There’s a host of top Byzantine sites and ruins to visit and among the very best are Hagia Sophia, Agios Eleftherios and the Church of Saint Nicholas in Myra. Other popular sites tend to include Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessaloniki and Kapnikarea.
We’ve put together an experts guide to Byzantine Empire locations, with our top ten places to visit as well as a full list of Byzantine architecture, sites and ruins, which shouldn’t be ignored if you have the time.
What are the best Byzantine Sites, Museums and Ruins?
One of many important Byzantine sites in Istabul, the Hagia Sophia is a world famous sixth century church turned mosque. Whilst the original Hagia Sofia was built in the fourth century AD by Constantine the Great, very little remains of this structure nor the one built after it in the fifth century. The current building dates back to between 532 and 537 AD, during which time it was constructed under the order of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian.
Visitors can view remnants of the first two Hagias Sophias as well as touring the current building with its stunning mosaics and ornate Muslim altars and chapels. Outside, cannonballs used by Mehmet the Conqueror during his invasion of the city line the paths and there is an eighteenth century fountain for ritual ablutions. Hagia Sophia is a beautiful mixture of Muslim and Christian influences and architecture, including the Byzantine mosaics, which can only really be seen in the higher galleries for a further fee.
Agios Eleftherios is a very small yet important Byzantine church in Athens known as the little cathedral, one of many religious Byzantine sites.
Built in the twelfth century, Agios Eleftherios was once the main church in Athens. This fact, coupled with the vision of the diminutive church next to the monolith of Athens Cathedral has led to it being known as the “little cathedral”.
The Church of Saint Nicholas at Myra is an ancient Byzantine church which charts the life of this famous Christian Saint and is one of the oldest surviving churches in existence. Though there may have been a church constructed on the present site shortly after the death of St. Nicholas, the church which exists now has its roots in the 9th century.
Despite its relatively modest size the Church of Saint Nicholas is nonetheless spectacular, and is popular with pilgrims and tourists alike. Particular highlights are the magnificent vaulted rooms, and the small gallery nearby containing the remains of some wonderful mosaics and frescoes.
There are a number of sarcophagi contained within the church, firstly in a gallery adjacent to the first chapel. The most notable sarcophagus is located in a separate, narrow gallery, which is said to be that of St. Nicholas himself, although his remains are more likely to have been stolen – apparently by Italian sailors who whisked them away to Bari where they built the Basilica of Saint Nicholas. The church is open to visitors all year round, with reduced opening hours during the winter months.
The Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessaloniki is dedicated to exploring various aspects of the Byzantine period, from its beginnings in the third and fourth centuries AD to its fall to the Ottomans in 1453. The museum explores various social aspects relating to this period including politics, ideology, religion and social structures. From mosaics and icons to ecclesiastic objects and everyday utensils, the museum displays almost 3,000 artefacts from the Byzantine period throughout its eleven rooms, categorising them and creating a chronological narrative for visitors to follow.
Sitting right in the middle of bustling modern streets, Kapnikarea is a beautiful 11th century Byzantine church in Athens. Built around 1050 AD, the church was constructed atop the remains of an earlier ancient Greek temple, probably dedicated to either Athena or Demeter.
Kapnikarea looks oddly out of place in the middle of a busy thoroughfare however its beauty is in its size. Small but perfectly formed, the Church of Panaghia Kapnikarea is an excellent example of a well preserved Byzantine building. Inside, visitors can also discover the excellent decorative art, particularly the Mosaic of the Madonna and Child.
The Basilica Cistern is a subterranean wonder and one of the greatest – and certainly the biggest – of Istanbul’s surviving Byzantine sites. With its imposing columns, grand scale and mysterious ambience, this subterranean site seems like a flooded palace, but it is in fact a former water storage chamber.
Built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian in around 532AD, the Basilica Cistern measures approximately 453 feet by 212 feet and would have stored around 80,000 cubic metres of water at a time to supply the palace as well as the city of Byzantium. Today, visitors can explore the site, treading its raised platforms to view its 336 beautiful marble columns, enjoy its vaulted ceilings and experience its eerie nature complete with dripping water. Amongst the highlights at the Basilica Cistern are two mysterious columns depicting the head of the mythological figure Medusa.
Yedikule Zindanlari is an impressive Byzantine and medieval fort in Istanbul. One of several Byzantine sites in the city. Originally part of the Theodosian Wall, built by Theodosius II in the fifth century, the fortress was added to over the centuries, including by Mehmet the Conqueror during the Ottoman period. Today, this imposing fort is open to the public and visitors can see its dungeons as well as walking along its well-preserved walls and battlements.
The historic Hagia Sophia in Trabzon, Turkey, is an impressive 13th century Byzantine church which now operates as a museum boasting a range of fascinating ancient frescoes. Originally constructed under the direction of Trebizond Emperor Manuel I between 1238 and 1263 AD, the Hagia Sophia was originally built to serve as a Church and its design reflects late-Byzantine architecture.
Today the Trabzon Hagia Sophia stands as an example of outstanding Byzantine architecture, containing three naves and three porticoes as well as numerous frescoes depicting Biblical scenes such as the birth, crucifixion and ascension of Jesus Christ, the twelve apostles and the frieze of angels. These frescoes had been covered after the Ottoman conquest and were only revealed during the 20th century restoration. Perhaps the most outstanding piece of decorative art within this group is the bas-relief frieze of Adam and Eve, located to the south.
Beautifully situated in a mountain-girt bay, Gemiler Island is packed with c.1,500 year old Byzantine remains. The island, just 1km long, has been surveyed by Japanese archaeologists who have revealed the existence of a thriving small town clinging to the northern shore. Unlike the classical cities of the region, there are none of the typical public buildings, no theatre, no baths, no gymnasium, no colonnaded streets, no agora, just a dense collection of houses, cisterns and four main churches. Today, one can explore the remains of these early churches, decorated with mosaics and frescoes, discover a huge public cistern and walk in a unique processional passageway up to the cathedral church and the island’s summit with its stunning 360-degree views.
An example of the Byzantine sites in Bulgaria, Bachkovo Monastery is said to be the second largest monastery in the country and one of its oldest. Destroyed by the Ottomans in the 15th to 16th centuries, it was in fact only the ossuary of Bachkovo Monastery which survives today of the original monastery. Today, visitors come to Bachkovo to see its many works of art as well as to appreciate its history, which includes various cultural influences, among them Georgian and Byzantine.