In the far reaches of the Mediterranean Basin, where the Greek Aegean gives way to the scorched Levant coast, Cyprus rises from the waters with the promise of ancient legends, timeless Greek and Roman ruins, sleepless party nights, mouth-watering mezze platters, eye-watering backcountry and – of course – picture-perfect beaches. Here, we take a look at the top 15 places to visit on the island, ranging from the trodden south coast to the donkey-dotted reaches of the far-flung northern peninsulas.
The shimmering, seaside jewel in the Cypriot crown, Paphos hugs the lapping cobalt of the Mediterranean on the breezy south-western haunch of the island. Pretty and tourist-friendly in the extreme, the developed centre here (known locally as Kato Paphos) comes complete with palm-shaded esplanades and bubbling al fresco seafood joints. Bobbing fishing boats add to the Grecian flavour, while broadsides of the crumbling Turkic Paphos Fortress, the stony archways of Saranta Kolones (a medieval Byzantine castle that crowns the dock), a famous 2nd century Odeon and the glistening sands of the municipal Alykes Beach are also all major draws. Definitely not one to be missed!
Nestled neatly between two half-baked, scrub-clad headlands midway between the much-trodden towns of Limassol and Paphos, Pissouri oozes laid-back Mediterranean vibes and authentic Cypriot character from its small clutch of tavernas and rustic whitewashed homes. Still largely untouched by the onset of mass tourism, the terracotta-topped village is host to local farmers and wine makers, and boasts one sun-splashed central plaza (Pissouri Square) and regular celebrations of island heritage. And there’s a beach too – a half-pebble, half-sand stretch that arches its way below the rugged cliffs of the south coast just a short jaunt from the town proper.
3. Akamas Peninsula National Park
Rugged and windswept Akamas Peninsula National Park pokes its way out into the swells of the Med to form the north-western horn of Cyprus Island. It’s hailed by many to be one of the last remaining true wildernesses here; home to oodles of endemic species of flora and fauna. Today, ecotourism is booming, and travelers can discover wonders like the chiselled ridges of the Avakas Gorge, winding hiking trails that weave past blooming fields of crocuses and gladioli, thick fir forests, the mythical Baths of Aphrodite and truly secluded beaches to boot. There’s also a loggerhead and green turtle sanctuary that draws a crowd on Lara Bay; showcasing one of the more endangered marine species in the Med.
It’s likely that travelers landing in Cyprus will touch down first in Larnaca International Airport, while those who opt to make a beeline for the city itself (the third-largest in the country) are in for a medley of ancient sites and medieval relics, bustling, built-up seaside promenades and pretty churches. Start with tour of the hallowed Church of Saint Lazarus – the home of the tomb of its eponymous New Testament figure – before exploring the minarets and mosque domes of the Hala Sultan Tekke. And once the culture’s checked, Lanarca’s sun-kissed Phoinikoudes Beach beckons with its sea of colourful sun umbrellas and lines of fasolaki (black bean and lamb stew) touting tavernas. Nice.
Forged by the Peloponnesian Greeks (fresh from the Trojan wars no less), Venetian settlers and Ottoman imperial rulers alike, Kyrenia – Girne in Turkish – remains one of the most enchanting and ancient towns on the entire north coast. The city can be found hugging a shimmering blue harbour on the edge of the rugged Kyrenia mountain range, and tourists now flit between the aromatic kebap and mezze joints here, people watching and enjoying the sight of salt-washed kaiki (traditional fishing boats) bobbing out at sea. Don’t miss the formidable rises of the Kyrenia Castle that dominate the eastern end of the harbour – a sturdy bulwark of Byzantine stone that has made this town such a tactical possession over the centuries.
6. Tombs of the Kings
UNESCO-attested and officially a part of the Paphos Archaeological Park, the mighty Tombs of the Kings are certainly worth a mention in their own right. They date back as far as the 4th century BC and offer an insight into the great mixing of architectural traditions and cultural heritage that took place on Cyprus in antiquity. Note the monolithic construction, and how the dusty colonnades of the various sepulchres emerge almost organically from the sandstone and windswept cliffs here on the edge of Kato Paphos. Curiously it’s Egyptian and Greek styles that dominate, with excavations revealing Doric colonnades and subterranean crevices where the bodies of Hellenistic and Roman noblemen were stowed.
Touting an enchanting Old Town area of rustic low-rise bungalows, a terrific Byzantine castle, a vivacious seaside esplanade that weaves between the shore and the pretty palm-dotted gardens of the Akti Olympion Park, and one of the busiest ports in the entire eastern Mediterranean, Limassol strikes a fine balance between laid-back holidaying, culture-packed sightseeing and modern, Cypriot energy. And while Lady’s and Governor’s Beach dominate the line-up in the day and the fish eateries pull with fresh swordfish in the evening, it’s the clubs and pubs that take centre stage in Limassol after dark, pumping with chart hits, Europop and house between the buzzing strips of Potamos Yermasoyia.
The city that was hewn in two by the tumultuous political upheavals of the last century, Nicosia is slowly but surely regaining its balance. Today, visitors here experience one of the richest and most refined destinations in the country, where a romantic old town of Venetian-style palazzos and sun-splashed squares gives way to a labyrinth of winding alleys where chic bars meet fine-dining joints and al fresco coffee terraces. Meanwhile, North Nicosia (the Turkish side of town) is spiked with the minarets of Selimiye Mosque and awash with bustling Ottoman bazars and Byzantine houses, connected to the Cypriot south by the recently-reopened Ledra Street – a sprightly strip of shops, bars and bistros that’s something of a symbol for the new Nicosia.
Cascading down the pine-dotted hillsides of the rugged Troodos Mountains in the very heart of central Cyprus, Agros’ whitewashed homes and red-tiled roofs shimmer a brilliant white against the Mediterranean sun. Rustic and away from the crowds of the coast, this is where the island’s agrotourism and ecotourism really booms, with hikers and bikers eager to hit the trails around town and foodies in search of the earthy smoked pork fillets and lamb cuts that are famed in these hills. What’s more, roses are one of the region’s main exports, and Agros locals are renowned for their production of rosewater, which is sold in roadside stalls and boutiques throughout the streets.
Nestled on the panhandle where the rugged wilds of the Akamas Peninsula bend into the northern coast, Polis is a laid-back, sun-splashed seaside town that draws visitors (mainly domestic ones) with the promise of an authentic and unhurried holiday. It’s enfolded by sweeping ridges of eucalyptus trees and dusty coastal rocks, and offers an old town centre of low-rise buildings clad in stone, where small beer bars rub shoulders with the ubiquitous souvenir stalls. Other draws include the string of secluded beaches that run along the coast to the west, and the interesting array of Attic ceramics at the Polis Archaeological Museum.
Tiny little Troodos and its rustic array of half-timbered, dry-stone houses sits high up in the middle of the rugged northern reaches of Cyprus Island. It’s famed as the namesake of the great Troodos mountain range that dominates this section of the land, rising to a top with the snow-mantled (at least by winter) summits of Mount Olympos, where – believe it or not – two ski fields operate during the colder months of the year! A haven for hikers and outdoorsy types, this beautiful swathe of undulating peaks comes dressed in calabrian pines and golden oaks, soaring cypress trees and colourful orchid beds, peppered with UNESCO-attested Byzantine churches and crisscrossed by oodles of marked trails.
Famagusta is a culturally-rich town on the eastern end of Cyprus; a city of more than 40,000 people that boasts a buzzing port and a history that goes back all the way to the time when the rulers of Ptolemaic Egypt held sway in this section of the Med. The spot’s real gem, however, is its medieval heart, now hailed as one of the most enchanting walled cities in southern Europe. This is where travelers will find the Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque and its curious Gothic edifices that belie its erstwhile moniker: the Cathedral of St. Nicholas. There are oodles of other renaissance gems to see in the area too, along with the old bullet holes and cannon craters of a 15th century Ottoman siege.
13. Ayia Napa
Just the name Ayia Napa is now synonymous with the Mediterranean’s hedonistic side, and boy does this sun-kissed stretch of pearly white sands and turquoise shore waters live up to its rep as a partying capital. Yes sir, while daytime means soothing hangovers on the sands of Nissi Beach and Grecian Bay, night time here ushers in an endless cacophony of hard house, grime, garage and Europop. The action centres on The Square; a small cobbled kernel of neon-lit bars and determined promoters that throbs with class-act DJs, rowdy pub crawls, multi-coloured shots and one serious lack of inhibitions. You’ve been warned!
Something like the sober side of Ayia Napa, Protaras is a package holidayer’s dream. The town shimmers and shines against the deep blue hues of the Mediterranean Sea; its beaches – crowned by the much-lauded Fig Tree Bay – slope softly down to the lapping shores, peppered with sun loungers, volleyball courts and the occasional concession stand. Meanwhile, luxurious hotels and their crystalline swimming pools line the boardwalk along the coast, bicycles click past and international eateries offer mezze next to pizza and fries. Then there’s the pull of the waters here, with dive outfits operating out the town extolling the fantastic visibility and kaleidoscope of parrot fish, shipwrecks and corals below the surface.
15. The Karpaz Peninsula
The elongated finger of land that stretches out from the north-eastern edge of Cyprus is something of an untrodden gem. It’s only visited by a few tourists each year and as such comes totally undeveloped, wild and rugged. Travelers who do come can expect to find a glorious montage of craggy rocks and salt-sprayed cliffs, secluded coves decorated with blooms of sand lily, and curious wild donkeys roaming between the heaths. Other must-sees in the region include the 10th-century Byzantine castle of Kantara, which sits at the very base of the peninsula, and the Apostolos Andreas Monastery – a pilgrimage destination for many a local.