Exploring Northern Cyprus

June 8, 2015 by

City Tours & Sightseeing, Europe, Suggested Itineraries, Things to Do, Travel Advice & Inspiration


The multifaceted island of Cyprus has a turbulent history that resulted in its division between Greece and Turkey in 1974. Nowadays most visitors to the island head for the fleshpots of Ayia Napa, Paphos and Limassol in the Greek-run south, but the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus has plenty of charm and history to attract and intrigue. Spared the excesses of mass tourism that have proliferated in the south, Northern Cyprus reveals Crusader castles, pretty harbor towns and often-deserted beaches.

When visiting Northern Cyprus, take your passport, as checks are routinely made at all border posts. There are five checkpoints across what the Cypriots call the ‘Green Line,’ with the two most commonly used by visitors found in Nicosia at Ledra Palace (pedestrian) and Agios Dometios (cars).

North Nicosia

Northern sector of Nicosia.

Northern sector of Nicosia.

Cyprus is roughly split in half east to west, both geographically by the rugged Troodos Mountains and politically by the border between Turkish and Greek-occupied territories. The country’s charming, historic capital city of Nicosia lies along these fault lines; divided in half since 1974, it has the dubious distinction of being the only capital city that is currently split in two. While Nicosia is the more common name for the city, the Turks’ name for the city is Lefko?a.

The Turkish sector, North Nicosia, is accessible through the Ledra Palace checkpoint from the buzzing Greek sector of the city. A visit reveals 16th-century city walls built by the Venetians, a labyrinthine Byzantine old town, composed of tiny alleyways, small market stalls, scores of restaurants and miniscule artisan workshops unchanged for centuries. Ancient churches stand side by side with the Gothic minarets of mosques, many of which are being slowly, chaotically restored. Other attractions include the lovingly revamped Büyük Han, a 16th-century travelers’ hostel, and the National Struggle Museum, where exhibits detail the long Cypriot fight against British rule, which ended in 1960.

Famagusta and Salamis

St Nicholas Famagusta

St Nicholas cathedral in Famagusta.

Famagusta was once regarded as one of the most popular resort towns in the Eastern Mediterranean, but saw a major decline as a consequence of the 1974 Turkish invasion. Today, the town’s endless sandy beach and pristine sea are mostly deserted and backed with the eerie sight of rows of 1970s’-style seafront hotels, standing empty and still riddled with gunfire.

The 13th-century built heart of the city is, however, once again on the tourist trail and is a treat to visit for its Venetian walls and the ruined Gothic façade of the cathedral of St Nicholas (now turned into a mosque). Also check out the Othello lookout tower, along with scores of churches built before the Turkish invasion of 1570, which have slowly fallen into a photogenic ruin.

The Greek city of Salamis was capital of Cyprus some 3,000 years ago and today its remains stretch along the seashore north of Famagusta. An Arab invasion in 674AD brought this thriving metropolis to its knees, and for more than 1,000 years Salamis lay buried below the sand. Although sections of the site are still awaiting excavation, the vast, semi-circular theater, the baths complex, temples, churches and statuary are all open for exploration.


Kyrenia Harbor.

Kyrenia Harbor.

The lovely, laid-back seaside town of Kyrenia (sometimes called Girne by the Turks) straddles a pretty marina, its promenade festooned with scores of seafood restaurants under gaily striped awnings and leading east to the solid defense walls of the Crusader castle overlooking the Mediterranean. Today in age, it is home to the Shipwreck Museum, where the centerpiece is a fourth-century BC Greek ship discovered complete with its cargo of almonds still carefully preserved in amphorae.

Souvenir shops selling leather goods, Turkish glassware and jewelry line the charming tangle of Kyrenia’s backstreets, interspersed with traditional tavernas offering meze and kebabs. The town is also the jumping off point for excursions on the Mediterranean and is surrounded by mountainous countryside rich in medieval history. Three vast and spectacular Crusader castles sit among the Pentadaktylos foothills at St Hilarion, Buffavento and Kantara.

Bellpais Abbey

Bellpais Abbey is a photogenic 13th-century Gothic ruin, located above Kyrenia in the foothills of the Pentadaktylos (Five Finger) Mountains. In its medieval heyday it was home to an order of monks called the White Canons and a relic from the True Cross. The abbey was among many Christian buildings that were damaged during the Turkish invasion of 1570 but thanks to running repairs over the centuries, the church, cloisters, chapter house and refectory can be visited. Bellpais is also remarkable for its panoramic setting, with spanning views across Kyrenia and the sparkling Mediterranean below.

Check out our Northern Cyprus tour from Paphos.

Contributed by Sasha Heseltine

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