Nicosia is the last capital in the world to still be divided militarily, and the Green Line at Ledra will intrigue visitors who want to know what it’s like to cross a city checkpoint in the 21st century. On both sides of the divide there’s a lot to see, like the Selimiye Mosque, a hybrid of Christian and Islamic architecture, or the Cyprus Museum, the premier collection of ancient artefacts on the island.
Nicosia’s an un-touristy, businesslike place, but gives you a real sense of urban life in Cyprus. There’s no shortage of friendly cafes and museums in the busy old town, and exciting day trips to the north or mountains in the west. Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Nicosia!
1. Selimiye Mosque
Here’s the slightly confusing sight of a mosque adapted from a former Gothic church. St. Sophia’s Cathedral, the original Christian building, was started during the crusades by the Lusignans, but never actually completed, even though it was the foremost church on the island.
Western eyes will recognise all the features of a gothic church, including the traceried windows and flying buttresses, but bestriding the front of the building are two tall minarets.
The conversion to mosque took place after the Ottoman conquest in the 1500s when most of the Christian iconography was removed.
2. Cyprus Museum
The island is a treasure chest of ancient civilisation; almost every town has an excavation site close by.
Many of the best pieces discovered at these digs are on display at the Cyprus Museum, the island’s biggest and best archaeological exhibition.
This is a gateway to Cyprus’ rich history and what’s great about the attraction is that only pieces recovered on the island are on display.
The exhibits begin in the Stone Age and conclude with the Roman era, featuring coins, sculptures, jewellery and everyday household items, as well as priceless treasures from the Ancient Greek Tombs of Salamis.
3. Byzantine Museum
Lefkosia’s Byzantine Museum, in the grounds of St. John’s Cathdedral, is a comprehensive exhibition of Byzantine art spanning almost 1,500 years.
The earliest pieces are seven mosaic fragments looted from the northern Church of Kanakaria and sold abroad, but since brought back to the south.
Also stolen and repatriated are 36 fragments of a 15th-century wall painting from a church in Kalogrea.
There are also 230 icons, many richly decorated and dating between the years 800 and 1900. These sumptuous paintings are complemented by a collection of vestments, books and sacred vessels.
4. Cypriot Coffee
To see Nicosia through the eyes of a Nicosian you’ll need to park yourself at a street-side cafe and order a cup of traditional (and very powerful) Cypriot coffee.
This is brewed in a tall copper pot with a long handle to manoeuvre it on the stove. Sugar is added to the water and coffee powder while the water is still cold, and when you can order you’ll be able to choose between sweet (glykis), medium (metrios) and unsweetened (sketos).
When you finish your coffee you’ll notice there’s a residue at the bottom of the cup: Make sure not to drink this!
5. Ledra Street
Traditionally Nicosia’s main shopping artery, Ledra Street was sealed off by the militarised boundary between north and south Nicosia after Bloody Christmas in 1963.
The street was only reopened in 2008, and has now become a hub for commerce once more. The reopening was a big step for the improving relationship between once irreconcilable parties.
The Shacolas Tower on this Ledra Street has a public observation tower on its 11th floor, with a wide-ranging view of the city and the north-south UN buffer zone as it ripples along the landscape.
6. Famagusta Gate
In the years preceding the Ottoman invasion of Cyprus the Venetians bolstered Nicosia’s defences and you can still see the walls and gates that they constructed.
Famagusta Gate is the most impressive fragment of these old defences and is an exact copy of the Lazaretto Gate that was built by the Venetians for Candia on Crete.
After being used for storage by the British it was restored in the 1980s, breathing new life in to the Tahl-el-Kale neighbourhood around it.
The gate has a two-lane passageway lit from above by a dome that is based on Rome’s Pantheon, and today is a cultural centre where exhibitions are held throughout the year.
7. Büyük Han
After the Ottomans took over Cyprus in the 16th century this marvellous caravanserai was one of the first things they built.
A caravanserai is a kind of inn for merchants and other travellers, set around a central courtyard in the middle of which is a masjid, or small mosque.
Büyük Han is two storeys in height and has been beautifully restored over the last 20 years, after a few decades when it was used as a prison by the British. It’s now a centre for the arts, with galleries, studios and workshops.
8. Folk Art Museum
This exhibition of Cypriot art has a splendid home, inside the city’s old Episcopal palace, which was built in the 1400s but has portions that go back a further 200 years.
The museum was founded in the 1930s as part of an effort to preserve handmade embroideries, metalwork, lace, pottery, textiles and more after the advent of machine-powered mass production.
There are 5,000 items in the museum’s collection and as well as intricate decorative pieces you can see historic farming implements such as olive presses, water mills and threshing boards.
9. Machairas Monastery
Set 40 kilometres south of Nicosia is this delightful 12th-century monastery built in the middle-byzantine style.
The monastery takes its name from an iconic painting of the Virgin Mary by Luke the Apostle, which legend has it was smuggled here from Asia Minor to Cyprus by a hermit.
The monastery is a central church enclosed by a rectangular courtyard with cloisters all around.
These stunning buildings in front of a landscape of dark pinewood hills is one of the most beautiful scenes in Cyprus.
The picture alone is worth the trip, but the church’s interior is delightful with opulent frescoes, icons and gilded chandeliers.
Around 45 minutes southwest of Nicosia is this small upland village that today only has three residents.
Fikardou has been left untouched and is currently being considered for UNESCO status as the settlement is a perfect example of traditional Cypriot rural architecture.
The village was inhabited from the 400s, but by the 1800s Fikardou’s population was dwindling.
What is left is a Cypriot community before electricity and cars arrived on the island.
On a visit you could spend your time negotiating the village’s steep paths are flanked by quaint stone houses topped with fading red terracotta tiles.
11. Pivo Microbrewery
Nicosia’s only brewpub, Pivo was set up by three brothers and their cousin who learned their craft in the Czech Republic, the home of lager.
At Pivo, you can sample four beer varieties (pilsner, Bavarian weiss, dark lager and American IPA) straight from the tank unfiltered and unpasteurised.
These four mainstays are joined by a range of seasonal and limited edition beers, so whenever you visit you’ll have something different to try!
There’s a great menu of Cypriot favourites to pair with you beer and the old-town setting is also part of the charm: Pivo is a 100 year-old manor house with marble archways, stone walls and wooden furniture.
12. Whirling Dervish Performance
On the northern side of Nicosia check out a spiritual ritual practiced for centuries.
At Tekkes, spiritually significant meeting places, men who practice the Sufi form of Islam gather for a kind of dance that is unique in the Islamic world.
A performance will last for around half an hour, in which Dervishes in long white robes and conical hats will spin on the spot.
For the spectator it’s an emotionally-charged spectacle, especially when combined with live musicians and vocals. For the Dervishes it’s a form of moving meditation, and once they get going they’ll barely even notice you’re there.
On the North Cyprus coast, Kyrenia is a gorgeous little port town framed by the formidable peaks of the Pentadaktylos Mountains.
The harbour was fortified by the Venetians who bolstered its imposing fortress with thick roundels that have survived for almost half a millennium.
You could take a tour of the old town’s narrow alleys and take dinner by the water to round off a perfect day trip.
If you visit Kyrenia in June you can get to know the town’s Turkish culture when a variety of Turkish and international bands put on concerts.
14. St. Hilarion Castle
High above the road that snakes down to Kyrenia is this astounding building that deserves an hour of your time.
From a distance this castle, that guarded the historic mountain pass between Nicosia and Kyrenia, can be difficult to pick out from the white stone bluffs that protect it.
Once you’re on the site it’s a real joy to explore the fragmented stairways, walls and towers, while the view encapsulates a massive sweep of the northern coast.
St. Hilarion started out as an upland hermitage, but the Byzantines and then the Lusignan’s fortified the complex to defend against Arab coastal raids.
15. Panagia Asinou
The Troodos Mountains are southwest of Nicosia, and together with their awesome scenery the pine-covered slopes of this range hide some astounding pieces of Byzantine heritage.
The must-see is an ensemble of ten medieval churches with murals that have earned UNESCO World Heritage status.
The most accessible from the capital is Panagia Asinou outside Nikitari, 50 kilometres west of Nicosia.
You won’t regret the trip, as the entire interior walls are covered with Constantinople-inspired 12th century frescoes, as colourful as the day they were painted.