Skip to navigation

Mark Moxon's Travel Writing

Cyprus: Nicosia

The Turkish flag painted on the mountain range north of Nicosia
The Turkish flag painted on the mountain range north of Nicosia

There are many unique aspects to Nicosia1, but to the casual visitor one of the most obvious differences between the capital of Cyprus and the settlements on the coast is just how little impact tourism has had here. Not many package tourists make their way into the centre of Cyprus to explore the island's landlocked capital, and a quick glance at the history of Cyprus tells you why: Nicosia is the last remaining divided city in the world, now that the likes of Berlin and Beirut have broken down their barriers, and whatever your reason for visiting, you simply can't avoid the fact that Nicosia is a city that has been split into two completely separate halves, with the two halves barely communicating. It makes the place utterly fascinating.

Eating Out in South Nicosia

Nicosia's pigeons
At least Nicosia's plentiful pigeons can cross the Green Line at will

As our lodgings were about as comfortable as the inside of a fridge, we decided the only thing for it was to wrap up warm and start exploring the Friday night experience of downtown Nicosia; so, armed with a map and a hint in the guidebook that the best restaurants could be found in the northeastern section of South Nicosia, we struck out. We were staying right in the middle of the large pedestrianised section of the city, and heading towards the bright lights we stumbled towards the shopping street of Lidras, where we'd spotted various well-known brand names such as Marks and Spencer and the Body Shop, surely signs of some kind of activity. This was six o'clock on a Friday night, and there was the street, all lit up like it was Christmas, and from where we stood we could see... precisely nobody. It was completely deserted, and not for the first time in Nicosia, I was totally wrong-footed.

The Büyük Han in North Nicosia
The Büyük Han in North Nicosia is a restored mediaeval travellers' inn
A covered balcony inside the Büyük Han
Inside the Büyük Han

Crossing into North Nicosia

Nicosia from above, looking towards the Ledra Palace Hotel
The long building in the rear right of this picture is the Ledra Palace Hotel, the headquarters of the United Nations; it's in the no man's land of the Green Line

The strangest experience was yet to come. It's impossible to wander round Nicosia without bumping into the Green Line quite regularly, and even though crossing into northern Cyprus isn't something the Greek Cypriots really want you to do – it's not quite seen as endorsing the Turkish occupation, but they would rather you didn't cross, as that does imply a kind of acceptance of the status quo – it's almost impossible to resist. Tantalising glances of Turkish flags beyond the buffer zone naturally make you curious as to what it's like on the other side, and the unmissable minarets of the mosques in North Nicosia are far too tempting for the curious tourist to resist. Being weak, we just had to see if the grass was greener over the Green Line.

The Atatürk Meydani in North Nicosia
The Atatürk Meydani in North Nicosia
The Djami Selimiye
North Nicosia's lovely Djami Selimiye symbolises a religious mix that the surrounding city no longer represents
The minarets of the Djami Selimiye
The towering minarets of the Djami Selimiye

North Nicosia

A building in North Nicosia
Typical architecture in North Nicosia

Exploring South Nicosia and continually bumping into the Green Line makes you appreciate the physical division of Nicosia, but only by crossing the buffer zone into North Nicosia can you appreciate the social division. Nicosia is a genuinely divided city, and while it's easy to see that the two halves are a part of the same city, they feel remarkably different from each other. Architecturally there are obvious similarities – of the eleven Venetian bastions in the circular city walls, five are in South Nicosia, five are in North Nicosia, and one lies in the buffer zone – but culturally the differences are obvious. If you imagine taking two twins and separated them at birth, with one growing up in Greece and the other in Turkey, then you won't be far off understanding why Nicosia is a tale of two cities.

The Djami Arabahmet, North Nicosia
The Djami Arabahmet in North Nicosia
A friendly kebab in North Nicosia
The friendly kebab house where we munched through a wonderful lunch
Agios Ioannis Church
Where North Nicosia has mosques, South Nicosia has lots of churches, like Agios Ioannis...
Agios Antonios Church
...and Agios Antonios
South Nicosia from above
Looking down on South Nicosia

South Nicosia

A ruined building in South Nicosia
Both halves of the city have their share of ruined buildings throughout; this one is in South Nicosia

After North Nicosia, with its distinct lack of tourism, South Nicosia felt unavoidably less adventurous. The tourist quarter of Laïki Geitonia, recently rejuvenated by extensive pedestrianising and the opening of myriad tourist-friendly restaurants, lacked the soul of either North Nicosia or the Famagusta Gate area of South Nicosia, but after a long day exploring both sides of the Green Line, it was a perfect place in which to relax with a pint of Keo, Cyprus's own beer.

1 Since the introduction of the new transliteration scheme, Nicosia has been known as Lefkosia. However the internationally accepted name for the capital is still Nicosia, with Lefkosia reserved for road signs in Cyprus, so for this article I'm using the old name.