Exploring Northern Cyprus

Angela Wood

Senior Contributor

North Cyprus is often shunned for its southern counterpart, but with beautiful landscapes and rich and varied history, you’re missing out. Wild donkeys roam the rugged countryside, bustling harbour towns boast waterfront dining and ancient castles and cities dot fertile landscapes. That and more means that it's time to explore Northern Cyprus.

Enjoy Lunch on Kyrenia’s Historic Harbour Front

Kyrenia is a bustling coastal resort around 40 minutes’ drive from Ercan International Airport. The charming harbourside town was the setting for the classic novel ‘Bitter Lemons of Cyprus’ by Lawrence Durrell and lies beneath fragrant orchards, castle-strewn mountains and lush forests.

Kyrenia harbour stands as it did centuries ago when merchants made their stops here along the trade route to Europe. As you sip morning coffee or feast on Turkish Cypriot mezze, you can imagine life as it was during the harbour’s hectic heyday. The waterfront is guarded by Girne Kalesi or Kyrenia Castle. With links to the Byzantines, Ottomans, Crusaders and Venetians it has a rich history to discover.

You can gain incredible vistas from the castle ramparts, discover dungeons and storerooms, see a 12th-Century chapel and delve into the city’s maritime heritage at the Shipwreck Museum. Once you’ve exhausted the historical attractions, venture into the back streets of Kyrenia for a spot of retail therapy. Quaint stores boast jewellery, hand-crafted kilim rugs and artwork for you to splurge on.

In the evenings, Kyrenia restaurants specialising in Turkish Cypriot cuisine and freshly caught seafood spring into life. The clatter of plates, cacophony of chatter and melodic music resonates along the waterfront as the sun sets and harbour lights illuminate. 

Kyrenia Castle view in Northern Cyprus

Credit: Nejdet Duzen

See Nesting Turtles on the Beach

Beautiful Northern Cyprus is a nesting ground for Loggerhead and Green Turtles. Loggerheads are one of the oldest species in the world and when fully grown can weigh up to a whopping 400 kilos or more! They have a life expectancy of up to 67 years and Green Turtles can live to 80, therefore their preservation is paramount.

These turtles travel thousands of miles across water, but due to their natural instincts, females usually return to the beach on which they were hatched to lay their eggs. There are several conservation sites across North Cyprus which are monitored during laying and hatching seasons.

If you wish to learn more about these fascinating marine creatures, venture to Alagadi beach east of Kyrenia or to the Karpaz Peninsula and observe these little guys making their first journey from sand to sea.

View of Turtle Beach, Karpaz, North Cyprus

Credit: Tatiana Chekryzhova

Gain the Best Views from Bellapais Abbey

Bellapais sits at 220 metres above sea level overlooking lush orchards, the Mediterranean Sea and villages of North Cyprus. During Arab raids of the 7th and 8th centuries, the abbey was a place of refuge to protect citizens from harm. However, the first community to fully settle here were Canons Regular of the Holy Sepulchre who fled Israel following the fall of Jerusalem in 1187.

The abbey’s main building, cloisters, church and refectory were built much later during the 13th and 14th centuries and as you wander through the ruins you can still see coats of arms, original columns and religious carvings. Bellapais Abbey has held many roles throughout the years. When the British took control of North Cyprus, they used the refectory of the abbey as a hospital for their army.

Today, you can browse an interesting museum, learning more about Bellapais’ history and during summer months enjoy an evening concert in the abbey grounds.

Bellapais abbey at Beylerbeyi village in Northern Cyprus

Credit: trabantos

See Wild Donkeys on the Karpaz Peninsula

Along the eastern shores of Karpaz Peninsula in North Cyprus, wild donkeys roam nonchalantly through the wilderness. During the Turkish invasion of North Cyprus, thousands of wild donkeys once used on peasant farmland were abandoned and left to wander the countryside. When the region began to return to normality, authorities planned to herd them together, however, the donkeys had other ideas, and still wander Karpaz to this day.

Although they welcome the odd carrot or two from tourists, they can be a little temperamental when people invade their space, therefore are better viewed and photographed from a distance unless they approach you!

Wild donkey in Northern Cyprus

Credit: Galyna Andrushko

Visit Ancient Archaeological Ruins of Salamis

The ancient city of Salamis sits north of Famagusta on the east coast of Northern Cyprus. In 1100 BC, Salamis was the capital of Cyprus and throughout the years it has survived occupations from Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians and Romans. Covering over one square mile surrounded by verdant eucalyptus and pine trees, there’s still much more to be excavated.

To date, relics and gold coins dating to 374 BC have been discovered, signifying the archaeological importance of the city. As the sun sets, wander uneven pathways between marble columns, mosaics and statues, imagining what life was like in ancient Salamis and realise how fortunate you are to be able to experience a small part of it for yourself centuries later.

Rows of ancient columns at Salamis

Credit: Vadim Nefedoff

Delve into North Cyprus History in Nicosia

Salamis may have been the ancient capital, but today, Nicosia stands as capital of North Cyprus. It’s a fascinating city - a mesh of interconnecting cultures with a border running through the main shopping thoroughfare – Ledra Street. The capital divides itself into a Greek side (south Cyprus) and a Turkish side (North Cyprus) and there is a plethora of historic attractions to discover in each.

Explore Buyuk Han – an Ottoman inn and courtyard with shops and cafes where camels would stop to rest and Bandabuliya market filled with a kaleidoscope of produce and spices. There’s also majestic Selimiye Mosque, the oldest surviving Gothic church on the island.

Originally built as the Cathedral of Saint Sophia, it was converted to its present-day structure with the addition of minarets when the Ottomans arrived in 1571. It’s an interesting hybrid of a building which can be visited during non-prayer times.

If you seek the best views of Nicosia, head to the rooftop of the modest Saray Hotel which boasts 360-degree panoramic vistas of the city.

View of Ledra Street Nicosia, North Cyprus

Credit: FrimuFilms

Sample Delicious Turkish Cypriot Cuisine

Turkish Cypriot cuisine is one of the tastiest combinations on the continent - a fusion of southern European, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences. Local tapas-style dishes called ‘mezze’ are particularly popular. This speciality consists of several hot and cold platters served with meat, fish, vegetables and salad which can be shared across the table. They usually consist of halloumi cheese, plump olives, couscous, stuffed vine leaves and feta salads.

There’s plenty of choice for vegetarians, or carnivores can opt for regional favourite Kleftico lamb slowly cooked until tender in a clay oven or mouthwatering skewered shish kebabs.

For those with a sweet tooth, Lokma is a delicious doughnut covered in honey for dessert, plus there are traditional Turkish delights to enjoy with an aromatic cup of coffee.

Traditional assorted Turkish dishes

Credit: Elena Eryomenko

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