My month in Cyprus was incredible. I saw gorgeous Orthodox churches, sumptuous Mosques, traversed Venetian walls, crossed a UN border into an unrecognized country, took in Roman ruins, napped next to clear blue Mediterranean waters, drove on winding mountain roads, and didn’t see another American for my first twenty-six days. And since it’s a country that’s packed full of history and nature, there are so many things to do in Cyprus that I never got bored once.
Oh, and I saw a boatload of cats. More cats than Italy. More cats than Greece. Honestly, more cats than Turkey. Like enough cats that if they could figure out how to rapidly advance in intelligence and develop opposable thumbs, they would easily control the island and rule over all they saw.
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An Introduction to the History of Cyprus
I don’t think most folks from the western hemisphere are too familiar with Cyprus. I had more than one person ask me if it was part of Greece, and I got the feeling many didn’t know where in the world (in the literal sense) I was.
Geographically, Cyprus is located in the Middle East, but politically it is part of Europe. Its history is complicated. Cyprus’s closest neighbors are Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, and Greece. Because of this, it has been in the crosshairs of most of the major players of ancient and modern history in the Mediterranean.
It was Hellenized by Mycenaean Greeks who formed independent city-states. It was then conquered over the centuries by the Assyrians, ancient Egyptians, the Persians, the Phoenicians, had different alliances with Athens and then Alexander the Great, controlled by Ptolemaic Egypt, and then became a province in the Roman and later Byzantine Empires.
In the twelfth century CE, Cyprus declared its independence, was then taken over by Richard the Lionheart while he was crusading, sold to the Knights Templar, who sold it to the Frankish Lusignans who started their own dynasty. It later became a colony of Venice in the fifteenth century, was subsequently invaded by the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth, and was then annexed by Great Britain during World War I.
The country achieved independence in 1960, but ongoing violence and political strife led to bombings, a Greek military junta, a Turkish invasion, and Turkey’s continued occupation of the northern part of the island. The United Nations maintains a buffer zone between Cyprus and Northern Cyprus, which refers to itself as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
The southern two-thirds of the island is populated with mostly Greek Cypriots, while the north is Turkish Cypriots and immigrants from Turkey. Today there’s no violence between the two sides, and the UN Peacekeeper watch over the buffer zone. The political ramifications of this split are significant, with the two sides operating as independent countries with separate institutions and monetary policy. I found that guidebooks tended to downplay this because most tourists movements are not affected. However, it gives the country a strong character different from anywhere else.
The best way I can describe it is like a scar. A large scar down the side of someone’s face, that at one time was potentially fatal, and now has scabbed over and healed. But the face is still marked with the scar, and it will never quite look the same again. It’s the world’s last (official) divided capital. But there’s no violence or anger now. Just bureaucracy and checkpoints.
Most of the Cypriots I got to know were in their twenties or thirties, so I don’t know how older generations feel about it. But for those I spoke with, they couldn’t see how to move forward and didn’t want to move backward, so they figured the two nations would stand forever. Only time will tell. One even went so far as to tell me in the same breath that he could never get a job on the Greek side because they would never hire him because of his name and also that there’s no animosity between the two peoples. I don’t know if I will ever understand the situation fully.
Things to Do in Cyprus
Most people who visit Cyprus go for the beaches (which are amazing), but the country is also full of historical and cultural gems that deserve exploration. During my time, I rented an apartment as a home base in Nicosia and used the (truly fabulous) inter-city bus system to take day trips around the island. Here are the coolest things that I did, a couple of things I heard were awesome but didn’t have time for, and a couple of things you should definitely skip.
Things to do in Nicosia / Lefkosia / Lefkoşa
Nicosia is the capital city of Cyprus. It’s called Nicosia in English, but it’s also knowns as Lefkosia in Greek and Lefkoşa in Turkish. The city is surrounded by fortified walls added by the Venetians in the sixteenth century, but which proved to be no impediment to the Turks during their invasion. The walls form an eleven-pointed star, and this star figures prominently in the city’s iconography.
Walk through the Old City
The area inside the walls is referred to by many names: Nicosia Old City, Old Town Nicosia, the Chora, etc. One of my favorite things to do in Nicosia was just to walk around this part of the city. During the day, the edges are quiet until you get to Ledra street. The architecture and the street art are beautiful. At night, the streets are still eerily quiet, but incredibly safe. Walking through a walled city at night alone is intense.
Ledra Street (Lidras)
Ledra Street is the main drag of the Old City. It’s hopping at all times, but especially on weekend nights. It runs the length of (south) Nicosia, from the walls to the checkpoint to cross into North Nicosia. It’s closed to cars and lined with shops, restaurants, and cafés. While I was there, the new H&M opened complete with a DJ in the street out front. This street and Onasagorou one street over are both great to stroll day or night.
Ledra Street Observatory (Shacolas Tower/Shakolas Tower)
I had a hard time finding it because the guidebooks I was using weren’t updated. The H&M took over part of the building (and partially obstructed the view), and the entrance to this tower is next door. This is one of the coolest parts of the city (I actually went twice). For 2€ you can take pictures of any direction in the city skyline, and you can see all the way to the mountains (and the infamous Turkish Pentadactilos flag display) in Northern Cyprus.
There’s a short (maybe 15 min) video of the history of the city. Each side of the observatory has interactive video boards to help you understand what you’re looking at. Keep in mind that the literature given out here is in line with official Cypriot government opinions about Northern Cyprus. For example, the brochure they hand out states:
“From Shacolas Tower, you can enjoy the view of a developed city to the South, East and West, compared to the misfortune of occupation in the North.”
Which is rich, because being able to get a clear photograph of the Turkish Flag on Pentadactilos seemed to be a major draw for most of the visitors when I was there.
Quick tip: The elevator doors are AWFUL. They shut after like two seconds, even if you’re standing in the doorway. And they shut HARD. Like shoulder bruising hard. You’ve been warned.
Laiki Geitonia is a part of Nicosia near Ledra Street that has been restored to feel like a traditional Nicosian neighborhood within the city walls. The architecture dates to the 18th century. The streets are lined with beautiful homes, traditional tavernas, and shops. There are also craft studios.
Faneromeni Church & Square
Faneromeni Church is a beautiful Greek Orthodox church from the 19th century. While more modern than the other churches I visited in Cyprus, this one was the most active, with women frequently lining up to kiss the Icons. The square outside is lined with cafés and was full of people towards the end of the day. At night, the area is beautifully lit and completely charming.
Stavros Tou Missirikou Church
This adorable little church looks like it could be in a fairy tale. Its architecture combines Byzantine, Gothic, and Italian Renaissance. It has a minaret from its days serving as the Arablar Djami Mosque during Ottoman rule. It was never open while I was there, but it deserves a walk by. They hold concerts and special events. More on its architecture here.
The architecture of this church makes it difficult to photograph up close and fantastic to check out from the Ledra Street Observatory. It was built at the end of the 17th century during the period of Ottoman rule. Worth going inside; it’s beautiful and the Icons are stunning. The hours are posted on the door, but I cannot find them listed anywhere else. I’ve seen on some websites that you cannot take pictures inside, but I asked and was told I could.
If you only have time to tour one Orthodox church, this is the one you should go to. This was one of my favorite places in the whole city, and it wasn’t even listed in the guidebook. When I went, I thought it was a different church and just walked in. I’m so glad I did though. I cannot find much info on it online (not speaking Greek is an issue on that front), but here’s a Wikipedia page that covers the neighborhood and the church. The official Nicosia page even mentions that it has no architectural or historic significance.
However, I found it charming and peaceful. The church is so beautiful and the Icons are so lovely. I can’t explain how delighted I was just being inside and walking the aisles. I think the city is missing out by not publicizing this to tourists.
Famagusta Gate (Pyli Ammochostou)
After the construction of the walls, there were three entrances into the city. The Famagusta Gate (formally the Porta Juliana or Porta Giuliana) has been restored. Inside are two empty rooms and a passageway to the outside of the walls. It is open to the public (free of charge) and also hosts special events. If you can’t make it when the gate is open, don’t worry. Walking inside is cool, but the real treat is seeing the gate from across the street. It also deserves a separate walk by at night when it’s lit up.
The Cyprus Museum is an archeological museum and covers the history of the island from the Neolithic period to the Byzantine empire. It’s not a massive museum, but each wing was interesting. Highlights for me were some of the Sphinx and lion statues, the statue of Septimius Severus, ancient jewelry that could be out of this year’s Tiffany’s catalog, a funerary throne and bed that West Elm should totally do as a reproduction, and the display of clay figures from Agia Irini.
The Byzantine Museum
There are a lot of museums in the Greek world called the Byzantine Museum. This one is actually an art museum that houses hundreds of icons created from the 9th through the 19th centuries, as well as chapel installations and even older mosaics. Weirdly, it was also the only place I saw a tour bus of people during my time in Nicosia.
This mosque was an Augustinian Monastery before being converted after the Ottoman Turks invaded. The minaret is the tallest in the southern part of the city. I didn’t go inside, but I passed by at night on my way to photograph the Famagusta Gate and the mosque lit up at night was beautiful.
This 19th-century mosque was named for the flag carrier who was the first to breach the walls during the Ottoman invasion. Its grounds are beautiful. I was not able to go inside as I was there during prayers and did not want to disturb.
Paphos Gate (Pafos Gate)
The westernmost of the original three gates (also called the Gate of San Domenico). It’s now an opening for a road, and there’s no trace of the original gate. However, if you’re nearby I think it’s worth a walk by.
Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church
Across from Paphos Gate, the Holy Cross dates back to 1902. The Franciscan order has been in Cyprus since St. Francis was alive, and it’s thought that he visited the island. There are only four Roman Catholic churches in the country, and this is the only one in Nicosia. The church is not architecturally significant, but it’s beautiful and a nice, quiet walk through is calming. The artwork inside is gorgeous. Seeing the church with its Jerusalem Cross highlighted how different the religious architecture in Orthodox Cyprus is from Catholic Malta, even though they have similar histories and topographies.
Kasteliotissa Medieval Hall
A Frankish Hall from the 13th or 14th centuries that has been restored by the Department of Antiquities. Closed to the public except for special events, there’s not much to do. However, it’s near the Paphos Gate and Holy Cross Church and deserves a quick walk by.
Centre for Visual Arts and Research
I actually ate a really delicious salad here one day and enjoyed their wi-fi and cute wait staff. But I never made it back to check out the artwork. It contains a large collection of work by foreign artists visiting Cyprus and a collection of Cypriot dresses over the years.
Leventis Art Gallery
This is the more traditional fine arts museum hosting works by great painters like Chagall, Corot, Fragonard, etc.
How to Get from the South Nicosia to Lefkoşa (Northern Nicosia)
To get to North Nicosia from the south, take your passport and walk across the checkpoint on the Green Line at the northern end of Ledra Street. Don’t take pictures at the border.
Ignore the cats who cross the border at will, they are not subject to your silly human laws.
Once in North Nicosia, money will be Turkish Lira, not euros. Prices are very low compared to prices in the south. I had issues with my credit card not going through on the Turkish side, but when this happened I was able to pay in euros. People will speak mostly Turkish and English (and some Greek).
If you buy fake goods, don’t carry them openly back across the border. I saw a gentleman get stopped with a fake Louis Vuitton suitcase that he’d just bought. It was ultimately confiscated.
Postcards bought in the north cannot be mailed in the south, even if the shop lady in the north tells you otherwise (sorry friends. There’s a stack of postcards on my desk that will get mailed from Greece eventually).
Things to Do in Lefkoşa / North Nicosia / North Lefkosia
The name means Great Inn, and it was originally a place for travelers to stay overnight. Now it’s a beautiful market with craft goods and places to eat. The architecture of the two-story building is charming. It’s free to stop by if you just want pictures, but I recommend stopping at least for a drink and enjoying the atmosphere. This is also a good place to buy and mail postcards from the Turkish Federation of Cyprus since you can’t mail them on the Greek side.
Originally the 13th century St. Sophia Cathedral, like many other Cypriot churches it was turned into a mosque after the Ottoman invasion. It’s two minarets are prominent and visible from the south. Inside the mosque is beautiful, with thick carpets and beautiful chandeliers. Women’s scarves are available at the entrances to cover yourself before going in.
The Arasta is the outdoor market that has covered stalls and restaurants. The streets are lined with fake luxury goods. The sellers aren’t pushy, and it’s expected you negotiate.
The covered indoor market near Arasta. The stalls are full of home goods, produce, meat, and souvenirs. It’s reminiscent of a small version of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. There are a few cafes inside as well.
The northernmost gate in Nicosia. It was dark before I could get make it up there, so I turned back.
The center of the administrative part of the city.
Whirling Dervish Shows
Both times I went to north Nicosia, I missed the show. I was too early one day and too late the final day. Check out the link to a video of one of the performances.
Things to Do in Larnaca (Larnaka)
Larnaca is the city with the country’s main airport, but it’s not the most popular beach destination. While the beaches in Agia Napa are prettier, I think Larnaca was my favorite beach town if I had to pick one to be my home base for a week or so. You’re close to Agia Napa and Nicosia, and the inter-city bus system can get to Paphos and Limassol within an hour or two.
The history of Larnaca is ancient. It was the birthplace of Zeno, the founder of the Stoic school. It was also the home of Lazarus from the New Testament.
This is one of the few places in Cyprus with a standard sightseeing tour. Skip it. It was long, hot, full of boring stops, didn’t stop at some of the cooler places, and everyone else on the tour was annoying.
Instead, walk to the places close by, and then hire a cab to go to the few places that aren’t reachable on foot. Or go when you rent a car to take a trip somewhere further inland.
Finikoudes is a municipal beach immediately across from the inter-city bus drop and next to the marina. There are tons of beach stands to buy snacks and chairs and umbrellas to rent. The sand is soft, and there are no rocks.
Hang out on the Finikoudes Boardwalk
I really enjoyed this boardwalk. Unlike the one in Paphos, it wasn’t schlocky. Instead, it was beautiful, lined with its namesake palm trees, with easy views of the sea and business that looked inviting.
Hala Sultan Tekkesi Mosque
This seventh-century mosque sits on the edge of the salt lake. It’s beautiful architecturally and for its overall setting. It’s a bit outside the city, so I would go by taxi. It is significant both in Cyprus and in the larger Muslim world. Visitors should make sure to follow appropriate dress codes. There are scarves available for women to cover their heads.
Larnaca Salt Lake
The salt lake at the edge of the mosque is beautiful year round, but in February and March, it’s full of flamingos.
This 18th-century aqueduct is beautiful. If you’re out driving around or in a taxi, it’s worth a drive by. It is not known whether this aqueduct had a Roman predecessor.
Agios Lazaros Church
The ninth-century church is architecturally significant as a great example of Byzantine architecture in Cyprus. This church contains the tomb of St. Lazarus, who, after being resurrected by Jesus, became the first Bishop of Kition.
This eleventh-century Byzantine church was the least impressive of the ones I saw, but there is a sixth-century mosaic of the same quality as those in Ravenna from the same time.
If you love hunting UNESCO sites, go. Otherwise, I suggest you skip it. (Read: Choirokotia)
A traditional Cypriot Village popular with tourists. I didn’t have time to go while I was there, but it was highly recommended.
This is the other beach in Larnaca that I wanted to hit, but I just kept going to Finikoudes out of convenience. I saw it from the bus, and it looked beautiful.
Things to do in Limassol (Lemesos)
Limassol is a beautiful city on the coast in southern Cyprus and the country’s second-largest city. My taxi driver couldn’t believe I’d bothered to go anywhere else.
Walk around the Old Town
The Old Town of Limassol has small streets lined with beautiful buildings, restaurants, and shops. It’s a small area and worth the time to walk through.
Lemesos Castle & Richard the Lionheart
The cool history of this castle centers on Richard the Lionheart. His bride, Berengaria of Navarre was being held captive on the island. He rescued her, and they were married at the chapel of the castle. The castle today doesn’t really do justice to that history. However, the museum is a quick history of medieval Cyprus.
The palm-lined promenade is beautiful, especially at dusk. Locals fish off the pier.
A beautiful, small mosque in the middle of the Old Town.
Kourion Archeological Site & Stadium
One of the most important archaeological sites in the country.
Sanctuary of Apollon Hylates
An ancient monument to Apollo near Limmasol.
Petra Tou Romiou
This beach is the site where Aphrodite is said to have emerged from the sea. Located halfway between Limassol and Paphos, different guidebooks listed it in different regions. I hired a taxi and went from Limassol. Bring water shoes or something to protect your feet from the rocks.
There are snacks across the street, but they are a bit pricey.
Things to do in Paphos
I wrote my time in Paphos and how I felt about the city here. Overall, it was a great day trip, but I wouldn’t base a whole trip around it. The main highlights were the boardwalk and swimming at the beach.
Here’s my write-up of the three archeological sites that make up the Paphos UNESCO site.
Things to do in Agia Napa
All I did on my day in Agia Napa was swim, sleep, take in the sunset, and eat delicious food. It was so lovely. I didn’t really research anything else to do around there, and I hit the only spot I had planned on going to, which was the lovely Nissi Beach.
Nissi Beach is one of the main stops on the inter-city bus from Nicosia. It’s gorgeous, with clear water and a beautiful rock hill that you can climb for a great sunset view. It’s the single most beautiful place I went to in the country.
Things to Do in the Troodos Mountains
The Troodos Mountains are located in central Cyprus. Fairly inaccessible by public transportation, the best way to get there is to either hire a taxi or rent a car.
Visit the Painted Churches
Here’s my write-up on my trip visiting these UNESCO sites.
I stopped to get snacks in this charming mountain village. I wish I had spent more time there.
I ran out of time and didn’t get to this monastery. It came highly recommended by several locals, and I hope to see it on my next trip to Cyprus.
Cyprus Travel Tips
Cyprus is seriously awesome. The history and the art are phenomenal, the beaches are world-class, the current politics are unlike anywhere else in the world, and everything in the whole country can be reached in two hours. I have no idea why more Americans and Canadians aren’t flocking there. Like flocking. Like in droves. It’s a perfect European beach spot where you can also indulge your cerebral side.
Some Cyprus Travel Tips:
- Go to the Cyprus Tourism Organization at the Larnaca airport (in the same room as the baggage carousels). They will give you guidebooks and maps based on where you’re going. They also have a bunch of organized free walks in different cities, and they’ll give you the schedule. If you tell them you’re going to be there for long, they’ll give you the bigger guidebook. Just keep in mind that the material they give you is from the government, so it doesn’t include Northern Cyprus.
- Have your passport with you when you want to cross into North Cyprus.
- Cyprus water is listed as safe to drink on some websites. It really isn’t. I never saw Cypriots drinking tap water. Stick with bottled, and get the 1.5-liter bottles. Trust me, you can never have too much water on you in the summertime.
- Almost everywhere takes credit cards.
- A lot of the public restroom lights switch off after less than ten seconds and are motion activated.
- The 15 Best Beaches in Cyprus
- 27 Pieces of Awesome Street Art from Nicosia, Cyprus
- 3 Reasons Paphos Kind of Sucks
- UNESCO World Heritage Site: Painted Churches in the Troodos Region
- UNESCO World Heritage Site: Choirokoitia
- UNESCO World Heritage Site: Paphos