell me I’m not the only sap for an amazing view from above?

Most overlooked, however, is the belly view – experiencing a city from under the ground. One such subterranean experience in Istanbul awaited us at the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnici).

But would it give us that unique Turkish twist we were seeking?

First Look

After a rollicking morning across the street at the gorgeous Hagia Sophia, we showed up at the Basilica Cistern eyes and cameras ready for more amazement. However, as we approached the entrance line, we thought there must be some mistake.

After all, most of Istanbul’s historic treasures are total eye candy. Not this building. In fact, if it weren’t for the queue of tourists, we very well could’ve been vying for a spot in a Turkish jail cell.

A postage-stamp building, bars on the windows… are people really going to steal the water in the cistern or attempt to make off with a gigantic stone column?

As if.


Forty Turkish liras later, we slipped down the slimy marble steps to the cistern itself, water source to emperors and sultans for over a thousand years. From the staircase landing, the 336 columns come into view. Chipped but sturdy, these pillars remind all who enter just how surprisingly solid ancient structures can be.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Visiting Istanbul's Basilica Cistern with Kids! #familytravel

Now on the platform level, we began to wander down the corridors of dramatically lit columns, and I begin to wonder… If it weren’t for the theatrical lighting, would this place have much to rave about?

Around the prescribed path we walked, trying to envision James Bond hightailing it past us in To Russia With Love. That would certainly up the thrill factor, because right about now, I’m thinking I just paid nearly 15 bucks to stroll around a big room on a platform with nothing but a thin layer of murky water covering the floor.

Whoop. De. Doo.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Visiting Istanbul's Basilica Cistern with Kids! #familytravel


But, wait, you say. What about the mysterious medusa heads?

Ah, yes, the snake-headed sisters sitting at the base of a couple of columns on the northeast side. Such a thing is surely worth a look. So, look we did… along with every other cruise-ship-sailing day-tripper. Hence the blurry photo.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Visiting Istanbul's Basilica Cistern with Kids! #familytravel

It’s no use denying that the bases with faces are a curious thing. Why would one erect a column atop an inverted or rotated Medusa head? Would the images ward off those who sought to poison the waters? Or were the heads inverted to stunt the power of the Medusa? Or might they be borrowed from an earlier structure as part of an ancient recycling program?

The solution to Medusa’s mystery is anyone’s guess. But, here’s a mystery I’ll just go ahead and solve for you right now. There’s really nothing special about the Medusas that can’t be seen in photos on the Internet. In fact, those photos will probably be better than anything you or I could attempt, given the frenzy over the heads that makes it nearly impossible to get a clear shot.

Light Delight

At this point, we had walked up and down every bit of bored-walk. No matter where we rested our eyes, we could only see two things: people and blazing stone columns. Is this it?

Well, yes – yes, it is.

In an effort not to let those forty Turkish liras go completely to waste, I decided to have a bit of fun with my camera. Taking photos in the dark isn’t something I do often, so it’s a challenge to snap a decent shot without a flash.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Visiting Istanbul's Basilica Cistern with Kids! #familytravel

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Visiting Istanbul's Basilica Cistern with Kids! #familytravelPainting the darkness on my camera screen with flaming streaks of orange light provided a brief reprieve from pillar monotony. Well, that is, until I realized my boys were also bored and making a break for the three-inch pool beneath the boardwalk.

Time to go.

Say Cheese

Now off the precarious elevated path, I took one more quick look around as a last-ditch effort. Surely, there has to be something else of interest down here…?

There, in the corner! The shiny costumes flickered at me from afar. Sumptuous fabrics and fanciful headpieces adorned a couple intent on returning home with evidence that they had, in fact, lived like a sultan and queen while in Istanbul.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Visiting Istanbul's Basilica Cistern with Kids! #familytravel

You’d think I’d scoff at such silliness, but actually, a part of me wanted to give the absurdity a try. Anyone can shimmy into a pair of chaps or wiggle into a saloon girl dress in America, but Turkish royalty costumes are a bit harder to come by.

Unfortunately for me, Doc Sci wasn’t at all interested in foolishly gallivanting as Ottoman royalty. Such a shame, since masquerading as Korean royalty in Seoul was his idea.

The Skinny

Unless you’re doing your best to beat the Turkish summer heat, the Basilica Cistern isn’t worth a slice of your Istanbul travel budget. Your time and effort would be better spent scrolling through photos online or even taking a virtual tour, available from the Yerebatan Sarnici website itself.

My advice? Buy a postcard, and spend your 20TL per person elsewhere.

What featured attraction(s) have you been to that didn’t live up to their hype or seemed like a waste of time and/or money?

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

3 thoughts on “Turkish Family Travels: Exploring Istanbul from Underground

  1. I totally agree with you though it is mind bogging to think that this structure was built so many years ago and it is standing. But I think it is only interesting for history buff. Your pictures are nice…

  2. Pingback: Our Turkish Family Adventure: A Fall Fling in Istanbul | Thrifty Travel Mama

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