A taste of Nicosia is a taste of both worlds: Greece and Turkey.
Tip! If you want to do everything on this list, then rent a car or hire a driver. Especially if you’re staying in the South (Greek) side. If you’re only walk around but want to cross to the Turkish side without a car, then start the list from #5.
The most intriguing part of my journey in Cyprus, was crossing over from the South (Greek) side to the North (Turkish) side of Nicosia. Since my family and I were traveling with a driver, we began our day in the very north part of the island called: Kyrenia, then worked our way down back to Ledra Street.
For a quick history lesson, Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is a de facto state recognized only by Turkey. It is the northern part of the Buffer Zome established and controlled by the United Nations. During 1974’s Turkish invasion of Cyprus, many Greek Cypriots were forced to move south, while the Turkish Cypriots went north. As you’ll see, the Turkish side is still hugely dependent and influenced by Turkey’s economy and political backing.
While the south side maybe a resemblance to some cities in Greece, the Turkish army has sustained its powerful presence in Northern Cyprus. Once you cross the border, you’ll need a use a different currency (Turkish lira, and locals will speak Turkish rather than Greek. Here’s a list of pretty epic things you must do there:
1. SEE: Kyrenia Castle & Shipwreck Museum.
After crossing the border in the morning, you want to drive all the way to the north of the Turkish side to Kyrenia. There, you’ll see a castle on water, and it’s magnificent. The 16th century castle was built by the Venetians, with a 12th century chapel which you’ll see once entering the castle gates.
What’s even more incredible is the Shipwreck Museum (my personal favorite) inside the Kyrenia Castle. Inside the plated glass, there’s a massive remains of a Greek merchant ship. It’s often referred to as one of the oldest vessels to be restored, because the ship was from 4th century BC. The story goes, a Greek-Cypriot diver, Andreas Kariolou discovered the ship in 1965. Inside the ship, he also found wine, almonds…etc. Two year later, when he showed the wreck to archeologists at University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, it was established that the ship was 80 years old when it sank. Its sight at the museum is marvelous in many ways, imagining a boat that had existed since thousands of years ago.
2. DO: Sip on Turkish tea on the Kyrenia Harbour.
Once you exit the castle, try to walk along the gorgeous harbour right below. During British occupation of Cyprus in 1878, the Kyrenia Harbour was a much quieter place but functioned as a regular part connecting Cyprus and other European and Middle East countries. Today, it’s full of cafes, and restaurants where you should pause and grab one of the outdoor terrace chairs with a cup of Turkish tea. Take in the view, it’s lovely on a sunny day!
3. EAT: Lunch next to the abbey at Kybele.
Cruising on a car, about 30 minutes south of Kyrenia, is a quaint little village where you should lunch at a fantastic restaurant with a view: Kybele. Smokes fuming on the patio, tables set up along the edges overlooking the view of Northern Cyprus. Turn around and you’re inches away from the romantic arches of Bellapais Monastery. Make sure to order the kebabs, they’re slightly charred yet juicy. Truly delightful.
4. SEE: Bellapais Abbey.
Grandiose, yet peaceful, the Bellapais Abbey is also known as: “Abbey of Beautiful Place.” The 13th century ruin of a monastery sits at an altitude of 220 meters above the sea. Its view over the Mediterranean Sea is undeniably breathtaking. Today, the abbey also hosts several concerts, music festival, and exhibitions throughout the year.
5. SEE: Check out Bedesten
An hour drive south from Kybele, you’ll arrive back in Nicosia again but in the Turkish side. This is where you should take your time and stroll around the Istanbul-like streets that will eventually lead you to Bedesten. Originally built as a church, Bedesten is a historical building in Selimiye district and it’s more than 1,000 years old. Bedesten is a “covered market,” this structure was used as such during the Ottoman period. Nowadays, it’s a cultural center in Northern Cyprus.
6. SEE: Turn around and enter Selimiye Mosque.
If you’ve never seen a cathedral transformed into a mosque, ta-da! Here, we have Selimiye Mosque, formerly known as a Cathedral of Saint Sophia. A Muslim sanctuary that was previously a Roman Catholic church. Fascinating, right? I was in awe.
The main mosque of the city somewhat resembles the Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia. In Nicosia, the Selimiye Mosque is the largest and the oldest Gothic church in Cyprus, constructed on the grounds of what used to be a Byzantine church. Today, the mosque will hold 2,500 people inside.
What’s so fascinating when you look at the mosque today is that, you can still see its remnants of a former church. Back in 1570, during the Ottoman siege, the cathedral was under the attack of Ottoman solders who threw away Christian ornaments and furniture, and turned the cathedral into a mosque to prepare it for the first Friday prayer.
7. SHOP: The little shops around Old Town.
Walking around the Turkish side of Nicosia is an experience all on its own. It’s a complete throwback to Istanbul, with shops selling scarves and in Nicosia’s case: fake luxury handbags. I wouldn’t recommend buying these only because you’ll have a hard time at the border checkpoint on your way back to the Greek side.
When I say shopping around Old Town, though, it requires your wanderlust spirit to shine. There aren’t specific roads to recommend, or particular boutique. They’re sort of scattered all over, but vintage bookstores captivated my attention and so did some random clothing racks. Freestyle it, to each its own.
8. SEE: Nicosia's street graffiti.
Something wildly interesting while strolling through the streets of Northern Nicosia is the unavoidable yet superb street art. Many are completed with hidden political messages, while others have clear cultural indications. Nonetheless, to admire the graffiti here is a further insight into the local minds than what you can see at museums.
9. EAT: At one of the restaurants at Büyük Han (the Old Inn).
Büyük Han is an old roadside inn, and it’s the largest of its kind on the entire island. The experience of grabbing a coffee there or eating there is a flashback to ancient times. It was built by the Ottomans when it seized Cyprus from the Venetians in 1572. In the middle of the courtyard, there’s a small mosque with a fountain used for pre-prayer. Later, Büyük Han became the city’s first prison when the British ruled Cyprus. Today, it’s an art center, galleries, restaurants and cafes for locals and travelers to enjoy.
10. DO: Gambling at one of Nicotia's famous casinos.
This might be a strange recommendation, but the Turkish side of Nicosia is filled with casinos! Like how the Chinese head to Macau to gamble, the Turkish people often travel to Nicosia for its numerous casinos since gambling isn’t allowed in Turkey. In fact, Turkey banned casinos in 1998, and non-state online gambling in 2006. In order to roll some dice, the Turkish people arrive to Nicosia for a spin. If you’re feeling a lucky vibe, why not try it too!