Nicosia was our first stop on our trip to Cyprus and left a strong impression for a variety of reasons. The history of Nicosia and Cyprus is very interesting and controversial, but the city is completely safe and there are lots of interesting, fun and quirky things to do in Nicosia. We recommend spending two to three days in Nicosia as well as exploring other parts of the country. We decided to spend the rest of our time road tripping through Northern Cyprus. Located in the middle of Cyprus, it straddles the border of North and South Cyprus with a thin strip of ‘no man’s land’ running through the middle. Tourists can easily cross between the sides on foot at one of the two main border crossings by presenting their passports. The two sides have different languages, currencies and even time zones.
A Brief History of Nicosia
Formally a British colony, Cyprus announced independence in 1960. This was quickly followed by disagreements between Turkish and Greek Cypriots. As a result, Nicosia was split along the middle by the United Nations. The line on the map was drawn in green pen and is now known as The Green Line.
2003 marked the opening of the Ledra Palace crossing and people were able to walk between the two sides of the city for the first time in nearly 30 years. Today there is still some tension between Greek and Turkish Cypriots but most people we talked to (young and old) were keen to see a united Cyprus.
Things to Do in Nicosia – South
This bustling part of the city has a much more European feel, with international franchises such as H&M, McDonald’s and Starbucks lining the main streets. You can also get lost in the cobblestone streets and eat your fill of olives, feta and souvlaki. There is not much going on outside the walls but there is plenty to fill a couple of easy-going days in the old town.
Shacolas Tower This was one of the best attractions in Nicosia. You’ll find the entrance to this on a side street next to H&M. Take the lift to the 11th floor and for €2.50 you can enjoy some stunning views of the city. There is also plenty of information about the buildings in and around the city. As well as timelines of Nicosian history and maps.
Walk Along the Green Line
We found the border between North and South Nicosia utterly fascinating. They seemed to have just picked a point and then blocked off all the streets. So you can be walking along a lovely little lane and then suddenly there’s a barricade covered in barbed wire and a couple of armed gunmen. It’s really interesting to walk along the line and see this as well as the cute houses and graffiti. It’s completely safe to walk along the Green Line but don’t try any funny business like jumping fences.
Relax in Funky Cafés
After a recent trip home to Wellington, world café capital, I rekindled my addiction to cozy, funky cafés and South Nicosia really fulfilled my cravings. We spent a couple of days café hopping enjoying homemade lemonade, Cyprus coffee and relaxing with a book. Check out Kafeneio Arsinois off Ledra Street, Pieto and The Weaving Mill Book Café.
Walk Along the Venetian Walls
Venetian walls surround the entire old town of Nicosia. While most of the action happens in the middle, the walls themselves are nice to walk along, particularly the Southeastern section starting from the Famagusta Gate. If you are in town on a Saturday you might be lucky enough to catch a local football match and the farmers market in full swing.
Ledra Palace Crossing
This is a little out to the East of the old town. The Ledra Palace Hotel used to be—you guessed it—a swanky hotel in the heart of Nicosia. When the city was divided the hotel fell in ‘no man’s land’ and is now the headquarters for the UN. It is also the venue for many peace talks between Turkish and Greek Cypriots. You can cross the border to North Nicosia here and take a stroll through no man’s land including taking a peek at the hotel.
Arriving in North Cyprus you will notice a few differences. Firstly, if you’re there at certain times of year, you will have time traveled forward an hour. Next, everyone speaks Turkish. While the currency is technically the Turkish lira, the euro is widely accepted. There is a distinct lack of chain stores and all of the churches have been replaced with mosques. North Nicosia is a bit rougher around the edges but you’ll find the people just as welcoming, the food just as delicious and just as many things worth exploring.
Have Tea and Snacks
Along the way we stopped at some cute little cafés. Our favorite snacks/meals in North Cyprus were lamacun and borek. Lamacun is Turkish pizza, a thin base covered with mince meat. It is served with fresh parley and lemon juice, which you sprinkle on and then roll the pizza to eat. These cost about €2.50 each. Borek is a pastry filled with cheese or meat, best washed down with a Turkish tea in the adorable glasses. The price averaged around €3 for one borek and two teas.
Have a Hammam
Visiting a hammam in Nicosia is one the most interesting and relaxing things to do in the northern side. The hammam in North Nicosia is supposed to be cheaper and more authentic. For €10 you can use the hammam and for €30 you can enjoy a proper soap and peeling scrub. Buyuk Hammam is open for tourists (mixed genders) from 4pm-9pm every day (closed Monday). Scrubs and massages require an appointment. Nothing beats the feeling of sweating everything out and being scrubbed smooth. Okay, maybe a slight exaggeration but it’s a pretty great feeling.
We loved our time in Nicosia and even went back for another day during our road trip. There are plenty of easy and affordable flights to Cyprus from Europe and it has great weather all year round. And with so many cool things to do in Nicosia there’s enough to keep you occupied for several days. What more could you want in a city break?