The city of LEFKOSIA (still widely known as south Nicosia by locals) is by far the largest settlement on Cyprus, though by international standards it is still pretty small, with a total population, in the part controlled by the Government, of 246,400. Until 1974 Nicosia was the capital of the unified island; now the southern half, Lefkosia, forms the capital of the republic while the northern half, known as Lefkoşa is the capital of the Turkish occupied, self-styled TRNC – when the Berlin Wall fell, Nicosia became the last divided capital in the world.
A political and financial centre, not just for the republic and the Eastern Mediterranean, but for the whole of the Middle East, Lefkosia is less dependent on tourism than anywhere else on the island. Yet there is still a great deal to see and do in the southern, republic-controlled half of the city, as well as in the Turkish-controlled northern half. Within the forbidding Venetian Walls of the old city are the excellent Cyprus Museumandthe Leventis City Museum, as well as the Shacolas Tower which offers unparalleled views to the north. You’ll also find some of Cyprus’s best restaurants and its most sophisticated shopping. There are also many interesting sights in the newer parts of the city and beyond – especially the Police and Coinage museums and the Cyprus Handicrafts Centre in the suburbs, and the ancient city of Tamassos, a short drive to the south.
While the capital remains divided, the opening of checkpoints between the republic and the occupied north (the most accessible being Ledra Street) enables you to sample two cultures in a single day. The division is still “in your face”, particularly in the derelict areas of the Buffer Zone, and a journey between south and north offers you a real insight into the Cyprus Problem.
Thought to have originated in a small town (Ledra) established by Lefkonas, son of Ptolemy I in 300 BC, Nicosia grew significantly under the Byzantines. Its inland position, protected by the island’s two main mountain ranges, kept it safe from attack from the sea, and well placed for the political and religious administration of the country. The Lusignans fortified the city and it was under them that Nicosia experienced a “golden age” during which numerous palaces, churches and monasteries were built. This has left an impressive, if patchy, legacy of Gothic Crusader remains. Lusignan prosperity, however, ended with a series of attacks – by the Genoese in 1372 and the Mamelukes in 1426, and finally, after the Venetians had hastily thrown up the massive walls you see today, by the Ottomans who sacked the city in 1570. There then followed a period of three centuries when, although the population were better off financially than they had been under the Venetians, the city settled into a kind of quiet decrepitude, interspersed with bouts of extreme violence – in 1764 Turkish riots against rule from Constantinople led to the death of a particularly hated governor; in 1821 the authorities indulged in mass executions of leading Greek citizens to discourage support for the Greek War of Independence.
In 1870 the British took over the island and continued with Lefkosia as capital. It was during their watch that the city finally burst out of the Venetian battlements, especially after World War II when colonial administrative offices moved outside the walls. During the fight for independence the city’s Pancyprian Gymnasium was a hotbed of EOKA involvement and sympathy among teachers and students. While the fight against the British intensified, intercommunal violence built up to such an extent that even before the Turkish invasion of 1974, de facto partition was well under way, with the north of the city becoming mainly Turkish, the south mainly Greek. In 1963 the British bowed to the inevitable and made the division official – a line (in green pencil, hence the name) was drawn on the map of the city, dividing it into Greek and Turkish areas. The 1974 invasion simply confirmed the division and caused an influx of refugees from the north. As a result, there was extensive further development of the area outside the walls to house displaced Greek Cypriots.
Over the years various practical initiatives have tried to cope with the fact that the city is split in half. In 1979 a joint sewerage plan was drawn up, followed in the 1980s by the Lefkosia Master Plan, promoted by both the UN and the EU, under which planners from both sides have started to cooperate on such things as renovating buildings along the Green Line and pedestrianizing streets in the city centre. Much of this is based on the assumption of the eventual reunification of the city; and the opening of the Ledra Street crossing in 2008 has gone at least some way towards achieving this.
There is much to see aroundLefkosia, and it would be a mistake to concentrate solely on the capital. Most of the district’s wilder areas of mountain and forest are considered part of the Troodos Mountains, but there are also a few worthwhile sights beyond the (seemingly endless) industrial estates and suburbs to the south and west. The areas to the east and north of Lefkosia, of course, lie in the Turkish-controlled zone, though these are now also easily accessible.
On the same road (the E903) as Kato Deftera but 7km further south is the large modern village of POLITIKO which stands on the site of the ancient city-state of Tamassos. A mention of “Temessis” in Homer’s Odyssey is thought to refer to it, and other sources indicate a large and prosperous city whose wealth was based almost entirely on the production of copper. The study of Tamassos is very much a work in progress, with German excavations during the 1970s having unearthed a sanctuary dedicated to Aphrodite next to the remains of early copper production. Finds from the area include the “Chatsworth Head” – a bronze head of Apollo, purchased by the Duke of Devonshire (and named for his residence) and now in the British Museum – and a group of six large limestone statues of sphinxes and lions now on display in the Cyprus Museum.
The star attraction of the Tamassos remains is its pair of Royal Tombs, dating from the sixth century BC and first excavated towards the end of the nineteenth century, which stand on the northeastern edge of Politiko, their entrance steps protected by wood-and-tile louvred structures. Once down the steps and through modern Perspex doors, the simplicity of the design of the tomb chambers and the quality of the stonework give them the feel of the interior of Egyptian pyramids. This minimalism is slightly misleading – the tombs undoubtedly had great piles of statuary, gold and other goods, long pinched by grave-robbers (in one of the tombs there’s a still-visible hole in the roof). Look out, too, for the skilful carving of the stone to simulate wood. The site itself is on raised ground which gives views of fields, poplars, cypresses and vineyards of the surrounding areas.
The eastern side of Lefkosia has a number of sights, from the Ottoman-era Omeriye Mosque and baths to the magnificent Hadjigeorgakis Kornesios House. Further east are several attractions key to Greek Cypriot identity, concentrated on the Archbishop’s Palace. Continuing east you come to the imposing Venetian walls and bastions that incorporate some fairly workaday buildings including the post office, public library and the Town Hall, before you reach the florid Liberty Monument at the Caraffa Bastion. The areas fringing the walls contain a mixture of public gardens, playing fields, and the best car park (between the D’Avila and Constanza bastions) for access to the city centre. Just outside the Constanza Bastion is the estimable State Collection of Contemporary Art.
Five minutes’ walk north of the Hadjigeorgakis Kornesios Mansion stands a rather grand complex of buildings centred on the Archbishop’s Palace, official residence and offices of the Archbishop, and closed to visitors. Built in the early 1960s to celebrate independence, and rebuilt in the 1980s following virtual destruction during the 1974 Nikos Samson coup, it exudes a sense of spaciousness that is missing in much of the rest of the city. Until 2008 a gargantuan statue of Archbishop Makarios III stood before the palace, but it was moved (perhaps as a result of negative comments about its artistic merit, or as an attempt to signal a willingness to consider reconciliation) and now overlooks the car park at Makarios’s tomb. The two busts which remain in front of the palace are those of archbishops Kyprianos and Sopronios – the former was executed, together with over four hundred prominent Greek Cypriots, by the Turks in 1821; the latter was in office when the British took over the island, and was the first to articulate the demand for enosis (union) with Greece.
Within the Archbishop’s Palace precinct is the church of Agios Ioannis, which doubles as the city’s cathedral. In its scale and simplicity it seems to put to shame the extravagant architecture of the palace itself. Built in 1662 on the site of a previous Lusignan Benedictine abbey, it wasn’t actually promoted to cathedral status until 1720. The interior is as splendid as its exterior is modest, boasting an original set of frescoes (including one from St Barnanas’s tomb in Salamis), a carved and gold-leaf adorned iconostasis and four large icons, all dating from the eighteenth century. The cathedral contains the throne on which the archbishop is crowned, together with seating for the president and the Greek ambassador to be used on state occasions.
In the northwest wing of the palace is the Archbishop Makarios III Cultural Centre, which, apart from a library and a church music school, houses the impressive Byzantine Museum and Art Gallery. This contains the largest collection of icons in Cyprus (the second largest in the world), and includes, in a separate annexe, the famous Kanakaria Mosaics, infamously stolen from the church of Panagia Kanakaria in north Cyprus in the late 1970s. Vividly coloured, if a little rough in the execution, the occasional sense of distorted perspective is explained by the fact that originally they were mounted on the curved apse of the church, whereas here they are mounted flat. Elsewhere in the museum are 150 icons and numerous frescoes from all over Cyprus and beyond.
Hadjigeorgakis Kornesios was the Great Dragoman of Cyprus from 1779 until 1804. Although the word “dragoman” simply means “interpreter or guide”, the Great Dragoman wielded considerable political clout, being the main link between Greek Orthodox subjects and Ottoman authorities. One of the principal responsibilities was the collection of taxes. By creaming off his own cut, being personally tax-exempt and amassing large estates, Kornesios became the richest man on the island. But his comeuppance arrived in 1804 when a revolt against the authorities drove him and his family to seek asylum in Constantinople. From there, he organized troops to put the rebellion down. When he returned to the island, further political skulduggery led to his downfall. He was called back to Constantinople, found guilty of embezzlement and maladministration, and beheaded.
Within the walls, South Lefkosia’s main tourist area lies between Ledra Street (also known as Lidras), which runs north from the D’Avila Bastion to the checkpoint into north Cyprus (see the section Visiting the North from South Lefkosia), and Aischylou which parallels it to the east. Much of this area is pedestrianized, and contains the touristy Laiki Geitonia traditional quarter the Leventis Museum, the Shacolas Tower, within which is the Ledra Museum and Observatory, the Bank of Cyprus Cultural Foundation and Museum, and the Faneromeni Church. Just to the east of Aischylou is the Cyprus Postal and Philatelic Museum.
Housed in an unassuming little building tucked away down a side street to the east of Aischylou, the Cyprus Postal and Philatelic Museum is surprisingly interesting, even for those who find the attractions of philately inexplicable. Although it covers postal services on the island since Venetian times, the bulk of the exhibits refer to the period of British rule, when a modern mail system was established, and the period since independence. Brits will find some of the exhibits (the Victorian post boxes for example) very familiar. But then there are the stamps themselves, which, as well as showing what Cyprus considered worth commemorating (the great Pafos mosaics, for example, or the indigenous moufflon), are also miniature works of art in their own right. Stamps bearing portraits of President Makarios inevitably loom large and are used as a case study to illustrate “How a stamp is born”. The curator (Ploutis Loizou) is happy to talk on all things stamp-related for as long as you’ve got, and you can of course buy packets of stamps and commemorative issues.
Laiki Geitonia is the focus of tourist Lefkosia. Pedestrianized during the 1980s as part of the Lefkosia Master Plan, this area to the east of Lidras Street and north of the D’Avila Bastion is a mishmash of alleys and lanes, where the tables, chairs and parasols of bars and restaurants have colonized the spaces between the buildings and racks of tourist souvenirs spill out of shops onto the pavements. This creates a veritable rabbit warren where, thankfully, given how hot Lefkosia can become, the sun barely penetrates.
Open since April 2008, the Ledra Street crossing provides pedestrian access to the north Cypriot part of the city (and indeed of the island) with the minimum of fuss. There are no formalities on the part of the republic’s officials, except that you might be searched for contraband on your return. On the northern side (all of 20m beyond the southern office) you need to queue at the row of kiosks, fill in a visa form (which you keep, and have stamped as you come back across), and off you go. In the past there was considerable propagandist posturing at the crossing, but now it’s all much friendlier. For example, on the southern side of the crossing a comprehensive display of photographs focuses on joint north–south ventures, such as the clearing of land mines, and police cooperation. It’s all a far cry from the UN-manned barrier, boarded-up buildings, barbed wire and no-photography signs that used to be here.
The eleven-storey Shacolas Tower, owned by multi-millionaire philanthropist Nicos Shacolas, is the tallest building in Lefkosia. Once used by Cypriots to peer over the Buffer Zone into northern Cyprus (now rendered redundant by the pedestrian crossing), the views from the tower’s eleventh-floor observatory are still remarkable, and detailed information boards tell you precisely what you’re gazing down on (you can borrow binoculars if you want a closer look). It’s the best place from which to view the gigantic and inflammatory TRNC flag painted on the hillside to the north of the city. A fine aerial photo of the city provides orientation and there’s an introductory video about the history of the city.
The first five floors are occupied by Debenhams, while on the sixth floor is the Venue Cafeteria, a good place to have a coffee while continuing to enjoy the views. Note that you can’t reach the observatory via the department store – a separate entrance can be found down the side street to the right.
The Leventis Museum (one of the many projects of a foundation named after Cypriot philanthropist Anastasios Leventis) provides a brilliantly organized introduction to the history of the republic’s capital. Housed in a stunning Neoclassical mansion in the heart of Laiki Geitonia, it starts with three rooms which give a broad sweep of nine thousand years of world history and an outline of the city’s development from prehistoric times to the present day. This is followed by a chronological series of galleries covering the Byzantine years, the Frankish period and so on up to the British period, and is interspersed with well-presented, varied exhibits dealing with particular subjects, from Gothic architecture and maps to jewellery and pottery). If you’re pushed for time, check out the museum’s “mini guide” which promises to introduce you to all the important stuff in less than an hour. Photography is allowed (ask for a permit), but you mustn’t use a flash
Three of the seven Green Line crossing points are in Lefkosia: two pedestrian-only ones at the Ledra Palace and Ledra Street, and one for vehicles and pedestrians at Agios Dometios. This means that Lefkosia is the best place from which visitors can get a taste of northern Cyprus while being based in the south. Red tape is minimal – if you’re on foot, all you need is your passport. If you’re concerned that having a TRNC stamp in your passport might cause you grief on any future visit to Greece or Cyprus, ask that a separate slip of paper be stamped rather than the passport itself. You can then use this slip for any subsequent forays into the north. The most convenient place to cross on foot into north Lefkosia is the Ledra Street crossing from where the whole of the northern part of Lefkosia can be explored on foot.
Though getting into the north by car is a little more complicated, formalities are still minimal – you’ll need your passport, plus proof that you have motor insurance which is valid in the north. Some car rental companies will arrange this for you when you pick up your rental car; otherwise, you can get insurance at the border. But it still only takes a matter of minutes. The Agios Dometios crossing point is west of the city centre. It’s not well signposted (this is common on both sides of the Green Line) – when driving west along Leoforos Agiou Pavlou, when the road bears sharply to the left (immediately after Lefkosia Racecourse), look out for the crossing on the right. From the Agios Dometios crossing it’s no more than half an hour’s drive to Girne (Kyrenia), Cyprus’s most picturesque town, and to its spectacular mountain backdrop.
Ledra Music Soloists International Festival (early April)Two-week festival of chamber music held at the PASYDY Auditorium.
International Festival of Ancient Greek Drama (late July/early August) Held in Lefkosia, Lemesos and Pafos.
Septemberfest (mid-Sept) Beer festival held at the Constanza Bastion. As well as a good range of ales there’s music and dance, plus children’s events.
Ice Cream Festival (late Sept) Free ice creams and entertainment to be enjoyed at the Famagusta Gate Moat.
Cyprus International Film Festival (late Sept) Established film festival with screenings followed by Q&A sessions with directors.
Pharos International Contemporary Music Festival (Aug/Sept) Twentieth-and twenty-first-century avant-garde music at the Shoe Factory, the Pharos Foundation’s Lefkosia venue.
Rainbow Festival (mid-Oct) International music and dance. Festival run by Action for Equality, Support and Antiracism. Also held in Larnaka and Pafos.
Ever since the Turkish invasion of 1974 and the partition of the island, peace plans have foundered on the opposition of one or other of the communities. However, behind the scenes, a number of initiatives have gone ahead, involving north–south cooperation. The best example of this is the Lefkosia Master Plan. Beginning with a distinctly pragmatic agreement for the construction of a common sewerage system in 1978, it quickly flowered into a more general agreement on a development plan for Lefkosia. In 1981 a “bicommunal multidisciplinary team” was set up to further the plan. Efforts were concentrated on the old city contained within the walls. Neighbourhoods on both sides of the Green Line were designated for restoration, shopping and artisan zones identified and traffic improved. A start was even made on rescuing the many imposing buildings stuck in the Buffer Zone, which have been decaying for nearly forty years. Though the Lefkosia Master Plan has concentrated on a clutch of practical initiatives, it implies that reunification is, in the long term, the only sensible solution for both the city and the island.
The principal aid to orientation in Lefkosia is the city's Venetian walls – an aerial view of the city shows their absolutely regular star or snowflake shape punctuated by eleven bastions. What it doesn’t show is the eyesore of the Buffer Zone – dilapidated buildings with boarded-up windows, barricaded streets, weeds growing everywhere – that separates South Lefkosia from the Turkish-occupied north. Taking the whole of the walled city, the Green Line cuts it into two roughly equal parts. As a general rule of thumb, most of the old city lies within the walls, which remain relatively complete, and most of the modern sprawl created by the city’s expansion during British rule and then after independence lies outside. The scale of the city is such that you don’t need to worry about getting around – it’s easily walkable, apart from a couple of suburban sights.
A short walk west of Lidras, the area around the Pafos Gate, where the Green Line and the Venetian walls intersect, has a clutch of minor attractions, both inside and just outside the walls. The Holy Cross Catholic Church, the Maronite Church and the Kasteliotissa Hall, together with the Cyprus Classic Motor Cycle Museum, are concentrated in an area which epitomizes the depressing effects of partition – barbed wire, armed guards and no-photography signs. Just outside the walls in this uninspiring corner of the city lies one of its greatest glories – the Cyprus Museum, at the edge of a Municipal Park which also contains the House of Representatives and the Municipal Theatre. On the Pafos Gate roundabout look out for the statue of Markos Drakos, a hero of the War of Independence.
Outside the walls and the Pafos Gate, at the top of Mouseiou and to the left of the Municipal Gardens, is the Cyprus Museum, the single most important attraction in Lefkosia. Here you’ll find a trove of archeological treasures representing the many cultures which have inhabited the island. It’s all slightly old-fashioned and the collection is beginning to outgrow the current building – a new, purpose-built museum building has long been promised, but, courtesy of the world financial crisis, has still not arrived.
The first few rooms take you through objects from earliest (Neolithic) times to the arrival of the Romans. As well as local pottery you can see Mycenaean, Phoenician, and Greek designs, a reflection of Cyprus’s trading position between Europe and the Middle East. Highlights from rooms IV to VI include the hundreds of clay figurines and statues from the Sanctuary at Agia Irini, Egyptian and Assyrian finds, and some stunning Greek and Roman marbles and bronzes. Room XI, not to be missed, has the rich pickings from the Royal Tombs of Salamis, including an impressive, ivory-decorated bed, two thrones, a large bronze cauldron on a tripod and much else. Also from Salamis, in Room XIII, are the sculptures which came from the gymnasium, together with photographs of the excavations from pre-1974 – Salamis is now in north Cyprus.
An absolute must-see is the semicircle of seventh- and sixth-century BC terracotta figures found at Agios Irini in northwest Cyprus. Over two thousand figures portraying warriors, war-chariots, demon-servants and snakes, from life-size down to 10cm or so, are collected in a crescent-shaped display case which reproduces the positions, gathered round an altar, in which they were discovered – tallest at the rear, smallest at the front. Opposite the display is a screen playing an excellent video that traces the long relationship between Cyprus and the Swedish archeologists who carried out most of the excavations on the island, led by Einer Gjerstad. Look out, too, for the superb display and slide show about the Paphos mosaics. A brief summary can’t do justice to the richness and variety of the exhibits on show so it’s best to take your time and focus on a couple of areas.
Most of the things that are worth seeing in the capital are inside or just outside its Venetian walls, and within walking distance of each other. However, the city suburbs also merit a visit – the area of Strovolos, for example, wasn’t established until 1986, yet is now almost as big as Lemesos. Dotted around these recently developed outskirts are a number of attractions worth visiting, but realistically you’ll need a car or taxi to get around.
Well signposted to the west of Leoforos Lemesou (the main road south towards the A1 motorway) is the Cyprus Handicraft Centre, consisting of a range of workshops turning out craft items using traditional methods. Established by the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism with the support of the UN Refugee Agency, it represents a determined attempt to revive traditional folk art. In a low-key modern building laid out around a shady central garden, craftspeople can be seen hard at work producing clothes, leatherwork, woodwork, basketry, metalwork, pottery, tapestry and embroidery. You can chat to the workers, buy quality-assured items without fear of being ripped off, and feel that you are supporting a worthwhile enterprise. This is the flagship of other such schemes across the island (for example in Larnaka, Lemesos and Pafos), and you’ll find plenty of information on Cypriot crafts, such as the traditional pottery of Fini, or Lefkara lace.
Just east of, and visible from, the main road (Leoforos Lemesou) into Lefkosia from the motorway is the Cyprus Police Museum. One of those small specialist museums that can be an absolute delight, the museum is housed in a clean white building with appropriate blue trim which sits inside the main police HQ. You approach from Evangelou Floraki, a small street which runs parallel to the main road – if you can’t find the way in, ask at the main gate and they’ll give you directions. When you get to the entrance, just ring the bell. The museum was founded by the British in 1933 as the “Criminal Museum”, and was seen as the Cypriot equivalent of the Metropolitan Police’s famous “Black Museum”. After independence, it moved around, eventually settling in its current building in 2004. It includes all the sort of stuff you’d expect, from badges, truncheons, helmets, guns, riot shields and uniforms up to motorcycles, Black Marias and armoured cars, and some that you wouldn’t – for example, a room full of musical instruments. If you’re lucky, the curator – a serving officer and very knowledgeable – will show you around.