Having seen more than my share of renowned museums, churches and cathedrals around the world, I approached the Hagia Sophia with no great expectations. From the outside it is certainly impressive enough, it's sheer enormity begs the question of how could something so immense have been built 1500 years ago, without modern machinery. No excavators, cranes, cement trucks... Just the will of a leader and probably a whole shitload of slaves. Entering through the huge wooden front doors, I was fairly shocked at how well preserved the interior is. Compared to the great ruins of the Roman Empire, this Byzantine structure has been largely spared the ravages of time. Sure there are a few walls that aren't quite straight, and a leaning column here and there, but overall it is in truly stunning condition. From the massive dome sitting impossibly high overhead, to the tiled floor at your feet, the Hagia Sophia is a true marvel of antiquity. Despite the cathedral's long history of religious intent, Ataturks repurposing into a museum has been a great move for this world heritage site.
Contrary to the very muslim Blue Mosque, you don't need to remove your shoes or stay in narrow roped-off lanes here. Plan to spend several hours roaming the main floor, the mezzanines above, and a climb up one of the minarets. Close your eyes and picture the peoples of an ancient empire congregating within this jewel of the bosphorus.