Birthplace of Aphrodite and crossroads between three continents, Cyprus has seduced and inspired generations of travellers for hundreds of years. And it continues to do so today. The promise of Cyprus is one of dazzling beaches, shimmering blue seas, endless summers and tables groaning under heaped platters of mezé and bottles of sweet chilled wine.
On the cusp between West and East, between Christian and Muslim, and with towns and cities that are vibrantly modern yet bear witness to the island’s long and culturally diverse history, Cyprus is blessed with a balmy climate and a rugged landscape of coast and mountains dotted with vineyards, villages and monasteries. Cyprus has earned its place as one of Europe’s tourist hotspots. From quaint, rustic cottages to luxury hotel complexes, from welcoming village tavernas to burgeoning fine-dining restaurants, from coastal resorts with all the tourist bells and whistles to empty wilderness peninsulas and forested mountains, Cyprus can cater for all tastes. And native Cypriots, whether Greek or Turkish, are famous for the warmth of their hospitality.
Venture beyond the resorts, with their karaoke bars and restaurants knocking out fish and chips, pizza and, more recently, Russian stroganoff, and it’s not hard to find another Cyprus. Traces of the exotic and Levantine are never far away, from ruined Lusignan and Venetian castles and elegant Islamic minarets to cool mountain villages hiding sacred icons from the very first days of Christianity.
No stranger to turbulence and strife, Cyprus has suffered waves of foreign invaders, from Mycenaean Greeks and Persians to sunburnt Crusaders, Ottoman pashas, and British Empire-builders. More recently, it has attracted numerous Russian expats. Internal division, too, has left its mark on the island. First, in the 1950s and 60s, came the struggle by Greek Cypriots for independence and union with Greece, then intercommunal violence prompted by fears among the minority Turkish Cypriots regarding what union with Greece might mean for them, and finally the Turkish invasion of the island in 1974 which resulted in its de facto partition between a Turkish Cypriot north and a Greek Cypriot south. Bitterness caused by the split lives on today. However, in recent years the easing of tensions and the gradual opening up of the Green Line has made it easier for travellers to explore the island as a whole. It is now possible to experience both sides of the divide in one day, and in the capital you can immerse yourself in two distinct cultures – Greek and Turkish, Christian and Muslim – simply by walking down a street and crossing between the two halves of the city.
Cyprus, then, offers the traveller not only a welcome whose warmth is legendary, but both hedonistic pleasure and cultural diversity out of all proportion to its size.
Where to go in Cyprus
One of the great advantages of Cyprus as a holiday destination is that it’s a relatively small island offering a huge variety of attractions, scenery and activities linked together by an excellent road system. Wherever you stay, you can get to pretty much anywhere else in a day.
The vast majority of tourists begin their trip on the narrow coastal strip in the south, which hosts the main towns of Larnaka, Lemesos and Pafos, each with a historic old town, promenade and popular beaches. Beyond them, to the north, foothills rise to the island’s main mountain range, the Troodos Massif, dotted with villages, churches and monasteries. To the west of the island is a plateau covered in vineyards, the great wilderness forest of Tilliria and the stark empty beauty of the Akamas Peninsula. North of the Troodos (and lying within Turkish-occupied north Cyprus), lie the more impressive but less lofty mountains of the Kyrenia Range. Beyond here is the even narrower northern coastal strip on which Girne/Kyrenia is by far the most important and most beautiful town. To the east is the broad and largely flat Mesaorian Plain on which stands the island’s divided capital, Nicosia, known today as Lefkosia (south) or Lefkoşa (north); further east is the crumbling port city of Gazimağusa/Famagusta, with its range of pretty and not-so-pretty ruins, and the long, tapering Karpaz Peninsula, home to wild donkeys and far-flung villages.
For traditional sun, sea and sand holidays, you have an extensive choice – in the south, Protaras and Agia Napa, east of Larnaka, the beaches either side of Lemesos, Pafos and its satellite Coral Bay – which are packed with resorts offering a range of activities; in the north, the coast either side of Girne and north of Gazimağusa offers more of the same. For smaller hotels with a more individual character, try the north coast around Polis and the Akamas Peninsula, or the hill villages of the Troodos Mountains, which offer traditional homes converted into guest houses.
For a taste of Cyprus’s newly developed restaurant scene head to Lemesos, the island’s gastronomic capital. Lefkosia also boasts several cool cafés and Cyprus’s best shopping, while the northern towns of Girne and Gazimağusa provide a relaxed harbour-side ambience. Wine lovers are particularly well-catered for by the wine museum and wine festival in Lemesos, and by six well-signposted wine routes in Pafos and Lemesos districts.
Cyprus has a rich history, and virtually every region has its Roman (or earlier) ruin, its Byzantine church, a Crusader castle or Ottoman mosque, plus some grand British colonial architecture. Standout sights include the prehistoric villages at Tenta and Choirokoitia, the ancient cities of Kourion and Salamis, crusader castles such as those at Kolossi and Lemesos in the south and St Hilarion, Buffavento and Kantara in the north, monasteries like Kykkos and Machairas, and the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage painted churches of the Troodos Mountains. Ottoman architecture can be admired in Lefkoşa’s Büyük Han, and Muslim mosques in Hala Sultan Tekke in Larnaka or Hazret Omer Tekke east of Girne.
For nature and the great outdoors, the Troodos and Kyrenia mountains offer superb climbing, hiking and cycling, the seas around the island provide stimulating dive sites, and the beaches at Lara Bay in the west and Algadi in the northeast are great for turtle-watching. Golfers will enjoy the fine courses in Pafos and Girne. Across the island look out for the colourful religious and village festivals that take place in spring, summer and autumn.
In terms of what to avoid, be aware that certain southern resorts (especially parts of Lemesos) can be quite sleazy (dominated, it’s said, by the Russian mafia), with dubious “gentlemen’s clubs” and sex workers operating openly in the streets. North Cyprus has also developed a reputation for vice and more obviously gambling; driven by Turkish organized crime, its dozens of casinos attract not only Turks from the mainland but also, perhaps surprisingly, hedonists from the south.
Crossing the Green Line
With seven crossing points now open across the Green Line – the de facto border separating the northern and southern sectors of Cyprus – visitors can stay in the south and cross to the north as often as they like. It’s not yet quite as straightforward the other way around (cars rented in the north, for example, are not allowed to cross to the south), but things appear to become more relaxed each year. Visitors accustomed to heavily signposted checkpoints elsewhere in the world will be surprised at how anonymous these Cypriot ones are – on both sides of the Green Line. If you’re not careful, you can find yourself stumped as to how to get back so be sure to take a note of landmarks and directions and take a map (preferably two, owing to the different place names used either side of the line). The crossing points (west to east) are:
The most recent (and prettiest), crossing, in the hills above Kato Pyrgos. This represents the westernmost part of the TRNC (apart from the militarized Kokkina Enclave). The best crossing for visiting the Palace of Vouni and Soli from the west.
The best crossing for Morphou/Güzelyurt from the main Lefkosia–Troodos road. Cars only.
The closest vehicle crossing point to Lefkosia, ideal for Kerynia and the north coast.
Ledra Palace, Lefkosia
Pedestrians only, just outside the Venetian walls on the western side of the city.
Ledra Street, Lefkosia
Pedestrians only. At the top of south Nicosia’s main shopping street, and therefore the best for exploring north Nicosia.
Best place to cross into the north from Larnaka.
The easternmost crossing point, and the most convenient for visiting Gazimağusa (Famagusta) from Agia Napa, Paralimni and Deryneia.
• Cyprus, with a land area of 9251 square kilometres, is the third largest island in the Mediterranean. Its nearest neighbours are Turkey (75km) and Syria (105km) respectively. The capital, once Nicosia, now Lefkosia and Lefkoşa, is over 900km from Athens and only 250km from Beirut. The island’s highest point, at 1952m, is Mount Olympos.
• The official population (of the whole island) stands at just under 900,000, of which the majority (around 70 per cent) are Greek Cypriot (and therefore Orthodox Christian), while Turkish Cypriots (and therefore Muslims) are in the minority (around 10 per cent). There’s also a significant expat community based on the island.
• The government of the Republic of Cyprus (and therefore de jure of the whole island) is a democracy which, since 2004, has been a member of the EU. North Cyprus, occupied by Turkey since 1974, has declared itself to be the “Turkish Republic of North Cyprus”, but is recognized internationally only by Turkey. Since 2003 the number of crossing points on the dividing (and UN-administered) Green Line has increased to seven, with two more in the pipeline. Attempts to reunite the island are ongoing, reinvigorated by a new negotiating process introduced in February 2014.
• Over 1 million Britons visit Cyprus each year (42 percent of total arrivals). The fastest growing group of visitors are Russians (over half a million in each of 2013, 2014 and 2015).
• Famous people of Cypriot origin include singers George Michael, Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens), Peter Andre and Tulisa Contostavlos (N-Dubz), actress Angela Bowie (ex-wife of David), sportspersons Marco Baghdatis (tennis) and Muzzy Izzet (Premiership football), celebrity chef George Calombaris (Masterchef Australia), businessmen Stelios Haji-Ioannou (founder of easyJet) and Asil Nadir (of Polly Peck fame) and artist Tracey Emin.