Nicosia, also known as Lefkosia, is Cyprus‘ cosmopolitan capital and the only divided city left in Europe. Straddling South and North Cyprus, the latter being a country only recognized by Turkey, thousands of years of changed hands have left their mark on the city. So what should you do with just a few days in Nicosia?
Rising conflicts led to the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 when the northern territory was captured and declared a new state, splitting Nicosia in half. But the city has also been under the control of the Greeks, Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians, Romans, Venetians, Ottomans, and even the British throughout history, and all of Nicosia’s winding lanes, old town sites, well-preserved walls, and fascinating museums tell a different story of its varied past.
With so much to do and see, you’re probably wondering how to squeeze it all into just a few days. Our guide is here to help with the perfect three-day itinerary for the divided capital. Let’s get started.
Day 1: Morning
If your accommodation doesn’t provide breakfast, head to Giagia Victoria Café for the best start to the day. This cozy Greek café serves a variety of traditional pastries, confectionery, savory delights, and of course, great coffee. It’s located next to the Ledra Street Checkpoint, along the Green Line – your next stop for the morning.
Nicosia’s divided halves are one of its most interesting qualities. Although the division comes as a result of sensitive political tension, the sturdy walls, once designed to keep Greek Cypriots out, are now replaced by a border and visitors can quite easily cross from one side to the other, as long as you’re carrying your passport.
The two sides of Nicosia have different governments, use different currencies, and speak different languages, but the city of Nicosia serves as the capital of both states. Borders into unfamiliar lands can be daunting, but walking along the “Green Line” – the affectionate name for Nicosia’s internal border – is a great way to see how the city bisects.
Start at Paphos Gate on the western side of the old town, and make your way to Toufexis Park in the east. This walk follows the entire length of the section of the border within the old town walls and only takes around 20 minutes. However, Nicosia can get very hot, especially in the summer months, that’s why we recommend doing it early in the morning.
Day 1: Afternoon
The museums in Nicosia are one of its biggest appeals. Cyprus is a historically rich country, with some of its most fascinating stories hailing from coastal cities like Paphos, which is known widely as the birthplace of Aphrodite. If you don’t have time to visit the archaeological sites and mythical landmarks in the southwest, Nicosia is a great place to learn about them and observe some preserved ancient relics for yourself, as well as learn about the city’s own unique history.
The Cyprus Museum, also known as the Archaeological Museum, is located near Paphos Gate on the edge of the old town. There are a total of seven gallery halls, exhibiting artifacts from prehistoric to post-war times. Pottery, sculptures, and even a 9,000-year-old tomb are all on display here.
We also recommend the Hadji Georgakis Kornesios Mansion, or the Ethnological Museum House, located just a fifteen-minute walk through the old town from the Cyprus Museum and close to the Archbishop’s Palace. This neighborhood is called Saint Antonios and is known as an upscale district where Greek aristocrats used to live.
The museum is housed in an 18th-century manor house, one of the most important surviving buildings in Cyprus from this time. The museum documents how life in Nicosia was for wealthy notables living in the city 150 years ago. You can get around everything in around one hour and it costs just €2.50 to enter.
There’s also Levantis Museum, just around the corner from Hadji Georgakis Kornesios Mansion. It’s free to visit and gives a more board understanding of how the capital has been molded over the centuries. However, this museum, like a few in the city, is closed on Mondays.
Day 1: Evening
The beating heart of old town Nicosia is Ledras Street, and a pre-dinner stroll past all of the open-air cafés, boutique shops, and lively restaurants shouldn’t go amiss. Locals come in droves for their post-work drinks as the sun starts to go down, making the most of the more forgiving evening temperatures.
Piatsa Gourounaki is a charming restaurant located just a two-minute walk from the main hubbub of Ledra Street. There’s always an electric atmosphere in this family-owned haunt. Piatsa Gourounaki translates as “little piglets”, in reference to the bubbly customers who meet and greet within its four walls. Enjoy Greek Cypriot favorites like souvlaki, as well as fresh grilled fish and Mediterranean dishes.
If you’re not wiped out after dinner and the night is still relatively young, a bit of Nicosia’s nightlife should be on the cards. Head to Granazi Artspace, a trendy cocktail lounge hosting live music acts on some nights, or Lost & Found, one of Nicosia’s most famous spots and named one of the 50 best bars in the world.
Day 2: Morning
Before it gets too hot, start your second morning by climbing Shacolas Tower, one of the highest buildings in Nicosia, and now, a museum too. Shacolas looms 50 meters high above the old city with some of the best panoramic views of Nicosia. The small museum is on the 11th floor, complete with a viewing platform and some interactive screens highlighting other important landmarks in the city.
Also known as “Ledras Tower”, it was completed in 1959 and originally housed the offices of the General Engineering and Hellenic Mining Companies. The highrise itself isn’t very impressive, but the views are worth it.
Next, we recommended walking to the Green Line, which you can cross at Ledras street, less than 10 minutes on foot from Shacolas Tower. Not everyone who visits Nicosia crosses the border, but we certainly recommend it as the north is just as safe as the south. You’ll need to bring your passport, but it won’t be stamped and the queues usually don’t take longer than a few minutes.
Most of the main sites of northern Nicosia are located within easy walking distance of each other and you can experience the best of this side in just an hour or two.
First things first, we recommend heading for the grand Selimiye Mosque, formerly a Roman Catholic cathedral built in the 13th century, but now an Islamic place of worship. The building’s Christian roots can still be observed all over the impressive Gothic structure. The mosque is housed in the largest and oldest Church in Cyprus and has the capacity for 2,500 worshipers within its 1,750 square meters of prayer space.
The mosque is usually open from 9 am to 6 pm and free to enter, but has been closed for repairs for most of 2022. The building is just as awe-inspiring from the outside, but if you do manage to go in, remember to remove your shoes, keep your knees and shoulders covered, and cover your hair if you’re a woman to show respect (scarves are provided outside).
Day 2: Afternoon
You probably would’ve built up quite an appetite during your morning of exploring, so it’s time for a casual lunch in northern Nicosia. Northern Cyprus uses Turkish Lira, while the south where you’ve just come from, trades in Euros. You can easily withdraw Turkish Lira in the north, but you can also save the hassle of changing currencies for just a few hours by heading to somewhere like Patso Café, a charming corner restaurant in the old city center.
The extensive menu features salads and meats at reasonable prices, and they accept Euros with a converted menu available. After refueling and shielding yourself from some of the harsh midday sun, head to Buyuk Han, a traditional inn built in 1572 and the best-preserved example of Ottoman architecture in Cyprus.
Buyuk Han is the largest caravanserai in the country. These roadside inns are usually situated along major trade routes in the Middle East, and this one even has a small mosque at its center. Merchants would unload their camels under the arches, which are bought to life today at Buyuk Han by all the artisan shops, cafés, and market stalls which make the building even more magical.
You’ll find the most authentic craft souvenirs here from handwoven baskets to ancient medicines, and most shops also accept Euros. After a leisurely afternoon, cross back over the border to southern Nicosia when the sun is a little less oppressive.
Day 2: Evening
Before heading out for a local dinner and evening of fun, take a sunset stroll to Famagusta Gate, located at the eastern end of the Venetian Wall, around 15 minutes from the Ledra Street Crossing. Of Nicosia’s three original gates that lead into the ancient city, Famagusta is the best preserved, also located next to the remains of the aqueduct.
The gate is part of the city walls that were constructed in the 16th century. Nicosia’s walls are punctuated by eleven bastions, all named after notable Italian families who contributed to their construction. They make the city look like an eleven-pointed star or a Greek sun from above.
Next, stroll back into the old town and head to Pivo Microbrewery for a cold craft beer and some local snacks. And if you want to experience more of the local brewing scene, BrewFellas pub also serves Cypriot and international pints with a buzzing atmosphere.
You might want an informal dinner after having a few drinks, so consider visiting Berlin Wall, a chilled-out kebab and souvlaki restaurant nestled on the Green Line. This will also put you in easy reach of all the lively bars of the old town for some post-dinner pub crawling.
Day 3: Morning
Cypriot holidays are often synonymous with sparkling turquoise seas and soft sand beaches. But Nicosia is one of the only non-coastal cities on the island, so beach fun is usually off the cards. Fear not, there might be a lot to do in Nicosia, but you don’t need to miss out on seeing the sprawling Cypriot coastline just because you’ve chosen the capital over its glitzy resorts.
Kyrenia is a small city on the northern coast of Cyprus, and although you have to cross the border at Nicosia to visit it, you’ll get a different taste of Cypriot beach life than you would in Paphos or Ayia Napa. You can travel easily by bus straight to Kyrenia from the capital for as little as €1 and there are plenty of tour groups in the city that can organize it for you. It takes just one hour to get there, so head off early in the morning to make the most of your day away from the city.
Kyrenia is often referred to as the “Jewel in the Crown of Cyprus” but it’s much less touristy than the south and its history dates back to around the tenth century BC. Finish the morning wandering the unspoiled historic harbor, and the adjacent Kyrenia Castle. The fort has Byzantine foundations and was an important lookout on the Turkish trade route, located just forty miles from the country’s mainland.
Wander back through the old town and observe the city’s old walls, and maybe stop in one of the restaurants on the waterfront for a late brunch or early lunch.
Day 3: Afternoon
Families flock to the numerous beaches around Kyrenia in the summer months, but Zeyko Beach, located just east of the city, is one of the closest beaches to the old town and also one of the quietest. A taxi is your best choice for getting here and it’s a little off-the-beaten-track, but the fair for the ten-minute drive will be worth it.
Spend the afternoon lazing on the sand, dipping in and out of crystal clear waters, and enjoying some refreshments at the uncrowded beach bar. And if you’re after a bit more excitement, head west to Escape Beach instead, home to an elegant beach club of the same name.
The resort here attracts larger crowds and the beach is one of the most popular in northern Cyprus and great for swimming. It’s also around ten minutes from the city center, but easily reachable by bus. There are a few more restaurants and entertainment options here too.
Day 3: Evening
Head back to Kyrenia after your afternoon on the beach. The old harbor really starts to come to life in the early evening, so consider a stroll around the market stalls where local artists sell their paintings before you embark on your journey back to Nicosia.
Depending on how early your start is on the following day, opt for a local dinner in the old town center of Nicosia. We recommend visiting To Anamma, a traditional Greek eatery with a stunning vine-covered courtyard, before heading to Balthazar Café & Rooftop for some casual drinks overlooking the city and its sparkling lights to truly bid your farewell to Nicosia.
Is Nicosia safe?
Nicosia is a relatively safe city, but all capitals come with their dangers. Touristy areas are hotbeds for petty crime, so always keep an eye on your belongings. The old center is also electric at night, so walking around after dark is usually safe, as long as you keep an eye out for inebriated tourists. Cyprus is susceptible to earthquakes, but the south coast is more vulnerable than northern Nicosia.
Is northern Cyprus worth visiting?
Most visitors to Cyprus head straight to the south, flocking to the beach resorts on the coast and ignoring the Turkish-recognised northern territory. However, there are plenty of stunning sites to explore in the north, mostly untrodden by tourists, which only adds to the appeal. The beaches are sun-soaked and quiet. And towns like Kyrenia, are even referred to as the “Jewels of Cyprus”.
Is Cyprus expensive?
Cyprus isn’t a shoestring destination, but it can be much cheaper than some of western Europe for eating out and hotel stays. It’s more expensive than the Balkans and Turkey, but on par with mid-range European destinations like Croatia and Spain, and you can definitely still visit on a budget.