As it’s so central, Nicosia, the divided capital of the island of Cyprus, affords many excellent day trips. Though the city holds many delights of its own, it's also a wonderful base from which to explore the surrounding area.
Possibilities include a storied old port overlooked by a castle, Roman ruins, a coastal city with biblical history and beaches, as well as a wild stretch of coast. Or simply hop across the border to visit the other half of the capital. All of our recommendations are easily reached in under two hours from Nicosia and are well worth your time.
Why go: Languid seaside life accented by history and beaches
Larnaka revolves around its spot on the glorious Mediterranean. The coastal promenade is known as the Finikoudes. It’s the spot where everyone goes for a morning coffee or an evening beer, to chill on the beach during the day and to stroll at sunset. Start your visit here, just for the views, before heading into town.
The 9th-century church Agios Lazaros is dedicated to Lazarus of Bethany, whom Jesus is said to have resurrected four days after his death. The church itself is an astounding example of Byzantine architecture. The beautiful interior is a showcase of Catholic woodcarvings and gold-plated Orthodox icon artistry. Lazarus lived in Cyprus for 30 years and was a bishop. After his second death, his remains were said to be hidden on the site of the church. But the story is complicated, and learning its many twists and turns is an essential part of a visit.
The Pierides Archaeological Foundation has been protecting archeological finds for two centuries and its collection is extraordinary. Don’t miss the Neolithic ceramic howling man, dating to c 5500 BCE – a distinct creature.
Save plenty of time for Makenzy Beach, Larnaka’s most popular. It has everything you’ll want for a day in the sun, including loads of cafes along the promenade. It’s about 2km (1.2 miles) south of the center.
Stop in Militzis, a tavern that serves Cypriot soul food, with lamb baked in the domed fourno (traditional oven). It has a sunny terrace with views over the waterfront.
How to get to Larnaka from Nicosia
It’s an easy drive of about an hour southeast to Larnaka. Numerous buses link the two cities in about 75 minutes.
North Nicosia (Lefkoşa)
Why go: You haven’t seen Nicosia until you’ve seen both halves of the city
Across the dividing Green Line from the Republic of Cyprus, lies North Nicosia (in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus). It lacks the pervasive investment of its half to the south and thus has in many ways a more atmospheric mood. You can easily spend a full day wandering its lanes.
The splendid Selimiye Mosque is North Nicosia’s most prominent landmark – it’s also clearly visible from the southern half of the city. This beautiful pastiche of a building is a cross between a French Gothic church and a mosque, and its fascinating history stretches back to the 13th century. Dress respectfully, leave your shoes at the door and don a headscarf (if you’re female) to view the interior, where soaring Gothic splendor meets the meditative minimalism of Islam.
Nearby, the imposing Bedestan dates from the 6th century, when it was built as a small Byzantine chapel. It was grandly embellished in the 14th century and became St Nicholas Church. Just behind, look for the municipal market with stalls selling all manner of prepared foods and produce.
The Haydarpaşa Mosque stands out for its ornate façade. The mosque was originally the 14th-century Church of St Catherine. Look for the elaborate carving at the top of the entrance gates, sprouting dragon and rose motifs. The Büyük Han is Cyprus’ best-preserved example of Ottoman architecture. Built in 1572, it was renovated in the early 1990s, and has once again become the hub of North Nicosia’s Old City bustle.
Before crossing back south, explore the Arabahmet Quarter, which rubs up against the Green Line and has narrow alleyways lined with well-preserved examples of Ottoman-era townhouse architecture.
Take a break at Asmaaltı Bereket Fırını, a much-loved storefront, and try the pide and lahmacun (thin-based pizzas topped with minced lamb and parsley).
How to get to North Nicosia from Nicosia
You won’t need a car or bus for this trip – just your feet. Begin at the Ledra St/Lokmacı crossing of the Green Line and work your way up Arasta Sokak into the historic heart of the city.
Why go: An incredible castle overlooking an atmospheric old port
Kyrenia’s natural harbor, once coveted by anyone with dreams of empire and bustling with traders and exporters, is today just as popular with visitors who stroll the seaside strand and hop on a boat cruise around the bay.
Get a sense of the days long gone by strolling the narrow twisty lanes of the Old Town. Then ascend to the grand fortifications of Kyrenia Castle. Every era of conquerors from Richard the Lionheart to the Ottomans has added its own touch to the castle, which was first built by the Byzantines – possibly over the remains of a Roman fort.
A large rectangular structure easily seen from miles away, the castle contains a cistern, dungeon, chapel and two small museums, though the real highlight is walking along the ramparts high above the harbor. Views are fantastic from here, especially in the morning light. (Be careful on the ramparts as portions are perilous. Keep small children close.)
Don’t miss the infamous dungeon where King Peter I’s pregnant mistress, Joanna l’Aleman, was tortured by order of the king’s jealous wife, Queen Eleanor, in the 14th century.
With a car, you can easily visit another incredible fortification just southwest of Kyrenia. The full outline of St Hilarion Castle only becomes apparent once you’re directly beneath it. Dating as far back as the 7th century, the lore of the castle is as labyrinthine as the fortifications that are said to have served as an inspiration for Walt Disney when he made the film Snow White.
Enjoy excellent seafood and waterfront views of Kyrenia’s port at the Corner Restaurant, where the seafood menu is better than other offerings on the harbor.
How to get to Kyrenia from Nicosia
Kyrenia is a 30- to 45-minute drive straight north from Nicosia. Or you can walk across the Ledra St/Lokmacı border crossing and catch one of the frequent buses, which take about 30 minutes for the trip.
Why go: Stroll through one of the Mediterranean’s oldest sites
Ancient Kourionis is spectacularly perched on a hillside. Most likely founded in Neolithic times, it became a permanent settlement in about the 13th century BCE, when the Mycenaeans arrived.
The settlement prospered under the Ptolemies and Romans, and a pre-Christian cult of Apollo was active among the inhabitants in Roman times. An early Christian basilica was built in the 5th century.
Wandering the sprawling site, you’ll find all manner of Roman ruins, including the evocatively named House of Gladiators.
About 2km (1.2mi) west, the Sanctuary of Apollon Ylatis dates to the 8th century BCE. The main structure has been partly restored, including the beautiful, imposing columns. Also discernible are a palaestra (boxing and wrestling arena) and baths for the athletes.
When you’ve had your fill of ancient times, head to Kourion Beach, a lovely crescent that attracts windsurfers and kiteboarders, as well as those who just want to relax amid the unspoiled setting. Drop by Chris Blue Beach, the best bar and restaurant on the short culinary strip.
How to get to Kourion from Nicosia
The most direct route by car is via the A1 motorway – it takes about 75 minutes. You can also drive via the B9 road through the Troödos Mountains, home to postcard-pretty villages and Mt Olympus, the island’s highest peak (1952m/6404ft). This takes about two hours and can be part of a circle route for your visit to Ancient Kourion. There is no bus service for this trip, but you can negotiate for transport with a Nicosia taxi although renting a car will be cheaper.
Why go: Dramatic coastal scenery
The coastal Ammochostos (Famagusta) region at the east end of Cyprus delivers sun, sand and sea by the bucketful. The peninsula of Cape Greco has easy walking and cycling trails across limestone cliffs to rock formations and sea caves. The potato-growing countryside around the Kokkinohoria villages, just inland from Paralimni, allows a peek at a more rural side of life.
Cape Greco National Park has sweeping views of the sea and coast. Although much of the park is accessible by road, there are also 14km (8.7mi) of nature trails rimmed by interesting local flora. At various points in the park you can make your way down staircases to sea caves, or onto rock platforms from where you can swim.
Just west are rock formations known as the Palaces. Carved into the cliff face by centuries of waves buffeting the coast, they look like spy holes, framing the clear blue sea. Further east are spectacular sea caves cut into the face of the rocky coastline. When the sea is calm you can get to some of the caves on foot.
Go for a swim at sheltered Konnos Beach, which is bordered by a high cliff. The excellent Konnos Bay Bar is on the hill bordering the sand. You can lunch with great views of the water below, while shaded by pine trees.
How to get to Cape Greco from Nicosia
It’s an easy drive straight east on motorways – the route passes north of Larnaka and takes about 90 minutes. There is no bus service for this trip. You can negotiate for transport with a Nicosia taxi, but renting a car will be cheaper.
Safety recommendations and restrictions during a pandemic can change rapidly. Lonely Planet recommends that travelers always check with local authorities for up-to-date guidance before traveling during Covid-19.